Unforeseen Success: The NHL's Most Surprising Players This Season
It happens every season. A player who isn't looked toward to be an offensive threat coming into the new campaign plays well beyond expectations.
Sometimes great play is because the system they are playing under works exceptionally well for them, and other times they could have a connection with a line mate that works in their favour.
Or in the case of more than a few of this season's surprises, they simply step out of the shadows and into the bright lights of the NHL and announce their official arrival.
We know the superstars will always be there, but it's always nice to see a new face making headlines in the league each year, and that is certainly the case at the quarter-mark of the 2009-2010 season.
Here are this season's most surprising players so far.
Alex Goligoski: Pittsburgh Penguins
Just when you thought the life of Alex Goligoski couldn't get any better, it has.
As a member of the Pittsburgh Penguins since 2007, Goligoski has the privilege of playing with two of the league's biggest stars in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
He also was able to play in the team's final two playoff games last season, at the end of which had the privilege of skating around the ice with the Stanley Cup held high, as a champion.
All that and he hadn't even played 50 games in the NHL yet.
He was never looked upon as a major contributor to the Penguins' success, and coming into this season was counted on to simply do what he had done in the past—play solid defense.
But due to a few injuries which gave him the opportunity, and his outstanding play, Goligoski has not only shown he can be a major contributor to the team, but that he can lead them.
Through the first 20 games this season (before his injury which will sideline him up to two weeks) he had six goals and 14 points and was a plus 11. With Sergei Gonchar out he became the quarterback of the power play as well, and turned out to be rather effective offensively, with 28 shots on net.
With the Penguins dealing with an overload of injuries throughout their lineup this season, especially on defense, they needed someone to step up while key players were out. Goligoski has done that, and he won't have to worry about his spot not being there when he returns to full health.
The Penguins can't wait.
Tobias Enstrom: Atlanta Thrashers
Tobias Enstrom was drafted in the eighth round in 2003 (239th overall) and was expected to play the role of an excellent two-way defender who was very steady and confident in his own end.
The 25-year-old began his career as a Thrasher in the 2007-2008 season where he played in all 82 games, scoring five goals and 38 points. He then played all 82 games the next season as well, but his point production dipped slightly, recording only 32 points.
This season he is not only well on his way to playing a full year, but he's looking to shatter his career high in points. Through 19 games he has 14 points (2G, 12A) and is a plus five, which is a difficult thing to do on a team known for its struggles.
He is top-ten in scoring for defenders and has been a welcome surprise to Atlanta, which has been looking for an offensive defenseman for years to help out Ilya Kovalchuk up front.
Not only have the Thrashers played much better than most people predicted so far this season, but Enstrom has shown that he is the real deal on the blue line,
If the team looks to continue its good play Enstrom will be looked upon to continue his—a challenge the Swede will no doubt welcome without a complaint.
Craig Anderson : Colorado Avalanche
Between 2002 and 2008 Craig Anderson played 109 games with the Chicago Blackhawks and the Florida Panthers; he only won 36 of them.
His job was largely that of a backup netminder, but this season in Colorado he was given the chance right from the start to be the number one guy—a role which he has certainly taken advantage of.
Through 21 games this season he has a record of 12-6-5 and has his team fighting for the top spot in the Western Conference. With a GAA of 2.52 and .925 save percentage, Anderson is one of the top goalies statistically this season, something no one could have foreseen before this season began.
With three more wins he will tie his career high of 15. And with the Avalanche looking more and more like a legitimate playoff team, Anderson will no doubt set his win total much higher than that.
The surprising Avs are worthy of being on this list as a whole, since most people had them finishing in the bottom of the Conference, but its surprising players like Anderson who have this team where they are today.
More Avalanche players to come.
Rich Peverley: Atlanta Thrashers
Picked up on waivers from Nashville in the middle of last season, Rich Peverley came to the Atlanta Thrashers looking for a chance to prove that he did belong in the NHL.
So far this season he has not only proven that, but with 23 points (8G, 15A) through the first 18 games, Peverley has shown he can be lethal offensively. His career high in points is 44, which he set last season, and barring injury he should pass that mark in no time.
He has been dangerous around the net all season, and with 39 shots he is giving opposing teams more to worry about than they may have expected coming into the game.
The future is bright for the undrafted 27-year-old who seems to have finally found his place in Atlanta, and if he continues his outstanding play he'll regularly find his place on the opponent's bulletin board before games too.
Matt Moulson: New York Islanders.
It doesn't hurt being the line mate of future superstar John Tavares, but Matt Moulson is taking the opportunity given to him and running with it.
Spending most of the past two seasons in the AHL with the Manchester Monarchs and only being called up for 29 games with the Los Angeles Kings, Moulson never seemed to have much impact during his time in the NHL.
With only 10 points in those 29 games in LA, the Kings didn't feel it necessary to resign the youngster, who was then signed as a free agent by the Islanders in the summer of 2009.
Since arriving in New York he has been nothing short of spectacular, and along with Tavares has shouldered most of the offensive load for the team. He has 10 goals and 18 points in just 22 games and his plus seven rating is among the highest on the team.
