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Vegas long shot Karlsson leads list of NHL's biggest surprise players this season

William Karlsson has gone from being an anonymous role player in Columbus to the first-ever 30-goal scorer in Vegas franchise history. But he's not the only NHLer who has been a huge surprise this season.

In 57 games, William Karlsson has more than tripled his previous career-high in goals and has doubled his personal-best point total as he continues to have the most surprising season of any NHL scorer. 

Even if a modern-day Nostradamus had predicted the Golden Knights’ success in their inaugural season, the assumption would've been that Vegas’ high-impact offense would be paced by James Neal and Jonathan Marchessault. The belief would likely be that the former recaptured his previous 40-goal form, while the latter added another chapter to one of the NHL's greatest breakout stories in years.

But what no one, not even the greatest of soothsayers, could have ever foreseen was that it would be William Karlsson, he of 18 goals and 50 points in 180 career games, that would be the Golden Knights’ greatest sharpshooting weapon.

No doubt, in what has been a season of surprises for Vegas, Karlsson’s breakout is the most mind-boggling. While he was a promising young talent that the Columbus Blue Jackets weren’t too keen on letting walk in the expansion draft, the thought was that the 25-year-old who had averaged nothing more than bottom-six minutes was closer to his ceiling than his floor when he set a career-high with 25 points in 81 games last season. So, they let him go, hoping it was a move they wouldn't regret. Karlsson has made sure they have, though.

On Thursday night in Vegas, Karlsson kept a five-game scoring streak alive when he found twine midway through the second frame on a Golden Knights power play. But more notable than the scoring streak is that the goal marked Karlsson’s 30th of the season, making him the first player in franchise history to hit the 30-goal plateau and earning him a spot right in the thick of the Rocket Richard Trophy race. The goal also saw Karlsson more than triple his previous career-best of nine goals and double his old career-high of 25 points. Entering the 2017-18 campaign, he had 50 points to his name. He has that in 57 games alone this season.

Karlsson’s success has been helped greatly by his jaw-dropping shooting percentage, which sits at 24.8 percent through 57 games. Nearly three percent better than the next-best shooter with at least 100 shots, Tampa Bay Lightning rookie Yanni Gourde, and among the four 30-goal scorers in the league, Karlsson’s shooting percentage sticks out like a sore thumb. He has a six percent edge on Evgeni Malkin and his shooting success is nearly 10 percent greater than that of Alex Ovechkin and Nikita Kucherov. However, exorbitant shooting percentage or not, his stunning success has made him one of the greatest surprises of the season, a player who came out of virtually nowhere to become a legitimate scoring stud.

Karlsson is the best example of such a player this season, of course, but he’s not the only one. Here are four others who have had unexpected breakouts:

Sean Couturier, Philadelphia Flyers

Strictly offensively speaking, there was reason to believe we had seen Couturier reach, or at least come close, to his best possible performance. Across six seasons he only twice averaged more than a half point per game — 0.62 in 20156, 0.52 in 2016-17 — and it seemed he was destined to remain a defense-minded pivot well into his prime. However, Flyers coach Dave Hakstol made a wise decision to place Couturier on a line with Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek to start the season, and the trio made magic with Couturier literally at the center of it all.

By the midpoint of the season, Couturier had already set new career-highs by notching 20 goals and 40 points in 41 games, and the 25-year-old is on pace to lap his previous career-bests. If he continues to score as he has, he’ll finish the season with 40 goals and 82 points. He's been shuffled throughout the lineup and continue to score, too, which is a good sign for the Flyers.

Erik Haula, Vegas Golden Knights

Across three-and-a-half seasons with the Minnesota Wild, Haula, 26, was a useful hand. His speed made him a terrorizing forechecker and his ability to contribute despite limited minutes made him an asset to the bottom-six in the State of Hockey. But, like Karlsson in Columbus, something had to give in Minnesota when the expansion draft rolled around and it was Haula who found his way to Vegas.

Previously, Haula had pieced together some decent seasons, including a 34-point campaign in 2015-16 and a 15-goal effort in 2016-17. Both of those seasons pale in comparison to what he has been able to accomplish this season with the Golden Knights. In just 52 games, Haula has already set a new career-high by surpassing the 20-goal plateau for the first time in his career — he has 22 — and his 41 points have him on pace to nearly double his previous career-best. Maintaining this pace would result in Haula registering an impressive 33 goals and 61 points by season’s end. Yet another depth piece turned offensive gem for Vegas.

Yanni Gourde, Tampa Bay Lightning

Rookies have been excluded from this list for the most part, but Gourde, while technically qualified for the Calder Trophy, is Karlsson-esque in that he came from seemingly nowhere to become a true-blue offensive threat. And unlike other freshmen such as Brock Boeser and Mathew Barzal, Gourde didn’t have even a whisper of hype behind him, particularly given he entered the season as a 26-year-old undrafted rookie.

Gourde’s pro career dates back to 2011-12 when he suited up in four games with the AHL’s Worcester Sharks. From there, he bounced around the minor leagues, playing for both San Francisco and Kalamazoo in the ECHL before becoming a full-time AHLer in 2014-15 with the Syracuse Crunch. Gourde saw his first NHL action the next season, getting into two games with the Lightning, earned a 20-game look last season and has been great for the Bolts in the current campaign.

Gourde’s 22 goals and 43 points put him on pace to fire home 31 goals and register 61 points in his rookie season after honing his craft in the minors for several years. 

Carter Hutton, St. Louis Blues

Hutton’s career numbers entering this season? Since making his debut as a spot starter for the Chicago Blackhawks during the 2012-13 season, he had seen action in 106 games, posted a 46-32-14 record and had a pedestrian .910 save percentage and 2.51 goals-against average. And already entering his early 30s, Hutton had career backup written all over him.

Not so fast, though.

Over the past few seasons, from Cam Talbot and Martin Jones to Scott Darling and Antti Raanta, we’ve watched as a number of backups have turned heads and shown they have the potential to be a whole lot more. And Hutton could be next in line. After 26 games with the Blues this season, he's the league leader with a .940 save percentage and his 1.81 goals-against average is also tops among all netminders. That's not to mention that Hutton is one perfect game away from matching his career-high, set last season when he pitched three shutouts.

Hutton, who recently turned 32, will become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and he might be in line to get a shot at a bigger role elsewhere next season.

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