The Biggest Surprises from the First Quarter of the 2015-16 NHL Season

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistNovember 22, 2015

The Biggest Surprises from the First Quarter of the 2015-16 NHL Season

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    In mid-October, we examined the biggest early surprises of the NHL's 2015-16 season. With the campaign now at the quarter mark, there continues to be surprising developments. Be it the hot start of the Dallas Stars or several new faces among the scoring leaders, there have been plenty of eyebrow-raising cases.

    Those aren't the only surprises so far. Several teams renowned for their offense are struggling to score. A couple of clubs stacked with young talent are failing to deliver on their promise. A young Russian forward unknown to most NHL fans when the season started is tearing up the rookie-scoring stats. Meanwhile, a recent rule change is creating some headaches.

    Here's a listing of the biggest surprises from the first quarter of this NHL season, providing a brief summary and analysis. Feel free to voice your thoughts in the comments section below.

10. NHL Changing All-Star Format

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    The 2016 NHL All-Star Game will be held in Nashville on Jan. 31, 2016. Usually a glorified, non-contact version of pond hockey, the league recent announced a surprising change for this season's contest. It is scrapping the traditional game format in favor of a three-on-three tournament

    The tournament will consist of three 20-minute three-on-three games, featuring teams of all-stars from the four NHL divisions. Each team will consist of six forwards, three defensemen and two goaltenders. Tied games will be decided via shootout. The tournament-winning team will take home a prize of $1 million.

    To get an idea of what the rosters could look like, NHL.com's staff writers presented a projected list of teams. It's certainly a radical change from the previous format. It caters to the players' skills, as well as their aversion to physical play during these contests. Whether the change excites NHL fans and boosts television ratings for the game remains to be seen.

9. Coach's Challenge Becoming an Issue

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    On June 24, 2015, the NHL Board of Governors approved a request for coaches to have the ability to challenge questionable goals. This rule change allows a coach to issue a challenge via video review of goals scored via possible offside play or goaltender interference.

    Expected to reduce incidents of questionable goals, the change has surprisingly become a potential problem. On Nov 1, Yahoo Sports' Greg Wyshynski observed it's leading to referees making more questionable reversals of goals that otherwise should've counted. He cited several examples where marginal or non-incidental contact with a goalie led to several good goals being overturned.

    Some growing pains with the implementation of a new ruling should be expected. The early concerns, however, are troubling. The NHL general managers discussed the issue during a recent meeting. As per Sportsnet, league deputy commissioner Bill Daly told the Canadian Press the rule will remain in place for the remainder of the season.

8. New York Islanders' Poor Attendances

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    Kathy Kmonicek/Associated Press

    This season is the first for the New York Islanders in their new home at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York. Having relocated from aging Nassau Coliseum, it was anticipated the Islanders would draw better crowds in a modern arena closer to New York City. However, Newsday's Neil Best reported the Isles had the NHL's second-lowest attendance after 11 home games.

    With the Islanders among the top teams in the Eastern Conference, performance certainly isn't behind the poor turnout. Best cites several reasons behind the problem. Marketing the team to new fans in their new location is one notable issue. Another is drawing existing fans from Long Island, as well as playing in a venue built for basketball.

    Over time, the Islanders should draw more fans to Barclays Center. As a playoff contender, those numbers could increase the closer they get to the postseason. For now, however, it's apparent the Isles have work to do to fill the seats in their new venue.

7. Blue Jackets, Ducks and Flames Still Struggling

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    Joe Skipper/Associated Press

    Considered a Stanley Cup contender, the Anaheim Ducks stumbled from the gate. By late October, they were near the bottom of the Western Conference standings. They won six of 11 games in November to move within striking distance of a playoff spot. However, their anemic scoring remains a serious issue. They're currently among the league's lowest-scoring teams

    The Calgary Flames entered this season hoping to build upon last term's surprising run to the playoffs. Despite winning five of their last nine games in November, they remain mired near the bottom of the Pacific Division. The combination of poor goaltending, sloppy defensive play and a struggling offense puts the Flames' postseason hopes in jeopardy. 

    It was expected the Columbus Blue Jackets would compete for a playoff berth this season. However, they dug an early-season hole by dropping their first eight games. That skid led to John Tortorella replacing Todd Richards as head coach. Despite winning eight of their first 14 games under Tortorella, they're still close to the Eastern Conference basement. They'll need a more sustained effort if they hope to salvage their season.

6. Artemi Panarin Leads Rookie Scorers

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    Entering this season, top prospects such as Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid and Buffalo Sabres pivot Jack Eichel were the subjects of fan and media attention. Few paid much notice to winger Artemi Panarin, who joined the Chicago Blackhawks from Russia as a free agent in the summer. 

