(There have also been some crushing disappointments, but that’s tomorrow’s post.)
Here are 13 most pleasant surprise players, teams, decisions and trends in the NHL this season:
St. Louis Blues’ Top Line
Alexander Steen is getting all the accolades, and rightfully so given his astounding 17 goals in 20 games (with a 23.3 shooting percentage). But the Blues’ entire top line of Steen, David Backes (8 goals, 12 assists) and T.J. Oshie (3 goals, 15 assists) has been their offensive engine, scoring goals in 14 of the Blues’ first 20 games.
And yet no widely known nickname. How is this not the S.O.B. Line, again?
As we wrote earlier this month, Harding’s roll for the Minnesota Wild has been one of the most inspiring stories of the NHL season, as the goalie went from a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis last season to an incredible 13-3-2 start with a 1.48 GAA and a .939 save percentage. Best of all: 19 appearances, without so much as a whisper about his health.
The Penguins Defense
After last season’s playoff disappointment, the Pittsburgh Penguins brought on Jacques Martin as an assistant coach, and his impact on the team’s defense has been instantaneous. The Pens are sixth in the NHL at 2.18 GA/G, with great organization on the defensive end, solid puck possession and smart passes out of their own zone.
Marc-Andre Fleury has a GAA of 1.90, people. That says it all.
Besides Harding and Fleury, others goalies have opened some eyes this season. Ben Bishop (2.29 GAA) has back-stopped the Tampa Bay Lightning to the top of the Atlantic Division, and put his name in U.S. Olympic roster contention.
Ben Scrivens sparked “Scrivensmania” for the Los Angeles Kings, going 5-1-1 with a 1.35 GAA overall and winning four starts after Jonathan Quick was injured.
Jonathan Bernier, who backed up Quick last season, has been stellar for the Toronto Maple Leafs with a 2.05 GAA and a .939 save percentage.
More stunners? How about Steve Mason of the Philadelphia Flyers, who somehow has a 2.12 GAA and a .932 save percentage despite that team’s putrid start?
Oh, and after Martin Brodeur handed his crease over to Cory Schneider, he took it back with a 7-3-2 record and a 2.06 GAA. Wait, an incumbent start goalie retaking his job after Cory Schneider couldn’t keep it? What sort of sorcery is this?!
Tyler Seguin Is Born
One hoped that a change in scenery and a prominent role on the Dallas Stars’ top line would reignite Tyler Seguin’s young career. No one could have anticipated 23 points in 20 games, a 21.8 shooting percentage and a renewed focus that he seemed to lack with the Boston Bruins.
The EGG Line
The young trio of Lars Eller, Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk has combined for 43 points, and has been the team’s top offensive weapon not named P.K. Subban for most of the season. They hate the name “EGG Line.” Oh well … different yolks for different folks.
Patrick Roy’s Avalanche
From his insane glass-shaking debut again Bruce Boudreau through the 20-game mark, Patrick Roy’s Colorado Avalanche have been anything but unremarkable. Matt Duchene’s 12 goals were a surprise. The goaltending of Semyon Varlamov and J.S. Giguere has been a surprise. Jan Hejda’s plus-14 was a surprise.
Their 15-5-0 record is an amazing accomplishment for a team that many had outside the postseason picture. And a team whose coach is nuttier than a bag of cashews.
The Olympic Roster Party Crashers
The Olympics can be a hell of a motivator for some players. Jamie Benn was left out of Team Canada camp; he responded with 23 points in 20 games. Jason Pominville was left of the U.S. camp roster; he has 13 goals in 23 games. Ryan Getzlaf (25 points in 21 games) is making an Olympic statement. Patrick Marleau (10 goals) is stating his case. And did anyone expect Tim Thomas (2.76 GAA with the Florida Panthers) to play his way back into the Olympic conversation for the U.S.?
The Freshmen Stars
Tomas Hertl had, perhaps, the greatest debut for a rookie in recent memory with his controversial 4-goal performance. Since then, he’s scored 12 goals overall for the San Jose Sharks, with 18 points in 21 games to lead all rookie scorers.
But it’s the blue line that’s really been impressive for the rookie class. Torey Krug of the Boston Bruins has 12 points in 21 games, six of them on the power play. Hampus Lindholm has been an outstanding defensive stopper for the Anaheim Ducks. Seth Jones, meanwhile, has been the total package for the Nashville Predators in playing a rookies-best 23:59 per game. He’s also on the Olympic radar, which obviously helps when your GM is also the U.S. GM.
Pat LaFontaine Lands In Buffalo
While the pleasant surprise for many was when the Buffalo Sabres finally cut the cord on Darcy Regier and Ron Rolston, the real pleasant development was when they brought back fan favorite LaFontaine as the franchise’s first director of hockey operations. He brought on Ted Nolan as interim head coach in another crowd-pleasing move. Blissful nostalgia is a hell of a narcotic and Sabres fans are high on the new regime so far.
The New York Islanders forward is one of the most under-appreciated players in the NHL. By all accounts, dude should have a Selke by now. So maybe he realized the best way to get the voters’ attention is to have the offensive numbers to go with the defensive prowess, so Nielsen has 22 points in 22 games as the Islanders’ second-line center. The Great Dane has been just that.
Phoenix Coyotes, Scoring Machine
Who would have figured the Coyotes for an offensive juggernaut? Phoenix is fourth in the NHL in scoring at 3.29 goals per game, as Shane Doan (10 goals) and Martin Hanzal (18 points in 18 games) lead the way. This is a good thing, considering the Coyotes are an uncharacteristic 24th in team defense at the moment.
Signed as a desperation move after Ilya Kovalchuk bolted for the KHL, the 41-year-old Jagr leads the New Jersey Devils with 17 points(!) in 21 games, including eight goals. He’s one goal behind Mario Lemieux on the all-time list, and just 11 more away from hitting 700 for his career.
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