Every NHL Team's Most Surprising Player During the 2021-22 Season

Franklin Steele@SteeleOnIceFeatured Columnist IIIApril 23, 2022

Every NHL Team's Most Surprising Player During the 2021-22 Season

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    An NHL player can be surprising in a handful of ways. Try as we might, the game isn't played on a computer or spreadsheet. It's played by real human beings out on the ice, chock full of emotions, motivations and complications.

    We've attempted to identify each NHL team's most surprising player. There's enough negativity floating around on the interwebs these days, so instead of focusing on both the good and the bad, the choice was made to identify the most positive revelation for each organization.

    That turned out to make this exercise a bit more difficult for some teams than others, but in general, this is a list of 32 feel-good(ish) stories from around the league.

Anaheim Ducks: Troy Terry

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    The hope for Troy Terry entering the season was that he'd find his confidence and settle into a role as a steady two-way, top-six forward for the Anaheim Ducks. He'd appeared in 129 games across four seasons prior to 2021-22, scoring 15 goals and 48 points.

    There was virtually no indication that a breakout was coming in Terry's age-24 campaign, and preseason chatter centered on him establishing a reliable 200-foot game. The 2015 fifth-round pick upped the ante considerably, setting a career high in goals by his 12th contest while settling in on a line alongside captain Ryan Getzlaf and Adam Henrique.

    That trio has arguably been Anaheim's best, most consistent line all year—at least through the lens of expected goals for percentage—and Terry has run away with the title of the Ducks' most surprising player.

    Trevor Zegras has been electric, but the 2019 first-rounder has the draft pedigree to back up his on-ice production. Terry, entering his second year as a consistent NHLer wasn't expected to push 40 goals, but that's exactly what he's done with 36.

    His shooting percentage is around 11 points higher this season than it had been throughout his career, so there's room for regression. Still, Terry has been fantastic and figures to be a large part of the organization's future as it gears up for a lengthy rebuild.

Arizona Coyotes: Shayne Gostisbehere

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    When the Philadelphia Flyers restructured their defensive core last summer in hopes of pushing for a playoff spot, Shayne Gostisbehere was deemed expendable. So much so that the Arizona Coyotes didn't have to give up much to acquire the blueliner.

    Philadelphia needed to shed salary to add Rasmus Ristolainen, and it did so by shipping Ghost and his $4.5 million cap hit to the desert. Expectations were low for Gostisbehere, three years removed from a campaign that saw him post 65 points in 78 games while finishing 10th in Norris Trophy voting.

    He battled various injuries with the Flyers and even spent time as a healthy scratch in 2019-20. Gostisbehere has left those problems behind him, though, breaking the 40-point barrier for the first time since 2017-18. He's been an elite point producer for Arizona, which has been a pleasant surprise considering he was a salary dump that required draft picks as sweeteners to absorb.

    Gostisbehere could finish the season as one of the 20 most productive blueliners in the NHL from a raw point-production standpoint. For a Coyotes team that is mostly void of talent on the back end, he's been an important part of their attack all season.

Boston Bruins: Jeremy Swayman

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    Given that most Boston Bruins have met expectations, there wasn't an obvious candidate.

    Not everyone has been caught off guard by 23-year-old rookie netminder Jeremy Swayman's emergence as a potential playoff starter in Boston. He was a Calder Trophy sleeper pick last offseason, and some pundits thought the goalie had a path to win the award. His play in March had some folks wondering if he'd put himself back on the Calder radar too.

    That isn't going to happen—not with Zegras doing Zegras things, and Moritz Seider establishing himself as an impactful No. 1 defenseman as a freshman. But the fact that Swayman has received that kind of buzz at all this season is an encouraging sign.

    He's handled some adversity, including getting demoted to the AHL when Tuukka Rask attempted his comeback. Yet he's stood strong throughout and is giving the Bruins a lot to think about when it comes to who will start in Game 1 of the first round in a few weeks.

Buffalo Sabres: Alex Tuch

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    The Buffalo Sabres have a few deserving candidates. We'd hear arguments for Tage Thompson, who is having a breakout campaign, or Jeff Skinner, who is earning at least half of his $9 million salary this season.

    Yet there's something special about what Alex Tuch has done since arriving in the Jack Eichel trade.

    Conventional wisdom holds that whenever you trade a star player, you lose the swap. It'll be a long time before we can declare a clear-cut winner there, but the early returns on Tuch, who wasn't the principal piece coming back from Vegas for Eichel, have been fantastic.

    The Syracuse, New York native grew up cheering for the Sabres, and the 25-year-old's the kind of player rebuilding organizations benefit from. He's got 12 goals and 37 points in 47 games, which, across a whole season, would have put him on pace to push his career-high of 52... in significantly fewer games played.

