Well, the 2021-22 NHL season is essentially over.
And for more than a few players, this year offered a chance at redemption, with a number of previously productive contributors using the past 82 games as an opportunity to re-establish themselves as effective offensive weapons in hockey’s top league.
Let’s take a look at the four individuals who put forth the best bounce-back seasons of them all.
Jeff Skinner – Buffalo Sabers
2021 Stat Line: 53 GP, 7 goals, 7 assists, 14 points, 14:31 TOI
2021-22 Stat Line: 78 GP, 33 goals, 29 assists, 62 points, 17:06 TOI
Jeff Skinner was, quite literally, a punchline not too long ago. Or, at least, his contract was. Seattle’s Brandon Tanev provided it for himself on live television, using Skinner’s eight-year, $72 million pact as an on-ice chirp back in December asking the Sabers’ winger “How the f— did you get that deal?” as the two sparred following a whistle.
Don’t get me wrong, Skinner is still not worth the $9 million cap hit he lugs around like an anvil on his tiny shoulders. He never will be. But the performance he mustered in 2021-22 has at least rebuilt his reputation as an NHLer to some degree, and effectively taken him out of the running as the worst signing of the salary cap era… for now.
The Sabers will take that win and run with it.
If I told you that Skinner came one point away from matching his career-high this season, would you call me a liar? Well, you’d be wrong, because that’s exactly what he did. The 29-year-old’s 33 goals are the most he’s put up since the 2018-19 campaign that ultimately earned him his inflated paycheck, while his 29 assists from him are behind only his rookie output of 32 over a decade ago.
Take money out of the equation, and Skinner was a legitimately effective top-six forward this season, one who gave the Sabers above-average production while helping them out-score and out-chance their opponents at even-strength.
Compare that to the past two seasons, during which Skinner’s production dipped to catastrophic levels that included a rock-bottom 2021 of just 14 points in 53 games that ultimately got him exposed in the expansion draft, and this is pretty much a complete 180.
If this is Skinner’s status quo for the next few years, the Sabers have an effective top-six weapon who can help contribute as their prospects begin to graduate to the big-leagues.
Considering how he was arguably the biggest boat anchor in the league a few months ago, that’s a stunning turnaround.
Matt Duchene – Nashville Predators
2021 Stat Line: 34 GP, 6 goals, 7 assists, 13 points, 15:50 TOI
2021-22 Stat Line: 76 GP, 42 goals, 42 assists, 84 points, 18:59 TOI
Why are more people not talking about Matt Duchene scoring over 40 goals this season? It’s weird, right? The guy scored six all of last season and just 13 the year before, more or less shutting the valve entirely on his offensive production immediately after signing a lucrative deal in Nashville.
And yet, not a peep. Let’s change that.
Duchene didn’t just have a bounce-back year in 2021-22. I had a career year. His best campaign of him to date. The former top-three pick has never scored like this before — not in Colorado; not with the Senators; not as a hired gun in Columbus. Never.
At age-31, Duchene has taken his game to an entirely new level and therefore given the Predators the impact scorer they’ve been searching for practically their entire existence as a franchise.
Is it sustainable? Probably not. Duchene’s 18.9 percent shooting percentage this season is the highest of his entire career and well above his yearly average. But Duchene hasn’t just been munching on empty calories all year long, either. Ignoring the box score for a moment, Duchene’s 52.78 percent expected-goal share illustrates a player who tilts the ice in his team’s favor whenever he steps on it, with the Sabers also generating 53.59 percent of the scoring chances during Duchene’s even-strength minutes, as well.
Basically, after spending his entire tenure in Nashville being Not Good™, Duchene has flipped the script completely.
Who would’ve thought? Not me!
Tage Thompson – Buffalo Sabers
2021 Stat Line: 38 GP, 8 goals, 6 assists, 14 points, 13:52 TOI
2021-22 Stat Line: 76 GP, 37 goals, 30 assists, 67 points, 17:51 TOI
Tage Thompson didn’t so much have a bounce-back year in 2021-22 as he had a coming-out party.
Shackled with the baggage of being a central piece in the Ryan O’Reilly trade, Thompson’s first three seasons in Buffalo were as close to a disaster as you can get. Thompson put up a meager 12 points in 65 games in 2018-19 as a 21-year-old, spent the bulk of 2019-20 in the AHL, and mustered only 14 points in 38 games in the pandemic-shortened 2021.
Then, Sabers coach Don Granato moved him to center early this season. And, practically overnight, Thompson rewarded him by becoming a legitimate top-six contributor down the middle who spent the year flirting with 40 goals, all before the age of 25.
I had to double-check a few times to make sure Thompson’s 37 goals actually happened and it wasn’t just a fever dream I had after eating too much cheese before bed. But, nope. He actually did that, evolving into one of the best young centers in the entire NHL right before our eyes while essentially drawing even in both expected-goal share and scoring chance generation despite logging the heaviest minutes of his career on a bottom-tier team.
Thompson’s emergence has changed the trajectory of the entire Sabers organization from here on out, giving them one of the most coveted assets a team can have while remaining under team control at a $1.4 million cap hit until 2024.
Vladimir Tarasenko – St. Louis Blues
2021 Stat Line: 24 GP, 4 goals, 10 assists, 14 points, 17:25 TOI
2021-22 Stat Line: 74 GP, 34 goals, 48 assists, 82 points, 16:58 TOI
Look, if the Seattle Kraken want to be bad for a few years, that’s fine by me. But let’s not pretend they didn’t have the chance to ice a competitive roster this season, either.
Of the Kraken’s blunders in the expansion draft last summer, and there were many, turning their nose up at the chance to nab Vladimir Tarasenko, with an extra year on his contract at a reasonable price, for free from the Blues, has got to be the worst.
It wouldn’t have come without risk, of course. And hindsight is 20/20, especially given that Tarasenko had, at the time, spent the past two seasons dealing with a major shoulder injury that was thought to threaten his ability to shoot the puck for the remainder of his career.
But the Tarasenko that emerged from a summer of trade rumors and dire prognoses was a player on a warpath.
The veteran winger obliterated his previous career-high in points this season despite missing eight games, scoring nearly 35 goals while dishing out a personal-best 48 assists that are 12 more than he’d ever managed to finish with in any single season before this one.
Even more impressive is how 29 of Tarasenko’s 34 goals in 2021-22 came at even-strength, showing his ability to do the bulk of his damage on an even playing field.
After years of injury woes threatened his future in the NHL, Tarasenko re-established himself among the best offensive players in the league. That’s pretty darn remarkable, and should haunt the dreams of Kraken fans for years to come.