30 Teams, 30 Surprises in the 2013-14 NHL Season
As is the case with every NHL season, there are players, teams and events that take all of the experts and fans alike by surprise. The 2013-14 season has been no different.
Some teams and players are playing over their heads, others are disappointing despite expectations based on their past performances. Some of the unexpected occurrences are inspirational, others are a reminder that time is linear and we are all having our skills eroded by the perpetually moving clock.
This list will provide the biggest surprise (mostly positive with the occasional negative) from each NHL team this season. There are different degrees of surprise, but each team has had something happen this season that no one saw coming.
If there are any disagreements about a particular surprise (and oh my stars, I bet there are some), please leave them in the comments.
All statistics are through Thursday's games via NHL.com, all contract figures via CapGeek.com
Anaheim Ducks: Frederik Andersen Becomes Their Latest Goaltending Surprise
The 24-year-old Frederik Anderson got his first crack at playing in the NHL after an injury to Viktor Fasth, who burst onto the scene last season and has been sensational.
The native of Denmark is 8-1-0 with a 1.74 goals-against average and .938 save percentage and provided coach Bruce Boudreau a reliable option while starter Jonas Hiller was struggling to find his game. Fasth is expected back from a lower-body injury in the next two weeks, leaving the team with a tough decision about which goalies to carry going forward.
Hiller is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent this summer. Fasth signed a three-year contract last year, and Andersen inked a two-year extension in October. If the Ducks feel the need to acquire scoring depth or another defenseman at the trade deadline, they have the goaltenders to offer to potential suitors.
Boston Bruins: Reilly Smith Making the Tyler Seguin Trade Look Very Good
When Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli was faced with a slew of tough decisions regarding free agents and how to get his team under the salary cap, his biggest move was trading Tyler Seguin to the Dallas Stars. The biggest name the Bruins received in return was Loui Eriksson, but it's Reilly Smith who is currently third on the team in scoring.
The 22-year-old, who entered 2013-14 with three goals and six assists in 40 career games, has seven goals and 14 assists in 32 games with the Bruins. There was never a question that Smith had talent and could contribute, but it's doubtful anyone believed he'd be outscoring Eriksson, Jarome Iginla and Patrice Bergeron this season.
Buffalo Sabres: This Team Is Bad, but No One Thought They'd Be This Bad
Many predicted the Buffalo Sabres would miss the playoffs and perhaps even find themselves near the bottom of the NHL standings, but this team has been historically bad.
Through 32 games, the Sabres are 7-23-2 with 16 points. Only three of those wins have occurred in regulation or overtime. They are on pace for 41 points, the lowest total since the 1999-2000 Atlanta Thrashers had 39 points in their inaugural NHL season.
They are averaging 1.56 goals per game, by far the worst in the league this season. Just how bad is that? It would be the lowest total in the modern era, dating back to the 1967-68 season when the NHL expanded from six to 12 teams. In the history of the NHL, only two teams averaged less than 1.60 goals per game—the 1928 and 1929 Chicago Blackhawks, who averaged 0.8 and 1.5 goals per game in those seasons, respectively.
Calgary Flames: Jiri Hudler Is Living Up to His Big Contract
After a career-best 25 goals with the Detroit Red Wings in 2011-12, Jiri Hudler signed a four-year, $16 million contract with the Calgary Flames. It was a dubious deal, as Hudler had never posted more than 57 points in a season, and that occurred in 2008-09 with the Red Wings.
Hudler had a perfectly acceptable 2013 season, delivering 10 goals and 27 points in 42 games. But he has exploded this season, providing nine goals and 28 points in 31 games for a team that ranks in the bottom of the league in goals per game.
The 29-year-old is slightly behind his 25-goal pace of two seasons ago, but if he continues at this current rate, his 76 points would be a very unexpected career best.
Carolina Hurricanes: Justin Peters Saves the Day with Cam Ward Injured
Last season, starting goaltender Cam Ward went down with an injury, and the Carolina Hurricanes soon followed. Ward missed the final 27 games of the regular season with a sprained MCL, and the Hurricanes finished 7-17-3 in his absence and missed the playoffs with Peters making most of the starts.
This season, Ward missed 10 games with a lower-body injury in November, opening the door again for Peters, who made the most of the opportunity this time.
The 27-year-old's 6-8-2 record isn't impressive, but his 2.26/.924 split is a big reason the Hurricanes squeezed six victories out of those appearances and are in playoff contention in the East.
