As the 2017-18 season approaches, many teams are putting their marquee off-season acquisitions through the motions, helping them get acclimated to their new environments. But for some teams, the most impactful additions heading into the new campaign are those that come from within the organization.
With a few key contributors on tap to return this season after injury-riddled 2016-17 seasons, here are a few key comebacks to watch for:
1. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay Lightning
After enduring an injury-plagued 2013-14 season and a pair of bounce-back campaigns, Steven Stamkos was sidelined once again just 17 games into 2016-17, suffering a lateral meniscus tear in mid-November. The captain’s absence made his importance to the Lightning’s success crystal clear, as Tampa Bay crashed from Cup contender to missing the playoffs completely.
With Stamkos now healthy and ready to return to the Lightning lineup, the club’s chances of returning to the post-season in 2018 rise significantly. As do Stamkos’ chances of reclaiming his goal-scoring throne.
A few new elite goal scorers have crept up the scoring charts since Stamkos last won the Maurice ‘Rocket’ Richard Trophy – he snagged his second back in 2012 – but make no mistake, the Markham, Ont. native is still one of the most dangerous pure snipers in the sport.
There’s always a chance of slight regression after key injuries, but this isn’t Stamkos’ first rodeo. He put up a dominant 43 goals last time he returned from missing significant time, and considering he’s set to suit up alongside fellow star Nikita Kucherov, expect some highlights from No. 91 this season.
2. Jonathan Quick, Los Angeles Kings
The collective hearts of Los Angeles Kings faithful may have stopped for a moment during the first game of the club’s 2016-17 season, when long-time starter Jonathan Quick was forced out of action with a lower-body injury just 20 minutes into the campaign. The veteran netminder wasn’t cleared to return until February and his lengthy absence was enough to help sink the Kings’ 2017 playoff hopes.
After a brief stint in a tandem with temporary teammate Ben Bishop, Quick will once again open the season in the familiar position as L.A.’s starter. The last time he logged a full season, 2015-16, he earned a Vezina Trophy nomination, posting 40 wins and a save percentage of .918 with five shutouts.
That sterling performance led his club to the playoffs, the only year in which L.A. has returned since their 2014 championship run.
The Kings have plenty of obstacles sitting between them and a playoff berth this season, but if they have any chance of bypassing all of the Western Conference up-and-comers and going on another lengthy post-season run, it’ll come on the back of Quick’s reliable, familiar play in the cage.
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3. Kris Letang, Pittsburgh Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins managed to claw their way to a championship without Kris Letang at all in the playoffs, but don’t think that makes the club’s No. 1 rearguard expendable.
The 2013 Norris Trophy nominee was forced out of the lineup in February for what was eventually announced to be a herniated disc, requiring neck surgery in April. Before going down, however, the smooth-skating defenceman was scoring at a dominant pace of 0.83 points per game. In his past 112 regular season games over two seasons, Letang has 101 points.
Health issues have become the norm over the past few years of the 30-year-old’s career, but that doesn’t change the fact that with No. 58 in the lineup, everything runs more smoothly in Pittsburgh. The black and gold managed to piece together a championship-level blue line in Letang’s absence, but after losing key veterans like Nick Bonino and Trevor Daley, Letang’s return will put the team right back atop the pile of contenders.
There’s been talk of the Penguins urging Letang to alter his playing style to avoid vulnerable situations. If doing so allows him to stay in the lineup longer, without sacrificing his offensive creativity, the Penguins’ chances of a three-peat get all the more interesting.
4. Jonathan Huberdeau, Florida Panthers
The rise of Jonathan Marchessault may have caused some to forget about Florida Panthers standout Jonathan Huberdeau last season, the former serving as the top-line replacement for the latter after Huberdeau suffered an Achilles tendon injury before 2016-17 began.
Huberdeau had been steadily rising prior to that setback, posting a career-best 20-goal, 59-point effort in 2015-16 that helped spur the Panthers to the winningest campaign in franchise history.
With him on the shelf, Florida underwent a tumultuous follow-up that culminated in an early summer, sans playoffs. Huberdeau was in the mix for the latter portion of that year, joining the club in February and amassing an impressive 26 points in 31 games.
Florida enters 2017-18 having lost a number of key offensive contributors during the off-season, meaning the club will be leaning on Huberdeau even more as they look to move back towards their 2015-16 success. The pressure to perform will be high, but a return to the top line with Aleksander Barkov, and perhaps off-season acquisition Evgeny Dadonov, should give Huberdeau all he needs to take yet another step in his offensive evolution.
5. Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
Unlike the other clubs on this list, the Buffalo Sabres did at least get a decent chunk of games out of their eventually injured star, as pivot Jack Eichel played 61 times in 2016-17.
But when will Buffalo’s star centre unleash his full potential?
The Sabres’ 2016-17 season was shaken up after Eichel suffered an ankle injury in the final practice before the regular season, which kept him out for the first two months of the campaign. He was strong in his return, re-joining the club and eventually amassing 24 goals and 57 points. That wasn’t enough to bring the Sabres back towards playoff contention, however, as the team finished just one spot out of last place in the conference.
A full and healthy season for Eichel would give us a chance to see the No. 2 overall pick in the 2015 Draft officially reach the next level. With other young superstars such as Connor McDavid and Auston Matthews making waves and proving their dominance – and pulling their clubs up in the process – the Sabres enter 2017-18 with the hope Eichel has genuine superstardom breakout potential.