NHL’s Top-5 Comeback Players of Early 2022-23
We are now a little over a month into the 2022-23 season and several players have performed well above expectations. Players that were underwhelming in 2021-22 – and even before that – are shining bright as the NHL is seeing a surprising amount of comebacks early on. While it remains to be seen if their level of production can be sustained throughout the season, here are five of the biggest comeback stories so far.
5. Dominik Kubalik – Detroit Red Wings
When Dominik Kubalik scored 30 goals in his rookie season back in 2019-20, Chicago Blackhawks fans probably thought they were getting the second coming of Artemi Panarin. After spending four seasons in the Czech league and two in the Swiss league, he burst onto the NHL scene and finished with 30 goals and 46 points in the regular season and another four goals and eight points in the playoffs. Unfortunately, he has yet to hit those numbers since, regressing to 17 and 15 goals in 2020-21 and 2021-22 respectively. While those weren’t necessarily bad numbers, they were a far cry from the season that saw him named to the All-Rookie Team and finish third in Calder Trophy voting behind Quinn Hughes and Cale Makar.
Now a member of the Detroit Red Wings after Blackhawks general manager Kyle Davidson decided not to extend him a qualifying offer, Kubalik has found new life in Motor City. Currently leading the team with seven goals and 18 points, he is looking more like the player that dominated the rookie scoring race in 2019-20 rather than the inconsistent player he was in Chicago the past two seasons.
4. Miles Wood – New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils are the class of the Metropolitan Division right now sporting a 12-3-0 record and riding a nine-game winning streak not seen since 2007. One of the reasons for that is the exceptional play of depth players like 27-year-old Miles Wood. Through no fault of his own, he is in the category of “comeback player” this season because of an injury in 2021-22 that limited him to only three games. Fortunately for him and the Devils, he seems to be no worse for wear as he already has six goals in 15 games, including five goals and eight points during their current winning streak.
Related: 4 Fun Facts About Devils’ Miles Wood
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What’s more impressive is that Wood is doing all of this with an average ice time of only 13:20 per game and second-unit power play time. It’s also worth noting that none of his goals have come with the man advantage. Finally, he’s been a shooting machine with 44 shots so far this season trailing only Nico Hischier (46), Dougie Hamilton (56), and Jack Hughes (63). His best came against the Edmonton Oilers on Nov. 3 when he not only put up two goals and an assist but also fired eight shots on goal. Needless to say, I think head coach Lindy Ruff is happy Wood is back in his arsenal.
3. Gabriel Vilardi – Los Angeles Kings
Still boasting one of the top prospect pools in the NHL, the Los Angeles Kings appear to have successfully transitioned from a rebuilding team into a playoff contender. Surprisingly making it to the 2022 Playoffs as the last seed in the Pacific Division, they gave the Oilers all they could handle in the first round – even leading 3-2 at one point – but ultimately got eliminated in Game 7. So far this season, that success doesn’t seem like a one-off, as they sit second in the Western Conference with 21 points. They also feature one of the top goalscorers in the NHL, and no it’s not Anze Kopitar, Kevin Fiala, or Phillip Danault, but 23-year-old Gabriel Vilardi.
Selected 11th overall back in 2017, the word “draft bust” was starting to float around Vilardi. With only 18 goals and 37 points in 89 games before the start of this season, his time seemed to be running out in Los Angeles. Fast forward to now, and GM Rob Blake is probably thanking his lucky stars that he held onto him through last season’s trade deadline and this past offseason. Leading the Kings with 10 goals in 18 games, Vilardi has already matched his career-high set in 54 games during the 2020-21 season, and barring injury (which has been a problem in the past), he should record his first 20- or even 30-goal campaign. Whether you call it a comeback or a breakthrough, he has been one of the brightest lights in Hollywood – and the NHL – so far in 2022-23.
2. Erik Karlsson – San Jose Sharks
Was Brent Burns moving across the country to Carolina the tonic Erik Karlsson needed to return to his Norris Trophy form of the early 2010s? It’s either that or this Karlsson is a time traveler from 2015. Whatever the case, the now 32-year-old is playing like the superstar he was in Ottawa when he put up a career-high 16 goals and 82 points during the 2015-16 season. Currently on pace to record Paul Coffey-like numbers of 48 goals and 106 points, Sharks fans are probably wondering where this type of production was when he was acquired in that blockbuster deal back in 2018.
Since that 2017-18 season in Canada’s capital where he last hit 60 points, Karlsson’s biggest total was 45 when he helped lead the Sharks to the 2019 Stanley Cup Final – coincidentally the last time they made the playoffs. Once a consistent 82-gamer with the Senators, he has struggled to stay healthy in San Jose, failing to eclipse the 56-game mark in four seasons since the trade. Finally 100 percent healthy after nagging groin injuries and a broken thumb, he is living up to the $11.5 million cap hit former GM Doug Wilson signed him to in 2019. Now, the question is, do the rebuilding Sharks trade him or hope that he’s found a big enough second wind to lead the defence corps into the next era?
1. Carter Hart – Philadelphia Flyers
I debated putting Karlsson first on this list, but considering how dominant and impactful Carter Hart has been for the surprisingly successful Philadelphia Flyers, he deserves to take top spot on the comeback podium. After two seasons of mediocrity and people questioning his ability to be an elite starter in the NHL, he has come back with a vengeance in 2022-23.
Without a doubt the backbone of the Flyers’ return to legitimacy, Hart is an early Vezina Trophy candidate. Heck, if he keeps this up, he might even get some votes for the trophy that bears his last name. Sporting a stingy 2.18 goals-against average (GAA) and .937 save percentage (SV%) along with a 6-2-2 record, he’s looking more like the Hart of the 2020 Playoffs when he battled Carey Price in a true goaltender’s dual. While some might point to John Tortorella and Brad Shaw’s improved defensive system as a reason for his success, he is still facing almost the same number of high-danger shots per game on average as he did last season. The biggest difference? He’s stopping more of them.
|Average High Danger Shots Per Game||High Danger Save Percentage|
High-danger shots are more likely to result in goals, so the fact that Hart is stopping more of them is pretty significant. Basically, he’s giving the Flyers a better chance to win this season when he’s in goal – which is exactly what an elite Vezina Trophy goaltender is supposed to do. If his first 10 starts are any indication, I think fans can safely say that Carter Hart is back.
As we approach the vaunted Thanksgiving watermark, it’s going to be interesting to see if all of these players can keep their comeback/breakout seasons going. Over an 82-game season, there are always ebbs and flows, so these initial bursts of production might not be sustainable. But only time will tell, right?
Were there any players that you believe deserve a spot on the top-five podium? Let us know in the comments below!
Matthew Zator is the assistant managing editor at THW and a writer who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.
Matthew also hosts The Hockey Writers Prospect Corner on YouTube and is the co-host of The Hockey Writers Podcast & Western Centric Podcast.