Poet John Greenland Wittier once said, “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these: It might have been.”
That poignant statement epitomizes regret in its purest form. It also applies to lamentation, either from missed opportunities, or unfulfilled potential. In the case of the NHL, many promising young players never reach their ceiling due to a variety of issues. Sometimes it’s a career-ending injury. Other times, it’s simply a failure to adapt to the speed and strength of NHL-level hockey.
Yet, poor coaching is perhaps the most devastating reason players don’t reach their potential. A young kid comes in with all the talent and expectations in the world, but due to a suffocating system that doesn’t fit his style of play, his production regresses. A coach gives him fourth line minutes with grinders who don’t allow his scoring ability to shine, or sticks him on a defensive pair with a guy who doesn’t complement his style of play.
Any way you look at it, there are countless players whose careers were ruined by poor coaching.
Here are 15 such cases:
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15 Jiri Tlusty - Toronto Maple Leafs, Carolina Hurricanes, New Jersey Devils
I admit most of my criticisms of the Devils are just a result of my Rangers fandom, but in the case of Jiri Tlusty, the New Jersey coaching staff deserves some flak.
Tlusty, a former first round pick, played five solid seasons with the Carolina Hurricanes from 2010-2015. He scored 23 goals and 38 points in the lockout-shortened 2012-2013 season.
He signed a one-year contract with New Jersey in 2015, and his stats plummeted to two goals and two assists in 30 games. He struggled through an early shoulder injury and an eventual-season ending wrist injury, but coach John Hynes didn’t utilize Tlusty’s defensive zone skills, played him on the fourth line, and scratched him for several games.
The Czech forward is currently an unrestricted free agent, and may not play in the NHL again.
14 Jonathan Cheechoo - Ottawa Senators
When you think of the Rocket Richard Trophy, you think of elite goal scorers like Alex Ovechkin or Steven Stamkos., Yet, Sharks forward Jonathan Cheechoo won the award in 2006 after a monstrous 56-goal season, playing on Joe Thornton’s wing.
Unfortunately, his goal production declined each season after, dropping to 37 in 2007, 23 in 2008, and 12 in 2009. The Sharks shipped him up to Ottawa, where he fared even worse, potting just five goals and 14 points.
After being waived by the Senators after one season, he returned to respectable production in the AHL. From 2010 to 2013, Cheechoo scored 56 goals, 79 assists and 135 points in 160 total games. The talent was still there, so what gives?
Most people point to the hernia surgeries Cheechoo underwent in the late 2000s. His speed was reduced. Ottawa’s pop-gun offense didn’t suit Cheechoo’s game. The coaches didn’t use Cheechoo in front of the net for deflections. Cheechoo clearly still had scoring prowess, but the Senators coaching staff couldn’t figure out to get the best out of him post-surgery. Four years after his 56-goal season, Cheechoo was out of the NHL.
13 Guilliaume Latendresse - Montreal Canadiens
You could argue that the laundry list of injuries is what derailed Latendresse’s career. Yet, the Canadiens’ second round pick didn’t get a fair shake from the very start. He was rushed up to the NHL in 2006, but coaches Bob Gainey and Guy Carbonneau gave him just 14 minutes a night during four seasons.
Latendresse scored double-digit goals in three of four seasons despite playing a checking line role. This role could’ve led to the injuries that derailed his career.
In 2009, Latendresse was traded to the Wild for Benoit Pouliot. His production rebounded to 25 goals in 55 games, as he saw his minutes increase to an average of 16:27 per night. However, a groin injury kept him out for 58 games of the 2010-11 season, and a concussion ended his 2011-12 season after 16 games.
He retired in 2014 at the age of 27.
12 Nikita Filatov - Columbus Blue Jackets
I debated whether or not to include Filatov on this list. It's fairly well known that the Russian winger had an attitude problem, but Columbus coach Ken Hitchcock didn't exactly do his best to keep relations calm. Filatov scored four goals in eight games at the NHL level in 2008-09 before spending the rest of the season in the AHL.
Filatov was a healthy scratch for six of the first 19 games of the 2009-10 season, and when he DID play, he averaged only 8:07 of ice time.
After some back-and-forth, Columbus agreed to grant Filatov's request to sign in Russia for the remainder of the 2009-10 season. Filatov gave it another shot in Columbus the following year, but couldn't gel in coach Scott Arniel's system. Columbus traded Filatov to the Senators at the 2011 Draft, but he rode the pine in Ottawa as well.
Perhaps Hitchcock should've adapted his system to better fit Filatov's game. However, when you have a player who outright won't play to a specific team identity, there's not much that even the greatest coach can do. Filatov later expressed his regret at not listening to Hitchcock, since by the time Arniel came onboard in Columbus, Filatov's confidence was already diminished.
