After just about two months of NHL action, players early season stumbles are becoming midseasons problems. Most teams have played only a third of their games in 2017-18, but the longer a players slumps – the more their team suffers. 28 games in, it is no longer ok to give anyone a free pass. Players that are depended on to produce, need to not only be making their teammates better but keep their teams from quickly looking at a 2018 lottery pick. Players like Tristan Jarry – Matt Murray‘s backup – have already filled roles of star players and kept their teams from falling any farther down the standings.
Here are five players that need to improve their play over the last two thirds of the NHL season.
5 NHL Players That Need to Step-Up
Jack Eichel (C) – Buffalo Sabres
Remember when Ryan O’Reilly said “I’m sick of losing. It’s getting exhausting and it’s not fun,” when talking about the Sabres continuous ability to lose? Well his message obviously has not connected with the rest of the Buffalo roster. After Arizona’s recent surge, Buffalo currently sits dead last in the NHL standings with a measly 18 points and seven wins.
The biggest fish on the team however, is Jack Eichel.
Buffalo’s struggles obviously do not all fall directly on Eichel, but as a young player with a ton of potential set to earn $10million a year in the near future, he needs to step up. Eichel current has a decent 21 points in 28 games, but his most concerning stat is his single powerplay point. When healthy, the Sabres powerplay unit is one of the youngest, but also best units in the entire NHL. Eichel is the most important member of that unit and has been so ineffective that Buffalo ranks last to only Columbus in powerplay percentage.
Justin Faulk (D) – Carolina Hurricanes
Surprisingly enough, Justin Faulk‘s problems are from somewhere else rather than the plus/minus column this season. The now only 25 year-old defender has been dreadful to start the year; on a Carolina team that could have been one of the biggest dark horses in the eastern conference. This is not to say that Faulk has played awful this year, but he needs to play better for the team to reach its potential.
Faulk is typically (and is being payed as) a defender that plays decent defence but stands apart from the pack because of his ability to score. Over the last three seasons, he has not scored less than 15 goals and accumulated less than 37 points. Through 26 games thus far, Faulk only has one goal, despite being on pace for almost as many shots as he took last year. His single goal on 74 shots leave’s his shooting percentage at a laughable 1.4%.
The Hurricanes might be playing better team defence in 2017-18 so far, but they need to score. Faulk contributing on offence will go a long way for Carolina as their young core continues to develop. Being ranked 28th in goals is not going to get you back in the playoffs any time soon.
Kevin Hayes (C) – New York Rangers
Ever since he came out of college, everyone in hockey has been waiting for Kevin Hayes to solidify himself as a top six forward. 2015 was a good first step when he put up 45 points in his first full season of NHL action and 49 – a career high – last season, but the Rangers are waiting for his breakout; so much so they traded Derek Stepan over the summer. This of course was partly because they believed Mika Zibanejad could become their no.1 centre, but it also opened a door for Hayes to step through.
You know who else is 6’4″ and just about 220lbs with a great two-way game? Ryan Getzlaf.
Hayes has become the Rangers top penalty killer, but he doesn’t block shots and doesn’t hit much either. With the uncertainty of Zibanejad’s injury, it is time for Hayes to show he can be that do it all centreman. So far this year Hayes only has 11 points in 27 games, but like Zibanajed, will be given more opportunities due to lack of centre depth. David Desharnais is currently starting at centre on the New York’s top line; whose highest career point total is 26. Hayes is a better scorer and defender than Desharnais, and if he just finds the back of the net a bit more, he will quickly find his way onto the top unit.
If Hayes can find a second gear and hit his full potential in 2018, he could be the difference between the Rangers getting in and missing the playoffs.
Craig Anderson (G) – Ottawa Senators
Craig Anderson obviously went through a lot over the 2017 season, but it is becoming hard to excuse his play through two months in the new season. At 36 year-old it is natural to expect a drop in play at Anderson ages, but the drop was not to be this dramatic. He also seemed quite fine at the end of the season last year, when he became one of the integral parts to Ottawa’s run to the Eastern Conference Finals. He even earned himself a two-year extension through 2020.
At the end of last season, Anderson was flying high, finishing the regular season with a 2.28 GAA — his best over any season where he started more than 30 games. He also held a solid .926 save percentage. So far in 2017-18, he has done a complete 180. Over 19 starts (21 games) in 2017-18, Anderson’s save percentage is down over 30 points at .895% and his GAA is through the roof at 3.06. This is all despite the Senators giving up the eighth least shots per game in the league.
Whatever is going on with Anderson needs to be straightened out soon. They didn’t trade away all of those parts for Matt Duchene to win in three years.
Brent Burns (D) – San Jose Sharks
Somehow, last years shot leader ended up being a defensemen. That defensemen was Brent Burns; who finished 2017 with 320 shots and 27 goals — 12 more than any other defensemen in the NHL. Burns might be a defensemen but over the years he has proved that he plays with the mindset of a forward. Unfortunately, that mindset is quickly doing him in at age 32.
2017-18 is becoming a year to forget for Burns. The sharks defensemen and powerplay quarterback has gone quiet to begin the year and has only managed to find the back of the net once in 26 games. It also took him 20 games before he scored that lone goal. Though it is not for lack of trying. Burns hasn’t given up on his shot, putting 99 pucks on the net unsuccessfully — good for seventh among skaters in the NHL. Not to mention he is on pace to finish the year with the most single season shot attempts (756.9) of his career.
The Sharks are currently hanging on to third place in the Pacific Division, but if Burns can’t consistently find the back of the net and improve their 27th ranked powerplay, San Jose is going find themselves chasing the rest of the field over the next four months.
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