10 Biggest Surprises Early in the 2011-12 NHL Season

Scott WeldonCorrespondent INovember 8, 2011

10 Biggest Surprises Early in the 2011-12 NHL Season

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    The start of the season of any professional sports league tends be a time for surprises. Scheduling quirks, unsettled teams, players and coaches all lend themselves to some unexpected results early in the season.

    Often those surprises even out as the season goes on. By playoff time you are seldom still talking about an early season winning or shutout or scoring streak. Some of those surprises turn out to be a sign of things to come.

    Here is a look at some of the biggest early surprises in this NHL season after the teams have all played at least 12 games to date. How many of these unexpected trends are still noteworthy by year end? Only time will tell.

10. Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Sidney Crosby missed the entire second half of last season and spent the summer recuperating from a concussion. He still is not ready to play almost a fifth of the way into this season. His long term health and ability to return to play in the NHL has to be a worry for the Penguin organization. 

    Meanwhile the other offensive star in Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin missed 39 regular season games and all of the playoffs last season because of a knee injury and eventual surgery.

    Despite performing well now, he has missed seven of 15 games so far this year with knee problems.

    This has to be a worry in both the short and long term for an organization that has over a quarter of its cap space tied up in these two young stars.

    Perhaps it is less of a surprise that a Pittsburgh Penguins team that did so well in the regular season without their two stars last year is currently leading the league with 21 points. I find it confusing at best.     

9. Edmonton Oilers: Best Defensive Team in the League?

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    The Edmonton Oilers have been stockpiling good young talent since their last visit to the playoffs when they shocked the world by making it into the Stanley Cup finals in 2006.

    Since then the Oilers have finished 12th, ninth, 11th, 15th and 15th in the West. The last two seasons they have gotten the first overall pick in the NHL entry draft by virtue of finishing last in the entire league.

    Most observers have expected the Oilers to make a step forward as soon as they managed to put together a critical mass of young talent on the roster. Not too many people were suggesting this might be the year it happens.

    So far this season, first overall pick Ryan Nugent-Hopkins seems to have filled that gap the Oilers have had in the No. 1 center slot. The youngster is tied with veteran returnee Ryan Smyth for the team lead in points.

    People predicting a resurgence by the new look Oilers have been expecting an offensive renaissance similar in nature to what a young Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, Jari Kurri and Glenn Anderson managed back in the early 1980's

    The biggest improvement in Edmonton has been on defense as the Oilers lead the league giving up a mere 1.54 goals against per game.

    An inspired early season performance by 38-year-old goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin is the major reason Edmonton has been as successful and as stingy as they have.       

8. Philadelphia Flyers: The Best Offensive Team in the League?

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    The Philadelphia Flyers on the other hand, finally addressed their biggest organizational concern by signing goalie Ilya Bryzgalov in the offseason. Playing behind a veteran defense in Philly, he was supposed to be even more impressive than he was in Phoenix.

    Meanwhile, the Flyers traded away two of the better two-way centers in the league in Mike Richards and Jeff Carter for Wayne Simmonds, some quality youngsters and draft picks.

    The Flyers were supposed to miss the 59 goals and 136 points Carter and Richards supplied on offense, but make up for it by being much tighter defensively with the veteran Bryzgalov in net.

    Instead Claude Giroux and the Flyers lead the league with 56 goals scored. Their four goals a game tops even the explosive Washington Capitals. Their 3.07 goals against per game is however the seventh worst total in the league.

    Ilya Bryzgalov and Sergei Bobrovsky are currently near the bottom of the NHL with .893 and .883 save percentages respectively. Can this all just be because Chris Pronger is hurt? Or were Richards and Carter so good defensively that the Flyers' defensive game has fallen apart after they left?

    I'm expecting to see more balance in Philadelphia as the season goes on. They certainly don't seem to have lost anything offensively.  

7. Phil Kessel: The NHL's Leading Scorer?

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    Phil Kessel has always been a quality offensive player. His speed and shot have made him dangerous at every level he has played.

