Every team, save for a couple, has hit the midway point of the 82-game marathon that is the NHL season.
And, we can’t say that it has been boring, 41 games in.
Who knew that the Vegas Golden Knights, for instance, would be this good? The expansion club is second in the NHL with 60 points and showing no signs they will whither in the second half.
On the flip side of that coin, who could have imagined teams like Ottawa and Edmonton would be as shaky as they are.
Ottawa went to the Eastern Conference finals last year, but are currently 10 points out of the last wild card playoff spot. As for the disappointing Oilers, let’s just say there is some tough sledding ahead if they have any hope of making the post-season.
On the individual side, there have been many shockingly good — and bad — performances. On the good side, Nikita Kucherov, who lead the league in goals (27) and points (52). On the bad side, perennial Norris Trophy candidate Erik Karlsson has but three goals and is -15.
In the spirit of annual NHL kudos, we have a best and worst surprises list of our own. Here are 15 (8 best, 7 worst), in no particular order.
15. Most Surprising Team – Vegas Golden Knights
Due to the nature of the expansion draft, pretty much everyone in hockey knew the Golden Knights would at least be more competitive than expansion cousins of yore. Just not this competitive. Going into a five-day break after beating the New York Rangers 2-1 on Sunday, the Knights are firmly in first place in the Western Conference with 60 points. Barring a complete collapse in the second half, Vegas is a shoo-in to make the post-season. And, with the depth of scoring and all-around good defensive play, they will do some damage when they get there. They have five players in double digit goals, with Columbus Blue Jackets’ cast-off William Karlsson leading the way at 22. Former Florida Panthers forward Jonathan Marchessault leads in points with 40, while veteran winger David Perron has the most assists with 25. Now that Marc-Andre Fleury is back from injury, their goaltending situation has also normalized, since they’ve used five different netminders so far. Look out, NHL.
14. Most Disappointing Team – Edmonton Oilers
Outside of Connor McDavid, the Oilers as a team have been less than mediocre (we’re being very charitable, here). The underachieving Oilers have little in the way of secondary scoring, are getting sub-par goaltending and can’t defend their own end in any kind of predictable fashion. They are also 24th in powerplay efficiency (16.1 percent) and dead last in penalting killing (39 goals against in 137 shorthanded situations, or 71.5 percent effective). Thus, GM Peter Chiarelli’s vote of confidence for coach Todd McLellan rings a little hollow. McLellan can take some heat here, but it was Chiarelli who denuded this team of scoring talent, sending Taylor Hall (95 points in 111 games) to New Jersey for so-so defenceman Adam Larsson in 2016 and then shipping Jordan Eberle (30 points in 43 games) to the Islanders for Ryan Strome in 2017. At this point, Hall, with 42 points this season, would be second in scoring for the Oilers and Eberle would be tied for fourth. The goaltending situation in Edmonton is tenuous too, as Cam Talbot has not been the no. 1 people thought he would be and no. 2 Laurent Brossoit even worse in relief.
13. Most Surprising Forward – Josh Bailey, New York Islanders
While he sits out with an injury, we have to wonder if Josh Bailey is holding out hope for a John Tavares contract extension before the superstar hits free agency on July 1. Bailey, before going on the IR, was the surprise playmaker in the league this season, tallying 50 points in 42 games to now sit second on the team (he was tied with Tavares, who has 51) and tied for seventh overall in the NHL. Now in his 10th season, Bailey is on pace to easily beat the career high 56 points he tallied in 2016-17. It would be a shame, then, if Tavares bolted for another club, just as the 28-year-old former first rounder Bailey was really gearing up his game as center-turned-winger. The good news for the Islanders is that his vague lower body injury won’t keep him out long term and that with the Isles in a bye week, he will get a chance to heal.
12. Most Disappointing Forward – Jonathan Drouin, Montreal Canadiens
Playing for the Montreal Canadiens, in a bilingual hockey mad fishbowl, is hard enough most nights. Being a francophone hockey star in that market can be nightmarish. Just ask Jonathan Drouin, whose level of offensive production has been eclipsed, so far, by the rookie defenceman the Habs dealt to Tampa Bay to get him, Mikhail Sergachev. Drouin’s production has not helped the plight of the Habs, who rank with the Oilers and a handful of other clubs as truly disappointing. The fourth-year center from St-Agathe-des-Monts (just north of Montreal) has but five goals, along with 14 assists, in 37 games so far. Drouin is also an unhealthy -17, which ties him for ninth-worst in that category. It was thought that after a breakout 53-point campaign with the Bolts in 2016-17, Drouin could provide the kind of secondary scoring the Canadiens desired. He’s been terrible since the end of November, too, notching just two assists in 12 games since then, along with a -9.
