One Player on Every NHL Team Who Must Improve in 2014-15
It's still early. The season is barely 25 percent over, so there's a lot of time for teams and players to correct their mistakes.
Or is there?
At around the same point last season, 12 of 16 teams in playoff position remained there at season's end, including seven of eight in the West. Take a look at the standings today and realize there's a chance four teams nestled in playoff country now will probably be exiled by the middle of April.
So what needs to change? Which players need to elevate their games to either help their teams climb the standings or maintain their current cushy spot in the top of the conference?
Glad you asked those questions, because that's the point of this slideshow.
We will look at one player on each team who could be doing a little more. That player may be an anchor around the feet of a sinking a team or just an underachieving player on an excellent team who hasn't been pulling his weight. Improvement is all relative to the player and where the team sits now.
Click through and see who is being called on the carpet.
Anaheim Ducks: Emerson Etem, LW
2014-15 statistics: 21 games, 2 goals, 2 assists
Season report: You know things are going poorly when your team thinks Rene Bourque would be an improvement over you. About a week after Bourque was acquired from the Montreal Canadiens, the Ducks demoted the 22-year-old Emerson Etem to Norfolk of the AHL. After seven goals in 29 games last season, much was expected of Etem, and he's yet to deliver.
It's not all bad: With a 53.2 percent Fenwick and 95.6 PDO, Etem appears to be a player who hasn't had much luck on his side. That can't change while he's in the minors, but he'll likely get another chance with the big club this season. Maybe his luck will change.
Arizona Coyotes: Mike Smith, G
2014-15 statistics: 5-12-2, 3.23 GAA, .891 save percentage
Season report: There's no other way to slice it: Mike Smith has been bad. He ranks 41st out of 44 goaltenders in save percentage and is the biggest reason why the Coyotes are 10-13-3 and 24th in the league standings. Even more discouraging is how Smith has a .893 even-strength save percentage and that only three goaltenders are worse in that category.
It's one thing to blame the defense, but it's a tough excuse to swallow when Jhonas Enroth (.916) and Michal Neuvirth (.920) are stopping pucks much more frequently for the Sabres, the league's most porous defensive team. With backup Devan Dubnyk (.922) playing much better behind the same team, either Smith needs to improve or the Coyotes need to hand the reins to the Dubnyk.
Boston Bruins: Reilly Smith, RW
2014-15 statistics: 26 games, 3 goals, 10 assists
Season report: Someone needed to fill the void on the right side with Jarome Iginla leaving via free agency, and Reilly Smith hasn't done a great job of it. He had 20 goals and 51 points last season playing mostly top-six minutes but hasn't come close to that in 2014-15. The Bruins are getting by without Zdeno Chara, but they rank just 23rd in scoring.
Loui Eriksson could be doing a little more, but it's Smith who could be doing a lot more.
Buffalo Sabres: Cody Hodgson, C
2014-15 statistics: 25 games, 1 goals, 1 assists
Season report: It's unfair to pick just one Sabre, but Hodgson has been underperforming in every way imaginable. It's unacceptable for anyone playing 14 minutes per game to have two even-strength points through 24 games.
Hodgson, with a 34.8 percent Fenwick entering Tuesday, is the worst possession player on the league's worst possession team. The 10th pick in the 2008 draft certainly isn't surrounded by a wealth of talent, but his careening toward bust territory with this nightmare season.
Calgary Flames: Jonas Hiller, G
2014-15 statistics: 9-6-1, 2.49 GAA, .913 save percentage
Season report: Jonas Hiller has been good to great at times this season for the Flames, but that .913 save percentage is an indicator that he's slipped lately. After posting a .941 save percentage in October, Hiller limped to a .885 in November. The Flames went 4-4-0 in Hiller's November starts and were only kept afloat by backup Karri Ramo going 4-0 in five starts.
Even if Hiller maintains a .913 the rest of the way, that may not be good enough to keep the surprising Flames in a playoff spot. The Flames have allowed the fourth-most shot attempts this season, something that isn't likely to get better over the rest of the season. Hiller has been good, but he'll need to be better the rest of the way.