    He wants to be in Buffalo. He wants to be a part of the process—unlike the player he was traded for.

    As the Sabres continue to evolve, Tuch figures to be a big part of the proceedings. After failing to stick with the Minnesota Wild and skating bottom-six minutes for most of his time in Vegas, the 2014 first-round pick seems to be putting the pieces together.

Calgary Flames: Andrew Mangiapane

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    The Calgary Flames' shocking ascent to the top of the Pacific Division has happened for a handful of reasons, not the least of which has been the emergence of Andrew Mangiapane as a goal-scoring, line-driving machine. Using expected goals percentage as a proxy for two-way success, the forward has been on one of the NHL's top lines all season alongside Mikael Backlund and Blake Coleman.

    For context, their expected goals for percentage has been nearly as good as that of Boston's vaunted Perfection Line.

    Mangiapane was a steady depth contributor over the last two seasons, scoring 35 times in 124 contests. He's reached a new level during his age-25 campaign, though, matching his previous career high in goals by Calgary's 29th game and continuing to pile on since.

    There have been some droughts here and there, but that doesn't matter as much because Mangiapane has really established himself as a reliable two-way presence. He rounds out a top six that'll be difficult to contend with come playoff time, and MoneyPuck deems Calgary the Stanley Cup favorite for a reason.

Carolina Hurricanes: Frederik Andersen

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    Last season, the Carolina Hurricanes iced a pretty outstanding netminder duo in Alex Nedeljkovic and James Reimer. The former finished third in Calder Trophy voting, while the latter won 15 of his 21 starts. The organization rewarded the duo by...allowing them to walk in free agency, signing Frederik Andersen away from the Toronto Maple Leafs instead of re-signing then RFA Nedeljkovic.

    The move was seen as a gamble by the Hurricanes, who entered the campaign with some Stanley Cup hopes of their own. Our own Lyle Fitzsimmons graded Carolina's offseason with a "D" grade, and he was far from the only one who questioned general manager Don Waddell's moves.

    All Andersen has done for the Hurricanes is cement himself as one of the top goalies of the 2021-22 season, arguably becoming the team's most important player en route to a Vezina Trophy-caliber season. It's more than fair to cite that as a surprise, given how much offseason heat Carolina caught for their goaltending shuffle.

    Andersen has the second-best goals saved against expected in the NHL this season, trailing only Igor Shesterkin in that stat. He's also supplied Carolina with tremendous value, playing at nearly a $7 million level instead of the $4.5 AAV he's hitting the cap for this year.

Chicago Blackhawks: Dylan Strome

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    It's difficult to find any sort of silver lining for the Chicago Blackhawks. The organization desperately wanted to take one more run at the Stanley Cup with a core led by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, mortgaging its future to do so.

    That hasn't worked out, and Chicago probably won't even have its own first-round pick as compensation for this hellacious campaign due to the Seth Jones trade.

    Dylan Strome's emergence as a top-six center has been an unforeseen development in the Windy City, however. Former head coach Jeremy Colliton wasn't a fan of the former third overall pick. At one point, Strome was scratched in four consecutive contests, eliciting Ben Pope of the Chicago Sun-Times to write that the team was being "unfair" to the forward.

    The 25-year-old has been much better since Derek King took over in early November. He has 46 points in 60 games under the new bench boss and has seen his average time on ice jump from 15:31 last season to more than 17 minutes per night this year.

    Strome has even replaced Toews as the top-line center in recent weeks, perhaps showing Chicago what the roster could look like if a trade of the longtime captain materializes over the summer. Sometimes all a player needs is an opportunity, and that certainly appears to be the case for Strome.

Colorado Avalanche: Nazem Kadri

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    It would be easy to make the case for Nazem Kadri as the most surprising player in the NHL this season. This list is chock full of youngsters who took a step forward in their development and a few veterans who found new treads with fresh teams.

    That isn't the case with Kadri, though. He's consistently been the same version of himself over the last decade or so: A steady 50- or 60-point center at best who'd push 20 goals. Sure, he notched 32 in back-to-back years once, but that hasn't happened since 2017-18.

    There was no reason for the Colorado Avalanche to expect that player to show up in 2021-22. Not only has he done so, but Kadri has far exceeded even the most bullish expectations.

    An injury will likely prevent it from happening, but the 31-year-old was on pace to shatter the 100-point barrier for the majority of this campaign. That's bananas, considering Kadri's previous career high in points was 61 in 2016-17 with the Toronto Maple Leafs.

    Kadri is well over a point-per-game producer and seems primed to secure a huge payday as a free agent this summer. 

