Ranking the Top 10 Comebacks in the 2013-14 NHL Season

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistApril 12, 2014

Ranking the Top 10 Comebacks in the 2013-14 NHL Season

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    Gene J. Puskar

    The NHL annually awards the Masterton Trophy to the player who best exemplifies perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to the game. The award often goes to a player who overcame career-threatening obstacles to continue his career. Such comebacks often inspire teammates and fans alike.

    This season has provided several examples of player comebacks. Many involve those who conquered a potentially career-ending injury or illness. Some have had to overcome a series of injuries and misfortunes.

    Not every comeback story involves injury. Sometimes a player whose best seasons are behind him can defy the skeptics with a notable performance.

    The following is a ranking of this season's 10 best comebacks.

10. Jaromir Jagr, New Jersey Devils

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    When Jagr signed with the Devils last summer, he hinted this season could be his last. He appeared to have reached the stage in his long career where he was no longer capable of leading a team offensively. 

    The 42-year-old Jagr, however, has defied the odds this season. He leads the Devils in assists (41) and points (65), marking his highest NHL totals since 2007-08. He also scored his 700th career NHL goal, tallied his 1,700th career NHL point, played in his 1,400th career NHL game and set an NHL record for most career game-winning goals (122).

    NJ.com's Rich Chere reports Jagr's teammates recently voted him their team MVP. The New York Post's Larry Brooks recently reported Jagr would consider re-signing with the Devils. His solid comeback performance has inspired him to return next season.

9. Erik Karlsson, Ottawa Senators

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    In February 2013, Karlsson suffered a sliced left Achilles tendon after being accidentally cut by a skate blade of then-Pittsburgh Penguins forward Matt Cooke. After he underwent surgery, the Ottawa Citizen's Ken Warren reported the 2012 Norris Trophy winner could be sidelined up to six months.

    Karlsson defied the odds and returned to action prior to the 2013 playoffs. The National Post's Bruce Arthur noted the injury still hampered the young blueliner during the Senators' playoff run. In a recent interview with the Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch, Karlsson admitted he still wasn't fully recovered from the injury.

    Still, concerns the injury would adversely affect Karlsson's career were dispelled by his comeback performance this season. His 72 points not only leads the Senators but also makes him the league's highest-scoring defenseman.

8. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Stamkos began the season with 14 goals and 23 points in his first 16 games, tying the league lead in both categories. That hot start ended on November 11, when he suffered a broken right tibia against the Boston Bruins.

    Recovery time for such an injury is usually four to six months. Incredibly, Stamkos was skating within weeks of the injury. He hoped to join Canada's men's hockey team at the Sochi Olympics but couldn't recover in time. By early March, the 24-year-old star returned to the Lightning lineup, replacing the departed Martin St. Louis as team captain.

    Having missed 45 games, it took Stamkos some time to recover his scoring form. Still, he's tallied 17 points in the 19 games since his return. Stamkos is also tied for the team lead in game-winning goals (five) and power-play goals (nine).

7. Manny Malhotra, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Malhotra suffered an eye injury late in the 2010-11 season, which twice required surgery to repair. He recovered and played 78 games the following season with the Vancouver Canucks. Last year, however, the Canucks placed him on injured reserve and allowed his contract to expire.

    The Vancouver Sun's Brad Ziemer reported then-Canucks general manager Mike Gillis believed Malhotra's limited vision put him at risk for injury. The veteran center, however, refused to quit. Last fall, he earned a training-camp tryout with the Carolina Hurricanes' farm team in Charlotte, working his way onto the Hurricanes roster.

    The 33-year-old center appeared in 68 games, scoring six goals and 12 points. He also led all Hurricanes' centers in faceoff percentage (59.2). Malhotra's comeback earned him the Hurricanes' nomination for the 2014 Masterton Trophy.

6. Willie Mitchell, Los Angeles Kings

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    In December 2012, Mitchell underwent arthroscopic knee surgery. Weeks later, the Los Angeles Times' Lisa Dillman reported the blueliner's attempt to return quickly hampered his recovery.

