By Stu Hackel
The season is now a bit more than a month old, and while smart hockey guys still think it’s too early for big pronouncements, it is the right time for determining who has gotten off to an unexpected start. So here are some of the big early surprises, in no particular order.
Tyler Seguin – As an 18-year-old rookie, Seguin scored only 22 points last season and some felt that he should have been starring back in junior instead of struggling in Boston. We didn’t see flashes of what he could do until he stepped into the Bruins’ lineup against Tampa Bay in the third round of the playoffs last spring. Even then, his dynamic play didn’t show up regularly during the B’s Stanley Cup run. Not so now. Even when Boston stumbled in the early going, he was their best player and that status continued through Monday night with a goal against the Islanders, his eighth of the season — he probably could have had more, duplicating his hat trick against the Maple Leafs on Saturday. Seguin’s plus-11 leads the NHL and his 15 points ties him with Steven Stamkos for the sixth-highest total in the league. Installed on a line with Patrice Bergeron on Brad Marchand, the chemistry seems right for Seguin to pile up some good numbers as a sophomore.
The Maple Leafs – There are so many surprises on this club, we might as well pick the whole team. It’s not a stretch either, considering how well the Leafs have done. Toronto began last season with four straight victories and Phil Kessel lighting it up, then everything started to go south. So it was prudent to wait a bit longer for judgement this season. Well, Kessel is lighting it up again — and has done so without the benefit of always-injured center Tim Connolly, who was brought in to be his set-up guy. But winger Joffrey Lupul has opened eyes as the guy who’s developed good chemistry with Kessel, and that has benefitted both of them. Other Leafs no one figured on making important contributions merit some attention as well, such as center David Steckel whose contributions on face-offs have been impressive (60.1 percent win rate); rookie defenseman Jake Gardiner and veteran blueliner Mike Komisarek, who many thought was at the end of the line.
In fact, the entire blueline corps has been Toronto’s strength by minimizing the inconsistency in the goaltending. It doesnt’ seem to matter that the special teams are mediocre (the power play) to brutal (the penalty kill) or that they Leafs have had a relatively easy schedule (and when they played a quality team like Boston on Saturday, they got whomped). They’re beating teams they would have lost to last season. The Leafs have yet to drop two straight this season and they take on the Panthers tonight. Right now, it would be a mistake to take Toronto lightly.
Sheldon Souray– We probably should add the Stars as a whole to this list. They’re first in the West with rookie coach Glen Gulutzan and getting key contributions from Loui Eriksson, Jamie Benn, Vern Fiddler as a third liner, and former Montreal linemates Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder, plus exceptional goaltending by Kari Lehtonen. But considering that Souray was banished to AHL Hershey by the Oilers last season, and considered by some to be an overpriced, divisive, one-dimensional flop, his return to the NHL with Dallas has been Lazarus-like. This goes beyond his impressive stats (4-8-12 and plus-10, tops among NHL defensemen). He’s playing a rugged game again. No longer slowed by the injuries that dogged him as an Oiler (chronic bad wrist and a concussion), he’s giving opponents something to think about when they carry the puck into the Stars’ end and has become a leader on the ice, setting the tone for the rest of the defense corps. The Stars are in Washington tonight to take on the Capitals in what could be a very physical match.
Nikolai Khabibulin – Like Dallas, we could have included the entire Oilers team here, especially because of their NHL-low 22 goals-against. But, like Souray, Khabibulin’s return from adversity makes him stand out as a guy no one predicted would play a leading role in his young team’s ascent. His numbers remain otherwordly: 0.98 goals-against average, .963 save percentage and two shutouts. He hasn’t lost a game in regulation this season. Who would have expected this after his dismal play last season (10-32-4 record, 3.40 GAA, .890 pct.), the worst since his rookie year with the original Jets — yeah, it was that long ago. With a drunk driving charge in Phoenix hanging over his head (he served his sentence last summer) and coming off back surgery, perhaps that bad campaign was inevitable. But one can be excused for thinking age and miles had caught up with him. However, after an offseason fitness program strengthened his core and with a new approach to life after his incarceration, he seems again like Cup-winning Khabi of Tampa Bay. Rested in the Oilers’ loss to Phoenix, he’ll be out to stop the Canadiens tonight in the Bell Centre.
Kris Versteeg – No one doubts his talent, but when the winger found himself moved from the Blackhawks to the Leafs to the Flyers and finally the Panthers within a year — and with minus-9 for last season on his hockey card — you had to wonder if his exile from Chicago and subsequent bouncing around might have soured him on his career. But he’s playing sweetly in Florida, leading the Cats in scoring with five goals and 13 points in 13 games, shooting often (he had seven shots against Tampa Bay last game) and is back in the plus column as well (4). He’s tied for the team lead in power play goals with three and seems to have found a home on the right side with center Steven Weiss and one of our favorite under-the-radar players, Tomas Fleischmann, on the Panthers’ top line. After enduring some nasty weather in his previous stops, Florida living seems to agree with him.
There are others who certainly merit mention here: Sabres goalie Jhonas Enroth has played very well while Ryan Miller has surprised with how much he’s off his game. The Wild’s Josh Harding, who is considered the backup to Niklas Backstrom, waited to make an impact, reeling off four straight wins and compiling some very strong stats so far (1.18 GAA, .965 pct.) while earning the NHL’s most recent First Star of the Week honors. The Sharks’ Joe Pavelski, who has never topped 25 goals, has nine already, putting him on a pace to break 50. Sophomore Ryan McDonagh of the Rangers has stepped up into the role of top defensemen with Marc Staal sidelined. The Senators’ Milan Michalek, healthy again and scoring, also has nine goals and four on the power play, tying for the NHL lead. Coyotes goalie Mike Smith, now resurrected in the desert, has been solid with six wins, 2.36 GAA and .926 pct.
And maybe we should watch the Devils’ smart and speedy rookie center Adam Henrique, who was called up after the season started. He has six points in his last five games, and is now taking injured Travis Zajac’s spot between Ilya Kovalchuk and Zach Parise. That’s some good company.
But when it comes to surprises, we can’t forget Jaromir Jagr, who has fit in wonderfully with the Flyers and is putting up numbers — 15 points in 14 games — that few expected upon his return from the KHL. Like lots of veterans named in this post, it seems he’s been born again.