NHL Sophomore Surge: Five players bucking the trend of second-year slumps

A number of sophomore NHL skaters are building on their impressive 2017-18 rookie campaigns, including Pierre-Luc Dubois in Columbus and Kyle Connor in Winnipeg.
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Everyone knew Thomas Chabot was talented. He was receiving high praise, considered among a handful of the very best NHL prospects in the world, before he stepped foot on the ice with the Ottawa Senators. But no one could have expected his rise to be this steep.

During his rookie season, Chabot was a consistent point-producer who flashed moments of brilliance. And despite some time in the AHL, by the time the season came to a close he was a featured player on the Senators blueline, not to mention a nine-goal scorer with 25 points to his name. Not a bad rookie year.

Chabot surely could have been included on a list of players primed to take a step back, however slight, this year, too. Consider the circumstances in Ottawa heading into the season and one would have had reason enough to come to that conclusion. But Chabot was also going to have to contend with bigger minutes, less shelter and fewer weapons surrounding him. As it turns out, though, none of that has mattered.

Through 28 games, Chabot has been a beast. His seven goals and 31 points are tied for tops among all defensemen in the NHL, he’s skating upwards of 24 minutes per game and while he’s not about to make anyone forget about Erik Karlsson, the 21-year-old defenseman is certainly easing the pain. As we wrote yesterday, Chabot probably won’t win the Norris Trophy this season despite his incredible play and offensive output, but it’s starting to seem like it might only be a matter of time before the Senators have another young, offensively gifted Norris winner on their hands.

But Chabot isn’t the only second-year player turning heads. Throughout the league, a number of sophomore skaters have continued to score like they did last season. That includes Mat Barzal and Clayton Keller, two of the top-three in Calder Trophy voting last season, who have continued to be offensive drivers for their clubs. However, you won’t find either Barzal or Keller on this list, because the name of the game here is second-year skaters who are seeing an uptick in production. Sure, maybe that’s not fair to Barzal, who would have needed a 90-point season to really see a significant rise, or Keller, who found the scoresheet 65 times last season and is on pace to notch 60 points this season. Those are the (self-imposed) rules here, though.

With that in mind, here are five notable sophomore players who are on pace to take significant steps forward this season:

Pierre-Luc Dubois, Columbus Blue Jackets
It took a while for Dubois to get acclimated to the NHL environment. In fact, through the early part of his rookie season, he looked out of place at times and offense didn’t come easy. He started to find his form as the campaign rolled on, though, and a shift to a line with Artemi Panarin and Cam Atkinson set Dubois up for success. He finished the season with 20 goals and 48 points, but he was scoring like a bonafide top-line forward by the end of the campaign.

That brings us to this year, where the big-bodied Blue Jacket has been at his best to start his sophomore season. His contributions have gone through the roof all over the ice. Defensively, he’s been sound and shown improvement in the faceoff circle, and he’s continued to light the lamp offensively. At 13 goals and 25 points in 28 games already, Dubois, 20, is on pace to smash his rookie season totals. In fact, if he keeps this up, he could finish with a 30-goal, 70-point campaign. That might reduce the sting of potentially — likely? — losing Panarin at season’s end.

Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets
The already offense-rich Jets got oh-so-much richer last season thanks to Connor’s freshman performance. Having previously earned a taste of the NHL, skating in 20 games during the 2016-17 campaign, Connor knew what to expect and his adjustment period was brief, allowing him to set off on a 31-goal, 57-point campaign that came complete with top-line minutes and a fourth-place finish in Calder voting.

In an ideal world, the Jets would have hoped for modest improvement on those totals this season. A rise to, say, 65 or 70 points would have been welcomed. With that in mind, you know Winnipeg must be giddy over his level of production thus far. In 27 games, is a near point-per-game player with 10 goals and 25 points, and he’s off on a 30-goal, 76-point pace.

There’s a good news-bad news scenario here for the Jets, though, as Connor’s offense gives Winnipeg one more weapon to use in their pursuit of the Stanley Cup, but also leaves them wondering just how much they’re going to have to pay to keep the 21-year-old when he becomes a restricted free agent this summer.

Alex DeBrincat, Chicago Blackhawks
From the firing of Joel Quenneville to the general state of affairs in Chicago, there hasn’t been much for Blackhawks fans to get excited about this season. Gone is the Stanley Cup contending heyday and here are the lean years in which the team needs to retool. But if anyone besides Patrick Kane has been able to get the United Center crowd up and on their feet this season, it’s DeBrincat, 20, who continues to prove that skill trumps size 10 times out of 10 in the new NHL.

After a 28-goal rookie campaign and 10th-place finish in Calder voting, one had to wonder how much more DeBrincat could accomplish, particularly the Blackhawks seemingly destined for a low-table finish in a tough Western Conference. As it turns out, though, DeBrincat is well on his way to proving that he can better last season’s totals and become one of the offensive drivers for the Blackhawks. His 11 goals and 22 points in 29 games put him on pace to end the year with 31 goals and 62 points. That’s a notable improvement from last season’s 52 points.

Samuel Girard, Colorado Avalanche
It’s far more difficult to measure improvement for a defender than it is for a pure scorer such as Connor or DeBrincat, especially if that defenseman isn’t putting up gaudy numbers like Chabot. However, it’s difficult to overlook how Girard, 20, has gone from early season trade chip to contributing top-four defenseman in such a short span.

Last season, Girard was good for the Avalanche after coming over from the Nashville Predators, posting three goals and 20 points in 68 games and skating minutes commensurate with a fourth defenseman. This season, though, Girard has seen his average ice time climb by two and a half minutes per game, and at his current scoring rate — he has two goals and 12 points in 28 games — he’s in line to finish his second NHL season with six goals and 35 points. That’s a sizeable increase.

More than simply score, though, Girard has been good in his own end when called upon. His possession numbers, while not in blow-your-hair-back territory, are slightly better than those of his Avalanche teammates, even if he is being sheltered somewhat.

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