The Vegas Golden Knights, while having a whale of a first season, aren’t the only feel good stories to come out of the NHL season.
We mean, who would have thought that 33-year-old long time veteran Eric Staal would be having one of his best seasons ever, let alone lead his team (the Minnesota Wild), in scoring?
Shocking is a word we could use to describe Staal’s resurgence (more on him later).
Or, how about Winnipeg rookie Kyle Connor, a 17th overall pick in 2015 who didn’t impress much during a 20-game call-up last year, but is chugging along at 29 goals and 50 points this season with the Jets.
There have been many great performances from players not named Connor McDavid this NHL campaign. From rookies, to veterans and players no one expected to be having the success they are during the 2017-18 campaign.
Here are 20 we deem worthy of extra praise, some of who will have an impact come playoff time.
20. Yanni Gourde – Tampa Bay Lightning
As freshmen go, Gourde is an “old” rookie at 26. But, his contribution to the Lightning cause can’t be diminished just because it took him longer to find full-time work in the NHL. So far this season, the native of tiny Saint-Narcisse, PQ has scored 24 goals and 34 assists in 75 games, while logging the fifth best plus-minus in the NHL at +30. Even more astounding is the fact he’s done all this with his small size (5’9″, 172 lbs.) and the ice time allotted to a third line right winger (just over 16 minutes per game). Gourde was a junior star with Victoriaville earlier this decade, but went undrafted. He then spent parts of six seasons in the minor leagues as a free agent, from the Worcester Sharks and Syracuse Crunch (Tampa’s team) of the AHL to the San Francisco Bulls and Kalamazoo Wings of the ECHL. What makes his ascent so noteworthy is that in his best AHL campaign, with Syracuse in 2014-15, he scored 57 points in 76 games. Wow.
19. Shayne Gostisbehere – Philadelphia Flyers
The Ghost has gone from hero, to zero and back to hero again in the City of Brotherly Love. In 2015-16, the unheralded former third round pick of the Flyers (78th overall in 2012) blew everyone away with his offensive talent, scoring 46 points in 64 games and maintaining a +8. It earned him votes for the Norris Trophy as well as runner-up for the Calder Trophy. But, Gostisbehere succumbed to the sophomore jinx last season, tallying 39 points in 76 games but seeing his plus-minus sink to a deplorable -21. Something must have clicked in the off-season, as the Pembroke Pines, FLA born Gostisbehere picked himself up off the mat — as did the Flyers, who may go to the playoffs — scoring 13 goals and add 44 assists and a +2 in 72 games. He has also been given more ice time, almost two minutes more per game, and responsibility in an effective top two with Ivan Provorov this season.
18. Vincent Trocheck – Florida Panthers
The Panthers, who have been one of the hottest teams in the last month and a bit, will fight tooth and nail for one of the last wild card spots. The team has gone 12-3-1 since Feb. 22 and a good chunk of the credit can go to former third round pick and second line center Trocheck, who has scored eight goals and eight assists in that span to boost the Cats’ fortunes. Overall, the Pittsburgh native is having a career season, boasting personal bests in goals (30), assists (39) and points (69). Trocheck has also posted highs in powerplay goals (13) and points (25). Where he has been very valuable, despite the obvious, is on the face-off dot and penalty kill. His face-off efficiency is over three points better than his previous high of 50.2 percent in 2016-17, winning 735 of his 1,370 draws (53.6 percent). He has also scored a career high three shorthanded goals (third in the NHL) and added an assist, too.
17. Alex DeBrincat – Chicago Blackhawks
Overall, the Chicago Blackhawks, who have already been eliminated from playoff contention, have been pretty much a disappointment. With an aging core and no top draft picks in recent years to build around, things aren’t looking that good for the future. Yet, there is one small — in more ways than one — glimmer of hope on the horizon. And he would be 2016 second round pick, the diminutive Alex DeBrincat. At 5’7″ and just 165 lbs., the 20-year-old from Farmington Hills, MI isn’t intimidating anyone in the corners. But, put a puck on his stick and watch the magic. A big scorer in junior with Erie, DeBrincat had 167 goals and 165 assists in 191 games for the Otters over three seasons. But, his size dropped his stock and he wasn’t taken until no. 39 by the Hawks. He has repaid their faith in spades, scoring 25 goals and adding 20 assists in 76 games, in under 15 minutes of ice time per game. More impressive is the fact he already has three hat tricks on the season.
