Anthony Duclair has played on some bad teams in his NHL career. The 24-year-old has yet to appear in a playoff game over the past five years and his offensive output hasn’t come close to returning to his 44-point form as a rookie in Arizona. He’s on his fifth team in the past six years, leaving many to question whether he had a long-term future in the NHL despite being one of the most prolific forward prospects in the game after his junior career ended in 2015.
But on an Ottawa Senators team that’s in the midst of a rebuild, Duclair has played some of his best hockey, highlighted by a two-goal, three-point effort against Detroit on Tuesday. With 13 points in 21 games, Duclair sits third in Senators scoring, beating out the likes of Brady Tkachuk, Vladislav Namestnikov and Thomas Chabot in the early going. If he holds up his 0.62 points-per-game average at this point, Duclair will crack 50 points for the first time in his career. Not bad for a guy that many just saw as a throwaway piece in trades for a couple of years.
So, what has changed? Ottawa doesn’t have an influx of quality top-six wingers, allowing Duclair to line up alongside Tkachuk and Logan Brown on the second line; a step up from the fourth-line deployment he had elsewhere. But he’s also playing key power-play minutes, too: Tkachuk is the only forward (3:23) with more time on the man advantage than Duclair (2:57), with Duclair only eclipsing the two-minute mark once previously (2:50 in 2015-16 with Arizona). That extra confidence is doing wonders for Duclair’s play, providing incredible value to the team at an AAV of $1.65 million.
Duclair’s rise through the ashes has been a fun story to follow, but he isn’t the only player having a big bounce-back campaign in 2019-20. Here are nine others performing above expectations this season:
Anders Nilsson, G (Ottawa)
Keeping things situated in Ottawa, Nilsson has had a much bigger impact at this point than anyone could have expected. Nilsson had a few solid outings with the Sens last year after a trade from Vancouver, but who pegged him to be the NHL’s first star of the week over Auston Matthews and Cale Makar earlier this month? The 29-year-old from Sweden has a 6-4-1 record for a non-playoff contender, but it’s his .938 save percentage at 5-on-5 (fifth among goalies with at least 10 games played) and 5.90 goals-saved above average (sixth) that stand out. With Craig Anderson’s future in doubt as a 38-year-old pending UFA, having someone like Nilsson take over after years of bouncing around teams is a nice bonus – but is it enough to keep bailing the Sens out of tight games?
Derick Brassard, C (NY Islanders)
The Islanders have built a franchise that might be limited in the star category, but is loaded in the depth department – and that’s what makes a winning hockey club. One of those depth guys was Brassard, a late-August signing coming over on a one-year, $1.2-million deal after posting just 23 points in 70 games split between Colorado, Florida and Pittsburgh. This season, Brassard currently sits third in team scoring with six goals and 15 points over 19 games while shooting at an impressive 16.7 percent. His points-per-game average of 0.79 and on-pace point production of 65 points would be the best of his career in both categories, assuming they last. At the very least, the former 60-point forward should be able to finish with 20 goals and 50 points, blowing his 23-point 2018-19 season out of the water.
Ryan Strome, C (NY Rangers)
Are we finally starting to see the real Ryan Strome, the one the New York Islanders took fifth overall in 2011? It sure looks that way. Through 18 games, Strome has produced at a point-per-game rate and sits second behind star Artemi Panarin (23) for the team lead in points. It’s been a long time coming for Strome, who hasn’t lived up to his potential after recording 106 points as an OHL sophomore in 2010-11. Since stepping onto the Rangers’ top line thanks to an injury to Mika Zibanejad, Strome has played the best hockey of his career – but will it last? He had 50 points in his first full NHL season in 2015-16 but hasn’t gotten more than 35 since, yet he’s already trending towards an 82-point season. That’s unlikely, but he could become a two-time 50-point scorer when it’s all said and done.
Kevin Shattenkirk, D (Tampa Bay)
Landing with the Lightning has done wonders for reviving Shattenkirk’s game after getting bought out by the New York Rangers last summer. With 15 points through 18 games, Shattenkirk is in a comfortable spot to hit 40 points for the sixth time in the past nine years, returning to the form that made him one of the most sought-out names on the free-agent market in 2017. In New York, he was often tasked with being the main man on a team that couldn’t offer him viable support, so playing with Victor Hedman has been a huge plus for Shattenkirk.
Dougie Hamilton, D (Carolina)
We’re a month and a half into the season and the Hurricanes – featuring one of the most exciting forward pools in the league – are still getting superb numbers out of Hamilton, a defenseman. Known for his stout two-way play during his career, Hamilton is on pace for an unrealistic 35 goals and 90 points this year but he shouldn’t have an issue breaking his previous high of 50 points while scoring 20 goals for the first time in his career – he’s just 11 goals away already. It’s a nice boost for Hamilton, who followed up five years of steady offensive improvement with two down years in Calgary and Carolina, but it looks like he has found his mojo again on the Hurricanes’ top defense pair with the defensively-sound Jaccob Slavin.
James Neal, RW (Edmonton)
With 13 goals and three assists, Neal’s stat line looks comical at this point, but it’s nice to see him return to his old goal-scoring self. You’ve heard the story before: once a star in the NHL, Neal failed to live up to expectations in Calgary last season by scoring just seven goals and 19 points in 63 contests. But in 40 fewer games in 2019-20 on the Oilers, Neal has just three fewer points and is a goal away from doubling his goal output from his tumultuous tenure with the Flames, who moved his $5.75-million cap hit for the next four seasons to Edmonton in exchange for Milan Lucic (sorry, Flames fans). Only four of his goals this season have come at 5-on-5 so some more consistency at even strength could help (he has just 29 shots at 5-on-5 and 22 on the power play), but it’s hard to call his season thus far anything but a success.
Mikko Koskinen, G (Edmonton)
Man, it was hard to avoid the negativity surrounding Koskinen’s three-year, $13.5-million extension after just 31 career games last season, but he’s starting to hold up his end of the deal this season. Koskinen became the first netminder in Oilers history to win his first five games of the season and is holding strong with an 8-1-2 record, outplaying Mike Smith and his 6-5-1 record through 12 contests. His .924 SP is seventh among goaltenders with at least 10 games played and his 0.889 high-danger save percentage trails just Tuukka Rask (.917). Goaltending was a major area for concern heading into the season, but Koskinen deserves a lot of credit for helping the Oilers engage in a four-way tie for second in the league standings.
Tanner Pearson, LW (Vancouver)
It seems like a fresh start was all Pearson needed to find his old form again. A two-time 40-point scorer with Los Angeles, Pearson had just one assist with the Kings before they shipped him off to Pittsburgh, where he’d go on to post just nine goals and 14 points in 44 games. But a late-season move to Vancouver helped rekindle his old fire, with nine goals and 12 points in 19 games after immediately jumping into the top six. At his current scoring rate of 0.5 points-per-game, Pearson should hit the 40-point mark again in his secondary scoring role with the Canucks, but with five points in the past four games, which included three losses, maybe he’s set to boost that number even higher.
Robby Fabbri, C (Detroit)
There were few junior prospects with as much talent as Fabbri in the early 2010s, but it took a long time for him to really show what he can do due to serious injury concerns preventing him from playing a full season for St. Louis over the past four years. But a trade to Detroit earlier in the month has proven key to unlocking Fabbri’s true potential, who went from producing just one assist in nine games with the Blues on the bottom line to posting seven points through six games with the Red Wings on the club’s second line. Playing on a team as bad as the Red Wings has allowed Fabbri to showcase what he’s capable of in a scoring role and it might not be a stretch to suggest he finishes near the 50-point barrier this season.
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