11 Alex Frolov - L.A. Kings, New York Rangers
Frolov was yet another enigmatic Russian winger who defected to the KHL after an underwhelming NHL career. Although an ACL injury ultimately forced him out of the league in 2011, his talents were stifled by stubborn coaches in both Los Angeles and New York.
Frolov was a star-in-the-making in L.A, notching two 30-goal campaigns in six seasons on the West Coast. However, by 2009, Kings coach Terry Murray began benching Frolov due to his supposed "careless" play with the puck. Murray told team reporters he struggled to get through to Frolov.
Clearly, Frolov needed a change of scenery to return to his 30-goal form. He signed with the Rangers in 2010, but coach John Tortorella gave him the same treatment, playing the winger an average of 14:30 per game, down more than four minutes from his L.A. days.
His finesse-focused game didn't jive with Torts' defensive-minded system. He managed just seven goals before an ACL injury ended his season after 43 games in the Big Apple.
Frolov signed in Russia the following season.
10 Josh Bailey - New York Islanders
Bailey was another talented winger rushed into the NHL before his time. The ninth overall pick in 2008 scored 96 points in 67 games in the OHL as a 17-year-old. He was a great two-way forward who could’ve benefited from another year of development, but his strong two-way play made him valuable to the defensively-challenged Islanders, and he made the team in 2008.
Bailey set a career high with 16 goals in 2009-10, and hasn’t topped that total since. He hasn’t scored more than 41 points in his entire eight-year career. Bailey rarely played on the power play, and spent just 15 percent of his even strength ice time playing with John Tavares.
Perhaps if Jack Capuano gave Bailey more top-line opportunities, Bailey would be an elite second line player, instead of a middle six forward.
9 Jakub Kindl - Detroit Wings
The damage that the Detroit Red Wings coaching staff did to Jakub Kindl’s confidence during his time in the Motor City may have had an irreversible effect on his play. Kindl, a 2005 first round draft pick, put up good numbers in the AHL, and displayed a physical game that the Wings needed.
Despite solid, yet unspectacular seasons in Detroit, Kindl was repeatedly benched or scratched from the lineup. Maybe Kindl’s hard-hitting game didn’t jive with Mike Babcock’s philosophy, but the lack of playing time had to shake his confidence.
New coach Jeff Blashill was no different, and sent Kindl back down to the AHL in 2016 after 25 games. He was traded to Florida in February 2016 for a sixth round pick. Hopefully he can revive his career down south.
8 Beau Bennett - Pittsburgh Penguins
At 25 years of age, California-born Beau Bennett still has time to fulfill his first-round draft potential. However, if his third-line treatment in Pittsburgh is any indication, don’t count on it. Bennett averaged just 12:30 minutes per game in 129 games for the Penguins since 2012.
Sure, wrist and shoulder injuries caused Bennett to miss large chunks of the past few seasons. However, with elite talents like Malkin and Crosby, Pittsburgh’s coaching staff could’ve played Bennett with stronger linemates. He played most of last season on the fourth line with Eric Fehr and Connor Sheary, not exactly a vote of confidence from coach Mike Sullivan.
The Penguins traded Bennett to New Jersey this summer. Maybe he can re-capture his top-six form from his pre-NHL days, but he needs to stay healthy and receive sufficient ice time.
7 Brett Lindros - New York Islanders
Brett Lindros, like his star older brother Eric, was forced into early retirement by concussions. However, the younger Lindros could’ve lasted more than just 51 games if the Islanders’ coaching staff had better handled his health. For example, a concussion ended his rookie season after just 33 games.
Here is the issue: in Lindros’ second season, he suffered another two concussions in an eight-day span. I understand it was a different time, and we didn’t have the current concussion protocol in place, but that second concussion should’ve never happened.
Coach Mike Milbury should’ve taken Lindros’ previous history into account and put him on injured reserve after the first concussion until he recovered. Perhaps Lindros could’ve played several more seasons instead of retiring at the age of 21.
6 Tom Wilson - Washington Capitals
Tom Wilson, the Capitals’ 2012 first round pick, displayed impressive puck-handling skills and a hard nose for the net, much like Milan Lucic. In 2012-13, he scored 23 goals and 58 points in 48 games for the OHL’s Plymouth Whalers.
Yet, in 2013, Capitals coach Adam Oates called up the 19-year-old Wilson to fill an immediate need for an enforcer. Rather than allow the 6-foot-4, 210 pound winger to further develop his scoring touch in the OHL, Oates put Wilson on the Caps’ fourth line, where he logged just seven goals and over 300 penalty minutes in two seasons.
