The NHL off-season is winding down, with only a few significant names still dangling in the breeze on the free-agent wire. Prediction season has begun, and with it comes breaking down every roster, line by line, player by player. Every year, that exercise highlights a few names in particular who look like boom/bust propositions for their teams – guys with more to prove than the average player. Some are fresh off injury-plagued years, some failed to meet expectations for reasons unknown, some have yet to deliver seasons matching their supposed potential, and others are making hyped debuts.
Which NHLers have the biggest chips on their shoulders for 2019-20? Consider these five names, sorted alphabetically.
NIKITA GUSEV, NEW JERSEY DEVILS
We all know the comparison, right? Let’s say it all together: Is he Artemi Panarin or Vadim Shipachyov? After trading a 2020 third-round pick and 2021 second-round pick to get Gusev, then handing him a $4.5-million AAV for the next two seasons, the Devils and GM Ray Shero are clearly betting on ‘Panarin.’ And it’s tough not to liken Gusev’s game to Panarin’s. They’re both compact, sub-six-foot Russian left wingers who shoot right-handed and possess dazzling puck skills. Panarin’s shown he can excel in North America, while Gusev’s KHL efforts suggest he at least has a chance to do the same. Compared to the NHL, the KHL is a low-scoring league, and that makes Gusev’s 65 assists in 62 games last season all the more impressive. He beat the single-season league record for helpers by five, and his 80 points were two shy of Alexander Radulov’s single-season mark. Gusev did that in eight fewer games, however.
Gusev carries the best possible KHL pedigree, he’s still in his prime at 27, and he enters a tantalizing offensive situation in New Jersey. If Taylor Hall and Nico Hischier remain together on the top line, Gusev looks like a virtual lock to play with Jack Hughes on the second line. Money talks, remember. Gusev isn’t earning $4.5 million to play in the bottom six.
With that ideal setup, of course, comes big expectations. Shipachyov arrived in Vegas two years ago with a similarly exciting KHL resume and wound up a monstrous flop, returning to his home league that same season. Gusev vows to be a force, already claiming Nikita Kucherov’s league-best 128 points from this season are “a good goal.” But if Gusev struggles in the first month, the Shipachyov comparisons will drown out the Panarin ones.
MARTIN JONES, SAN JOSE SHARKS
The Sharks reached the 2019 Western Conference final but, unlike in previous seasons with him in their crease, got there in spite of Jones rather than because of him. Among the 56 goalies who played at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5 last season, Jones ranked dead last in goals saved above average per 60. He had the 13th lowest expected goals against per 60, a.k.a. the 13th easiest workload according to the shot data, so the fact Jones still graded out as the league’s worst goaltender is mind-blowing. His season could not have gone worse. And, if you remove his incredible 58-save victory from his 20-game playoff sample, you get an .888 save percentage across 19 games last spring.
Still, Jones will get another shot as San Jose’s starting goaltender, in large part because backup Aaron Dell had a bad year, too. The difference between this season and last: the Sharks can’t survive with Jones playing subpar hockey. Not only that, but they need him to be above average this season if they want to stay competitive in the West. Squeezed by the salary cap, they had to let Joe Pavelski walk as a UFA and didn’t have the money to replace him. They’ll likely re-sign Joe Thornton, but they’re undoubtedly weaker offensively, having lost Gustav Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi, too. Jones thus needs to rebound in a big way to justify another five years at his $5.75 AAV. If he struggles again, the Sharks could sink toward the playoff periphery.
ROBIN LEHNER, CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS
The most head-scratching element of Lehner’s off-season is that, theoretically, he shouldn’t be entering 2019-20 with a lot to prove. His “prove it” season just finished. He inked a one-year deal with the New York Islanders, played well enough to finish as a Vezina Trophy finalist and won the Masterton Trophy after going public about his courageous battle with bipolar disorder. The narrative was that he revived his career. Yet talks broke down with the Isles, they ended up signing Semyon Varlamov instead, and Lehner will stop pucks for Chicago on a one-year, $5-million deal. Once again, he has to prove himself, this time in a tandem with Corey Crawford.
Last season, Lehner was trying to show he can still be an NHL starter. This time, in another UFA walk year, Lehner will try to prove he wasn’t just a piece of clay, molded perfectly by legendary goalie guru Mitch Korn in New York. That Lehner’s battery mate, Thomas Greiss, also revived his career to post numbers just as strong supports the idea both were products of their coaching. At the same time, Lehner won’t necessarily unlearn his improvements, and a big reason for his turnaround could have been his commitment to his mental health. Now it’s up to Lehner to show he’s an elite goaltender wherever he plays.
WILLIAM NYLANDER, TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
A contract stalemate dragging into December followed by serious case of the Jell-O legs and seven goals in 54 games. The season couldn’t have gone more disastrously for Nylander, who doused his usual haters’ torches with generous helpings of kerosene. But was he really as bad as the surface numbers suggested? Hardly. He was actually a highly positive driver of possession, he posted by far the unluckiest shooting percentage of his career and, at 5-on-5, he played about twice as much without Auston Matthews as with him. The deck was stacked against Nylander, and his 18 points in eight World Championship games reminded us of his high ceiling.
Still, even if he possesses the ability to become a top-end offensive contributor for Toronto again, Nylander isn’t a lock to gain the opportunity. Assuming RFA Mitch Marner avoids Nylander’s mistake and signs in time for the start of the season (gulp), he’ll remain locked onto John Tavares’ right wing, meaning Nylander has to unseat Kasperi Kapanen to get a top-six job back. Nylander would never be confused with a coach’s pet under coach Mike Babcock, so Nylander’s far from a shoo-in to get a plum line assignment. He has a lot to accomplish from the second he steps on the ice in training camp. He arguably has the most to prove of any player in the league this season, especially factoring in his $6.96-million cap hit.
NOLAN PATRICK, PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart, Jack Eichel, Patrik Laine…Nolan Patrick? Yep, he was the second overall pick in 2017. It’s tough to remember the last time a No. 2 pick flew so low under the radar, albeit Reinhart did return to junior after nine games of his rookie year. Injuries have cost Patrick 23 games over his first two seasons and are partially to blame for his consecutive 13-goal efforts. But in today’s NHL, a top-two pick is expected to become an impact player quickly. Bust is a dangerous word to throw around, and the two-way pivot Patrick will only be 21 when the season starts, but if he doesn’t show significant improvement in Year 3, it’ll be time to worry.
It may seem like the Kevin Hayes signing will block Patrick from earning a major role, but there’s a strong chance it winds up a blessing. Logging third-line minutes all year would mean insulated matchups for Patrick. Among 365 forwards who played 500 or more minutes at 5-on-5 last season, Patrick ranked 187th in points per 60 minutes, placing him in the middle of the pack. Teammate Sean Couturier, who brings a similar all-around skill set, took several seasons to realize his offensive potential as well, so it’s far too early to give up on Patrick. Nevertheless, he needs to show something this year. Maintaining the same level of production would be disappointing.
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