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Five players off to unexpectedly hot starts this season

There are some surprising names among the league's scoring leaders. Here are five players who have been unexpectedly hot to start the campaign.

There’s no one in the league who has roared out of the gates quite like Nikita Kucherov.

In the first seven games of the campaign, the Tampa Bay Lightning winger notched eight goals, setting into motion some talk about potentially breaking Mario Lemieux’s longstanding season-opening goal streak. That talk was silenced Thursday night when Kucherov, in a 2-0 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets, was held without a goal for the first time this season. But while his goal-scoring streak ended, his point streak certainly didn’t. Kucherov added two assists, both on tallies by rookie defenseman Mikhail Sergachev, to make it eight games in a row that he’s found the scoresheet.

That Kucherov has registered a point in every game thus far isn’t exactly shocking, however. He’s a brilliant scorer with a wicked release and big things were expected of him this season. And while he may be holding down the league's early scoring lead, ahead of the likes of Connor McDavid, Sidney Crosby and teammate Steven Stamkos, it wouldn’t have been too out there to suggest Kucherov would be doing as such.

More surprising, however, is some of Kucherov’s company among the league’s top scorers. It’s still early, of course, but here are five players — rookies excluded — whose hot starts have impressed:

5. Bryan Rust, Pittsburgh Penguins

The early part of Rust’s career has been spent as a third- and fourth-line energy guy and, heading into this season, he had averaged 13 minutes per game. He’s been bumped up the lineup to start this season, however, and it’s paying off for both the Penguins and the speedy winger. In fact, after seven games, Rust is already more than a quarter of the way to setting a new benchmark for points in a campaign. His previous high is 28 points in 57 games, which he accomplished last season, and he’s already managed one goal and eight points through the early part of this campaign.

It’s evident that Rust’s role in Pittsburgh over the past two post-seasons is paying off, and if he can keep this going, a 40-point campaign isn’t out of the question. The remarkable thing about that? It would be the most points Rust has scored in a season since a 52-point year with the U.S. national under-18 team.

4. Ryan Hartman, Chicago Blackhawks

Every season in Chicago, we know what to expect out of the likes of Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Duncan Keith. But with a thinner roster than past years, some were expecting the emergence of Nick Schmaltz and Alex DeBrincat to be key in the Blackhawks sustaining a top-flight offense. Both have been good, to be sure, but neither can hold a candle to Hartman.

Through eight games, Hartman, who managed 31 points as a rookie, has already found the back of the net three times and has nine points to his name. His presence on a line with Kane has no doubt helped, but give Hartman some credit, too: he seems to be a perfect fit alongside Chicago’s superstar. If Hartman can keep it up, he'll easily establish new career-highs in goals and points.

3. Vladislav Namestnikov, Tampa Bay Lightning

It’s hard not to focus on all the other things going well in Tampa Bay right now. Kucherov’s scoring streak, Stamkos’ return to action and hot start, the early play of Sergachev and Brayden Point, not to mention the goaltending the Lightning are getting from Andrei Vasilevskiy. All of these great starts, though, have seen Namestnikov go relatively unheralded as the third member of arguably the hottest line in hockey.

Since the start of the season, Namestnikov has been lining up with Kucherov and Stamkos and has more than held his own as their linemate. He’s stepped in to take faceoffs when needed and has acted as both set-up specialist and triggerman alongside the Lightning’s top-scoring duo. It’s almost no question that Namestnikov will use this campaign to set a new career mark, either. He already has three goals and eight points and could very well be a breakout scorer in Tampa Bay this season. His previous career-bests are 14 goals and 35 points.

2. Olli Maatta, Pittsburgh Penguins

Maatta’s offensive upside was one of the reasons he was a first-round pick back in 2012, but his numbers wouldn’t really suggest that his ability on the attack is one of his better skills. Sure, he had a stellar rookie season, scoring nine goals and 29 points, but he has managed eight goals and 35 points in 142 games since then. In 55 games last season, Maatta managed just one goal and seven points.

And that’s what makes his two goals and seven points so impressive this year.

Maatta seems to have rediscovered his scoring touch through the early portion of this season and is really making the most of his opportunities on the back end. He’s getting power play minutes — he’s helping run the second unit — and he hasn’t been afraid to pull the trigger when the puck’s on his stick. His 14 shots on goal are second-most among Penguins blueliners, behind only Kris Letang.

1. Dustin Brown, Los Angeles Kings

Who knew a coaching change could be exactly what Brown needed to get back on track?

Brown’s offensive struggles have been noted often over the past several seasons, which is to be expected of a player on an eight-year, $47-million contract, but after four consecutive seasons in which Brown has failed to get to surpass 15 goals, he looks like he could be heading for the 20-goal plateau for the first time since 2011-12. Through six games, he’s already found the back of the net four times to go along with three assists. His seven points are nearly one-fifth of what he managed last season, when he scored 36 points in 80 games.

It should come as no surprise that Brown’s uptick in scoring is coming at a time when he’s getting a greater opportunity that he had over the past four seasons. From 2013-14 to 2016-17, Brown averaged 16 minutes of ice time per game, down big time from the nearly 19 minutes he had averaged in the eight prior campaigns. He’s back getting those top-line minutes under coach John Stevens, though. Brown is averaging 19:44 per contest.

The complaint about Brown has long been that he’s overpaid for what he produces, but if he’s skating on the first line again and helping the Kings’ offense click, he may silence some of the critics who’ve seen him as a buyout candidate over the past few summers.

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