Now that the NHL All-Star weekend has arrived, we can look back and reflect upon the season thus far. While some teams and players have performed right in line with expectations, others have been major surprises for one reason or another.
Let's take a look at some of the biggest shockers the NHL has give us in the 2022-23 season.
Entering the 2021-22 season, expectations were high for the Seattle Kraken. How could they not be? Just look at what the Vegas Golden Knights did in their inaugural season. Surely, the Kraken could do the same thing. Well, Seattle wound up finishing 15th in the Western Conference with 60 points and a minus-69 goal differential. It looked like it would take a while for the Kraken to be competitive.
Instead, it took just one offseason. At the 2023 NHL All-Star break, the Kraken are in the Pacific Division's top spot with 63 points, three more than they earned all of last season. Even though the goaltending situation is still on shaky ground, the Kraken are playing better defensively, and some new faces have bolstered the offense in a major way.
- Matty Beniers is leading the Calder Trophy race with 17 goals and 19 assists, and it looks like he will be a foundational piece for this fledgling franchise.
- Andre Burakovsky, the team's big free agent acquisition, has lived up to his payday with 13 goals and 39 points in 48 games played.
- Those two have played a big role in the Kraken scoring 177 goals, which is fifth in the NHL.
There Kraken do have some potential red flags, like their abnormally high shooting percentage and untrustworthy goaltending, but they have bought themselves quite a bit of wiggle room. It has been great to see Climate Pledge Arena rocking, and it appears as though the Seattle fan base will get to enjoy some playoff hockey this spring. -- Austin Nivison
New Jersey Devils
After going 27-46-9 a season ago, few outside of the Devils' locker room believed that this team was capable of the first half that they put together. The Devils are in second place in the Metropolitan Division with a 32-13-4 record (68 points) and have been one of the NHL's biggest success stories thus far.
Despite being just 21, Jack Hughes has developed into a superstar. He recorded 33 goals in 49 games and is on his way to his second consecutive All-Star Game. Hughes is pacing a Devils offensive unit that ranks sixth in the league with 3.47 goals-per-game.
The Devils are also seeing an upswing between the pipes. Since Martin Brodeur left New Jersey, the Devils have finished in the top 10 in goals against just once after finishing in the top 10 in 19 of the 20 seasons Brodeur spent with the franchise. Vitek Vanecek is changing the narrative for the Devils, who hit the All-Star break third in the NHL in goals against.
In 32 games this season, Vanecek ranks fourth in goals-against-average (2.29) and fifth in wins (21) among NHL goalies and has been victorious in his last nine starts dating back to Dec. 28. During the month of January, Vanecek posted a 2.07 goals-against-average and a .932 save percentage for a Devils team that hopes to catch the Carolina Hurricanes atop the Metropolitan Division.
After winning a franchise record 13 consecutive games early on this season, the question was whether or not the Devils were just off to a hot start. That question has been answered. -- Chris Bengel
I predicted that the Flames would win the Stanley Cup before the season, so you could say that them being outside the playoffs at the All-Star break is a bit of a surprise. Even though Calgary lost Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk in the same offseason, it managed to reload with some big acquisitions of its own, at least on paper.
In sending Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers, the Flames received star winger Jonathan Huberdeau and top-pairing defenseman MacKenzie Weegar. Calgary also made a splash in free agency by signing Nazem Kadri, who played a big role in delivering a Stanley Cup to Colorado last season. Add those players to an already talented roster, and it seemed like a coup for the Flames.
Unfortunately, it just hasn't worked out that way. Neither Huberdeau nor Weegar have panned out to this point. We'll talk more about Huberdeau in a minute, but Weegar has been equally disappointing. He is on pace for just two goals and 25 points on the year, but at least his on-ice impacts have been strong. The Flames control 57.24% of the expected goals with Weegar on the ice at five-on-five, so a turnaround could be on the way.
The chances that things finally click for the Flames are still pretty high. There is a ton of talent on this roster, and Darryl Sutter is a proven head coach. Having said that, the Western Conference playoff race will be very competitive, and Calgary can't afford many more missteps. -- Nivison
After winning the Presidents' Trophy last season, expectations remained high for the Panthers. The team saw trade deadline addition Claude Giroux leave to sign with his hometown Ottawa Senators, but the Panthers didn't sit on their hands. Florida's front office made a huge splash with that aforementioned deal with Calgary.
However, at the All-Star break, Florida has just a 24-22-6 record (54 points) and sits in fifth place in the Atlantic Division. To make matters worse, they're currently on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture, three points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second Wild Card spot in the East. This is a team that scores the seventh-most goals (3.40) in the league on the season, so it's not like they're failing to put the puck in the net.
