The NHL is getting younger with each passing season, but, from Eric Staal to Mike Smith, there are several veterans showing that they’ve still got some gas in the tank.
In the post-lockout era, there are only four players who have reached the 100-point plateau as sophomores, and one doesn’t need to be a hockey historian to take a stab at naming three-quarters of that list as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Connor McDavid each hit the century mark in their second big-league season. Completing the quartet might take a few guesses, though, and while one might assume it’s Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, John Tavares or Steven Stamkos who rounds out the list, the fourth 100-point sophomore actually happens to be Eric Staal.
Then with the Carolina Hurricanes, Staal was all-world in his second season. One year removed from putting up 11 goals and 31 points in 81 games as a rookie, Staal exploded offensively, netting 45 goals and 100 points en route to a fourth-place finish in Hart Trophy voting in 2005-06.
But unlike Crosby, Malkin, Ovechkin and other young scoring stars listed above, players who either maintained a high level of offensive production or stepped their game up as they entered their prime, Staal’s sophomore showing has been the high-water mark of his career. In no season since has Staal even come close to flirting with 100 points again and only once has he eclipsed 40 goals since his sophomore season. In fact, an even 40 goals in 2008-09 is the best he has done the past 11 years, and if you remove 2005-06 from the equation, his 82-point season in 2007-08 — the fourth campaign of his career — is his career-best, statistically speaking. That’s not a knock against Staal. He is, after all, the sixth-highest scorer in the post-lockout era and has been remarkably consistent for much of his career.
That said, this season has seen him turn back the clock and produce at a rate that he hasn’t since those early days in Carolina. Now suiting up for the Minnesota Wild, Staal has been an offensive dynamo scoring 33 goals and 64 points in 63 games, putting him atop the team scoring lead by 11 points. More impressive than the points he has scored, though, is what his current production rate has him on pace to accomplish. If he continues to score as he has, Staal would finish this season with 43 goals and 83 points, which would make this campaign his second-best in both goals and points.
What’s remarkable is that this season is coming at a time when most would expect Staal’s production to be hitting its natural decline. He’s out of his prime, inching ever closer to his 34th birthday, yet putting up point totals that he would’ve been expected to achieve as a 23-year-old fresh-faced scoring star when he was with the Hurricanes. And while it’s not loud, Staal’s season has led to chatter in Minnesota that Staal should be receiving some love in the MVP conversation, and that’s a race he hasn’t been in since his sophomore year.
Staal is the best example this season of a veteran NHL player exceeding expectations and throwing it back to his younger years. He’s not the only one turning back the clock, though. Here are four other veterans who have looked young again this season:
Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins
He may not be an ageless wonder in the same vein as Jaromir Jagr, but it really is starting to seem like Chara is going to be able to play until he decides he doesn’t want to anymore. Most thought he was starting to lose a step a few years back, but the 40-year-old — who will turn 41 ahead of the playoffs — has skated in 61 games this season, scored six goals and 17 points and is averaging upwards of 23 minutes per game. Statistically, that puts Chara in the same category as the likes of Dmitry Orlov, Alec Martinez, Zack Werenski and Jaccob Slavin at a time when his age would suggest he’s more in line with the elder statesman such as Brooks Orpik, Nicklas Kronwall and Francois Beauchemin.
The kicker here is that Chara is a top-pairing defenseman on a Bruins team that is legitimate Stanley Cup contender. If Boston gets hot at the right time, he could be one of the oldest captains to win the Stanley Cup.
Dustin Brown, Los Angeles Kings
Brown’s campaign is more similar to Staal’s than it is Chara’s in that he seems to have discovered some of his old magic at a time when his career appeared to be on the decline. During the early part of his career, you could set your watch to one of Brown’s seasons as he entered each campaign as a virtual lock for 25 goals and 50-plus points. However, the past four seasons have seen Brown fall off considerably to the extent that last season’s 14-goal, 36-point performance was considered somewhat of a resurgence.
Back in a first-line role this season, though, Brown, 33, has looked a lot like the same player Kings fans will recognize from his mid-20s: he’s physical, he’s pesky and, most importantly, he’s producing. With roughly a quarter of the season remaining, Brown has 19 goals and 44 points and is on pace to score 24 goals and 56 points. If he increases his pace slightly, he could even put together the second-highest scoring campaign of his career. He would need 58 points to make that a reality.
Mike Smith, Calgary Flames
There was a time when Smith was considered one of the league’s elite goaltenders, largely because of his outstanding 2011-12 season in which he finished fourth in Vezina Trophy voting and 11th in the Hart Trophy race. But in the years since, whether due to some subpar Coyotes rosters or a slip in his own play, Smith hasn’t been quite the same goaltender, managing a .912 save percentage and 2.83 goals-against average to go along with a 90-114-31 record over the past five seasons.
A change of scenery to Calgary has rejuvenated the 35-year-old’s career, however. While there was hesitance to believe he could recapture his old form, Smith has done just that with a .921 SP, 2.53 GAA and 23-16-6 record that has made him a fringe candidate for the Vezina. Among the 24 goaltenders who have played at least 40 games, Smith’s SP ranks eighth and only nine netminders have a better GAA. Not bad considering he stands to celebrate his 36th birthday by putting the finishing touches on the second-best season of his career.
Deryk Engelland, Vegas Golden Knights
To some, Engelland might seem like an odd duck for this list. Reason being is that if we were to suggest Engelland was going to “turn back the clock” ahead of the season, most would have assumed that we meant he was going to be a sixth defenseman averaging no more than 16 minutes per night whose biggest contribution is a heavy hit here and a bit of face-punching there. But Engelland has been blessed with a bit of that Vegas magic this season and, as he prepares to celebrate his 36th birthday just days ahead of the expansion Golden Knights’ first foray into the playoffs, he continues to piece together the greatest season of his pro career.
Entering 2017-18, Engelland’s best statistical season was his four-goal, 17-point campaign with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2011-12, though it could be argued his four-goal, 16-point output with the Calgary Flames last season was better given he played a larger role on the blueline. He stands to blow those two years out of the water this season, though, as he already has three goals and 20 points while skating more than 20 minutes per night for the first time in his career. If he keeps up this pace, he’ll finish the season with four goals and 26 points, which is more than one quarter of what he had scored across the first 469 NHL games of his career and more points that he has ever scored in a single season at the junior or pro level.
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