6 NHLers under the most pressure to salvage their seasons

Watch as Mike Babcock addressed the media following the Toronto Maple Leafs’ overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

Even the best of the big leaguers will stumble through a slow start here and there over the course of a career.

There are many contextual factors that can weigh into an NHLer’s early-season performance, but in a league that has as much parity as this one, where even the worst of the 31 teams can be a stiff test on any given night, an early individual slide can only be forgiven for so long.

Which brings us here. With the first third of the season in the books, we’ve reached the point where the don’t-worry-it’s-going-to-come slow starters are flirting with this-season’s-a-write-off territory, whether due to a lack of production or other unusual circumstances.

That being the case, let’s take a look at a few names in need of a strong string of performances to salvage their 2018-19 campaigns:


William Nylander, Toronto Maple Leafs

You had to know he would be in the mix. File this under the ‘Unusual Circumstances’ mentioned above (and then ‘Understatement of the Year’ while you’re at it).

The talented Swede is only on his way to game No. 3 as mid-December approaches after wrapping up the prolonged contract negotiations that had Leafs faithful on edge through October and November. The work is just beginning to now live up to his hefty new contract in the fishbowl of the Toronto hockey market, where each miss-step will be under the microscope.

There’s bound to be some rust on Nylander’s wheels — his first two games proved as much:

“Any time you’ve missed that amount of hockey, it’s going to be hard for him,” head coach Mike Babcock told Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston following Nylander’s first game back. “But I talked to [Matthews] about that, too. They’re both going to have to do extra. We’re going to do it every practice day and they’ll crawl their way back to being the players they’re capable of being.”

Given his skill-set, it’s fair to assume Nylander will be just fine and that he’ll get something out of 2018-19 after all. But if not, here’s betting it won’t fly under the radar.

Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens

It’s been a tumultuous year for the Montreal Canadiens, but the club has withstood key injuries and roster shake-ups to keep themselves in the playoff picture. With a couple unexpected stars rolling in Max Domi and Tomas Tatar, the Canadiens appear to be in better shape than originally thought.

Except, in a cruel twist, the one name on the roster that’s supposed to evoke the least doubt is the one enduring the lion’s share of troubles.

Through 23 starts in 2018-19, Carey Price has put together some truly underwhelming numbers — his .902 save percentage and 2.92 goals-against average nearly the worst in his career. The only worse campaign? Last season: .900 save percentage, 3.11 goals-against average through 49 appearances.

Writing Price off or assuming this slide is a sign of a genuinely diminishing skill-set is foolish given all he’s accomplished. But, regardless, there’s no denying he needs to right the ship as soon as possible to avoid being the issue for a team that’s showed promise. That his $10.5-million cap hit is the highest on the team makes that fact even more pointed.

In his past six starts, Price has allowed more than two goals just once and has a .920 save percentage over that time. His last start, a 37-save win over Chicago, was the best of them all and could signal he’s on the path back to his rightful level.

“When you think about how much time Price spent chasing around the puck with his eyes — Chicago played close to 15 minutes on the power play and had the puck in Montreal’s end for the majority of it — it really hammers home what kind of performance he authored,” Sportsnet’s Eric Engels wrote of the 2015 Hart Trophy winner’s standout showing. “He was world class in this one.”

Shea Weber, Montreal Canadiens

Speaking of crucially important Montreal returns, the Canadiens have their captain back in the fold with Shea Weber having slotted back in for his club’s past six games.

Much like Nylander, Weber’s need for a strong performance over the latter two thirds of 2018-19 rests more on the fact of his late start than a slow one. Elements of the club’s offensive game have looked promising, but Weber will need to carry the team’s blue line for things to truly roll along as they have been — especially with the Canadien mentioned above facing his own issues.

Montreal’s captain has started strong, putting up five points through his first six appearances. And good thing, because nothing less will be expected or accepted from the Sicamous, B.C., native. That simply comes with the territory, given the gargantuan dollars Weber is raking in for the foreseeable future ($7.86 million annually through 2025-26) and what the organization gave up to bring him to town.

“I think it’s going to keep getting better as we go here [and I] get more comfortable being in those game situations,” Weber told Engels after his first game back in the lineup. “Obviously practice is different and being in those actual situations when you have to read and react and things are happening quickly will be good to go along and get better as we go.”

Trade counterpart P.K. Subban flirted with career-best territory last year as Weber was limited to just 26 games in a Canadiens sweater. The pressure is on for the latter to continue re-asserting his dominance on the ice to win back the Montreal faithful and ward off the growing crowd of doubters.