Peters actually entered the year as the club's No. 3 goalie, but newly signed backup Anton Khudobin has been battling an injury of his own.
Chicago Blackhawks: Antti Raanta Taking Advantage of Opportunities
There's not much in the way of surprise with the Blackhawks, but Antti Raanta is one of the many goaltenders on this list who started the year as a No. 3 goaltender but has provided No. 1 results.
Raanta got the call-up after veteran backup Nikolai Khabibulin suffered a lower-body injury in mid-November and fared well in his minimal work. But now that workhorse starter Corey Crawford is out three weeks with a groin injury, the rookie is getting more playing time than anyone would have guessed.
In seven games, the 24-year-old is 5-0-1 with a 2.12/.926 split and likely has more starts coming his way while Crawford is out.
Colorado Avalanche: Jean-Sebastien Giguere Turning Back the Clock
Just about everything about the Avalanche season has been surprising, but the play of 36-year-old Jean-Sebastien Giguere is the biggest reason the club is in a playoff spot right now.
The backup is 7-1-0 with a 1.84/.940 split. Sure, he's only played in nine games, but he has never posted numbers close to these, even when he was taking the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim (yes, it was that long ago) to the postseason.
With the Avalanche clinging to a playoff spot in the ultra-competitive Western Conference, Giguere's dominant appearances have made a big difference.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Brandon Dubinsky Finally Living Up to Expectations
After Brandon Dubinsky had a career-best 20 goals and 54 points in 2010-11 with the New York Rangers, he held out for eight days while negotiating a new four-year, $16.8 million contract. He dipped to 10 goals and 34 points the following season, then was shipped to Columbus that offseason in the Rick Nash deal.
Things didn't improve for Dubinsky, who posted just two goals in 29 games with the Jackets last season.
The 27-year-old has rediscovered his game this season for the Jackets, picking up some of the scoring slack with Marian Gaborik out with a knee injury since mid-November. Dubinsky is second on the team in scoring with six goals and 20 points in 26 games.
The Jackets have been treading water in the East without Gaborik, and Dubinsky has been a big reason the team can still see a playoff spot not too far off in the distance.
Dallas Stars: Big Free-Agent Signing Sergei Gonchar Disappointing Big Time
At the age of 39, it's not as though Sergei Gonchar having a rough season would be a huge surprise. But after he signed a two-year, $10 million deal this summer, it was clear the Dallas Stars organization thought he had something left in the tank.
The tank, however, appears to be bone dry.
Gonchar has zero goals and six assists in 30 games, this after he had three goals and 27 points in 45 games last season with the Ottawa Senators. He posted a lot of the numbers playing alongside Erik Karlsson, but it seems no one really knew just how responsible the 2012 Norris Trophy winner was for padding the veteran's numbers.
Detroit Red Wings: Jonas Gustavsson Shines While Jimmy Howard Scuffles
Since arriving from Sweden before the 2009-10 season, Jonas Gustavsson had been an unequivocal disaster. In four seasons, he never posted a GAA better than a 2.87 or a save percentage greater than .902. The Red Wings signed him before last season, and the goaltender affectionately known as Monster had a 2.92/.879 split in seven appearances.
Gustavsson has been the unexpected savior in Detroit this season with starter Jimmy Howard having one of the shakier seasons of his career. Gustavsson is 8-1-1 with a 2.03/.930 split, keeping the Red Wings near the top of the Eastern Conference as opposed to fighting for a playoff spot.
If Howard can't put it together, coach Mike Babcock knows he has a safe option in Gustavsson.
Edmonton Oilers: Ilya Bryzgalov Decides to Come to Alberta
Ilya Bryzgalov's existence in Edmonton is enough of a surprise for him to make this list. After the Philadelphia Flyers used an amnesty buyout on the goaltender at the end of last season, nary a team was willing to sign him. Bryzgalov signed a tryout contract with the Las Vegas Wranglers of the ECHL, but he never played a game for the team.
With Devan Dubnyk struggling, the Oilers decided to sign the 33-year-old to a one-year deal. Bryzgalov has made just four appearances due to a concussion, but he had a 33-save shutout in his first start as an Oiler.
You never know what to expect with Bryzgalov, but no one would've guessed he'd be in Edmonton, concussed and with a solid 2.12/.939 split at this point.
Florida Panthers: They Are Also Not Good at Replacing Broken Glass
There's nothing all that surprising about the season of the Florida Panthers. They're near the bottom of the standings, no one is playing way over their head or way below expectations. But who knew they had no idea how to replace a broken pane of glass?
