10 NHL Players with the Most to Prove in 2021-22

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistSeptember 18, 2021

10 NHL Players with the Most to Prove in 2021-22

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    A new NHL season provides each player with an opportunity to improve their game. Some, however, enter 2021-22 facing unique challenges to overcome compared to previous campaigns.

    Some, such as Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov, will attempt to bounce back from difficult performances last season. Others, like Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Seth Jones, will be out to prove themselves with new teams.

    Here are 10 NHL players we believe have the most to prove this season. We'll examine the issues they face and what will be expected of them. A player's experience, skills, contract and role with their respective team also factored into this ranking. 

    You can express your opinion on this topic in the comments section below. 

10. Linus Ullmark, Boston Bruins

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    After six seasons with the struggling Buffalo Sabres, Linus Ullmark signed a four-year, $20 million contract with the Boston Bruins on July 28. The 28-year-old goaltender faces the daunting task of not only filling in for the sidelined Tuukka Rask but must also jockey with Jeremy Swayman to become Rask's eventual successor.

    Ullmark put up decent numbers with the lowly Sabres, sporting a record of 50 wins, 47 losses and 13 overtime defeats with a 2.78 goals-against average and a .912 save percentage. After spending his entire NHL career with a bad team in Buffalo, he has an opportunity to establish himself as a starting goalie with a playoff contender in Boston.

    Given the terms of his contract, Ullmark can be considered Rask's heir apparent. Filling that role, however, isn't a certainty. Swayman, 22, won seven of 10 games in his first NHL season with a 1.50 GAA, a .945 SP and two shutouts. He'll be seeking more than a foothold on the roster in 2021-22. Rask, a free agent who wants to remain in Boston, could return later this season following his recovery from offseason hip surgery.

    Ullmark's contract is no guarantee he'll be the Bruins' starter by season's end. He must fend off Swayman through the first half of this season until Rask's expected return and then play well enough to prove that he's deserving of that role beyond 2021-22.

9. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Carolina Hurricanes

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    Signing an NHL player to an offer sheet is a rare occurrence. Rarer still are successful attempts. The Carolina Hurricanes signing away Jesperi Kotkaniemi from the Montreal Canadiens on Sept. 4 marked the first time a player changed teams in that manner since the Edmonton Oilers inked Dustin Penner in 2007.

    Selected third overall by the Canadiens in the 2018 NHL draft, Kotkaniemi struggled with consistency in Montreal. A restricted free agent lacking arbitration rights, the 21-year-old center had little leverage in his contract negotiations with the Habs. The chance to earn $6.1 million on a one-year contract proved too tempting to turn down. It was also too much for the cap-strapped Canadiens to match.

    On Sept. 7, Hurricanes general manager Don Waddell denied that he signed Kotkaniemi as revenge for the Canadiens' failed attempt to do the same with Sebastian Aho two years ago. He felt the young center could flourish under the Hurricanes system. 

    Kotkaniemi must prove himself worthwhile of the Hurricanes' faith in him. Fitting in well with his new club would demonstrate his capability of becoming a top-six NHL forward. It could also give the Hurricanes some flexibility next summer with second-line center Vincent Trocheck eligible for unrestricted free-agent status.

8. Tristan Jarry, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Having spent four seasons in a backup role with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Tristan Jarry took over the starting goaltender's job in 2020-21 after the club traded Matt Murray to the Ottawa Senators last fall. Things didn't go as smoothly for the 26-year-old as he may have hoped.

    With a regular-season record of 25 wins, nine losses and three overtime losses, Jarry finished fourth in victories among all NHL goalies. However, he ranked 25th in save percentage (.909) and 27th in goals-against average (2.77) among netminders with at least 20 games played.

    Jarry fared much worse in last spring's playoffs. He won just two of six games, and his stats (3.18 GAA, .888 SP) ranked among the worst of the 2021 playoffs.