Columbus Blue Jackets: Cole Sillinger

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    Cole Sillinger sticking with the Columbus Blue Jackets as a teenager was unforeseen, to say the least. He was the 12th player taken in the 2021 draft, and skaters selected around that part of the process usually require at least another year or two of seasoning before cracking an NHL roster.

    And even then, centers generally spend time on the wing as they acclimate to the skill and speed required to play the middle of the ice at the pro level. See fifth pick Kent Johnson as evidence of this. The pivot recently made his debut for the Blue Jackets after his college campaign ended but is skating at left wing while he learns.

    Sillinger grabbed a roster spot during training camp and made it impossible for the retooling Blue Jackets to send him back down. It'd be fair to argue that Columbus isn't exactly swimming in center depth, but the organization wouldn't have burned a year off his entry-level deal just to do it.

    Entering his draft year, Sillinger had a reputation as a hard-working, two-way center. He's done the best he can in regards to that with his teenage frame, and his offensive production has been somewhat surprising. Fifteen goals and 30 points isn't going to earn him and Calder Trophy love, but he's three years younger than Moritz Seider and eight years younger than Micahel Bunting—the two front runners for the rookie of the year honors.

    The forward has earned his way on to the pro roster by virtue of his play and work ethic, and even though the scoring isn't consistently there yet, the great attitude has been. Sillinger, a Columbus native, seems to have future captain written all over him and has been a pleasant surprise for the Blue Jackets this year.

Dallas Stars: Jason Robertson

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    Jason Robertson has gone from one of the game's best young players to a legitimate superstar this season. After finishing second in Calder Trophy voting a year ago, the 2017 second-round pick has erupted for the Dallas Stars.

    If not for Robertson and linemates Roope Hintz and Joe Pavelski, there is virtually no chance that this team would have hung around in the playoff hunt. Not with Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn looking like shades of their former selves and a rotating cast of goalies manning the crease.

    Yet the Robertson-led top unit has guided the Stars all season, and at 22, he has emerged as a top-flight forward. As he continues to evolve, we could see him become a Brad Marchand-esque left wing in terms of two-way play. His GSVA in the defensive zone (5.3) allows his offensive impacts to actually stick at the other end of the ice.

    This is fantastic for Dallas, because Robertson is scoring at a 40-goal and near-80 point pace.

    Marchand is a lofty bar, but one that Robertson appears poised to reach and perhaps even clear. Even if he doesn't quite land on Marchand's level, the fact that we can even have that conversation has been a revelation for the Stars.

Detroit Red Wings: Moritz Seider

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    Steve Yzerman isn't the kind of general manager who cares about draft projections, and the Detroit Red Wings are all the better for it.

    The Red Wings had Seider ranked higher than just about everyone, and picked him sixth in a move that the league's website characterized as "the first real surprise of the draft." 

    Three years later, the selection looks like anything but a reach for Yzerman. The Red Wings hoped Seider would be good as a rookie, but even they have to be surprised by just how quickly the defenseman has claimed the top spot on their back end.

    He's averaging more than 23 minutes per night and shockingly already grades out as an elite driver in the offensive zone, per The Athletic. That's shocking because lack of offensive upside is what some perceived to be Seider's weakness leading up to draft day.

    Seider being effective isn't surprising in and of itself; it's about just how quickly he took on the role as the go-to defenseman in Detroit. He'll probably win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's best rookie, and the Red Wings figure to have a real cornerstone in the reverse-hitting machine.

Edmonton Oilers: Evan Bouchard

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    There's more to a player than point totals, but the Edmonton Oilers selected Evan Bouchard with the 10th pick in the 2018 draft because of his offensive ability. Now at age 22, he's flexing that part of his game during his first full-time year in the bigs.

    He's quietly on pace to post more than 40 points, and both of his pairings—one with Darnell Nurse and the other alongside Duncan Keith—have positive expected goals for percentages. In fact, it could be argued that the Nurse/Bouchard pairing has been Edmonton's best, most consistent this season.

    So much so that it has some pundits wondering if a veteran D-man could be on the way out this offseason to clear up more playing time for Bouchard and some cap space. Oilers coach Jay Woodcroft recently sang Bouchard's praises, noting that Edmonton's top players—some of whom you may have heard of—want to skate with him because of his ability to make tape-to-tape passes.

    Since taking over in Edmonton on Feb. 10, Woodcroft has been more selective about how he rolls out the young blueliner and has sought to put him in positions where his offensive mindset can shine. That has allowed Bouchard to work on the finer details of his defensive game while not killing penalties for two-and-a-half minutes per night.

    He still has work to do in his own end, but Bouchard has been a nice surprise for the Oilers in his first year as a full-timer.