The goaltending department is where Florida is suffering, as they're surrendering 3.50 goals-per-game. It's been a timeshare in the crease between veteran Sergei Bobrovsky (12-13-2, 3.24 GAA) and youngster Spencer Knight (9-7-3, 3.05 GAA). If the Panthers hope to make a playoff push, they're going to need one of their netminders to be a lot more consistent. -- Bengel
Erik Karlsson | D | San Jose Sharks
Karlsson had been in decline since he joined the Sharks ahead of the 2018-19 season. He's turned back the clock and is one of the frontrunners to win the Norris Trophy now. On an otherwise bad team, Karlsson has excelled, and he is probably preventing the Sharks from being even higher in the draft lottery.
Through 51 games played, Karlsson has 16 goals and 66 points. He hasn't posted numbers like those since 2016-17, when he did it in a full season. Now, Karlson is on pace for 106 points, which would be an incomprehensible number for a defenseman. It would be fair to wonder whether Karlsson is just piling up empty-calorie points on the power play, but that is just not the case. San Jose has been brilliant with Karlsson in the game at five-on-five. In those situations, the Sharks own 56.41% of the expected goals and have outscored opponents 69-54.
For a while, it seemed like Karlsson's $11.5 million salary cap hit would be an anchor around the team's neck through the 2026-27 campaign. Now, Karlsson is playing up to that contract and then some. In fact, San Jose might even be able to deal Karlsson for some premium assets to bolster the rebuilding process. -- Nivison
Tage Thompson | C | Buffalo Sabres
For the first time since the 2010-11 season, the playoffs are an attainable goal for the Sabres. The star of power of Tage Thompson is a central storyline surrounding their success.
During the 2021-22 season, Thompson showed why he was a part of the 2018 trade that sent veteran forward Ryan O'Reilly to the St. Louis Blues in a move that benefitted both franchises. Thompson recorded 68 points (38 goals and 30 assists) in 78 games a season ago. While he proved to be a strong contributor, Thompson wasn't quite expected to become one of the top stars in the sport this quickly.
Yet in just 50 games during the 2022-23 campaign, Thompson has already equaled his point total from last season with 34 goals and 34 assists. The 25-year-old stud has six multi-goal games on the year, including a five-goal performance in December. Simply put, Thompson has become one of the sport's most electrifying players.
Thompson was selected to his first NHL All-Star Game earlier this month, but had be replaced by teammate Rasmus Dahlin after suffering an upper-body injury against the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday. While the team is still awaiting further testing, early reports are suggesting that it's not an injury that should keep Thompson on the shelf very long.
Thompson set the bar high a season ago, but has really taken his game to the next level so far this season. Considering that he has a chance to blow last season's point total out of the water, that certainly comes off as a tad alarming. -- Bengel
Jonathan Huberdeau | LW | Calgary Flames
Huberdeau finished the 2021-22 season with 30 goals and 115 points, and he was fifth in Hart Trophy voting at the end of season. When he went to Calgary as part of the Matthew Tkachuk trade last July, it seemed like a great piece of work by Flames general manager Brad Treliving.
For whatever reason, Huberdeau just hasn't been able to hit his stride in a Flames uniform, though. At the All-Star break, Huberdeau has just 10 goals and 33 points, which puts him on pace to finish woefully short of his totals from last year. What might be even more concerning is that Huberdeau's lack of production doesn't seem to be based entirely on bad luck.
Huberdeau's shooting percentage is right in line with his career average, and he is only slightly below his expected goal total of 11.07, per Natural Stat Trick. When it comes to his assist total, nine of his 23 are secondary assists. That doesn't bode well for future success either.
Whether it's as simple as Huberdeau struggling to adjust to a new system in Calgary or a step back for Huberdeau himself, the Flames have to get him going after the All-Star break. -- Nivision
Johnny Gadreau | LW | Columbus Blue Jackets
When Johnny Gaudreau informed the Calgary Flames that he wouldn't be re-signing with the team prior to the 2022 offseason, it was clear that the star winger would be the crown jewel of that class. He was, and he signed a seven-year, $68.25 million ($9.75 million AAV) deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets in a move that came out of left field.
It was a move that surprised many, and midway through Year 1, it may not have been the most sound one.
Gaudreau has just 49 points (14 goals & 35 assists) in 51 games, which puts him on pace for 79 points (23 goals & 56 assists) on the season. His 49 points are tied for 36th across the league and that final projection it's a far cry from the career-high 115-point season that Gaudreau put together in his final campaign in Calgary.
It's obviously way too early to say that Gaudreau signing with the Blue Jackets was the wrong move. However, playing with a lethal goal scorer like Patrik Laine should've probably led to a little bit more success through the first half of the year. This a franchise that currently sits in last place in the East with just 34 points, so it's hard to categorize Gaudreau's early tenure as anything other than a nasty surprise. --Bengel