NHL

Every NHL Team's Most Pleasantly Surprising Player of 2013-14

Lyle RichardsonFeatured ColumnistApril 9, 2014

Every NHL Team's Most Pleasantly Surprising Player of 2013-14

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    The NHL's 2013-14 regular season had its share of highs and lows, triumphs and disappointment, success and heartbreak. It also had its share of surprises, many involving individual players.

    Some were rookies who exceeded expectations, dazzling fans with the promise of their skills. Others were young veterans who, after struggling early in their careers, enjoyed long-awaited breakthrough seasons.

    Several veterans proved capable of surprising NHL fans. A future Hall of Fame forward showed he can still carry a team's offense. A seemingly washed-up defenseman used a training camp tryout as a springboard to resurrecting his career. A veteran two-way forward became a surprising scoring star. A once-unheralded goaltender became a Vezina candidate.

    Here's look at every NHL team's most pleasantly surprising players for this season.

Hampus Lindholm, Anaheim Ducks

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    Lindholm's debut made quite a positive impression with the Ducks. Earlier this season, The Orange County Register's Eric Stephens reported his poise and skills earned rave reviews from his teammates and coach Bruce Boudreau.

    The 20-year-old blueliner's plus/minus (plus-27) ranks second among NHL rookies, third overall on the Ducks and among the top 20 in the league. Lindholm is sixth in ice time (19:26) on the Ducks, ranking eighth overall among NHL rookies. He also has a respectable 28 points in 75 games this season.

    Lindholm shows considerable promise as a top-four defenseman. His strong start to his NHL career makes him the Ducks' most pleasant surprise this season.

Reilly Smith, Boston Bruins

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    Part of the return from the Dallas Stars in last summer's Tyler Seguin trade, Smith had only nine points in 37 games as a rookie last season. Entering this season, few expected him to become one of the Bruins' leading scorers.

    He began on the Bruins' third line but played his way onto the second line. Through 78 games, the 23-year-old Smith's 50 points rank fifth in team scoring. He's also in a three-way tie with Jarome Iginla and Carl Soderberg for third in power-play points (14).

    The Boston Globe's Fluto Shinzawa reported Reilly's performance this season earned him NESN's Seventh Player Award, which goes to the Bruin whose play exceeds expectations.

     

Zemgus Girgensons, Buffalo Sabres

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    Girgensons is enjoying a promising NHL debut. The 20-year-old Latvian is a rare bright patch in an otherwise miserable season for the Sabres. 

    A physical and versatile two-way forward, Girgensons has 22 points in 67 games. If not for missing 11 games with a lower-body injury earlier this season, his numbers would be higher. He's also fourth on the Sabres in hits (153).

    Earlier this season, The Buffalo News' Jerry Sullivan reported Sabres coach Ted Nolan praised the youngster for his strong work ethic. Sullivan also noted his maturity and rapid adjustment to the NHL game. Those traits will serve Girgensons well as he continues his NHL career.

Sean Monahan, Calgary Flames

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    The Flames were expecting big things from the promising Monahan when they selected him sixth overall in the 2013 NHL draft. Still, he impressed Flames followers with his smooth transition to the NHL game.

    Only 19, Monahan is the Flames' second-highest goal scorer (20) this season. The Calgary Sun's Randy Sportak reports Monahan is the first Flames rookie to reach 20 goals since Dion Phaneuf (2005-06) and Jarome Iginla (1996-97). He's also fourth overall among this season's top rookies in goals and 10th in points (32).

    Monahan has the makings of a franchise player. He was also among the reasons the rebuilding Flames performed better than expected this season. 

Andrej Sekera, Carolina Hurricanes

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    When Carolina Hurricanes general manager Jim Rutherford acquired Sekera last June from the Buffalo Sabres, he told NHL.com he believed he was getting “a real defensive defenseman.” Turns out the Hurricanes got considerably more than Rutherford expected.

    Sekera is enjoying a career year offensively with 44 points in 74 games, ranking third overall in team scoring. He leads the Hurricanes in ice time (23:40) and blocked shots (127). He's also second in assists (33) and power-play points (15).