Florida Panthers: Sam Reinhart

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    It's tough to pick the most surprising player on arguably the NHL's best team. Anthony Duclair, Carter Verhaeghe and Anton Lundell all could make cases for the Florida Panthers. For our money, though, Sam Reinhart has been the squad's most out-of-nowhere producer.

    He wasn't exactly a reclamation project when the Buffalo Sabres traded him to Florida over the summer, but the 2014 No. 2 selection hadn't emerged as a go-to guy. Reinhart was a steady enough producer, but asking him to carry his own line didn't go all that well in Buffalo.

    The Panthers are a much better team than the Sabres, allowing them to slot Reinhart into situations that made more sense given his skill set. He's awarded the organization by popping off with the highest goal (29) and point (77) totals of his career. The versatile forward is also posting his highest points-per-game average ever (1.04), and he's been an outstanding second-wave attacker in Florida.

    This team hits the opposition in surges, so depth is incredibly important. Reinhart being able to play center or wing on any of the top three lines gives head coach Andrew Brunette a plethora of options while hunting for matchups.

    The trade has paid off big time for the Panthers, and it's one that could help propel them to the first championship in franchise history.

Los Angeles Kings: Jonathan Quick

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    Los Angeles Kings general manager Rob Blake built around holdovers from the team's Stanley Cup runs from the early 2010s instead of waiting for their contracts to fall off the books in the name of a rebuild.

    Sometimes this approach can backfire, but Blake has surrounded Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Quick and Dustin Brown with players who can help highlight their collective strengths. Quick, in particular, has had a fantastic bounce-back campaign that had L.A. in the playoff picture through the final weeks of the regular season.

    He hasn't been taking over games as he did earlier in his career, but he's been mostly steady. Of the 50 goalies who have appeared in 25 games or more, Quick has the seventh-best goals saved above expected, according to MoneyPuck. He was a minus-5.8 across 22 appearances a year ago, so he's turned his game around in a big way.

    This was supposed to be the season when Cal Petersen assumed the No. 1 role, but the 27-year-old hasn't really had the opportunity to do so. Not with Quick playing as well as he has been. It's allowed Los Angeles to roll with a platoon of sorts, with both netminders appearing in more than 35 games each.

    That could be perceived as a problem, but Quick has shown an innate ability to elevate his game come playoff time. The fact that the Kings are even part of the equation at all after finishing sixth in their division a year ago makes this a surprising development.

Minnesota Wild: Ryan Hartman

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    We've been tough on Ryan Hartman all season, calling for the Minnesota Wild to upgrade their top-line center position at just about every turn. Now it's time to give credit where it's due: After failing to carve out a real role with the Blackhawks, Nashville Predators and Philadelphia Flyers, the 27-year-old has found a home in the State of Hockey.

    Despite being listed as a wing, Hartman has clicked at center on Minnesota's top line. His chemistry with Kirill Kaprizov and Mats Zuccarello is undeniable, and his pain-in-the-neck style has become the team's identity after a few trade-deadline moves saw the Wild toughen up considerably.

    No one likes to play against Hartman, and 2021-22 has been his most productive campaign from a counting stats standpoint (32 goals, 29 assists, 61 points). He's been a solid all-around pivot, and the top line has hung around the top 25 units in the NHL all year when looking at expected goals for percentage.

    The playoffs will be the real test for Hartman when top-flight centers are even more important than they are during the regular season. But for the time being, the journeyman-turned-cornerstone has been Minnesota's most surprising player.

Montreal Canadiens: Cole Caufield

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    Cole Caufield has been surprising in two ways for the Montreal Canadiens. He began the season as a Calder Trophy candidate after he scored 12 points in 20 playoff games for the Habs in 2020-21. That made a lot of sense; if you can get it done offensively inside the pressure cooker that is postseason hockey, you ought to be able to make mincemeat out of the regular campaign.

    That isn't how things shook out for Caufield. At least not initially. He struggled to find his footing out of the gate, alongside the rest of the Canadiens, and he saw his ice time fall off a cliff. After playing 17:58 and 16:39 in Montreal's first two games, the forward averaged just 14:31 through his next 28 contests.

    That's a noteworthy cutoff because that's when Dominique Ducharme was fired from his head coaching position and former All-Star forward Martin St. Louis was brought in on an interim basis. Since then, Caufield has been a different forward.

    He's playing at nearly a point-per-game pace under St. Louis, was named rookie of the month in March and is playing at a high level alongside Nick Suzuki on the team's top line. How Caufield pretty much immediately turned his game around under a new bench boss was shocking, and it's been a welcome development in an otherwise miserable campaign for Montreal.

