Ranking the 10 Most Surprising Players in the 2015-16 NHL Season

Allan Mitchell@@Lowetide_Featured ColumnistMarch 20, 2016

Ranking the 10 Most Surprising Players in the 2015-16 NHL Season

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    Every year, experts make their prognostications about NHL teams and players, and every year the hockey gods spend the winter making those experts look foolish.

    This season was especially noticeable, as some of the biggest surprises were not projected to play a major role—or any role—for their team. Some of these players—like Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere—may be up for major awards at the end of the season after receiving no acclaim leading into the year.

    Here are the top 10 surprises for 2015-16 and an attempt to—successfully—project their future.

10. Thomas Greiss, G, New York Islanders

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    Bryan R. Smith/Associated Press

    The Expectation: Thomas Greiss of the New York Islanders was an important offseason addition for general manager Garth Snow. As this New York Post article from Brett Cyrgalis in July 2015 indicated, Snow considered getting Greiss signed as a high priority. He was expected to back up starter Jaroslav Halak and serve as injury insurance. 

    The Season: Greiss has played almost as much as Halak and has been brilliant when called up. His performances in February and March have been key in the Islanders' effort to secure a high playoff seeding.

    The Future: The Islanders signed Greiss to a two-way deal last summer, and he may have found a new home. Goaltending is wildly unpredictable from season to season—or at least is seems so—but Greiss has been reasonably consistent over a number of years. A lot may depend on his performance this spring—as this Toronto Star article reported March 9, starter Jaroslav Halak is going to be out for awhile with injury.

9. Josh Manson, D, Anaheim Ducks

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    Christine Cotter/Associated Press

    The Expectation: Josh Manson of the Anaheim Ducks entered the season as one of many prospects who were trying to get a foothold in the NHL. He is playing in an organization with a stunning number of emerging talents at his position, and because of it, nothing was guaranteed to him. 

    The Season: In his 28-game NHL audition in 2014-15, Manson showed he could be a solid possession player. This year, he and new partner Hampus Lindholm are enjoying tremendous success as a pairing. Although he is not delivering a lot of offense, and plays less than 19 minutes a night, Manson is flourishing in the role.

    The Future: The Ducks have so many good young defenders it will be impossible to keep them all. The 2017 NHL expansion—should it happen—threatens to pluck one or two from the depth chart in a little over one year from now. Manson, despite limited offense, is emerging as a keeper on a team with many options for the position.

8. Rasmus Ristolainen, D, Buffalo Sabres

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    The Expectation: Rasmus Ristolainen of the Buffalo Sabres was expected to continue the process of learning to play NHL defense. He was 112 games into his career and had the look of a promising two-way defender who could be used in all situations. 

    The Season: Ristolainen has blossomed into a brilliant young player, who is being utilized over 25 minutes a night by coach Dan Bylsma. He is effective at even strength, strong on the power play and has managed to become a reliable defender at a very young age.

    The Future: He will double his point total over last season and create a new level of expectation. Defense is a difficult position to learn, and the fact he is so capable at age 21 bodes well for Ristolainen's future. The next step is to improve his possession numbers, but that is something the entire team can count as a weakness.

7. Kyle Palmieri, RW, New Jersey Devils

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    The Expectation: Kyle Palmieri was part of an active New Jersey Devils procurement period in the summer of 2015. Although he cost two draft picks, it appeared to be a decent bet after he scored 14 goals with the Anaheim Ducks in 2014-15. No guarantees, but he would get a chance to play a lot. The resume suggested enough skill to play in the NHL as a productive regular. 

    The Season: Palmieri delivered right away, scoring in his third game of the season. By the end of December, he had 15 goals and continues to be a leading performer for the Devils. 

    The Future: He found some chemistry with Travis Zajac. The line has auditioned various third men for the line over the year. New Jersey found a very productive player at the draft for only draft picks last season; maybe they can do the same thing this June. Palmieri is an unrestricted free agent and should see a handsome salary increase.

6. Colton Parayko, D, St. Louis Blues

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    Billy Hurst/Associated Press

    The Expectation: Colton Parayko of the St. Louis Blues was in the mix for NHL employment some time during the 2015-16 season. A training camp article from Jeremy Rutherford of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch mentioned a fine early performance and an encouraging quote from Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock. 

    The Season: Parayko surprised everyone with his preseason performance, made the team out of camp and scored two goals in his third NHL game. He ranks second in rookie scoring among defensemen and plays 19 minutes a night—all of this after only 17 AHL games at the end of 2014-15.

