The 2011-12 NHL campaign is turning out to be full of surprises.
Who would ever guess that Claude Giroux and Phil Kessel would be among the scoring leaders?
The same is true of some high-flying teams like Minnesota and Florida.
In the Western Conference, Minnesota, St. Louis and Dallas all missed the playoffs last season but now look poised to reach the post-season. The same can be said of the Panthers in the East.
On the flip side, teams like Tampa Bay, Washington, Anaheim and Montreal have taken a big tumble.
Here’s a look at teams on the move this season.
1. Minnesota Wild: There was excitement at the draft in June in St. Paul, Minn., that the Wild would end their three-year playoff drought. It was justified, but not because of big off-season acquisitions Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi, who have been so-so. The Wild are near the bottom of the 30-team league in goals scored. The success stems from a strong team game under first year coach Mike Yeo and stellar goaltending from Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding. At this time a year ago, Minnesota was struggling to stay above the .500 mark and they finished in 11th place.
2. Florida Panthers: In 19 months, general manager Dale Tallon has transformed the Panthers. And he’s done it with what was thought to be second-tier players. Who ever thought Steven Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg could be one of the NHL’s most potent offensive lines? Many thought goaltender Jose Theodore was finished, but he’s put up fine numbers. And Brian Campbell, the rearguard Chicago didn’t want, is running a nifty power play on which fellow point man Jason Garrison has emerged from nowhere as a top shooter. They’ve also done it with a first-year coach, Kevin Dineen.
3. Dallas Stars: After losing gifted centre Brad Richards , the Stars’ hopes looked dim. But enter yet another first-year coach, Glen Gulutzan, and another team that has surpassed expectations. Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson stepped up as the offensive leaders, while free agent signing Michael Ryder has been a consistent scorer. Sheldon Souray was rescued from exile in the Edmonton system to play strong minutes on defence. And the goaltending from Kari Lehtonen and, recently, rookie Richard Bachmann, has been solid.
4. St. Louis Blues: It took a coaching change to snap the Blues out of a sub-.500 start and go on a tear, and it turned out veteran Ken Hitchcock was just the man to do it. St. Louis doesn’t have any scoring stars, although getting David Perron back from injury will help. None of T. J Oshie, David Backes and Alex Steen is on even a 30-goal pace. But they have one of the strongest young defence groups in the league, led by Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk, and so-called back-up goalie Brian Elliott has been out of this world. Even No. 1 goalie Jaroslav Halak has picked up his game of late.
5. Toronto Maple Leafs: It’s been six years out of the playoffs for the Leafs and it will likely be a struggle again, but there has been plenty to cheer for. The forward combination of Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul has been on fire since the start of the season and the power play led by captain Dion Phaneuf and newcomer John-Michael Liles has been among the league’s best. They still let in to many goals, perhaps due partly to time missed with a concussion by goalie James Reimer, but they have been big, fast and productive on attack.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning: Perhaps the magic of innovative coach Guy Boucher has worn off, but it all looks to be coming apart for a Lightning team that had 103 points and reached the conference final last season. The Bolts have been weak on defence and in goal, where 42-year-old Dwayne Roloson is looking his age. And the attack has also dropped off, other than Steven Stamkos, who is on pace to match last year’s 45 goals. The close games the Lightning won so often last year seem to be going the other way.
2. Anaheim Ducks: A mad rush led by Corey Perry at the end of last season put the Ducks into fourth place in the West, but they have floundered this season, battling Columbus for the league basement. That is despite another remarkable season from 41-year-old Teemu Selanne, who is averaging a point per game. Even Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are have been OK. But the goaltending from Jonas Hiller has been a disappointment and the trade rumours around underperforming forward Bobby Ryan may be a distraction. They already fired coach Randy Carlyle, so some kind of spark is needed to save this season.
3. Washington Capitals: Only two seasons ago, the high-flying Caps were a threat to blow out any opponent at any time, but their shift to defensive hockey has been a disaster. Alex Ovechkin was thought to be the sport’s best player, but looks average too often now. Alexander Semin looks even worse. Free agent goaltender Tomas Vokoun has not been the answer, so it remains to be seen if replacing Bruce Boudreau behind the bench with no-nonsense Dale Hunter will turn things around.
4. Montreal Canadiens: They were sixth in the East last year and entered the season optimistic about the signing of free agent Erik Cole and about defenceman Andrei Markov’s return from knee surgery. Except it turned out that Markov won’t be back until some still undertermined time in 2012, and who knows if he’ll be the same two-way star he once was. That among other miscalculations by GM Pierre Gauthier produced a listless team with an inexperienced defence and led to the firing of coach Jacques Martin and the controversial hiring of Randy Cunneyworth. So now they’re in trouble in the standings and with some of their fans.
5. Buffalo Sabres: This was another team with high hopes that has underperformed, although long-standing coach Lindy Ruff’s job is not likely in danger. The real shocker is the very ordinary numbers put up by star goaltender Ryan Miller, who was not playing all that well even before he was steamrollered by Milan Lucic and missed time with a concussion. Jason Pominville and Thomas Vanek are scoring, as is rookie Luke Adam, but the rest of the attack has been spotty. Free agent Ville Leino, before he got hurt, has added very little of the second-line scoring punch they hoped for.