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The 10 Players With the Most to Prove in 2020-21

Some are in contract years. Others just signed big contracts. Which NHLers will be the most scrutinized this season?

As we await labor peace between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association, we still don’t know whether we’ll get a mid-January or early-February start to the season, but we’re likely six to eight weeks away from NHL regular-season games. It’s time to start thinking about the 2020-21 season as a tangible thing. When it launches, we’ll see a handful of players on the hot seat to deliver great seasons for various reasons. Maybe they want to excel in contract years. Maybe they want to justify the dollar figures on new contracts. Who has the most to prove in 2020-21? Here is my annual list, sorted alphabetically, expanded from five to 10 names this time.

Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs

Was it a vote of confidence, or was Leafs GM Kyle Dubas simply unable to find a trade for a new starting netminder? Regardless, Andersen gets one more shot to tend goal for the Leafs in the final season of his contract. He’s been the NHL’s No. 1 workhorse since he debuted with Toronto four seasons go, ranking first in starts and third in wins. Among 26 bellcow goalies who have averaged 40 games or more over the past four seasons, Andersen owns the 10th-best save percentage at .916. But 2019-20 was the worst season of his career, and he’s struggled with inconsistency for his entire tenure with the Blue and White, posting an SP below .900 in seven separate months and above .930 in eight different months.

The wild fluctuations in confidence and quality of play have pushed Toronto’s patience to the brink. Andersen needs to deliver the steadiest, most consistent season of his career if he wants to remain a Leaf. He also needs to show the ability to steal the odd playoff game rather than just be competent.

Josh Anderson, Montreal Canadiens

Did the Montreal Canadiens need a big, punishing winger to play in their top nine? Yes. Does Anderson fill that need? Yes. Did the Habs overpay wildly for his services? Also yes. He can be a great fit and his contract can look like an albatross in training.

On Oct. 6, the day Montreal traded Max Domi and a 2020 third-round pick to the Columbus Blue Jackets for Anderson, I summarized Anderson’s appeal to the Habs as follows:

“Anderson is an intimidating 6-foot-3 and 222 pounds. He can also score a lot more than your average crash-and-bang winger. Between 2016-17 and 2018-19, he rattled off seasons of 17, 19 and 27 goals. Among 393 forwards who have played 1,000 or more minutes at 5-on-5 in the past three seasons, Anderson ranks 17th in shots per 60 minutes and 64th in hits per 60 minutes. It’s the type of combination that calls to mind a poor man’s Tom Wilson. It’s thus totally understandable why Bergevin wanted Anderson.”

In that same piece, however, I suggested “Anderson will cost less” than Max Domi. Well…the Blue Jackets signed Domi to a two-year bridge pact at a $5.3-million AAV. Montreal handed Anderson a seven-year deal with a $5.5-million AAV. What he might bring Montreal is undeniable, but to score that contract following a one-goal season that ended with shoulder surgery was staggering.

So now it’s time for Anderson, 26, to justify the leap-of-faith commitment to him. Few if any markets scrutinize their players like Montreal does, so if he doesn’t show signs of being an impact player early, he’ll quickly become what David Clarkson was to Toronto.

Sergei Bobrovsky, Florida Panthers

Bobrovsky endured, relative to expectations, the worst season of his career after inking a seven-year, $70-million deal to stop pucks for the Panthers. Ouch. His .900 SP was his lowest since his sophomore NHL campaign in 2011-12, and he posted the worst goals saved above average of his career at -14.91. He was a colossal regular-season bust and wasn’t much better in Florida’s post-season defeat to the New York Islanders.

But ‘Bob’ has been down before. He hit a snag with the Blue Jackets in 2015-16, a few seasons after he won his first Vezina Trophy, when soft-tissue injuries were hindering his play and costing him starts. In summer 2016, he changed his entire training regimen and diet, losing 20 pounds to rebuild his body as longer, leaner and more flexible. He won his second Vezina the next season. Bobrovsky has always been a "first and last guy in the gym" type, so it’s likely he’s worked hard on himself between seasons and will be better acclimated to his new team. At 32, he’s still young enough to bounce back. And, honestly, he can’t be any worse than he was in 2019-20, so maybe he inches closer to justifying his monstrous paycheque.

