Christmas Q&A: What has been the NHL’s biggest surprise?
Brough: This is an easy answer for me, because I thought the Columbus Blue Jackets would be terrible again. Oh, sure, I knew they had a talented, young defense, and I knew Sergei Bobrovsky had the potential to play like an elite netminder. I even thought John Tortorella might be a good fit with them. But I certainly didn’t foresee the rise of Alexander Wennberg, or the resurgence of Sam Gagner. I thought they’d have to hope and pray that Pierre-Luc Dubois would one day become a legitimate No. 1 center. How wrong I was. The young Jackets, with their “new culture,” have shocked the hockey world.
Gretz: I find the Ottawa Senators’ first half success to be a pretty big surprise. Maybe not quite on the same level as Columbus, but I didn’t really expect them to be in playoff contention. Erik Karlsson is probably one of the five best players in hockey, and they have a couple of decent pieces around him, but this just didn’t seem like a roster that had improved enough to make up the necessary ground in the Eastern Conference to get back into a playoff position, especially in a division that had Tampa Bay, Florida and a Montreal team that was going to get Carey Price back. But here they are now heading into Christmas with a pretty big cushion in the Atlantic Division playoff race. Yep, I’m surprised.
Alfieri: I’d like to say the Edmonton Oilers are the biggest surprise, but if you remember correctly, I predicted they’d make the playoffs this year. So, I’ll be a grinch and go with a negative surprise and say Filip Forsberg. Last year, the Predators forward netted 33 goals in 82 games, but he’s nowhere close to being that productive this season. Through 32 contests, he’s managed to find the back of the net just five times. It’s no coincidence that Nashville isn’t as high in the standings as many expected them to be at this point. If the Predators plan on turning things around in the New Year, they’ll need their star forward to find his game -- and the back of the net -- in a hurry.
Tucker: It hasn’t exactly been smooth sailing for Florida’s two NHL teams, that’s for sure. At the start of the season, it would’ve seemed foolish not to pencil in the Tampa Bay Lightning as a Stanley Cup contender in the East. Moreover, it would not have seemed likely that the upstart Panthers would be the first team to fire its coach. There’s still time for both squads to correct their respective courses, and, as the 2016 champion Penguins showed us, it’s not necessarily about what you do from October through December. But given the progress of both franchises in recent years, the fact they’re both trying to catch up to a playoff spot is a surprise.
O’Brien: As the optimistic soul/dummy who chose the Dallas Stars to win the 2017 Stanley Cup, I’d have to say that their struggles are right up there. While their defensive and goaltending issues are even more problematic than expected, it’s their modest offense that’s truly eye-popping, even with all of the injuries. It’s startling that such an explosive team could slip into the lower half of the league in scoring. That’s borderline criminal for a team that employs Tyler Seguin, Jamie Benn and John Klingberg (and seriously, what’s going on with Klingberg this season?).
Halford: The answers is the Rangers but, more specifically, how well GM Jeff Gorton’s moves paid off. Gorton was kinda painted into a corner this summer -- New York needed to get younger, and faster, yet needed to do it on the cheap. No easy task. So he took low-risk fliers on the likes of Nick Holden, Michael Grabner and Brandon Pirri, made what looked like a “lose now, win later” trade (Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad) and landed Jimmy Vesey. It’s safe to say expectations were tempered, but the result? A team that’s currently on pace for 110 points, which would be nine more than last season. Given many saw the Blueshirts as a team on the decline, it’s a huge surprise.