As the NHL regular season winds down, we like to reflect on what has happened since October. Teams and pundits go into each season with certain expectations and each season comes with surprises, both good and bad.
So this week, we’re looking at the biggest surprises from the regular season. No surprise, there’s more bad than good.
I was all in on Phil Kessel enjoying his first 40-goal season. A player still in his prime (a) leaves what, for him, was a hellish media crush in Toronto to join Pittsburgh, a team where he’d be the third-most famous person at best; and (b) is guaranteed to play with a future Hall of Fame superstar center still in his prime, be it Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. And yet, the goals haven’t piled up for Phil the Thrill. The uninspired Kessel we saw last season somehow crept onto the flight to Pittsburgh and returned for this season – with even worse numbers. The problem to me is Kessel’s lack of versatility. He has that tremendous wrist shot he likes to snap on the short side, but he can’t do a whole lot else. Kessel one-timer goals or slap-shot goals are rarities. I have to give credit to the pundits who predicted Kessel wasn’t a natural fit with Crosby or Malkin because Kessel likes to carry the puck more than most snipers. I figured it wouldn’t matter – come on, it’s Crosby and Malkin! – but I was wrong, evidently. (Matt Larkin)
Just because the Jets made the post-season in 2014-15 didn’t mean they were expected to get back to the playoffs this time around. The belief, however, was Winnipeg would at least be competitive and push for a wild-card spot in the Western Conference. Instead, the Jets were sellers at the deadline, sit a handful of points away from last in the league and have a serious shot at landing the top pick in the draft. One major sore spot for Winnipeg this season has been the penalty kill, and it’s a large part of what has put them in the basement. Last season the Jets’ aggressive style didn’t cost them too often. Winnipeg led the league in times shorthanded, killing 308 penalties in 2014-15, but boasted the league’s 13th best kill at 81.8 percent. That percentage has dipped to 78.5 percent this season, 25th in the league, but their proclivity for penalties hasn’t. The Jets are second in the league in times shorthanded at 265.
And while Winnipeg has good possession numbers, their offensive output has been lacking and the goaltending has been shaky. Coach Paul Maurice’s club is due some good fortune if they maintain a favorable possession rate in 2016-17, but issues in goal and the Jets’ habit of playing down a man need to change to turn this ship around. (Jared Clinton)
Dallas deserves a lot of credit for putting it all together this year. Coming into the campaign, it was easy to peg the Stars as a pretty good team thanks to their offense, but there were certainly questions about the new goalie rotation and how they would fare overall in a bloody Central Division. As it turns out, they’re doing just fine, thank you. Dallas is second only to Los Angeles in possession numbers, making them a legit Cup contender, at least on paper. The Stars are first in the Central right now and recently smoked Chicago – again.
Sure, they’ve given up a lot of goals, but no team in the NHL has scored more than the Stars. No matter what happens in the playoffs (and yeah, that Tyler Seguin injury did not happen at a good time), Dallas has proven to be one of the season’s better surprises. (Ryan Kennedy)
While I admire and respect the work hockey’s number crunchers are doing, I’m not a part of the analytics community. In fact, I’m pretty sure they have a restraining order against me. Which is why their pre-season warnings went unheeded. Now, I’m not saying I thought the Flames would win the Stanley Cup or anything. I’m not even saying I thought they would do as well this season as they did in 2014-15. But, geez Louise, they went into Thursday night’s game against the Minnesota Wild on pace for just 76 points this season. When everyone was saying what the Flames were doing was “unsustainable” I was on board with that. So a couple of those dramatic late-game comebacks turn into losses and they finish with 90 points, still probably good enough for a playoff spot. But 20 fewer points? Didn’t see that coming. The way I figured, their possession numbers were bad, but they also had a bunch of good young players who would step up a notch in that category and continue to win on youthful enthusiasm. If they could play that way for one season and be successful, what’s wrong with thinking they could have done it for two? I didn’t listen to my math teachers in high school, which is why I still think cosine is something you do to help someone get a loan. I didn’t listen to the pointyheads this time, either. But like my math teachers, they were right. (Ken Campbell)