    He scored 36 goals and 60 points for the Boston Bruins three seasons ago. Since coming to Toronto, he has produced at that level scoring at least 30 goals in his first two seasons. 

    The general consensus has been that Kessel could possibly take the step up to the next offensive level once he was teamed with a top quality center. 

    That hasn't happened for Phil yet in Toronto, but he seems to be taking that step forward on his own this season. Playing like a man possessed, he has scored 10 goals and 21 points in 14 games so far this year to lead the NHL. 

    It is a bit much to expect Kessel to score at this rate all season long, but the 24-year-old certainly looks like a player ready to be better than he was previously. A 40 or perhaps even 50-goal season doesn't seem out of reach. A point a game seems like a perfectly reasonable goal for Kessel this year. 

    If he stays healthy, will he still be challenging for the Art Ross trophy at the end of the year? Time will tell. 

6. Detroit Red Wings: Just Another Team?

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    Perennial cup contenders the Detroit Red Wings started their season with five straight wins. They followed that up with six straight losses including a 7-1 debacle versus the Washington Capitals. Last Saturday night they had a 5-0 victory over the Anaheim Ducks. 

    Their offense has produced an anemic (22nd in the league) 2.42 goals per game. Defensively they have given up the same number of goals to be ninth in the league. Those numbers are more disturbing when you consider Detroit is taking the most shots on goal in the league and giving up the fewest shots on goal against in the league.  

    Goalie Jimmy Howard has posted some numbers that would be heroic at the end of a season, including a .929 save percentage and a 1.77 goals against average.

    Most of the other Detroit Red Wings statistics have looked ordinary. Team leaders Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterburg have nine and five points so far this year. Datsyuk has scored on 4.8 percent of the shots he has taken and Zetterberg has scored on six percent. 

    Nicklas Lidstrom and Johan Franzen are leading the team in goal scoring with five goals each.

    It is hard to imagine a Detroit Red Wing team being mediocre all season long, especially one that is only giving up 26 shots against per game. Right now though, they look surprisingly ordinary.

5.Anaheim Ducks: Worst Offensive Team in the League?

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    The Anaheim Ducks put up good offensive numbers last year despite missing captain Ryan Getzlaf for a key portion of the season. Their 235 goals scored last year put them 11th in the league. 

    This season they have managed to score 26 goals in 14 games for a league worst 1.86 goals per game. Veteran Teemu Selanne is leading the way for the Ducks with five goals and 14 points. Getzlaf and Perry have eight and nine points respectively. After Bobby Ryan's five goals and six points and Saku Koivu's one goal and five points, there isn't another forward making any offensive contribution.

    They have only managed to score seven goals on 53 power-play opportunities this year. 

    The Ducks' top five forwards are talented. The eldest, Selanne, has been the best to date. No secondary scoring looks to kill them even when Getzlaf and Perry get closer to producing a point a game or more.

    Anaheim may need to call up some talent from Syracuse to get the secondary offense rolling.

    Corey Perry was pretty much a one-man gang when he got rolling last year. Perhaps he, Bobby Ryan and company can do it without any additions. A veteran sixth forward who can score a bit couldn't hurt though.

    It is hard to imagine a team with Perry, Getzlaf, Bobby Ryan, Selanne (who is on fire) and power-play quarterback Lubomir Visnovsky not getting the offense sorted out before year end. It has been slow so far.    

4.Ottawa Senators: One of the Best Power Plays in the League?

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    Last year the Ottawa Senators ran a mediocre power play. They finished with a 17.5 percent success rate to finish 15th in the league.

    They had added offensive defenseman Sergei Gonchar out there and despite injuries he was second on the team with 20 power-play points.

    This season the power play has been great, clicking along at third best in the league at a 25.5 percent success rate. Gonchar and Karlsson are working the points again and are on pace to put up more than 30 power-play points this year, if they stay healthy.

    Milan Michalek and Jason Spezza have been the main forward contributors. If Daniel Alfredsson can return healthy from his concussion it seems like it will only get better.