    Mitchell missed all of last season, requiring further surgery in April 2013. NHL.com's Chris Zupke reported Kings GM Dean Lombardi feared the veteran defenseman would also miss the 2013-14 campaign.

    Out of action for nearly 18 months, Mitchell returned to the Kings this season. The 37-year-old blueliner played in 75 games with 11 points and a plus/minus of plus-13. He leads the club in blocked shots (125) and short-handed ice time (2:55). He's also fourth in average ice time (20:19). Not bad for an aging veteran coming off a career-threatening knee injury.

5. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    It's been a difficult season for Letang. The Penguins blueliner missed the opening nine games to a lower-body injury and 10 games through December with an upper-body injury.

    The worst, however, occurred in late January, when the 26-year-old suffered a stroke. The cause was a small hole in the wall of his heart that he's had since birth. Though the condition wasn't believed to be career-threatening, he was sidelined for 10 weeks.

    Letang returned to the Penguins lineup on April 9, collecting an assist and logging over 22 minutes of ice time in a 4-3 overtime win against the Detroit Red Wings. His perseverance in overcoming his health issues ranks among this season's best comeback stories.

4. Alex Stalock, San Jose Sharks

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    Most NHL followers are unaware Stalock's NHL career nearly ended before it began. Indeed, he's lucky he can still play hockey. Last fall, ESPN.com's Devon Heinen reported Stalock suffered serious nerve damage to his left leg when slashed by a skate blade in a freak accident during an AHL game in February 2011.

    Following two surgeries and a lengthy rehab, Stalock returned to the Sharks' AHL affiliate in 2012. He appeared in two NHL games last season and last fall earned his way into the full-time backup job.

    In 24 games this season, Stalock has a record of 12-5-2, a 1.87 goals-against average, .932 save percentage and two shutouts. Earlier this season, the San Jose Mercury News' David Pollak reported the 26-year-old broke the club's franchise record for the longest shutout streak. His comeback has earned him the Sharks' nomination for the Masterton Trophy. 

3. Ed Jovanovski, Florida Panthers

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    After playing only six games last season, Jovanovski underwent hip surgery last April. At the time, Sun-Sentinel.com's Craig Davis reported it was uncertain if the veteran blueliner could continue his playing career.

    Jovanovski missed training camp and half of this season owing to recovery and rehab. When he made his return in January, the Miami Herald's David Furones reported Jovanvoski was believed the first professional athlete in the four major professional sports leagues to stage a successful comeback from a hip-resurfacing procedure. 

    Jovanovski bucked the odds. He has played 36 games since his return, averaging over 16 minutes of ice time. The Miami Herald's George Richards reports the 37-year-old blueliner hopes to complete the final year of his contract next season. Jovanovski has been nominated for the 2014 Masterton Trophy.

2. Pekka Rinne, Nashville Predators

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    Rinne underwent arthroscopic surgery on his left hip last May. He returned to the Predators in time for training camp and the start of this season. After only 10 games, he was forced to undergo surgery on the same hip to combat a bacterial infection.

    At the time, it was expected Rinne would miss four weeks. His recovery and rehab instead lasted nearly five months. The 31-year-old goaltender finally returned to action on March 3.

    Rinne has struggled to regain his once-stellar form with a 5-6-2 record. Still, the fact that he's returned at all this season is impressive. He ends the season on a high note, having set the franchise record for most goaltending victories (162).  

1. Josh Harding, Minnesota Wild

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    Harding's struggled with injuries throughout his NHL career, including hip surgery that sidelined him for the entire 2010-11 season. He overcame those obstacles to carve out a solid career as a backup goalie with the Minnesota Wild.

    In November 2012, Harding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. His efforts to continue his career last season while adjusting to treatment earned him the Masterton Trophy. In the first half of this season, Harding was among the league's dominant goaltenders. In 29 games, he has a record of 18-7-3 with a 1.65 goals-against average, a .933 save percentage and three shutouts.

    Sadly, his season was again derailed as he struggled to adjust to his MS medication. It remains to be seen if Harding can continue his playing career, but it would be foolish to bet against him. For the second straight year, the Wild named him their nominee for the Masterton.