Nashville Predators: Roman Josi

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    Roman Josi has been one of the better defensemen in the NHL for the last several seasons, so there's no surprise there. He won the Norris Trophy as the league's best blueliner in 2019-20 and has received votes in seven consecutive seasons.

    What has been astonishing is just how productive Josi has been in his age-31 campaign. The captain of the Nashville Predators flirted with a point-per-game average during that Norris Trophy season, but otherwise, has generally been good for 50 or 60 points a year.

    That's fantastic output from a do-it-all blueliner, but Josi has simply found another gear in 2021-22. So much so that talking heads are trotting his name out as an MVP candidate. He's not going to win the Hart—that is Auston Matthews' award to lose at this juncture—but another Norris could be in line.

    How can you vote against a defenseman who has pushed a 100-point pace all year long? Well, Cale Makar is having himself a season in Colorado too, giving us one of the best Norris races in recent memory.

    Regardless of who takes home the hardware for top defender of the year, what Josi has done in Nashville this season has been electric and special. Alarmingly so.

New Jersey Devils: Jesper Bratt

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    The emergence of Jack Hughes as a superstar forward deserves a nod here, but like a few other players mentioned on this list, he has the draft pedigree to support that kind of offensive eruption. First overall draft picks are expected to be game-changers, and that's what Hughes has been for the New Jersey Devils in 2021-22.

    Jesper Bratt, on the other hand, was taken in the sixth round of the 2016 draft and has been an NHL regular for half a decade now. Through his first four seasons with the Devils, Bratt wasn't really anything special. A steady-eddy 30ish point player who was OK on the power play and carried solid-but-unspectacular on-ice impacts.

    Something has clicked for the forward during his age-23 campaign, and he's been one of the league's more surprising breakout stars this year. New Jersey hasn't been great, so it'd be easy to miss the fact that Bratt has been scoring at a point-per-game clip for the Devils.

    That sets up some interesting contract negotiations this offseason. He'll be a restricted free agent, and it'll be fascinating to see how New Jersey will approach this deal. They gambled on giving big-money, long-term extensions to Hughes and Nico Hirschier before their star turns.

    Will they give Bratt a similar extension, buying up some of his UFA years, thus making him a part of the team's core? Or will they go the "prove it" deal route? It'll be interesting to watch unfold, but he's been surprisingly effective this season.

New York Islanders: Ilya Sorokin

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    In the immortal words of Maroon 5, "it's not always rainbows and butterflies," and that certainly has been the case for the New York Islanders this season. Entering the campaign with some Stanley Cup buzz, the Isles never really got off the ground in 2021-22.

    There have been some bright spots on Long Island, though. Chief among them has been the play of goaltender Ilya Sorokin. If things were going better for this squad, then odds are good that he'd be receiving more attention for just how strong of a season he's been having.

    He's been nothing short of world class, pushing a GSVA of three and a goals saved above expected of 12. Sorokin has done this behind a defense that gives up nearly 33 shots per night, firmly establishing himself as the organization's top netminder going forward.

    Perhaps the most impressive thing about the 26-year-old has been his consistency at the pro level. He has a quality start percentage of .729, meaning that when he's in goal, the Islanders generally won't lose because of poor goaltending.

    If New York can bounce back next season and Sorokin can maintain this level of play—and there's no reason to think that he won't be able to—then the Islanders could be a real threat in the Eastern Conference. Much like they were supposed to be this year.

New York Rangers: Chris Kreider

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    There's a notable offensive explosion occurring around the NHL these days, with scoring noticeably up and a handful of skaters surpassing the 50-goal and 100-point barriers. That has made it somewhat easy to overlook what Chris Kreider has done with the New York Rangers this season, finding the back of the net 51 times in 78 games.

    Those aren't Auston Matthews numbers, but they are still remarkable. Consider this: Kreider's 51 tallies would have led the entire league in each last three full seasons that have been completed. He's always been a solid finisher, lightning the lamp at least 20 times in seven of his last eight campaigns in the Big Apple.

    Yet his career-high entering 2021-22 was 28, which happened three seasons ago. Kreider has found another gear in his age-30 campaign. Just over half of his goals have come on New York's vaunted top-five power play, which has converted on over a quarter of its opportunities, while 11 have been game-winners, which puts him alongside Leon Draisaitl for the most in the league.

    Stating that Kreider has exceeded expectations to a surprising degree would be an understatement. The Rangers are heading back to the playoffs for the first time since 2017, and it's there where the 6-foot-3, 217-pound forward will be able to really draw some attention to just how hot he's been down the stretch for New York.

Ottawa Senators: Josh Norris

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    If not for injuries, Josh Norris likely be pushing for 50 goals this year, but it isn't receiving as much attention as Alex Ovechkin chases down Wayne Gretzky's all-time record and Matthews continues to score, like, 13 times a night.