16. Dustin Brown – Los Angeles Kings
The rumors of Dustin Brown’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. After recording a fifth straight season of 50 or more points in 2011-12, the now 33-year-old Brown’s production slipped precipitously to under 30 points per season from 2012-13 to 2015-16. He bumped things up slightly with a 36-point campaign last year and in what can only be described as a “bounce back” season, has registered 23 goals and 30 assists in 75 games, along with a very healthy +28 for a Kings team fighting it out with Colorado, St. Louis and Anaheim for the wild card spots in a tightly packed Western Conference. A durable guy with the right amounts of pugnacity and skill, Brown has 11 points in the last month (14 games), skating on the first line with Anze Kopitar and rookie Alex Iafallo. The Kings are only where they because of superhuman efforts by guys like Brown.
15. Taylor Hall – New Jersey Devils
Seriously, how good would Taylor Hall still look in a Edmonton Oilers uniform? Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli has to be kicking himself in the posterior every time he looks at the NHL standings and scoring race. Since being dealt to the Devils in the summer of 2016, Hall has driven his worth skyward after a shaky initial season in Jersey. After just 70 games this season, he has already surpassed his career high in goals with 33 (he had 27 in two other seasons with Edmonton) and points at 82 (he had 80 in 2013-14). For just the second time in his career, too, Hall is a plus player at +11 for the Devils, who hold a three point lead for the last wild card playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. Most surprising about his output, Hall has not been given more average ice time. In fact, at 19:10 minutes per game, it’s his lowest in five seasons.
14. Charlie McAvoy – Boston Bruins
Defence at the NHL level is hard. Doing well as a rookie in the world’s best league is even more difficult. Add to that the weight of expectation on the former Boston University standout and a first round, 14th overall selection by the Bruins in 2016. After concluding his 2016-17 NCAA season with the Terriers, McAvoy made a strong debut in the playoffs with the B’s, logging three assists in six games, while averaging over 26 minutes of ice time. Thus, with his name already well-spoken of, McAvoy entered his rookie season with a ton of hype. He has proven to be everything the team thought and has had to fight through some adversity for the playoff bound Bruins. In addition to registering 32 points and a superb +26 in 59 games, McAvoy has come back from an ablation procedure for a type of heart arrhythmia and is now nearly recovered from a MCL sprain that has kept him out of a few more games. A tough kid with a bright future, for sure.
13. Phil Kessel – Pittsburgh Penguins
Kessel doesn’t get a lot of love in NHL circles from scribes and fans who like their players to fit into a certain mold. But, “Fat” Phil is having his best regular season ever at 85 points, including sixth campaign with 30 or more goals. And, he’s leading fan and scribe favorite Sidney Crosby by two points on the Penguins ledger. The kicker in that interesting stat comparison is that Kessel has also logged a full two minutes less in average ice time that Sid the Kid. Any way it’s looked at, Kessel is a scoring machine who has been invaluable to a Pens team that struggled early on but has lately boosted itself into second in the Metropolitan and a near-sure playoff berth. The Penguins have been 7-3-2 in the month of March and steady producer Phil has been along for the ride, registering four goals and 11 assists in that span. He is second on the team in points behind Evgeni Malkin, who has 92, and is tied for eighth overall with Winnipeg’s Blake Wheeler.
12. Brayden Point – Tampa Bay Lightning
We don’t believe that the Bolts’ Brayden Point every thought he’d score nearly a point per game at the NHL level. Smallish at 5’10” and just 166 lbs., Point is a third round pick (79th overall in 2014), who, if he scored 40 points a season like he did in 2016-17 would be a win-win for him and the team. However, the Calgary born Point has far exceeded expectations for the first overall Lightning, potting 28 goals and adding 34 assists in 75 games, along with a +21. About the only area his game needs work is on the face-off dot, where he has won 47.4 percent of his 1,075 draws so far. His offensive totals, too, have been spread around nicely, from powerplay points (five goals, six assists) to shorthanded (three goals two assists) and game-winners (10, second in the NHL). Of those game-winning tallies, an amazing four have come in overtime.
11. Will Butcher – New Jersey Devils
Well down the list of 2013 NHL draftees was one Will Butcher. Hailing from Sun Prairie, WI, Butcher had just completed a decent, if unremarkable season with the U.S. National Development Team when he was taken 123rd overall by the Colorado Avalanche. But then four years of steadily improving play with the University of Denver followed, capped by a Hobey Baker award in 2017 as the NCAA’s best player. He didn’t sign with Colorado, opting instead to become a free agent, signing a modest two-year entry level pact with New Jersey. As a premier puck-handler, Butcher has been all he was expected to be, with 37 points in 74 games, including a +1. His play, and that of a few others like Taylor Hall, have been a big part of the Devils playoff drive. In his last nine Devils games, six of them wins (including back-to-back wins over Pittsburgh and Tampa), the rookie rearguard has a goal and six assists.