Johnny Gaudreau, Calgary Flames

Gaudreau’s name surfaced in more than one off-season trade rumor, but he remains a Flame approaching 2020-21. Still, it feels like he needs to deliver a massive rebound season. Otherwise, talk of shipping him to teams close to his hometown like the Philadelphia Flyers or New Jersey Devils could resume.

Gaudreau simply hasn’t been the same since the 2019 all-star break. At that moment, he sat in the thick of the Hart Trophy race, with 29 goals and 73 points in 51 games, having achieved legitimate superstar status. He exited the break with seven goals and 26 points in his next 31 games – then no-showed with zero goals and one assist in Calgary’s five-game playoff loss to Colorado. Gaudreau followed that with a down 2019-20 season: 18 goals and 58 points in 70 games. He has 25 goals and 83 points in his past 100 regular-season games. In the previous 100 games he was Peak Johnny Hockey: 40 goals and 119 points. Even if he’s surpassed his career apex at 27, he shouldn’t be declining at the rate of a player in his early 30s. He’s been healthy during his mega-slump, too, so the cause could be mental rather than physical. If Gaudreau can’t return to playing at a franchise-cornerstone level this season, a trade may be mutually beneficial to him and the Flames. It wouldn’t be difficult to find a dance partner for a deal given his appealing $6.75-million cap hit.

Philipp Grubauer, Colorado Avalanche

Do the Cup-contending Avs have their long-term starting netminder or not? The 2019-20 season didn’t answer that question. Grubauer was mostly decent, posting an SP of .910 or better in all but one month, but he was rarely spectacular, sitting at .916 or lower in all but one month. A regular-season injury led to Pavel Francouz filling in and outplaying Grubauer. A playoff injury knocked Grubauer out of the starter’s chair again and raised questions about his overall durability.

He enters the final season of his contract with a ton to prove. He needs to show the Avs they can rely on him to be their No. 1 – or, if they decide to move on from him, he needs to showcase his value as a pending UFA. Grubauer was long one of the NHL’s best backups before Colorado acquired him in 2018, and his .920 career SP ranks sixth in NHL history among goalies with at least 150 games played, so the potential to cement himself as a top-tier starter hasn’t gone anywhere. He mostly just needs to stay healthy.

Taylor Hall, Buffalo Sabres

Hall pulled a 2008 Marian Hossa and signed a one-year “bet on yourself” contract with the Buffalo Sabres for $8 million. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and continues to limit attendance across major pro sports, there’s no guarantee of the salary cap going up next off-season, but the market should still be a bit more fertile because the Seattle Kraken will probably spend to the cap and pluck plenty of bad contracts from the other 31 teams, freeing up cap space league-wide.

Since Hall will get every opportunity to play with smack-in-his prime Jack Eichel, the conditions are right for Hall to post his best numbers since his Hart Trophy campaign of 2017-18. If Hall struggles or gets hurt, however, his long-term contract options next year might not look as good as what he could’ve signed this year, so the pressure is on to make magic with Eichel. It’s not a horrible bet on Hall’s part at all.

Jack Hughes, New Jersey Devils

The shifty, speedy Hughes arrived as the No. 1 overall pick of the 2019 draft earning plenty of Patrick Kane comparisons, but their rookie seasons couldn’t have been more different. Kane won the Calder Trophy in 2007-08. Hughes labored through a disastrous debut year that called to mind Joe Thornton’s 1997-98.

At first glance, Hughes really did struggle as a rookie. Forget the fact he managed just seven goals and 21 points in 61 games. Even if we compare Hughes only to his peers, his year was terrible. Among 17 rookie forwards who played 500 or more minutes at 5-on-5, Hughes was 16th in goals per 60; 16th in points per 60; first in giveaways per 60; and 16th in team Corsi when he was on the ice.