    The Penguins are sticking with Jarry and backup Casey DeSmith for the upcoming season. He must justify management's faith in him and prove to skeptics he's the right goalie to roam the team's crease this season and beyond.

7. Phillip Danault, Los Angeles Kings

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    In over five seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, Phillip Danault earned a reputation as an underrated two-way center with three 40-plus-point seasons. While his production dropped last season to just 24 points in 53 games, his ability to shut down opposing scorers helped the underdog Habs march to the 2021 Stanley Cup Final.

    Danault departed the Canadiens via free agency on July 28, signing a six-year contract with the Los Angeles Kings worth an annual average value of $5.5 million. While the 28-year-old center won't encounter the same scrutiny in L.A. as he did in hockey-hungry Montreal, he still faces the challenge of playing up to his hefty deal with his new club.

    The Kings are a rebuilding club attempting to buy some time to develop promising players Quinton Byfield and Alex Turcotte into top-six NHL centers. Danault could fill the second-line center position as those youngsters develop while also acting as a mentor and leader.

    Last season's drop in Danault's offensive numbers, however, could be troubling. He'll have to prove he can regain his former 40-point form with his new club to make this deal worthwhile for the Kings over the long term.

6. Alex Nedeljkovic, Detroit Red Wings

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    After seeing just six games of NHL action between 2016-17 and 2019-20 with the Carolina Hurricanes, Alex Nedeljkovic was called up last season following Petr Mrazek's early-season thumb injury. The 25-year-old goaltender won 15 of 23 starts with a 1.90 goals-against average, a .932 save percentage and three shutouts. He was also named as a finalist for the Calder Memorial Trophy.

    With Mrazek and James Reimer becoming unrestricted free agents, Nedeljkovic seemed poised for a full-time goaltending job with the Hurricanes. However, the two sides couldn't reach an agreement on a new contract. On July 23, he was shipped to the Detroit Red Wings and signed a two-year, $6 million deal.

    Nedeljkovic was already going to face the challenge of proving last season's effort was no fluke. He must now also deal with the pressure of doing so with a new team in the midst of a rebuild rather than with the playoff contender he left behind.

    A strong performance with the Red Wings will establish Nedeljkovic as a reliable NHL starter. It could also earn him a more lucrative contract extension before his current deal expires in 2023. He would also have the opportunity to show the hockey world that the Hurricanes may have made a dreadful mistake.

5. Pierre-Luc Dubois, Winnipeg Jets

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    It's unlikely Pierre-Luc Dubois will look back on 2020-21 with any fondness. The 23-year-old Winnipeg Jets left wing enters this season attempting to rebound from a career-worst performance.

    Signed to a two-year, $10 million contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets on Dec. 31, Dubois soon made it known to management that he wanted a trade. He managed just one point in five games to start the season. In what proved to be his final game with the Jackets, he was benched for his poor play on Jan. 21.

    Traded to the Jets on Jan. 23 for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic, Dubois' debut with his new club was delayed until Feb. 9 due to COVID-19 restrictions. A lower-body injury and the rigors of a shortened schedule left him struggling to adjust, limiting him to just 20 points in 41 games.

    A versatile two-way forward who can play left wing or center, the 6'2" 205-pound Dubois demonstrated the capability to be a solid top-six player during his tenure in Columbus. He will be motivated to put last season's difficulties behind him.

4. Jonathan Drouin, Montreal Canadiens

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    Last season was a difficult one for the Montreal Canadiens' Jonathan Drouin. After managing just two goals and 23 points in 44 games, the 26-year-old left winger missed the remainder of the regular season and playoffs on a leave of absence for personal reasons.

    The Canadiens gave Drouin their full support during his sabbatical, respecting his privacy while not revealing the reason behind his time away from the game. On Aug. 26, Sportsnet reported Habs head coach Dominique Ducharme indicated Drouin was expected to be in training camp in preparation for the coming season.