    Ottawa's offensive talent seems thin this year but they do have enough top quality offensive players to run a very good first line power-play. That may be enough to keep the extra strength goals coming all year.    

3.Toronto Maple Leafs: One of the Best Teams in the League?

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs have gotten off to a great start. For a brief moment they were leading the league for the first time since January of 1994.

    Taking a cue from Phil Kessel, they have started quickly and scored often. Despite their last loss, 7-0 to the Boston Bruins on Saturday night, they are still 9-4-1 so far this season and have scored 45 goals to date, behind only Philadelphia and Washington.

    The general consensus for this season was the Leafs would go as far as James Reimer could carry them this year. Reimer managed to play in only six games this year before getting concussed. He was good before he got hurt, but not spectacular.

    Jonas Gustavsson and Ben Scrivens have had good moments backing up Reimer, but overall have looked worse than ordinary.

    The Leafs have had an explosive offensive start to their season despite the fact that their biggest offseason acquisition, center Tim Connolly, has only played in six games.

    Kessel and Joffrey Lupul are leading the team with 21 and 16 points apiece. Dion Phaneuf is making an offensive contribution so far that is reminiscent of his best years in Calgary. If Connolly can stay healthy and add another offensive component to the mix, you have to believe that will help. 

    Toronto will need to get Reimer or another quality goalie playing for them in order to keep winning. The good news is they have 19 points in the bank already and are not halfway through November.   

2.Nikolai Khabibulin: Best Goalie in the League?

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    There was a time in his career when Nikolai Khabibulin was one of the the best goalies in the NHL. As a 26-year-old in Phoenix, he put up eight shutouts and managed a .923 save percentage and a 2.13 goals against average. He was fifth best in the league that year.

    He moved on to the Tampa Bay Lightning where he backstopped them to a Stanley Cup championship. Somewhere between then and now he stopped being the Bulin Wall and transformed into just another struggling veteran goalie. He had moments of good play but the greatness seemed behind him.

    So far this season however, at age 39, he appears to be going through some sort of Tim Thomas-type renaissance. He has a 6-0-2 record in Edmonton with a crazy .963 save percentage and a .98 goals against average. Last season he posted a miserable 10-32-4 record with an .890 save percentage and a 3.40 GAA. You had to believe his useful NHL life was coming to an end.

    Here he is though, enjoying that Tim Thomas-like start. He is filling another of the big holes that existed in Edmonton last year, the one in nets. If young Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has become the Oilers No. 1 center, then the veteran Nikolai Khabibulin is the Oilers' No. 1 goalie.

    It would be a nice story if he could manage to be that starter for the Oilers and get this young collection of players into the playoffs.    

1. Dallas Stars : Best Team in the West?

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    Dallas missed the playoffs last year. They are a team in search of an owner and have suffered through some miserable early season attendance numbers. They traded away young star James Neal and defenseman Matt Niskanen for power-play quarterback Alex Goligoski. They followed that up by losing first line center Brad Richards to the New York Rangers in free agency.

    Just about everyone except for Brandon Worley apparently felt this signaled a coming decline in Dallas. Instead they are off to a sizzling 10-3 start. Loui Ericksson and Jamie Benn are leading the way with 15 points a piece. Sheldon Souray, rescued from the minors, has responded with 12 points and four goals in 13 games.  

    Kari Lehtonen has been superb again for Dallas in net. His biggest problem in Atlanta was staying healthy. He played in 69 games last year and posted a reasonable .914 save percentage. 

    Among the goalies who have faced at least 200 shots so far this season, he is third in save percentage at .936 and sixth in GAA at 2.14. His 351 saves to date are second only to Nashville's Pekka Rinne who has made 377 while appearing in two more games.

    It's highly unlikely Dallas will maintain this torrid pace for the rest of the year, but they have those 20 points in the bank. It guarantees them nothing, but at least the Stars have taken a huge step towards making the playoffs this season.