    At 27, Sekera is entering his prime as a defenseman. With one season remaining on his contract at a cap hit of $2.75 million, the Hurricanes would be wise to open contract extension talks with his agent this summer.

Brandon Saad, Chicago Blackhawks

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    In only his second NHL season, Saad made significant strides in his development. NBC Chicago.com's James Neveau cited coaching legend Scotty Bowman, who praised Saad's two-way play this season. Bowman was also disappointed the 21-year-old wasn't selected for the American men's Olympic hockey team.

    Through 75 games, Saad has 19 goals and 45 points, good for sixth overall in team scoring. His plus/minus of plus-23 ranks fourth. He's also a good team player. The Chicago Tribune's Chris Kuc reports Saad has taken rookie Teuvo Teravainen under his wing.

    Saad has struggled of late and was a healthy scratch in a recent game against St. Louis. That's to be expected of a sophomore still adjusting to the NHL game. Given his current development, Saad should be a key part of the Blackhawks lineup for years.

Semyon Varlamov, Colorado Avalanche

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    Entering this season, Varlamov was considered a good starting goalie, but not one who would merit Vezina Trophy consideration. That changed this season, as he has carried the Avalanche to what will be their first playoff appearance in four years.

    It's been a career season for the 25-year-old netminder. His 40 wins not only lead the league, but it ties Patrick Roy's franchise record. His .927 save percentage ranks fourth overall among NHL starters, while his 2.41 goals-against average is the second best of his career.

    More impressive is that Varlamov reached these numbers backstopping one of the worst defensive teams in the league. No goalie has faced more shots against (1,973) this season. The Denver Post's Adrian Dater believes Varlamov's performance gives him a shot at winning the Vezina Trophy.

Ryan Johansen, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Johansen struggled through last season's lockout-shortened schedule and was eventually demoted to the Blue Jackets' AHL affiliate in Springfield. Entering this season, however, the 21-year-old told The Columbus Dispatch's Aaron Portzline he was a changed man.

    He's backed up that claim with a breakthrough performance. His 32 goals and 59 points leads the Blue Jackets in both categories. Johansen also tops the club in shots (225) and is tied for second in power-play points (16).

    This is the performance the Blue Jackets expected when they selected Johansen fourth overall in the 2010 NHL draft. He's on his way to becoming the new face of the franchise.

Brenden Dillon, Dallas Stars

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    Dillon gave flashes of his capabilities in his NHL debut last season, but he was still considered a depth defenseman on the Stars. That's no longer the case, as he's blossomed into a solid shutdown blueliner.

    As this season draws to a close, Dillon leads the Stars in hits (164) and even-strength ice time (18:45) . He's also second in blocked shots (147) and ice time (21:18) and third in short-handed ice time (2:25).

    Dillon's improvement this season has provided a significant boost to the Stars' defensive depth. If he continues along his current course, he should remain a vital part of their blue line in the coming years.

Gustav Nyquist, Detroit Red Wings

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    The Red Wings knew they had a potential star in Nyquist after his solid performance in last year's playoffs. Still, few could have imagined the positive impact he would have this season.

    Called up in November, the 24-year-old winger has tallied 47 points in only 54 games. He moved quickly up the Wings' stats chart and now leads them in goals (28) and is fourth overall in points. All but nine of those points came at even strength. With stars Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk sidelined following the Olympic break, Nyquist helped keep the Wings in playoff contention.

    His performance prompted The Hockey News' Josh Elliott to dub Nyquist "arguably the most important player for the the Red Wings this year." Few Wings fans will argue the point. He's a significant reason why their team is poised to clinch a playoff berth for the 23rd consecutive season.

Ben Scrivens, Edmonton Oilers

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    A backup throughout his short NHL career, the Oilers' acquisition of Scrivens in mid-January from the Los Angeles Kings seemed like an act of desperation.

    The Oilers' porous defense has contributed to Scriven's 3.06 goals-against average through 20 games, but the 27-year-old has also posted a respectable .914 save percentage. He also had a record-setting 59-save shutout against San Jose. It's an indication his gaudy stats earlier this season with the Kings (1.97 goals-against average, .931 save percentage) weren't solely the result of playing for a better defensive club.

