It’s Feb. 29, the day we see only during a leap year. Which NHL players have made the biggest leap in performance from last season to the current campaign? That’s our focus in this week’s THN.com Top 10.
Honorable mentions: Joffrey Lupul, LW, Maple Leafs; Claude Giroux, C, Flyers; Cody Hodgson, C, Sabres; Kris Versteeg, RW, Panthers; Mike Smith, G, Coyotes; Jason Garrison, D, Panthers.
10. David Desharnais, C, Canadiens
Desharnais’ rookie season of 2010-11 was decent – he averaged 12:52 of ice time and had 14 assists and 22 points in 43 games with Montreal, while spending half the season with its AHL affiliate in Hamilton – but this year he’s shown he can do much more. The 25-year-old has 34 assists and 47 points in 64 games and averages more than five additional minutes a game (18:03). The Canadiens’ season may be a disaster, but Desharnais’ future looks to be anything but.
9. Jake Gardiner, D, Maple Leafs
During the 2010-11 campaign, Gardiner patrolled the blueline for the University of Wisconsin before signing a pro contract and playing a relatively uneventful 10 games for the American League’s Toronto Marlies. Now, he’s an indispensable part of the Maple Leafs’ future who is averaging the third-most minutes (21:30) on the team. To say nobody saw this large of a growth spurt is to put it mildly.
8. Jordan Eberle, RW, Oilers
Sure, Eberle is leading Edmonton in scoring this year after doing the same thing last year. Has he really grown? Look closely at his numbers and it’s clear the answer is yes. The 21-year-old already has 10 more goals and 18 more points than he did last season and has gone from a minus-12 rating in 2010-11 to a plus-5 this year. The really impressive stat: He’s done all this while averaging less time on ice than he had in his rookie year (he’s at 17:01 this year after averaging 17:40 last season).
7. Radim Vrbata, RW, Coyotes
At age 30, Vrbata is the oldest player on this list and had established himself as a dependable 20-to-25 goal scorer in his previous nine NHL seasons. But there’s something about how much more he’s doing for Phoenix this year that stands out. In 63 games, he’s set a career high in goals (30, breaking his old mark of 27 set in 2007-08). He’s a plus-22, much higher than his previous career best of plus-6. He’s boosted his ice time from an average of 16:22 in 2010-11 to 18:47 this year. And he’s got 10 game-winning goals after netting just two last season.
6. Michael Del Zotto, D, Rangers
When you go from a disappointment demoted to the AHL last season to the Eastern Conference-leading team’s top point-producing defenseman the following year as the 21-year-old Del Zotto has, you’ve leapt so far, your hamstrings should be checked for safety’s sake.
5. Ryan O’Reilly, C, Avalanche
In his sophomore NHL season last year, O’Reilly matched the 26 points he posted in his rookie campaign, but had five fewer assists. This year? He’s already nearly tripled his assist total (from 13 to 34), nearly doubled his point total (to 50 in just 63 games) and is averaging more than three minutes more per game (from 16:03 last year to 19:19 now). If you want to know why Colorado is still contending for a playoff spot, O’Reilly is it.
4. Erik Karlsson, D, Senators
Karlsson turned heads last season, when he posted 45 points in 75 games, while averaging 23:30 a game. But this season, Karlsson already has more assists (51) in 64 games than he did points last year and averages nearly two minutes more a night (25:17). Perhaps most impressively, he’s undergone a 45-point plus-minus swing, from minus-30 in 2010-11 to plus-15 this season. He’s gone from being a young player on the rise to being the elite of the elite.
3. Ryan McDonagh, D, Rangers
McDonagh’s entry into the NHL as a 21-year-old last year was unspectacular (eight assists and nine points in 40 games in which he averaged 18:44 a night). His contributions to the Blueshirts this season – including a more than tripled point-production rate of 23 points in 61 games while playing almost five-and-a-half more minutes (25:11) – are a significant driver of the Rangers’ regular season success.
2. Tyler Seguin, C, Bruins
As a top draft pick playing in a hockey-mad market, Seguin faced all sorts of pressure coming into his rookie NHL year and his offensive output in 2010-11 (11 goals and 22 points in 74 games while averaging 12:12 a night and a minus-4 rating) reflected that. But Seguin followed up the Bruins’ Cup run with a glimpse of how good he’ll continue to get by scoring 20 goals and 48 points in 60 games this year. He’s also averaging nearly five minutes more per game (16:51) and now has the best plus/minus (plus-31) of any Bruin. If he’s just scratching the surface of how good he can be, other teams are going to want him to stop scratching immediately. He’s tough enough to deal with as it is.
1. Brian Elliott, G, Blues
It’s difficult to understate how damaged Elliott’s reputation was after last season, which he split between Ottawa and Colorado with an equal lack of success in both cities. And that makes his incredible turnaround in St. Louis all that much more special. The 26-year-old has the league’s best goals-against average (1.65), its second-best save percentage (.937) and its third-best shutout total (six out of his 20 wins). With apologies to Boston’s Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask, Elliott and teammate Jaroslav Halak have become the game’s best net tandem.
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.
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