    The 22-year-old is amid arguably the most interesting season in the NHL this year, as far as his stat line is concerned. As Ian Mendes recently wrote for The Athletic, Norris' goals-to-assists ratio is remarkably rare for a center. If the forward finishes the year with 35 or more goals and 20 or fewer assists, he'll be the first pivot to do so since 1929-30.

    Whether Norris is the second coming of Kyle Connor or Patrik Laine—high-end power-play producers with a focus on finishing—remains to be seen. It appears that the former 19th overall pick can be part of a revamp in Ottawa, though.

    His production this season wasn't totally out of nowhere. Norris did score 17 times in 56 games last season. Flirting with 50 goals is something different than finding the back of the net in 30 percent of your games, though.

    What makes Norris so interesting is his shooting percentage. He's converted around 20 percent of his shots in 2021-22. His continuing to do that long-term might be an unrealistic expectation, but for the time being, Norris shooting out the lights in Ottawa as a center is the most surprising outing for anyone in this organization this year.

Philadelphia Flyers: Travis Sanheim

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    Picking the most surprising player for the Philadelphia Flyers was probably the toughest out of the entire NHL. That speaks to just how rough 2021-22 has been in the City of Brotherly Love. Fans have stopped showing up to home games, and this version of the team that general manager Chuck Fletcher has pieced together hasn't been particularly good or unforeseen in any real ways. 

    None of their young players have popped off as Norris has in Ottawa, and none of their veterans have outperformed expectations like Kadri in Colorado. Besides Ryan Ellis, who has been as advertised when healthy, there isn't an elite piece in place for the Flyers.

    Travis Sanheim is the closest we could find for a surprising skater on this roster. He's outperformed projections well enough, particularly on offense, where he's on pace to set a new career high in points. There are more (and better) ways to analyze players than in terms of raw production, so it's worth noting that his defensive impacts haven't been overly great.

    His frequent pairing with offseason acquisition Rasmus Ristolainen is just inside of the NHL's 100 best defensive pairings in terms of expected goals percentage, so that's...something? Hopefully for Flyers fans, if we do this same list next year there'll be more competition or Carter Hart runs away with it. Either outcome would be highly beneficial for Philadelphia. 

Pittsburgh Penguins: Evan Rodrigues

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    The Pittsburgh Penguins seem to grow effective wingers in a lab somewhere. They found Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust in the third round and signed Evan Rodrigues during the offseason to a $1 million AAV contract. He's been found money for the organization, even if he isn't scoring at a rate similar to how he did earlier in the campaign.

    Through his first 35 games, Rodrigues was averaging more than 17 minutes a night, pushing a point-per-game pace and had scored 15 times. In his last 44 contests, he's seen his ice time dip to just over 15 minutes while finding the back of the net just three times.

    One of the skills that makes the 28-year-old so special is his shot and release, so it seems unlikely that he'll continue to shoot at 2 percent as he has been since early January. This isn't a one-dimensional skater who can't impact games in other ways, however.

    He's quite strong defensively and off the rush, and he gives the Penguins an intriguing option for their bottom six as the playoffs roll around. Should Pittsburgh decide to shake up their lines, Rodrigues has the skill needed to skate with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. He can also play center and has spent time on the power play.

    That's a surprising amount of value for a skater who looked like a bit of a free-agent flier this past offseason.

San Jose Sharks: Timo Meier

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    This hasn't been a pretty season for the San Jose Sharks. They weren't expected to perform well enough to make the playoffs, but hitting the worst skid in years wasn't exactly something the organization wanted to undergo either.

    It hasn't all been bad, though. They managed to re-sign Tomas Hertl after months of a will-they-won't-they dance, and Timo Meier has established himself as an excellent scoring winger. Through the first five years of his career, his offensive rates were fine but nothing special.

    He averaged 0.31 goals per game in 2019-20 and 0.22 last year. That put him firmly in a territory with the likes of Zach Hyman and Pavel Buchnevich. Useful top-six forwards to be sure, but nothing that could be safely characterized as elite.

    That has changed during Meier's age-25 campaign, in a sensational way. Suddenly he's performing like one of the league's top finishers, almost doubling up the value of his $6 million AAV and claiming the right side on two of San Jose's four most effective lines this season.

    The former ninth overall pick (2015) seems to have really figured it out in 2021-22, and that can't be overlooked as the Sharks attempt to reload instead of rebuild following the new contract for Hertl.

Seattle Kraken: Matty Beniers

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    Let's have some fun with this one. After all, it isn't like the Seattle Kraken have had the smoothest of inaugural seasons in recent memory. 

