10 NHL Players Who Must Step Up Down the Stretch in 2015-16 Season

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistApril 3, 2016

10 NHL Players Who Must Step Up Down the Stretch in 2015-16 Season

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    Rocky W. Widner/NHL/Getty Images

    As the NHL regular season winds down, teams jockeying for playoff positions need their best players to rise to the occasion. Several notable stars, such as New York Rangers center Eric Staal (pictured above), have struggled in recent weeks. 

    Staal faces a unique situation of adapting to a new team following a late-season trade. Like everyone on this list, however, he's trying to regain his dominant form. Some on this list are top scorers who've gone cold down the stretch. Others are goaltenders trying to backstop their clubs into the postseason.

    The following slideshow examines 10 players who must step up over the remainder of the regular season. Do you think we missed someone? Is there a player on this list you don't believe belongs here? Express your views in the comments section below.

10. Patrick Kane, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    Chicago Blackhawks right wing Patrick Kane has led the league in scoring for most of this season. With 96 points in 78 games, he's on the verge of becoming the first American-born player to win the Art Ross Trophy.

    March, however, was not a good month for Kane and the Blackhawks, who won only five of 13 games. Kane's offensive struggle was a factor. Though the 27-year-old tallied nine points during that stretch, he was also held scoreless in seven games. That's the first time this season opponents kept him off the scoresheet that often in one month.

    Throughout this season, Kane and linemates Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov have accounted for the bulk of the Blackhawks offense. A decline in Kane's production could adversely affect that line's overall performance in the postseason. It could also prove costly to the Hawks' hopes of successfully defending their Stanley Cup title.

9. Alex Ovechkin, Washington Capitals

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    It's been another terrific season for Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin. His team has dominated the regular season and claimed the Presidents' Trophy for the second time in club history. Ovechkin, meanwhile, once again leads the NHL in goals (45) and could win his sixth Maurice Richard Trophy

    However, Ovechkin was recently mired in a late-season scoring slump. During a 15-game stretch between Feb. 28 to March 28, the 30-year-old sniper netted just three goals and added three assists. With only four regular-season games remaining, he's running out of time to reach the 50-goal plateau for a seventh time.

    With the Capitals having long clinched a playoff spot and home-ice advantage, Ovechkin's offensive struggles didn't garner much attention. His production, however, will be a key factor in his club's championship quest. The good news is he appears to be snapping out of his slump, as he's tallied two goals in his last three games.

8. Matt Duchene, Colorado Avalanche

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Colorado Avalanche's playoff hopes took a hit in mid-March when knee injuries sidelined leading scorers Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon. As a result, the Avs dropped three of their last six games in March and fell five points behind the Minnesota Wild for the final wild-card spot in the Western Conference.

    Prior to Duchene's injury, he potted eight points in seven games. Returning to action on April 1, the 25-year-old failed to score in a 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals. 

    It could take Duchene a little more time to round back into form, but time is a luxury he and his teammates don't have. With only four games remaining in the season, the Avalanche need their leading scorer to quickly regain his offensive form. How long it takes him to shake off the rust could determine if the Avs make or miss the playoffs.

7. Jakub Voracek, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Tom Mihalek/Associated Press

    Coming off a career-high 81-point campaign last season, Philadelphia Flyers right wing Jakub Voracek has struggled at times throughout 2015-16. Still, he overcame a slow start and was the Flyers' second-leading scorer until a lower-body injury sidelined him on Feb. 29. 

    In the first seven games following Voracek's return on March 19, he picked up only two assists. Playing mainly on the second line during that stretch could account for his low production during that period. He could also be feeling the lingering effects from his injury. 

    The Flyers are jockeying with the Detroit Red Wings and Boston Bruins for one of the remaining Eastern Conference playoff berths. A return to form by Voracek will certainly help them lock up a postseason spot. His two-assist performance on April 2 in a 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators bodes well going forward.

6. Patrick Marleau, San Jose Sharks

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    After 18 NHL seasons, time is catching up to longtime San Jose Sharks left wing Patrick Marleau. With 22 goals and 44 points in 79 games, he's on pace for his lowest production over a full NHL season since 2007-08. 