10. Blake Wheeler – Winnipeg Jets
When 2016-17 leading scorer Mark Scheifele went down to an injury in late December this season, things could have gone a bit sideways for a Jets team looking to rebound from yet another year out of the post-season. They were 21-11-6 at that point and Scheifele had 38 points. So, the slack in his absence needed to be picked up. Enter the aptly named Blake Wheeler. The team’s surprise leading scorer, with a career high 85 points this season, scored five goals and 11 assists as Winnipeg fashioned a great 11-2-3 record in Scheifele’s absence. The two have been reunited on the first line since and Wheeler has put up 27 points in 21 games, while logging a career high 20:27 in average ice time. His 65 assists are tied with Claude Giroux for most in the NHL, of which 32 have come on the powerplay, which is the highest in the league. A fine, fine season for the 11-year veteran from Plymouth, Minnesota.
9. Jonathan Marchessault – Vegas Golden Knights
The Knights, against everything most were saying at the beginning of this NHL season, started winning early and with a few minor corrections and setbacks have stayed in first place in the Pacific Division standings and will be going to the playoffs. They set a record for expansion wins long ago and already have over 100 points (101) with seven games to play. While the team and its members probably toe the company line and say all have had a hand in winning (and they have), there are still standout performances among a few no one expected. Undrafted little guy Jonathan Marchessault has truly been a pleasant surprise. Yes, he did score 30 goals and 21 assists in 75 games for Florida last season, but many figured it was an anomaly for a guy who was cast off by Columbus and Tampa Bay before. And then the Panthers shockingly left him unprotected in the expansion draft. How shortsighted that turned out to be, as Marchessault now leads Vegas in scoring with 69 points and a healthy +34.
8. Morgan Rielly – Toronto Maple Leafs
Lost in all the hoopla surrounding Toronto’s great young cast of players, including Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, to name a few, is the coming-out-party defenceman Morgan Rielly is having. Pitcked fifth overall in 2012, Rielly jumped in with both feet and weathered the storms surrounding the Maple Leafs until Matthews arrived. Not that he wasn’t good his first four seasons, but Rielly really felt the heat put on him by the local media and armchair critics. He did average just under 30 points per season between 2013-14 and 2016-17, but Rielly also held an ugly collective -66 over those four campaigns. But his play has been remarkable in 2017-18, as the “grizzled” 24-year-old vet has registered career highs in assists (42) and points (48), while moving the needle on his plus-minus to a more reasonable -5 (he does play nearly 22 minutes per game). Toronto is again in the thick of the playoff hunt, due in no small part to Rielly’s maturation on the blue line.
7. Andrei Vasilevskiy – Tampa Bay Lightning
In his first season as Lightning starter in 2016-17, in place of departed star Ben Bishop, Andrei Vasilevskiy was good. Another campaign in, he’s a Vezina Trophy contender. Last season, when the Bolts missed the playoffs, the Tyumen Russia native still fashioned a 23-17-7 mark, with a .917 save percentage, 2.61 goals against average and two shutouts. Pretty good for a guy with only 40 games of NHL experience, all as a back-up. This year, with but a couple of blips, he’s been nothing short of fantastic, going 42-15-3 in 61 games, recording a .921 save percentage, 2.59 GAA and seven shutouts (second to Pekka Rinne’s eight). What makes his game so interesting — but could prove to be a bit detrimental come playoff time — is the fact that the young Russian has at times been better when he has faced more shots, not less. And speaking of shots on net, he is second only to Toronto’s Frederik Andersen in shots against with 1,956, for an average of 32 per game.
6. Mathew Barzal – New York Islanders
Typically, a mid-first round selection can go one three ways. In the case of the 16th overall pick in the last 15 drafts it has varied from non-existent such as Ty Wishart (2006) and Alex Bourret (2005) to decent like Tom Wilson (2012) and Joel Armia (2011) and finally superb, as in Vladimir Tarasenko great (2010). Then there’s no. 16 from the 2015 draft, Mathew Barzal. A good point producer in junior, he got a two-game tryout with the Islanders in 2016-17, before being dispatched back to the Seattle Thunderbirds, where he would tally 79 points in just 41 games. He’s kept right at it in Brooklyn, firing 20 goals and adding 56 assists to lead all rookies in scoring, by a wide margin over Arizona’s Clayton Keller. Barzal’s 56 dimes put him ninth in the NHL in that category, just behind Sidney Crosby’s 57. A Calder Trophy lock, in our opinion.
