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Finding the right fit can do wonders for an NHL player’s career.
Whether it’s as part of a new team or working under a new coach on the same club, certain situations bring out the best in certain players.
Performance spikes can result from a number of different factors, including greater responsibility, more ice time, better linemates, a shift in usage or a coaching system that aligns with a player’s strengths.
Here are six players who are thriving in the early going this year and how their new coaches are getting the most out of them.
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What was his role last season? Though he missed the first 11 games of the 2016-17 season with a rib injury, Evander Kane led the Buffalo Sabres with 28 goals. His production hinted at a return to form after several underwhelming seasons filled with injuries, indifferent play and off-ice drama.
What changed? New Sabres coach Phil Housley has had his share of challenges this season, but he’s getting good results from Kane. At the 21-game mark, the left wing leads his team in goals (12) and points (20). That’s a 47-goal, 87-point pace which would crush his previous high-water mark of 30 goals and 57 points with the Winnipeg Jets back in 2011-12.
How has his coach impacted his game? For most of the season, Housley has skated Kane with Jack Eichel and Jason Pominville. In an effort to spark more offense—and try to get out of the Eastern Conference basement—he moved Kane on to a line with Ryan O’Reilly and Sam Reinhart in Monday’s 3-2 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Housley may be pushing the right buttons with Kane because the 26-year-old is in a contract year. Currently tied for fifth in the league in goals, he is on his way to a big payday with unrestricted free agency looming at the end of the season.
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What was his role last season? In his sixth season with the Arizona/Phoenix Coyotes in 2016-17, Mike Smith missed 12 games with a lower-body injury on his way to a 19-26-9 record in 55 appearances. He had a 2.92 goals-against average and .914 save percentage on a team that gave up the second-most shots in the NHL.
What changed? Former Coyotes assistant general manager Brad Treliving, now the GM of the Calgary Flames, acquired Smith during the offseason. Treliving believed Smith could stabilize the Flames’ goaltending situation after a disappointing experience with Brian Elliott.
How has his coach impacted his game? So far, it has gone well. Smith’s .922 save percentage with the Flames is his best since his first year in Phoenix in 2011-12, the year he finished fourth in Vezina Trophy voting and the Coyotes made a surprise run to the Western Conference Final.
With an 11-6-0 record in 18 appearances, Smith’s steady and sometimes spectacular play has been a big part of the reason why the Flames are holding down a playoff spot in the tight Pacific Division.
One area for concern—Smith’s workload. His backup, Eddie Lack, has made just four appearances this season and has struggled when he has been in. Lack has a 1-2-0 record with an .813 save percentage and 5.29 goals-against average.
With his 36th birthday approaching next March, Smith is on track to play 74 games this season—seven more than his previous career high of 67 from that 2011-12 season in Phoenix.
If head coach Glen Gulutzan continues to lean on him so heavily, fans will be watching to see if Smith can stay healthy—and if he’ll have any gas left in the tank at playoff time.
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What was his role last season? Back in North America for the first time in five seasons, Alexander Radulov led the 2016-17 Montreal Canadiens with 36 assists and was second in regular-season scoring with 54 points. He went on to lead his team with seven points in six playoff games.
What changed? After choosing not to re-sign with Montreal, the Russian landed in a plum spot on the Dallas Stars’ top line, skating with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. With 19 points in his first 20 games, the 31-year-old power forward is on pace for his best season yet in the NHL.
How has his coach impacted his game? Though Radulov has a reputation for being lax defensively at times, he hasn’t had any trouble earning ice time under noted taskmaster Ken Hitchcock. He doesn’t kill penalties, but he leads the Stars forwards in average ice time at even strength and on their lethal power play, which is ranked second in the league with an efficiency rate of 27.4 percent.
“He’s been as advertised,” Hitchcock told Mike Heika of SportsDay three weeks into the season. “He’s incredibly creative, he’s a really hard worker, he’s been good for us.”
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What was his role last season? A longtime fixture on the Florida Panthers’ top line, left wing Jonathan Huberdeau missed the first four months of the 2016-17 season after suffering an Achilles injury in preseason that required surgery. After returning to the lineup in early February, the Canadian led the Panthers in scoring with 26 points over the team’s final 31 games.
What changed? After finishing 14 points out of a playoff spot, the Panthers elected to replace interim coach Tom Rowe with NHL neophyte Bob Boughner. He started the season by lining up Huberdeau with his usual center Aleksander Barkov and Panthers newcomer Evgenii Dadonov.
How has his coach impacted his game? Huberdeau is seeing more than 20 minutes of ice time per game for the first time in his career and his production has increased accordingly. With 21 points in 20 games, he’s tied with Barkov and Vincent Trocheck for the Panthers’ scoring lead and on pace for a career-high 86 points.
As a third-overall draft pick and 2012-13 Calder Trophy winner, Huberdeau’s talent is no secret, but he has struggled to reach star status. The Panthers are still having trouble winning games, but Boughner is pushing the right buttons as 24-year-old takes his game to the next level.
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What was his role last season? In the first year of a new eight-year contract that carries a cap hit of $10 million per season, newly appointed Los Angeles Kings captain Anze Kopitar slumped to just 12 goals in 2016-17—about half his usual output. The Selke Trophy winner also finished the year at minus-10, second-worst among the Kings’ forwards.
What changed? After missing the playoffs for the second time in three years, the Kings promoted from within in, replacing general manager Dean Lombardi with Rob Blake and coach Darryl Sutter with John Stevens. Jonathan Quick has also returned to anchor the Los Angeles net, and former captain Dustin Brown is scoring like it’s 2010 all over again.
How has his coach impacted his game? Stevens is leaning hard on Kopitar, whose average ice time of 22:19 per game this season is the highest of his career. That’s partly due to Jeff Carter’s injury, but it’s also because Kopitar and Brown are lighting the lamp with regularity—both at even strength and on the power play.
“He felt like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders last year with everything and I think that anxiety with all the things he was dealing with probably took a lot of energy out of his game as well,” Stevens told Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times at the beginning of training camp.
Stevens has helped Kopitar clear his head and bring a better level of fitness—and he’s on track for what would be a career-best season of 35 goals and 90 points as the Kings lead the Pacific Division.
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What was his role last season? Playing behind centers Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier with the Philadelphia Flyers, Brayden Schenn made the most of his power-play time. In 2016-17, he tied Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov with a league-leading 17 goals with the man advantage.
Originally drafted fifth overall by the Los Angeles Kings, Schenn consistently produced offense with the Flyers despite being shuffled around the lineup.
What changed? A draft-day trade to the St. Louis Blues landed Schenn on his new team’s top line with two stud linemates in Vladimir Tarasenko and Jaden Schwartz. The most productive line in the Western Conference through the first quarter of the season, Schenn’s average ice time has jumped by nearly two minutes per game.
How has his coach impacted his game? Coach Mike Yeo is letting his horses run—leaning heavily on his top six as he’s had to augment his forward group due to long-term injuries to Robby Fabbri, Patrik Berglund and Zach Sanford.
Schenn has shown he’s ready for the additional responsibility and has meshed wonderfully with Tarasenko and Schwartz. After 21 games, his 26 points put him in a tie with Schwartz for fourth place in NHL scoring and already have him nearly halfway to matching his previous career best of 59 points in a season.
All stats from NHL.com, current through games completed Monday, November 20.