After Nick Bjugstad of the Panthers cracked the glass with a wrist shot during the third period of a 3-2 win against the Detroit Red Wings, arena workers brought out a new piece of glass. Sadly, that is not a piece of plywood, but instead is the protective adhesive sticker that is on every piece of glass. Somehow, the crew couldn't peel that sticker off, so they popped it in behind the net as is.
The glass problem was only the second-most surprising occurrence of the night, right behind the Panthers beating the Red Wings.
Los Angeles Kings: Ben Scrivens and Martin Jones Dominating Between the Pipes
When Jonathan Quick, one of the NHL's best goaltenders and presumptive starter in net for Team USA at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, went down for a month with a groin injury, the back-up situation was less than appealing.
Ben Scrivens entered the season with 32 games of NHL experience; Martin Jones had played in just as many games as your third-grade social studies teacher: 0. But the duo has turned the loss of Quick from a negative into an incredible positive.
Scrivens is 7-2-4 with a 1.56/.943 split this season while Jones is 4-0-0 with a 0.74/.974 split since taking Quick's place on the roster. Since Quick's injury, the Kings are an improbable 10-1-3.
Minnesota Wild: Josh Harding Defying the Odds with Vezina-Like Numbers
Before the start of the 2013 season, Minnesota Wild goaltender Josh Harding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. The debilitating nerve disease did nothing to prevent him from starting the season, although he had to miss 33 games while combating his illness.
No one would've blamed Harding if he retired or his game slipped this season, but he has instead thrust himself into Vezina Trophy contention with one of the more inspiring seasons in sports history.
An injury to starter to Niklas Backstrom opened the door, and Harding has stormed through it. The 29-year-old is 16-5-3, leads the NHL in GAA at 1.52 and is second in save percentage at .938. The Wild don't exactly offer a lot of on-ice support, either, scoring just 2.27 goals per game this season.
Despite all the odds against him, Harding has the Wild (18-10-5) nestled into a playoff spot.
Montreal Canadiens: The Montreal Canadiens Are Entirely Surprising
P.K. Subban is having another marvelous season. Carey Price is enjoying his best season in net, but it's always been within his reach. But very few people thought the Canadiens would be challenging for the top spot in the Eastern Conference, and that's exactly what they're doing.
And they're doing it with goaltending and defense. The Habs are allowing 2.12 goals per game, third-best in the league, and Price is 14-10-2 with a 2.08/.933 split. At one point, they held opponents to two goals or fewer in 11 consecutive games.
That team defense has the Canadiens three points behind the Boston Bruins for the best record in the East.
Nashville Predators: Marek Mazanec Goes from Unknown to Anchor in Net
In what is clearly a theme in this slideshow, 22-year-old Marek Mazanec started the year in the minor leagues but has excelled after being thrust into duty after an injury to a No. 1 goaltender.
The Nashville Predators announced in November that Pekka Rinne, a Vezina finalist in 2012, would miss up to two months with a hip infection. The team first turned to Carter Hutton in net, but after some underwhelming results, Mazanec was given a chance.
Mazanec has struggled in his past few appearances, but is 5-7-1 with a 2.51/.915 split. His save percentage and GAA leave him right around the league average and has kept the Predators afloat while Rinne recovers.
New Jersey Devils: Eric Gelinas Providing Offense from the Blue Line
The New Jersey Devils have suffered a lot of injuries on defense this year—Bryce Salvador, Anton Volchenkov, Adam Larsson have all missed time with various ailments—but rookie Eric Gelinas has established himself as a rock-solid option on the blue line.
The 22-year-old rookie has looked like a veteran in his 23 games, with three goals and nine assists, including the game-winner in a comeback overtime win against the New York Rangers on Saturday. He's earned more playing time from coach Peter DeBoer, averaging about 22 minutes per game in his past five contests.
That's not too bad for a youngster who started the season seemingly entrenched in the AHL.
New York Islanders: Kyle Okposo Thrusting Himself into Olympic Discussion
Since he was the seventh selection in the 2006 draft, Kyle Okposo hasn't come close to living up to the expectations of being a high pick. His best season was a 19-goal, 52-point effort in 2009-10, not exactly the output the New York Islanders were expecting over his six seasons.
But the 25-year-old is showing his potential in his seventh NHL season.
