You've heard the saying, or some variation of it anyway: It’s not how hard you fall. It’s that you get back up again.
Plenty of players stumble along the way, either because of injury or age or other distractions. Some don’t make it back, at least not to where they were before.
But there are some who rediscover their games, or take them to another level. And that’s a glorious thing to see.
Here’s a look at 10 players who resurrected their games this season.
10. Ryan Miller - G, Vancouver
When Miller was dealt to St. Louis at the trade deadline last year, he was hailed as the final piece of the puzzle for the Cup-starved Blues. It didn’t quite work out that way. He played poorly down the stretch and when the team flamed out in the first round, Miller and his .897 save percentage took the fall. He’s had his ups and (mostly injury-related) downs since signing as a free agent with the Canucks during the summer, but he’s regained his form and his confidence, setting him up to excel moving forward ... either in Vancouver or elsewhere.
9. Dale Weise - RW, Montreal
Most Underrated NHL Players
15. Blake Wheeler
It’s not often that a top-five draft selection flies under the radar, but that’s the downside to skating in Winnipeg. In another market, Wheeler would be celebrated as the winger who symbolizes the new game. He plays the game at top speed and with clear purpose, and is an excellent playmaker and finisher who is dogged at both ends of the ice. “He’s been our most consistent driver,” said coach Paul Maurice.
14. Antoine Roussel
To casual observes, Roussel’s one of those “players you love to hate.” He’s an agitator, a chirper and a cheap-shot artist whose willingness to venture well over the line has him fifth in the NHL with 128 penalty minutes. But here’s what you’re missing: He’s a relentless defender, a premier penalty killer and an excellent playmaker and finisher. He’s also a player who fearlessly (and consistently) ventures to the most dangerous parts of the ice. “He really makes things happen,” said Stars coach Lindy Ruff.
13. Mikael Backlund
Another player whose reputation was snowed under by a slow start to his career, Backlund has finally emerged this season as a high-end two-way center who is capable of shutting down opposing forwards while generating his share of offense on the counterattack. “He’s someone who can handle tough minutes and always seems to be on the right side of the puck,” said coach Bob Hartley.
12. Cory Schneider
Yes, everyone pretty much agrees that Schneider’s good. But that doesn’t mean the man is getting his due. He faces a higher shot volume than any other goalie (1,830), is top-five in both save percentage (.928) and GAA (2.17) and he’s second only to Carey Price in quality starts during the past three seasons. He won’t get the wins in New Jersey he needs to enter the mainstream conversation, but Schneider clearly is one of the very best in the game.
11. Tyler Ennis
At 5' 9", Ennis is used to being overlooked, and playing on a historically bad team doesn’t exactly boost his profile. But he’s transformed his game this season, growing from a solid, if limited, player into someone who drives the offense and makes everyone around him better. While he’s putting up numbers that are as good as any in his career, he’s become a top-notch forechecker, a committed physical presence, a smarter defender and a more effective attacker, along with a power play QB. “He does so many things so well,” said coach Ted Nolan. “He's made himself into an impact player.”
10. Corey Crawford
Despite backstopping a Stanley Cup winner, Crawford has been regarded by many as the weak link in Chicago’s armor, a beneficiary of reflected glory. That’s just not the case. Consider his play this season, wherein the absence of Patrick Kane has stalled the offense and put more pressure on the Hawks’ defense. Crawford responded with numbers that could top his career bests, including a .925 save percentage and 30 wins. “As the games get bigger,” said coach Joel Quenneville, “he gets bigger.”
9. Max Pacioretty
What’s an Olympian and an All-Star doing on this list? Simple—no one talks about MaxPac outside of Montreal. And that’s ridiculous. Sure, P.K. Subban’s big personality and the Ken Dryden-like excellence of Carey Price draw a lot of attention, but look at the numbers: Since the start of the 2012-13 season, just two players (Rick Nash and Corey Perry) have scored more goals at five-on-five than Pacioretty (55). He deserves to be recognized as an elite sniper.