    After the team was pieced together to lean on a stout defense and strong goaltending, neither of those things came to fruition. They prevent shots at an outstanding level, but Seattle's netminding has sunk the club. Usually, that's a bit of a lazy cop-out from an analytical perspective, but in this case, it is 100 percent true.

    The Kraken also haven't been scoring enough, sporting one of the five worst goals scored per game metrics this season, which is why Matty Beniers showing up and giving fans something to cheer about has been so important, and yes, surprising.

    Here's a 19-year-old who was still playing college hockey just a few weeks ago. Now he's in the best league in the world doing stuff like this. Beniers' offensive game has taken a step forward since he was drafted second overall in 2021, but to see it come to light so quickly has been surprising.

    He hasn't missed a beat transitioning from college to the NHL. It's a small sample size, but playing at a point-per-game level while being thrust into play at the end of a season is nothing to scoff at. Of course, he'll need to prove that he can score consistently, and he'll get the chance to do that during a full campaign next year.

    For now, though, he's given Seattle fans a new wave of hope and optimism as its first year winds down in earnest.

St. Louis Blues: Robert Thomas

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    Every season it seems like there's a new en vogue favorite team in the Western Conference, and every season it seems like the St. Louis Blues get overlooked. Yet here they are again in 2021-22, gearing up for their 11th playoff run in 12 seasons.

    St. Louis' ability to stay relevant has been a product of its drafting. Robert Thomas, taken 20th overall in 2017, is the most recent example of that. Now in his fourth campaign at the NHL level, the 22-year-old has established himself as a top-six center and has provided the Blues with some staggering value.

    After posting 87 points through his first 169 games—his first three seasons in the league combined—Thomas has popped off for 74 and counting for the Blues in 2021-22. His two-way play has fallen off a bit, but that could be chalked up to an increased amount of responsibility while playing in a less sheltered role.

    The Blues have Ryan O'Reilly to roll out for those tougher defensive assignments anyway, freeing up Thomas to produce points at a high rate. This has led to him being considered one of the more underrated skaters in the game today.

    He's been good since entering the league in 2018-19, but he's been exceptional for the Blues this year.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Steven Stamkos

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    There aren't many questions left about Steven Stamkos' abilities. He's been a high-end producer in the NHL since 2009-10 and has rarely seen his goals scored per game dip below 0.50. Of course, last season was one of those years, and it was fair to wonder just how much the team's captain had left in the tank entering his age-31 season.

    No one expected Stamkos to drop off a cliff, but the Lightning have so many impactful scorers that it has sometimes pushed the former first overall pick pretty far down in the lineup. That hasn't been the case this year, and any thoughts of the center slowly starting to fade were put to rest in 2021-22.

    There were speculative rumblings over the offseason that he could be a salary-cap causality for the strapped Lightning. That obviously didn't turn out to be the case, and Stamkos has rewarded Tampa with his most impactful campaign in three years.

    He's been every bit as important to this team as Nikita Kucherov, and health has a lot to do with it. Stamkos has blown past the point-per-game mark, despite Tampa's offense going cold for a stretch earlier in 2022.

    Now the Lightning are in the position to compete for their third consecutive championship, thanks in part to Stamkos turning back the clock a bit and bouncing back from a mildly disappointing (by his standards) 2020-21. 

Toronto Maple Leafs: Michael Bunting

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    Ah, yes. Everyone's favorite Rookie of the Year candidate, 26-year-old Michael Bunting.

    Look, it's not his fault the NHL's rules are set up to allow someone who is half a decade older than the rest of the field to compete for the Calder Trophy. And he might just go on and win it, what with Toronto being kind of the biggest hockey market in existence.

    Remove all that noise, though, and there's no denying that general manager Kyle Dubas' offseason bet on Bunting has paid off in spades. Toronto didn't have much room to add during the summer, forcing it to get creative while attempting to add around the margins.

    Bunting has been anything but marginal since landing with the Maple Leafs. He's been stapled to a line with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner all year long—Toronto only has two forward units with 200-plus minutes spent together, and that trio is one—and the results have been exceptional.

    There's no question about who is driving play on that line, but there's also no denying that Bunting has been able to make the most out of his opportunity to play with two of the best forwards in the NHL. That has him leading all rookies in points, which has been a surprising outcome of this free-agent addition.

Vancouver Canucks: J.T. Miller

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    Prior to 2021-22, J.T. Miller's most productive season came two years ago, when he scored 27 goals and 72 points through a nice 69-game stretch for the Vancouver Canucks. It was the only time in his career that he'd scored at more than a point-per-game pace, and there wasn't really much reason to believe that he'd be able to top that entering his age-28 season.

