“The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist. And poof. Just like that, he’s gone.”
– Kevin Spacey as Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects
And poof. Just like that, 10 percent of the NHL season is gone.
While it feels like just yesterday, it’s been more than three weeks since the NHL dropped the puck on the 2009-10 regular season. Most teams have played nine or 10 games and the early-season kinks are being worked out (Right, Toronto?). Starting goalies are hitting their stride (Right, Florida?). Defensive pairings are getting sorted (Right, Minnesota?). And the forwards are figuring out how to score (Right, Nashville?).
OK, granted, there’s still some work left to do. The Maple Leafs are still looking for their first victory. The Panthers goalies, Tomas Vokoun and Scott Clemmensen, are hoping to shave about a goal-and-a-half off their combined GAA. The perennially positive Wild defense corps is a big Minnesota minus. And the Predators are the only team in the league averaging less than two goals per game.
But, as always, there have been some pleasant early-season surprises, too. In honor of the upcoming 15th anniversary of The Usual Suspects, here are 15 unusual suspects who are off to a great start in ’09-10:
1. Dustin Penner, Edmonton
The biggie-sized left winger, a disappointment since the Oilers signed him away from Anaheim with an offer sheet in the summer of 2007, has awoken from his slumber. Penner, a favorite whipping boy of ex-Oilers coach Craig MacTavish, has thrived under new bench boss Pat Quinn (who has traditionally favored big-bodied players rather than little guys).
Playing on Edmonton’s top line with Ales Hemsky and Sam Gagner on Thursday night against Columbus, Penner scored twice and added three assists; the five-point explosion vaulted him to the top five in overall NHL scoring (seven goals and 14 points in nine games).
With 11 even-strength points, he was tied for first overall in the NHL with Alex Ovechkin. And Penner’s plus-9 rating was tied for first among NHL forwards and tied for third overall. His hot streak won’t last forever, but Penner is proving once again he can produce when given Grade-A linemates (like he had in Anaheim with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry).
2. Rene Bourque, Calgary
True to the Battle of Alberta spirit, Calgary couldn’t let Edmonton get too far ahead in the “breakout player of the year” category. Bourque is off and running, too, trying to keep up with Penner’s exploits up in Edmonton.
Bourque fired 21 goals – and 40 points – in 58 games last season, so it’s not like he’s never scored before. But a spot among the league’s top 10 point-producers – he has 11 points through nine games – is above and beyond expectations and a big boon to Calgary’s secondary scoring. Will Bourque maintain his 36-goal, 99-point pace? No. But 30 goals and 65 points suddenly appears reasonably within reach.
3. Michael Del Zotto, Rangers
It’s a surprise he made the Rangers out of training camp in the first place. It’s a surprise he’s leading all NHL rookies in points (nine points in 10 games). And it’s a surprise he’s leading all NHL defensemen in points.
Only Dion Phaneuf, with five goals, has more goals among D-men than Del Zotto’s four. And no blueliner has more than Del Zotto’s three power play markers. Not bad for a 19-year-old.
Del Zotto, in fact, has been handed the keys to the Rangers’ power play and he’s driving it a 27.3-percent clip right now, which translates to an NHL-best 12 man-advantage goals for the Rangers through 10 games.
4. James Neal, Dallas
The power forward-in-waiting has arrived. Neal, with five goals and 11 points in 10 games, appears poised to build on his 24-goal, 37-point rookie campaign of last season.
And he’ll get plenty of opportunity and quality ice time, as the Stars continue to hand the reins over to the team’s younger players (along with Mike Ribeiro, Brenden Morrow, Loui Eriksson and Brad Richards). Injuries to Stars veterans Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen may hasten the turnover process.
Neal, brings a blend of talent and toughness in a 6-foot-2, 208-pound frame. Here’s what former NHL center and current NBC analyst Bill Clement had to say about Neal earlier in the season: “He looked like an NHL player dropped into a men’s senior league game. He was that good. He looked that much faster, that much stronger and hit that much harder than everybody else in that hockey game. I was really impressed with James Neal.”
5. Jason Demers, San Jose
With respect to Del Zotto, Demers is the early-season favorite to win the “Out of Nowhere” award. (The guy is wearing No. 60, for cryin’ out loud.) A big surprise when he cracked the Sharks roster in training camp, the seventh-round draft pick in 2008 (186th overall) has eight assists in 10 games.
The 21-year-old has good vision and is capable in his own zone and, like Del Zotto, is playing a key role on the power play. At 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds, he’s not overly big, but makes up for it with pinpoint passing and quick decision-making. He had 31 assists in 78 American League games as a rookie pro in Worcester last season.
6. Matt Carle, Philadelphia
It looks like Carle has finally found a home. The Hobey Baker Award winner in 2006, Carle bounced from San Jose to Tampa Bay to Philadelphia during the past 15 months – and let’s face it, if you’re a defenseman and the Lighting traded you away last season, you might start to wonder about your NHL future.