Ilya Kovalchuk, Los Angeles Kings

Three years with a $6.25-million cap hit was always going to be an ambitious, likely overly optimistic number for Ilya Kovalchuk. But there was certainly reason to believe the 35-year-old could step back into the NHL and inflict his scoring prowess upon the opposition once again.

It’s not that he hasn’t been able to do that at times. The former Thrasher and Devil started strong with 14 points in 14 games, pacing his club for much of the early going. But, simultaneously, the opposition has potted 3.4 goals per 60 minutes when Kovalchuk is on the ice at even-strength (per Hockey-Reference), the highest mark for any Kings forward who has skated in as many games this season as the talented Russian.

That landed him in new coach Willie Desjardins’ doghouse and, by extension, in the bottom six — recently hacking Kovalchuk’s early-season 20-plus-minutes of ice time down to as low as 6:20. It also brought an 11-game pointless streak after that early glut of scoring.

Pushed out of the lineup by an ankle injury that’s moved Kovalchuk to the IR for the next month, his path back to top-six relevancy isn’t going to get any easier. But Los Angeles still has two-and-a-half seasons of No. 17 on its roster, so burying him on the fourth line when he does return isn’t going to do much to help the near-last-place club’s cause.

Either way, it seems if Kovalchuk can’t shore up his two-way game well enough to win back some better offensive opportunities, his much-hyped NHL return could wind up finishing a very inglorious affair.

James Neal, Calgary Flames

For a time during the off-season, the Calgary Flames’ inking of James Neal looked like it could wind up being one of the summer’s better moves. Here was one of the game’s most consistently dangerous snipers — with 20-plus goals in every season of his career, topping out at 40 with the high-flying 2011-12 Penguins — joining an Albertan squad sorely lacking offensive depth.

Two months into the campaign, everything looks peachy for Calgary. A dominant and deep offence has them sitting with the fifth-most goals per game in the league and the third-best goal differential — all of which has added up to a conference-topping performance.

Unfortunately, Neal’s played almost no part in that.

Stashed on the third line early on, with little opportunity to move up in the lineup, Neal’s averaging the fewest minutes of his career at 15:24 per night. Unsurprisingly, that’s plummeted his points-per-game and goals-per-game pace as he’s put up just three goals and six points through 31 games. Which is the cause and which is the result is unclear at the moment, and likely will remain so unless a longer look comes his way.

Eric Francis on James Neal: 'You don't pay a guy that much to be on the third line'
October 19 2018

A return to the Neal of old, bringing an all-world shot and a healthy dose of goals at even strength, could be the factor that tips the Flames from the hot-starter category to genuine contender. But the 31-year-old continuing on anywhere near the pace he’s currently showcasing could make that $5.75 million in each of the next four years look mighty wasteful.

Alex Galchenyuk, Arizona Coyotes

Alex Galchenyuk’s been the poster boy for misused assets so far in his career, with many feeling he never got a fair shot in Montreal, despite having showed a 30-goal effort and plenty of promise. A trade out of the Canadiens’ old-school tradition and into the Coyotes’ new-school mentality was supposed to offer up a much-needed second chance.

But so far, Galchenyuk hasn’t done much to dissuade his doubters. An early-season injury that kept him out for much of October did him no favours, but in the 21 games since, the 24-year-old has put up just three goals and 11 points. That leaves his points-per-game and goals-per-game scoring paces among career lows at the moment.

He’s been given talent to help him thrive, with marquee Coyotes star Clayton Keller skating alongside Galchenyuk, as well as recently-acquired Nick Schmaltz. And an early stretch of eight points through eight games showed some promise, before a less-inspiring three-in-12 stretch doused that progress.

There’s plenty of time for the former Canadien to find his way, but the nature of his arrival in Arizona makes his 2018-19 season performance all the more worthy of scrutiny. Domi is off to a career-best start after going the other way in the Montreal-Arizona swap, flipping the script after the original reaction to the one-for-one trade had many struggling to understand how a 30-goal sniper like Galchenyuk could be flipped for someone like Domi, who had only 36 goals to his name over his entire career.

And there’s the matter of his polarizing positional inconsistency. Said Coyotes GM John Chayka after the trade for Galchenyuk: “Our thesis on it is he has the ability (to play centre) and we think that he has natural tendencies that lend itself to that. … He’s had success playing the centre position. I don’t think we’d make this trade if we didn’t think he had the ability to play centre.”

After centring Schmaltz and Keller for a stretch, Galchenyuk was bumped to the wing at the end of November, with Schmaltz taking over centre duties.

Pressure’s on.

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