The 2011-12 NHL season has given us a lot of surprises. From teams that haven't been in the playoffs for 10 years making it, to powerhouse teams being on the bubble.
There have also been surprises when it comes to improvement. Players that you thought couldn't cut it have done just that. They have made considerable improvements to their game and this list highlights those players.
There have been some remarkable performances this year. Let's see who made the cut.
2010-11 Totals: 68 games played, two goals, nine assists, 11 points, minus-11
2011-12 Totals: 74 games played, five goals, 17 assists, 22 points, minus-five
The Anaheim Ducks as a team have struggled this season, but Luca Sbisa has found a way to better himself through it. Doubling his point total from last season is pretty good, even if it was just 11 points to start.
Sbisa is a young player who should keep improving over the next couple of seasons.
2010-11 Totals: 74 games played, 11 goals, 11 assists, 22 points, -4
2011-12 Totals: 74 games played, 26 goals, 34 assists, 60 points, +27
This one was to be expected. In his rookie season, Tyler Seguin was low on the depth chart, keeping him from making a larger contribution to the Boston Bruins.
With a couple offseason departures, Seguin moved up and he has been integral to the Bruins this season. Even in their struggles, Seguin has always been near the top of the Bruins point lead.
2010-11 Totals: 73 games played, 22 goals, 30 assists, 52 points, plus-15
2011-12 Totals: 76 games played, 28 goals, 39 assists, 67 points, plus-12
Another team that has struggled, but another player that has fought through it to better himself. Jason Pominville made his first All-Star game appearance as a result. It appears the Buffalo Sabres made the right choice when they named him captain in the offseason.
If Pominville can continue his resurgence, the Sabres might actually squeak into the playoffs.
2010-11 Totals: 79 games played, 24 goals, 19 assists, 43 points, plus-six
2011-12 Totals: 62 games played, 25 goals, 21 assists, 46 points, minus-eight
While Curtis Glencross hasn't seen a dramatic increase in points, his development as a player gives him his place on this list. He has the longest goal-scoring streak—lasting seven games—of the season, and that's saying something when you look at the NHL's prominent goal scorers.
2010-11 Totals: 72 games played, three goals, seven assists, 10 points, plus-five
2011-12 Totals: 66 games played, eight goals, 14 assists, 22 points, minus-7
Most of the roster of the Carolina Hurricanes has disappointed this year, leading to the Hurricanes struggles. Jay Harrison though has been a surprise this season. Perhaps its been because he's been playing with rookie Justin Faulk, but Harrison's has posted his career best when it comes to the offensive side of the game.
2010-11 Totals: 77 games played, 12 goals, 12 assists, 24 points, plus-two
2011-12 Totals: 73 games played, 19 goals, 20 assists, 39 points, plus-three
When the Chicago Blackhawks acquired Viktor Stalberg in the summer of 2010, he was still just breaking into the league. Now, having played roughly two seasons with the Blackhawks, Stalberg has developed into a reliable player for them. Playing with Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp at times will do that to a player.
2010-11 Totals: 74 games played, 13 goals, 13 assists, 26 points, minus-seven
2011-12 Totals: 77 games played, 18 goals, 37 assists, 55 points, plus-two
Ryan O'Reilly shocked a lot of people when he made the Colorado Avalanche right out of the draft three years ago. Ever since then, he has improved steadily leading up to this season.
He has had a career year, and his play is part of the reason that that the Avalanche have hung around the playoff bubble for so long.
2010-11 Totals: 41 games played, one goal, eight assists, nine points, plus-one
2011-12 Totals: 55 games played, five goals, 21 assists, 26 points, minus-nine
How do you find a most-improved player on the worst team in the league? You really don't, but Nikita Nikitin has done the best he could in trying to help the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Nearly tripling his point total from last season, Nikitin has the Blue Jackets hoping he continues improving as they head toward another rebuild.
2009-10 Totals: 37 games played, four goals, nine assists, 13 points, minus-19
2011-12 Totals: 59 games played, six goals, 15 assists, 21 points, plus-17
Souray's gone from not playing well enough to merit a spot on a weak Edmonton Oilers team, to playing an entire season in the AHL, to being given a second chance with the Dallas Stars this season.
Sheldon Souray has made the most of his second chance. They're not great numbers, but for a player that couldn't play in the NHL last season, it's pretty good.
2010-11 Totals: 78 games played, four goals, 22 assists, 26 points, plus-three
2011-12 Totals: 72 games played, seven goals, 25 assists, 32 points, plus-26
Playing in the Motor City can really do things for an NHL player and that's been the case for Ian White. Bouncing around the league the past few seasons, White looks to have found a home in Detroit and he has the potential to be a steadying presence in the future if Nik Lidstrom decides to call it a career this summer.