    A talented playmaker, Drouin has had consistency issues throughout his seven NHL seasons. Acquired from the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2017, he reached 53 points in 2018-19 but was limited by injury to just 15 points in 27 games the following season.

    Drouin faces two challenges heading into this season. He'll have to find a way to play even if whatever led to his unexpected departure is still an issue. He must also finally prove that he can take a lead role on the Canadiens offense.

3. Carter Hart, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Last season was expected to be Carter Hart's confirmation of his place among the NHL's better goaltenders. He was coming off a sophomore campaign having backstopped the Philadelphia Flyers into the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs. The youngster outdueled Montreal Canadiens' Carey Price in the first round before he and the Flyers bowed out of the second round in seven games to the New York Islanders.

    Hart followed that up with the worst season of his short NHL career. He sported a record of nine wins, 11 losses and five overtime losses. His 3.67 goals-against average and .877 save percentage were the worst among netminders with at least 20 games played.

    On Aug. 18, The Athletic's Charlie O'Connor reviewed Hart's performance last season. He attributed part of the problem to poor team defense, the compressed schedule, a COVID-19 outbreak and roster-building mistakes. However, he also observed the young goalie's confidence took a beating before he suffered a season-ending knee sprain on April 15.

    The Flyers haven't given up on Hart, signing him on Aug. 9 to a three-year, $11.9 million contract. They also brought in former San Jose Sharks starting goalie Martin Jones as his backup on a one-year, $2 million deal. Nevertheless, the coming campaign could be the most pivotal of the 23-year-old goalie's career. He must shake off last season's difficulties and establish himself as a starter or risk losing his job to Jones.

2. Evgeny Kuznetsov, Washington Capitals

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    Three years ago, Washington Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov was coming off the best season of his NHL career in 2017-18. He tallied a single-season career-high 27 goals and 83 points and led all playoff scorers with 32 points as he and the Capitals won their first-ever Stanley Cup.

    Fast forward to 2021 and the 29-year-old Kuznetsov is coming off his worst NHL campaign, finishing sixth among Capitals scorers with nine goals and 20 assists for 29 points in 41 games. He only appeared in three playoff games and was held scoreless in each.

    Kuznetsov's decline raised eyebrows around the league. Getting COVID twice and being late to a team function sparked trade rumors amid reports the front office was losing patience with him.

    The Capitals didn't ship out Kuznetsov, but he could face a harsher spotlight in Washington than he's used to. A return to form could not only silence his doubters but also bolster the Capitals' hopes for another Cup run. Perhaps returning to the top line alongside Alex Ovechkin and Tom Wilson could help him regain his offensive touch.

1. Seth Jones, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Following five-and-a-half seasons with the Columbus Blue Jackets, Seth Jones informed the club of his intention to test the 2022 free-agent market at the end of his current contract. The Jackets traded the 26-year-old defenseman on July 23 to the Chicago Blackhawks, who inked him five days later to an eight-year extension worth an annual average value of $9.5 million.

    The Blue Jackets' top defenseman during most of his tenure with them, Jones was coming off a down year when this deal went down. NBC Sports Chicago's Michael Allardyce cited a mixed bag of reactions to the trade among fans and pundits. The Athletic's Corey Pronman gave the Blackhawks a B-minus, while Sean Gentille gave them a D-plus.

    Jones' eye-popping new contract with the Blackhawks garnered negative reviews. The Hockey News' Mike Stephens, The Athletic's Dom Luszczyszyn and Sportsnet's Mike Kelly expressed concern over whether the veteran blueliner could meet the high expectations of his new deal.

    Time will tell whether Jones can live up to that massive contract as the Blackhawks' No. 1 defenseman over its full term. For now, he will complete the final year of his current deal. A strong performance this season could help the retooling Blackhawks reach the playoffs. It would also ease the concerns of the club's supporters and muffle his detractors, at least for the short term.


    Stats via NHL.com. Salary info via CapFriendly