8. Derick Brassard
Brassard hasn’t yet shaken the reputation that he earned early in his career for being wildly inconsistent, and the truth is that it’ll probably haunt him for some time. But he’s proved this season that he can be a more reliable player. That’s earned him more ice time, career-high stats and high praise from teammates.
7. Frans Nielsen
He’s the guy you want your kids watching when they’re learning how to play the game. Nielsen’s numbers will never dazzle, but his tireless work ethic and commitment to a high energy two-way game make him an invaluably part of the Islanders’ success at five-on-five and with the man advantage. “He’s a guy who always plays the right way,” teammate Kyle Okposo told The New York Times. “Never takes a short cut or the easy way out.”
6. T.J. Brodie
Playing alongside Mark Giordano—another player who knows something about being under appreciated—Brodie’s matured into an outstanding top pairing defender for the Flames at just 24. “I’ve rarely seen a young defenseman progress at such a quick pace,” coach Bob Hartley raved to the Calgary Sun. “He has so many good details—his positioning, the way that he angles a player, his stick ... his skating.”
5. Chris Tanev
A classic late-bloomer who almost gave up the game as a teenager, Tanev has emerged as an excellent, if unlikely, top-pairing defender for the Canucks. Since being signed as a free agent out of RIT in 2010 he’s proved to be much more than the sum of his parts, and while the absence of one defining skill is likely to keep him under the national radar, he’s appreciated at home. “He’s a goalie’s best friend,” said teammate Eddie Lack.
4. Ondrej Palat
While linemate Tyler Johnson is building some buzz after being selected to appear in the All-Star Game, Palat quietly goes about his business as the best all-around player on one of the league’s best teams. “He plays in every situation,” said coach Jon Cooper. “He plays on the power play. He kills penalty. He’s out there in the last minute whether we’re up or down a goal.”
3. Bryan Little
First-line centers typically don’t fly under the radar, but Little has always played the game in stealth mode. Quiet and unassuming, he’s been overshadowed while larger personalities like Dustin Byfuglien and Evander Kane have dominated the conversation around the Jets. But there’s no denying that he’s the engine that powers Winnipeg’s attack, a crafty playmaker with an excellent shot who manages to generate offense despite matching up against the league’s largest and toughest checkers.
2. Anton Stralman
Stralman will likely never get his due, but it won’t be for a lack of tire pumpers. “He’s a great player,” said former Rangers partner Marc Staal. “He doesn't get near the attention he deserves.” Former coach Alain Vigneault once said Stralman “Does so many things well for us. A very underrated player.” While it’s clear that he’s a defensive stalwart, he isn’t often hailed for his ability to impact Tampa Bay’s possession game. His 56.7% Corsi For ranks second among all defensemen despite a workload that features a preponderance of defensive zone starts.
1. Tyson Barrie
He’s the best offensive defenseman no one talks about. There are players who have put up more points than Barrie during the past two seasons, but only two—Victor Hedman and Erik Karlsson—have been more effective at generating offense during five-on-five play. Barrie scores an average of 1.3 points per 60 minutes played, making him more productive than Duncan Keith (1.15), P.K. Subban (1.04) and Shea Weber (0.99).
He was an afterthought last season for John Tortorella’s Canucks. Miscast as a goon, Weise was limited to three or four minutes of garbage duty when he did play but was just as likely to end up watching from the press box. When he was dealt to Montreal ahead of the 2014 trade deadline, it changed his place in the game. The Canadiens gave Weise a different opportunity. They saw him as more than a grinder. They recognized his speed as an asset, and saw that he had some offensive flair. They gave him chances up and down the roster, often in the top six. He’s responded with a career-best season and should play a key role for the club as it battles for the Stanley Cup.
8. Tyler Myers and Drew Stafford - D/RW, Winnipeg
Nothing like a change of scenery to change a man’s game. Refugees from Buffalo, these two former Sabres have been reborn since arriving in Winnipeg. Shaking off the shellshock, Myers looks smoother and more composed than at any time in his career. The points are coming (13 in 20 games) as is the defensive confidence (+6 in Winnipeg after going –15 in Buffalo). Stafford has flourished in a top-six role. “He really has had a huge impact since he’s been here,” said coach Paul Maurice. “I mean, he only gets big goals, big assists. He seems to have elevated the game, and so much is just an enjoyment in playing the game.”
