The NHL has been notorious for what has been dooped as the “sophomore slump.” Players who light up the league in their first season in the most skilled league in the World, only to fail to live up to the same levels of success they had during their first year.
The latest example of this phenomenon is Nathan MacKinnon of the Colorado Avalanche. The 19-year-old took home the Calder Trophy last season after leading all rookies with 63 points. However, this season, like the rest of his Avs teammates, he is having a disappointing go having put up just 20 points in 32 games, which at that pace would see a dip of 12 points this season for a total of 51.
However, while MacKinnon seems to be struggling to perform at the same level he did last season, there have been a collection of sophomore players who are trending in the opposite direction. Instead of slumping in year two, they have elevated their play to a new level and are quickly becoming important parts of their NHL clubs.
The sixth-overall pick in 2013 put up an impressive 22 goals in his rookie campaign and added another 12 assists on a Calgary Flames team that did just slightly better than their Alberta counterparts, the Oilers. This year the team rushed out to a start that not many predicted prior to opening day. However, since then the Flames have cooled off, but Monahan still looks to eclipse the impressive numbers he amassed last season. Through the first 35 games the 20-year-old has 11 goals and 21 points and is on pace to hit the 25 goal mark and 49 points. It’s not a huge number, but is a 44% increase on last year’s point total and is on pace for the second most goals on the team behind Jiri Hudler.
Nelson broke into the league last season with the New York Islanders and put up 26 points in 72 games. Fast-forward to this season and the former 2010 first-round pick is becoming one of the go-to-guys for the Islanders. Through his team’s first 33 games he has helped his team find a spot among the top of the Eastern Conference with his 14 goals and 27 points. His ice-time has risen over 2:30 to where it was last year and Nelson has been making every last minute count. Nelson is on pace for 67 points just two points behind the paces of both John Tavares and Kyle Okposo for top spot on the team.
The Tampa Bay Lightning haven’t seemed to really skip a beat since the departure of long-time Bolt, Martin St. Louis last season. A big part of the reason is because of the play of Tyler Johnson. The 24-year-old has helped his team become among the elites in the East. Johnson had a very impressive rookie season finishing second in voting behind MacKinnon. He tied the Avs centre with 24 goals last year including five shorthanded. He put up a very impressive 50 points playing in all 82 games.
This season though he’s on pace to shatter those totals, he currently has 10 goals and 34 points in 34 games, on pace for 81, after missing one game earlier this season. He is also second in the NHL with a plus-20. But what might be most shocking is that the Spokane, WA native was never drafted, but rather signed by the Lightning in 2011 as a free agent.
The Lightning are quickly becoming the new Detroit Red Wings, finding a way to be successful at the hands of their own homegrown talent and Nikita Kucherov is another example of that. The 21-year-old Russian was drafted by the Bolts in the second round 58th overall in 2011 and is third in team scoring behind Steven Stamkos and Johnson. The right winger has 13 goals and 30 points in 35 games after putting up just 18 points in 52 games in his rookie season. The 5-foot-11, 171 pounder had 24 points in 17 games in the AHL last season earning a call up from the team and he now seems to have earned a permanent spot with the big club.
It took some time for Sami Vatanen to finally get a shot with the Anaheim Ducks after being drafted in the fourth round 106th overall in 2009, but the 23-year-old now looks like a steal of a pick. After playing 48 games with the Ducks and registering 21 points, the Finish blueliner made the team out of training camp and is quickly making a name for himself. In the team’s first 35 games, the right-hander has nine goals and 24 points, trailing only Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler. He is on pace for 56 points, 20 more points that Cam Fowler had last season, leading all Duck defenders.
A player is expected to learn a lot and develop during his first season in the NHL. But entering year-two, rarely are players expected to become the most valuable pieces of their teams, but the few players above are quickly doing so. These players have not only avoided the “sophomore slump,” but rather have been part of a “sophomore sizzle.”
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Photo Courtesy of Jeff Gross/Getty Images
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