Fortunately, new Caps coach Barry Trotz allowed Wilson more freedom to play his natural game. Wilson’s numbers have recovered somewhat (seven goals and 16 assists last season). We’ll see if Wilson becomes the scorer he was meant to be. Under Oates, however, his career potential would’ve certainly been squandered.
5 Alexander Burmistrov - Atlanta Thrashers, Winnipeg Jets
The Atlanta Thrashers (not exactly known for stellar player development) inserted the Russian center into their lineup almost immediately after selecting him eighth overall in 2010. After recording more than a point per game in the OHL, he scored just six goals as an NHL rookie.
Burmistrov doubled his goal total during the team’s first season in Winnipeg, but coach Claude Noel inexplicably cut his ice time before eventually benching the struggling winger. Burmistrov bolted for the KHL at season’s end, citing differences with Noel.
He returned to Winnipeg in 2015, but wasn’t the same player, scoring seven goals in 81 games. Say all you want about the “enigmatic Russian” stereotype, but Burmistrov had real skill, and deserved more ice time to continue honing his play.
4 Mikhail Grigorenko - Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres’ treatment of their top Russian prospect from 2013-2015 was deplorable. Grigorenko was repeatedly scratched during his rookie season in 2013-14 before being sent back down to juniors. He proceeded to score 15 goals and 39 points in 23 games in with the Quebec Remparts. Yet, the Sabres sent Grigorenko to the AHL to begin the 2014-15 season, and only called him up for 25 games. That is how you ruin a player’s confidence.
After jerking him around for three years, Buffalo traded Grigorenko to the Avalanche at the 2015 draft. Despite more playing time last season (74 games), Grigorenko scored just six goals and 27 points, proving his unfair treatment in Buffalo may have permanently affected his psyche.
3 Petr Prucha - New York Rangers
Prucha was an exciting rookie for the New York Rangers. In 2005-06, he scored 30 goals and 47 points in 68 games. His 16 power play goals tied the team record for most scored by a rookie in a single season. The following year, the Czech forward potted another 22 goals and seemed primed for a great career.
However, by 2008-09, despite consistent contribution, Prucha was often a healthy scratch for games. For some strange reason, coach Tom Renney decided Prucha's offensive game didn't fit with the team's defensive identity.
The benchings continued under new coach John Tortorella. Prucha played just 28 games for the Rangers in 2008-09 before being shipped off to the Coyotes in February. His game never recovered, and by 2010, he was playing in the AHL.
He signed in the KHL the following year.
2 Nail Yakupov - Edmonton Oilers
Yakupov hasn’t lived up to expectations thus far in Edmonton, but don’t lay all the blame on him. Yakupov has had several different coaches in his young career, from Dallas Eakins to Todd McClellan, all of whom haven’t been able to utilize him correctly.
Yakupov started his career off well, and led all rookies with 17 goals during the 2012-13 season. However, he hasn’t scored more than 14 goals in any of his three seasons since.
Yakupov provided solid production early in the 2015-16 season playing on a line with fellow top pick Connor McDavid. However, when McDavid went down with a collarbone injury in November, McClellan played Yakupov with FOUR different centers. He even paired Yakupov with Mark Letestu, who, while serviceable, is a career third/fourth line player.
Yakupov spent just 35 even strength minutes on a line with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, not nearly as much time as he deserved. If McClellan continues to play Yakupov with a revolving door of lesser linemates, it could permanently ruin a potentially great career.
Fortunately, with McDavid back to full health, Yakupov should find more time on the top line. That would do wonders for his confidence, and his production will follow suit.
1 Cody Hodgson - Vancouver Canucks
Hodgson is just 26 years old, yet he is out of the NHL.
Why? He was simply the victim of an impatient Vancouver organization. Hodgson was taken 10th overall in the 2010 draft, and contributed 16 goals in his rookie 2011-12 season. He still played behind top centers Henrik Sedin and Ryan Kesler. And Canucks coach Alain Vigneault played the young forward just 10-12 minutes per night, leading to scrutiny from team reporters.
Canucks GM Mike Gillis traded Hodgson to Buffalo at the 2012 trade deadline in a widely-criticized deal that left Hodgson admittedly shocked. Many believed the Canucks hadn’t given Hodgson a fair shake by rushing him out of town so quickly.
By 2014-15, Hodgson, playing for a cellar-dwelling Buffalo team, registered just six goals and 13 points in 78 games. The Sabres waived the once-promising rookie in June 2015. He signed with the Nashville Predators as a fourth line center, but didn’t produce as he had in Vancouver. He was waived in January 2016, and spent the rest of the season in the AHL.
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