The underlying numbers, however, tell us Hughes was better than he seemed. Among that same sample of 17 freshman forwards, Hughes was seventh in shots per 60; sixth in individual scoring chances per 60; fourth in individual high-danger chances per 60; fourth in rush attempts per 60; third in rebounds created per 60; and first in takeaways per 60. He also posted by far the lowest 5-on-5 shooting percentage of the group at just 2.38. Given how highly he rated in chance quality, that’s an extremely unlucky number.

The Devils should thus be optimistic about Hughes, like Thornton, shaking off the bad debut and improving in Year 2. They badly need it to happen, though.

Matt Murray, Ottawa Senators

The Sens made a bold attempt to accelerate their rebuild by acquiring a two-time Stanley-Cup-winning goaltender in Murray. At 26, he’s a borderline baby in goalie years, so he has plenty of prime seasons left. But his new contract of four years at a $6.25-million AAV required a lot of projection from Ottawa. Murray was one of the NHL’s worst goaltenders in 2019-20. Among 54 who logged at least 1,000 minutes at 5-on-5, he graded out 50th in GSAA/60. The only stoppers below him: Devan Dubynk, Mike Smith, Jimmy Howard and Martin Jones.

Murray also had more than sufficient defensive help last season in Pittsburgh. In that same sample of 54 goalies, Murray’s expected goals against per 60 was the league’s ninth-lowest. The Sens, then, have to hope Murray is one of those netminders who functions better when busier. There’s some merit to the idea. In the three seasons before 2019-20, among 77 goalies with 1,000-plus minutes at 5-on-5, Murray was 30th in expected goals against per 60, and sat 19th in GSAA/60. He was a better goalie despite a more difficult workload. So maybe he’s a superior fit on a weaker team, as strange as that sounds. He would not be the first goalie who prefers seeing more shots.

Jesse Puljujarvi, Edmonton Oilers

I spoke to Oilers GM Ken Holland shortly after it was announced they’d signed Puljujarvi to a new contract that will bring him back to North America. Holland and coach Dave Tippett were optimistic about a fresh start since they weren’t the same regime that drafted Puljujarvi. He will get every chance to earn a high-impact role in the Oilers lineup this season.

“It wasn’t that long ago he was one of the top players in the world in his age group,” Holland said. “He came over, and it was a bit of tough go, he stayed home. I think that last year, him staying in Finland, probably in the grand scheme of things was a good thing, not a bad thing, because he got his confidence back. He was an important player. Our team is different now, with a different coach and a different general manager and a different dynamic in the locker room, and I think it’s a great opportunity to try the relationship all over again.”

The Oilers need him to deliver on the promise that made him the No. 4 overall pick in 2016. There’s still time. Puljujarvi is just 22. Of the 188 rookie skaters to play in the NHL last season, 68.6 percent were older than him. But if he doesn’t show major progress after finishing fourth in the Liiga scoring race last season, the hope of him becoming an NHL star may fade away.

Bobby Ryan, Detroit Red Wings

Ryan had an alcohol problem and decided in 2019-20 it was time to face it head on. He entered the league’s player assistance program in November and, upon returning to the Ottawa Senators lineup in February, went public with his struggles, hoping his story might help others battling similar demons. His courage helped him win the Masterton Trophy. It did not yet score him a long-term commitment from an NHL team, however. After Ottawa bought him out, the Red Wings signed him to a one-year contract. The pandemic-imposed NHL shutdown gave Ryan extra time to work on his sobriety and be with his family, so there’s a chance he’ll be his best self in a long time when he suits up with the Wings.

Ryan, 33, doesn’t land on his list because he faces “pressure.” I include him because he has the opportunity, in a contract year, to show what he can bring as a goal-scorer now that he has his life on track. Everyone will be rooting for him.

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