    Oilers brass obviously liked what it saw, re-signing Scrivens to a two-year contract extension. His performance has been a pleasant surprise among a sea of ugly ones this season for the Oilers.

Tom Gilbert, Florida Panthers

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    The Panthers took a chance on Gilbert, first by inviting him to training camp and then signing him to a one-year, $900,000 contract. That gamble turned into an incredible bargain for the Panthers, as the 31-year-old blueliner turned in a surprisingly solid effort this season.

    Gilbert's 28 points ranks sixth in Panthers scoring this season. He's also second in assists (25) and blocked shots (95). Sadly, his season was cut short in late March by sports hernia surgery.

    NBC Sports' Mike Halford suggests Gilbert's bounce-back performance could make him attractive in this summer's free-agent market. It remains to be seen if the Panthers will re-sign him.

Martin Jones, Los Angeles Kings

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    When starting goalie Jonathan Quick was sidelined in mid-November, the Kings' season seemed doomed. Jones was called up from their AHL affiliate to back up Ben Scrivens, but the former quickly surprised everyone by outplaying the latter.

    Jones reeled off eight straight wins in December, three of which were shutouts. When Quick returned to action in January, Kings management opted to keep Jones as his backup, shipping Scrivens to the Edmonton Oilers.

    Having held the fort in Quick's absence, Jones hasn't seen much playing time as his backup. Still, his solid play in December helped save the Kings' season, earning him a foothold in the NHL.

Darcy Kuemper, Minnesota Wild

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    Kuemper wasn't expected to see much action with the Wild this season. When starter Josh Harding was sidelined with multiple sclerosis and Niklas Backstrom was hampered by nagging abdominal pain, the 23-year-old got the call.

    From mid-January through mid-March, Kuemper posted a record of 11-4-4, including two shutouts. He posted a respectable 2.43 goals-against average and .915 save percentage. He's been sidelined since late March due to an upper-body injury. Fortunately, trade-deadline acquisition Ilya Bryzgalov is holding the fort in his absence.

    Kuemper's surprisingly solid effort ensured the Wild remained in playoff contention through most of the second half of this season. It could earn him a full-time promotion with the club next season.

Thomas Vanek, Montreal Canadiens

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    What's surprising about Vanek isn't that he's playing well of late for the Canadiens. It's that he's even playing for them at all.

    The Canadiens usually don't pursue big-name talent as playoff rentals at the trade deadline. Yet GM Marc Bergevin managed to acquire Vanek from the New York Islanders at this year's deadline for a very affordable return.

    After a slow start (only one point in his first five games), Vanek's been tearing it up with the Canadiens. Playing on a line with Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais, the 30-year-old winger has 13 points in his last 10 games. His chemistry with his new linemates should provide the Habs a much-needed offensive lift entering the playoffs.

Craig Smith, Nashville Predators

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    Smith had a promising rookie season in 2011-12, with 36 points in 72 games. Unfortunately, he struggled through last season's lockout-shortened schedule with only 12 points in 44 games.

    This season, however, Smith has rebounded nicely. The 24-year-old's 20 goals and 45 points in 76 games eclipsed his rookie numbers. He's currently tied for third in team points, second in shots (197) and tied with Patric Hornqvist and Mike Fisher for second overall in goals.

    For a goal-starved club like the Predators, Smith's performance this season was a welcomed surprise. This could signal better days ahead for the young winger.

Jaromir Jagr, New Jersey Devils

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    When Jagr signed his one-year, $2 million contract last summer with the Devils as a free agent, he suggested this season could be his last. It was an understandable sentiment. Since his return to the NHL two years ago, the ageing Jagr has been a shell of his former greatness.

    While the 42-year-old's best days are well behind him, Jagr has proven this season that he still has some offensive magic left. Indeed, he's been the Devils' best player, leading the club in assists (40), points (64), game-winning goals (six) and shots (218). He's also second in goals (24).

