Cory Schneider didn’t play his 100th NHL game until early last season, but that didn’t discourage the New Jersey Devils from handing him the keys to the crease.
Circumstances, of course, have conspired to delay Schneider’s ascendancy to No. 1 status in the league—and those circumstances are named Roberto Luongo and Martin Brodeur. But with the path in front of him finally cleared, the 28-year-old signed a seven-year, $42-million contract extension with the Devils last week, providing his long-awaited opportunity to shine. And while that must bring huge amounts of excitement and relief, there’s also undeniable pressure on a goalie who—sparkling save percentages the past four campaigns notwithstanding—is about to play more than 45 games in a season for the first time in his career.
With that in mind, we dug up five more players who, like Schneider, could use statement seasons for one reason or another.
Jonathan Bernier, Toronto Maple Leafs: Substitute Bernier’s 1988 birth year for Schneider’s ’86, and you’re basically looking at the same situation. After years of being a high-pedigree backup to Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles, Bernier was dealt to the Leafs last summer, though still split time with incumbent starter James Reimer in Toronto. Now the job is undeniably Bernier’s, and if he wants a deal like the one Schneider got when his own contract expires next July, Bernier needs to justify management’s faith with a big year.
Tyler Myers, Buffalo Sabres: At this point, listing Myers as a member of the Sabres should come with an asterisk explaining that could change at any time. Myers has been the subject of heavy trade talk—much of it linked with the defenceman-starved Detroit Red Wings—mostly because of his declining play in recent years. After winning the Calder Trophy in 2009-10, when he played the majority of the season as a 19-year-old, Myers has failed to reach the lofty expectations a debut like that creates. Whether with the rebuilding Sabres or some other club, the 24-year-old must reestablish himself as a six-foot-eight blueline presence.
Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers: Like Myers, Huberdeau is a Calder Trophy winner, having claimed the award in 2013. But his rookie year coincided with the lockout-shortened season, and his first full campaign didn’t go so hot, with nine goals in 69 games last year. As the Panthers try to right their ship and push for a playoff spot, they need the big, talented Huberdeau—on the last year of his entry-level contract—to become a consistent top-six scoring threat.
Matt Niskanen, Washington Capitals: Slagging on free agent megadeals is a summertime specialty of hockey observers, and Niskanen’s seven-year, $40.25-million pact with the Caps was the object of ample derision. While the decision to pay declining players—like, say, the way Washington did with Brooks Orpik—is always dubious, you can’t fault clubs for taking the odd home-run swing. Yes, Niskanen signed his deal coming off (by far) his best NHL season, but he won’t turn 28 until December. For NHL defencemen, that’s often the start of their most effective years. Niskanken’s challenge is to prove that’s the case with him.
Alex Galchenyuk, Montreal Canadiens: Galchenyuk has made limited contributions through two years in Montreal, though not necessarily because his play has disappointed. The 20-year-old has been very sheltered, playing about 13 minutes per game away from his natural position of centre. Whether or not Galchenyuk gets shifted to the middle next season, the offence-deprived Canadiens will surely be looking for bigger things. And as a third-year player in the league and a third-overall pick in 2012, it’s on the young American to deliver.