Carolina Hurricanes: Alexander Semin, RW
2014-15 statistics: 19 games, 0 goals, 5 assists
Season report: Here's an example of possession not being worth that much, as Semin has 54.2 percent Fenwick but has yet to put a single goal into the net this season. Yes, good things are happening more frequently when Semin is on the ice, but zero goals from a player with a $7 million cap hit isn't good enough.
What's really troubling is Semin's 22 shots on net overall and 16 shots at five-on-five. It's one thing when a player is pumping shots on net and getting bad breaks, but when a player who averaged 3.2 shots per game a season ago is barely above one per game this season, it's worrisome. The Hurricanes have played better of late, but they'll need Semin to find his scoring touch.
Chicago Blackhawks: Andrew Shaw, C
2014-15 statistics: 21 games, 5 goals, 4 assists
Season report: It's nearly impossible to find anyone who isn't pulling their weight on what I consider the league's best team right now, but Andrew Shaw has been inconsistent. He has seen time on the second line and third line at times, but his play deteriorated to the point where he was demoted to the fourth line midway through November.
Shaw said of the demotion to CSN Chicago's Tracey Myers on Nov. 12: “I haven’t been playing great, so I played myself there. It’s just one of those slumps where you have to keep working, simplify your game and work your way out of it.”
Shaw has two goals in five games since that demotion, so he's well on his way to rectifying his problems, such as they are relative to the rest of his dynamic team.
Colorado Avalanche: Nick Holden, D
2014-15 statistics: 25 games, 1 goal, 3 assists
Season report: Nick Holden's second full season has not come close to his breakout 2013-14 campaign when he had 10 goals and 25 points in 54 games. After shooting 15.2 percent last season, an offensive regression was to be expected, but the 27-year-old has struggled with more ice time (20:12 over 18:40) this season.
Holden is below 40 percent in Fenwick after finishing last season at 47.6 percent. The issue might be his defense partners: Last year, he spent most of his five-on-five time with Tyson Barrie, a solid possession player on a team that is lacking them; this season, his most regular defense partner is Zach Redmond, although Holden has been slightly worse away from him.
The Avs have been better of late, but it won't last if Holden doesn't rediscover his 2013-14 form.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Sergei Bobrovsky, G
2014-15 statistics: 6-8-1, 2.89 GAA, .910 save percentage
Season report: A lot of the problems for the Blue Jackets stem from the avalanche of injuries they've faced this season, which include Sergei Bobrovsky's broken hand. But when Bobrovsky has been healthy, he hasn't been his usual self. Bobrovsky entered this season with a career .919 save percentage and two years removed from a Vezina Trophy.
The reason why this falls on Bobrovsky is things may not get a whole lot better around him over the season's final 58 games, so he will need to recapture that Vezina form if Columbus is to have any chance of a playoff spot. Bobrovsky's struggles are also something to keep in mind when considering the quality of a goaltender in relation to the quality of the team.
Dallas Stars: Ales Hemsky, RW
2014-15 statistics: 24 games, 2 goals, 5 assists
Season report: Excitement abounded when the Stars announced the signing of Ales Hemsky last summer before the Jason Spezza conference call concluded, but Hemsky has been a massive disappointment. He had 17 points in 20 games with Spezza as his primary center at the end of the season with Ottawa, but the success has not translated to Dallas.
Coach Lindy Ruff went as far as to make Hemsky a healthy scratch, but it's helped little. The Stars are having plenty of issues on defense, but Hemsky is arguably the biggest free-agent bust of the 2014 summer.
Detroit Red Wings: Jonathan Ericsson, D
2014-15 statistics: 25 games, 0 goals, 6 assists
Season report: Jonathan Ericsson is actually on pace for a career-best 19 assists, but his need for improvement is not in production. When Ericsson is on the ice, which is for about 20 minutes per game, there are more pucks being sent toward his net than the opponent's net. For someone playing the role of steady defensive defenseman, Ericsson hasn't been all that steady.
