Every season can be a rough one when it comes to figuring out who will and who won’t succeed. Look at the NFL in 2016. Yes, most figured the Patriots would get to the Super Bowl but almost no one gave the Falcons a chance. That’s not to mention how few saw the Cowboys resurging while the Panthers collapsed. So many teams that on paper look stellar end up falling apart while the ones that seem to have little going for them end up taking off wonderfully. It’s like that every season in sports and the NHL is no different. At the half point of the 2016-17 season, the league has pretty much shown what it can do and there are plenty of surprises going around. Several teams that should have been high in the rankings have slumped while those with little expectations have risen high.
True, things can change. Some hot streaks can end and teams can make a turnaround. Yet it is still notable how several teams in the NHL this season have gone in directions the pre-season “experts” could never have predicted. A team that’s long been the joke of the NHL is now streaking hard while another is slumping. True, some teams are doing as well as expected (Blackhawks, Ducks) but it’s still notable how some teams are doing much differently than was expected. Here are 8 teams this NHL season that have been a surprise and 7 that have been a disappointment. It just shows how it’s hard to figure before the season who can ride to the top.
15 SURPRISE: Vancouver Canucks
This is a very odd team. It mixes old-timers with rookies, something that rarely ends well yet somehow head coach Willie Desjardins has been able to get the most out of them for a team that’s still in the playoff race. Sven Baertschi has been a powerhouse on the ice, leading the team in goals and time on ice and backed by a good showing from veteran Alexandre Burrows.
However, the loss of Derek Dorsett to a neck injury has hurt the team while the defense has struggled to keep up with tougher opponents while Ryan Miller’s numbers as goalie are good yet has given up some key goals in losses. Yet somehow, this bizarrely built team remains in the running for a playoff spot, showing that sometimes, a good coach can make an average looking team work better than expected.
14 DISAPPOINTMENT: Florida Panthers
Last year, the Panthers ended up first in the Atlantic Division and while they lost in the first round to the Islanders, hopes were high for them contending this year. Many have cited the team changing their classic uniform logo to a new design as a warning sign things were going to go badly but the real blow was the loss of Jonathan Huberdeau to an ankle injury in the preseason. Without him, Aleksander Barkov and right winger Jaromir Jagr have failed to achieve the same chemistry on the ice and thus the team has slumped.
This season, the Panthers' goal production has plummeted to 26th (2.29 per game). Injuries to other key forwards, such as Barkov, Nick Bjugstad and Jussi Jokinen, contributed to this decline but Huberdeau's lengthy absence is the most significant. Tom Rowe has been doing his best since taking over as coach from Gerard Gallant but so far, the Panthers are falling apart.
13 SURPRISE: Montreal Canadiens
With a 22nd-place finish in 2016, there wasn’t much expectations being put on the Canadiens but so far, they’re doing far better than many initially hoped. Their offense has had struggles but Paul Byron and Phillip Danault are astonishing “experts” by performing far beyond what most would have thought and Max Pacioretty is on pace for his best season yet. Andrei Markov is playing like a man years younger while Jeff Petry is showing no signs of being slowed by his surgery last year.
Carey Price has hovered at a .920 save percentage, which is far below the standards he's set yet somehow the team is still first in the Atlantic. The big story of the offseason was the P.K. Subban for Shea Weber trade, and Weber has steadied the blue line. Meanwhile Alexander Radulov is enjoying a tremendous comeback season in the NHL.
At this rate, Montreal can make a serious playoff run and bring hope back to a city that has long forgotten what it’s like to enjoy Cup glory.
12 DISAPPOINTMENT: New York Islanders
True, the Islanders haven’t been known for stellar seasons since the glory days of the early 1980s. But New York still looked good going into the season having gotten to the second round of the playoffs in 2016. But the loss of Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen to free agency hurt as well as bad defensive moves that have landed the Islanders in the basement of the Metropolitan division. The team eventually fired coach Jack Capuano and while Doug Weight has promise, he’s dealing with a very rough team that can’t seem to put the ingredients together for success.