2010-11 Totals: 69 games played, 18 goals, 25 assists, 43 points, minus-12
2011-12 Totals: 72 games played, 32 goals, 41 assists, 73 points, plus-six
"Captain Clutch" himself has seen a remarkable improvement to his game this season. A 30-point increase is an accomplishment for anyone, and the thing that has other teams worrying is that Jordan Eberle is only going to get better.
Just to think, out of the Edmonton Oilers' young threesome, he was the one drafted the lowest.
2010-11 Totals: 80 games played, 21 goals, 25 assists, 46 points, minus-nine
2011-12 Totals: 64 games played, 22 goals, 27 assists, 49 points, plus-four
From being on a Stanley Cup-winning team in 2010, to being traded twice last season. After splitting the 2010-11 season between Toronto and Philadelphia, Kris Versteeg looks to have found a new home in the Sunshine State.
He has been an integral part of Florida rising to the top of the Southeast Division, and has done it while putting out just a few more points than the previous season in 16 fewer games. One has to wonder where he would be at if he didn't miss a couple of games.
2010-11 Totals: 61 games played, 35 wins, six shutouts, 2.24 GAA, .918 save percentage
2011-12 Totals: 64 games played, 32 wins, eight shutouts, 1.96 GAA, .929 save percentage
Jonathan Quick is one of the rising talents in the NHL. He is the only reason the Los Angeles Kings are still in the playoff race, as their offensive production has been abysmal this season. If the Kings can fix their goal-scoring woes, it might take some of the pressure off of Quick, allowing him to be even better.
2010-11 Totals: 51 games played, 22 wins, three shutouts, 2.66 GAA, .916 save percentage
2011-12 Totals: 42 games played, 17 wins, four shutouts, 2.44 GAA, .920 save percentage
Even though the Minnesota Wild have fallen into a near-lottery pick position in the standings, they were at one time the best team in the NHL. That has a lot to do with their starting goaltender, Niklas Backstrom. Even though he hasn't brought many wins, Backstrom has improved his goals-against average and his save percentage. If Backstrom can get away from the injury bug once and for all, the Wild will be the better for it.
2010-11 Totals: 37 games played, 14 goals, 10 assists, 24 points, minus-one
2011-12 Totals: 73 games played, 30 goals, 28 assists, 58 points, minus-two
Last season, Max Pacioretty was best known for being the player that Zdeno Chara ran into a stanchion. This season, he has fought back to be one of the Montreal Canadiens' best players. If he can continue at a 30-goal pace for the next few seasons, the Habs might not need to blow things up in a rebuild.
2010-11 Totals: 82 games played, 19 goals, 17 assists, 36 points, minus-17
2011-12 Totals: 67 games played, 24 goals, 25 assists, 49 points, plus-12
In his first full season in Nashville, Mike Fisher has been exactly what the Predators were looking for when they acquired him last season. With one more point, Fisher will have his second 50-point season in the NHL and that is a nice amount for a player that focuses a lot on the defensive side of the game.
2010-11 Totals: 82 games played, 12 goals, six assists, 18 points, minus-20
2011-12 Totals: 76 games played, 28 goals, 14 assists, 42 points, minus-11
David Clarkson has arguably become the New Jersey Devils best all-around player. Previously known for the defensive aspects of his game, Clarkson has burst onto the scene and has been a reliable goal-scorer for the Devils. Not to mention that his goals have been in clutch moments for the team, helping them win more than a couple of games.
2010-11 Totals: No Totals
2011-12 Totals: 41 games played, 18 wins, two shutouts, 2.54 GAA, .913 save percentage
When the New York Islanders claimed Evgeni Nabokov off waivers last season, he did not report to the team because he wanted to play for a contender. He changed his mind and decided to bite the bullet, choosing to play rather than just sit at home.
Since then, he has been the goaltender that the Islanders have needed since they entered the whole Rick Dipietro fiasco. After signing a two-year contract extension, it looks like Nabokov seems to like it on Long Island.
2010-11 Totals: 47 games played, two goals, nine assists, 11 points, minus-five
2011-12 Totals: 70 games played, seven goals, 29 assists, 36 points, plus-22
When the New York Rangers went after Rick Nash, one of the players that Columbus wanted in return was Michael Del Zotto. I don't blame them. Del Zotto has improved his game greatly this season. Going from a minus-five to a plus-22 shows that he has improved his defensive game as well as his offense.
2010-11 Totals: 75 games played, 13 goals, 32 assists, 45 points, minus-30
2011-12 Totals: 76 games played, 19 goals, 57 assists, 76 points, plus-19
Erik Karlsson could very well win the Norris trophy this season, and that's saying something as he only made it to the NHL in the 2009-10 season. Not many defenseman get anywhere near the 80-point plateau and Karlsson has done it in only his third NHL season. If this is going to be the norm for him, the Ottawa Senators have something really special.
