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Five young players facing what could be make-or-break seasons

Last season, it was first-overall pick Nail Yakupov who saw himself given one more chance to get his career on track. This time, these five young players could be facing career-defining campaigns.

It was safe to call the Colorado Avalanche’s signing of Nail Yakupov to a one-year, $875,000 last summer a calculated risk.

On one hand, the 2012 first-overall pick hadn’t lived up to the considerable hype and expectations surrounding him, failing to ever reach the same heights as he did during his 17-goal, 31-point rookie campaign with the Edmonton Oilers during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. On the other, Yakupov still had many of the tools that could have made him a late-bloomer. He was gifted with and worked to establish speed and a mind for the offensive game, but his defensive game was a liability. The hope was more structure could turn him into an effective, every-game player in Colorado.

The early returns on Yakupov were great for the Avalanche, too. While he wasn’t necessarily white hot, his seven-goal, 10-point output through the first two months of the season came with promise he could be a half-point per game player in Colorado and one with definite 20-goal upside. As the season wore on, however, Yakupov’s production slipped, his appearances became more infrequent, his minutes fewer and he ended the season as a healthy scratch in nine consecutive contests, including all six first-round playoff outings.

Thus, when news came earlier this off-season that Yakupov had departed the NHL for life in the KHL with SKA St. Petersburg, it was no surprise. After all, the 24-year-old had been given repeated opportunities to sink or swim, and in what will likely be the last NHL campaign of his career, he hadn’t done enough offensively to warrant a continued presence in the lineup, nor had he improved enough without the puck to become a reliable hand.

Yakupov wasn’t the only player who stared down a make-or-break season and ended up on the wrong side of the ledger, though. Former first rounders Jacob Josefson (20th overall in 2011) and Beau Bennett (20th overall in 2010), as well as once-promising second-rounders Shane Prince (61st overall in 2011) and Ville Pokka (34th overall in 2012) saw their North American stays come to a close as they inked deals overseas.

So, which players could find themselves in a similar position this coming season? Here are six players whose NHL futures could be at stake during the 2018-19 campaign:

ZEMGUS GIRGENSONS, BUFFALO SABRES
The only thing that would have kept Girgensons off of a similar list last season was the fact that he had signed a two-year, $3.2-million pact in mid-August. That guaranteed the winger at least two attempts at rediscovering the form that saw him pot 15 goals and 30 points during the 2014-15 campaign. Girgensons’ steadily declining production has shaken the Sabres’ faith in his ability to continue to produce as a top-six, or even middle-six, talent, though. His ice time slipped from his 2014-15 career-high of 19-plus minutes to less than 14 minutes per outing last season.

Girgensons doesn’t need to have some sort of earth-shattering year to get back on track. No one is expecting a 30-goal breakout or a 60-point campaign. But if the 24-year-old was able to stay healthy and match his previous career-bests, which remains 15 goals and 30 points, Buffalo or another organization may not be opposed to taking a shot on the restricted free agent-to-be come next summer. If his point total falls for a fourth straight season, though, he might be KHL bound next season.

ANTHONY DUCLAIR, COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Duclair will soon celebrate his 23rd birthday, and while it seems hard to fathom that the league as a whole would give up on a speedy former 20-goal scorer so soon, that’s exactly what happened with Yakupov. And after moving from the Arizona Coyotes to the Chicago Blackhawks and now the Blue Jackets, where he signed for league minimum, in a span of six months, it seems Duclair could be heading towards a last-chance situation.

Duclair has boom-or-bust potential, to be sure. That was evident enough when he wowed with a 20-goal, 44-point performance as a rookie in 2015-16 with the Coyotes. His scoring that season was inflated by a wicked 19 percent shooting efficiency, though, which has been followed by a combined 9.2 percent rate over his past two campaigns. If that’s foretelling of Duclair’s future scoring success, he’s going to need to improve his defensive game, gain the trust of the Blue Jackets’ coaching staff and prove he can became an effective bottom-six weapon. If, like Yakupov, he can’t manage to do so, Duclair’s next stop might be in a European top flight with potential for an NHL return down the road.

CURTIS LAZAR, CALGARY FLAMES
Not to pick on another 2013 draft choice, but Lazar, who was selected 17th overall, finds himself in a tough spot. After being given two seasons to prove his mettle with the Senators, Lazar’s 2016-17 season saw him fall out of favor in Ottawa and he was shipped off to the Flames come the trade deadline. But a new address didn’t do much to spark a turnaround for Lazar. Instead, the 23-year-old continued to be saddled with fourth-line minutes and produced a mere two goals and 12 points in 65 games. It was the third-worst rate of production of Lazar’s four-season NHL career, and another campaign in which he averaged less than 10 minutes per outing.

Here’s the thing with Lazar: it’s not that he can’t bring some value. He’s capable defensively and he’s a responsible bottom-six player. But given the 23-year-old has yet to really break out of his shell offensively, is he worth keeping around over another similar bottom-six player who might have more offensive upside? That will be the decision the Flames have to make after this season, and if Calgary passes, other GMs will face the same question if they kick the tires on the former Canadian World Junior Championship captain.

PAVEL ZACHA, NEW JERSEY DEVILS
Zacha is the youngest player on this list, a 21-year-old who was a sixth-overall selection of the New Jersey Devils at the 2015 draft. And given his age, the make-or-break tag associated with Zacha comes with somewhat of an asterisk. It’s likely that if he fails to make good on his potential — he was outstanding in the OHL before making the jump to the pro game — he’ll still get at least one more shot to prove his game translates. At the moment, though, there’s concern New Jersey has already seen all Zacha has to give.

Take last season, for instance. Despite major injury issues down the middle, Zacha lost his shot at a top-six center job almost immediately. After skating 19 minutes in the season-opener, his ice time dipped over the remainder of the season to the point he saw a mere four-second increase in ice time from his rookie season. And it’s not as if his production increased, either. After an eight-goal, 24-point freshman campaign, Zacha scored eight goals and 25 points as a sophomore.

Again, this season probably won’t be it for Zacha in the NHL. But if he fails to prove himself as an impact player at either end of the ice, his future in the league may be much more bleak than it was even ahead of last season.

PETR MRAZEK, CAROLINA HURRICANES
Both of the Hurricanes’ netminders, Mrazek and Scott Darling, could potentially fall into the same category. The reality, though, is that while Darling’s value dropped tremendously after his troublesome 2017-18 campaign, he has at the very least proven himself a capable backup on a Stanley Cup winning squad. Meanwhile, Mrazek, once heralded as the heir to the Detroit Red Wings crease, has seen his stock plummet to the point his 2016-17 campaign resulted in him being made available at the expansion draft. That didn’t light a spark under Mrazek, either. Instead, he had a similarly awful 2017-18, which culminated with a trade to the Philadelphia Flyers, where he posted disastrous numbers, the lowlight of which was his unsightly .891 save percentage.

Yet, there’s still reason for some hope. Mrazek has all the tools and he’s proven himself capable over long stretches. His first 94 games in the NHL saw him post a .920 SP, nine shutouts and more than 60 percent of his starts during that time were above league average. That level of talent doesn’t simply disappear. A stronger defense in front of him, and Carolina has that, might allow Mrazek to get his confidence back, and that could be the first step for the 26-year-old in turning his NHL career around. If that doesn’t happen, though, he would seem a lock for a KHL crease as early as the 2018-19 campaign.

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