He isn't killing the Red Wings by any stretch, but the big D-man has been more effective in the past.
Edmonton Oilers: Justin Schultz, D
2014-15 statistics: 24 games, 2 goals, 8 assists
Season report: Those aren't bad numbers from a defenseman, but they're not good numbers from a supposed "offensive" defenseman leading the team in ice time. Justin Schultz has struggled mightily in his own zone, and coach Dallas Eakins made him a healthy scratch for one game last week.
“Justin has struggled a little bit as of late and we thought it was time to hit the reset button,” Eakins told reporters in his pregame availability. “We’ve talked to both him and [fellow scratch] Marty [Marincin] internally on what we’re looking for and we’ll keep those conversations behind closed doors.”
It remains to be seen how this will effect Schultz. Few teams are able to excel while making their No. 1 defenseman a healthy scratch.
Florida Panthers: Tomas Fleischmann, C
2014-15 statistics: 21 games, 1 goal, 2 assists
Season report: There's no shortage of underperforming veterans on the Florida Panthers, but Tomas Fleischmann is the most disappointing of the group. Fleischmann has the second-highest cap hit ($4.5 million) on a cash-strapped team, making his three points and average of 14 minutes of ice time per game a major problem.
The Panthers have made Fleischmann a healthy scratch to get his game going but to no avail. What makes his start especially frustrating is the Panthers have played well in spite of him; if he turns it around, there could be a playoff squad in South Florida.
Los Angeles Kings: Dustin Brown, LW
2014-15 statistics: 25 games, 4 goals, 3 assists
Season report: The decline of the Kings' captain continues. Dustin Brown's goal totals have declined over the previous three 82-game seasons from 28 to 18 to 15, and he's now on pace for 13 this season. He had 18 goals in 46 games during the lockout-shortened 2013 season but is on pace for a career-worst 24 points this season.
Brown's possession numbers are in decline, as is his ice time; coach Darryl Sutter used Brown on the fourth line at times in November, limiting him to fewer than 15 minutes in three of his past five games.
It's hardly a benching, but it's a sign the staff could be losing faith in Brown. The regular season for the Kings is about as meaningless as it gets, but the Kings could use a little more from Brown.
Minnesota Wild: Thomas Vanek, LW
2014-15 statistics: 23 games, 2 goals, 12 assists
Season report: Thomas Vanek has been better of late—he had a three-point game against Dallas on Nov. 28—but two goals aren't what the Wild were expecting when they signed him to a three-year, $19.5 million contract. Vanek looks more like the player who struggled with the Canadiens at the end of last season than the one who scored at least 30 goals four times in his career.
Despite starting 43.5 percent of shifts in the offensive zone, Vanek is below the halfway mark in Fenwick (49.7) and has just 39 shots on goal. Maybe he's adjusting to his fourth team in a year—or maybe this is the player Vanek is now. No matter the case, Vanek has to be better for the Wild to be a contender in the West.
Montreal Canadiens: Tom Gilbert, D
2014-15 statistics: 23 games, 1 goal, 2 assists
Season report: Viewed as a bargain signing and upgrade on defense, Tom Gilbert hasn't looked much like either of those things in 2014-15. He was a healthy scratch in two straight games (both losses to Buffalo, for what it's worth) and is in the red Fenwick-wise.
It hasn't hurt the Canadiens all that much, as they have been near the top of the league standings all season. But it's had very little to do with Gilbert, who must improve for the Canadiens to improve on last season's trip to the conference finals.
Nashville Predators: James Neal, LW
2014-15 statistics: 24 games, 9 goal, 5 assists
Season report: There's nothing wrong with a player on pace for 30 goals, which is what James Neal was acquired by Nashville to do this season. But he's been extremely streaky—he has zero goals in his past seven games and two in his past 14 games—and has just one power-play goal in 73:30 of man-advantage ice time.
Neal has been fine, no question. But more consistency and finish on the power play would go a long way toward keeping Nashville's great first two months going into April.
