The National Hockey League boasts the most skilled hockey players in the entire world. Often, these superstars achieve success proportionate to their immense talent: Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, and Drew Doughty. Then there are the players that individually thrive but have yet to taste playoff success with their respective teams, or their teams’ futures do not look too bright.
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We know that hockey players are loyal (oh, be quiet New York Islanders fans), but what are their obligations to a club after they have invested years? Here are my top five players who have devoted some of their best years to struggling organizations.
It is only fitting to start with Taylor Hall. He is the oldest on this list, and his trade from the New Jersey Devils to the Arizona Coyotes has thrust his name into the spotlight. Drafted first overall by the Edmonton Oilers in the 2010 NHL Draft, the superstar has played for 3 teams in 10 seasons. He has delivered by all metrics.
In 627 career games, Hall has notched 563 points (218 goals, 345 assists). These numbers rank 23rd in total points amassed since the 2010-11 season, but he has played in about 100 fewer games than many ahead on the list. More impressively, his .90 points per game stand behind only nine players with more points. Of course, he won the Hart Trophy in 2017-18 when he essentially carried the Devils to the playoffs single-handedly.
Without a doubt, Hall is one of the most talented and electric forwards in the league. Unfortunately, at 28 years old, the Calgary native has suited up for only five Stanley Cup Playoff games in which he posted six points. His lack of playoff experience is not his fault, though. Each team he has played for has struggled significantly, depriving him of that coveted experience. The Oilers never reached the playoffs with Hall, and the Devils only played five postseason games. The Coyotes were 11th in the Western Conference before the NHL suspended the 2019-20 regular season.
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Hall stated his desire to finish the season in Arizona, but he made clear he wants to play after the regular season. “I want to make the playoffs with the guys here. I don’t want to go anywhere else,” he told Tom Gulitti of NHL.com. Given the Coyotes’ position, this seems unlikely. Lucky for him, he will become an unrestricted free agent after this season, and he will have an opportunity to sign with a playoff contender. The left winger certainly deserves his shot after paying his dues. Hopefully, for both Hall and fans, he joins a stronger team, otherwise, the league could miss out on having an elite talent showcasing his skills on the playoff stage.
At only 23 years old, Jack Eichel already has five NHL seasons under his belt. He has matured into the superstar the Buffalo Sabres hoped when they drafted him second overall in 2015. He has 137 goals and 200 assists in 354 games, and his stellar .95 points per game rank 21st among players since the 2015-16 season (minimum 100 games played). From year to year, he has increased his point total as well: 56, 57, 64, and 82. This season, he had 78 points in 68 games, on pace for a career-high 93.
Eichel has secured a spot in the NHL All-Star Game for three consecutive seasons. He has notched over 20 goals in his first five years, and he most likely would have eclipsed 40 this season. This consistency and high level of production are rare commodities in the NHL. Heck, he had a point in 17-straight games this season. The kid has flourished and shows no signs of slowing down.
Unfortunately, the Sabres have not matured alongside Eichel. The team has not reached the playoffs since 2011, and they have finished at the lower end of the league since his debut. They have struggled to score goals, landing in the bottom five three of the past five seasons, including last place in 2017-18. If anything, Eichel’s maturation and the team’s struggles seem inversely related — as he has thrived the Sabres have stagnated or declined.
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Obviously, Eichel is the face and future of the Sabres’ organizations. He signed an eight-year, $80 million contract in 2017. But, the team does not appear to be on an upward trajectory, and it is not unreasonable to ask how many years he might squander in the Sabres’ uniform. He will be 28 when the contract expires, meaning he will have prime years left in his career. Depending on how the next five years shake out, he could sign elsewhere. It would be a shame, though, for a generational talent to lose his first 10 years in the NHL.
John Gibson may not be an obvious pick. The 26-year-old netminder has played parts of seven seasons with the Anaheim Ducks, and during that span, he has made 26 postseason experiences, including a run to the Western Conference Final in 2016-17. However, since being swept in the first round two seasons ago, the Ducks have not made the playoffs. In fact, the team has transformed from a perennial playoff contender to a rebuilding organization. This has been in spite of Gibson’s play, though, not because of it.
