Sophomore slumps, surges: Second-year updates on Kaprizov, Robertson, more

Sophomore slumps, surges: Second-year updates on Kaprizov, Robertson, more
Bruce Kluckhohn/NHLI via Getty Images

If there’s such thing as a “sophomore slump,” then second-year stars Kirill Kaprizov and Jason Robertson sure seem immune to that affliction.

Maybe that’s because the 2020-21 NHL season pumped out quite a few high-level rookie years.

Again, there was Kirill Kaprizov, who revolutionized the Wild on his way to a Calder Trophy win. Meanwhile, Calder Trophy runner-up Jason Robertson just recorded two hat tricks in a row.

So, this seems as good a time as any to follow up on strong rookie years, and note that few seem to have suffered that dreaded sophomore slump.

Note: stats recorded before Monday’s games.

Kaprizov (Wild) and Robertson (Stars) only see their stature rise in second seasons

All due respect to some other strong second-year players, but Kirill Kaprizov and Jason Robertson warrant special attention.

Kirill Kaprizov

If you caught Kaprizov most nights in 2020-21, you’d likely agree that he was no normal rookie.

Maybe it’s fitting, then, that he’s already getting paid like a star. During the offseason, Kaprizov signed a five-year, $45M contract ($9M cap hit). As one example, Jason Robertson’s carrying a mere $795,000 cap hit with the Stars.

While a $9M cap hit qualifies as a “good problem to have,” it only dropped more pressure on Kaprizov’s shoulders. Just think of how much a $9M price tag can be a burden for a more experienced player like Jeff Skinner.

That pressure might be too much for most. But, again, Kaprizov isn’t your normal player.

He’s already scored more goals (28 vs. 27) than last season, and blew his 51 points (in 55 games) away. So far this season, Kaprizov is in the top 10 in scoring with 70 points in 53 games.

Heading into this season, people wondered if Kaprizov would really be worth $9M to the Wild. Well, nope. He’s worth even more than that.

Jason Robertson

Back in September 2020, The Athletic’s Corey Pronman ranked Jason Robertson fourth in the Stars’ pipeline behind Ty Dellandrea and Thomas Harley. That viewpoint doesn’t seem too out of step with those who watch prospects. And, while Robertson was productive in the AHL (47 points in 60 games in 2019-20), it’s fair to say that few saw this coming.

Last season, Robertson, Roope Hintz, and Joe Pavelski emerged as one of the best lines in the NHL. This year, they’ve proven that wasn’t just a fluke.

And, quite like Kaprizov, Robertson’s improving on already-impressive rookie stats.

After scoring 17 goals and 45 points as a rookie, Robertson’s already at 29 goals and 54 points in 47 games this season. Also like Kaprizov: you don’t need to use “for a second-year player” caveats for Robertson. He’s the real deal, and it will be interesting to see how similar his contract is after this season (Robertson’s a pending RFA).

Just look at the lofty company Jason Robertson keeps in Evolving Hockey’s wide-ranging GAR stat:

Sophomore slumps, surges: Second-year updates on Kaprizov, Robertson, more
via Evolving Hockey

Eventually, Robertson will stop being “underrated,” even among casual fans, because he’s already a legit top-line scorer.

Other second-year skaters of note

  • What, exactly, do the Rangers have in Alexis Lafrenière?

Really, it’s remarkable that the Rangers rank so high in the East considering that both Lafrenière (18 points) and Kaapo Kakko (14) are under 20 points so far. You’d think they would be powering a surge up the standings.

Heading into his rookie season, Lafrenière was billed as unusually NHL-ready. Now the greatest — and still reasonable — hope is that he’s merely showing glimpses of a future breakout.

Does “sophomore slump” apply when there have been freshman fumbles? Ideally, Lafrenière will enjoy a junior jolt next season, but his early results are discouraging.

  • The Senators boasted two players in the top 10 in Calder Trophy voting last season: Josh Norris and Tim Stützle. As far as second-year seasons have moved along for Norris and Stützle, your mileage may vary.

Scoring-wise, Stützle and Norris are producing at about the same level as last season. The Senators probably want even more from their young players, so there may be a slight feeling of impatience. Overall, it seems like Norris and Stützle are positive forces for Ottawa, though:

Sophomore slumps, surges: Second-year updates on Kaprizov, Robertson, more Sens
via Evolving Hockey
  • Two Devils placed in the top 10 in 2020-21 Calder Trophy voting, too: Yegor Sharangovich and Ty Smith. The Devils aren’t likely to be too concerned that Sharangovich, a former fifth-rounder, is producing at basically the same level. With Ty Smith, the Devils have to hope he’s merely experiencing a sophomore slump. Otherwise, there’s cause for concern for a team seemingly treading water.
  • Does Mason Marchment count? If so, count at least one “sophomore surge,” even if you only give him partial credit for being a point-per-game player on the powerhouse Panthers. Owen Tippett’s small sophomore slump shows that production isn’t automatic in Florida.
  • It’s hard to believe Eeli Tolvanen is still not quite 23 yet. It feels like we’ve been wondering if he’ll blossom for ages. He’s slipped after last season’s modest season of progress as a full-time rookie.
  • Both Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale are eligible for the Calder Trophy this season, in case you were wondering. If you personally consider them second-year players, then you may not find big sophomore surges this season. Well, at least among skaters …

Shesterkin and other second-year goalies, not quite including Nedeljkovic

Speaking of players who still quality for the Calder Trophy, Alex Nedeljkovic (previously with the Hurricanes, now with Red Wings) is eligible to win the Calder despite being a finalist last season. Does that keep his dip in production from counting as a “sophomore slump?”

*shrugs*

Ville Husso‘s rise is also worthy of Calder conversations, as he only played 17 games last season.

  • Igor Shesterkin came into the NHL with quite a bit of hype (by goalie standards). He showed promise before this season. Yet, in his second full season, Igor Shesterkin boasts a valid Hart Trophy case, not just a Vezina one. Count that as a sophomore surge.
  • For all that’s gone wrong for the Islanders this season, Ilya Sorokin went from solid (for any goalie) as a rookie to borderline elite.

  • Maybe the Kraken shouldn’t have traded Vitek Vanecek back to the Capitals? While Ilya Samsonov‘s numbers are underwhelming, Vanecek’s built on a solid-if-unspectacular rookie campaign, generating a .921 save percentage so far this season.
  • Kevin Lankinen enjoyed a Cinderella start to his rookie campaign with the Blackhawks, then hit a wall. With just a .885 save percentage this season, perhaps Lankinen was just riding an unsustainable hot streak. Maybe we’ll look at this as a sophomore slump, but it could also just be a more realistic view of Lankinen’s limitations. (Playing for Chicago won’t help goalies of any ages, though.)

Not too many examples of sophomore slumps in the NHL

All things considered, it seems like last season’s hot rookies have either continued their ascent, or matched those debut seasons.

Such a thought doesn’t eliminate any possibility of sophomore slumps. Generally, though, sophomores seemed to carry over momentum from promising freshmen years from 2020-21 to 2021-22.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

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