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10 players facing make or break seasons in 2015-16

Justin Schultz’s one-year deal in Edmonton made it pretty clear that 2015-16 will be make or break year for both his career and potential future with the Oilers. Schultz is one of several players who could be facing the most important season of their careers.
The Hockey News

The Hockey News

The Edmonton Oilers avoided arbitration with Justin Schultz Wednesday by inking the 25-year-old blueliner to a one-year, $3.9 million deal. But the arbitration wasn’t Schultz’s choice. Rather, it was the Oilers who wanted to plead their case for a lower cost on Schultz’s contract.

However, by opting for team-elected arbitration – which, as mentioned, has now been avoided with the one-year contract – Edmonton was essentially giving Schultz an ultimatum: if he wants to keep his spot in the Oilers lineup for what he believes to be fair value, he’s going to have to prove that he’s worth it. Thus, the one-year deal.

Schultz isn’t the only restricted free agent signed to a one-year contract and he’s not the only player who can, as Mike Babcock put it with regards to Nazem Kadri, “put the screws,” to his club. On the flip side, though, one bad year could see some franchises giving up on their young guns.

Here are 10 players who could have make-or-break seasons in 2014-15:

Tomas Hertl, San Jose Sharks

Hertl became a fan favorite in San Jose thanks to a flashy goal that he scored in the midst of a four-goal game in his rookie year. The game rocketed him to cult status with the Sharks and he went on to score 15 goals and 25 points in 37 contests in 2013-14. However, be it the pressure or the knee injury which he recovered from before this past season, he failed to live up to expectations in his sophomore year.

That said, 13 goals and 31 points in 82 games isn’t half bad for a 21-year-old. Those are good numbers for a second- or third-line winger whose still getting stronger and adjusting to the NHL game. There were some reports that Hertl’s name was mentioned in trade talks, but it’s hard to believe he gets shown the door in San Jose even if his point total dips this season.

Alex Chiasson, Ottawa Senators

The Senators and Chiasson still haven’t settled on a contract for the 2015-16 campaign and his arbitration date is fast approaching. The 24-year-old might end up with a one-year deal if the two sides can’t agree before they head to arbitration, which means there’s potential for this to be his final season in Ottawa should he not meet the expectations of the Senators front office.

Since coming to Ottawa as part of the Jason Spezza trade to Dallas last off-season, Chiasson has been used in a bottom-six role and averaged almost a full minute and a half less ice time per game this past season with the Senators than he had the year prior with the Stars. It showed in his production, as Chiasson scored two fewer goals and nine fewer points. He was also a healthy scratch for two of the Senators’ six post-season games.

Sven Baertschi, Vancouver Canucks

Whatever the reason, Baertschi’s game simply hasn’t translated to success in the NHL. Since being drafted 13th overall by the Calgary Flames in 2011, Baertschi has played 69 NHL games and registered 10 goals and 30 points, but the Flames never saw fit to make him a regular in the lineup. At the trade deadline, the Flames sent him to the Canucks for a second round pick.

Baertschi has been issued, and has since rejected, a qualifying offer from Vancouver. That said, it’s hard to see him not being back in the Canucks organization next season to at least give it one more shot in Vancouver and mutli-year deals have apparently been discussed. If he struggles to make the big club again, there could be questions about whether or not he’ll ever make the jump.

Justin Schultz, Edmonton Oilers

Schutlz’s one-year deal means a lot of the focus in Edmonton this season will be on his play. He obviously wanted more than the $3.9 million he got from the Oilers, but the two sides settled on a deal that, if Schultz plays well, could end up costing Edmonton a pretty penny next off-season.

Since his NHL debut in 2012-13, Schutlz’s points-per-game have slowly decreased. His rookie season saw him score .56 points per game, which fell to .45 in 2013-14 and .38 in 2014-15. With Edmonton’s off-season acquisitions of Eric Gryba, Andrej Sekera and Griffin Reinhart, as well as the potential of Oscar Klefbom and Darnell Nurse, Schultz could be the odd-man out if he doesn’t produce.

