Five NHLers That Avoided the Sophomore Slump

Are they growing up or just going down? It's just a matter of time until we all find out.
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Adam Fox

The sophomore slump is one of the most feared phenomena in sports.

A hotshot rookie looks like a world-beater in his inaugural campaign but comes crashing back down to earth the next year. Is it the result of going from playing sheltered minutes to suddenly being asked to take on opponents’ top lines? Do opposing video coaches now have enough film with which to prime their players to shut the guy down? Was the hot start simply a result of good puck luck? Is the pressure suddenly real after the rookie naivety fades?

Honestly, who really knows. That’s above my paygrade. What I can tell you is the sophomore slump can come for absolutely anybody.

Don’t believe me? Even perennial Hart Trophy candidate Nathan MacKinnon had a sizable downturn in production in what was an injury-marred sophomore campaign after winning the Calder Trophy in 2014. Hall of Famer Jerome Iginla, too, suffered a sophomore swoon in 1997-98 after finishing runner-up to Bryan Berard for the 1997 Calder.

The following five players, however, avoided falling victim to the curse in 2020-21 and instead built on their early success.

One thing to keep in mind: this list is far from exhaustive. There are just way too many NHLers who had strong sophomore campaigns to mention. So if your favorite 2019-20 rookie doesn’t appear – whether it’s because there wasn’t enough room or because he was hit with a regression this season – don’t hit the panic button.

That MacKinnon guy turned out alright. Even parlayed his hockey gig into a couple appearances on CBC’s Mr. D.

Adam Fox – New York Rangers

In the past, Adam Fox has been swept aside when fans and prognosticators alike speak of the most electrifying young D-men in the NHL – though that has begun to change. On this list, however, he’s getting the top billing he rightfully deserves.

But after the season he’s had, Fox won’t be getting overlooked any longer. He’s a legitimate – albeit outside – contender for the Norris Trophy, and has quickly asserted himself as a true No. 1 D-man at 23 years old.

In 2020-21, Fox has averaged around 25 minutes of ice time while consistently drawing the toughest matchups. Per puckiq.com, Fox has played 42 percent of his minutes this season against elite competition. The only Ranger with a higher percentage is defense partner Ryan Lindgren. Lindgren, whose steadying presence on the Rangers’ top pair gives Fox the latitude to take risks, could just as easily be on this list.

For reference, Fox played 27 percent of his minutes against elite competition last year. Despite the steady uptick in the difficulty of his minutes, Fox has maintained his top-flight play. He leads all blueliners in scoring 47 points in 54 games. And it’s not as though he’s completely abdicating his defensive responsibilities in search of that offense. Per naturalstattrick.com, when Fox is on the ice at 5-on-5 this season, the Rangers have an expected goals-for percentage of 54.49. That’s good for 27th among blueliners with at least 400 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Fifteen of the 26 rearguards with a better xGF% start more of their shifts in the offensive zone than does Fox.

They aren’t ultra-elite shutdown numbers, but for a young offensive-minded D-man playing hard minutes on a mediocre team, they aren’t too shabby either.

Ultimately, it’s unlikely Fox takes home individual hardware this season. But it’s not far off either.

Cale Makar – Colorado Avalanche

Another electrifying young defenseman whose play has earned him Norris Trophy consideration. NHL fans should feel thankful to be living in a time with this many eye-popping youngsters.

Makar pipped Fox to both the 2019 Hobey Baker and the 2020 Calder but has to settle for second-best here. He’ll be devastated, I’m sure.

The Avalanche chose Makar with the 4th overall pick in the 2017 draft. He put up 50 points in 57 games for the Avs in 2019-20. He’s followed that up with a 7-goal, 41-point campaign in 40 games this year.

Like Fox, he’s seen an uptick in minutes played, going from averaging just over 21 minutes in 2019-20 to 24-plus this season. Unlike Fox, he’s seen a reduction in the percentage of time he spends on ice against elite competition (34.1 percent in 2019-20, 23.8 percent in 2020-21). But what he’s lacked in minutes skated versus the elites, he’s made up for with the quality of his play against them. Per puckiq.com, Makar has a Corsi-for of 62.5 percent in 167 minutes against top competition this season. That’s actually a slight upgrade on his overall possession numbers, which already paint him as one of the best on the planet. Against all competition at 5-on-5, Makar has an CF% of 60.93. Of all defensemen with at least 400 minutes played at 5-on-5 this season, only teammate Jacob MacDonald, who’s played almost 300 fewer minutes than Makar, is better.

The 12 total games – across two stints – Makar has missed as the result of an upper-body injury this year have likely put the 22-year-old’s Norris aspirations on hold for now, but make no mistake, Makar has just begun to make his noise. The rosy-cheeked wunderkind will have plenty more time to bring home the hardware.

Carter Verhaeghe – Florida Panthers

I struggled with whether Carter Verhaeghe belongs on this list. After all, had Verhaeghe put up pedestrian numbers this season, would anyone call it a sophomore slump? Surely not, given the relative anonymity with which he completed his rookie season in Tampa Bay.