Through 33 games, Okposo has 10 goals and 29 points playing alongside 2013 Hart Trophy finalist John Tavares. The Minnesota native's showing this season could put him contention for a spot on Team USA at the Sochi Olympics.
The Islanders are at the bottom of the Metropolitan Division, but Okposo is not the one to blame.
New York Rangers: Cam Talbot Has Been the Best Goaltender in Manhattan
When you're playing behind Henrik Lundqvist, the starts in net will generally be few and far between. When you're behind Lundqvist and veteran Martin Biron, you can expect to get most of your work in the AHL.
But fortune has shined on Cam Talbot this season. He received a permanent spot behind Lundqvist once Biron decided to retire in October. Then, with Lundqvist injured and struggling, Talbot shined in the spotlight.
The 26-year-old is 6-2-0 with a 1.74/.934 split, and for a team that is floating around .500, those six wins are the difference between the Rangers hanging around a playoff spot and sinking to the bottom of the standings.
Ottawa Senators: Did Anyone Expect Them to Be This Terrible?
Take a look at these ESPN predictions for the NHL season and take notice of the Ottawa Senators. Four experts had them winning the Atlantic Division and one had them getting all the way to the Stanley Cup Final. I had them in the conference final, which seemed logical after they reached the conference semifinal last season and added Bobby Ryan over the summer.
Instead, the Senators have been consistently bad from the get-go and are under .500 today.
The problem has been on the defensive side of things, as they have given up 34.4 shots per game, the fourth-worst mark in the league. The Senators have allowed at least 40 shots in a game eight times this season.
The good news is the Senators are three points out of a playoff spot with 49 games to go. There's time to correct the problems, but few thought they'd be this far off course through 33 games.
Philadelphia Flyers: Steve Mason Has Been a Beacon of Bright Orange Light
The goaltending duo of Steve Mason and Ray Emery was by far the biggest question mark around the team going into this season, but Mason has turned out to be the answer on a team that has struggled to score goals.
Mason is 11-9-3 with a 2.29/.927 split, which is big for the Flyers. They are scoring 2.22 goals per game, the fourth-worst mark in the NHL. Throw in the fact that Emery has scuffled to the tune of a 3.02/.891 split, and Mason is the only thing standing between the Flyers and a top-five lottery pick.
Mason's save percentage is about 20 points above his career mark, so he's very likely to regress during the season. But even if he does, he's been the Flyers' best player this season.
Phoenix Coyotes: They're Not Just Winning—They're Doing It with Offense
It's impossible to find anyone outside of ESPN's Scott Burnside who predicted success for the Phoenix Coyotes, and he had them winning the Stanley Cup before the season. It was definitely good for a chuckle, but the Coyotes are the ones providing the heartiest chuckles.
The Coyotes are one point out of a playoff spot, but that has everything to do with the unbelievably tough Western Conference and little to do with the team's 18-8-5 record. The truly surprising part about that record is it has been achieved with starting goaltender Mike Smith allowing 3.01 goals per game.
The historically defensive-minded Coyotes are fifth in the league in offense at 3.10 goals per game, which is partially due to the addition of center Mike Ribeiro as a free agent this summer. He has eight goals and 26 points in 30 games, second-most on the team.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Their Injuries on Defense Are Downright Unbelievable
Injuries are part of the NHL just like they are part of any sport. But there is nothing normal about the litany of medical woes that have afflicted the blue line of the Pittsburgh Penguins this season.
Rob Scuderi has been out since the end of October after undergoing surgery for a fractured ankle.
Kris Letang missed nine games with a lower-body injury.
Paul Martin suffered a fractured tibia at the end of November and likely won't be back until January.
Brooks Orpik suffered a concussion during the gong show in Boston on Saturday, and there is no timetable for his return.
That's injuries, all significant, to the Penguins' four most important defensemen.
Yet the Penguins are still running away with the Metropolitan Division thanks to the play of defensemen Olli Maatta and Matt Niskanen and those Crosby and Malkin guys up front.
San Jose Sharks: Tommy Wingels Providing Another Scoring Option
The San Jose Sharks have never been short on offense, what with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joe Pavelski providing plenty of punch. But 2008 sixth-round pick Tommy Wingels has been more of a depth forward and not exactly a dangerous player.
That's changed this season. After delivering eight goals and 22 points in 80 career games over three seasons, Wingels has nine goals and 19 points in 32 games this season. His emergence has helped to give the Sharks' an extremely dangerous third line that causes matchup problems for the opposition.