    At this season's quarter mark, the 24-year-old Panarin leads all NHL rookies in assists (14), points (21) and power-play points (five). He's also among the Blackhawks' scoring leaders and one of the league's top 10 scorers. Panarin and linemate Patrick Kane give the Blackhawks a lethal scoring punch.

    Granted, Panarin has several seasons of professional hockey in Russia under his belt. He also won't have to fend off McDavid (broken clavicle) for the rookie scoring title. Still, he's adapted quickly to the NHL and become a valuable member of the Blackhawks attack. Panarin is the early favorite to win the Calder Memorial Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.

5. New Names Among the League's Leading Scorers

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    Familiar names such as Chicago Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane and Dallas Stars captain Jamie Benn are among the NHL's leading scorers at the season's quarter mark. Several new faces, such as Stars defenseman John Klingberg, have surprisingly risen to the fore. 

    In his sophomore season, the 23-year-old Klingberg is tied for the scoring lead among defensemen and also sits among the league leaders in points. Other first-time notables in the top 15 include Blackhawks rookie winger Panarin, New York Rangers winger Mats Zuccarello, Winnipeg Jets winger Blake Wheeler and Colorado Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon.

    It remains to be seen whether they can remain among this season's leading scorers, but Klingberg, Parnarin and MacKinnon have a good chance to do so. Klingberg's teammates include superstars such as Benn and Tyler Seguin, while Panarin is skating alongside Kane in Chicago. MacKinnon, the 2014 NHL rookie of the year, appears to be realising his superstar potential.

4. Notable Names Popping Up Early in Trade Rumors

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    It's not unusual to read or hear of a notable NHL player popping up in early-season trade speculation. This season, however, a surprisingly high number of stars have surfaced in the rumor mill.

    Since mid-October, San Jose Sharks winger Patrick Marleau, Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos and Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara have been mentioned in trade chatter. Other notables include Colorado Avalanche center Matt Duchene and Columbus Blue Jackets center Ryan Johansen. 

    While those players certainly put more buzz into the NHL rumor mill, it's unlikely any of them will be moved. Most, if not all, probably aren't available. Besides, their expensive contracts and the limited number of teams with the required salary-cap space make moving them almost impossible during the season.

3. The Lightning's Offensive Woes

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    Mike Carlson/Getty Images

    A key factor in the Tampa Bay Lightning's success last season was their offensive production. Their 3.16 goals-per-game average was top in the league. This season, however, the Lightning sit 21st in that category, averaging only 2.41 goals per game. 

    Production is down among most of their best scorers. Center Tyler Johnson is on track for just 41 points. The projected totals for linemates Nikita Kucherov (48 points) and Ondrej Palat (32 points) are well below last season's numbers. The same goes for forward Valtteri Filppula (33 points) and winger Ryan Callahan (26 points).

    Perhaps the Lightning scorers still feel the wearing effects of last season's long march to the Stanley Cup Final. Rival clubs also seem better prepared this season for their speedy offensive attack. A lower-body injury to Palat is also a contributing factor. Whatever the reason, the Lightning's anemic offense is certainly a big surprise.

2. The Sizzling Dallas Stars

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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    In 2014-15, the Dallas Stars finished out of the Western Conference playoff picture with 92 points. This season, however, they're among the NHL's best teams at the schedule's quarter mark. With 34 points in 21 games, the Stars were perched atop the Western Conference standings and lead the league in the overall standings.

    While the Stars were expected to improve this season, few foresaw this strong start. One reason is that top-line forwards Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin are once again among the league's top scorers. Offseason additions such as winger Patrick Sharp, defenseman Johnny Oduya and goalie Antti Niemi are also contributing. Another factor is the ongoing development of rising talents such as John Klingberg. 

    The young Stars are still going through some growing pains. Their penalty kill is among the league's worst. While the defense has improved, they're still giving up 30 shots per game. Still, the Stars are signaling to the rest of the league they're a force to be reckoned with in 2015-16.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins' Popgun Offense

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Once among the highest-scoring teams in the NHL, the Pittsburgh Penguins are struggling to put pucks in the net this season. Despite the presence of offensive superstars such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, the Penguins sit 26th in goals per game and 23rd in power-play percentage.

    Of the Penguins' scoring stars, only Malkin is near the league's top 30. Kessel in on pace for 28 goals and 56 points. Winger Patric Hornqvist is on track for his lowest points total over a full season. The most troubling numbers, however, belong to Crosby. Coming off an 84-point campaign, he's currently projected to tally a career-worst 44 points in 82 games.

    The Penguins offense has been trending downward since 2014-15, which was also head coach Mike Johnston's first season behind the bench. While they're currently holding a playoff berth, there's no guarantee they can retain it with a popgun offense. If that production doesn't pick up, Johnston could lose his job.

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