After a disappointing season, the Los Angeles Kings are right back atop the Pacific Division, and that’s thanks in no small part to the play of team captain Anze Kopitar. He’s not the only player — or the only King — bouncing back this season, though.
In January 2016, while in the midst of a 24-goal, 74-point, Selke Trophy-winning season, Anze Kopitar signed one of the most lucrative contract extensions in the league, an eight-year, $80-million pact with Los Angeles. The deal included a massive $9-million signing bonus ahead of the 2016-17 campaign and, as he headed into his first season of the new deal, Kopitar was handed the Kings’ captaincy and chosen to lead the team after a disappointing five-game playoff exit at the hands of rival San Jose Sharks.
Contract aside, though, nothing about Kopitar’s 2016-17 season was all that notable. At least, not in a positive sense.
After a career filled with 20-goal campaigns — eight in 10 seasons — and repeated 60-plus point performances, Kopitar struggled out of the gate along with his Kings teammates and had a near unfathomably difficult time finding the net. Through the first 20 games of the ’16-17 campaign, he had scored twice and was shooting 4.3 percent, and things didn’t get much better by the midpoint of the season. In fact, 41 games in, Kopitar had only added two more goals and his shooting percentage remained below five percent. And even though his offense started to ramp up as the campaign wore on, Kopitar finished the season with 12 goals and 52 points, making for the worst offensive output of his career. It was a disastrous season for the newly minted Kings captain.
A new season — with a new coach, new GM and new system — brought with it new opportunities, however, and through the first two months of the season no player is set to have a bounce-back year quite as impressive as Kopitar. Five games into the season, he had matched his goal output from 41 games the year prior, surpassing the previous mid-year total when he notched his fifth and sixth goals of the season seven games into the current campaign. Kopitar continued scoring, too, putting up his 12th goal and matching last season’s output in just 25 games, then, over the weekend, potted Nos. 13 and 14 to put him a couple clear of his 2016-17 total and en pace for a 41-goal season, which would be the best mark of his career.
It’s not just the goals that are coming for Kopitar, though. In 28 games, he’s found the scoresheet 31 times and sits in the top 10 in scoring after a campaign in which he finished tied for 83rd. And his point pace through the early part of this campaign suggests that Kopitar isn’t interested in hearing any more talk about a Los Angeles overpay. Were he to continue to score as he has through 28 games, Kopitar would end the season with 91 points. Add in his defensive prowess and he’s looking like he’ll be worth every single penny — and that’s even without mentioning the fact Kopitar and the Kings look to be right back in the hunt for a Pacific Division title.
Kopitar isn’t the only player having a tremendous bounce-back campaign, though. Here are four others who are making everyone forget about last season’s performance:
Claude Giroux, Philadelphia Flyers
There was a while there where Giroux was considered one of the best players in the league. The numbers backed it up, too. From 2010-11 to 2014-15, no player put up more points than Giroux and he was the offensive leader for a Flyers team that was going through some changes. That slowed considerably over the past two campaigns, though, as he managed just 36 goals and 125 points over 160 games, putting up 58 points in 2016-17, the lowest single-season total he had managed since his run as one of the league’s best began.
Now, given that Philadelphia is in the midst of a 10-game losing streak, it’s obvious not everything is going right for Giroux, but his statistical output has certainly been one of the lone bright spots for the Flyers. In 26 games, Giroux has managed 11 goals and 28 points and is on pace to notch 35 goals and 89 points. The goal output would be the best of Giroux’s career, with the 89-point campaign his most since 2011-12. Maybe he can once again be considered one of the best offensive talents in the league with a season like that.
Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
There are a few ways to measure a disappointing season, but Hellebuyck’s 2016-17 campaign was a letdown by every measure. Personally, his numbers were suspect at best. On a team-wide scale, the Jets finished outside the post-season picture for the second straight season. And when Winnipeg entered the off-season, their first move was to bring in veteran goaltender Steve Mason. The Jets spending to solidify the crease was a response to how poor Hellebuyck — as well as the other Winnipeg netminders — had played.
Has Hellebuyck ever turned things around, though. When measured against other goaltenders in the league in both save percentage and goals-against average, Hellebuyck ranks in the top 10 with a .925 SP and 2.31 GAA. But throw him up against those who’ve faced as much work as he has, which is to say goaltenders with at least 20 starts, and he ranks among the league’s elite. He’s sixth in SP among the 17 qualifying netminders, fifth in GAA and he has one shutout to his name. At 5-on-5, the only starting goaltender better than Hellebuyck this season has been Sergei Bobrovsky, who is a frontrunner for the Vezina Trophy after winning the top goalie honor last season. He might have some competition in Hellebuyck if this keeps up, though.
Dylan Larkin, Detroit Red Wings
It was hard for Red Wings fans not to be excited by Larkin’s rookie performance in 2015-16, as the 19-year-old center — who was the first teenager to make Detroit’s opening night roster since Mike Sillinger in 1990-91 — potted 23 goals and 45 points en route to a fifth-place finish in Calder Trophy voting. And even though there was a feeling the Wings’ outstanding post-season streak could be coming to an end in 2016-17, the hope was that, at the very least, they’d get to see Larkin progress further.
But then came the dreaded sophomore slump. Try as he might, Larkin came up empty-handed last season. At one point, he was struggling to the tune of one point — an assist — in 15 games. Over that time, he took 21 shots, not a single one of which found twine.
Things have turned around considerably for Larkin, however. While he’s still having a tough time lighting the lamp with four goals in 27 games, Larkin has picked up 19 assists and his 23 points have him on pace to finish the campaign as a 70-point player. That’s where the Red Wings faithful had hoped to see him last season, and, if nothing else, they’re thrilled to see the way he’s played thus far.
Dustin Brown, Los Angeles Kings
This feels like more than just a bounce-back season for Brown. It’s more like a career rejuvenation after years of being called one of the most overpaid players in the game. The trouble for Brown started around the time he inked his eight-year, $47-million contract extension with the Kings in July 2013 as, after averaging 0.33 goals and 0.69 points per game over the past six seasons, Brown’s numbers fell off considerably. In 2013-14, he scored 0.19 goals and 0.34 points per outing. Those numbers fell to 0.13 and 0.33, respectively, in 2014-15, and 2015-16 saw Brown stay in the same range.
There were a few glimmers of hope in 2016-17 that Brown was beginning to get back on track. He scored 14 goals and 36 points, the latter being his highest total since 2011-12, but the season still concluded with a less-than-satisfactory point total from the former Kings captain. Through the early going this year, though, Brown seems to have found some old form.
Maybe it’s the increase in ice time or something about coach John Stevens’ system, but Brown hit big in the early going and is on pace for a return to form. In 28 games, he has 11 goals and 23 points, already enough to nearly surpass the numbers he posted in both 2014-15 and 2015-16, and it’s not as though a couple of big games have over-inflated his numbers. He has registered a point in more than half of the Kings’ games, is seeing top-six ice time with consistency and is on pace to score 32 goals and 67 points. Whether he hits those marks is another question altogether, but even a 20-goal, 50-point season would mark one heck of a turnaround considering the cries for a buyout that have followed Brown for a few seasons.
Want more in-depth features and expert analysis on the game you love? Subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.