His best AHL season was in 2010-11 when he had 17 goals in 69 games, but it's looking like Wingels has a shot at eclipsing that on the NHL level this season.
St. Louis Blues: Alexander Steen Has Suddenly Become an Elite Goal Scorer
Some of the players on this list aren't overwhelming surprises. There are different levels of surprise, and some of them rise to the level of finding a fresh cup of coffee on your desk in the morning. You didn't expect it and it's nice, but it won't change your life.
Alexander Steen having 22 goals in 30 games, however, is the biggest of surprises. It's the equivalent of finding out you were adopted. And your birth parents are Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. And it all happens on national television during halftime of the Super Bowl.
The 29-year-old Steen has never scored more than 24 goals in a season, yet he's a hot week away from taking care of that. He's never had more than 51 points in a season, but he's just 16 points short of that with more than half the season to play.
If Steen stays healthy—something that has been an issue for him during his career—he has a chance for one of the most positively surprising seasons in NHL history.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Beating Ben Bishop Has Been Very Difficult This Season
Ben Bishop has been stuck in some tough situations during his career. As a member of the St. Louis Blues, he was behind Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot. With the Ottawa Senators, he couldn't find much playing time with Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner in front of him.
A trade to the Tampa Bay Lightning appeared to leave him in a time share with Anders Lindback, but the 27-year-old Bishop has seized the starting job and doesn't appear he will lose the grip on it any time soon.
Bishop is 16-5-2 with a 2.05/.931 split and his 23 appearances are by far the most he's ever made in an NHL season. He has always had the potential to be a starter in the NHL, but after it seemed like he'd never get the chance, he's become quite the backstop this season in Tampa.
Toronto Maple Leafs: Mason Raymond Proving to Be a Real Bargain
A back injury during the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and two subpar seasons with the Vancouver Canucks left Mason Raymond without a job for most of the offseason. The salary cap was reduced, leaving Raymond to sign a tryout contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Raymond earned a one-year contract during the exhibition season and has been providing excellent production all season.
Through 33 games, he has 10 goals and 20 points. That's pretty good for a guy who had 10 goals in each of his final two seasons in Vancouver and had a difficult time finding work during the summer. If he maintains his form, he has a chance at reaching his career-high of 25 goals, which he posted in 2009-10 with the Canucks.
Vancouver Canucks: Mike Santorelli Rediscovering His Scoring Touch
In his first full NHL season in 2010-11, Mike Santorelli had 20 goals and 41 points in 82 games for the Florida Panthers. In 94 games over the following two seasons with the Panthers and Winnipeg Jets, he could only amass 11 goals and four assists.
The Canucks rolled the dice on Santorelli this summer, and he's proven to be quite the asset.
Santorelli is fourth on the Canucks in scoring with eight goals and 21 points in 33 games. He has just two fewer goals than Daniel Sedin, a four-time 30-goal scorer.
The Canucks have been a middle-of-the-road team offensively, but Santorelli has given the team much-needed secondary scoring behind the big guns.
Washington Capitals: Martin Erat Has the Same Number of Goals as Barack Obama
When the Washington Capitals dealt prospect Filip Forsberg to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Martin Erat at last season's trade deadline, the idea was to give the team some scoring punch now in exchange for a player who was still a few years away.
Erat was a disappointment, scoring one goal in nine regular-season games before suffering a season-ending injury during the playoffs. This season, Erat has been even worse; he has zero goals in 28 games and has requested a trade.
You won't believe this, but there haven't been any takers for a 32-year-old who has no goals this season.
Erat's sudden decline has been out of nowhere. He scored between 16 and 24 goals in every season between 2003-04 and 2011-12.
Winnipeg Jets: Bryan Little Has Come Up Big
Bryan Little was given a five-year, $23.5 million contract by the Winnipeg Jets over the summer. It was a bit of a head scratcher, as he hasn't been close to the player he was when he scored 31 goals in 2008-09. He's been a consistent depth scorer, but he has never tasted the playoffs with the Atlanta/Winnipeg organization.
The 26-year-old has made the Jets look like geniuses this season. He has 13 goals and 29 points in 33 games, which puts him on a pace for a career-high 71 points. His 13 goals lead the Jets and the next-best total on the club is nine goals by Blake Wheeler.
The Jets are 14-14-5 in the rough-and-tumble West, and Little is a big reason why the season hasn't turned sideways in Winnipeg.