NEW YORK — The early portion of professional sports seasons normally comes complete with surprises. The NHL has not disappointed.
From teams to special teams units, players to goalies, here is a list of the NHL’s biggest surprises through the first week and a half of the season, ending with Saturday’s games.
MOST SURPRISING TEAM
Vancouver Canucks: I didn’t think the Canucks were a playoff team when the season started. I still don’t think Canucks are a playoff team, yet somehow they are 4-0-1, having suffered their first loss on Saturday in Los Angeles against the Kings.
As they did last season, the Canucks are finding ways to get games to overtime, but this season they are winning those games. Four of Vancouver’s five games have gone to overtime or a shootout and the other was a 2-1 win over Buffalo. The Canucks have only scored 13 goals but they are playing stingy defense, allowing a Western Conference-low 10 goals in a season where scoring is up more than half a goal per game.
Jacob Markstrom is ninth in the NHL with a 0.923 save percentage and sixth in goals against average (1.95), but the Canucks are allowing just 25.8 shots per game, the fifth best mark in the NHL.
MOST DISAPPOINTING TEAM
Calgary Flames: Calgary made enough moves this offseason to push itself back into playoff position with the expected maturation of its young and talented core.
The early returns have been dismal.
The Flames have allowed a league-high 27 goals and are 1-4-1 through six games. Brian Elliott was signed as a free agent to solve what had been a goaltending nightmare last season. He has only made it worse. Elliott is 0-3 with an 0.839 save percentage and a 4.72 goals against average.
Was Elliott a system goaltender in St. Louis or is this just a product a small sample size?
MOST SURPRISING SKATER
Richard Panik, Chicago: It certainly helps playing alongside Jonathan Toews, but Panik leads the NHL in goals with six and is tied for the team-lead in points with eight, putting him in a four-way tie for second in the league.
Panik had his first career hat trick against Nashville on Nov. 15 and has scored in four of Chicago’s six games, while notching at least a point in five of them. With one more goal he will eclipse last season’s total and with six more, he will eclipse the career high of 11 he set in 2014-15 with Toronto.
The Blackhawks needed secondary scoring this season and so far Panik has delivered. Just don’t look for that continue at anything close to this pace. Panik’s shooting percentage sat at 66.7 before Sunday’s games. His career average is 13.8. Last season when Mike Babcock took over as coach in Toronto, Panik was demoted to the Marlies, the team’s AHL franchise.
MOST DISAPPOINTING SKATER
Andrew Ladd, New York Islanders: Ladd signed a seven-year, $38.5 million contract this offseason that raised many eyebrows after the Islanders allowed Kyle Okposo to walk away in free agency. Through five games, Ladd, 30, has not registered a point and is a minus-3 while logging 19:22 of ice time per game.
It’s hard to figure this one out since Ladd is playing alongside center John Tavares. The encouraging sign for Ladd is that he is generating chances and has 12 shots (second on the team). Sooner or later, they should start going in.
MOST SURPRISING GOALIE
Al Montoya, Montreal: Montoya gave the Canadiens a huge boost while Carey Price was out with the flu, starting three games and stopping 101 of 105 shots while posting his first shutout in nearly three years against, of all teams, the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins (albeit without Sidney Crosby).
Price is back and will surely shoulder the load for Montreal from here on out, but the Canadiens may have found themselves a backup and a great story to boot. Montoya was the Rangers first-round pick (sixth overall) in 2004 but has never played more than 31 games in an NHL season. He was effective as a backup for Florida last season with a 0.919 save percentage.
MOST DISAPPOINTING GOALIE
Brian Elliott, Calgary: I mentioned Elliott above, but he is the biggest reason for the Flames’ early struggles — so much so that Chad Johnson has replaced him for now. Of goaltenders with three appearances or more this season, only Arizona’s Louis Domingue has a lower save percentage at 0.836.
MOST SURPRISING SPECIAL TEAMS UNIT
Carolina’s power play: The Hurricanes have six power play goals in 21 chances for a 28.6 percent success rate. That ranks fourth in the NHL behind Nashville, Columbus (only nine chances) and Colorado. The Hurricanes finished 24th in the NHL last season at 16.8 percent.
Victor Rask leads the way with two power play goals but five different players have scored with the man advantage. The additions of Sebastian Aho, Teuvo Teravainen and Lee Stempniak have increased Carolina’s skill level and the net presence (believe it or not) of Bryan Bickell has helped.
MOST DISAPPOINTING SPECIAL TEAMS UNIT
Chicago’s penalty kill: The Blackhawks have allowed a league-high 12 power-play goals on 21 opponents chances for a league-low 42.9 percent success rate. The next worst team is Winnipeg at 64.3.
Counting two empty-net goals, Chicago has only been scored on at even strength eight times while 55 percent of their 22 goals allowed have come on the PK.
MOST ENCOURAGING SIGN
Increased scoring: Scoring had cooled a bit by the weekend, but according to Hockey Reference, teams were still averaging 3.05 goals per game this season. If that holds, it would be the highest team average (and game average of 6.1) since the 2005-06 season — the first after the 2004-05 lockout cancelled an entire season.
Also of note, and clearly related was the league average save percentage of 0.903 and goals against average of 2.87, both the lowest since 2005-06.
MOST DISCOURAGING SIGN
Injuries: The early part of the season has been defined as much by injuries as it has been by goal scoring and youth.
Penguins center Sidney Crosby is out indefinitely with at least his third concussion, Penguins goalie Matt Murray is still out with a broken hand, Sabres center Jack Eichel is out at least until December with a high ankle sprain, Kings goalie Jonathan Quick is out long-term with what looks like a groin injury, Kings forward Marian Gaborik is out until December with a foot injury, Panthers forward Jonathan Huberdeau is out until the new year with a leg injury, Sabres forward Evander Kane will miss “weeks” after cracking three ribs and other key players have been felled for shorter periods of time.
Of all the injuries, Crosby’s is the worst news for the league. As research has shown, concussions beget more concussions. You have to wonder about the long-term prospects of the leagues’ best player.
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