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Sophomore Slump: Who's vulnerable and who isn't?

The sophomore slump rears its ugly head each season, and it doesn’t care who it claims.

Last season, the dreaded downturn in either production or play that comes with a second season in the NHL befell the likes of Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, Vancouver Canucks blueliner Troy Stecher, Buffalo Sabres winger Scott Wilson and even Pittsburgh Penguins two-time Stanley Cup-winning goaltender Matt Murray.

But for every sophomore that saw regression last season, there were a few who took a step forward. Mitch Marner, for instance, proved he could be a true offensive leader for the Maple Leafs. Tampa Bay Lightning pivot Brayden Point made waves as the next big piece of what they hope will be a Stanley Cup puzzle. And Sebastian Aho made it clear that he’s ready to take on the role as the Carolina Hurricanes’ top-line center. This is to say nothing, either, of the likes of Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel and William Nylander, each of whom took strides last season and built off of thoroughly impressive rookie campaigns.

So, which players this season stand to fall into the slump category and who will buck the trend?

SOPHOMORE STUDS

Brock Boeser, Vancouver Canucks
It’s a genuine shame that Boeser had to spend the final month of the season on the shelf. Not only was he one of the most exciting young players in the NHL last season, the 21-year-old Canucks winger was lighting the lamp at an incredible pace. In fact, he was scoring nearly half a goal per game, and had he played out the final 17 games of Vancouver’s season, he could have added another eight or so goals to his already-impressive 29-tally total. Conservatively, he could have been a 35-goal rookie if he hadn’t missed time and one of only five players to achieve such a feat in the post-lockout era.

Boeser’s natural scoring ability is exactly why he’s a given to buck the sophomore slump trend next season. And it’s not as though Boeser is going to have to make a significant transition in terms of linemates. He skated most of last season alongside Bo Horvat, and the duo will hit the ice with designs on making more magic this season.

Kyle Connor, Winnipeg Jets
If Connor was a part of any other organization, it might be fair to suggest that he’s not going to replicate his 31-goal, 57-point output. But here’s the thing: Connor gets to skate with one of the most offensively gifted lineups in the NHL, and chances are he spends the bulk of his time with two of the more gifted offensive talents in the league in Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler. Last season, Connor spent the vast majority of his time skating on the Jets’ top line with that duo, and he’s set to do so again.

What stands to see Connor take a possible step forward, though, is that he’s going to have that much more experience under his belt and the coaching staff will likely show greater faith in the 21-year-old than they did last season.

Pierre-Luc Dubois, Columbus Blue Jackets
Dubois might not be the most obvious choice, particularly as he wasn’t really on the Calder Trophy radar for the entire campaign. However, the 20-year-old pivot only picked up steam as the campaign rolled on, and there’s no reason to believe that won’t continue into the coming season.

Consider that through the first 20 games last season, Dubois had himself a mere two goals and four points. Hardly worth writing home about, right? Over the next quarter campaign, though, Dubois moved up the lineup and started to gel with linemates Artemi Panarin and Josh Anderson to the point the line earned the ‘PB&J’ moniker. From mid-November onward, Dubois was remarkable. Over the final 62 games of the season, he scored 18 goals and 44 points — fifth-most among all rookies — all the while skating steady top-six minutes. If the line remains together and continues to show the same chemistry, Dubois could be a 30-goal, 65-point player by season’s end.

SOPHOMORE SLUMPERS

Alex Kerfoot, Colorado Avalanche
Heavily sought after as a free agent coming out of college, Kerfoot landed with the Avalanche and was given an immediate opportunity to make an impact. And make an impact he did. Across the first 20 games of the campaign, his seven goals and 15 points put him right in the thick of the rookie scoring race and led to him garnering some attention as far as Calder contention was concerned. But those first 20 games was about as good as life in the NHL would get for the rookie Kerfoot.

You see, despite finishing 11th in rookie scoring, Kerfoot steadily declined as the campaign rolled on. During the second-quarter of the campaign, he managed to continue his same scoring pace with another four goals and 15 points. The third-quarter, however, was tougher as he managed four goals and six points. And the final quarter was just as tough, as Kerfoot scored another four goals and seven points over the final 19 games of the season.

Kerfoot could see himself earn a bigger role than last season, to be sure, but if his offense follows anywhere near the same pattern, it could be a lower-scoring season for the 24-year-old.

Jesper Bratt, New Jersey Devils
If Kerfoot started out the season hot, then Bratt was absolutely on fire. Not expected by anyone — and we mean anyone — to make the Devils out of camp, Bratt not only made the team but flew out of the gates with three goals and six points in the first three games of the campaign. By his 10th game, he was still a point per game player. And halfway through the Devils’ season, Bratt had put together a healthy 10 goals and 26 points. How’s that for unexpected upside?

The back half of the season was a slog for Bratt, however. His first four games after the mid-point of the season, he scored two goals and four points. But after that he managed just one more goal and five more points in 30 games. He was also scratched seven times and played only Game 5 of the first-round series against the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Bratt has plenty of room to grow, but if any high-scoring sophomore stands to take a sizeable step back, it’s the Devils’ 20-year-old winger.

Yanni Gourde, Tampa Bay Lightning
Without a doubt, one of the more interesting stories of the 2017-18 season was Gourde, a relative unknown who has spent years playing his way through the AHL and finally earned his first full-time shot with the Lightning only to blast his way into the Calder race. Skating in all 82 games, the 26-year-old rookie — by definition, that’s what he was, and he finished sixth in Calder voting — notched 25 goals and 64 points.

So, why does Gourde slip? Well, a couple of reasons. First, Gourde shot an incredible 18.4 percent last season, which was the fourth-highest rate among players with at least 100 shots. And while there’s nothing to say for certain that Gourde can’t maintain that rate of shooting success, that he continues to keep pace in that area with Scheifele, Brad Marchand, Patrik Laine and Auston Matthews seems unlikely. Furthermore, Gourde’s opportunities might be more limited this coming campaign. He’s projected to skate as a third-line winger, and with J.T. Miller coming in at last season’s deadline, Gourde’s chances to skate on the power play may also decrease.

Given how hard Gourde has worked to get here, it’d be great to see him continue his rise and prove his spot as a true top-six winger as he heads towards a possible payday in unrestricted free agency. But a potentially normalizing shooting percentage and diminishing ice time might not work in his favor.

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