But still, it feels wrong to hand out plaudits to second-year players and fail to mention the Panthers’ breakout star of 2020-21.

So far in 2020-21, Verhaeghe has posted 17 goals and 35 points in 42 games, mostly playing on the Panthers’ top line with Aleksander Barkov and fellow castoff Anthony Duclair. The line has been integral to the Panthers’ ascent up the Central Division standings, and Verhaeghe has been far from a passive part of that success. Both Barkov and Duclair have better possession numbers playing with Verhaeghe than they do apart. And it’s not difficult to see why. Per naturalstattrick.com, among players with at least 400 minutes played at 5-on-5 this season, only Marcus Foligno has a better high-danger Corsi-for than does Verhaeghe, who stands at 65.81 percent. And only MacDonald, MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen have a better on-ice xGF% among such players.

Verhaeghe has missed the Panthers’ past 12 games with an upper-body injury. To their credit, the Panthers haven’t missed a beat, going 9-2-1 in that timeframe, but Verhaeghe’s return will be vital if the Panthers hope to make a deep run in the playoffs. Fortunately for them, he is expected to return to action tonight against the Lightning.

Jordan Kyrou and Max Comtois are two other players, albeit with more draft pedigree, who also took large steps forward this year, and could just as easily be mentioned here.

Thatcher Demko – Vancouver Canucks

Thatcher Demko is quickly becoming the goalie Canucks fans were promised when the team used the 36th pick in the 2014 draft to select the 6-foot-4 netminder out of Boston College.

The 2019-20 season was Demko’s first full campaign in the NHL, with the San Diego, Calif.-born goalie serving as the No. 2 behind Jacob Markstrom. Demko posted a record of 13-10-2 in 27 games with a .905 SP and a 3.06 GAA. He started the final three games of the Canucks’ second-round playoff series with Vegas and was otherworldly, rocking a .984 SP and a 0.67 GAA. Demko and the Canucks would ultimately bow out in seven games, but Demko was the only reason they even got that far.

With Markstrom departing for Calgary in the off-season, Demko came into 2020-21 as the presumptive 1A to incoming Braden Hotby’s 1B. And Demko has shown solid progression in the role. On the surface, his .912 SP and 2.92 GAA may not look spectacular, but those numbers were .917 and 2.77 respectively before the Canucks were hit hard with their COVID pause. That includes a 20-game stretch between Jan. 25 and March 19 where he put up a .931 SP and a 12-7-1 record, almost singlehandedly keeping the Canucks meager playoff hopes alive. Only two goalies, Casey DeSmith (who played only eight games) and Andrei Vasilevskiy, posted better save percentages in that time frame.

Vancouver has some holes to fill on its backend this off-season, but if they’re able to do so, Demko is in position to be the kind of stopper who can steal playoff series.

Nicolas Hague – Vegas Golden Knights

Hague doesn’t get enough credit for what a solid player he’s becoming in Las Vegas. He’s not the first name you think of when you think of Golden Knights defensemen. He’s not the second name you think of, either. Heck, depending on how you feel about Brayden McNabb, he might not even be the third. But here’s the thing, you probably should start thinking about him.

The Kitchener, Ont., product was the fourth of Vegas’ 12 picks in the 2017 draft. But of the three chosen before him, only Nick Suzuki – who could also be on this list – has played more NHL games to date. The Golden Knights took Hague from OHL Mississauga the 34th pick that year. The hulking 6-foot-6, 230-pound rearguard spent one more season with the Steelheads, where he put up 78 points in 67 games, second among OHL defensemen behind Evan Bouchard.

He then spent a season with AHL Chicago before earning the call-up to start the 2019-20 season with the Golden Knights. In 38 contests last season, he scored one goal (in his final game of the year) and 11 points. He was back down to the AHL Jan. 21, 2020 and would not be recalled that season.

So like with Verhaeghe, the case could be made a quiet 2020-21 wouldn’t have constituted a sophomore slump. But also like Verhaeghe, his efforts are too strong to pass up mentioning. There are certainly candidates who ‘wow’ you more, but Hague deserves his day in the sun, too.

Hague has averaged just under 16 minutes of ice time this season, right around the mark he was at in 2019-20. He’s scored 5 goals and 14 points in 48 contests with the Knights this year.

Where he’s really excelled has been in possession and in the effect he’s had on his primary D partner. Hague is rocking a CF% and a xGF% both above 54 percent at 5-on-5. He’s in the top 19 of defenders who’ve played at least 400 minutes at 5-on-5 in both categories. What’s more, he’s massively elevated primary partner Zach Whitecloud on Vegas’ second pair.

The two have played 515 minutes together at 5-on-5 this season. As a duo, they have a CF% of 53.90. When Whitecloud is away from Hague (he’s played 166 such 5-on-5 minutes this year), his CF% plummets to 43.08. When Hague plays at 5-on-5 with anyone other than Whitecloud? He moderately improves, standing at 54.84.

Vegas’ second defensive pairing have been possession darlings this season. And Nicolas Hague is a huge part of why that is. Look for him to continue his ascent as his ice time increases.

HM: Quinn Hughes, Joel Farabee, Nick Suzuki, Martin Necas

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