These third-year players are bouncing back from last season’s stumbles.
In a matter of moments on Wednesday, Dylan Larkin showed us all the reasons he was such a big deal as a rookie. The Red Wings forward stole the puck on a penalty kill after a Flames defenseman blew a tire, turned up the speed, then slammed the breaks just as quickly before snapping a perfect shot for a shorthanded goal.
Honestly, that description doesn’t really do the play justice. Just watch.
Larkin might be the fastest player in the NHL, and now in his third NHL season, he’s discovering new ways to use it. This shorthanded goal was a perfect example of how he’s taking his game to another level a year after one of the most surprising sophomore slumps in recent memory.
As a 19-year-old rookie, Larkin’s dizzying speed led to 23 points and 45 points in 80 games. But during his second season, when many expected a major breakout, he stumbled to 32 points in 80 games. Opposing defenses had figured out how to neutralize his north-south style, and suddenly questions arose over what kind of player he’d ultimately become.
But Larkin always had a special skill — speed — that pointed to where his game could go if he learned more ways to take advantage of it. Through 19 games this season, it looks like he’s done just that.
The 21-year-old is second on the Red Wings with 18 points, one behind Anthony Mantha, and the rest of his game is coming together, too. He’s posted a team-high even strength Corsi of 54 percent, more than seven percent higher than when he’s off the ice, and improved his face-off percentage from 45.4 percent to 51.8 percent.
It’s been a revelation for Detroit, which is in the Atlantic Division playoff mix with a 9-8-2 record. The team’s future looks a lot brighter with its cornerstone 21-year-old playing the best hockey of his life.
Larkin isn’t the only third-year player in the NHL bouncing back from the dreaded sophomore slump, too. Here’s a look at three others who have gotten back on track after some second-year stumbles.
Hellebuyck’s sophomore year went poorly enough that the Jets went out during the offseason and signed veteran Steve Mason to a three-year deal. The young netminder regressed to just a .907 save percentage in 56 games last season after posting a .918 mark in 26 games as a rookie. It was a big part of why Winnipeg missed the playoffs.
Now Hellebuyck looks like he could be one of the biggest reasons the Jets are in the playoff mix. Just over a month into the season, he’s firmly grabbed the starting job from Mason with a .930 save percentage in 13 appearances. He’s eighth among all goaltenders in GSAA at 7.82, per Corsica, which means he’s saved nearly eight goals over what you’d expect from an average netminder.
Donskoi, 25, was a surprise performer for the Sharks in 2015-16 after beginning his professional career in Finland. As a rookie, he racked up 36 points in 76 regular season games, then played a key role with 12 points in 24 playoff games as the Sharks reached the Stanley Cup Final.
Then came a very disappointing sophomore season where Donskoi’s production fell to just 17 points in 61 games. The postseason didn’t go any better as he recorded two assists in five contests before San Jose was eliminated in the first round.
Donskoi is still playing a relatively small role on the Sharks’ bottom six, but he’s been back to his good self this season. Through 16 games, he has recorded five goals and a team-high 60.5 percent even strength Corsi. Despite his low playing time, he leads San Jose in Game Score at 11.28, per Corsica. Even more remarkably, he’s sixth in the entire league in Game Score per 60 minutes behind Patrice Bergeron, Nikita Kucherov, Teuvo Teravainen, Auston Matthews, and Ondrej Kase. That’s not bad company to be in.
Gostisbehere had many positives during his sophomore season, including 39 points and a 53.7 percent even strength Corsi, but it was a clear step back from his remarkable debut. There were times when his role wasn’t really clear, and Broad Street Hockey admitted afterwards that the season clouded his future.
Now back in a starring role for Philadelphia, Gostisbehere is playing a career-high 21:36 per night and posting his best numbers yet. He’s been a point-per-game player, remains a positive possession driver, and has even cut his penalty rate by over 50 percent.
Gostisbehere is back in the driver’s seat as a building block for the Flyers, for good reason.