Today, From the Pressbox: Looking at some players that fit into different categories, based on unusual hot starts, new opportunities and likelihood of sustainable performance levels.
"Buy low, sell high" Candidates
Every year a number of players begin the season with a surprising hot start, which flies in the face of their career pace and/or expected late-career regression. We examine a few of those names below along with our prediction of their ability to sustain their current levels throughout the whole NHL season.
Alex Steen - Steen has thrived in the deep group of forwards that the Blues roll at their opponents on a nightly basis. Neither he nor any of his current teammates are whom you would expect to see in the NHL's top point-scorers, nor have any of them every wound up in the final top 10 rankings. However, Steen is there now based on a career-best start. He seems destined to smash his career-best season (51 points in the 2010-11 season). Steen has already tallied 31 points in 26 games and has clearly earned coach Ken Hitchcock's trust, as a strong two-way player who is logging plenty of power play time, as well as on the penalty kill unit. Prediction: he will keep this up in a career year, as a key player on one of the league's top teams.
Jaromir Jagr - He is already one of the top scoring players in NHL history as he participates in his 19th NHL season. In his first year with the New Jersey Devils, he leads the club in scoring with 22 points in 28 games played and is eight points ahead of his nearest teammate (Patrik Elias). He is also boasting a +10 rating, again one of the top marks on his team. Therein, lies a problem, though, as the expectation for such a veteran player to continue to pile up these numbers on a team that is clearly lacking in depth, will place an added burden on him. Prediction: The Devils are simply not expected to be among the top teams in the East and that stress for continued production out of Jagr, to say nothing of the close checking he will continue to face, will make it very unlikely for him to sustain his current production levels.
Bryan Little - Little is in his seventh season with the Jets (formerly the Atlanta Thrashers) and though he was drafted as a top scorer in Junior hockey, he too, has never scored more than 51 points (2008-2009). This year he is leading the Jets with 26 points in 29 games. The fact that he leads his team, ahead of higher profile players like Andrew Ladd and Evander Kane, is a bit of a surprise to many observers. He has been known as a fast starter in earlier years, so this good beginning is not wholly unexpected. Prediction: He is not a big physical player at 5'11", 185 lbs and that combination of factors, plus a lack of depth on the Jets offense likely means that he will not keep up this hot start.
Ben Bishop - The goaltending situation in Tampa was expected to be an area of some concern, just because of the fact that the tandem of Bishop and Anders Lindback entered this season as a young untested pair of goalies who are entrusted with carrying the netminding chores for the Lightning, a team with an offensive focus. Things were going along very smoothly for Bishop and his mates, with Tampa battling for the Eastern Conference lead, until their signature player Steven Stamkos was sidelined indefinitely, with a broken leg. Though the team has dropped six of their 10 games since that key injury, they have managed to keep their goals against from rising significantly in that term. Prediction - The recent commitment to defense will serve the Bolts and Bishop well over the long run as they are more compelled than ever to pay attention to that side of the team game. When Stamkos returns the overall performance for Bishop and the Lightning should reach a peak.
Jonas Gustavsson - With the recent struggles of the formerly undisputed top goalie in Detroit (Jimmy Howard), backup Jonas Gustavsson has been pressed into service and has responded magnificently, by posting a 7-0 record, along with a 2.16 gaa and .929 save pct. In some quarters of the local media, people are trying to paint the picture of a goalie controversy. For his part, Howard posted a 5-0 shutout win over the Islanders in his last start, snapping a personal seven-game losing streak. Prediction - Howard signed a long-term contract with the Wings before this season and he is their number one guy. That financial commitment was not given without reason, as Howard has a solid track record and will handle a heavy workload in Detroit. If you have a fellow pool manager in your pool who feels differently, fleece him!
