The 10 Most Surprising Players of the 2011-12 NHL Season
We are nearly one-quarter of the way through the 2011-12 NHL season, and not everything has gone as expected.
The Dallas Stars are in first place in the Pacific division, the Minnesota Wild sit atop the Northwest Division and the Nashville Predators actually decided to pay a star player without being forced into it by an arbitrator.
Then again, how much fun would hockey really be if there were no surprises? It’s the reason we watch in the first place and the reason the games are played on ice and not on paper.
There are always some surprising teams and players every season. With that being said, let’s take a look at the top players that we didn’t expect to be lighting it up so far this season:
Marc-Andre Bergeron: Tampa Bay Lightning
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This journeyman from Trois-Rivieres, Quebec is currently tied for second in scoring among defencemen with Alex Edler and Kris Letang (as of Wednesday afternoon).
Not only that, but Bergeron has also shown that he can be much more reliable in his own zone as he’s averaging 20 minutes per game and has picked up a lot of the slack in place of the injured Mattias Ohlund and Victor Hedman.
This is particularly surprising because Bergeron has gained a reputation for being one of those ironic defencemen who isn't very strong defensively. It’s because of this that his increased responsibility with the Lightning along with his plus-minus rating of plus-five on a team with a minus-seven goal differential might be even more surprising than his 16 points in 17 games.
Kris Versteeg: Florida Panthers
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Kris Versteeg has always had talent, but he’s never had the stats to prove it at the NHL level.
To date, Versteeg’s best season in the NHL was his rookie season when he notched 53 points. That’s pretty solid, but ever since then his numbers have declined. That is, until this season.
Maybe it’s because he’s getting more ice time on a new team, but Versteeg already has 20 points in the first 17 games and is a whopping plus-11. He’s been the most pleasant surprise on the Florida Panthers, who have also gotten off to a surprising 9-5-3 start.
Craig Smith: Nashville Predators
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Just over a month ago, I put together a list of the top 10 dark horse rookies who could challenge for the Calder trophy. The intent was to put more focus on the young prospects that weren’t high draft picks and weren’t being talked about. Craig Smith was one of those players.
Some 17 games later and Smith has 14 points and is being talked about around the league. Not bad for a fourth-round draft pick that had never played a game of professional hockey coming into this season.
The Predators will need him to keep up his torrid scoring pace as they’re very thin up front and need all the help they can get scoring goals.
Matt Read: Philadelphia Flyers
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Read is another of my dark horse rookies who has made quite the impression early on in his inaugural NHL season.
The undrafted 25-year-old has surprised everyone with five goals and five assists already in his first 14 games. Even in terms of the rookies on his own team, Read likely got very little attention in the preseason due to the presence of Brayden Schenn.
He has proven to everyone that he’s not only a legitimate NHL talent, but that he can also rack up the points with some of the leagues' better scorers.
Jhonas Enroth: Buffalo Sabres
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Just how good has the Sabres back-up goaltender been so far this season?
He has an undefeated 6-0 record, a 1.76 goals against average and a .942 save percentage. In fact, Enroth has played so well that many fans in Buffalo have been pumping his tires to take over the No. 1 position ahead of Ryan Miller.
Well, he’s going to get his chance to do just that, although it doesn’t have anything to do with his hot play. Miller has a concussion thanks to Milan Lucic and will be out of action for the foreseeable future, so the Sabres have no choice but to roll with Enroth until Miller returns.
Then again, this might be a blessing in disguise for the Sabres considering Enroth’s stats.
Brian Elliott: St. Louis Blues
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Speaking of surprising goaltenders, Brian Elliott appears to have stolen the No. 1 netminder position away from Jaroslav Halak in St. Louis for the time being.
Elliott has a 7-1 record on a very average Blues team and has posted a 1.43 goals against average along with a .947 save percentage as well. He has been one of the few bright spots on a team that hasn’t quite lived up to expectations so far and has already fired their coach.
Aaron Rome: Vancouver Canucks
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Last season Aaron Rome recorded five points in 56 games. This season he has five points in four games. In fact, Rome’s three goals in those four games are more goals then he’s scored in his previous 131 career NHL games.
That pretty much tells the entire story for Rome this season. What he’s done is nothing short of amazing. Even though it’s only been four games since he returned to action from a preseason injury, Canucks fans already have a #vote4Rome campaign going on Twitter.
Well done Aaron!
Sheldon Souray: Dallas Stars
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While Aaron Rome is discovering his scoring touch for the first time in his career, Sheldon Souray is rediscovering his magic at the NHL level with the Dallas Stars.
Souray has 13 points in 17 games for the Stars, which is remarkable considering most people had written off the 35-year-old after his disastrous tenure with the Edmonton Oilers organization.
You can call it a pleasant surprise or you can call it a comeback story. Either way, Sheldon Souray is back and he’s a force to be reckoned with once again on the blue line.
Jaromir Jagr: Philadelphia Flyers
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It was hard to predict how Jaromir Jagr would do after being out of the NHL for three years. He has a tremendous amount of talent and hockey intelligence, but he’s also 39 years old and needed to adjust to playing hockey at the highest level again.
Well, apparently that adjustment period didn’t last very long because Jagr appears to be as good as ever for the Flyers early in the season. He’s averaging a point per game and is creating the same magical plays he created many years ago.
Jagr has proven that he’s still a top-line forward in the NHL and he’s been deadly on the power play as well. Not only that, but he’s even doing his patented salute again.
Welcome back Jaromir!
Nikolai Khabibulin: Edmonton Oilers
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Nikolai Khabibulin is last but certainly not least on this list because he is the biggest surprise of them all.
The Bulin Wall was anything but a wall last season for the Oilers, as he had the most losses in the league (47) and the highest goals against average of any goaltender that played in more than 30 games (3.40).
No one could have predicted a bounce-back season like this from the 38-year-old who spent time in jail and on house arrest over the summer for impaired driving charges. Nevertheless, Khabibulin has improved his GAA to 1.52 and has a .945 save percentage in his first 11 starts of the 2011-12 season.
He is the main reason why the Oilers got off to a hot start this season, and they’re hoping to ride the hot play of their goaltender to their first playoff appearance since 2006.
For an in depth look at Khabibulin’s resurgence, click here.
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