If his success with Tavares continues at such a torrid pace the two could be mentioned with some of the league's top duos for years to come.
The two aren't VIP guests of Jay-Z just yet, but if they continue to impress on the ice they'll be the talk of the town, and the faces of the fans will no longer match the description of the Island.
Ryan O'Reilly : Colorado Avalanche
Ryan O'Reilly was taken in the second round (33rd overall) of the this year's draft and was expected to be a solid player in the future for the Colorado Avalanche.
Well, he turned out to be a solid player alright; it just happened to be this season. O'Reilly's play in the preseason led the coaching staff to give him a chance in the regular season after he showed some serious skill.
His play continued throughout the first few weeks of the season and it was quickly evident that O'Reilly already belonged in the NHL. Through 23 games he has four goals and 15 points, with a plus nine rating.
The skill he has shown so far has far exceeded any expectations the Avalanche had for him coming into the season, and if he keeps it up he could be a major part of what the team is hoping to do this season.
Not bad for an 18-year-old who was hardly even on the radar coming into the preseason. Not bad at all.
David Clarkson: New Jersey Devils
Tough guy turned sniper?
Sounds slightly crazy, but the New Jersey Devils could be witnessing it happen first hand with David Clarkson.
Over his first two seasons in the NHL Clarkson amassed over 160 PIM in each, with 183 in 2007-2008. The Devils knew he had a nose for the net but mainly used him for tough guy duties in the beginning of his career.
He did manage to score 17 goals last season, but it's this year that he is proving himself capable of handling more than just the job of a tough guy. He has seven goals and 15 points through the first 21 games, which is almost half his point total last season through 82 games.
It's not every day a team finds a guy who can pad the stats not only in the PIM column, but in the goal column too. His career high in points in a season is 32, and he looks to be well on his way to passing that.
But don't worry all you fighting fans, Clarkson still is mixing it up like his old self. With 37 PIM he's on pace to almost reach that 160 mark.
Same old Clarkson, with a little added touch around the net. The Devils sure aren't complaining.
Dustin Penner: Edmonton Oilers
Things did not go well for Dustin Penner as a member of the Edmonton Oilers last season—and there's an understatement if I’ve ever seen one.
After the big forward signed a five-year, $21.25 million contract following the 2006-2007 season with the Anaheim Ducks, many were shocked that Edmonton would pay so much for a player who had barely proven himself as a legitimate scorer in the league.
Not only did he have to hear about the contract for the next two years, but his coach at the time, Craig MacTavish didn't seem to connect very well with him; okay, so his coach hated his guts.
Penner was repeatedly ridiculed publicly by his coach; from his skill level, to his passion for the game, to his conditioning.
Basically Mac-T called him a fat crybaby, to translate loosely.
Penner heard it all from the disgruntled coach, and felt his wrath too by sitting out many games and seeing his ice time plummet throughout the season.
He ended up with 17 goals and 37 points last season, which only added more stress to his life. But his rival coach was fired, and in came Pat Quinn to give him a second chance.
Well, not only has he taken that second chance, but Penner is running with it—already tallying 13 goals and 25 points through the first 23 games. Well on his way to his best statistical season, and quieting his many critics, Penner's outburst shouldn't be a surprise because of the potential he showed in Anaheim. But after all that he's been through so far in Edmonton, it's shocking this guy hasn't quit by now.
With his nemesis fired and the town back on his side, Penner looks to lead the Oilers on a spirited playoff run.
Somewhere Craig MacTavish is muttering fat jokes under his breath.
David Jones: Colorado Avalanche
Surprise, surprise, another member of the Colorado Avalanche.
Yes, this team is lucky enough to have a third pleasant surprise this season, and this time it's the 288th overall pick from the 2003 draft, David Jones.
Instead of trying to get fancy while explaining why his play is so surprising, I'll just put it in the simplest form possible.
Last season in 40 games, Jones had eight goals and five assists.
This season through 19 games, Jones has eight goals and five assists.
He's also proven to be great in the clutch, scoring two game winning goals, and adding two points while short-handed.
Yes, Jones has come a long way from being a ninth-round pick seven years ago, and the Avalanche are hoping his rapid growth continues to show this season.
Michael Del Zotto: New York Rangers
If you told me that you knew Michael Del Zotto would be in the top ten in defensive scoring this season, while proving to be the best defender on the New York Rangers, you're a liar.
Del Zotto exploded onto the scene this season and through 22 games has four goals and 15 points, while averaging almost 18 minutes of ice time per night.
Sure, the 19-year-old was picked 20th overall in the first-round of this year's draft, and was expected to be a good player on the team; but no one could have expected him to be so good, so fast.
He has shown he can be a force on the ice in all situations, including quarterbacking the team's power play.
It seems the kid has cemented his spot in the lineup, and at the rate he's going the only thing he could find tough this season is listening to his coach, John Tortorella, have a temper tantrum every time something goes wrong.
Smile and nod Michael, smile and nod.