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Early Returns: Seven summer additions that are already paying dividends

Not every summer acquisition is an instant home run, but these seven players have hit the ground running with their new teams. So, be they off-season signings or trade hauls, here are the players who have made their GMs look like geniuses early.

The Chicago Blackhawks have six points this season, and while Robin Lehner hasn’t single-handedly secured a victory for his new teammates in the Windy City, the veteran netminder has absolutely stolen the show every night he’s been in the crease.

Landing in Chicago on a one-year, $5-million deal in the off-season, Lehner has been nothing short of stunning in his three appearances with the Blackhawks. It began with a 30-save performance against the Winnipeg Jets in mid-October, an outing that was good enough to earn Chicago a single point in an overtime defeat. His next time out, Lehner again stood on his head, this time stopping 37 shots in order to guide the Blackhawks to another overtime, this time with Chicago emerging victorious. And in his most recent outing, Lehner was again the backbone of the Blackhawks. Tested by the Vegas Golden Knights 34 times, Lehner cracked just once throughout regulation and overtime before he took the ‘L’ in a shootout.

The result of Lehner’s three-game tenure in Chicago is that the keeper now boasts some of the league’s best numbers as we head towards the final week of the season’s opening month. Of all netminders, Lehner’s .943 save percentage ranks fourth, his 1.93 goals-against average puts him eighth and he has some excellent underlying numbers. At 5-on-5, Lehner’s .963 SP is tied for second in the NHL among all netminders, his .875 high-danger SP ranks 16th and his 1.52 goals saved above average per 60 minutes ranks second. And he’s managed those numbers despite making a whopping 34.1 saves per hour at five-a-side, the sixth-most in the league.

Undeniably, Lehner’s performance has been across a small sample. He’s only played 139 minutes at five-a-side and 186 overall. That puts him in the bottom-third of the NHL. And that’s the very reason you won’t find him below as one of the five off-season who’ve had the greatest impact on their respective clubs. Simply put, he hasn’t played enough to crack the top five – not yet, at least.

But if Lehner doesn’t make the cut, who does? Here are the seven summer additions who’ve made the most noise early:

Marcus Johansson, Buffalo Sabres
Johansson, 29, was one of the summer’s more sought after second-tier free agents this off-season, but he was patient when it came to making his decision. Once the dust settled from the early flurry of signings, he inked a two-year, $9-million deal with the Sabres on July 6. The hope was that he could come into Buffalo and provide secondary scoring, and he’s done exactly that, posting four goals and seven points through his first 10 games with the Sabres, which puts him on pace to match his previous career high of 58 points.

More than score, though, Johansson has been something of a steadying presence in the middle of the lineup. He ranks fifth among Sabres forwards in average ice time and Johansson has been utilized both on the wing and at center. He’s even done work on the second power play unit, which has helped Buffalo leap out to a 30.8 percent success rate with the extra man early.

Erik Haula, Carolina Hurricanes
It was no secret that the Vegas Golden Knights were going to have to trim some salary in the off-season, so when Haula, 28, was shipped off to the Hurricanes, few were surprised. There was some hope that the addition could be a beneficial one for Carolina, too, but the concern was that spending almost an entire campaign on the sidelines would result in Haula, who had followed up a breakout 29-goal, 55-point campaign by missing all but 15 games last season, taking a step back.

Consider those concerns all but put to rest.

In his first nine games in Carolina, Haula has been on fire offensively. He’s shooting the lights out with seven goals, has racked up eight points and is skating nearly 17 minutes per outing, which puts him behind only Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Jordan Staal in terms of ice time among forwards. Best yet, though, it doesn’t appear Haula has missed a step. The speedster is still giving opposing defenders headaches with his quickness. Chalk it up as another savvy addition by the Hurricanes.

Andre Burakovsky, Colorado Avalanche
There was a point where Burakovsky appeared on the brink of a breakout with the Washington Capitals. As a 20-year-old, he had registered 38 points as a bottom-six winger, and when he followed it up with a 35-point season, it felt as though he was a top-six fixture in the making. But that didn’t materialize for Burakovsky in Washington, and with the 24-year-old in need of a new deal, the Capitals decided to cut ties and shipped him to the Avalanche. And that swap has been a boon for Colorado.