The fact that the fans who show up are chanting against the team doesn’t help as Weight actually thinks the team can turn it around. However, most think it’s time for the Islanders to start looking ahead to the draft or begin making trades because as they stand now, New York is sinking very badly.
11 SURPRISE: Edmonton Oilers
Once, when Wayne Gretsky was their star, the Oilers were the biggest dynasty in the NHL who basically owned the Stanley Cup. Since 2006, however, they have endured the longest active postseason drought of any team in the league. However, Connor McDavid is giving Edmonton more hope for a playoff run than it’s had since its last Finals appearance. McDavid is key as his presence is what gives the Oilers a chance to win every night.
McDavid currently leads the league in scoring, there is already talk of him in the MVP race and is the key reason the Oilers are rebounding. He’s aided by a good offense of Patrick Maroon and Leon Draisatil while Cam Talbot is leading all goalies in the NHL in starts, saves and minutes played. Altogether, these Oilers are giving Edmonton hope they haven’t had since 1990 and returning the franchise to its winning glory.
10 DISAPPOINTMENT: Colorado Avalanche
Granted, Colorado hadn’t been that great in 2015-16 but there were still hopes for a turnaround. Instead, the Avalanche currently rank as the worst team in the NHL, dead last in points and show no signs of improvement. It pretty much started when Patrick Roy, the man who helped the team win two Stanley Cups, resigned as coach before the season started and Jared Bednar has been a major letdown as his replacement. They have some of the worst possession numbers around while also 30th in both goals per game and goals against and 28th in power play percentage.
Right now, Colorado newspapers are already using “rebuilding” as the new term for the Avalanche’s status given their horrible play. The hopes had been high the team could turn things around but so far, they’re set to finish last for the season and are probably just hoping to win the draft lottery at this point.
9 SURPRISE: Minnesota Wild
Last year, the Wild had a good start only to falter at the mid-season mark. While that can happen again, so far Minnesota is doing far better than most had expected of them for at the start of the season. Bruce Boudreau has been fantastic in his first season as coach, putting the Wild first in the Central Division. The Wild are third in goals scored (3.3 per game), second in goals against (2.2 per game) and have the Vezina Trophy front-runner in Devan Dubnyk.
Despite not having one major scorer, the team creates opportunities to break out and they find ways to win. At the rate they’re going, they may set a franchise record for points and make a serious playoff run. Things can change but as it stands right now, Minnesota is truly ready to run wild (pun intended) on the rest of the NHL and put up their best season ever.
8 DISAPOINTMENT: Winnipeg Jets
The Jets went into the season with high hopes and many had expected them to be a playoff contender. On paper, they should be as their top stars are performing well but their goaltending has been rough. Patrik Laine is living up to the hype surrounding him when he entered the NHL, supplying heroics in some last minute victories and Mark Scheifele has aided him in keeping the offense going. But aside from Dustin Byfuglien and his top play, the defense has struggled and have blown too many winnable games.
After a strong 2016, Connor Hellebuyck is struggling in nets to the point the Jets have needed backups who have also underperformed. It just seems the front office can’t make the right moves to get the right guys so despite having a team that should be a winner, Winnipeg is lagging in the standings and its hopes for a playoff run are flying further and further away.
7 SURPRISE: New York Rangers
The Rangers hit the ice hot in 2016 and while they have cooled down a bit, they still look strong going into the second half of the season. They’re currently second in offense in the NHL in goals scored. That’s thanks to an influx of new players, as Jeff Gorton has done a terrific job creating a team to enhance the strengths of the veterans. Michael Grabner is leading the team in goals, and Jimmy Vesey has proven to be a huge signing.
Team captain Ryan McDonagh is putting the team on the winning side with his fantastic play and leadership skills to push a thin defense into being serious contenders. While the Rangers have hit a skid at times, there is still plenty here to put them on a serious playoff run and give New York more hope for a championship.
6 DISAPOINTMENT: Dallas Stars
You have to rank it as a disappointment when a team that ended up first in the Central Division in 2016 but are now sixth. The Stars thought they would have a great year with Patrick Sharp ready to get back to the form that won three Stanley Cups with the Blackhawks. But when he went out with a concussion, the Stars took a massive fall. Their goaltending is either top-notch or utterly horrific with no in between and that means they can be either huge winners or massive losers night to night. They’ve yet to have a winning streak longer than three games and just can’t find any consistent niche.
