Who is this season's Dustin Brown? Five NHL forwards who could bounce back big in 2018-19

In the span of several months, Dustin Brown went from potential buyout candidate to registered a career-high point total. So, who could follow suit this season and bounce back brilliantly from one or more down years?
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To hear just about everyone tell it ahead of last season, the Los Angeles Kings were at their breaking point with Dustin Brown. Seemingly a perennial buyout contender for the past few seasons, it looked like the former Kings captain — Los Angeles stripped him of the ‘C’ and gave it to Anze Kopitar — was only one more bad season away from ending up a free agent much earlier than his contract stipulated.

And then last season happened.

Right out of the gates, Brown was finding the scoresheet. Through his first four games, he had four goals and six points. By the seventh game of the campaign, he was a five-goal, 11-point player. And as the midpoint of the season rolled around, Brown had 15 goals and 32 points to his name. To put that into context, that was one more goal and only four fewer points than he had accumulated throughout the entire 2016-17 season.

Every time it was expected Brown would slow down, too, he would find a way to get back on the scoresheet. And when the campaign closed, Brown not only finished with 28 goals and 61 points — second-best and career-high totals, respectively — he was back to skating top-line minutes and earned himself some end-of-season hardware consideration. How’s that for bouncing back after some tough seasons?

Brown should serve as an inspiration for a few players heading into 2018-19, too. Last season was a trying year for several high-profile forwards, but these five are in the most desperate need of righting the ship this coming campaign:

Kyle Okposo, Buffalo Sabres
Here’s the thing: before he arrived in Buffalo, Okposo, 30, appeared to be one of the more underrated power forwards in the league. He had scored 67 goals and 184 points in 210 games across the three seasons prior to his arrival, and then landed a big-money deal to join the Sabres. Okposo’s offense, however, has dried up. Dealing with injuries his first season, Okposo managed 19 goals and 45 points in 65 games. But last season, despite playing all but six games, both of Okposo’s offensive numbers took a hit as he finished the campaign with 15 goals and 44 points.

There’s offense to be had in Buffalo and lots of it, though the truth is Okposo has slid down the depth chart. He should still be capable of a 20-goal, 50-point campaign, though, and if the Sabres rise this season, so should Okposo.

Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks
Acquired as part of the shocking deal that sent Artemi Panarin to the Columbus Blue Jackets ahead of last season, Saad’s return to Chicago didn’t go as planned. At all. After three consecutive 20-goal, 50-point seasons, Saad, 25, managed 18 goals and a mere 35 points for the Blackhawks last season. He didn’t even appear to be quite the fit alongside Jonathan Toews that it was hoped he would be.

There’s reason to be hopeful Saad can turn it around, though. His shooting percentage tanked last season, down more than four percent from his career average, and there’s an inkling he could be skating alongside Nick Schmaltz and Patrick Kane this season. No better way to get going offensively than playing on a line with one of the most offensively gifted players in the league.

Milan Lucic, Edmonton Oilers
Out of the gate, most suggested that the contract was a mistake, but few could have expected things to go as sideways as quickly as they have for Lucic and the Oilers. Two seasons into a seven-year, $42-million deal, there was already talk of Edmonton considering a buyout for the 30-year-old power winger. Of course, nothing came of that talk, but you it’s fairly evident that Lucic is on a short leash after last season’s 10-goal, 34-point performance.

So, can Lucic turn things around? Well, he’s probably not going to reach his former 60-point heights, if that’s what the Oilers are expecting. But returning to become a 20-goal, 40-point player isn’t entirely out of the question. Consider that Lucic, a career 14.5-percent shooter ahead of last season, had a shooting percentage of 6.8 percent in 2017-18. That’s less than half his career average. If he had shot at his career rate, he would have at least flirted with 20 goals. There’s no reason he can’t get back there.

Jason Spezza, Dallas Stars
The season-over-season decline was steep for Spezza. In 2016-17, he put up a respectable 15 goals and 50 points while playing in the middle of the lineup for Dallas. Under coach Ken Hitchcock last season, though, Spezza’s point total dropped precipitously to eight goals and 26 points. That’s not to mention his ice time fell by more than three minutes per game.

Spezza, 35, should get a new chance to shine for the Stars, however. New bench boss Jim Montgomery has come aboard with an interest in playing a more up-tempo game, and while the veteran Spezza might not be able to keep up like he once did, the playmaking ability he possesses doesn’t really go as quickly with age. Set him up on the power play or give him a pair of speedy linemates and Spezza should be able to make magic. Will he return to 50-point form? Probably not. But it’s not beyond reason to believe he can flirt with a return to 40 points.

Andrew Ladd, New York Islanders
It only makes sense to follow one obviously misguided 2016-17 signing with another, because it could be argued that after Lucic, it was Ladd’s deal that was cause for the most concern among onlookers. Two years in, it’s clear why that was. Last season, the 32-year-old was hoping to bounce back from a down year that saw him score 23 goals and 31 points. The feeling was that he could given his meager assist total — he had only eight — was sure to increase. And it did. All the way to 17 assists, in fact. Problem is, his goal total dropped at an alarming rate. Ladd’s 12 goals last season were his fewest since his sophomore season.

Ladd can bounce back, though, if only because he’s going to be leaned on harder with John Tavares bolting this off-season. Ladd could be a prime net-front candidate on the first power play and his minutes, which dipped below 16 per night last season, stand to increase with a thinner stable of forwards. More time equals more opportunity and hopefully more points for Ladd.

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