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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    On his third team in three years, Bonino has ‘found a home for sure’ in Pittsburgh

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    PITTSBURGH — In Anaheim, Nick Bonino was good, but not quite good enough to be the Ducks’ second-line center. So two summers ago he was traded to Vancouver as part of a package for Ryan Kesler.

    In Vancouver, Bonino had one decent enough season, but the Canucks ultimately decided he wasn’t the kind of “foundation piece” they were looking for. So last summer he was traded to Pittsburgh as part of a package for Brandon Sutter.

    In Pittsburgh though?

    In Pittsburgh, Nick Bonino is a playoff hero, verging on folk hero. The 28-year-old scored the winning goal in the final minutes of Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. The chemistry he’s developed with linemates Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin has helped take the pressure off Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It’s given the Penguins what they’ve needed for so many years.

    “He’s had some huge goals in the playoffs, come up really big,” said teammate Matt Cullen. “Obviously playing in the middle of that line, he’s been huge for us all playoffs. It just brings another element of depth to our team.”

    And if you think Cullen had nice things to say about Bonino, that was nothing compared to head coach Mike Sullivan.

    “I think he’s a terrific player in every aspect of the game,” said Sullivan. “We use him in so many key situations, both offensively and defensively. I think he’s a guy that has a real high hockey IQ, sees the ice really well. He has real good hands. His awareness defensively I think, the use of his stick to take passing lanes away, it’s impressive.

    “He’s brave. He blocks shots. He’s one of our better shot-blockers. He’s a good faceoff guy. He’s done so much for this team to help us get to this point. I don’t know what other praise I can shower on him right now. We think he’s a terrific player.”

    Signed through next season, after which he can become an unrestricted free agent, Bonino was asked if he’s finally found a long-term home in Pittsburgh.

    “I don’t know about long-term, you never know. Especially me, the last few summers,” he said.

    “[But] I think I found a home for sure. I enjoy the guys, enjoy the team. Organization is first class. Definitely feels nice to be in the Cup final playing with these two guys. It’s been a lot of fun for me.”

    Despite rough start, the Sharks ‘know we’re going to get better’

    PITTSBURGH, PA - MAY 30:  Nick Bonino #13 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates after scoring a third period goal against Martin Jones #31 of the San Jose Sharks in Game One of the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Final at Consol Energy Center on May 30, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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    PITTSBURGH — It’s only been one game of the Stanley Cup Final and the San Jose Sharks are already tired of hearing about the Pittsburgh Penguins’ speed.

    “It’s an NHL team,” said defenseman Brent Burns. “They’re fast. So is St. Louis. It’s not like St. Louis has got boots on.”

    “They’re a good rush team, they’ve got some speed, they make some plays,” captain Joe Pavelski grudgingly conceded. “I don’t know, those teams we’ve played before are pretty good. I think Nashville was probably one of the better rush teams that we saw.”

    In other words, the Penguins’ speed was no big deal. Nothing new. Nothing to panic about. The Sharks can play better than they showed in Game 1, a 3-2 loss that wasn’t decided until the final few minutes.

    “They definitely came out with some speed and were skating, created some chances,” said Pavelski. “But we helped that out along the way, too.”

    After getting outshot 15-4 and outscored 2-0 in the first period, the Sharks fought back in the second. They cut down the turnovers, outshot the Penguins 13-8, and tied the game.

    “They carried the first, obviously. We carried the second I think, and then the third was two good teams going at it,” said Burns, calling the opening 20 minutes a “Holy [expletive] we’re here” experience for a San Jose group that has never been this far in the playoffs.

    “You make the Stanley Cup finals, you dream about it for a long time,” he said. “You probably used more energy the last couple of days thinking about it than playing in a game. … I think we’ll be better second game.”

    Head coach Pete DeBoer agreed.