7. Dennis Wideman - D, Calgary
A player who was weighted down by his heavy contract as much as his poor performance, Wideman was the favored whipping boy of the short-tempered Saddledome faithful last season. He started off this season just as poorly, and was made a healthy scratch in only the Flames’ second game. That seemed to rattle his cage and before long he was on board with the great expectations of coach Bob Hartley, delivering high octane offense and premium minutes in his own zone—a level that he raised after captain Mark Giordano was lost for the season. When the Flames traded Curtis Glencross it was Wideman, the former posterboy for collecting a paycheck turned dependable defender, who was rewarded with the A.
6. Scott Gomez - C, New Jersey
You had to admire Gomez for hanging on. Here’s a guy who was serenaded with “Happy Birthday” by the fans in Montreal when his goal drought stretched to a year. Who bounced from the Habs to the Sharks to the Panthers just trying to get every last squeeze he could. Who looked like he was done when he was left unsigned all summer and whose best offer was a chance to hang around the Devils just in case someone got hurt. Amazing then that when the team finally handed him a contract in November he started producing in return. He chipped in two assists in his fourth game, then added five more in his next six. And here he is now, the team’s fourth-leading scorer despite starting two months after everyone else. That’s some kind of comeback.
5. Kris Letang - D, Pittsburgh
There was a while there last season when it was uncertain whether Letang would play again. Cut down by a stroke at the improbably age of 26, he battled back only to suffer one concussion. Then another. But through it all Letang has shown exceptional courage and, when able, he's played some of the best hockey of his career while ranking eighth in average time on ice (25:29).
4. Pekka Rinne - G, Nashville
An E. Coli infection that occurred after undergoing hip surgery all but wiped out Rinne”s 2013-14 season, limiting him to just 24 games. It wasn’t considered career threatening, but when a goalie is into his 30s, there are no sure things. A summer spent focused on his health saw him return in top condition and the results have been spectacular. Rinne has re-established himself as one of the best in the game, a league-leader in all the major categories and likely finalist for the Vezina Trophy.
3. Mike Ribeiro - C, Nashville
A year ago he was damaged goods, cut by Arizona GM Don Maloney who all but blacklisted the center by citing “behavior issues [that] we felt we could not tolerate going forward.” Given a second chance by perhaps the least likely employer—the defensively-coded Predators—Ribeiro has straightened up off the ice while playing a pivotal role in Peter Laviolette’s reimagining of Nashville’s attack.
2. Alex Ovechkin - LW, Washington
Ovechkin could have scored 70 goals last season and rescued kittens from burning buildings in his spare time and it wouldn’t have mattered. The game's greatest scorer was tarred by his obviously strained relationships with Washington’s coaches and an indifference to defensive hockey that led to a well-earned –35 rating. That all changed with the arrival of Barry Trotz who, despite his reputation for defensive hockey, was actually a coach who understood how best to use the players he had at his disposal. He devised a system that allows Ovechkin to thrive in the attack zone as long as he commits to playing both sides of the puck. The captain bought in. Now, instead of being a joke in 29 markets, he’s a legitimate MVP candidate again. Don’t be surprised to see Trotz earn a few Jack Adams votes as a result.
1. Devan Dubnyk - G, Minnesota
From a target of derision in Edmonton to a flameout in Nashville to a washout in Montreal and a going-nowhere backup in Arizona, Dubnyk seemed destined to play out the string on the fringes of the game. Then came The Trade to Minnesota, an act of desperation by Wild GM Chuck Fletcher that created a fit as perfect as any since the Penguins added Ron Francis and Ulf Samuelsson ahead of their first Stanley Cup in 1991. Maybe the ending to this story won’t be as happy, but given the way that Dubnyk has revived his career it’s no less remarkable.