    The Future: The St. Louis defense is outstanding—but very expensive—and Parayko's emergence could allow the Blues to trade off one of their expensive pieces to add in other areas. The right-side defense currently houses Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk and Parayko, making for some interesting possibilities this summer.

5. Leon Draisaitl, C, Edmonton Oilers

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    The Expectation: Leon Draisaitl of the Edmonton Oilers made the big club in 2014-15, but he had little to show for it at midseason when he returned to junior. This season's expectation was a strong start to his AHL season, perhaps a recall at some point and a prolonged audition if things worked out. 

    The Season: Things started as predicted, with Draisaitl toiling in the minors. A late-October recall due to injuries allowed him into the lineup, and the young German center ripped it up. He had 31 points by January 1 and hasn't looked back all season.

    The Future: Oilers coach Todd McLellan has had success playing him with Taylor Hall as an offensive duo, and that is likely to continue. He is a big man with terrific passing skills, a great deal of creativity and solid finishing ability. It looks as though that rookie audition in 2014-15 was an outlier, and the Oilers have a very good young center.

4. Brad Marchand, LW, Boston Bruins

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The Expectation: Brad Marchand of the Boston Bruins is an established player, so expectations for each season are clear. Boston needed him to play his agitating game, score 25 goals and stay out of the penalty box. 

    The Season: Marchand passed 25 goals awhile ago and passed 30 goals, too. His spike in scoring—previous career high was 28 in 2011-12—came at a good time with the team in transition from the Milan Lucic and Dougie Hamilton trades. 

    The Future: There is some evidence Marchand is enjoying some good luck, as his power-play total has increased from two a year ago to six this season. He played 76 power-play minutes with nine shots in 2014-15; that increased to 94 minutes and 13 shots this year. It doesn't fully explain the increase in goals, but it does suggest expecting 35 goals a season from Marchand may be unrealistic.

3. Artemi Panarin, LW, Chicago Blackhawks

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The Expectation: Artemi Panarin of the Chicago Blackhawks was expected to contend for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2015-16. Luke Fox of Sportsnet ranked him No. 5 on his concise preseason look, listing the Vegas odds at 14-1. 

    The Season: The Blackhawks put Panarin in a good spot—he has played most with Patrick Kane and Artem Anisimov—but his performance has been outstanding. He ranks second in team scoring and is blowing away the competition in rookie points. 

    The Future: All signs are positive for Panarin and the Blackhawks. The young Russian has found a home and Chicago has a ridiculous value contract even with the bonus money. There were expectations of this player, and he exceeded them by so much, there was no doubt he would make this list.

2. Shayne Gostisbehere, D, Philadelphia Flyers

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The Expectation: Shayne Gostisbehere of the Philadelphia Flyers was expected to push for an NHL job in the fall and likely fail to make the grade. Randy Miller of NJ.com wrote about the situation in training camp, with Gostisbehere confessing he knew what he was up against at camp.

    The Season: The Flyers began their season October 8, with Gostisbehere not arriving until November 14. While he was playing well in the minors, Philadelphia was floundering and trying to figure out their cap nightmare. Since he arrived in the NHL, Gostisbehere has scorched opponents and had a major impact on the season. He could be a finalist for the Calder Trophy and would be full value for the honor.

    The Future: Sometimes players go in the third round because they are under-scouted or because they emerge after draft day. In Gostisbehere's case, it is probably a bit of both, but it doesn't matter now. He is a bona fide offensive defenseman and an impact rookie. We should expect a similar performance—barring injury—next year and in the years to come.

1. Evgeny Kuznetsov, C, Washington Capitals

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    The Expectation: Evgeny Kuznetsov of the Washington Capitals had a solid rookie year, playing a full season, 13 minutes a night, and scoring 37 points in 80 games. An improvement in overall production would have been the expectation for this year. 

    The Season: Kuznetsov has blossomed this season, scoring over a point per game and leading the Capitals in points. Even more impressive: He is doing it without Alexander Ovechkin—less than 30 percent of his even-strength time-on-ice is with him this year. 

    The Future: He was a highly touted prospect, chosen in the first round in 2010. Kuznetsov is 23, and his KHL scoring records suggested he would be a quality offensive player. The spike in offensive performance is impressive, but we should not regard it as an anomaly.


    Stats are courtesy of Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com and salary-cap info via NHL Numbers.