New Jersey Devils: Cory Schneider, G
2014-15 statistics: 9-11-3, 2.52 GAA, .916 save percentage
Season report: Cory Schneider has certainly been pulling his weight, starting all but one game for the Devils. Whether it's the increased workload, the pressure of finally being a No. 1, poor play around him or a little bit of all three, Schneider hasn't been close to the goaltender who had a .928 save percentage over the previous four seasons.
The reason why Schneider must improve is because the team around him is showing few signs of doing so. The Devils had hopes of being a playoff team this year, and they rest almost entirely on the shoulders of Schneider. A 1-0 loss to the Penguins on Tuesday speaks to that point.
New York Islanders: Chad Johnson, G
2014-15 statistics: 5-3-0, 3.42 GAA, .877 save percentage
Season report: Very little has gone wrong for the Islanders in terms of their offseason moves. Jaroslav Halak has been great in net, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy have been outstanding on defense and Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski have contributed up front.
But backup goaltender Chad Johnson has been a tremendous letdown. Yes, he's 5-3-0, but his 3.43/.877 split ranks near the bottom of the league. If that trend continues, there's very little chance the Islanders win five of every eight of his starts and a greater chance of Halak having to carry a heavier load.
New York Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist, G
2014-15 statistics: 9-7-3, 2.70 GAA, .905 save percentage
Season report: Completing the tri-state area reporting on goaltenders is Henrik Lundqvist, who has been quietly below average through two months. The Rangers have had injuries and absences along the blue line, but that can't explain away what has been spotty play from whom some consider the best goaltender in the league.
Lundqvist seemed to be turning a corner before allowing five goals on 20 shots to the Lightning on Monday night, the sixth time he's allowed at least four goals in a game this season and the fourth time he's allowed five goals. Has not having Dan Boyle and Ryan McDonagh for long stretches been a factor? Sure. But Lundqvist has room to improve.
Ottawa Senators: David Legwand, C
2014-15 statistics: 24 games, 3 goals, 5 assists
Season report: The Senators signed David Legwand this summer to help replace the production of Jason Spezza, who was traded to Dallas. It hasn't worked; he is on pace for 28 points, which would be his lowest 82-game season total since 1999-2000, his second in the league. With a Fenwick of 40.2 percent entering Tuesday, he hasn't been helpful at all.
Legwand is hardly the only player being carried by the outstanding goaltending of Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner. Jared Cowen, Chris Phillips and Milan Michalek could just as easily be the object of scorn here, but Legwand earns the honor because of the preseason expectations.
Philadelphia Flyers: Vinny Lecavalier, C/LW
2014-15 statistics: 16 games, 2 goals, 4 assists
Season report: These two seasons are not what the Flyers expected when they gave Vincent Lecavalier five years and $22.5 million two summers ago. He had 20 goals in 69 games last year, but his play deteriorated to the point where his minutes were slashed at the end of the season and in the playoffs.
The trend has continued this year, as Lecavalier played fourth-line minutes in two games before becoming a healthy scratch for the first time in his career Tuesday.
The Flyers have all kinds of problems on defense, and Sean Couturier and Matt Read have looked nothing like their former selves, but Lecavalier's poor two-way play and massive cap hit have helped devastate the Flyers to the point that they are in the fringe of the Connor McDavid chase.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Christian Ehrhoff, D
2014-15 statistics: 24 games, 1 goal, 7 assists
Season report: After he was bought out by the Buffalo Sabres, the Penguins gave Christian Ehrhoff a one-year, $4 million show-me contract. So far, Ehrhoff hasn't shown much. He's on pace for slightly worse numbers than he posted last season in Buffalo and has been quite poor possession-wise (48.7 percent Fenwick entering Tuesday) on a very good possession team.
These are the Penguins, and Ehrhoff playing at this level is fine for regular-season success. But he'll have to show more in the playoffs, and there's plenty of time for him to get more comfortable in his new surroundings.
