After cracking the Montreal Canadiens' line up last season, the expectations for Jacob de la Rose this year were sky high.
Even with the signings of Alex Semin and Tomas Fleischmann, it was expected that the young Swede might claim a spot on the fourth line alongside Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn.The resurgent play of Devante Smith-Pelly and the outstanding play of Semin and Fleischmann made de la Rose expendable at the NHL level.
So rather than let him waste away in the press box, he was re-assigned to the St. John's IceCaps, where he found himself on a line with Gabriel Dumont and Nikita Scherbak.
While on paper this line should have no difficulty putting the puck in the net, they struggled to generate any sustainable offence early in the season. Dumont has only four points, Scherbak just three, and de la Rose has two, which is a steep drop-off from the production of the top six forwards.
Part of this can be explained by the line usage of head coach Sylvain Lefebvre. The trio plays a lot as a defensive line, often taking of the tougher match-ups and zone starts. These assignments are made tougher with both Dumont and de la Rose rotating at centre.
Further compounding the issue, Scherbak slowly adjusting to the game at a professional level, often trying to make a highlight-reel deke instead of a simple play. It may be in the interest of Scherbak's development to have a veteran forward take the tougher minutes, and allow the offensively-gifted winger the opportunity to take easier assignments.
However, much like in Montreal when the team is scoring at a high rate, it's hard to dismantle the lines that are working. The lines of Bud Holloway/Charles Hudon/Sven Andrighetto and Daniel Carr/Michael McCarron/Christian Thomas have been so dominant it's nearly impossible to break them up.
Adding to the struggle is the loss of Scherbak to a lower body injury; taking his place is Brandon McNally. McNally showed flashes of offensive skill playing on the fourth line last year, but isn't an ideal fit to take on the assignments that both Dumont and de la Rose are responsible for. Depending on the severity of Scherbak's injury, we could see a soon-to-be-returning Tim Bozon.
The biggest knock on de la Rose right now is that he's simply not shooting enough, with just 14 shots in 11 games so far. There was a similar trend for him last year, although once he played in the World Junior Championship tournament he immediately saw an uptick in overall offensive play. In the meantime it's worth noting that de la Rose serves as Lefebvre's go-to forward for penalty killing situations again this year. With the penalty kill being ranked fifth in the AHL, it's clear to see why that trust is there.
There is no need to panic with de la Rose, he started slowly in his rookie season as well, and eventually took off like a rocket in the second half of the year.
After playing in the NHL for most of last year it's easy to forget that he's still maturing as a player, at just 20 years old.
This season's starts can all be considered small bumps in the road.