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Five young players facing make-or-break campaigns in 2019-20

Some young guns make an impact early and cement themselves as NHLers, but others struggle to find a fit and eventually leave their first big-league homes for opportunities elsewhere. These five players fall into the latter category.

A first-round pick in 2013, selected 17th overall by the Ottawa Senators, Curtis Lazar was fast-tracked to the NHL, plucked out of the WHL and thrust into the big-league just one season after he was drafted.

Looking back, he probably could have used the extra time to marinate in major junior.

While Lazar was OK in his rookie campaign, he was by no means the standout the Senators were hoping. In December 2014, he was loaned out to the Canadian World Junior Championship team, captained it to gold and then finished out his freshman season. The expectation was that the experience would help him take the next step the following season. That didn’t happen. The 2015-16 campaign was only so-so for Lazar, and it was followed by a 2016-17 season that saw the Senators send him to the minors before eventually shipping him off to the Calgary Flames.

In Calgary, it was more of the same. He scored two goals and 12 points in 65 games during the 2017-18 campaign, and ahead of last season, we said Lazar was a young star who was in that make-or-break territory: it was either prove he could be a big-league contributor or begin to contemplate his options elsewhere. Unfortunately for Lazar, last season turned into one spent almost entirely in the AHL. He was a standout for the Stockton Heat – 20 goals and 41 points in 57 games – but his inability to break into the Flames’ lineup resulted in Calgary letting him walk and Lazar subsequently signing a one-year deal for league minimum with the Buffalo Sabres. The expectation, at least for now, is that he’ll start next season in the AHL, though there is potential for him to sneak into the Sabres’ lineup at some point.

So, with Lazar in mind, who are some young players facing similar make-or-break scenarios this coming season? Here are five young players who will need to turn heads this season to ensure they’re sticking around in the NHL when next campaign comes around:

Valeri Nichushkin, Colorado Avalanche
It depends who you ask, but some see it as a minor miracle that Nichushkin, 24, was able to land another NHL gig after he was bought out for pennies on the dollar by the Dallas Stars following an abysmal campaign in which he failed to score a single goal in 57 games. Frankly, there are only two ways this goes for Nichushkin: either he stands out as a bottom-six skater with the Avalanche and turns into one of the more savvy signings GM Joe Sakic has made or he fails to break into the lineup as a regular, potentially ends up in the minors, finishes out this season and then heads back to the KHL.

The pressure is on for Nichushkin, who was the 10th-overall pick in 2013. He has the size and he adapted well to playing a different role last season, but if he can’t show upside, his time may be up.

Robby Fabbri, St. Louis Blues
Injuries are almost entirely to blame for Fabbri’s appearance on this list.

When he broke into the NHL in 2015-16, he finished his rookie campaign with 18 goals and 37 points. He looked primed to become a solid middle-six scorer for St. Louis. But then the ailments started to pile up. He tore his ACL in February of his sophomore campaign and missed the remainder of the season, one in which he had already compiled 11 goals and 29 points in 51 games. Then, days before the 2017-18 campaign was set to begin, he re-injured the same knee and missed an entire season right at an important time in his development.

He made his return last season, but Fabbri, 23, started the year with a groin injury and lost his spot as a lineup regular by season’s end. He hoisted the Stanley Cup, but didn’t play in the final four games of the Stanley Cup final. Back on a one-year deal, Fabbri needs to make his mark if he’s going to stick around in St. Louis and emerge as the middle-six talent he once appeared primed to become.

Sonny Milano, Columbus Blue Jackets
Milano isn’t quite like the others on this list in the sense that he hasn’t quite had the same NHL opportunity. In fact, since being selected 16th overall by the Blue Jackets in the 2014 draft, Milano has had only one campaign in which he’s seen more than 10 games in the big league. The good news? That was a fairly successful season, a 14-goal, 22-point output in 55 games. The bad? That was in 2017-18 and was followed by a season in which he skated in just eight NHL games.

Milano, 23, was re-upped by Columbus this summer on a one-year deal, but chances are that the Blue Jackets are considering moving on if he doesn’t make his mark in the NHL at some point soon. He’s been a quality producer at the AHL level, but he’s steadily slipped down the organizational depth chart and it might be time to give others his spot.

Derrick Pouliot, St. Louis Blues
There is no intention to pile on the Blues here. Pouliot would have appeared on this list regardless the team with which he signed this summer, and he might among the most obvious inclusions. He was once considered the prize prospect in the Penguins’ system – Kris Letang-lite, if you will – but his role steadily diminished Pittsburgh. He played 34 games in 2014-15, 22 games in 2015-16 and a mere 11 in 2016-17 before he was moved along to the Canucks. He spent the past two seasons in Vancouver, but they let him walk this summer, which led to the league-minimum pact with St. Louis.

The 25-year-old, selected eighth-overall in 2012, has proven he can contribute offensively, but his own-zone acumen has been questioned. If he can’t become a lineup regular in St. Louis this season, one wonders if he might check in and see what options are available overseas next year.

Josh Ho-Sang, New York Islanders
After the 2016-17 campaign, when Ho-Sang worked his way into the NHL lineup and produced four goals and 10 points in 21 games while averaging upwards of 16 minutes per game, it seemed he was destined to end up in the Islanders’ lineup. Not so. Yes, he played 22 games in 2017-18 and scored two goals and 12 points, but last season he spent almost the entirety of the campaign in the AHL, seeing just 10 games in the NHL under coach Barry Trotz. And now, signed to a one-year extension this summer, the 23-year-old is probably on his last legs in the Islanders’ organization.

It’s been said for some time that maybe the best thing for both sides would be a split, but they’re giving it one more go-round. If Ho-Sang, drafted 28th overall in 2014, can’t catch on after yet another solid AHL campaign, it has to be time for both sides to cut ties. In that sense, maybe it’s less make-or-break for his NHL career and more make-or-break for his time in New York.

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