    He's not old by any stretch, but this was a Canucks roster that appeared to be in the hands of younger stalwarts like Elias Pettersson, Brock Boeser and even Nils Hoglander. That isn't the way the season has shaped up, though.

    Pettersson looked like a ghost of his former self before head coaching savior Bruce Boudreau took over the Canucks in early December, and Boeser really hasn't built off his excellent 2020-21 outing. Then there's Miller, who could very well score more than 100 points while doing all he can to push Vancouver into the playoffs.

    That's highly unlikely to happen, but Miller is the main reason (besides Boudreau) we have been able to even discuss the Canucks making the playoffs as a possibility after the atrocious start they had. We're of the mind that the organization did the right thing by hanging onto him instead of trading him at the deadline.

    This is the kind of player you build around, and Miller's offensive production has been jaw-dropping this year.

Vegas Golden Knights: Chandler Stephenson

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    The Vegas Golden Knights are more or less in the same boat as the Philadelphia Flyers. There are different forces at play in Nevada, but that doesn't make the final outcome any less impactful: this season hasn't gone the way Vegas wanted it to.

    Entering the year with Stanley Cup hopes, injuries, and cap shuffling held the team down as upstarts claimed the top spots in the Pacific Division. As such, it's tough to select the most surprising player, at least from a positive standpoint.

    No team in the NHL has attempted to accumulate star power via trade and free agency like the Golden Knights, so it's easy to overlook the addition of Chandler Stephenson in December 2019 for a fifth-round pick. It's the kind of value buys that failed with skaters like Nolan Patrick, but Vegas has done well for itself with this pickup.

    Stephenson was never able to find his footing with the Washington Capitals but emerged as a solid forward option with 14 goals and 35 points in 51 games last year. He's followed that up by taking another step forward for the Golden Knights, as he's among the team's leading scorers this year.

    That is in large part because of injuries, but Stephenson has taken the "next man up" mentality and ran with it. He's on pace to push for 20 goals and 60-plus points. That's a fantastic step forward for a skater who was acquired for a depth draft selection just a few years ago. 

Washington Capitals: Alex Ovechkin

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    Entering 2021-22, the Washington Capitals had a few players in line for a nod as potential biggest surprises. The organization would prefer to see either Vitek Vanecek or Ilya Samsonov in this spot, but neither netminder has managed to seize the starting role despite the playoffs looming.

    So why not take the opportunity to give credit to Alex Ovechkin for the campaign he's had. He scores goals well—arguably better than anyone in the history of our game—but at the age of 36, it wouldn't have been too surprising to see him slow down. At least a little bit.

    But nope. Ovechkin is in line to crack the 50-goal barrier for the ninth time in his illustrious career, and at this juncture, it's tough to overstate just how impressive that is. Over the last few seasons, we've all been waiting for The Great 8 to begin to decline, but that just hasn't happened yet.

    Good luck finding any talking head who predicted that Ovechkin would notch 50 goals for the first time since 2018-19 this year. That's what he's done though, and as fans, we should take at least a moment to appreciate what he's doing out on the ice while we still can.

    Maybe he'll play forever, giving the NHL a version of Tom Brady. Maybe he won't. Either way, this has been an electric campaign for Ovechkin.

Winnipeg Jets: Nikolaj Ehlers

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    The Winnipeg Jets have a few horses in this race, but the nod has to go to Nikolaj Ehlers. On a team that features a high-end scorer like Kyle Connor and an emerging superstar center in Pierre-Luc Dubois, the former ninth overall selection has been his team's most valuable forward.

    Ehlers has been on another level offensively this year despite not seeing an uptick in his ice time. And his defense is holding him back less than it has in the past, allowing him to establish himself as an elite top-six forward for the Jets.

    Or at least that should have been the case, but his usage took a dip during the middle of the season for some reason. It's not really clear why that happened. Ehlers scores better than almost everyone on the Jets roster and doesn't give up as much in his own end as someone like Blake Wheeler. 

    He's a creative skater in his own zone and could probably be an even more impactful player if given the opportunity. That's a surprising development in Winnipeg and one that the coaching staff hasn't caught up to.

    Maybe they know something we don't, but with the Jets on the outside of the playoff bubble, perhaps whatever that thing is isn't as big a deal as they're making it out to be. Is it too late in the season to start a #FreeEhlers hashtag? Let us know.


    All team- and player-based counting stats appear courtesy of NHL.com unless otherwise noted. MoneyPuck's expected goals for percentage stat is referenced regularly, an explanation for which can be found here. MoneyPuck also has a goals-saved-above-expected stat that we leaned on to analyze goalies. Lastly, Dom Luszczyszyn of The Athletic's GSVA model was also used as a way to determine on-ice impacts beyond point totals.

    Salary-cap info via CapFriendly.