Ranking the NHL's 5 Biggest Surprises Halfway Through the 2021-22 Season

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistJanuary 24, 2022

Ranking the NHL's 5 Biggest Surprises Halfway Through the 2021-22 Season

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    Seventeen of 32 NHL teams have reached the halfway point or beyond.

    And the other 15 are within a few games of getting there.

    So it seemed a good time for the B/R hockey writers to get together to discuss the season's first half and, more specifically, what's surprised us the most—individuals or teams, good or bad—through three months.

    We whittled the ideas down to a manageable number and ranked them from Nos. 5 to 1, presenting them here for your perusal while inviting feedback in the comments section.

    Drop the puck.

5. Veteran Coaching Extremes

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    Rewind back to the season's start.

    Bruce Boudreau was 18 months past being fired from his position as coach of the Minnesota Wild and was working as an analyst for the NHL Network, and Paul Maurice was coming off a fourth consecutive playoff berth behind the bench with the Winnipeg Jets.

    Three months later, it's a whole new world.

    Now 67, Boudreau returned to the ranks to rescue the foundering Vancouver Canucks after they had won just eight times in their first 25 games. The team has responded to the tune of a 10-3-2 in his first 15 games and climbed within five points of a Western Conference playoff berth entering Sunday's games.

    Maurice, meanwhile, led the Jets to a moderately competitive 13-11-5 mark through 29 games before abruptly resigning eight days before Christmas while suggesting the team needed a new voice.

    He was replaced by assistant Dave Lowry, who's gone 4-3-1 in eight games.

    "I didn't enjoy it. And that's the very first time I could say I didn't enjoy coming to the rink," he said. "I thought that maybe it was all of what was going on. If you lose some of that passion for the game, you can still be good, but you can't be as good as you should be. That's how I feel I am."

4. Ascension in Anaheim

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    It's been a while for the Anaheim Ducks.

    A five-season run atop the Pacific Division ended following a run to the Western Conference final in 2016-17 and has led to a plunge in which they have not won another playoff game, missed the postseason three times in four years and dipped from 24th to 27th to 30th overall in the last three seasons.

    In fact, only the Buffalo Sabres were behind them in the standings in 2020-21.

    But it's gotten better this time around.

    Led by third-year coach Dallas Eakins, the Ducks have stayed relevant through the first half, as evidenced by a 20-16-7 record and second-place standing in the Pacific heading into Sunday. They trail the Vegas Golden Knights by three points for the division lead and are five points ahead of the non-playoff pack.

    The Ducks were 31st in per-game scoring in a 31-team league last season, averaging just 2.21 goals.

    They were third-from-last in 2019-20 and also last in 2018-19, but the Ducks have jumped better than a half-goal per game thus far in 2021-22, led by All-Star Troy Terry's career-best 22 goals and Calder Trophy candidate Trevor Zegras' 10 goals and 29 points through 37 games.

3. Canadiens Catastrophe

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    The Montreal Canadiens were three games away.

    After a stirring rally to defeat the archrival Toronto Maple Leafs and subsequent playoff series wins over Winnipeg and Vegas, interim coach Dominique Ducharme and his team were able to win one game in the Stanley Cup Final against the eventual repeat champion Tampa Bay Lightning.

    So it's no stretch, even with injuries and a divisional realignment, to suggest that hopes were at least moderately high as the 2021-22 schedule opened.

    The results? Uh, not so much.

    Stalwart defenseman and team captain Shea Weber was sidelined for the season before the games even began, and former Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Carey Price underwent knee surgery in the offseason and announced in early October that he would enter the league's player assistance program to deal with his mental health

    Price has still not returned to game play, leaving the netminding duties to the dubious trio of Jake Allen (5 wins, 16 losses, 2 OT losses, 3.15 goals-against average), Sam Montembeault (2-6-4, 3.73) and Cayden Primeau (1-3-1, 3.84). 

    The Canadiens have also averaged the fewest goals per game (2.18) in the league through Saturday, adding to a confluence of events that prompted the firing of general manager Marc Bergevin in November. He was replaced by former player agent Kent Hughes earlier this month.

    "We have challenges. There's no question," Hughes said. "The team's not where we had hoped it would be, or the Canadiens had hoped it would be, at this point in time. My opinion is, some of that is circumstance. But there's no question that there need to be changes."

2. Edmonton's Implosion

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    Regardless of what you thought of the team going in, this one has been big.

    Lest any blue-and-orange-clad fan forget, the Edmonton Oilers defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins on December 2 to improve to 16-5 overall, the league's best points percentage at the time.

    Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl were producing points at video game rates, the patchwork goaltending duo of Mikko Koskinen and Stuart Skinner was holding its own in the absence of Mike Smith and particularly fervent supporters were no doubt researching parade routes in northern Alberta's biggest city.

    Since then, though, it's been dreadful.

    The Oilers proceeded to lose their next six games after the Pittsburgh win while watching a roster full of players miss time because of injuries or COVID-19 protocols, or in some cases both.

    And the goaltending? Yuck.

    A Saturday night win over the Calgary Flames ended another winless skid and at least temporarily took the heat off coach Dave Tippett and GM Ken Holland, though in reality it only improved the team's post-Penguins mark to 3-11-2 as it sits in a sixth-place tie in the Pacific Division—four points out of the playoffs.

    It's left the media sessions combative and the cliches flowing.

    "We're a team," said forward Warren Foegele, acquired in an offseason trade with the Carolina Hurricanes. "We're here to win, and you just can't be pointing fingers, saying, 'It's that guy's fault.' Or 'It's that guy's fault.' It doesn't work like that. That's not how you win."

1. The Return of Nazem Kadri

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    Here's a point no one will argue: Nazem Kadri is not the league's most popular player.

    His disciplinary record rivals that of nearly any NHL player, and most recently there was an eight-game suspension for an illegal hit that rendered him absent from Colorado's second-round playoff exit last spring.

    So if it's a list of best-behaved players, he's rightfully excluded.

    But there's something else that's true too.

    He's been one of the league's most prolific offensive talents through the first half of 2021-22, and it's particularly impressive given that he'd plunged to 11 goals and 32 points in 56 games last season—his lowest totals of any season as an NHL regular.

    In 36 games this season, Kadri has established himself as a point-per-game player, racking up 15 goals and 36 assists while taking the top scoring spot on the NHL's highest-scoring team (4.15 goals per game).

    He earned a Last Man In ticket to the All-Star Game thanks to a fan vote.

    It's his first All-Star nod and one his coach thinks was certainly worthwhile.

    "It's a career year," coach Jared Bednar said. "It's a remarkable year, to this point."

    "So, you look at his numbers, you look [at] what he's doing for our team, helping us get to where we are in the standings, and I believe he deserves to be in."