Revisiting Hot Starters
Jiri Hudler - The rebuilding Flames are going to lean on a small group of experienced players to buy the franchise time while they look to amass a number of younger assets and give them the opportunity to get their feet wet in the NHL. Hudler was brought into the Flames organization prior to last season, after a successful 5-year run in Detroit. He has been given the added responsibility of first line minutes and power play time this season and has responded with 23 points in 26 games - a career best pace so far. Prediction - With his annual cap hit of $4 M over the next two seasons after this one, he is well positioned to be a solid mentor with Calgary and an attractive bargaining chip in trade talks. He may even become more valuable in fantasy hockey if he is moved to a contender.
Martin St Louis - If there is a more underrated perennial top point producer in the NHL than Martin St. Louis, I don't know him. The two-time Art Ross Trophy winner was off to another great season until his running mate (Stamkos) went down with the afore-mentioned leg injury. He has been better than a point per game player in five of his last seven seasons and was only a bit shy of that mark in the other two campaigns. As of this week he has 24 point in 27 games, another respectable beginning. Prediction - He has been shut out in 10 of his last 14 games, including six of the 10 starts without Stamkos. That's a trend that will be difficult to reverse, particularly as Stamkos is not expected back for at least a couple of months.
Erik Johnson - He is another player thriving in the early going, with 8 points and a career-high +15 rating for the Colorado Avalanche. He is also a former first overall draft pick from 2006 and may be viewed as something of a late bloomer who has finally found the right situation. He was a higher scoring player in Junior and that seems to be a part of his game that is still a bit lacking, but he is logging well over 20 minutes of playing time per game. Prediction - The Avalanche are viewed as an overachieving team, having started the year with a gaudy 13-2 mark. They have slipped to a still decent 6-4 record in their last 10 games. I think that downward trend will accelerate as the goalie tandem of J.S. Giguere and Semyon Varlamov does not rank with the best in the rest. Johnson's numbers will slide accordingly.
Tomas Hertl - This 20-year old rookie is in a great situation with the talent-rich and very experienced San Jose roster. He made a big splash with 11 points in 13 October games and has followed that up with 10 points in 13 November games. The Sharks are not putting him in high-pressure situations, but they also have enough talent that he can play on a third legitimate scoring unit. He is even getting regular turns on the power play. Prediction - The last guy they brought along in this manner is Logan Couture. That worked out pretty well and should provide a solid template for Hertl to follow.
Now Thriving, and likely for keeps
Kyle Okposo - This former first round draft pick (7th overall in 2006) has never come close to achieving the high expectations that scouts have had for him. This season he was given a first line opportunity with the Islanders and the 25-year old power forward has thrived, scoring 25 points in 28 games. Prediction - Playing with John Tavares put the development of Matt Moulson, a former ninth round draft pick, into the fast lane. Okposo gets to play with Tavares and sniper Thomas Vanek- you do the math!
Tyler Seguin - Seguin was the second overall draft pick in 2010, as a center. Through the three years he spent in Boston he was brought along slowly and spent most of his time playing second and third line roles, mainly on the wings. With his offseason trade to Dallas amid rumors of immature off-ice behavior, implied by Boston management, there were some concerns about the trajectory of his future. Prediction - Having formed a prolific partnership with Jamie Been (25 points), Seguin (23 points) is playing a more prominent first line role away from a hockey hotbed and is thriving, though he is currently recovering from a concussion.
Torey Krug - A playoff revelation and hero in the Bruins' long playoff run gave Krug quite the platform for his NHL debut. A lack of overall size did not prevent him from showing off his grit and offensive skill (four goals and two assists in 13 games, along with a +5 rating) under the pressure of the postseason. He has kept that up with seven goals and nine assists in 27 games played this season, passing the more heralded Dougie Hamilton in both categories. The Bruins have to be thrilled with his development and these strong early returns.
Jay Bouwmeester - This big, strong, minute-eating defenseman was toiling in relative obscurity with his previous career stops in Florida and Calgary and not gaining any playoff experience in either locale. In his first season with the Blues, he earned his first playoff experience after another solid, if unspectacular regular season that saw him score seven goals and 22 points. This year he has ramped up his offensive game to match his defensive efficiency. His 19 points and +13 rating has buoyed his profile and made him a strong candidate to crack Team Canada's crowded Olympic hockey blue line.