Biggest Underachievers Early in 2013-14 NHL Season

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistOctober 11, 2013

Biggest Underachievers Early in 2013-14 NHL Season

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    Henrik Lundqvist
    Henrik LundqvistVictor Decolongon/Getty Images

    There's nothing like a hot start to get the season off with a bang.

    But when it goes badly from the beginning, it feels like all four walls are crashing in. Instead of being excited about going to the rink, it's almost a dreadful feeling as players wonder what can go wrong next.

    In the case of the New York Rangers, it has been a dreadful start and this perennial contender looks like one of the worst teams in the league.

    However, a bad start is often just that. Ryan Suter got off slowly last year for the Minnesota Wild and so did Alex Ovechkin. By the end of the season, both were NHL first-team All-Stars.

    Here's our look at eight prominent early-season underachievers.

8. Scott Hartnell, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Gregg Forwerck/Getty Images

    Assessment: Scott Hartnell is a bold, gutsy, high-scoring winger who tends to fall down after contact with an opposing defenseman. Hartnell does not have overwhelming skating talent for an NHL player, but he knows how to get to the right spot to score goals. He had 37 of them in 2011-12, the last non-lockout season in the NHL.

    After a non-descript eight-goal season in 2013, Hartnell has yet to score a point in four games this season. He is minus-two and has only registered five shots on goal. He is averaging 17:06 of ice time per game.

     

    How it changes: Hartnell is not playing well, and when the Flyers fired head coach Peter Laviolette and made Craig Berube the boss, the overall assessment of the team was that conditioning was an issue for many players. Hartnell needs to get in the best shape possible, attack the net and get in a goal-scoring position if he is going to turn his year around. He is doing too much floating and not going into the dirty areas.

7. Tim Thomas, Florida Panthers

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    Mark Buckner/Getty Images

    Assessment: You could make a strong argument for leaving Tim Thomas out of this category because he took the 2013 season off before deciding to return. Instead of playing for the defensively sound Boston Bruins, he's playing for the struggling Florida Panthers.

    But Thomas is a two-time Vezina Trophy winner, a Conn Smythe Trophy winner and a Stanley Cup winner. Dale Tallon did not sign Thomas so he could bring his hardware. He signed him so he could win some more. 

    Thomas is off to a horrid start. He has a 1-2-0 record, a 5.05 goals-against average and an .850 save percentage. He's not getting much help from his defense, but Thomas has looked off his game in the early going.

     

    How it changes: The Panthers need to make a greater commitment on the defensive end. Nobody thinks the Panthers can turn themselves into solid defensive teams like the Los Angeles Kings, St. Louis Blues or Boston Bruins, but they can play better than they have shown thus far. Thomas needs to get back in the swing of things and needs a month of solid game action to have a chance at returning to his previous form.

6. Nail Yakupov, Edmonton Oilers

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    Andy Devlin/Getty Images

    Assessment: Nail Yakupov is one of several highly touted young players who have the potential to fill the net and lead the Edmonton Oilers out of the muck. Yakupov may be the quickest and most explosive of the young players, and he burst onto the scene last year by scoring 17 goals and 14 assists in the lockout-shortened season.

    Yakupov has not gotten on the scoreboard in the Oilers' first four games. He also has a minus-three rating while recording 10 shots on goal. He is averaging 15:16 of ice time per game.

     

    How it changes: Yakupov and new Oilers head coach Dallas Eakins may not be the perfect marriage. Eakins has cut back on Yakupov's ice time and has said the young Russian is battling "highs and lows." Yakupov is too explosive to remain scoreless, and he could get going again with one two-goal game. However, a bold trade by Edmonton general manager Craig MacTavish could also get him going.

5. Dany Heatley, Minnesota Wild

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    Andy King/Getty Images

    Assessment: Since reaching the 50-goal mark in 2005-06 and again the following year, it's been a slow downhill march for Heatley. His goal totals went down from 50 to 41 to 39, but then dropped precipitously to 26 in 2010-11.