5. Sean Couturier – Philadelphia Flyers
In his first six seasons in the NHL, Sean Couturier was a “bread and butter” guy, chipping in an average 31.8 points per season, while always being mindful of his defensive responsibilities. He was +35 in those six campaigns and had a high of 39 points twice, while garnering Selke Trophy votes in five of six years. This season, the Phoenix native has found his inner scoring machine, nearly doubling his previous season high with 71 points (31 goals) in 76 games, along with a sterling +26. His 31 markers put him first on the team and it has been through his considerable two-way efforts that the Flyers have a fighting chance at making the post-season. He has six multi-goal games in 2017-18, with career highs in powerplay goals with seven and game-winners with six. He is head of the line for his first Selke.
4. William Karlsson – Vegas Golden Knights
There are no fewer than three Karlssons currently playing in the NHL and the best of the bunch, this season at least, isn’t who the average fan would think he would be. Yup, Columbus Blue Jackets cast-off William Karlsson is having a far better go of it this year than two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik in Ottawa. Not to mention a statistically superior season to fellow Swede forward Melker in San Jose. In his first 183 games in the NHL, all but 18 with Columbus, William had 18 goals and 32 assists. Not bad numbers, not all that great, either. Centering a talented first line with the Golden Knights in 2017-18, Karlsson has an eye-popping 39 goals to go along with 27 assists and a NHL leading +41 in 75 games. He is just five goals shy of the NHL lead in goals held by Alex Ovechkin and has converted a ridiculous 23.1 percent of his 169 shots. For anyone thinking he did all of his scoring early — when he could surprise his opponents — Karlsson has been brilliant so far in the last quarter of the season, with eight goals and six assists in 15 games.
3. Nathan MacKinnon – Colorado Avalanche
It’s not surprising that Nathan MacKinnon is scoring, what with being a former no. 1 pick overall. What’s truly shocking is the depth and breadth of his offensive prowess this year. As the Avs have gone — they currently hold the first wild card in the west — so too has gone the kid from Halifax. He is tied for third in league scoring with Evgeni Malkin at 92 points (in five fewer games), far surpassing his Calder Trophy winning previous best of 63 points in 2013-14, and he has seven games to go. MacKinnon easily has personal highs in goals with 38, assists with 54, powerplay goals with 12 and powerplay points at 29. His most truly impressive statistic, though, is game winners at a NHL best 11. Of those 11 big tallies, three have come in overtime. Since coming back from a 19-day absence on Feb. 18, MacKinnon has been on a tear, registering 14 goals and 17 assists in just 18 games.
2. Eric Staal – Minnesota Wild
Eric Staal hasn’t scored over 40 goals in nine years and has turned the trick just twice in his fairly illustrious 14-year career. With 39 and seven games to go, we’d be shocked if he didn’t at least net 40. A durable sort with a scoring touch, Staal did have 65 points in 82 games last season with the Wild, which was far better than the 39 points he had in 83 games split between Carolina and the Rangers in 2015-16. Coincidentally, that 2015-16 season marked a third straight campaign that Staal’s offensive output declined. It would seem, then, that Staal has sipped from the Fountain of Youth in 2017-18, with the elixir allowing him to lead Minnesota in scoring with 72 points and a +12 in 75 games. Staal’s 39 goals tie him for fourth overall with the likes of Connor McDavid and his offensive output is 13 points greater than much younger teammate Mikael Granlund. If there was a NHL Comeback Player of the Year award, Staal’s name would be getting etched on it.
1. Connor Hellebuyck – Winnipeg Jets
For our money, not only is Connor Hellebuyck the runaway Vezina Trophy winner, he might also be MVP. In a season where big free pick-up Steve Mason was supposed to be starter, Hellebuyck usurped his role and ran away with it. Mason was stone cold in the first two games of the season, surrendering five and six goals in consecutive losses to Toronto and Calgary. Hellebuyck go the start in game three, won it and then two more, allowing just five goals. Jets coach Paul Maurice gave Mason one more kick in the team’s sixth game, but he again coughed up five in a 5-2 loss to Columbus and the starting job has been Hellebuyck’s since. He’s rewarded Maurice’s faith — and then some — going 39-11-9 in a league high 62 games, along with a 2.36 goals against average (7th in the NHL), .924 save percentage (8th), and six shutouts (3rd). He’s managed to put in all that good work despite facing 1,887 shots, third most in the bigs.