11. Most Surprising Rookie – Tie, Yanni Gourde And Danton Heinen
With all due respect to rookie leading scorer Brock Boeser of Vancouver, who has an amazing 22 goals already, the most surprising rookies are Tampa’s Yanni Gourde and Boston’s Danton Heinen, for differing reasons. Gourde, never drafted, is an “old” rookie at 26 who is tied for fourth among freshmen at 30 points (with Heinen) and first in plus-minus at +18. Tampa’s third-line center Gourde has also tallied his 14 goals and 16 points in just over 16 minutes of ice time, too. He has made himself quite a presence, too, recording a “Gordie Howe Hat Trick” in a 5-2 victory over Detroit Sunday with two goals, an assist and a fight with the Wings’ Tomas Tatar. Heinen, Boston’s third-line left winger, is also a big surprise. Drafted 116th overall in 2014 out of the University of Denver, Heinen has made the most out of limited ice time (15:51 average) to score 10 goals and 20 assists and a +10 in 36 games. He’s been a dynamo for a hot-hot Bruins team, scoring 12 points in 10 games as the B’s have gone 8-0-2 in that stretch.
10. Most Disappointing Rookie – Nolan Patrick, Philadelphia Flyers
If he doesn’t up his game in the near to distant future, Nolan Patrick might become the most disappointing second overall pick in NHL history. While the 2017 draft stock is years away from realistically being analyzed, it might go the way of the milquetoast 2012 draft which saw Nail Yakupov go first and Columbus D Ryan Murray second. Nico Hischier, who went first overall, has 26 points in 41 games for the New Jersey Devils, which isn’t a bad start. Patrick, who could have been chosen no. 1 overall, has been stone cold in his last 18 games, registering just two assists and a -3. In his first 15 games, the young pivot had two goals and four assists, which wasn’t bad, considering he was playing just over 12 minutes per game. While it’s not uncommon for teenagers to struggle a bit during their first foray into the big league, Patrick’s start has been alarmingly tepid.
9. Most Surprising Defenceman – Mikhail Sergachev, Tampa Bay Lightning
That kid the Tampa Bay Lightning got back in the Jonathan Drouin trade is looking more and more like a blue chipper. The 19-year-old Russian rearguard has surpassed even the most conservative predictions so far this season, registering 26 points in 42 games (seven more than Drouin) to rank 14th among all NHL defencemen. He is also a very respectable +13 playing on the second unit with stay-at-home defender and veteran Anton Stralman. What’s most impressive about Sergachev is the fact he has been able to amass his points in just 15:34 average ice time per game. About the only area he could improve on is in the takeaway/giveaway department where he has 13 takeaways against 32 giveaways. Montreal’s ninth overall pick in 2016 is manning the point on the second powerplay unit, too, where he has two goals and nine assists.
8. Most Disappointing Defenceman – Tie, Erik Karlsson And Brent Burns
One’s the reigning Norris Trophy winner and the other has won two in the past six seasons. So, why is it that both San Jose’s Brent Burns (2017 Norris) and Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson (2012 and 2015 Norris) have been so, well, underwhelming? Burns, especially, gets singled out here for being a -19 on one of the NHL’s best defensive squads (they have allowed just 106 goals against, third lowest in the NHL). His offensive production has come back to life, with 30 points in 40 games, but won’t likely get close to the career high 76 he had last year. Before a recent 10-game surge, Karlsson was looking like a total bust this season. He has two goals and nine assists in that span and is a +3, however, the overall line reads 30 points (just three goals) and a -15. Yes, he plays over 26 minutes, so the plus-minus may suffer, however, the moribund Sens can ill afford Karlsson having on off year.
7. Most Surprising Bounceback Year – John Klingberg, Dallas Stars
In his first two seasons in the NHL, Stars’ D-man John Klingberg was a very, very pleasant surprised. Drafted 131st overall in 2010, Klingberg had 40 points in his rookie 2014-15 campaign (in 65 games), followed up by a career year in 2015-16 when he had 58 points in 76 games, including a +22. As the Stars went in 2016-17, though, so did Klingberg. While he was still a force offensively (13 goals and 36 assists in 80 games), he slipped to just a +2 and wasn’t near as dominant (40 takeaways vs 99 giveaways, too). Funny what one year can do — along with some consistent goaltending. Klingberg, whose name should be mentioned among Norris candidates this year, leads all defencemen with 39 points in 43 games and is a solid +12 in over 23 minutes of ice time per game. A nice bounceback, to be certain.
6. Most Disappointing Special Teams Player – Jack Eichel, Buffalo Sabres
This one, really, should go to both Buffalo Sabres powerplay units, since the Sabres went from having the best powerplay in 2016-17 (24.5 percent efficient) to dead last this year. Buffalo has clicked on just 16 of 129 opportunities, for a dismal 12.4 percent efficiency rating. Eichel, for his part, has not done anything as a point-man on the first powerplay unit to make it better in 2017-18. Last year, in just 61 games, Eichel had career highs in powerplay goals with 10 and assists with 14, helping the Sabres PP to be tops in the league. This season, the no. 2 overall pick in the 2015 draft has mustered but one goal and four assists in man advantage situations. He is on pace to have a career year in scoring (36 points in 42 games), but has to be the straw that stirs the powerplay drink if the Sabres hope to avoid finishing dead last (they are only three points ahead of Arizona).