    Marleau's gone through several lengthy scoring slumps this season. Through 16 games in March, the 36-year-old netted only four goals and two assists. 

    Throughout his career, Marleau has proved capable of overcoming subpar performances. He'll need to demonstrate that ability again to be an effective playoff contributor this spring for the Sharks.

5. Thomas Vanek, Minnesota Wild

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    As the Minnesota Wild try to secure the final wild-card berth in the Western Conference, they're not getting much help from left wing Thomas Vanek. Indeed, his performance throughout this season has been quite disappointing.

    With 18 goals and 41 points in 74 games, Vanek's production is down from last season's 21-goal, 52-point effort. The 32-year-old is also well below his 68-point campaign of 2013-14. Since the Wild's coaching change on Feb. 13, Vanek's ice time has significantly reduced. He's failed to play his way back onto their scoring lines.

    Vanek's performance could have consequences for his future in Minnesota as well as the Wild's playoff hopes. If he doesn't significantly improve, he could be bought out of the final year of his contract in June.

4. Thomas Greiss, New York Islanders

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    With Jaroslav Halak sidelined by a groin injury, backup Thomas Greiss has taken the role as the New York Islanders' starting goaltender. It's a daunting task for the 30-year-old, who's seen limited action in a starter's role during his NHL career. 

    Between March 12 and March 31, Greiss won only three of his eight starts. In five of those games, his save percentage was .903 or lower. That's hardly the kind of clutch goaltending the Islanders need at this point in the campaign.

    Halak might not return in time for the start of the playoffs—it's possible the Islanders could slide out of contention. To avoid that fate, they need a better effort from Greiss over what's left of this season.

3. Brad Marchand, Boston Bruins

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    Danny Moloshok/Associated Press

    Boston Bruins pesky left wing Brad Marchand reached career highs this season with 35 goals and 56 points. He's the Bruins' top goal scorer, and he leads them with six game-winners and four short-handed tallies.

    Unfortunately for Marchand, his offense has dried up recently. Through a 10-game stretch between March 10 and April 1, the 27-year-old netted only a goal and an assist. During that period, the Bruins won only twice

    With the Bruins fighting for one of the last playoff berths in the Eastern Conference, Marchand's scoring slump couldn't have come at a worse time. Regaining his offensive form is crucial to his club's postseason hopes.

2. Petr Mrazek, Detroit Red Wings

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Earlier this season, Petr Mrazek had the starting goaltender job with the Detroit Red Wings all but sewn up. On Jan. 27, the Detroit News' Ted Kulfan reported the 24-year-old ranked among the league leaders in save percentage (.932), goals-against average (2.03) and shutouts (3).

    Two months later, however, Mrazek's performance has declined significantly. On March 29, Kulfan observed the young Czech was "6-6-2 with a 3.30 goals-against average and .888 save percentage in his last 15 games." He also noted Detroit pulled Mrazek in four of those games in favor of former starter Jimmy Howard. 

    With the Red Wings battling for a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference, they need a better effort from their goalies. Given Howard's inconsistent play this season, Mrazek must quickly find a way to overcome his slump.

1. Eric Staal, New York Rangers

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Dealt by the Carolina Hurricanes to the New York Rangers before the Feb. 29 trade deadline, people expected center Eric Staal to bolster the Blueshirts' scoring lines for the playoffs. Though the 31-year-old's production has declined in recent years, he's a seven-time 70-point player who helped the Hurricanes win a championship in 2006. 

    So far, however, Staal's been a disappointment for the Rangers. In 16 games with his new club, he's managed only three goals and three assists for six points. 

    If Staal can find his missing scoring touch, it could provide a big boost to the Rangers' championship hopes. On March 31, NHL.com's Jon Lane reported Staal admitted it's taken longer than he hoped to get going with the Rangers, but he remains optimistic he can help the club going forward. So far, however, there's little sign of improvement.

    Player stats (as of April 2) via NHL.com. Salary info via Cap Friendly.

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