Throughout the NHL season, it’s typical for me to lament the players I’ve touted who are underperforming compared to the expectations I had for them. This sort of mental scorekeeping routinely causes me anguish because I tend to dwell on my biggest swings-and-misses more than I do my homeruns, which is why I embrace this time of year so much. You see, when the NHL regular season begins to wind down and some of the players I had tabbed for big things don’t come through for me, I view it as a positive and look forward to acquiring them cheaply next season. This may not apply to everyone since the reason for a player’s underperformance could be something that makes me weary again next year, but as long as I continue to believe in the player’s skill, I cheer for them to fly beneath the radar for as long as possible. Here are a few examples of players I think fit that description this year.
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A quick glance at his statistics may not impress you, but there are a number of indicators trending in the right direction for the young blueliner. First and foremost among these is the fact he just turned 20 this month. By amassing 25 points in 65 games at such a young age, having never played an NHL game prior to this season, there’s every reason to think he’s only scratching the surface of his ability. In addition, the fact he has scored just two goals despite firing 89 shots on net means there’s a bit of bad luck at play here, which seems to be suppressing his offensive totals. Finally, it’s reasonable to expect Rielly’s role with the team will be expanded in coming years, in the form of increased ice time and greater exposure with the man advantage - he currently ranks fourth among Toronto defensemen and 10th overall among Leafs in power play ice time per game. I’m banking on 40 points next season with the upside for even greater things.
Like Rielly, Galchenyuk is 20-year-old player for whom success at the NHL level has not come easily, but that’s no reason to give up on him. If you have seen very much of the Canadiens this season, you have surely noticed that the youngster is not typically assigned a ton of ice time, particularly with the man advantage. Although some of this falls on Galchenyuk for his inconsistent play, it doesn’t change the fact he’ll be a big part of the team’s offense once he proves he deserves the added responsibility. It’s funny to think he could already be lumped into the category of post-hype sleepers next season, but I’ll gladly take another chance on him while others have moved on to the next big thing.
I never wish injury on any player, but it’s hard to argue with the notion that Scheifele’s sprained knee came at the perfect time for those of us who wish to gobble him up in drafts next season. Before going down with the ailment, Scheifele was just beginning to get comfortable playing with the big boys. He may have started the season by registering only nine points over his first 30 games, but he caught fire in early December and recorded 25 over his last 33. At age 21, the Winnipeg forward is exactly the reason there’s still plenty of reason to maintain high expectations for the aforementioned Galchenyuk.
Another young player whose value could be unfairly depressed due to injury is Barkov, who suffered a knee ailment while competing for Finland at the Olympics last month. With 24 points in 54 games as a rookie, the 18-year-old phenom wasn’t exactly taking the league by storm before he got hurt, but the fact he was chosen to center the top line for the Finns in Sochi is reason enough to make me a believer. If he doesn’t suit up for the Panthers again this season, expect him to slip the minds of many of your opponents next year.
I’ll admit that Murphy was one of the players I was most optimistic about prior to the season so his production, or lack thereof, has been a huge disappointment. In hindsight, perhaps I should have realized how rare it is for a defenseman to be successful at his young age, but I couldn’t resist trying to take advantage of what seemed like a perfect opportunity to succeed. The silver lining here is that it will cost you next to nothing to roster the talented blueliner next season and his offensive potential has not diminished in the least. If you need evidence of this, I’ll direct you to the numbers he posted during an AHL stint with Carolina’s farm team in Charlotte this year – 18 points in 16 games. Not bad for a defenseman.
It seems like we’ve been waiting forever for Backlund to experience a breakout season, but now that everyone stopped paying attention I think he’s actually done it. Sure, 38 points in 71 games can only be considered a breakout after the expectations for the player have been sufficiently lowered, but buried within his stats are signs of real improvement. Since January 1st, Backlund has scored at a pace that pro-rates to nearly 60 over a full season, thanks in large part to the team’s willingness to get him on the ice with the first power play unit. Despite playing for the lowly Flames, he also possesses a plus-3 rating and has even chipped in with four shorthanded markers. Because of where he plays, I think he’ll offer great value in drafts next fall – provided he doesn’t blow his cover over the season’s final weeks.
Perhaps the player whose lack of flashy numbers I’m most thankful for is Jones, who has managed just 24 points in 72 games and has registered a minus-23 rating in his first taste of NHL action. If I’m lucky, many of the people I compete against will come away unimpressed by these totals and forget about him at the draft table next season because I intend to get him on as many of my teams as possible. I’m far from qualified to be a scout, but I remember watching Jones dominate the competition at the World Junior Championships two years ago and thinking to myself that he had no weaknesses in his game. Very few blueliners make the jump directly from junior hockey to the NHL to begin with and even fewer do it while playing the minutes Jones has taken on for the Predators. The presence of Shea Weber and Roman Josi may be a limiting factor for him in the near-term, but I’m in no way concerned about the big man’s potential for the future.
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