But Carle landed softly in Philadelphia, putting up 24 points in 64 games with them last season while averaging more than 21 minutes of ice time per contest. This year, playing on a blueline that also boasts Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn and Ryan Parent, Carle has found his niche.
He leads the team with nine points and a plus-6 rating through seven games – and only three points came on the power play. Perhaps most surprising is the fact he’s second on the team in ice time (25:23), behind only Pronger (28:13).
7. Kyle Quincey, Colorado
Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Quincey doing so well; after all, he was brought up in the Detroit Red Wings system. That fact probably slowed his ascent to the NHL – as the Wings have had a tough blueline to crack in recent years – and Quincey didn’t play a full season in the big leagues until last year, after the Kings claimed him on waivers.
Despite contributing 34 assists in 72 games for Los Angeles in 2008-09, he was traded in the off-season as part of a package in exchange for Ryan Smyth. This deal is paying off for both teams; Smyth has teamed up with Anze Kopitar to spark L.A.’s offense, while Quincey is fast out of the gates with eight points and a plus-5 rating through 10 games.
8. Miikka Kiprusoff, Calgary
OK, it’s not really that surprising to see one the league’s best goalies – on one of the league’s better teams – with a 6-1-1 record to begin the season. But given Kiprusoff’s reputation as a notoriously slow starter, it bodes well for the Flames that he’s playing so well, so early.
9. Erik Johnson, St. Louis
The first overall draft pick in 2006, Johnson had 33 points in 69 games as a rookie in 2007-08. But thanks to a golf-cart mishap during a team-bonding outing in the ’08-09 pre-season, Johnson missed all of last year recovering from knee surgery. But he’s better, he’s back and he’s putting up points, with seven assists through eight games.
10. Ryan O’Reilly, Colorado
First round draft picks rarely make it to the NHL in their first year. Second-rounders? Almost never. But O’Reilly – brother of Nashville’s Cal – not only made the Avs after being selected 33rd overall last June, but he’s put up nine points (two goal) in 10 games.
Not to mention, he’s one of three rookie centers on the Avalanche right now, along with 2009 first-rounder Matt Duchene (third overall) and T.J. Galiardi (55th overall in 2007).
11. Nicklas Grossman, Dallas
The defensive defenseman, bruised from blocking shots and bumping power forwards, rarely gets his just desserts. But how about Grossman leading the NHL at plus-11, despite the fact he has just two assists in 10 games? Sure beats his minus-8 showing in 81 contests last season.
Consolation awards to Edmonton’s Ladislav Smid (plus-10, with four assists, in nine games) and Colorado’s Scott Hannan (plus-8 in nine games; he was minus-21 last season).
12. Ilya Bryzgalov, Phoenix
Just like when he arrived in Phoenix early in the 2007-08 season (after being claimed on waivers from Anaheim), Bryzgalov is standing tall in the Coyotes goal.
The entire Phoenix team has been one of the NHL’s biggest surprises in the early going and Bryzgalov deserves special mention. At 6-1-0 with a 1.26 GAA and .949 save percentage, he’ll come back down to earth in a while, but right now he’s enjoying that rising-like-a-Phoenix-from-the-ashes feeling.
13. Jamie Benn, Dallas
Like Demers in San Jose, Benn is Dallas’ “Who the heck is that guy?” guy. But with three goals and eight points in 10 games – and a spot on the top two lines – the 129th overall draft pick in 2007 will be more familiar sooner rather than later.
Benn is making the jump to the NHL after two productive seasons with Kelowna in the Western League. That’s a pretty big leap, but he’s a natural-born scorer who’ll get his chance in Dallas.
14. Tyler Myers, Buffalo
At 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds, Myers was expected to make the Sabres this season. But given that he’s still growing into his NBA-esque frame, the fact he’s playing 20 minutes a night and consistently contributing on offense – he has points in four of seven games – is above and beyond. Myers, selected 12th overall in 2008, will be a building block of future Buffalo bluelines.
15. Craig Anderson, Colorado
There’s plenty of credit to go around for Colorado’s fast start, but the plaudits begin with Anderson. After giving Vokoun a run for the starting job in Florida last season, Anderson signed with the Avs during the summer and has continued to play like a late-blooming star.
The 28-year-old was in goal for every minute of Colorado’s first 10 games, putting up a 7-1-2 record with a 2.25 GAA and .929 save percentage. Those are Vezina Trophy-worthy stats over a full season and you may doubt his ability to keep it up. But know this: Anderson’s .924 save percentage in 31 games last season ranked third overall in the NHL. He’s for real.
Sam McCaig is The Hockey News’ senior copy editor and a contributor to THN.com. His blog appears every weekend and his column, From The Point, appears regularly.
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