Blake Wheeler had an excellent rookie season with the Bruins. (Photo by Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
The old sophomore slump is a disease dreaded by all players coming out of their rookie seasons. It’s not a myth, it’s reality; a function of fatigue sometimes, over-confidence others. Sometimes it’s not even a slump, but merely a player working on his all-around game, as per team orders.
There are players expected to make statistical strides this season. Guys like Zach Bogosian, Derick Brassard, T.J. Oshie, Bobby Ryan and Steven Stamkos are obvious. But as we draw closer to the 2009-10 NHL season, I can’t help but wonder which lesser-known players will surprise or disappoint this year. Here are a few suggestions.
Three players I see taking statistical steps back this season are Anaheim’s Andrew Ebbett, Boston’s Blake Wheeler and Toronto’s Mikhail Grabovski.
Ebbett is simply going to be squeezed out of opportunities to put up points. Last season as a 25-year-old rookie, the center notched eight goals and 32 points in 48 games. Not bad after averaging nearly a point per game in the American League earlier in the season and the year before. To say he surprised would be an understatement.
But this season there’s a new No. 2 pivot in Anaheim in Saku Koivu. He’s there to play with countryman Teemu Selanne, with whom he’s had some serious success with internationally in years past. Expect a rejuvenated Koivu now that he’s out from under the pressure to perform in Montreal. Barring injury to Koivu, there’s just not going to be many points to be had, or even a roster spot for Ebbett.
In Boston, everything went great for the team and most individuals last season. Wheeler had a great first season, finishing tied for sixth in rookie scoring with 21 goals and 45 points and second in the league in plus-minus at plus-36. But he finished with just seven points in his final 19 regular season games and none in the playoffs, where he watched the final three Bruins games from the press box.
Even if sniper Phil Kessel doesn’t return, Wheeler must still battle with the likes of Marco Sturm, Milan Lucic, and Mark Recchi for scoring minutes on the left side and Michael Ryder and Chuck Kobasew on the right. The unlikely event Kessel returns would be best for Wheeler, as some of his competition would be jettisoned for cap purposes.
In Toronto, Grabovski did what Wheeler couldn’t; he finished the season strong, totaling 17 points in his final 15 games to finish with 20 goals and 48 points, third among rookies. But I’m just not sure ‘Grabbo’ is really a Ron Wilson/Brian Burke type of player. Yes, the center showed spunk and a willingness to stand up for himself, but the 25-year-old has battled consistency issues and is hardly known for his defensive prowess. And with a renewed commitment to smash-mouth, defense-first hockey and a bevy of talented, if unheralded young forwards pushing for positions in Toronto, I just don’t know if Grabovski can add to or even match his 2008-09 totals.
On the flip side, there’s a number of second-year players I see as having improved seasons this year, but I’ll limit it to three: Phoenix’s Mikkel Boedker, L.A.’s Teddy Purcell and Columbus’ Jakub Voracek.
Things have to get better in Phoenix at some point; there are just too many talented kids on that roster – and now some decent veterans added to the mix. Boedker, 19, is a part of that hope. The right winger was a true rookie last season, jumping straight from the Ontario League to the Coyotes after being selected eighth overall. His 11 goals and 28 points were far from overwhelming and he showed signs of fatigue by year’s end, but he’s been in Phoenix since July, working out and getting stronger. He’s skilled, gets it between the ears and now knows what it takes to succeed.
Purcell is a seasoned vet compared to Boedker. He’s 24, played a year of college hockey and is entering his third pro season. In 2008, he was an American League first team all-star and was named rookie of the year after scoring 25 goals and 83 points in 67 games. He then averaged a point per game in 38 AHL games last season before being called up to L.A., where his numbers dropped. Expect that to change this season.
Many compare Voracek to Edmonton’s Ales Hemsky, a player many also say needs some snipers to feed the puck to. Not a problem for Voracek in Columbus, where Rick Nash, Kristian Huselius and Nikita Filatov reside. The 20-year-old Czech winger averaged nearly two points per game in his final Quebec League season and proved a responsible two-way forward for coach Ken Hitchcock last year. Expect his ice time to rise and his numbers along with it.
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