Kari Lehtonen (Photo by Glenn James/NHLI via Getty Images)
Several players had breakout seasons in 2014-15, but there are more than a handful who saw their game take a step back. For players such as Dallas’ Kari Lehtonen, the new season could help turn things around. Here are five players who could bounce back in 2015-16.
When Thomas Vanek hit the free agent market following the 2013-14 season, there was little doubt he was going to end up with the Minnesota Wild, but the club was hoping for a better campaign than what they got from the 31-year-old left winger.
Sure, Vanek turned in 21 goals and 52 points in 80 games with the Wild this past season, but at a $6.5 million salary, that wasn’t quite what Minnesota was looking for. The 52-point total was the second-lowest of Vanek’s career and his 21 goals were the fewest he had scored in a non-lockout year.
In the post-season, Vanek’s troubles continued, as he stumbled to four points — all assists — in 10 games. He didn’t score once for the Wild in the playoffs and, in a second-round series against Chicago that had three one-goal games, Minnesota desperately could have used Vanek finding the back of the net.
But there’s hope for next season. Vanek recently underwent surgery to repair two hernias in his left groin and he said he, “feels great,” and should be ready for training camp, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Michael Russo. If he can bounce back, there’s hope that Vanek’s three-year, $19.5 million deal can start to look like a good one.
Vanek won’t be the only player looking to recover from a poor season, however.
5. Zdeno Chara, D, Boston Bruins
Chara is 38 now and has three years remaining on his contract, but it was evident this past season that he was a shell of his former self. Once considered a perennial Norris Trophy contender, there are some wondering whether or not the Bruins should consider trading Chara, the team’s captain, in order to get value in return for the aging defenseman.
In 2014-15, Chara missed 19 games with a right knee injury and his production slipped big time. After scoring 17 goals and 40 points in 2013-14, Chara mustered just eight tallies and 20 points in 63 games this past season. His points per game slipped by one-fifth of a point. Chara also averaged his lowest ice time per game since the 2001-02 season when he was a member of the Ottawa Senators.
If he can step up this upcoming season and be the Chara from years passed, the Bruins will reap the rewards.
4. Jeff Skinner, LW, Carolina Hurricanes
In five short seasons, Skinner has gone from Calder Trophy winner to trade bait. The 23-year-old left winger had an outstanding rookie season, but he’s never matched his 31-goal, 63-point output from that season.
Sure, Skinner had the expected sophomore slump, but few would have expected him to only have one more 50-point campaign under his belt with the way he performed in his first NHL season. In 2013-14, Skinner netted 33 goals and 54 points, but posted a disappointing 18 goals and 31 points in 77 contests this past season. The Hurricanes expect more out of Skinner. He has the speed and he has the hands, but if things keep going this way, Skinner could be out of Carolina sooner rather than later.
3. Kari Lehtonen, G, Dallas Stars
There would be no better way for Kari Lehtonen to prove himself this season than to make Antti Niemi watch from the bench.
Lehtonen was one of 29 goaltenders to play at least 2,000 minutes of 5-on-5 this past season and he finished with an even-strength save percentage of .914, which ranked 25th. He wasn’t great, but he can be much better. Over the past three seasons, Lehtonen’s 5-on-5 SP has been above .920. While still not in the top tier, it might be good enough to vault the Stars into playoff contention.
Lehtonen’s play was one of the biggest Achilles heels of the Stars in 2014-15. Dallas’ team defense was lacking, but their goaltending situation made things worse and was cause for Stars GM Jim Nill to go out at the trade deadline and acquire Jhonas Enroth from the lowly Buffalo Sabres. This off-season’s acquisition of Niemi is the Stars taking things one step further. Now it’s on Lehtonen to prove signing Niemi was unnecessary.
2. Alexander Semin, RW, Montreal Canadiens
Semin was the ultimate boom or bust free agent signing. He has the potential to be a 30-goal scorer if put in the right situation, but he could also very well end up scoring a dozen markers and watching from the sidelines as a healthy scratch.
With Carolina this past season, Semin had the worst season of his career, scoring just six goals and 19 points in 57 games, or .33 points per game. Heading into 2014-15, Semin had a career points per game of .88. It’s no wonder that Carolina bought Semin out of his five-year, $35 million contract, but that doesn’t mean he can’t still produce. And at $1.1 million with the Canadiens this upcoming season and with the buyout chip on his shoulder, there’s reason to believe Semin can recapture some of his prior form.
No matter what happens, though, Semin’s turn with the Canadiens this season should be interesting to watch.
1. Mike Smith, G, Arizona Coyotes
Arguably not a single Coyotes player struggled as mightily as Smith did during 2014-15’s down year. Believed to be the backbone of the Coyotes defense, Smith lost an abysmal 42 games, more than any goaltender in the NHL this past season. Of netminders who qualified, only Viktor Fasth posted a worse goals-against average than Smith’s 3.16 mark and only five goaltenders had a worse overall SP than Smith’s .904. It gets worse, though.
There were only 29 goaltenders who played at least 2,000 minutes of 5-on-5 hockey this past season, and of those, Smith ranked 28th in SP. His .912 mark was better than only Ben Scrivens’ .900. Only Scrivens allowed more goals against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play.
Smith backstopped the Coyotes to a Western Conference final appearance in 2012. He finished fourth in Vezina Trophy voting that same season. His career even-strength SP is .920, and he posted a .925 mark in 2013-14. He has the ability, it’s just a matter of being able to piece it all together again in 2015-16.