Ranking the Biggest Overachievers in the NHL in the 2013-14 Season

Allan Mitchell@@Lowetide_Featured ColumnistNovember 20, 2013

Ranking the Biggest Overachievers in the NHL in the 2013-14 Season

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    Each season, the NHL offers fans dozens of overachievers—men who exceed expectations by so much, their numbers look positively ridiculous compared to their career numbers. 

    This season is no exception. In fact, there are some stunning early season totals being posted by players heretofore considered role players across the NHL. Can they continue their hot starts? Only time will tell.

    Here are the 10 biggest overachievers so far this season. 


10. Tommy Wingels, RW, San Jose Sharks

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    What Was Expected: Wingels was expected to build on a solid sophomore season in 2011-12, playing depth minutes in a utility role and helping out on the penalty-kill (and power play) as needed.

    What's Being Delivered: Wingels has really stepped forward offensively this season, passing last year's goals and point totals in half the number of games. Small increases in playing time in all three disciplines have him playing more of a feature role, and his even-strength scoring is a big part of the Sharks' early season success.

    How He's Doing it: He's forced his way into a feature role. During his first two seasons, Wingels played a complementary role with the Sharks' big guns, but the overall offense of the skill lines suffered (he was holding them back). In year three, the goals are coming, and Wingels is helping to establish the Sharks as a team with exceptional depth. Wingels can play either wing, further increasing his value.

9. Dustin Penner, LW, Anaheim Ducks

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    What Was Expected: That's the problem, Penner's NHL teams have a difficult time knowing what to expect from him. Consistency has been a major issue for Penner and his NHL employers over the years. 

    What's Being Delivered: Quality play in all areas of the ice. Penner leads the entire league in plus minus, which isn't necessarily the best way to measure performance, but does tell us good things are happening with him on the ice at even-strength. Penner's even-strength (5x5) offense is among the league's 20 best based on points-per-60 minutes. 

    How He's Doing it: The big man has been consistent. One of the things about the NHL game we know to be true is that guys Penner's size tend to look like they're not putting forth effort. Their long strides allow them to look like they're gliding, whereas smaller men are taking more strides (so it looks like they're working harder). Simply put, Penner is getting to more places that matter this season, and he's productive when he gets there. 

8. Joel Ward, RW, Washington Capitals

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    What Was Expected: A hard-working winger that brings maximum effort every night and is a load for opposition defensemen. He's been winning puck battles since arriving in the NHL, and supplying his team with some support offense. 

    What's Being Delivered: At age 32, Ward has taken a step forward offensively this season, scoring in all three disciplines (5 even-strength, 3 power play, 1 shorthanded). Currently, he's among the top 30 goal-scorers in the league and on pace to score 35 goals and 50+ points if he can sustain current pace. 

    How He's Doing it: Ward's offensive surge in Washington has coincided with the arrival of Mikhail Grabovski. He's also riding an unsustainable shooting percentage (28.1 percent, No. 1 among NHL regulars this season). Ward's career-high is 17 goals, and he's at nine already with about 25 percent of the season gone. His shooting percentage will go down

7. Torey Krug, D, Boston Bruins

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    What Was Expected: An outstanding postseason performance last spring gave Krug the early edge in the battle for an opening night roster spot in Boston. He'd have to earn it, but the opportunity was there. 

    What's Being Delivered: The undersized defenseman is an early Calder favorite based on a strong offensive start and effective defensive play. The former Michigan State player signed a pro contract in the spring of 2012 and is posting impressive numbers at both even-strength and on the power play. He is tied for 13th in power play points by a defenseman.

    How He's Doing it: Krug took advantage of an opportunity. Bruins have Krug playing depth minutes at even strength, and he's getting a quality mentor many nights in the person of veteran defensemen Dennis Seidenberg and Zdeno Chara. On the power play, Krug's excellent puck handling ability has allowed the Bruins to use big Chara in front of the net to block out the goaltender. It's been a winning combination for Boston.

6. T. J. Oshie, RW, St. Louis Blues

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    What Was Expected: Oshie is a very consistent player, something coaching staff's treasure. When healthy, Oshie is a top-flight, second-line winger who plays a physical game and can post solid offensive numbers.

    What's Being Delivered: Oshie's offense this season is well above expectations and his playmaking skills have him in the league's top 10 in even-strength assists so far this year. What's more, he's on pace to play the entire season schedule and remains a physical presence despite average size. At 26, he may be just coming into his own.

    How He's Doing it: Everything is going in the net. Oshie's performance has a lot to do with linemate Alexander Steen and his career season. Between the three forwards (David Backes is the third), they've scored 28 goals in 20 games and are among the league's most dangerous lines. This year Oshie is cast in the role of playmaker, and is on the way to his finest offensive season.

