The concept of a player having something to prove is pretty vague. It can mean different things to different people, but for us it will mean a player who is under a great deal of pressure. You could argue that every NHL player is under some pressure — and that would be true. When your employer pays you anywhere from the league minimum of $575,000 to the league high of $13.8 million that Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are pulling in this year, there is going to be pressure.
However, I’m not considering the everyday pressure of being a highly compensated professional athlete. I’m considering the pressure of being traded to a team and becoming the star of that team before skating a single shift for them. I’m talking about the pressure of living up to the demands a player puts on his team for his next contract. I’m talking about the pressure of being the player the team thinks is the single missing piece who will get that team to the 2015-16 Stanley Cup. So, big pressure as opposed to everyday pressure.
If you’re into drama, these are the guys you need to keep an eye on as the season progresses. These are the guys who will be under the microscope. With that in mind, here are five players who will have the most to prove in 2015-16, whether it be for their new teams or the teams they have played for through their entire NHL careers.
1. Eric Staal
Eric Staal is the captain of the Carolina Hurricanes. He is also the team’s highest-paid player, with a salary of $9.5 million this season, the last of a seven-year deal. That salary makes him one of the 10 highest-paid players in the NHL. For his next deal, 31-year-old Staal wants to be paid $9 million per season. That’s a hefty asking price for a player who saw his production drop significantly over the past two seasons.
In fact, last season Staal scored 54 points (23G, 31A) in 77 games, only one point more than he scored in the 48-game lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. If Staal wants to make top-level NHL money, he is going to have to deliver top-level NHL statistics. Right now he is not on pace to do that; he is on pace to put up the same numbers he put up last season.
2. Dougie Hamilton
Here’s what Dougie Hamilton is up against: First, the Calgary Flames gave up three high draft picks to the Boston Bruins in a trade for Hamilton. Then the team signed him to a six-year contract worth $34.5 million. That deal made Hamilton the highest-paid defenseman on the team. So, yes, he’s got something to prove to both the fans and management.
The 22-year-old played well in Boston, increasing both his scoring and time on the ice in each of the three seasons he spent there. The expectation is that he will do the same in Calgary. Hamilton has not done that, scoring only two goals and two assists in his 17 games with the team. He is being paid to produce. Yes, he’s still young. Yes, he’s a defenseman, so there is the slower NHL development trend. Yes, he’s on a new team, with a new scheme and new teammates, but sooner or later Hamilton will come under fire if he doesn’t up his numbers.
3. Phil Kessel
Pressure shouldn’t be anything new for Phil Kessel. The 28-year-old right winger was drafted fifth overall by the Boston Bruins in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft. After three seasons in that pressure cooker, he was dealt to an even more pressure-filled market in Toronto. For six years he toiled under the spotlight in Toronto before they dealt him to the Pittsburgh Penguins this off-season.
Kissel performed well in both Boston and Toronto. With the Maple Leafs he scored 156 goals. Only four players scored more goals during that timeframe. Kessel performed like that in Toronto under a media microscope that reported everything he did, right or wrong (and in their eyes, it was mostly wrong). The spotlight will be less glaring in Pittsburgh than it was in Toronto, but it is still there. The Penguins expect Kessel to be a key member of the team. They traded for him for one reason: to get closer to the Stanley Cup.
4. Milan Lucic
The Boston Bruins traded power forward Milan Lucic to the Los Angeles Kings in late June. It was a trade to move some salary, sure, but it was also a trade that moved a player who had watched his total points decrease every year since he put up 62 points in the 2010-11 season. Last year, Lucic put up 44 points (18G, 26A). It was his worst performance since he scored 42 points his sophomore year. The Kings missed the playoffs last year after winning the Stanley Cup in 2013-14. They obviously brought Lucic on board with the hopes of getting back to the playoffs and making a run at the Cup.
Lucic did not find immediate success with the Kings. He started the season on the first line, along with Anze Kopitar and Marian Gaborik, but was moved to the second line after the team went 0-3. Things have improved for Lucic since the move, but he is still on pace to score less than 50 points this season, which just so happens to be a contract year for the 27-year-old.
5. Brandon Saad
Brandon Saad won the Stanely Cup as a member of the Chicago Blackhawks last season. Saad also had a career year, scoring 52 points (23G, 29A) while averaging 17:15 of ice time per game. During the playoffs, he had eight goals; the only two players with more goals on the Blackhawks were Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews. Saad’s reward for those accomplishments? A trade to the Columbus Blue Jackets for the then-pending restricted free agent.
The Blue Jackets wasted no time signing Saad to a six-year deal worth $36 million, making him the highest-paid skater on the team. The Blue Jackets are at the bottom of the NHL standings, which will increase the pressure on Saad to perform. Where the Blackhawks roster was full of stars, the Blue Jackets roster is not. The team needs Saad to deliver numbers equal to or better than his performance in Chicago. Only time will tell.