Despite the many trophies given out to players at the end of the season, the NHL doesn’t give out an award for the most improved player. If they did, five players stand out from the pack this year. These five have each seen their production pick up this season, and are in the short conversation for the NHL’s most improved player of 2018-19.
Robin Lehner, New York Islanders
There was little fanfare to the Islanders’ one year, $1.5 million deal with Lehrer back in July, and there’s good reason for that. The 27-year old started for the lottery-bound Sabres for the past two seasons, and didn’t stand out from the pack. Lehner was considered more of a fringe starter than anything else, with the statistics to match. In his first season with the Islanders, the 6’4″ goalie has been one of the best netminders in the league.
Lehner has already won five more games with the Metropolitan-leading Islanders than he did in 53 starts with the Sabres in 2017-18. The Sweden native leads the NHL with a sparkling 2.07 goals against average and .931 save percentage, posting a 19-9-5 record in 34 games. He won’t get much Vezina consideration since he’s splitting the net with the equally as impressive Thomas Greiss, but Lehner’s dominance this year was completely unexpected.
Elias Lindholm, Calgary Flames
I wasn’t a big fan of the Flames’ return in a five-player trade in June with Carolina, highlighted by Lindholm going to Calgary and defenseman Dougie Hamilton going to the Hurricanes. Boy, was I wrong, because Lindholm has exceeded expectations in his debut campaign with the Flames.
Before joining Calgary, Lindholm never scored more than 45 points in a single season. In 62 games with the Flames, the 24-year old right winger is producing at more than a point per game pace, with 25 goals, 44 assists, and 69 points so far, all of which are career-highs.
Going from a low-scoring Hurricanes team to playing alongside star Johnny Gaudreau and center Sean Monahan has led to the massive uptick in production. Calgary locked him up with a six-year, $29.1 million extension before he even played a game, and if Lindholm continues to produce at his current rate, the deal is going to be one of the league’s biggest bargains.
Alex Chiasson, Edmonton Oilers
Edmonton couldn’t have been expecting much when they signed the 28-year old vet to a tryout contract in the offseason, but Chiasson has played quite well and become one of the few bright spots in a turbulent Oilers season.
Chiasson began his time in Edmonton on fire, scoring 16 goals before the end of December. While he’s cooled off over the last two months, the 2018 Stanley Cup winner has already scored a career-high 17 goals. The right winger is unlikely to score many more than 20 goals by season’s end, but considering no team offered him an NHL contract, Chiasson has made the most of his situation. He’s gritty, hard-working, and has earned his next pro contract.
Jakob Markstrom, Vancouver Canucks
Markstrom’s numbers from one season ago don’t look all that different at first glance. The 29-year old goalie has posted the same .912 save percentage and a slightly higher goals against average of 2.73, up from 2.71. What puts him on this list is his superb play since December behind one of the NHL’s worst defenses.
After posting a sub .900 save percentage in both October and November, Markstrom has been lights out for the Canucks. He won eight of nine games in December with a .943 save percentage, and after an average January, Markstrom has been as solid as a rock in February with a .926 save percentage. Once a top prospect, Markstrom has finally established himself as a starter in the league and has posted a career-best 23 wins. His numbers would be much better with an average D-core in front of him. Markstrom is a huge reason Vancouver sits just four points out of a playoff spot in the West and without him, they’re in the NHL’s basement.
Max Domi, Montreal Canadiens
Much like the Lindholm trade, I thought Montreal was initially on the wrong side of the Domi-Alex Galchenyuk swap with the Coyotes. While the deal still could favor Arizona in the long-term, Domi has provided instant value for the Habs, enjoying the most productive season of his young career.
In 63 games, the undersized 23-year-old left winger leads the playoff-bound Canadiens in scoring with a career-high 20 goals and 54 points, surpassing his previous high of 52 points in his rookie season with the Coyotes. Domi has given a young team a boost with his unexpected scoring prowess and edge on the ice. Meanwhile, he’s embraced hockey-crazed Montreal and excelled in a city that has a history of being relentless to players. In order for the Galchenyuk swap to work, Domi needed to find another gear in his game, and he’s found that next gear in Montreal.