NHL.com's seven players attempting to prove last season wasn't a fluke

Thumbnail image for leighton.jpgI often find it unfair when people call certain bands “one-hit wonders” for a simple reason: perhaps they didn’t want to make another big single? Now, most of you (especially more cynical types) will roll your eyes at such a stance; after all, doesn’t every artist want to make buckets of money and bathe in groupies? (Doesn’t everyone?) That’s probably true for the most part, but maybe there are exceptions; merely study the post-“Epic” career of Faith No More and you’ll wonder how hard they were trying to churn out toe-tappers.

Hockey players cannot make claims to “artistic integrity,” though. Aside from changing to a two-way game or playing the point on a powerplay unit, expectations are pretty much the same. If you’re a goalie, you better keep stopping pucks; if you’re a forward your role is thwart the opposing netminder.

It’s no secret that I’m a sucker for these stories, but this one slipped through the cracks until today: NHL.com put together a list of seven players who will try to prove that their breakthrough 2009-10 seasons weren’t flukes. I’ll add a few comments here and there for their choices, plus excerpts from the article’s author, John Kreiser.

Michael Leighton, Flyers – No one can take away Leighton’s brilliance in the second and third rounds of last spring’s Stanley Cup Playoffs. He came back from a high ankle sprain, stepped in when Brian Boucher was injured and led the Philadelphia Flyers to Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Final. But after leading Philadelphia to a historic comeback victory in the semifinals against Boston and shutting out Montreal three times in the Eastern Conference Finals, Leighton was something less than rock-solid in the Final, leading many to wonder if he was just another guy who got hot at the right time.

When it comes to judging Leighton, it’s all about what kind of expectations you have for the once-obscure goalie. If you think he should be an elite goalie, then yes, chances are he’ll make you furrow your brow more often than not. Yet considering the fact that he’ll play behind a deep defense and a sizable pool of forwards, Leighton may succeed by just being average. Which – let’s face it – is the most realistic outcome, especially if you subscribe to the old saying “You get what you pay for.”

Thumbnail image for Howard3.jpgJimmy Howard, Red Wings – Howard figures to start 2010-11 as the Wings’ No. 1 goaltender, but with Osgood still around and 2008 first-rounder Thomas McCollum maturing in the AHL, Howard has to prove he’s not just a late bloomer who got hot at the right time.

Howard honestly deserved more recognition for what he did last year. In my opinion, he saved Detroit’s season. I get the feeling the Red Wings will be a bit more explosive next season with Jiri Hudler back in the mix and the Chicago Blackhawks cooling down a bit, but will the natural erosion of aging bring Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski down a level? If they drop quite a bit, Howard might be in trouble.

Read more about the last five after the jump, including 30-goal scorers Matt Moulson, Jussi Jokinen and Patric Hornqvist.

mattmoulsonscores.jpgMatt Moulson, Islanders – Not only did Moulson make the team, he led the Isles with 30 goals, including 5 game-winners. Moulson started the season on a line with Tavares, but as the season went on, he showed he could be effective playing without him.

The easiest way to tell a player had a “blessed” year is to study his shooting percentage. Moulson scored 30 goals on 208 shots last year, which accounts for a 14.4 percent rate. My guess is that is a little high, but not astronomical. If he can put up 200+ shots again next year, I’d guess he could at least produce a 20-goal season again (on 10 percent shooting, which is pretty average). Can the Islanders really complain about 20 goals from Moulson? I don’t think so.

Jussi Jokinen, Hurricanes

Once just a shootout specialist, Jokinen exploded for the Hurricanes in the playoffs and followed it up with an under-the-radar 30 goal season for Carolina. Why was it so under-the-radar? Because the Canes were terrible, that’s why. He has a decent chance to succeed because, like most of the other players on this list, his team doesn’t have many other options.

hornqvistscoresonkipper.jpgPatric Hornqvist, Predators – Teams don’t expect much from seventh-round draft picks, so Hornqvist’s 30-goal performance last season was like found money for the offensively challenged Predators. Hornqvist never had scored more than 23 goals at any level during his career and had just 2 goals in 28 games as an NHL rookie in 2008-09. But he became an offensive force last season, leading the Preds in goals and helping Nashville return to the playoffs.

Using the shooting percentage test, Hornqvist has a better chance of repeating his 2009-10 than Moulson. Hornqvist took a substantial 275 shots to hit 30 goals, so one might think that all he needs to do is keep firing the puck at the net. Considering the limited offensive options in Nashville, maintaining his 15:41 minutes per ice average seems reasonable so he probably will get every chance to succeed. The thing is, you always have to fear the contract year … even with restricted free agents. Still, as unproven as Hornqvist was coming into the NHL, he has a decent (though not outstanding) chance of being a threat going forward. At age 23, don’t be shocked if he struggles a bit in the near future, though.