5. Most Surprising Special Teams Player – Aleksander Barkov, Florida Panthers
The Florida Panthers aren’t wowing anyone this season, what with 40 points at the halfway mark and a post-season berth in jeopardy. Yet, the Cats still have the ability to surprise, if first line center Aleksander Barkov’s numbers mean anything. Normally, the fifth-year NHLer — who is still just 22 — is a key member of Florida’s first powerplay unit and in his first four seasons, 18 of his 73 goals came on the PP, along with 25 of his 98 assists. This year, Barkov has become something of a penalty killing scoring wiz. He already has four shorthanded goals this year, which is just one off the total of last season’s overall leader, Viktor Arvidsson of Nashville. It’s amazing, considering Barkov had all of one shortie in his first 252 NHL contests. The problem with the Florida, overall, says that they need a bit more balance from Barkov and the rest, since they are in the bottom 10 in penalty killing and powerplay efficiency.
4. Most Disappointing Goalie – Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators
Despite trying circumstances, Craig Anderson had a marvelous 2016-17 season. While he did take off time from the NHL to be with his cancer-stricken wife, Anderson went 25-11-4 in 40 games, with a stellar 2.28 goals against average and .926 save percentage. That earned him the Masterton Award, hands down. Anderson was also outstanding in Ottawa’s surprise playoff run, going 11-8, with a .922 save percentage, a shutout and a 2.34 GAA. A lot of that goodwill, however, has been washed away by a very disappointing start to the 2017-18 season. Anderson is 38th out of 45 qualified goaltenders in the league with a 3.14 goals against average, which is the worst among all starting goaltenders. And, Anderson’s below-average .899 save percentage ties him with his back-up, Mike Condon, for 39th among 45 qualified netminders. Eight times this year he has also been beaten for five or more goals in a game.
3. Most Surprising Goalie – Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets
As his peer in Ottawa, Craig Anderson, struggles along with his team in 2017-18, Winnipeg’s Connor Hellebuyck continues to amaze. After supplanting big ticket free agent Steve Mason, third-year netminder Hellebuyck has been on a stone wall in net for the shockingly good Jets. In 35 games he is among the NHL’s top 10 in wins (23, third overall), save percentage (.923, tied for 10th), and shutouts (three; tie for fourth). The 2012 fifth rounder (130th overall) has been rock solid in his last 10 games, going 7-1-2 with two shutouts, including a 35-save effort in a win over Edmonton. In that stretch, too, he has beaten division rival St. Louis (his other shutout), Nashville, the Islanders and San Jose.
2. Most Disappointing Coach – Phil Housley, Buffalo Sabres
Phil Housley was a Hall of Fame worthy hockey player for 21 seasons, leaving little doubt to his status as one of the best defenders ever to come out of the U.S. Just 42 games into his fledgling head coaching career in Buffalo, we’ll bet he’d trade any of his player-days accolades for a few more victories. After four years as an assistant in Nashville, including their run to the Stanley Cup finals in 2017, Buffalo was more than eager to hire their former All-Star as bench boss. So far, it has not went well. The Sabres, as we said above, are dead last in powerplay efficiency — despite the presence of top end talent like Jack Eichel, Ryan O’Reilly and Rasmus Ristolainen — and tied for ninth worst in penalty killing at just 79.8 percent. Now, Housley can hardly be blamed for all the team’s inability to score (just 92 goals for, worst in the NHL) or defend (143 goals against, third worst in hockey). However, a lot of how the systems are translated to the players is on the guy calling the shots. At 10-23-9, it has not been a great start to Housley’s coaching career.
1. Most Surprising Coach – Jared Bednar, Colorado Avalanche
Plenty of those in the know would anoint Vegas head coach Gerard Gallant as most surprising. Not us. Gallant has plenty of head coaching experience and inherited a very good expansion team. Colorado’s Jared Bednar, meanwhile, is in just his second full season behind Colorado’s bench and already he has tied his wins total from a terrible 2016-17 rookie campaign. It was a tough transition for Bednar, who won a Calder Cup as coach of the Lake Erie Monsters in 2015-16. He inherited a dysfunctional mess in Colorado last year and even after clearing out big-time player Matt Duchene in a huge three-way deal that netted them mostly prospects and draft picks, the Avs have actually gotten better as a team. A recent five-game winning streak, coupled with renewed vigor from Nathan MacKinnon (three goals and nine assists in those five games and 52 points overall) have the Avs in a wild card playoff spot. Bednar has also got last year’s league worst powerplay (12.6 percent efficient) clipping along at 21.2 percent (seventh best). The penalty kill, which was second worst in 2016-17 at just 76.6 percent effectiveness, is now the third best overall unit in the league at 83.9 percent. Hats off to Bednar.