Most surprising teams, players of the 2013-14 NHL season

By Chris Peters | Hockey Writer

The Colorado Avalanche have been a huge surprise this year. (USATSI)
The Colorado Avalanche have been a huge surprise this year. (USATSI)

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One of the interesting things about professional sports is how widely-held expectations come about at the start of a season. Step 1 is to look at the recent past to see how a team or player performed. Step 2 is to examine whether a team or player did anything to improve upon the recent past in the offseason. Step 3 is to see what everyone else thinks.

The end result remains subjective, but if enough people think one thing, that's where the expectations come in. Those expectations could vary greatly from the ones held behind the closed doors of an NHL dressing room, however.

So when we say this team or that player is surprising, it's because they exceeded these arbitrarily selected expectations we as the media and you as the fans put on these teams and players, however accurate or inaccurate they may be. Every year, someone or some team defies those expectations and there was no shortage of that happening this season.

Here's a look at some of the biggest surprises of 2013-14.

Colorado Avalanche

It's no mystery why the Avalanche were not picked by many to do better this year. The team finished second to last in the league with a 16-25-7 record and made only minor changes to the roster in the offseason. The biggest change they did make was hire Patrick Roy to be the team's head coach, a decision met with some trepidation from those on the outside, but has been working incredibly well.

All Roy has done is lead the Avalanche to first place (for now) in the Central Division with 111 points while guiding the club to 52 wins, a mark it hasn't hit since 2000-01. From getting the most out of his star players to opening up the team's system, most of Roy's decisions have been met with on-ice success.

A lot of credit should go to goaltender Semyon Varlamov. The Avalanche are routinely outshot, but Varlamov has stood tall in net. He has a .927 save percentage and 41 wins in 63 appearances this year, which is only worth mentioning because it broke Patrick Roy's franchise record. He very well should receive some Hart Trophy votes. Varlamov is a surprise himself as he improved his save percentage by .024 from last season which is darn impressive.

Colorado also had the good fortune, if you want to call it that, to have earned the No. 1 overall pick last year. They took Nathan MacKinnon, who is running away with the Calder Trophy as the league's rookie of the year with 63 points in 80 games.

It's anyone's guess how this young team will do in the playoffs, but boy were they fun to watch this year.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Just like the Avalanche, the Lightning were dreadful last season. They were third to last in the league with an 18-26-4 record. Though the record ended poorly, the decision Steve Yzerman made in season to replace Guy Boucher with rookie coach Jon Cooper has turned out to be a great one.

The Lightning are approaching 100 points this season with a 44-27-9 record and have clinched their spot in the playoffs. What makes this all the more remarkable is the fact the team did it without superstar sniper Steven Stamkos for more than half the season. Yzerman also traded away captain Martin St. Louis, last year's Art Ross winner, and the team didn't miss a beat.

Improvement on defense has been a big key with Victor Hedman turning in a Norris Trophy-caliber season. The big difference maker, however, has been goalie Ben Bishop (more on him in a second). Then you have to give credit to all of the players that really picked things up while Stamkos was injured including offseason free agent acquisition Valtteri Filppula, who is the team's leading scorer with 58 points.

The contributions of rookies Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson can't be overstated either. Palat, a seventh-round pick two years ago and Johnson, an undrafted free agent, are among the team leaders as each has eclipsed 50 points in their first season.

Cooper will deservedly get a lot of Jack Adams buzz, but looking up and down this lineup, a lot of guys really stepped up this season.

Ben Bishop

Bishop deserves his own entry because who would have thought he would be in the Vezina Trophy discussion? Acquired by the Lightning at the trade deadline last year in a move that sent popular rookie Cory Conacher to Ottawa, Bishop has turned in a virtuoso performance in his first season as a team's No. 1.

Bishop had never made more than 22 appearances in a season. This year, the 6-foot-7 goalie has stood in the crease 63 times, posting a 37-14-7 record, .924 save percentage and 2.34 goals-against average.