Not only has Burakovsky managed to earn an increased role with the Avalanche, his ice time is up to more than 14 minutes per game from last season’s 11-minute average, but he’s clicked with his new teammates and worked perfectly in Colorado’s up-tempo system. In nine games, he has four goals and eight points, all the while he’s carved out a consistent spot on the second power play unit. Add to it the injury to Mikko Rantanen and there’s new opportunity for Burakovsky, who could potentially slot in on the top line.

James Neal, Edmonton Oilers
Surely Neal’s presence among this group of seven is the least shocking. Acquired by the Oilers in an off-season swap that sent Milan Lucic to the Calgary Flames, Edmontonians have been able to use the deal to mock their provincial rivals through the early part of the season. Given a far greater opportunity to produce and with an increase in ice time of roughly two and a half minutes per game through the first 10 outings of the season, Neal is an early candidate for the bounce back player of the season. Heck, he may have the honor wrapped up already.

After his seven-goal, 19-point performance in 2018-19, Neal, 32, has already slotted home nine goals and 10 points, which not only puts him on pace to absolutely obliterate last season’s point total but could have him in line to break the 50-point plateau for the first time since the 2015-16 season. Neal has benefitted from playing alongside greater talent in Edmonton thus far, spending the majority of his even-strength minutes with Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and power play time on Connor McDavid’s unit.

Matt Duchene, Nashville Predators
That Duchene wanted to sign with the Predators this off-season was maybe one of the worst kept free-agent secrets in all of hockey. It had long seemed that there was one place, and one place only, that the 28-year-old wanted to land. So, when he inked a seven-year, $56-million pact with Nashville, few were surprised. And the early returns on the deal have been excellent for the Predators, who seem to have found the exact offensive piece for which they were searching.

In his first nine games with Nashville, Duchene has already compiled two goals and 11 points, and his offensive output has arguably made the Predators’ attack as lethal as it has been in recent memory. No longer is it a one-line team with a by-committee approach to offense. Instead, Nashville has a legitimate top-six that can score at a moment’s notice. Duchene’s addition has also seemingly cured some of the power play’s ills. After a dreadful 12.9 percent conversion rate last season, the Predators’ man advantage is clicking at 20 percent, putting it middle of the pack in the NHL.

Kevin Shattenkirk, Tampa Bay Lightning
He took a discount to sign with the New York Rangers, but a mere 25 months after putting pen to paper on a four-year, $26.6-million pact with the Blueshirts, Shattenkirk had the final two seasons of his deal bought out. But the buyout gave Shattenkirk the opportunity to take a discount elsewhere, and he seemingly found the perfect landing spot in Tampa Bay, with whom he has already found his offensive touch and posted four goals and seven points in nine games.

Granted, it’s hardly surprising to see an offensive blueliner put up big numbers with the Bolts, but he has also slid into a role more befitting his style of play in Tampa Bay. Through his nine games, Shattenkirk is behind only Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh in average ice time among Lightning defensemen. If he keeps this up, Shattenkirk, 30, could be one of the most sought after offensive defensemen once again next summer. Teams might approach with more caution, but it still puts him in line for a nice pay day.

J.T. Miller, Vancouver Canucks
As you may have noticed, the players listed above are ordered alphabetically by team, so Miller, 26, ends up in the bottom spot by virtue of playing in Vancouver. But if we were to rank these players on impact, Miller would land atop the list. Sure, he doesn’t have the second-most goals in the NHL or a share of the lead for most power-play goals like Neal, but Miller has been all over the ice and an integral part of the Canucks’ early success.

Skating 18:39 per outing, the second-most of all forwards in Vancouver, Miller has fit right into the top-six of the Canucks’ lineup and he’s been as impactful offensively as he’s ever been in his career. Through nine games, his four goals and 10 points put him on pace to smash his previous career-best marks – he scored 23 goals and 58 points in 2017-18 – and more than one-fifth of the way to matching his 13-goal, 47-point total from last season. He’s been the perfect addition through the early part of the season and bolstered the top six better than anyone could have hoped.

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