NHL's six biggest surprises: Elias Pettersson's breakout, Lightning's historical dominance and more
A few teams and players have stunned everyone this year
The NHL season is about three quarters of the way through, and there are some teams atop the standings that shouldn't surprise anyone. The Jets, Predators, Lightning, Maple Leafs, Bruins and Capitals all look poised for deep playoff runs, and the Atlantic Division is among the toughest hockey.
However, while the Central and the Atlantic have performed up to expectations, a few teams in the Pacific and Metropolitan Divisions have far exceeded theirs. Some other teams have performed exceptionally well in spite of relatively poor showings from some of their best players -- whereas other teams simply have not been good. With that in mind, here are the biggest surprises of the 2018-19 NHL season (so far):
1. The Calgary Flames and New York Islanders leading their divisions
What the Lightning are doing this year is nothing short of astounding, and it's hard not to imagine the Eastern Conference champion coming out of the Atlantic. But what the Islanders are doing this year is so insane they may have surprised themselves. The Islanders let John Tavares walk in the offseason, but they're now fourth in the NHL in goal differential at plus-33. Though they're 22nd in goals, they're first in goals allowed at just 133 through 58 games. Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss have shared the load between the pipes, and their save percentages are .929 and .930, respectively. Their defensive depth has been incredible, with Scott Mayfield and Ryan Puloch proving to be solid options on the second and third pairs. All of that mixed with a Jack Adams candidate in Barry Trotz has the Islanders looking way, way ahead of schedule in what should have been a rebuilding year, and they're doing it through defense.
In the Pacific, the Flames are leading a division that features a preseason Stanley Cup contender in the Sharks and last year's Western Conference champion the Golden Knights. Mark Giordano is looking like a Norris Trophy-caliber defender, right up there with Morgan Rielly, and the Flames are hockey's third-best goal-scoring team, trailing only the Lightning and the Sharks with 217 goals. Giordano's plus-minus is a ridiculous plus-30. Though we saw signs of this breakout last season, it was hard to imagine anyone catching the Sharks and the Golden Knights after the offseasons they had. Now, the Flames may be the team in the best position to add pieces at the looming trade deadline. Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan lead the team in goals, but the Flames face a steep drop-off in forward production after their first line.
Both of these teams look poised to make runs. The Islanders may hit a tough wall against the Atlantic, but the Flames have depth and experience to combat the best teams in the West. The Jets and the Predators are a challenge, and the Sharks are still one of hockey's deepest teams.
2. The Montreal Canadiens fighting for a playoff spot
Carey Price is coming off of an abysmal 2017-18 season by his standings in which he posted a career-low .900 save percentage, a ridiculously high 3.11 goals against average and had a percentage of -17.49 goals saved above average. All of this was the year after finishing third in Vezina Trophy voting.
This year, Price has been... Better. He's 22nd in save percentage (.916), 20th in goals against average (2.58) and 10th in goals saved above average (10 percent). With that being said, he hasn't been a world-beater -- in spite of an All-Star nod that largely came by default as it was hard to imagine anyone representing the Canadiens.
Fast forward to February, the Canadiens have a wild card spot just a season after trading captain Max Pacioretty, and their leading goal-scorer is Brendan Gallagher with 23. The Canadiens are arguably hockey's most stubborn team right now, and they're ready to build out from Price rather than needing a Hart Trophy-winning performance out of him just to lose in the second round. This is another team rebuilding a bit ahead of schedule, and the question is now if Gallagher is ready to take the next step.
3. SoCal teams' inability to score goals
Some really bad news for the Kings and the Ducks: Last years' playoff series were an omen of things to come. Los Angeles and Anaheim scored seven goals between then in their first-round series last year, in which they were both swept. They're 30th and 31st in hockey this year, with the Kings scoring 141 goals on the season and the Ducks scoring 130. Last year, the Kings were 16th with 237 whereas the Ducks were 18th with 231 -- so they're off the mark.