Kurtis Foster, Oilers – Not only did Foster put up strong offensive numbers at the age of 28, he did it after overcoming a horrific broken leg that cost him almost all of the 2008-09 season.

Two things need to happen for Foster to go from a risk (as Pierre McGuire seemed to indicate during free agent day coverage) to a flat-out steal. First, he’ll need to be healthy enough to get on the ice with regularity. Second, Sheldon Souray would ideally be gone. Sure, having two booming shots from the point would make “Duck!” the official phrase of the Edmonton Oilers’ powerplay, but Souray might make Foster a bit redundant.

Ian White, Flames –

Ian White might end up being one of the few bright spots in a Cal Clutterbuck of a mess in Calgary. Seriously, what are you doing, Darryl Sutter? I think Flames fans are tired of your Glen Sather impression. I mean, it’s dead-on, but still.

So those are NHL.com’s seven choices. I’m not sure if I’ll provide that many, but expect a post with my own anti-Faith No More’s a little later tonight.

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    Sharp to undergo hip surgery, expected recovery is 4-5 months

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    Patrick Sharp‘s difficult season is now over.

    The Dallas Stars announced on Saturday that the 35-year-old forward will undergo hip surgery on Tuesday. The recovery time, according to the club, is between four and five months.

    Sharp is in the final year of a five-year contract with a $5.9 million cap hit, per CapFriendly

    “We are going to get the surgery done and let him heal. He’s going to train and let’s take a look at him,” said Stars GM Jim Nill, per NHL.com. “We’ve had conversations. If he comes back, he wants it to be Dallas. He thinks he’s a Dallas Star.”

    Not only has Sharp dealt with injuries on the ice, but he is dealing with a personal matter off it.

    From the Dallas Morning News:

    But in battling through two concussions, hip pain, and his dad’s fight with leukemia, Sharp has shown significant fortitude. The Dallas chapter of the Professional Hockey Writers Association nominated Sharp Saturday as its candidate for the Bill Masterton Trophy, given each season to a player who displays the attributes of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey.

    “It shows what kind of person he is and what kind of hockey player and leader he is,” said Stars captain Jamie Benn. “I think that’s why he’s a winner at every level he’s played at. I think that’s why he’s a great leader for this team and a great guy for a lot of these young guys to look up to.”

    Sharp was first sidelined with a concussion in October. He was then placed on injured reserve with another concussion in December.

    He has been held to just 48 games, with eight goals — his lowest total since the lockout-shortened season — and 18 points.

    ‘That was embarrassing,’ says Boudreau after Wild lose to Canucks

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    The Wild continue to struggle and fans on Saturday expressed their frustration.

    Think about this: The visiting Canucks are terrible at scoring goals, ranked 29th in the league in that category. Yet they managed to score four goals in the second period against the Wild. So bad was Minnesota’s performance to that point that there was a Bronx cheer directed at goalie Darcy Kuemper after he made a save on a harmless shot and fans later booed the Wild off the ice into the intermission.

    It’s bad when the Canucks, 27th in the overall standings, embarrass an opposing team.

    The Wild failed once again to clinch a playoff spot after a 4-2 loss. That score flattered the home team, which got late goals from Ryan Suter and Eric Staal. Too little, too late. Afterward, coach Bruce Boudreau lit into his team.

    “That was embarrassing. I’m embarrassed,” Boudreau told reporters. “To me, if I was the fans, I’d be booing even more because they pay good money for this.”

    As far as the playoffs are concerned, the Wild are in, even if they haven’t yet officially secured a spot. Sports Club Stats is giving them a 100 per cent chance of qualifying for the post-season.

    But prior to this month, Minnesota looked like a team that could do some serious damage in the playoffs. That’s not to suggest they are suddenly incapable of going on any prolonged run but they very clearly have some issues that need to be addressed over the next few of weeks.

    “Yeah, it wasn’t good enough,” Jason Zucker told the Pioneer Press.

    “We are leaving guys open. We aren’t winning battles. We are hanging our goalies out to dry. … I don’t think we’re prepared enough to start some periods and they score and we’re not being resilient enough to come back.”

    Meanwhile, for the Canucks, this game should provide at least a glimmer of optimism for their fans. Less than 24 hours after his college season ended with a double overtime loss to Boston University, Brock Boeser signed an entry-level deal and made his NHL debut versus the Wild.

    What a debut it was.

    Boeser, a first-round pick of the Canucks in 2015, scored the winning goal and was tied for the team-lead in shots on goal with four alongside Reid Boucher, who also scored twice.

