Maligned NHL Players Proving Fans Wrong in 2015-16

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistDecember 20, 2015

Maligned NHL Players Proving Fans Wrong in 2015-16

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    Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

    Several NHL players entered 2015-16 maligned by fans and pundits. Some, like Ottawa Senators winger Bobby Ryan (pictured above), have so far done a fine job of proving their critics wrong. 

    The players on this list were chastised for various reasons. Some, like Ryan and Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Dion Phaneuf, weren't performing up to the expectations that come with their expensive contracts. Others, like Los Angeles Kings left wing Milan Lucic, were written off as being past their prime. 

    Here's a look at the top maligned players who are proving the fans wrong with their performance this season. Feel free to voice your opinion in the comments section below. 

Dion Phaneuf, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Last season was the lowest point in defenseman Dion Phaneuf's tenure with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Playing in the first season of a seven-year, $49 million contract, the Leafs captain bore the brunt of criticism from fans and pundits over his poor play and that of his team. On Sep. 15, TSN's Jonas Siegel reported Phaneuf didn't want to be traded and hoped to help Leafs reverse their fortunes. 

    While the Leafs are a rebuilding club this season, Phaneuf has noticeably improved his performance. At his current rate of production, he could reach 40 points for the first time since 2011-12. On Dec. 9, the Toronto Sun's Terry Koshan reported Leafs coach Mike Babcock singled out the blueliner for praise on the occasion of his 400th game with the club.

    Under Babcock, Phaneuf is seeing more offensive-zone minutes and less time-killing penalties. That's playing to his strengths as a puck-moving defenseman, making him a more valuable player for the Leafs. As a result, the barbs from fans and trade speculation in the media are fading away. 

Mike Cammalleri, New Jersey Devils

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Entering this season, veteran winger Mike Cammalleri's durability remained a big question mark for the New Jersey Devils offense. While the 33-year-old hadn't lost his offensive skills, injuries had frequently sidelined him. He hasn't played more than 68 games in a season since 2008-09, which was also when he enjoyed a career-best 82-point campaign.

    With one-third of this season now history, Cammalleri has not only avoided injury but is also having his best performance in years. With 32 points in 33 games, he's on pace for a 78-point season. Currently the Devils' leading scorer, he's also among the league's top 10 point-producers.

    Given Cammalleri's age and injury history, it's easy to assume his production will drop off at some point. Thus far, however, he's silenced the doubters while leading the Devils into playoff contention

Milan Lucic, Los Angeles Kings

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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Left wing Milan Lucic's final season with the Boston Bruins was memorable for the wrong reasons. His 44 points were his lowest over a full NHL season since 2008-09. His physical play seemed to take a toll on his production. On April 14, the Boston Globe's Amelie Benjamin reported Lucic admitted criticism over his style of game had in part affected his performance.

    Dealt in June to the Los Angeles Kings, the 27-year-old power forward has regained his form. Following a slow start to the season, he's now on pace for more than 50 points. Lucic is a key part of the Kings' second line, leading the club in hits and game-winning goals. He's also become a more disciplined player who is on track for his fewest penalty minutes over a full season.

    Given Lucic's improvement, it's apparent that predictions of his demise were premature. Kings management certainly seem impressed with his play. On Dec. 10, Pro Hockey Talk's Mike Halford cited a report from TSN that claims the Kings hope to soon open contract-extension talks with the rugged winger. 

Loui Eriksson, Boston Bruins

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Boston Bruins winger Loui Eriksson is continually compared to the player for whom he was dealt. As Tyler Seguin blossomed into a superstar with the Dallas Stars, Eriksson's offensive stats paled in comparison. Last March, the veteran forward told NHL.com's Matt Kalman he heard the criticism over his style of game but was resolved not to change how he played.

    That's a good thing for the Bruins this season, as the 30-year-old is among their most top players. Paired up with center David Krejci, he's one of the club's leading scorers. A skilled two-way winger, Eriksson is also among Boston's penalty-killing leaders.

    Eriksson will never put up scoring stats comparable to Seguin, but he's one of the Bruins' best all-around players. He's helped them return to playoff contention this season, proving to be much more valuable than his critics believed. 

Bobby Ryan, Ottawa Senators

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Winger Bobby Ryan's first two seasons with the Ottawa Senators were disappointing. A five-time 30-plus goal scorer, Ryan entered 2015-16 with a combined 41 goals as a Senator. That's hardly the type of production expected of a player who is earning $7.25 million per season. On Aug. 8, Pro Hockey Talk's James O'Brien observed the 28-year-old faced considerable pressure to produce this season. 

    So far, Ryan has risen to the challenge and silenced the doubters. He's on track for a career-high 79 points and could finish with 25-30 goals. He's also among the league's leading scorers

    This is the type of production the Senators wanted from Ryan when they acquired him and inked him to that big contract. His efforts are also a big reason why they're among this season's highest-scoring teams. As a result, there's little grumbling among Senators followers over Ryan's game. 

Matt Duchene, Colorado Avalanche

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Inconsistency has dogged Colorado Avalanche forward Matt Duchene through his NHL career. Earlier this season, Will Radke of the blog Mile High Sticking wondered which version Avs fans would see in 2015-16. On Nov. 12, Pro Hockey Talk's Mike Halford cited TSN's Bob McKenzie, who speculated Duchene could be dealt, even suggesting Avs head coach Patrick Roy wasn't a big fan of the 24-year-old.

    If the trade speculation was designed to light a fire under Duchene, the goal was accomplished. Since Nov. 1, he's tallied 26 points in 29 games. He's among the NHL's goal-scoring leaders. The league named him its third star for November. 

    Since Duchene regained his scoring touch, the trade chatter has died away. Even critics like Radke have changed their tune. If Duchene maintains his current pace, he could set career highs in goals and points this season. 

Ryan O'Reilly, Buffalo Sabres

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    Prior to his trade from the Colorado Avalanche to the Buffalo Sabres, center Ryan O'Reilly proved himself as a skilled, disciplined two-way forward. However, his new contract with the Sabres (seven years at $7.5 million per season starting in 2016-17) raised eyebrows. Factor in his arrest in July on a charge of driving while impaired, and the 24-year-old faced a tall order in silencing his critics. 

    One-third of the way through 2015-16, O'Reilly is the Sabres' best player. With 29 points in 34 games, he's in range of 70 points for the first time in his career. He is not only leading the Sabres in points, but he's also their best all-around player.

    While O'Reilly still awaits a court date, he's obviously not letting it affect his game. Over the long run, it remains to be seen if he'll be deserving of his hefty new contract. However, if he keeps playing as he has this season, he'll be worth every penny for the Sabres. 

Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane began this season under a dark cloud. With his facing an accusation of sexual assault, there were calls for the league to ban Kane from playing during the investigation. Several reports claimed teams expressed interest in the 27-year-old if the Blackhawks wished to trade him. It was assumed Kane's play would suffer and his situation would become a distraction for his teammates. 

    Instead, Kane is the NHL's most dominant player thus far. He's been the league's leading scorer for weeks and is on pace for a career-high 115-point season. His recent 26-game scoring streak is the longest for American-born players. 

    With the sexual assault charge now dropped, calls for Kane to be banned or suspended have melted away. He's also shown no sign of slowing down. In fact, he can be considered an early favorite for the Hart Trophy

    Stats (as of Nov. 19) via NHL.com. Salary info via General Fanager

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