2010-11 Totals: 80 games played, 14 goals, 16 assists, 30 points, minus-two
2011-12 Totals: 76 games played, 23 goals, 20 assists, 43 points, minus-three
After being acquired in the Mike Richards deal during the offseason, Wayne Simmonds has continued to improve his grinding style of play. Not only that, but Simmonds has found more offense playing on Broad Street. He's a player that fits right into their philosophy and he will be all the better for it.
2010-11 Totals: 22 games played, 13 wins, zero shutouts, 2.90 GAA, .899 save percentage
2011-12 Totals: 62 games played, 33 wins, five shutouts, 2.36 GAA, .924 save percentage
Prior to the season, it was said that the Phoenix Coyotes had very little chance to succeed this season with Mike Smith as their goaltender.
Well, Smith proved us all wrong, winning more than half his games and leading the Phoenix Coyotes to a position in which they can still compete for the playoffs. It was unimaginable in the offseason, but now we have to ask where the Coyotes would be if it weren't for Smith.
2010-11 Totals: 79 games played, 22 goals, 23 assists, 45 points, plus-seven
2011-12 Totals: 75 games played, 35 goals, 41 assists, 76 points, plus-12
Wow, playing with Evgeni Malkin can really do things for a player. This was to be expected, because playing with Malkin or Sidney Crosby is definitely better than playing with the players he was playing with in Dallas.
No disrespect to them, but they aren't the same level as Malkin and Crosby, and Neal has greatly improved because of it.
2010-11 Totals: 80 games played, four goals, 14 assists, 18 points, plus-14
2011-12 Totals: 76 games played, four goals, 17 assists, 21 points, plus-nine
The normally-strong-in-the-regular-season San Jose Sharks have taken a bit of a tumble and as a result, they might not even make the playoffs. No one on the San Jose Sharks has improved that much, but Marc-Edouard Vlasic has improved a bit more than anyone else. An underrated defenseman, Vlasic could go unnoticed for an entire game, but he plays a sound defensive game that the Sharks need.
2010-11 Totals: 55 games played, 15 wins, three shutouts, 3.34 GAA, .893 save percentage
2011-12 Totals: 35 games played, 22 wins, eight shutouts, 1.52 GAA, .941 save percentage
Brian Elliott has been one of the surprises of the NHL this season. From languishing in the AHL in Ottawa's system to not being effective in Colorado, Elliott did not have a lot of things going for him.
The St. Louis Blues decided to give him a chance, and boy has he come through for them. Leading the league in shutouts, Elliott has formed one the best goaltending tandems in the league with Jaroslav Halak.
2010-11 Totals: 82 games played, 45 goals, 46 assists, 91 points, plus-three
2011-12 Totals: 75 games played, 53 goals, 35 assists, 88 points, plus-six
Tampa Bay has disappointed many a fan this season after making it to the Eastern Conference finals last season. As such, there have only been marginal improvements for their players.
So, I'm going to go with their best player. Steven Stamkos just recently broke Vinny Lecavalier's franchise record for goals in a season, so if I'm going to give it to anyone, it might as well be him.
2010-11 Totals: 54 games played, 14 goals, 17 assists, 31 points, minus-11
2011-12 Totals: 66 games played, 25 goals, 42 assists, 67 points, plus-one
Some people thought that Joffrey Lupul's career might have been over at the beginning of last season, and even when he did return, he wasn't all that effective. That all changed when he was traded to the Toronto Maple Leafs.
He finished the season strong with the Leafs last year and has only continued to improve this season. Immediately forming chemistry with Phil Kessel, Lupul has given the Leafs another force to be reckoned with on the first line.
2010-11 Totals: 51 games played, eight goals, 25 assists, 33 points, plus-13
2011-12 Totals: 76 games played, 11 goals, 35 assists, 46 points, minus-one
When you think of players on the Vancouver Canucks, Alex Edler's name doesn't pop right up. He has been an underrated force on the Canucks' blue line and was rewarded with an All-Star game appearance for his play.
2010-11 Totals: 81 games played, 10 goals, 16 assists, 26 points, minus-10
2011-12 Totals: 76 games played, 19 goals, 18 assists, 35 points, plus-four
I remember as a young teenager, I would go watch Hamilton Bulldogs' games at Copps Coliseum. At that time, Jason Chimera was in the Edmonton Oilers' system and he wasn't that much of a spectacular player for the Bulldogs. It's shocking to see a player I watched in the minors now being an important player for a team like the Washington Capitals.
On a Capitals team that might not make the playoffs this season, Chimera hasn't been all that spectacular, but he has been reliable. The additional offensive production is just a plus.
2010-11 Totals: 81 games played, 18 goals, 26 assists, 44 points, plus-10
2011-12 Totals: 74 games played, 17 goals, 43 assists, 60 points, plus-eight
In the team's first season in Winnipeg, Blake Wheeler has become a pretty good play-maker for the team. If the Winnipeg Jets are to be a force in the Eastern Conference, Wheeler will have to continue improving. Luckily, I don't see him stopping.