    Heatley, 32, has been a on a long and ponderous downhill slide. That does not mean he is not productive, but he is not as explosive as he once was. 

    The 2013-14 season may represent another season falling further back in the pack. Heatley has not scored a point in the Minnesota Wild's first four games and he has a minus-two rating. The biggest problem is that he has just three shots on goal and has not had a lot of goal-scoring opportunities.

     

    How it changes: Heatley is not the skater or sniper that he once was. While head coach Mike Yeo needs him to produce, it seems unlikely that Heatley will score more than 20-25 goals this season.

4. Shea Weber, Nashville Predators

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    John Russell/Getty Images

    Assessment: Shea Weber is one of the best all-around defensemen in the league. He is tough and physical and well-schooled in the practice of fundamental defensive play. He also may have the best slap shot in the NHL. While Boston's Zdeno Chara regularly gets the best of him at All-Star skills competitions, Weber gets his slap shot away with more quickness than Chara.

    Through the first four games, Weber has been off of his game. He has not scored a point and he has a minus-four rating.

    How it changes: There's no reason to think Weber won't turn it around quickly. He is averaging 24:55 of ice time per game, so this slow start is almost certainly a slump that all players go though at one point or another during the season. Weber's just happens to be at the start of the year.

3. Michael Del Zotto, New York Rangers

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Assessment: The New York Rangers have been outscored 20-6 through four games the season, and that includes a 16-3 mark when they have been in five-on-five situations.

    When a team performs that poorly, its individuals are going to have the kind of putrid stats that make some observers laugh and make others shake their heads because they couldn't conceive of a team with that much talent playing so poorly.

    But that's what the Rangers have gotten during the first four games of the Alain Vigneault coaching experience. Defenseman Michael Del Zotto may have the worst numbers of anybody on the team. Not only has he been held scoreless, he also has a minus-seven rating. 

    Nothing has gone right when Del Zotto has been on the ice.

     

    How it changes: The Rangers are on the road for nine consecutive games to start the season. They are 1-3 so far and their next game is at powerful St. Louis. That means it could get worse before it gets better.

    However, Del Zotto had a 10-goal, 41-point season in 2011-12, and he was plus-20 that season. The Rangers will eventually pull out of this slump. It may not happen until they start playing games at Madison Square Garden again, but the Rangers and Del Zotto will eventually straighten out.

2. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals

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    Glenn James/Getty Images

    Assessment: The Washington Capitals have gotten out of the gate slowly once again, and goalie Braden Holtby has not been sharp.

    Holtby is 0-3-0 to start the season with a 4.04 GAA and an .873 save percentage. Holtby was victimized by the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks on opening night, and he has not rebounded yet.

    Holtby normally has excellent anticipation and a quick glove hand, but he has not displayed either of those attributes yet.

     

    How it changes: Head coach Adam Oates has confidence in Holtby and knows he will turn it around. It's likely to come with one stellar game or a series of strong saves. Holtby is giving games away right now, but he will steal them down the stretch for the Caps.

1. Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Assessment: Henrik Lundqvist has been one of the game's best and most consistent goalies for years. He has had many challengers to his position at the top of the goaltending ladder, but nobody can open up daylight on Lundqvist. 

    If he cedes his No. 1 position at all, he quickly rebounds and makes his claim once again.

    But that is not happening in the early stages of the season. Lundvist's teammates are not playing well, but neither is he. Lundqvist has a 1-3-0 record with a 4.31 GAA and an .879 save percentage. Those are embarrassing numbers that are likely to get a lot better by the end of the season.

     

    How it changes: Lundqvist has been left out to dry by his forwards and defensemen, but he has not played well either. Lundqvist will find himself when he makes one or two outstanding saves in a game, and that will likely turn things around.

    The Rangers are not as bad as they have shown, and Lundqvist is still one of the best goalies despite his early showing.