Struggling NHL stars. Who picks up the slack?

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When you’re offered a ton of money to play your favorite sport for a living, you don’t pass it up. You never know if you’ll ever get an opportunity like that again and, heck, who doesn’t want to be rich?

But for top athletes, signing a big contract can be a curse. If you begin to struggle, your contract becomes a punching bag for fans and nobody will be on your side. A slow start can be magnified beyond everything else and hot streaks are seen as nothing more than just doing what you’re paid to do.

It’s hard to feel bad for millionaires, especially these days, but in sports, there’s significant pressure to perform when you’re making a lot of money. But if you got a deal like that, you likely earned it in some manner. 

That’s why today we’re taking a look at a few star players on big contracts that have struggled early in the going:

Evgeni Malkin, C (Pittsburgh Penguins)

With seven points in 14 games, he hasn’t been terrible, per se, but Malkin has been far from the star center we’re used to.

With Sidney Crosby holding the fort on the top line, Malkin returned to his usual habitat on Pittsburgh’s second line as he has done for most of his career. Malkin has had too many quiet games and with just two even-strength goals this season, it’s been a challenge for the Russian fanatic. 

A year ago, losing Crosby for an extended period of time allowed Malkin to take center stage. In the 28-game span with the captain out of commission from November 10th through January 12th, Malkin led the way for the battered birds with 41 points, keeping the Penguins in the hunt and giving them a shot at a top seed in the Eastern Conference. That’s the type of star power the Penguins need from him if they’re going to be a real contender in the competitive East Division.

Erik Karlsson, D (San Jose Sharks)

One of the traits that set Karlsson apart from other top defensemen in the NHL is his offensive acumen. But with just four assists in 13 games, a rough 43.06 Corsi-for percentage (140th of 143 defensemen with at least 160 minutes of 5-on-5 play this season), and a 42.86 goals-for percentage, there hasn’t been much to get excited about this season.

Yes, the Sharks aren’t a good team, and Karlsson playing heavy minutes means his stats are bound for a bit of a dive. But not at this level, marking one of the worst starts to a season in Karlsson’s career. The two-time Norris Trophy winner is set to miss some time with an injury, which might give him an unwanted-but-welcomed break as he tries to find the form that made him one of the best NHLers over the past decade.

Currently in the second year of a massive eight-year deal worth $11.5 million a season, Karlsson has had a rough going since joining the Sharks and a lack of help around him in the lineup has exposed some flaws in his game. Karlsson hasn’t been able to dominate offensively and when he’s struggling in his own zone, he’s been a bit of a mess. 

Real Kyper at Noon

Jeff Skinner, LW (Buffalo Sabres)

Skinner has a reputation as someone who can bounce back after a tough season. With 63 points in 2016-17 and 2018-19, it meant Skinner was ready for a bounce-back this season following a 23-point run a year ago. 

Somehow, he has managed to produce at an even worse rate this season, with just one assist in 12 games. For someone making $9 million, falling down to a depth role on a team with Jack Eichel and Taylor Hall as potential linemates is unacceptable. Skinner hasn’t earned any chances higher in the lineup and has been rumored as being available on the trade market. It’s hard to think a team would be bustling to pick him up, but he had 40 goals just two years ago and a new home could spark his play again. Even with Skinner playing on the second power-play unit, it’s been an ugly start to the season.

The Sabres are dead last in the East Division but having played fewer games than most of the competition and sitting just seven points out of fourth in the grouping, they’re not out of the playoff conversation just yet. But Skinner desperately needs to find his confidence again before he becomes a regular contributor to the taxi squad.

Ryan Johansen, C (Nashville Predators)

It’s been five years since the Predators traded star defenseman Seth Jones to Columbus to bring Ryan Johansen to Nashville, something that should have given the team a true No. 1 center after a 71-point season in his final full campaign with the Blue Jackets. Johansen has had a few good seasons in Nashville, but he hasn’t recorded 70 points ever again – and it’s been quite ugly this season, too. 

Johansen was on pace for 45 points last season before COVID-19 ended the regular season, which would have been the worst full-season output of his career. But nobody expected him to start off as slow as he has in 2021 with just four assists in 10 games, offering very little value out of his $8-million AAV.

An upper-body injury has knocked Johansen out of the past few games, but Johansen’s play when healthy has left a lot to be desired. Johansen has yet to record an even-strength point and he hasn’t recorded points in consecutive contests – although there’s potential for finally breaking that mold after grabbing an assist in his last game on Feb. 4. If Johansen wants to ensure more ice time, he’ll need to find a spark early on in his return.

Robin Lehner, G (Vegas Golden Knights)

An upper-body injury aside, the 2021 season has been quite forgettable for Robin Lehner. Sure, his 3-1-1 record isn’t too bad on the surface, but when you dig a bit deeper, that’s when things start to look ugly.

Among the 55 goalies with at least four games played this season, Lehner’s .879 save percentage (53rd) and minus-3.44 goals-saved-above average (47th) at 5-on-5 makes him one of the worst goaltenders in the league this season. Compare that to last season when he finished in the top 10 among goalies with at least 25 games played despite spending most of it on a brutal Chicago Blackhawks team and you can see the incredible dropoff for someone brought in take over Marc-Andre Fleury’s job late last season.

It doesn’t help that Fleury has been one of the league’s top goaltenders in 2020-21, especially while Lehner has been out of action for the past week. Line Movement’s Nick Kypreos reported last month that Lehner reported to camp weighing over 300 pounds – something that could explain his sudden slower movements in the crease. At his best, Lehner has proven he can be a top goaltender in the league. But right now, it’s been the complete opposite.

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