The ultimate prize in hockey is the Stanley Cup, and teams must get through four grueling best-of-seven series to lift it. The New York Rangers and Los Angeles Kings were the two teams left standing following this season's Conference Final matchups, and while a number of players elevated their level of play, a handful of guys failed to deliver on the high expectations that come along with their hefty paychecks.
While players like Martin St. Louis, Drew Doughty and even Dustin Tokarski rose to the occasion, others failed to live up to the trust that teams handed them in the form of lucrative contracts. Of course hockey is one of the most (if not the most) team-oriented sports of them all, so it isn't always particularly fair to point out one poor performance as the main reason that a squad is sent packing. But all the same, big money comes with the assumption that players will deliver when the games matter most, and a few wealthy players came up short in the Conference Final.
While, ultimately, the whole team is responsible for shortcomings, star players are expected to live up to their stellar reputation when the regular season turns to the postseason. What happens during the 82-game schedule doesn't matter a lick once the playoffs start.
Here are a few players that didn't get that memo.
5 Kris Versteeg (Chicago Blackhawks) Cap Hit '13-'14: $4.4 Million
2013-14 Cap Hit: $4.4 million ($2.2 million paid by Chicago, $2.2 million retained by Florida Panthers)
What Was Expected: After winning the Stanley Cup in 2013, the Chicago Blackhawks were looking to repeat this year. No major changes were made to the Cup winning roster of a year ago, but there was a perceived issue with forward depth. General manager Stan Bowman attempted to rectify that issue by bringing in a familiar face in Kris Versteeg via trade.
The Canadian winger was a part of the 'Hawks team that won the Stanley Cup in 2009-10, and he was considered a reliable commodity that would fit in with Chicago's systems and with their plans for a repeat victory. Versteeg wasn't expected to be a top-six force, but he was supposed to anchor a strong third line that would be capable of causing matchup issues for the opposition.
That isn't quite how things panned out after he arrived from Florida, however.
What Actually Happened: Through 15 playoff contests, Versteeg managed one goal and a pair of assists. Chicago wanted more from him when they dealt for him back in November, and he was visibly one of the least effective forwards that played in the Western Conference Final.
While the Los Angeles Kings received timely scoring from their depth players, Versteeg struggled to produce anything outside of bad possession numbers. His poor playoff outing culminated in a Game 6, this after he saw his ice time plummet in Game 5 after committing a horrid turnover.
4 Bryan Bickell (Chicago Blackhawks) Cap Hit '13-'14: $4 Million
2013-14 Cap Hit: $4 million
What Was Expected: Bryan Bickell came out of nowhere during the playoffs last year. After scoring 23 points through 48 regular season games, the Ontario native erupted during Chicago's run at the Stanley Cup. He scored nine goals and added eight assists in 23 games and was a central part of the forward depth that allowed the 'Hawks to secure the title.
His contract expired over the summer, and Bowman anted up for a guy that appeared capable of elevating his game during the playoffs. The Blackhawks committed four years and $16 million for 23 games worth of quality play, and the increased paycheck obviously brought more responsibility for Bickell.
What Actually Happened: While the 2013-14 playoffs weren't a total disaster for the 28-year-old, his performance in the third round left much to be desired. Again, the Kings were receiving key goals at big moments from their bottom-six forwards and Chicago desperately needed Bickell to punch through with a few big efforts.
He finished the Western Conference Final with a single goal. The shots were there for Bickell—including five in Game 5 of the series—but the forward just couldn't find a way to beat Jonathan Quick.
L.A. advanced to the Stanley Cup Final over Chicago in part due to Bickell and Versteeg under-performing.
3 Jonathan Quick (Los Angeles Kings) Cap Hit '13-'14: $5.8 Million
2013-14 Cap Hit: $5.8 million
What Was Expected: Making $7 million a season until 2023, few goalies in the NHL can claim the same level of job security as Jonathan Quick. The Los Angeles Kings didn't hesitate to extend the netminder with a long-term, lucrative contract following the 2012-13 campaign, and they figured they had the most important position in the game locked up for the foreseeable future.
In the third round, Quick was expected to outplay Corey Crawford of the Blackhawks. Crawford is basically today's Chris Osgood since his success is considered a result of the team he plays for rather than of individual excellence.
Quick, on the other hand, is supposed to be one of the top goalies in the game. He didn't play like one in the Western Conference Final despite his Kings advancing through the round.
What Actually Happened: L.A. won the WCF in spite of Quick, not because of him. His aggressive style allowed the Blackhawks to climb back into the series, and nearly cost the Kings a shot at their second Stanley Cup in three seasons.
Of the seven contests that Quick played against the 'Hawks in the third round, only two of them could be considered even marginally average. The other five games were absolute eggs, and it was only the offensive depth of the Kings that allowed them to advance.
2 Brad Richards (New York Rangers) Cap Hit '13-'14: $6.6 Million
2013-14 Cap Hit: $6.6 million
What Was Expected: Brad Richards is an easy target when it comes to players that can't live up to their contracts. His nine-year, $60 million contract is among the more ludicrous in the NHL.
He's expected to be a strong leader on and off the ice while providing secondary scoring on a Rangers team that leans more on youngsters than veterans at this juncture, but he's struggled to even do that.
What Actually Happened: The Rangers managed to get through to the Stanley Cup Final, but Richards had little to do with that. His "leadership" has been invaluable for New York on their current Cup run, but $6.6 million seems like a lot of cash to shell out for a guy that came up with one goal and one assist in the second round.
Richards has had a nice bounce-back season in 2013-14 and has been a solid player in New York all year long. The third round wasn't particularly outstanding for the 34-year-old pivot, however.
1 Thomas Vanek (Montreal Canadiens) Cap Hit '13-'14: $7.1 Million
2013-14 Cap Hit: $7.142 million
What Was Expected: The Montreal Canadiens didn't pay a high price when they acquired Thomas Vanek at the trade deadline, but that's because the player had already publicly stated that he intended to test free agency no matter where he ended up playing. That handcuffed the New York Islanders as they tried to broker a deal, and they eventually sent Vanek to the Habs.
He's a rental through and through, but that doesn't mean that Montreal didn't expect him to be a top-line winger during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
What Actually Happened: Things got so bad for Vanek in the third round that there was some talk of the Canadiens scratching him and replacing him with a more physical forward. That's not how elite trade deadline acquisitions are supposed to pan out.
Vanek finished the third round with zero goals and two assists while seeing a series-high 13:05 minutes played in Game 1 dwindle as the contests wore on. The veteran sniper will be able to sign anywhere he wants in July, but don't expect the Canadiens to come knocking with an offer to retain his services.
All contract information appears courtesy of CapGeek.com, while statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com.