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The Globe and Mail

NHL blueliners battle sophomore slump blues

The hell of it is they know it's coming.

Forewarned is forearmed, so why is it that second-year NHL players so rarely seem able to skirt the pitfalls of the sophomore blues?

When Montreal Canadiens blueliner P.K. Subban reported for training camp in September, The Globe and Mail asked him how he planned to counter the let-down that especially seems to plague second-year defencemen and goalies.

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He acknowledged the possibility, but insisted he wasn't concerned by it.

"This year, I'm coming in with expectations, next year, they'll be bigger expectations, and they'll be bigger the year after that. I'm just playing the game, man," said the 22-year-old, who is in his second full NHL season. "I'm going to make mistakes and people are going to get on me for them, but I don't care, I'm just trying to get better."

Habs fans will hope he tries a little harder.

The flamboyant defenceman, who scored 38 points last year, is well off his rookie scoring pace and until the last week or so has been, not to exaggerate matters, mostly terrible.

He is not the only one who is having trouble recapturing last year's magic.

John Carlson of the Washington Capitals, another super sophomore defenceman, has seven fewer points than he had at the same point last year. But at least his plus/minus has improved on a stacked Caps defence.

Cam Fowler, who finished second in points among rookie defencemen last year (ahead of Subban and just behind Kevin Shattenkirk of the St. Louis Blues) has contributed minimal offence for the Anaheim Ducks and the statistical picture suggests he hasn't improved his defensive zone play appreciably.

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Playing defence in the NHL is hard, so this is to be expected Just ask Buffalo Sabres blueliner Tyler Myers – the 2010 Calder Memorial Trophy winner as NHL rookie of the year – who endured a terrible slump in the first half of last year, and sympathizes with the struggles of players like his former Canadian world junior teammate Subban.

"You see it so much it's kind of become normal … and I think it was really good for me to have to figure out a way to work through it," Myers said in a recent interview. "I was feeling the pressure of my rookie season, there were expectations, I had a lot of people in my ear. But it didn't have to do with the way other teams were playing me, I was in my own head."

Montreal goalie Carey Price, whose game fell off a cliff midway through his second year, concurred.

"You spend the whole summer dwelling on how well you did and you forget what made it so successful," Price said. "Every young person, not only in hockey but in life, thinks they know more than they do. That's probably the biggest thing, you don't have it figured out … you can't buy experience."

But what about Shattenkirk, who leads second-year defencemen in scoring, and Carolina Hurricanes forward Jeff Skinner, last season's Calder winner? Aren't they living proof the sophomore slide doesn't affect everyone equally?

That's where psychology (evaluation bias) and statistical concepts come into play – specifically regression to the mean.

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Various studies have shown unusually good or atypically bad showings are generally followed by something closer to the average performance in any given field.

The sophomore slump, then, is easily explained.

Except when it's not.

Several baseball studies have demonstrated that while there are plausible mathematical explanations, hitting performance does, by and large, drop off in Year 2.

And a quick perusal of hockey statistics suggests this is true of young offensive defencemen, particularly since 2004-05.

Of the 12 blueliners who finished in the top two in rookie scoring at their position since the lockout, only three had better numbers the following year.

Prior to the lockout, the dip was less significant, perhaps because the players were more than a year older, on average, than salary cap-era prospects who find themselves with regular NHL jobs at 20 or 21.

This week, Subban said he feels his game is rounding into shape. It's an open question as to whether he'll feel the same way for the next six or seven months.

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