Anze Kopitar has just 44 points after his 92-point season, and Alex Iafallo hasn't taken the step expected of him as Dustin Brown has floundered. The Kings have struggled all season, and they're young enough that there's time to right the ship -- but Drew Doughty seems to be one of the few consistent players on this team.
As for the Ducks, the problem is easier to diagnose and harder to solve: They're old up front and their contracts are hamstringing them. Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler and Corey Perry are all 33 or 34 years old, and Getzlaf leads the team with a lowly 38 points. To make matters worse, Perry and Getzlaf are with the team with no-movement clauses until 2021, and Kesler's NMC will expire the same year. The Ducks may be stuck with this core for longer than what's ideal, but they may need them to take reduced roles before that time comes. John Gibson tried, he really did, but no one player is going to save this Ducks team.
4. The Panthers continue to not be surprising
This really should have been a breakout season for the Florida Panthers. They barely missed the playoffs last year, they added a solid winger in Mike Hoffman, they have a legitimate star in Aleksander Barkov, and Jonathan Huberdeau was fresh off a breakout season. Of course, something happened that no one could have anticipated: Age caught up to the ageless Roberto Luongo.
Luongo has played just 30 games this year after finishing ninth in Vezina Trophy voting last year, and James Reimer has picked up the slack. While Reimer has been decent -- he's 12-10-5 in 25 starts and 32 games -- the Panthers now have a chasm in their roster at the goalie position. Trade rumors suggest they may try to offload salary to make a run at Sergei Bobrovsky this offseason, but it's unlikely the Panthers will make any kind of bizarre run this year 11 games out of a playoff spot.
There is reason to be optimistic. Hoffman has lived up to his billing with 26 goals on the year, a team-high, and Huberdeau could be a very enticing trade piece. However, for the time being it looks like the Panthers will have to wait until next season to try and make their move into hockey's next tier.
5. Elias Pettersson singlehandedly turning the Canucks around
The NHL is reaching a crossroads regarding young talent, as players are entering the league more ready than ever to contribute in year one. The Canucks were toward the bottom of nearly ever power ranking in the preseason, but they didn't account for one thing: 20-year-old Elias Pettersson coming in and having an impact that even rookie Connor McDavid didn't have.
Pettersson has 54 points on the season, 26 of them goals and 28 of them assists. While he may not be in the upper echelon of NHL players in terms of points -- the thought of anyone but Nikita Kucherov winning the Hart Trophy is borderline laughable at this point -- his impact on his team is ridiculous. The Canucks are a mere point out of a playoff spot after finishing eighth in the Western Conference wild card last year.
Pettersson was always a welcome addition to the Canucks' lineup, but the standout is how comparatively bad they are without him. He has completely revitalized a Canucks team that looked hapless last year -- and even now, it feels like they have very little without him. While Rasmus Dahlin has been very good for the Sabres, Pettersson has been this year's most influential rookie, and now the Canucks need to do what the Oilers have failed to do thus far around McDavid: Build out from their generational star.
6. The Lightning's historical dominance
We knew two things heading into this season. The Atlantic is hockey's most competitive division in hockey, and the Lightning are a very good team. While both things have proven true, the Atlantic's second-place battle between the Bruins and Maple Leafs has been the most compelling, and the Lightning are on the road to historical dominance.
Through 60 games, they're 45-11-4 and they have 94 points. Their goal differential is plus-77, Kucherov is at 99 points as of Tuesday and he could well reach 125, and Andrei Vasilevskiy could well end up winning the Vezina Trophy.
All of this is after Steve Yzerman assembled this outrageous roster and stepped down as GM prior to the season with a year left on his contract. Yzerman, who of course was a part of one of the best teams ever in the 1997-98 Red Wings, has already seen their 44 wins surpassed.
If the Lightning hit 125 points this season -- a very real possibility -- they would be the first team to do so in 23 years (1995-96 Red Wings -- 131 points).
Naturally, none of this matters without a Stanley Cup, but the Lightning are just enjoying the ride right now. Time will tell where this team stands among the best ever, but so far they've just made statement after statement in the toughest division in the NHL. There's something to be said for that type of dominance, so they'l have to let the playoffs take care of themselves.
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