A decade into his NHL career, the “Finnish Flash” was flickering.
Teemu Selanne completed the 2003-04 season — the last of the Dead Puck Era — with 16 goals in 78 games for the Colorado Avalanche. That summer he represented Finland at the World Cup of Hockey and scored one goal for the tournament bridesmaids. At 34, the first-ever Rocket Richard Trophy winner was skating with a left knee made of slush.
That World Cup final contest between Finland and Canada was the last high-level game many NHLers took part in for about 13 months thanks to an owners lockout that torpedoed the 2004-05 season. When the NHL resumed in October, 2005, Selanne was playing like he was 23 again, having used the time off to undergo reconstructive surgery and put in 10 months of rehab.
What a difference a forced break can make.
Seven NHL teams haven’t played a game since early March, meaning even if the league fires back up on Jan. 1, 2021, a whole bunch of players will go roughly 10 months without real action. Another eight clubs played a few qualification-round contests before getting bounced from the amended 2020 playoffs, creating another glut of guys who got a whole lot of downtime to rest and recover.
While it’s hard to imagine any night-and-day situations like Selanne’s — the resurgent right winger scored 40 goals the first year after the lockout, 48 the next and played until he was 43 — a few players spring to mind as candidates to discover a sporting silver lining in this otherwise awful pandemic experience.
Here, then, are four guys who could pop in 2021 — whenever we drop the puck.
Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks
Karlsson’s last game was on Valentine’s Day versus the Winnipeg Jets, when he broke his thumb. Two years ago, during his first campaign in San Jose, Karlsson missed nearly 20 games with a groin issue that lingered throughout the 2019 playoffs. The last time he lined up for 82 contests was 2015-16, when he was a 25-year-old Ottawa Senator.
Now 30, the offensive-minded Swede seems like somebody who could use a long period away from the rink to rest his relatively slight frame. In fact, if you were to identify a team that probably needed to collectively catch its breath, it would be the Sharks. Last season was miserable for San Jose and its veteran core — from Brent Burns to Marc-Edouard Vlasic to Logan Couture — might all be better off for the long pause.
Frederik Andersen, Toronto Maple Leafs
Andersen has started 244 games since joining the Leafs in 2016, more than every NHL stopper during that four-season span. Last year — the worst of Andersen’s four in Toronto — was the second straight campaign he operated without a suitable backup, until the team acquired Jack Campbell at the trade deadline.
Though plagued by more questions about ill-timed goals against, Andersen posted a .936 save percentage in Toronto’s five-game preliminary-round loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets after five months off. The combination of playing just a handful of games in the span of nearly a year, and entering the season with a capable No. 2 behind him, could result in a strong season for the big Dane — just as he’s about to become an unrestricted free agent.
Evgeni Malkin, Pittsburgh Penguins
To be clear, there’s no issue with Malkin when he’s playing. The stud centre has registered 1.20 points per game during the past four seasons and the only two players to exceed that total league-wide — Connor McDavid and Nikita Kucherov — have some pretty serious hardware to show for it.
The problem, of course, is the pesky GP category. The lanky Russian has routinely missed big chunks of seasons for the majority of this decade thanks to various ailments. In fact, he’s appeared in 70 games just once — once! — in the past eight years (Malkin missed 17 contests in the 48-game 2012-13 season).
Pittsburgh succumbed to Montreal in four preliminary-round games, so ‘Steeltown’ is going a long stretch without much action. Combine a big break for the 34-year-old Malkin with a sprint of a season — maybe even sprinkle in some load management — and you wonder if he could be a force come playoff time for a Pittsburgh squad trying to squeeze all it can out of the Sid and Geno era.
Nolan Patrick, Philadelphia Flyers
We’re talking about the benefits of a layoff here, but there might not be a player on the planet more anxious for a good game of hockey than Patrick. The 22-year-old Flyers centre missed all of last season and the playoffs with migraine issues. Now he has a few more months to recover without the anxiety of knowing his team is playing without him.
Patrick has been on the ice this fall and inked a one-year deal with the Flyers coming off his entry-level contract. Here’s hoping the second overall pick from 2017 is ready to roll whenever the next season begins.