Jeff Skinner, Carolina Hurricanes

After wining the Calder Trophy in 2010-11 with a 31-goal, 63-point season, it appeared the Hurricanes had a gem on their hands in Skinner. Carolina signed their young star to a six-year, $34.35 million deal in August 2012, but Skinner’s play has been up and down since.

In the years following his 63-point campaign, Skinner has posted seaosns of 44, 24, 54 and 31 points. The 31-point output in 2014-15 had rumors swirling that Skinner would potentially be moved. While that didn’t come to pass, it’s clear the Hurricanes expect more out of the 23-year-old this coming season. If he doesn’t produce, his name might pop up in the rumor mill again.

Nazem Kadri, Toronto Maple Leafs

Kadri can control his own fate and he’s already working towards making sure he Toronto is forced to pay up next season. He’s going to get every opportunity to shine, too, with Phil Kessel off to Pittsburgh. Kadri will likely get big power play minutes and be used at the club’s first-line center. Add it all up, he’s primed for a big year.

That said, if Kadri stays healthy and still fails to produce to Toronto’s liking, there’s a chance they shop the 24-year-old center. His one-year, $4.1 million deal isn’t a huge cap hit to take on and the Maple Leafs could certainly get assets back. If Kadri wants to be the go-to guy in Toronto, he has to show it in 2015-16.

Chris Stewart, Anaheim Ducks

It’s hard to believe that Stewart, a two-time 28-goal scorer, didn’t land more than $1.7 million on the open market, but that’s what happens when you fail to live up to a $4 million-plus salary in back-to-back seasons. Stewart was very obviously shopped by the Buffalo Sabres for the majority of last season before being dealt to the Minnesota Wild, but this could be his last chance to really get his career back on track.

In Anaheim, he’ll attempt to fill the spot vacated by Matt Beleskey and you can bet the Ducks are looking for him to contribute at least 15-20 goals this season. If he doesn’t do that, he’s going to have a difficult time landing big money as an unrestricted free agent next off-season and could have to take a two-way deal on his next contract.

Nail Yakupov, Edmonton Oilers

Yakupov set a career-high in 2014-15 with 33 points, but that’s only because his previous career high, 17 goals and 31 points in 2012-13, came in a lockout-shortened season that didn’t allow for him to rack up an even higher rookie point total.

The first overall pick in the 2012 draft, Yakupov’s struggles in Edmonton haven’t flown under the radar, and when trade rumors pop up regarding the Oilers, Yakupov’s name is usually in the mix. He had a fairly productive year in 2014-15 once paired up with center Derek Roy, but Roy won’t be back in Edmonton this upcoming season. He’s not an RFA again until 2017-18, but he could be a trade chip again should he not produce.

Mikhail Grigorenko, Colorado Avalanche

Grigorenko was part of the package the Buffalo Sabres sent to the Avalanche to acquire Ryan O’Reilly and the trade could help rejuvenate the 21-year-old centers young career. At this point, Grigorenko hasn’t been able to find a fit in the NHL and certainly hasn’t lived up to the 12th overall selection that was used on him.

Grigorenko got his shot at a full-time NHL job in 2012-13 but was sent back to junior after 25 games. In the past two seasons, he has played 43 NHL games, spending the rest of his time in the AHL or QMJHL. In his 68 career NHL contests, Grigorenko has six goals and 14 points, and if he doesn’t find his way to the NHL this season, it’s hard to say if he ever will.

Cody Hodgson, Nashville Predators

It’s hard to believe that Hodgson is only 25, because it seems as though so much has already happened in his young career. There was the trade out of Vancouver, the big contract in Buffalo, his subsequent struggles this past season and then, on July 1, he was bought out by the Sabres. To say Hodgson needs to get his career back on track would be an understatement.

This past season, Hodgson was barely used by the Sabres and relegated to bottom-six minutes. In 2014-15, for the first time in his NHL career, Hodgson averaged less than 13:30 in ice time and his average ice time slipped by more than five minutes from 2013-14. That might have something to do with his paltry six-goal, 13-point output, but on a team as bad as the Sabres were this past season, not playing Hodgson didn’t help matters.

Nashville took a gamble on him with a one-year, $1.05 million contract. If he doesn’t succeed, he could become 2015-16’s Dany Heatley: a low-risk signing that ends up spending the year in the AHL.


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