Slumping NHL Stars Most Likely to Rebound in 2017-18

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistOctober 31, 2017

Slumping NHL Stars Most Likely to Rebound in 2017-18

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Through the first month of the 2017-18 NHL season, hockey fans have been treated to plenty of scoring—especially if they're watching the explosive Tampa Bay Lightning, who are back with a vengeance and averaging an extraordinary 4.08 goals per game.

    But who would have thought that the Edmonton Oilers would be last in the league offensively, barely scoring half as much as the Lightning at 2.20 goals per game? The team that boasts the league's reigning MVP is in an unexpected slump despite sky-high expectations coming into the season.

    If it's any comfort to Connor McDavid, he's not the only big star who's performing below expectations in the early going this year. Here's a look at six big names whose games are likely to improve dramatically before too long.

Jason Spezza, Dallas Stars

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    What He's Done: In his first 14 NHL seasons, Jason Spezza scored 316 goals and added 546 assists, good for 862 points in 922 games. During his three full seasons with the Dallas Stars, he has scored at least 15 goals and 50 points every year, including his 33-goal, 63-point season in 2015-16.

    Where He's At: Through 12 games this season, Spezza has five assists and is still looking for his first goal. His ice time has dropped from an average of 16 minutes, 10 seconds, last season to 12:58 this year. On Monday, he played only 11:13 against the Vancouver Canucks.

    Why He'll ImproveA new coach in Dallas means a new role for 34-year-old Spezza. He's no longer seeing time on the first power-play unit or with Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin at even strength, where Alex Radulov has slotted in. 

    The Stars are having success in the early going but that has been driven almost entirely by the top unit, which is getting the lion's share of ice time. As the season wears on, Ken Hitchcock is going to need to roll his lines or run the risk of burning out Benn, Seguin and Radulov. That's where Spezza should come in.

    As Dallas' second-highest paid player behind Benn, Spezza is in the third year of a four-year deal that carries a cap hit of $7.5 million per season. Now 34, he's reaching the age where a drop-off in production is expected, but he has been a natural scorer throughout his career and is versatile enough to play center or wing.

    Once Hitchcock learns to trust Spezza, expect to see him play a bigger role in the Stars offense this season.

Connor McDavid, Edmonton Oilers

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    What He's Done: Chosen first overall in 2015, Connor McDavid won the Hart Trophy as the NHL's most valuable player after winning the scoring title with 100 points last season.

    Where He's At: Through 10 games this season, McDavid leads the Oilers with five goals and 11 points but sits 13 points behind current leader Steven Stamkos in the NHL scoring race.

    Why He'll Improve: McDavid's averaging 1.10 points per game this season, which isn't too far below the 1.22 points a game he logged last season. His personal performance has only been mildly impacted by the Edmonton Oilers' funk to start the season—something that should melt away as the group adjusts to the weight of increased expectations that they're now carrying.

    Whether his team has been winning or losing, McDavid usually finds a way to put up points—he has been held off the scoresheet in just two games so far. Once the Oilers get rolling, McDavid should match or exceed his production from last season, but with scoring up all around the league, he'll face plenty of competition in his quest to bring home a second straight Art Ross Trophy.

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

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    What He's Done: The backbone of the Montreal Canadiens, the high-water mark for Carey Price's career to date came in the 2014-15 season, when he led the NHL with 44 wins, a .933 save percentage and a 1.96 goals-against average.

    Where He's At: At the eye of the storm during the Canadiens' rough start this season, Price is 3-6-1 in 10 appearances, with an .883 save percentage and a 3.64 GAA.

    Why He'll Improve: Those numbers look nothing like what Price has produced in the past. His average save percentage in his career is .919 and his average GAA is 2.42. He has never finished a season below .900 or giving up more than three goals a game.

    When the Habs went 0-6-1 earlier this season, they surrendered a whopping 31 goals during those seven games but also scored just 10. Now that the offense is starting to flow, the team has won three of its last four games.

    As the points start to come and the hysteria calms in hockey-mad Montreal, Price will also settle in and should soon be back to his usual razor-sharp form. 

Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    What He's Done: What hasn't he done? Widely considered to have been the best player in hockey over the last decade, Sidney Crosby is coming off a two-year stretch of success that started with a gold medal at the 2015 IIHF World Championship, then carried on through two Stanley Cups, two Conn Smythe Trophies, a win at the World Cup of Hockey and a Rocket Richard Trophy last season. Everything he touched was turning to gold.

    Where He's At: After 13 games this season, Crosby ranks 53rd in league scoring with 11 points. On a Penguins team that has surrendered the second-most goals in the league, he's minus-eight—12th-worst in the league. Crosby's 28 penalty minutes have already surpassed the 24 minutes he earned all last season. 

    Why He'll Improve: Crosby's 30 now, but it's far too soon to write him off. The Penguins have been undone by shaky goaltending a few times this season, but even after those blowout losses, they still boast a winning record and are just one point out of the top spot in the tight Metropolitan Division.

    Crosby has only been a minus player once in his entire career—he finished as a minus-one in his rookie season. Expect to see him turn that stat around as he picks up the pace offensively and climbs back to his usual pace of more than a point per game.

Brent Burns, San Jose Sharks

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    What He's Done: Last season's Norris Trophy winner as the NHL's best defenseman, Brent Burns led all defensemen with 29 goals and 76 points last season. The 32-year-old's point production has improved steadily over the past four seasons.

    Where He's At: Through 11 games this season, Burns leads the San Jose Sharks with seven assists but has yet to record his first goal.

    Why He'll Improve: The Sharks have struggled to find consistency through the early part of the season. Secondary scoring has been an issue, but the power play, which is Burns' strength, is actually a little better, clicking on 20.4 percent of the team's opportunities compared to 16.7 percent last year.

    Last season, Burns led the league with 320 shots on goal. He put up an average of 3.9 shots a game, with 9.1 percent of those shots going in. Since he's yet to score this year, his current shooting percentage is zero, but it's not for lack of trying. He's averaging 4.6 shots a game this season. Sooner or later, the goals will come. 

Mitch Marner, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    What He's Done: As a 19-year-old rookie, Mitch Marner tied for third in Toronto Maple Leafs scoring with 19 goals and 61 points in 2016-17, including five game-winning goals. He finished fifth in Calder Trophy voting.

    Where He's At: Through the first 11 games of the new season, Marner has just one goal to go along with five assists. He's tied for a team-worst minus-nine on a Leafs team that ranks 26th defensively in the NHL. Marner has also seen his ice time cut by nearly two minutes a game compared to last season.

    Why He'll Improve: Marner spent five games this season stapled to the Leafs' fourth line, skating with vetearns Matt Martin and Dominic Moore. The group had its moments, such as Marner's two-assist night in the Leafs' 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Kings on October 23, but it's a tough place to generate points on a night-to-night basis.

    Over the last three games, Marner has seen his role increase and his ice time climb accordingly, but he hasn't produced any points. He also didn't receive any power-play time against the San Jose Sharks Monday; last season, 21 of his 61 points came with the man advantage.

    Confidence can be a big issue for a young player. Once Marner finds his groove and starts scoring, he'll get more opportunities from coach Mike Babcock—and that will lead to more points.

             

    All stats from NHL.com, current through games completed Monday, October 30. Contract information from CapFriendly.