Injuries have taken their toll but the team just doesn’t seem to click on the ice and Lindy Ruff seems unable to get them on track. Jaimie Benn is doing his best as captain but it just doesn’t seem to be doing much good as both the offense and defense are sliding badly. If something isn’t done fast to whip things around than the Stars are going to fade away badly.
5 SURPRISE: Toronto Maple Leafs
True, there’s no way to go but up when you ended 2016 dead last in the league. Landing Auston Matthews with the first pick and pairing him up with other young guns like Mitch Marner and William Nylander have made the Leafs an exciting team to watch.
Their defense is also rising up with Jake Gardiner supplying good work and Frederik Andersen providing a huge upgrade in nets.
Mike Babcock should be credited with taking a team of mostly rookies and managing to forge them into a strong unit that’s managed to pull Toronto out of the basement. It’s been a while since Maple Leafs fans could celebrate a good season but right now, Toronto is giving themselves real hope to boost their playoff chances and might finally bring some joy to a long-suffering fanbase.
4 DISAPOINTMENT: Los Angeles Kings
It’s been just three seasons since the King rode high in the NHL as Stanley Cup champions. Now, L.A. is going to be lucky just to make a wild card spot. True, Jonathan Quick’s injury has been a major issue but it’s not the only reason the Kings are next to last in the Pacific Division. Jeff Carter looks to be the only guy on offense who really cares enough to try to win and yet his efforts aren’t nearly enough.
The defense are doing their best to try and salvage things but it’s not working well despite the surprisingly good work by goalie Peter Budaj who’s managing to keep Quick’s spot warm. But given their quality of players, Los Angeles should be doing a lot better rather than struggling to make a wild card spot and the royal shine has come off the Kings majorly.
3 SURPRISE: Ottawa Senators
True, the Atlantic Division is a bit soft this year and that might be contributing. But it’s still something how Ottawa is doing much better this first half of the season than most had expected. It was expected that Mark Stone and Erik Karlsson would be good but the rest of the team is stepping up to help them out. Kyle Turris could be having his best season if he stays healthy and Mike Hoffman is proving his four-year, $20.75 million contract extension was worth it.
Craig Anderson is a good year with a .924 save percentage and winning respect for playing tough despite his wife battling cancer. Guy Boucher is pulling them all together, helping balance offense and defense out. Right now, the Senators are second in the Atlantic division and if they keep this up, can make a decent playoff push.
2 DISAPPOINTMENT: Tampa Bay Lightning
Having reached the 2015 Stanley Cup Final and last season's Eastern Conference Finals, the Lightning were considered serious Cup contenders for 2016-17. Injuries, however, have taken a toll upon their performance. Several notable players, including Ben Bishop, Ryan Callahan, Jonathan Drouin, Ondrej Palat and Anton Stralman, were sidelined at various points with Steven Stamkos being the worst loss.
They have some of the worst goaltending in the league (2.95 goals-against per game) and their shooting percentage is among the lower third in the league as is their power play. Without Stamkos, the team that has been so great the last few seasons now sit at eighth in the Atlantic Division meaning that Tampa Bay’s chances of lightning striking again with a long playoff run is fading fast.
1 SURPRISE: Columbus Blue Jackets
Since their founding in 2000, the Blue Jackets have only qualified for the playoffs twice and both times, were beaten in the first round. They finished the 2015-16 season 27th in the league and fans were expecting more of the same this season. Instead, Columbus has turned into a powerhouse on the ice, including a franchise record 10-0 shutout over the Canadiens and seven straight home wins.
They went undefeated in December and carried a 16-game winning streak into January. Despite boasting no stars, the team is dominating the NHL in multiple categories, including goals-against average, goals-per-game while also first in power play efficiency and goal-differential. John Tortorella is being massively credited with whipping the team into shape and fans are answering with sellout crowds. Suddenly, the long-time joke of the NHL is being cited as favorites in the playoffs, one of the biggest single-season turnarounds imaginable.
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