Unfortunately, Bishop suffered an injury earlier this week and his status for the playoffs is not yet known, which is concerning. It's still hard to believe that we're standing here saying the Lightning losing Bishop would be a massive blow to their playoff chances based on his prior record, but here we are saying it and meaning it.

The late injury takes nothing away from a should-be Vezina finalist. What a remarkable year Bishop had.

Kyle Okposo

When looking at the top 20 scorers in the NHL right now, all of the names are pretty familiar to that section of the list. That's until you get to No. 19 and see Kyle Okposo.. The New York Islanders forward has 69 points in 71 games this season. His prior best was 52 points in 2009-10.

Though the Islanders struggled, Okposo has been a bright spot all season. The 25-year-old winger posted a career-best 27 goals, including a two-month stretch in December and January when he filled the net with 18. His 42 assists also mark a career high for Okposo.

It had seemed that Okposo's game was turning more into a gritty, two-way wing with some decent production. This year, he looked more like the top-line forward the Islanders expected him to be when selecting him seventh overall in 2006.

Gustav Nyquist

Considering Nyquist wasn't even on the Red Wings roster to start the season, the Red Wings forward is a pretty easy choice to make this list. Foreseeing his absolute tear through the last few months would have been a little too weird.

Nyquist almost single-handedly lifted the Red Wings to their 23rd consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. When his team desperately needed offense, Nyquist poured in 12 goals in March, offsetting any lost production from the injured Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg.

The speedy Swede now has 28 goals and 48 points in 55 games. In his 40 NHL games prior to this season, Nyquist had just four goals. Talk about flipping a switch.

Don't be surprised if Nyquist even draws a few Hart Trophy votes for his late-season heroics.

Alexander Steen

It really is a shame Steen's season has been hampered by injuries, but the fact that he was able to put up 33 goals in 66 games this year is still a huge surprise. His previous career high was 24 goals in 68 games.

Getting that kind of production from Steen helped catapult the Blues among the top teams in the league this season.

With a shooting percentage of 15.9 against his career mark of 10 percent, this probably won't be the norm for Steen, but you have to give credit where it is due. The 30-year-old winger hit the 20 goal mark within the first two months of the season. Various injuries likely limited this from becoming an insane season for Steen, but 33 in 66 is still pretty incredible.

Josh Harding

This is a bittersweet entry for this list, but Harding is deserving of some postseason recognition. The Minnesota Wild netminder still leads the league with a sparkling .933 save percentage, but he has not played since Dec. 31 while adjusting to changes in his treatment for multiple sclerosis.

Over 29 appearances in the first half of the season, Harding was probably the best goaltender in the NHL and definitely the best if we're going strictly by the numbers. He had an 18-7-3 record, the aforementioned .933 save percentage, a 1.65 goals-against average and three shutouts.

Knowing that he had been battling multiple sclerosis, something Harding chooses not to speak about during the season, made it all the more impressive.

Dallas Stars

It's kind of tough to call the Stars a huge surprise. They got better in the offseason with several key additions including Tyler Seguin, Rich Pevereley, Shawn Horcoff and first-round pick Valeri Nichushkin. The question was, would it be enough for the playoffs?

The Stars haven't clinched yet, but look well position to nab the last wild card spot. What may be the most surprising thing about this team is how smoothly the transition went for Seguin. The former Boston Bruins center is third in the league in scoring with 83 points and has 36 goals. His instantly clicking with Jamie Benn has been a huge factor as Benn is tenth in the league with 77 points.

A big question mark coming into the year was the defense and it has remained a weak point for the team, but Kari Lehtonen has been his usual underrated self.

General manager Jim Nill, the architect of this turnaround, deserves a ton of credit for his ability to make some of these key decisions. This is a franchise headed in the right direction thanks to solid leadership and the beginnings of a really solid core for the future.

It's not a huge surprise they had the season they've had, but it was hard to predict this transition going so smoothly.

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