5. Robin Lehner, G, Ottawa Senators

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    What Was Expected: Lehner arrived in training camp with something left to prove, despite a strong 2012-13 season. The Senators are strong on the big, young goalie, but have a quality veteran in Craig Anderson in front of him.

    What's Being Delivered: Lehner has backstopped the Senators expertly this season, with a monster .939 save percentage and a 2.37 goals-against average. He's playing better than Anderson, and with the team struggling currently, there's a chance Lehner will be given an opportunity to win the starting job with the Senators. Anderson could become trade bait if this trend continues.

    How He's Doing it: The big opportunity came for Lehner this season when Anderson went down with injury. During the first week of November, with their starter out, Lehner won the player-of-the-week honors with three wins in three games, and a 1.33 goals-against average with a .958 save percentage. When given the opportunity this season, Lehner is money.

4. Brandon Pirri, C, Chicago Blackhawks

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    What Was Expected: Pirri is at the front of a fairly long list of hopefuls at center for Chicago. In the pipeline, Pirri will have to fight off the likes of Drew Leblanc, Phillip Danault and Mark McNeill. His advantage—Pirri is close to ready and the others are working toward it. There's a small window for him.

    What's Being Delivered: Impressive offensive season from the skill forward. He's not getting a lot of minutes so far this season, but Pirri's skill is showing through with 10 even-strength points in 16 games. That ranks him second in the entire NHL among first-year players, and gives Chicago yet another weapon in their arsenal.

    How He's Doing it: Pirri caught a major break this season, as the Blackhawks needed a skill center to play with some of their top end wingers and the young man won the job. Most of the early season has seen him play with Patrick Kane and Brandon Saad, an exceptional landing spot for the 22-year-old center. His faceoff percentage needs some work, but it's a minor quibble for a young center who has impressed in his NHL debut.

3. Tomas Hertl, LW, San Jose Sharks

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    What Was Expected: Hertl signed his entry-level deal in the spring, and the organization was going to give him a chance to make the big club at training camp. There was no sense of an NHL team handing a job to their former first-round selection.

    What's Being Delivered: The news went from "he's going to get a chance to make the team" to "Hertl is looking good with Joe Thornton early in training camp" to "Tomas Hertl scores four against the Rangers" in a heartbeat. Tomas Hertl is the rare rookie who turned the world's best hockey league on it's ear—he's full measure for his gaudy rookie numbers.

    How He's Doing it: Opportunity knocked and Hertl opened the door. He's running away with the rookie scoring race and is a strong early favorite for the Calder Trophy, and a lot of the credit goes to the young man from Prague. Hertl did get the softest landing spot available, playing on a line with elite playmaker Joe Thornton from the start. Thornton has been a star-marker for snipers going back to Mike Knuble, Glen Murray and Jonathan Cheechoo. Hertl might be the best of the bunch.


2. Frans Nielson, C, New York Islanders

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    What Was Expected: Frans Nielson is an awesome hockey player, brilliant in many of the things that are often overlooked, but make the difference between winning and losing—things like playing the other team's best players to a draw, penalty-killing brilliance and solid offense. He was expected to do all the extras and chip in 40 points in a full season.

    What's Being Delivered: If you take the league's best defensive center (Nielson is in the conversation) and he doubles his point total (at his current rate Nielson will pass 80 points before year's end), what do you get?

    A Hart Trophy candidate. Nielson's brilliant play in all zones and in all disciplines make him the definition of a complete player.

    How He's Doing it: There's a little bit of luck involved, Nielson's shooting percentage is unsustainable and that'll correct as the season wears along, but he's also delivering some impressive power play numbers. Nielson's paired most often with Josh Bailey up front, and that duo is giving the Islanders some impressive scoring to go along with the Tavares line. 

1. Alexander Steen, C, St. Louis Blues

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    What Was Expected: Steen is the definition of a two-way forward, able to impact the game at both ends of the ice and provide enough offense for second or third line duty. A typical Steen season would see him score between 40-50 points and provide his team with a steady hand at center.

    What's Being Delivered: Alexander Steen is on pace to score over 70 goals this season! While extremely unlikely, it's also true that he's scoring at about a goal-a-game pace a quarter of the way into the 2013-14 campaign. This kind of season is extremely unusual for a veteran player like Steen. He hasn't displayed this kind of offensive ability in the NHL (this is his ninth season).

    How He's Doing it: Lots of reasons, including a 23.3 shooting percentage (impossible to maintain) and an increase in playing time. Steen's giant season comes under the guidance of Ken Hitchcock, who has coached some enormous offensive seasons over the years and has been known to give extra time to the men having the most impact.

    Bottom line: everything is going in the net, and Alexander Steen is having an exceptional season.