Every season there are a number of surprise players in the NHL, and this year has been no exception. Some of the surprises, like emerging New York Islanders forward Kyle Okposo and Alexander Steen of the St. Louis Blues, make their coaches and general managers look like geniuses.
Others, not so much.
Any time a team drafts, signs or trades for a player, it has high expectations that said player will produce and the investment will pay off. All too often, however, the player all but disappears and the investment withers away, one disappointing game at a time.
While the vanishing act is for some players a product of their age, or perhaps a lingering injury, it is for others completely inexplicable – and completely inexcusable. These are athletes who are in the prime of their careers, making mega dollars to play the game they love, with every opportunity in the world to succeed at the highest level. Yet they just can’t manage to meet – never mind exceed – expectations.
And while these underachieving players continue to log big minutes and collect big paychecks, their coaches and general managers patiently wait for them to get things going. With those on this list of the the top 10 underachieving players in the NHL this season, their patience must be wearing increasingly thin.
10. Dany Heatley, Minnesota Wild
Although Heatley’s career has been on the decline for several seasons already, his 12 goals and 25 points through 61 games are laughable at best. This is a player who has 372 career goals, a player who has twice scored 50 in a season. At 33 years old, Heatley is still too young to use age as an excuse, and playing alongside stars like Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise and Jason Pominville, he can’t blame the supporting cast. With the Wild in position to make the playoffs for the second consecutive season, Heatley better figure out his game soon – or he might be spending more time on the bench than on the ice.
9. Ville Leino, Buffalo Sabres
Many hockey fans would be surprised to know that Leino’s six-year/$27 million contract makes him the highest-paid forward on the Sabres. And while it may not be fair to blame the 30-year-old winger for signing the contract, it’s easy to blame him for not justifying it. In 120 games since joining Buffalo, Leino has scored 10 goals and recorded 33 assists – an average of only 0.36 points per game. This season, things seem to be going from bad to worse; he has collected only 12 assists and failed to score a single goal in 41 games, despite playing almost 15 minutes per night. From Buffalo’s standpoint, the only thing worse than Leino’s lack of production is that the team is stuck with his contract for another three seasons.
8. Loui Eriksson, Boston Bruins
When the Boston Bruins traded former first-rounder Tyler Seguin for Loui Eriksson, you can bet they were expecting more than six goals from the 28-year-old winger. He did, after all, light the lamp 150 times over the past seven seasons with the Dallas Stars. Granted, he has missed 15 games with a concussion this season, but since joining the Bruins, Eriksson has looked like a different player. He has been unable to click with any linemates and his shooting percentage, which hovered between 11 and 15 per cent during his time in Dallas, is a miniscule 8.22 per cent. Adding insult to injury is the fact that Seguin, still only 22, is having a career year in Dallas, with 57 points in 58 games.
7. Dustin Brown, Los Angeles Kings
With the exception of perhaps Conn Smythe trophy winner, Jonathan Quick, no player was more instrumental in the Los Angeles Kings Stanley Cup championship in 2012 than Dustin Brown. When he followed that up with a solid season in 2012/13, the Kings signed him to a massive eight-year/$47 million contract extension. Since then, however, the Kings captain has all but disappeared. Despite getting top-six minutes and time on the power play, the 29-year-old American has scored only 11 goals and 20 points in 61 games this season. And while scoring has never been his forte, his shooting percentage is well below his career average and he is on pace for the most penalty minutes of his career.
6. Bryan Bickell, Chicago Blackhawks
When it comes to players paying their dues, 27-year-old Bickell is at the top of the list. Drafted by the Blackhawks in the second round of the 2004 NHL entry draft, Bickell spent much of his early career splitting time between the big club and the AHL, working his way up the ranks. When he finally earned a full-time roster spot with the Blackhawks in 2010, he made the most of it by competing every shift and scoring timely goals. Rewarded with a brand new four-year/$16 million deal, however, he appears complacent this season. With nine goals and two assists in 45 games, he is 17th in team scoring and playing barely 11 minutes per game. His defensive game isn’t any better; despite playing for a second-place team with a +47 goal differential, Bickell has a team-worst minus-8 rating.
5. Alex Burrows, Vancouver Canucks
In the first season of a four-year contract worth $18 million, Burrows is making Vancouver’s decision to resign him look questionable at best. Like Eriksson, Burrows has missed time with injuries this season, but even when he’s been healthy he must have head coach John Tortorella tearing his hair out. Despite playing with the Sedin twins and getting significant time on the power play, the 32-year-old winger has failed to score a single goal on 76 shots and only has five assists. He is also a minus-13, worst among Canucks forwards. While Burrows’ play this season has spurred trade rumors, it is likely his current value is too low to fetch anything worthwhile.
4. Tobias Enstrom, Winnipeg Jets
A few seasons ago, Enstrom was emerging as one of the best offensive defensemen in the NHL. Since returning from a shoulder injury suffered in 2013, however, the 29-year-old Swede has hardly looked like the same player. Despite playing more than 24 minutes per game and earning $5.75 million, Enstrom has only scored six goals and added 13 assists in 62 games this season, forcing the Jets to look elsewhere for scoring on the back end. His play has been so poor this season that it cost him the opportunity to play in his second consecutive Olympics and has Winnipeg fans calling for him to be traded.
3. Stephen Weiss, Detroit Red Wings
After spending the first 11 years of his career with the lowly Florida Panthers, Weiss decided to seek greener pastures and test the free agency market last summer. Thanks to consistent offensive numbers and decent two-way play over the course of his career, he received more than a couple offers and eventually agreed on a five-year/$24.5 million deal with the Detroit Red Wings. And although it was one of the biggest signings during the offseason, Weiss has done little to justify it. Yes, he’s missed more than half the season with various injuries, but in the 26 games Weiss has played, he’s scored only two goals and added two assists. With Henrik Zetterberg likely out for the rest of the season, Weiss will have ample opportunity to redeem himself. If the Wings want to make the playoffs, chances are he’ll have to.
2. David Clarkson, Toronto Maple Leafs
He may have been one of the biggest fish in last summer’s free agency pool, but Clarkson has yet to make a splash with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Unless, of course, you count his 10-game suspension to start the season for leaving the bench in a preseason brawl. Since then, the physical winger has scored only four goals and six assists in 42 games. For an investment of $36.75 million over the next seven seasons, the Leafs will need more from Clarkson moving forward, especially considering they’re giving him more than 16 minutes of ice time per game. Considering many Toronto fans questioned the signing before the season even started, Clarkson has his work cut out for him if he wants to win over Leaf Nation.
1. Nail Yakupov, Edmonton Oilers
While calling Nail Yakupov the next Alexandre Daigle may be a bit of a stretch, so is calling him the next Alexander Ovechkin. After a promising rookie season in which he scored 31 points in 48 games, the former first-overall draft pick is quickly playing himself into obscurity. Not only has he been unable to produce offensively – 11 goals and 12 assists in 56 games – but the Russian winger has also been a defensive liability and owns a league-worst minus-29 rating. If there is a silver lining to Yakupov’s struggles, it is that the Oil have yet to resign him to a multi-year deal and owe him only $925,000 for the final year of his entry-level contract. If he hopes to see a big raise like fellow Edmonton first-rounders Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Yakupov will have to prove his worth over the next season. If not, he could be on his way out of town.