Ranking the Most Surprising NHL Players in 2013-14 so Far
If you look at the top of the NHL's scoring leaders this season, you'll see many of the usual suspects.
Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, John Tavares and Henrik Zetterberg are among the leaders and there's no surprise there.
However, there are a number of players who have risen far above expectations as the season reaches its second quarter.
Here's a look at some of the most surprising performances of the season.
C Bryan Little, Winnipeg Jets
2013-14 stats: 24 games; 12 goals, 11 assists, plus-five
Analysis: Bryan Little has been one the Winnipeg Jets' most dependable players since the franchise moved from Atlanta prior to the 2011-12 season. Little is easy to overlook because he's 5'11" and 185 pounds and is not going to intimidate opponents with his size or power, but he is almost always in the right place at the right time.
Little has the gift for setting up his teammates and he can also find his own shot when he moves into the offensive zone. Like many great players, Little is often one or two steps ahead of the play. That allows him to snap off a tight shot from an angle that opposing goaltenders may not be expecting.
Little is an excellent skater who can play on the wing in addition to his natural center position, and he is also solid defensively.
LW Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars
2013-14 stats: 21 games; 7 goals, 16 assists, plus-nine
Analysis: Jamie Benn has become a dynamic leader for the Dallas Stars, and he is one of the players that first-year head coach Lindy Ruff is depending on to turn this franchise around.
Benn is a big man at 6'2" and 208 pounds who will use his size to put his physical imprint on the game. However, he also has a high skill level and he is developing excellent chemistry with explosive scorer Tyler Seguin, whom the Stars acquired in an offseason trade with the Boston Bruins.
Benn had a remarkable game against the Calgary Flames Nov. 14 when he scored a goal and added five assists. Benn has excellent touch with his passes and he will also go to the dirty areas of the ice to score goals.
In addition to playing left wing, Benn is capable of playing any of the other positions on the forward line.
LW Jaromir Jagr, New Jersey Devils
2013-14 stats: 22 games; 9 goals, 9 assists, plus-10
Analysis: Jaromir Jagr was perhaps the most frustrated of the Boston Bruins at the end of the Stanley Cup Final last June.
The Bruins acquired Jagr from the Dallas Stars at the trade deadline in an effort to shore up their offensive depth and make them a far more dangerous playoff team. Jagr scored a goal in his debut with the Bruins and he fit in well with Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchand.
However, something happened in the playoffs. Jagr skated hard and played well, but he could not put the puck in the net. He did not score one postseason goal. While some of it was poor puck luck, Jagr often looked a step behind.
The Bruins didn't re-sign Jagr, but he accepted a deal with the New Jersey Devils. While the Devils got off to a poor start, they are starting to rebound—third place in the Metropolitan Division and 6-3-1 in their last 10 games—and so has Jagr who leads the team in scoring.
While he is not the superstar he was in his heyday, Jagr is always well-positioned and off to a surprisingly solid start this season with the Devils.
C Alex Steen, St. Louis Blues
2013-14 stats: 21 games; 17 goals, 9 assists, plus-12
Analysis: Alex Steen is having a remarkable season. He is tied for second in scoring in the NHL with Henrik Zetterberg, just two points behind Sidney Crosby.
Steen has been a functional player for several years, but he appears to be making the jump from solid all-around player to dominant superstar in one season.
With the Blues having played just slightly more than 25 percent of their full season, Steen is on pace to score 66 goals. He has never scored more than 24 goals in any season.
Steen is almost certain to cool down, but a 40-goal season would still be remarkable. However, even if he can't reach that level, he plays hard every night and he is also an excellent defensive player that head coach Ken Hitchcock leans on heavily. He is one of the primary reasons why the Blues are off to the best start in franchise history.
RW Reilly Smith, Boston Bruins
2013-14 stats: 22 games; 3 goals, 11 assists, plus-four
Analysis: Reilly Smith was something of a throw-in for the Boston Bruins when they traded Tyler Seguin and Rich Peverley for Loui Eriksson. The Bruins liked Smith as a prospect, but they had no idea that as they reached the second quarter of the season that he would be the team's third-leading scorer.
The Bruins are not a team that generally produces players who compete with the league's best when it comes to points or goals, but head coach Claude Julien insists on having players who give everything they have on the defensive end in addition to making plays on the offensive end.
Smith is doing just that. While the goal total is not where he would like it to be, he is fitting right into the Bruins' game plan and becoming a very vital part of the team.
C Frans Nielsen, New York Islanders
2013-14 stats: 22 games; 10 goals, 12 assists, plus-one
Analysis: There's a lot of angst surrounding the New York Islanders this year because they appear to have an outstanding group of forwards who are capable of leading them into the playoffs, just like they did last year.
However, the Islanders and the Columbus Blue Jackets are at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division. New York has too many deficiencies on the blue line and in goal.
That's too bad because Frans Nielsen is giving them what so many NHL teams want—a second-line center who can score. Nielsen's point-per-game pace is just behind teammate John Tavares, who is considered a top-three player in the NHL.
It's not too late for the Islanders to find a solution to their defensive problems and get back on track, but they must do it quickly if they are going to make the playoffs for the second year in a row.
RW Jiri Hudler, Calgary Flames
2013-14 stats: 22 games; 7 goals, 14 assists, minus-three
Analysis: Jiri Hudler is becoming the Calgary Flames' most dangerous player and the team's most consistent scorer. Hudler is a quick skater who excels in the offensive zone.
Hudler is 5'9" and 178 pounds, and he is not built to play the physical game. That's why his skating ability is so important. Hudler's ability to start and stop makes him difficult for opposing forwards to hit. Once he gets a moment of daylight, he can fire a quick pass or take his hard shot.
Hudler is not the strongest defensive player, but his remarkable shooting and passing accuracy makes him perhaps the best player on this rebuilding team.
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