    The unfortunate news? Jack Skille left the game with an ankle injury and didn’t return. The outlook doesn’t look good, as Canucks head coach Willie Desjardins said afterward, “I wouldn’t expect to see Skille in the line-up for a while.”

    Only eight games remain in Vancouver’s season.

    Another shutout for Bobrovsky as he steals one for Blue Jackets

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    Sergei Bobrovsky continued to make his case for the Vezina Trophy on Saturday afternoon when he stopped all 36 shots he faced in a 1-0 win over the Philadelphia Flyers.

    The win helped the Blue Jackets avoid what would have been their first three-game losing streak of the season.

    In a game where his team was outshot by a 36-21 margin and managed just a single goal (an Alexander Wennberg tally in the second period), it would not be unfair to say that he probably stole a couple of points for his team as the Blue Jackets continue to compete with the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins for the top spot in both the Eastern Conference and the entire NHL.

    Bobrovsky being the difference in a game is nothing new for the Blue Jackets lately because he has been a brick wall in their net for much of the season. But for as good as his performance has been overall, it is over the past few weeks where he has really started to establish himself as a Vezina Trophy front runner.

    With his win on Saturday the Blue Jackets are now 9-0-2 in his past 11 starts.

    Bobrovsky remains the NHL’s leader in pretty much every major goaltending category, collecting his 40th win (first in the NHL), raising his overall save percentage to .934 (also first in the NHL), his even-strength save percentage to .940 (also first in the NHL), and recording his seventh shutout (tied for second, just one behind Braden Holtby).

    He has four shutouts in the month of March alone.

    There are a lot of factors you can point to for the Blue Jackets’ massive turnaround this season, but none of them have been bigger at this point than the play of Bobrovsky.

    He has already won the Vezina Trophy once in his career, and he is putting together a pretty convincing argument to win it again this season.

    Goalie nods: It’s Anderson vs. Price for first place in the Atlantic

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    The Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators are locked in a fierce fight for the top spot in the Atlantic Division, and they will have one more chance to take advantage of a head-to-head matchup on Saturday night.

    It will be the fifth and final meeting of the regular season between the two teams — and third in the past eight days — as the two teams enter the night separated by just a single point in the standing (Montreal has a one point lead).

    Montreal won the previous two head-to-head meetings this month, topping Ottawa in a shootout on March 18 then coming back the next night with a 4-1 win.

    As expected, both teams will be going with their No. 1 goaltenders on Saturday night with the Senators turning to Craig Anderson and the Canadiens starting Carey Price.

    With wins in eight of his past 11 starts, a stretch that has seen him surrender more than two goals in a game just two times, Price is once again playing at that Vezina Trophy level we have seen from him in years past. His overall numbers for the season may not be quite as dominant as we have seen over the past couple of years but right now he is one of his zones where he looks nearly unbeatable.

    Anderson has been on a similar roll for the Senators in recent weeks and has only lost three of his past 12 starts … two of them came at the hands of the Canadiens.

    Elsewhere on Saturday…

    — It was Richard Bachman vs Darcy Kuemper in Minnesota for the Vancouver Canucks-Wild game, while Sergei Bobrovsky went against Michal Neuvirth in the Columbus Blue Jackets vs. Philadelphia Flyers game.

    Braden Holtby will be in net for the Washington Capitals when they host Mike Smith and the Arizona Coyotes.

    — With Tuukka Rask out for the Boston Bruins’ huge game against the New York Islanders, Anton Khudobin will get the call. No word yet from the Islanders on who they will start after going with Jaroslav Halak on Friday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins.

    Eddie Lack was the first goalie off the ice for the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday and is expected to start against Cory Schneider and the New Jersey Devils.

    — No word yet from the Chicago Blackhawks or Florida Panthers for their game.

    Frederik Andersen looks for his third shutout in a row when he starts for the Toronto Maple Leafs in their game against the Buffalo Sabres. Robin Lehner gets the call for the Sabres.

    Brian Elliott is back in net for the Calgary Flames after having his personal 11-game winning streak snapped against the Washington Capitals this past week. He faces his former team, the St. Louis Blues, who will be starting Jake Allen.

    Martin Jones gets the start for the San Jose Sharks when they visit Pekka Rinne and the Nashville Predators.

    — It is a rare night off for Cam Talbot in Edmonton as Lauent Brossoit will make his first start since Feb. 21 when he gets the start against the Colorado Avalanche. He has made just two relief appearances since then. It will be just his third start of the season. The Avalanche have yet to announce their starter for the game.

    Antti Raanta goes for the New York Rangers when they visit the Los Angeles Kings. Jonathan Quick is in the crease for the Kings.