Drafted in 2011 with the ninth pick in the second round, Gibson has been named an NHL All-Star twice (2016, 2019). He has a 139-103-33 record — a record tarnished by the Ducks’ previous two seasons. He has posted a .918 career save percentage (SV%), tied for eighth among goalies with at least 100 games played since 2013-14. With saves likes the highlights below, he has stolen numerous games for the Ducks.
Gibson’s statistics have suffered with the Ducks’ rough stretches. Last season, the team finished 24th in the NHL with a mere 35 wins. Before the NHL’s hiatus, the team sat in 27th place. The Ducks also were tied for the third-most goals allowed with 225. Nevertheless, he has remained a high-caliber goalie, and, for that reason, the Ducks signed him to an eight-year, $51.2 million extension in 2018. Clearly, he is a cornerstone piece for the franchise.
But, with the team in the midst of a rebuild, the future looks murky. With veterans like Ryan Getzlaf nearing the end of his career, it is not clear who will succeed and define the Ducks moving forward. One has to wonder if the best years of Gibson’s career will be wasted carrying a team through choppy waters. With a stronger team surrounding him, he could drive a team to a Stanley Cup.
Aleksander Barkov is one of the most underrated players in the NHL. Drafted second overall behind Nathan MacKinnon, he has amassed 155 goals and 252 assists 479 games. He averages .85 points per game over seven seasons with the Florida Panthers. It took him a few seasons to secure his footing in the NHL, however. In 2017, he progressed by notching 78 points, followed by a breakout last season with 96.
Barkov clinched an All-Star Game appearance in 2018 and won the Lady Byng Memorial Trophy in 2019. His impressive play, calm demeanor, and leadership qualities earned him the captaincy in 2018, denoting him as the future of the franchise. Finally, the Finnish native has begun to receive the recognition he deserves. It was only a matter of time with the skill he possesses.
The Panthers, though, have not been a serious Cup contender for almost 20 years, appearing only twice in that span (2016 and 2012). Many had high hopes for the Panthers this season, especially after signing Sergei Bobrovsky to a seven-year, $70 million contract last summer. He has not met expectations, and the Panthers, instead, found themselves outside of a playoff spot when the season suspended.
The Panthers have numerous proper ingredients for a successful playoff push, including Barkov. Alongside Jonathan Huberdeau, Keith Yandle, and Aaron Ekblad, the Panthers appear to have the necessary depth, especially with the strong play of players like Noel Acciari. But, for whatever reason, it has not clicked. Barkov has two years remaining on a six-year, $34.5 million contract, a steal considering how good he is. He will have dedicated almost 10 years to Florida, so it would make sense for the silky forward to try his luck elsewhere. If not, the Panthers captain could continue to wilt away in the Sunshine State.
The Detroit Red Wings are the most apparent team in the middle of a rebuild. The player that general manager Steve Yzerman will lean on is Dylan Larkin, one of the fastest, most dynamic players in the NHL. The path forward for the Red Wings looks long and arduous, though. While Yzerman slowly assembles the pieces — like Robby Fabbri — for a rebuild, Larkin will continue to lead the team through these difficult times.
Last season was Larkin’s best — he posted 73 points (32 goals, 41 assists) in 76 games. But he has been a solid contributor since his rookie season when he netted 23 goals. He fell victim to the sophomore slump in 2016-17 but has reemerged since. His play has been nothing short of impressive, especially considering the supporting cast.
How long will it take for the Red Wings to establish themselves as a playoff contender? It is difficult to say in today’s NHL. We can be sure that it will not be in the next two years. Larkin will start his third year of a five-year, $30.5 million contract next season. He will be turning 27 after his contract expires, and depending on where the Red Wings stand, he could opt to leave the Motor City.
If Larkin’s development over the past few years is any indication, he has more untapped potential. Who knows how good he will be in two or three years? The thought of him on a team with a more equipped offense is exciting. But, should he remain in Detroit, he could dump some of his best years into a rebuild that we are not sure how it will pan out.
These players are incredibly important pieces to their respective clubs. But how much time can they sacrifice on teams with uncertain futures? Are they wasting years or building something special? Finally, rather than include my own honorable mentions, let me know if I missed any players and if you disagree with anyone on the list.