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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    Stars aligned with new coach DeBoer, Nill-constructed roster

    Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS — General manager Jim Nill sensed things were coming together for the Dallas Stars even before the season started with new coach Pete DeBoer and a roster mixed with proven veterans, up-and-coming young players, and even a teenaged center.

    At the NHL’s All-Star break, after 51 games together, these Stars are leading the Western Conference.

    “Every year you start, you put a team together, and there’s always going to be question marks,” said Nill, in his 10th season as the Stars GM. “You have ideas how you think you’re going to come together, but there’s always the unknown. . This year has been one of those years where right from the start, you could just see everything was kind of jelling.”

    The Stars (28-13-10, 66 points) have their trio of 2017 draft picks that just keep getting better: All-Star winger Jason Robertson, goaltender Jake Oettinger and defenseman Miro Heiskanen. The seemingly ageless Joe Pavelski, at 38 and already re-signed for next season, is on the high-scoring top line with Robertson and point-a-game winger Roope Hintz. Wyatt Johnston, their first-round pick in 2021 and half Pavelski’s age, has 13 goals.

    There is also the resurgence of six-time All-Star forward Tyler Seguin two years after hip surgery and 33-year-old captain Jamie Benn, who already has more goals (19) than he did playing all 82 games last season.

    The Stars have a plus-40 goal differential, which is second-best in the NHL. They are averaging 3.37 goals per game, more than a half-goal better than last season when they were the only team to make the playoffs after being outscored in the regular season. They are also allowing fewer goals, and have improved on power plays and penalty kills.

    “Where we sit at this break, I think guys are happy with that,” Seguin said, before being asked the keys to the Stars leading the West and on pace for a 100-point season with their new coach.

    “Our style, our team speed, our puck speed, being predictable. All the clichés, knowing where the puck’s going. Really how we play the five-man unit,” he said. “Our pace this year, it’s been a lot quicker. There’s been some solid depth scoring this year while we’ve got one of the best lines in hockey.”

    The Stars went into the break on their only three-game losing streak of the season, all 3-2 overtime losses at home.

    “Those aren’t real losses,” said DeBoer, who twice has gone to the Stanley Cup Final in his first season with a new team. “I’m happy where we’re at. I like how we’re playing.”

    Plus, Dallas won’t have to worry in the playoffs about 3-on-3 hockey, which has been the only real stain on their season so far. Only one team has more than its 10 losses after regulation.

    “We’ve played a lot of good hockey. We’ve made a lot of good strides in our game,” DeBoer said. “We still have another level we have to get to when we get back, but there are a lot of good things that have happened. They’ve worked to have us where we are right now in the standings. Good spot to be in.”

    The Stars have 31 games left in the regular season. The first four after the break at home, like the last four before their week-long hiatus.

    Robertson’s 33 goals rank sixth in the NHL, and the 23-year-old has the same number of assists while averaging 1.29 points a game even after he missed most of training camp before signing a four-year, $31 million contract. Pavelski has 48 points (14 goals, 34 assists) while playing every game, and Hintz 46 points (20 goals, 26 assists) in only 43 games.

    Oettinger, who is 21-7 in regulation, has a .923 save percentage and 2.26 goals against average since signing his three-year, $12 million contract. That deal came after 223 saves in a seven-game playoff series against Calgary last May, capped by 64 in the series finale that went to overtime.

    Nill said Robertson’s production has improved even with the league adjusting to the high-scoring forward, and that Oettinger is proving to be one of the league’s best goalies. But they are just part of what has been a tremendous team effort.

    “They kind of had that mojo right from the start, and it was kind of this team’s got the right mix,” Nill said. “It’s come together well, and it’s shown in the standings. It’s been good to watch.”

    Canucks’ Ilya Mikheyev to have season-ending knee surgery

    Ilya Mikheyev
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Vancouver Canucks right wing Ilya Mikheyev is set to have season-ending surgery on his left knee.

    Canucks general manager Patrik Allvin said Friday night the 28-year-old Russian forward tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the team’s first preseason game Sept. 25. Mikheyev will undergo surgery next week and is expected to be ready for training camp in the fall.

    Mikheyev was originally listed as week-to-week with the injury and played 45 regular-season games, finishing with 13 goals and 15 assists. He scored in his final appearance Friday night, a 5-2 home victory over Columbus.

    Mikheyev signed a four-year, $19 million contract as a free agent last summer.

    Maple Leafs’ Matthews out at least 3 weeks with knee injury

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    Toronto Maple Leafs center Auston Matthews will miss at least three weeks with a sprained knee.

    The team announced the reigning MVP’s anticipated absence Friday, two days after Matthews was injured in Toronto’s victory against the New York Rangers.

    Matthews is expected to miss at least six games and could be out for a few more. The timing of the injury coinciding with the NHL All-Star break and the Maple Leafs bye week prevents this from costing Matthews more time out of the lineup.

    After being voted an All-Star by fans, Matthews is now out of the event scheduled for Feb. 3-4 in Sunrise, Florida. The league announced Aleskander Barkov from the host Florida Panthers will take Matthews’ place on the Atlantic Division All-Star roster.

    Matthews, who won the Hart Trophy last season after leading the NHL with 60 goals, has 53 points in 47 games this season.

    Caufield opted for surgery with Habs out of playoff race

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    MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens winger Cole Caufield said Friday he wouldn’t be having season-ending surgery on his right shoulder if the team were in playoff contention.

    But with the Canadiens near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, the 22-year-old Caufield said he decided to have the surgery to protect his long-term health. The procedure is scheduled to be performed by Dr. Peter Millett on Wednesday.

    “I didn’t want to stop playing,” Caufield said. “I had a couple tests done to look at it more clearly but, in the end, like it could’ve been one more fall and it could have been even worse.”

    Caufield, who leads the Canadiens with 26 goals in 46 games, had three different medical opinions on his shoulder before concluding that his season was over.

    “I think they’ve seen a lot more than I have and they know the differences and what they like or don’t like about it,” he said about the medical opinions. “Long term, I think this is what’s best but for sure it was tough to sit out that game against Toronto on Saturday night.”

    Caufield initially felt the injury in an awkward fall during Montreal’s 4-2 loss at Dallas on Dec. 23. He said his right shoulder popped, and he replaced it himself.

    Caufield felt it again in the Habs’ 4-3 loss at Nashville on Jan. 12. The club announced on Jan. 21 that Caufield would miss the rest of the season.

    Caufield is nearing the end of his three-year, entry-level contract and will be a restricted free agent this summer.