    “They’re a fast team,” he said. “They dictated play in the first. I thought when we played our game in the second, they had trouble with us. It’s the first game of the series. It reminds me a lot of St. Louis Game 1. I know we’re going to get better. Our execution’s got to get better. Part of it was some of the pressure they put on, but part of it was self-inflicted.”

    He added, “There’s nothing that I saw tonight that I’m going out of here thinking that we can’t come out and compete and play much better on our end.”

    Sullivan calls it a ‘blindside hit to the head,’ but Marleau doesn’t think suspension’s coming

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    PITTSBURGH — It didn’t take long for the first controversial incident of the Stanley Cup Final.

    Patrick Marleau‘s illegal check to the head on Bryan Rust — one that earned Marleau a minor penalty, and forced Rust to exit the game — left Rust day-to-day with an upper-body injury, per Pens head coach Mike Sullivan.

    When asked what he thought of the hit, Sullivan was blunt.

    “It’s a blindside hit to the head,” he said. “[Marleau] gets a penalty and I’m sure the league will look at it.”

    Marleau wasn’t saying much about the incident following the game, but did suggest he wasn’t expecting supplemental discipline:

    “I just tried to keep everything down,” Marleau added. “I didn’t want to get too high on him.”

    It’ll be interesting to see what transpires. There hasn’t been a suspension in the Stanley Cup Final since Vancouver’s Aaron Rome was given a four-game ban for his massive hit on Boston forward Nathan Horton.

    Marleau has no history with the NHL’s Department of Player Safety.

    It should be mentioned the DoPS has been fairly active this spring, handing down five suspensions, including a pair of three-gamers to Brooks Orpik and Brayden Schenn.

    Bonino scores late, role guys star again as Pens take Game 1

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    PITTSBURGH — If this playoff run has proven anything, it’s that the Penguins are more than Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.

    Tonight only reaffirmed it.

    Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Nick Bonino did all the scoring on Monday, with Bonino’s late marker the winner as Pittsburgh defeated San Jose 3-2 in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.

    Bonino’s goal, his fourth of the playoffs, came with just over two minutes remaining, capping off a quality opener in which both teams carried play for long stretches.

    Rust and Sheary punctuated a dominant opening period for the Penguins — they out-shot the Sharks 15-4 — but the Sharks replied with a stellar second frame, equalizing on goals from Tomas Hertl and Patrick Marleau.

    That set the stage for a dramatic third, and the Bonino goal.

    That he, Rust and Sheary did the scoring for Pittsburgh was fitting. There’d been plenty of talk heading into this series about role players coming up large, to the point where the American Hockey League sent out a press release noting that 23 of 25 Penguins that’ve played in the playoffs thus far came through the AHL, highlighting the “big four” from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton: Rust, Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and Matt Murray.

    Rust etched himself into Pittsburgh lore in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final, scoring both goals in a 2-1 win over the Lightning.

    Murray’s exploits are pretty well-known. The 22-year-old was remarkably solid after regaining the starter’s net from Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 6 of the ECF, stopping 44 of 47 shots over the final two games of the series.

    He was good again on Monday, with 24 saves on 26 shots.

    Sheary, the diminutive speedster, scored his third goal of the playoffs tonight. Kuhnhackl tied a team high with eight hits.

    As such, Pittsburgh has to be thrilled about how tonight went. They held up home ice and got contributions from across the board — the only downer has to be the health of Rust, who twice exited the contest after taking a hit to the head from Marleau.

    As for the Sharks… well, this one will sting a bit. The club did remarkably well to rally from a two-goal deficit and carried play in the second period, but can’t be pleased.

    They were beaten in the possession game and out-shot badly (41-26), things head coach Peter DeBoer wanted to control against Pittsburgh, a team he considers the fastest in the league.

    That said, there are positives moving forward. Martin Jones was outstanding in his Stanley Cup Final debut, with 38 saves on 41 shots, and there’s still a chance to get the split on Wednesday night.

    Of course, to do that, the Sharks will have to figure out how to slow down Pittsburgh’s role players.