San Jose Sharks: Brent Burns, D
2014-15 statistics: 26 games, 7 goals, 19 assists
Season report: If you own Brent Burns in a fantasy league, you're probably confused by how he could be on this list. The problem is fantasy Brent Burns has been far better than reality Brent Burns, who has struggled in his transition back to defense. Being paired with rookie Mirco Mueller for much of this season hasn't helped, but Burns has looked slow and out of position when handling responsibilities in his own zone.
Maybe Burns is better off as a forward. Or maybe he needs more time to get acclimated to his new/old position.
St. Louis Blues: T.J. Oshie, RW
2014-15 statistics: 17 games, 2 goals, 4 assists
Season report: American hero T.J. Oshie has had a rough go of it in 2014-15. He had a 21-goal, 60-point breakout campaign in 2013-14, but this season has been marred by poor production and a concussion. On a team that flourishes at five-on-five, Oshie is one of six regulars below 50 percent in Fenwick-close.
There's hope, though, as Oshie had a goal and two assists two games ago, although that was against NHL-like team Edmonton. Everything in his recent history says this is nothing more than a funk, but on a team that is starved for offense outside of its top line of Vladimir Tarasenko, Jori Lehtera and Jaden Schwartz, Oshie will be counted on for more.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Jonathan Drouin, LW
2014-15 statistics: 18 games, 1 goal, 8 assists
Season report: On a team that has virtually nothing going wrong, Jonathan Drouin hasn't looked like the Calder Trophy favorite many thought he was before the season. He's hardly been terrible, and the Lightning's forward depth is a bigger reason for his healthy scratches than poor defensive play.
But as the season progresses and the playoffs begin, Drouin must figure out how to be better when playing without the puck. Come playoff time, the Lightning may utilize Drouin in a smaller, specialized role the way the Bruins did with Tyler Seguin on the way to a Stanley Cup in 2011.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Stephane Robidas, D
2014-15 statistics: 23 games, 0 goals, 3 assists
Season report: There isn't an available metric that makes Stephane Robidas look good, unless you count plus/minus, which you shouldn't. He's dead last on the Leafs in Fenwick-close (43 percent entering Tuesday) and has constantly found himself chasing puck-carriers who have slipped behind him.
The Leafs were clearly expecting big things when they signed Robidas to a three-year deal in the summer, but he has looked every bit like a 38-year-old coming off a broken leg last season.
Vancouver Canucks: Ryan Miller, G
2014-15 statistics: 16-4-0, 2.45 GAA, .910 save percentage
Season report: Ryan Miller is the biggest reason why the Canucks are near the top of the league standings, and he'll have to be the biggest reason for them to remain there. Despite the win-loss record, Miller hasn't been all that sensational of late; since a 34-save win on Nov. 6, Miller has a .896 save percentage, and that includes two shutouts.
The Canucks are getting timely scoring and good enough goaltending, but Miller will have to do more over the final four months.
Washington Capitals: Braden Holtby, G
2014-15 statistics: 8-7-3, 2.50 GAA, .909 save percentage
Season report: Since new coach Barry Trotz arrived on the scene, he has delivered on the promise of making the Capitals a better defensive and possession team. The Capitals are allowing the fourth-fewest shots per game and are sixth in Fenwick-close, yet they are sitting outside a playoff spot in the East.
That's largely due to Braden Holtby failing to stop shots on a consistent basis. He's about eight points below his career save percentage and far below his first three seasons when he was never worse than .920. There's no reason to believe Holtby won't come around at some point, but sooner rather than later would be nice for the Caps.
Winnipeg Jets: Dustin Byfuglien, RW
2014-15 statistics: 25 games, 4 goals, 5 assists
Season report: Now playing full time as a forward, Dustin Byfuglien isn't producing at the same level he was last season. He had 20 goals and 56 points a year ago during a season in which he made the shift from defense to offense, but he's on his way to falling far short of those numbers.
Byfuglien is usually a Fenwick positive, but he's down to 47.8 percent this year, one of the worst marks on a team that's made strides in that area this year.