Down seasons burn owners and sour draft capital, but they also present draft-day opportunities. Identifying bounce-back candidates helps owners avoid the trap of overpaying for last year’s performance and leave the draft with undervalued players that are primed for a comeback. These aren’t the ones returning from injury—skaters like Filip Forsberg, Matt Dumba, or P.K. Subban. Instead, the following players might’ve fallen short of projections last season but should return to meet or exceed expectations this year.
Evgeni Malkin (Penguins) ESPN: 59 | NHL: 38
The bad: Evgeni Malkin had a career-worst -25 rating and a career-high 84 giveaways last season. The Malkin-Kessel connection just fizzled out. Malkin’s shooting percentage dropped and he scored fewer than 25 goals for the first time since 2014–15. He recently turned 33. There’s always an injury concern. The good: Even in a “down” year, the Russian superstar finished at a 1.05 point per game pace. He’s still an elite offensive talent with guaranteed power play production, and Kessel’s departure combined with Alex Galchenyuk’s arrival should push Malkin to become even more of a driving force on the second line. The negatives are enough to push Malkin down draft boards, but another 30-goal, 80-point season isn’t out of the realm of possibility, yet.
Rickard Rakell (Ducks) ESPN: 150 | NHL: 126
The remnant of the Ducks’ Ryan Getzlaf–Corey Perry era was never going to be pleasant, but last season was ugly. Anaheim set a franchise record 12-game losing streak, fired coach Randy Carlyle after the team’s second seven-game freefall and finished last in shots and goals-for. After notching back-to-back 30-goal seasons, Rickard Rakell scored fewer than 20 goals for the first time since 2014–15. That shouldn’t happen again. Rakell tallied nine goals and 17 points in the final 26 games following Carlyle’s firing, and he’ll return as the team’s No. 1 sniper.
Clayton Keller (Coyotes) ESPN: 124 | NHL: 105
The Coyotes were ravaged by injuries last year and Clayton Keller, one of the last forwards left unscathed, finished with a team-high 47 points. That was the fewest point total of any team leader in the league, and marked a step back from Keller’s 65-point rookie campaign. The team returns a (hopefully) healthy Nick Schmaltz, who developed instant chemistry with Keller, adds Carl Söderberg and swaps out Galchenyuk for Kessel, forming a much stronger offensive unit. With a handful of potential talented linemates, Keller’s swift skating and deft puckhandling should shine and help the former USNTDP standout increase his production.
Shayne Gostisbehere (Flyers) ESPN: n/a | NHL: 138
After Shayne Gostisbehere recorded a career-high 65 points in 2017–18, his point total was halved during a lost season for almost everyone on the Philadelphia Flyers. Gostisbehere played with a revolving door of defensive partners, logging at least 100 minutes with five different defensemen, and looked constrained playing under Dave Hakstol. There’s a new regime now. Gostisbehere’s speed and skating should flourish in coach Alain Vigneault’s cycle-heavy system, and he should play with the team’s first power-play unit to start the year. Even though assistant coach Michel Therrien has hinted that there will be competition for that spot, Ghost offers more potential upside and production if he clicks with the team’s new coaching conglomerate.
Dougie Hamilton (Hurricanes) ESPN: 100 | NHL: 109
Dougie Hamilton finished with his fewest points (39) since the 2013–14 season but his bounce back might’ve already happened: He chalked up 29 points in his final 44 games after a slow start, helping him reach a career-high 18 goals. The 26-year-old blueliner ranks second among defensemen in both goals and total shots over the course of the last three seasons. He has a safe floor, but he’s an offensive force on the backend and could eat into Justin Faulk’s minutes as the season progresses. Playing behind a talented forward group, there’s room for Hamilton to ascend to the upper echelon of Eastern Conference defensemen and surpass his career expectations.
Martin Jones (Sharks) ESPN: 140 |NHL: 95
Before last season, Martin Jones claimed a solid career .916 save percentage and 2.34 goals against average. That was until ... Jones posted the third-worst save percentage of any goalie with at least 50 starts in the last decade. The Sharks were one of the better teams at limiting scoring chances and, still, Jones’s numbers—a .896 save percentage and 2.94 goals against average—were borderline unexplainable. GM Doug Wilson had enough confidence at the trade deadline and this offseason to stick with Jones. He flashed in games during the postseason and probably isn’t the bottom-of-the-barrel goalie he was last year. Jones is a safe bet for 30 wins, and even slightly better ratios would boost his fanta