    NJ.com's Randy Miller reports Jagr is open to re-signing with the Devils next season. Given his surprising performance, it's a good possibility he'll return with the Devils (or another NHL team) next season.

Kyle Okposo, New York Islanders

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    After reaching 52 points in 2009-10 as an NHL sophomore, Okposo suffered a serious shoulder injury the following season and struggled to regain his offensive form. He tallied only 24 points during last season's lockout-shortened schedule. This season, however, saw Okposo's long-awaited breakthrough.

    The 25-year-old winger is having his best season to date (27 goals, 42 assists, 69 points), taking over the team scoring lead from the sidelined John Tavares. He's also tied with Tavares for the team lead in game-winning goals (four).

    In a season filled with disappointment for the Islanders, Okposo's improvement has been a pleasant surprise.

Mats Zuccarello, New York Rangers

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    Having struggled to stick with the Rangers over the past three seasons, Zuccarello wasn't expected to have a significant impact with the club this season. His solid effort this season has caught many Rangers followers by surprise.

    The diminutive (5'7”, 175 pounds) Norwegian winger leads the Blueshirts in assists (39) and points (58). He's also third in goals (19), fourth in power-play points (17) and tied for third in game-winning goals (four).

    A restricted free agent this summer, the 26-year-old Zuccarello is in line for a significant raise over his current $1.15 million salary.

Clarke MacArthur, Ottawa Senators

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    Signed to a two-year deal last summer as a checking-line winger, MacArthur has been among the the few bright spots in the Senators' disappointing season.

    MacArthur has already scored a career-best 24 goals through 76 games, while his 55 points are the second-highest total of his career. He's tied for the team lead in power-play goals (eight), game-winning goals (five) and short-handed points (three). The 29-year-old is also second in goals and plus/minus (plus-12), tied for third in assists (31) and is fourth in points.

    With one season remaining on his contract, the Ottawa Sun's Don Brennan reports MacArthur is open to signing an extension. Given his play this season, Senators management would be wise to retain him.

Steve Mason, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Having flamed out with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the once-promising NHL career of Mason appeared to be over before the Flyers acquired him last year. Expectations were low entering this season, especially after the Flyers got off to a horrific start.

    Mason, however, gave the Flyers a chance to win during their early-season struggles. As they improved, Mason remained solid between the pipes. His 2.51 goals-against average and .917 save percentage are his best over a full season since his rookie campaign in 2008-09. His 33 wins this season rank seventh among NHL goalies.

    Having resurrected his career and saved the Flyers season, Mason was rewarded with a three-year contract extension.

Michael Stone, Phoenix Coyotes

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    In his third NHL campaign, Stone has blossomed into a reliable member of the Coyotes defense corps.

    The 23-year-old blueliner plays a good all-around game. He uses his 6'3”, 210-pound frame well, ranking second on the Coyotes in blocked shots (112) and third in hits (149). He's also chipped in offensively, with eight goals and 21 points. Six of those points came on the power play. Stone has also earned second-pairing ice time.

    NBC Sports' Jason Brough believes Stone should have a bright future with the Coyotes. Given their depth in young defensemen, Stone's improvement this season could give him an advantage over his peers.

Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh Penguins

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    The Penguins had high expectations for Maatta when they selected him in the first round of the 2012 NHL draft. His rookie campaign ranks among their highlights this season.

    Due to a rash of injuries to the Penguins defense corps, Maatta has seized the opportunity to prove himself at the NHL level. He's tallied 29 points in 75 games. Though his average ice time is 18:31, he's gradually seen an increase since mid-February, regularly logging over 20 minutes per game. He's been responsible defensively, ranking second in blocked shots (112).

    NHL.com's Wes Crosby recently reported Penguins coach Dan Bylsma believes Maatta should get serious consideration for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year. The 19-year-old Finn has a bright future with the Penguins.

Tommy Wingels, San Jose Sharks

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    Wingels entered his third NHL campaign considered a versatile depth forward. As the season progressed, however, he stepped up his play as an energetic scoring winger.

    The 25-year-old is on pace to reach a career-best 40 points. Wingels is also a clutch scorer this season, leading the Sharks in game-winning goals (seven) and is tied for the lead in short-handed goals (two). He's also a strong, physical player, leading the Sharks in hits with 213.

    Wingels is due to become a restricted free agent this summer. His performance this season should net him a substantial raise over the $775,000 he earned this season.

Alexander Steen, St. Louis Blues

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    Steen has long been regarded as a good, if brittle, two-way center. He never scored more than 24 goals or 54 points in a season.

    So it was quite surprising when Steen began the season with 16 goals and 24 points in only 17 games. By mid-December, he had 24 goals and 38 points in 35 games, ranking among the league's leading scorers. Sadly, he was derailed by a midseason concussion, which sidelined him for a month.

    Steen didn't score at the same torrid pace upon his return. Still, he leads the Blues in goals (33), game-winning goals (nine) and shots (201). He's also tied for the team lead in points (60) with T.J. Oshie.

Ben Bishop, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Lightning GM Steve Yzerman acquired Bishop from the Ottawa Senators last season in hopes he could take pressure off Anders Lindback.  No one predicted just how good Bishop would be this season.

    In his first campaign as an NHL starting goaltender, Bishop soon became the Lightning's most valuable player. Among NHL starting goalies, the 27-year-old is tied for third overall in shutouts (five). He's also fourth in wins (37), seventh in save percentage (.924) and eighth in goals-against average (2.22). Last month, NHL.com's Corey Masisak suggested the 27-year-old could be a Vezina Trophy candidate.

    Thanks to Bishop, the Lightning remained playoff contenders during superstar Steven Stamkos' lengthy absence with a broken leg.

Morgan Rielly, Toronto Maple Leafs

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    This season has turned into a significant disappointment for the Maple Leafs. Their defense corps has borne the brunt of the criticism, giving up a league-leading 35.9 shots against per game. Rielly, however, has largely escaped the flak.

    The 20-year-old Leafs freshman has had a solid debut with 25 assists and 27 points through 71 games. Reilly is tied with Joffrey Lupul for fifth in power-play points (12). He is also fourth in blocks (87).

    Despite the Leafs' frustrating finish to this season, Rielly's promising play should provide fans with a measure of optimism for next season.

Mike Santorelli, Vancouver Canucks

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    A lengthy second-half collapse doomed the Canucks' season. During the first half, however, they were in playoff contention, thanks in part to Santorelli.

    Signed last summer to a one-year, two-way contract, the 28-year-old center was on pace for his best season since his 20-goal, 41-point performance with Florida in 2010-11. By early December, NBC Sports' Jason Brough noted he was the Canucks' fourth-leading scorer with 21 points in 32 games. 

    By January, the Canucks began their long decline, exacerbated by Santorelli's season-ending shoulder injury. Though not the best way to end his season, Santorelli's 28 points in 49 games still ranks sixth among Canucks scorers this season. Those numbers could help him get a new contract with the club. 

Joel Ward, Washington Capitals

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    Ward entered this season considered a hard-working checking-line forward with a decent scoring touch. No one expected he would finish this season among the Capitals' leading scorers.

    Through 79 games this season, the 33-year-old winger has career highs in goals (23) and points (45). He's second on the Capitals in game-winning goals (four), tied with Troy Brouwer for second in goals and is third overall in points.

    In an otherwise disappointing season for the Capitals, Ward has been one of the few positive standouts.

Jacob Trouba, Winnipeg Jets

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    This season has been another disappointing one for the Jets, once again falling out of playoff contention. Trouba, however, has been a pleasant exception. His rookie performance has exceeded expectations, as he quickly became a key part of the Jets defense corps.

    The 20-year-old has 10 goals and 28 points through 63 games this season. If not for an upper-body injury sidelining him for a month earlier this season, those numbers could be higher. He's also third on the Jets in hits (129). He leads all NHL rookies in ice time (22:40), which also ranks fourth overall on the Jets.

    Trouba has the all-around defensive ability to become the cornerstone of the Jets defense corps.

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