Jaden Schwartz’s start to the 2017-18 season came out of virtually nowhere. True, he had kept in line with his career averages the season prior when he went out and potted 19 goals and 55 points in 2016-17, but his start last season was something else. Through the first nine games, he had scored six goals and 13 points and formed one formidable offensive unit with Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko.
Schwartz’s fast start was indicative of the kind of season he would go on to have himself, too. Though injuries hampered his final totals — he missed 20 games, which has unfortunately been the story of his young career — Schwartz saw career-bests for production. His 24 goals and 59 points in 62 games made for the highest goals, assists and points per game rates since he broke into the league in 2012-13 as a full-timer with the Blues.
This season, though, Schwartz’s start is surprising for another reason. In six games for St. Louis, he has just two points, both assists, while the injury bug has reared its ugly head again with Schwartz missing two games due to a foot injury. Luckily, Schwartz’s early struggles has been overshadowed by a more positive start to the season by one of his Blues teammates, who you’ll find noted below in this rundown of the most surprising starter for each team this season:
We’ve said it already, but Max Comtois has benefitted more than anyone from the injury woes in Anaheim. The rookie has had a few games with top-six minutes and he’s consistently finding the scoresheet through the first 10 games of the season. His seven points are tied for the Ducks’ team lead, and he’s going to make it awfully difficult for Anaheim to demote him if he keeps this up.
Vinnie Hinostroza was one of the key pieces in the deal that sent the remaining seasons of Marian Hossa’s dead-money contract from the Blackhawks to the Coyotes, and he’s made the most of his opportunity in Arizona. He made Chicago regret their decision to move him with two goals in his return to the Windy City, but it’s his shot generation that has us taking note. His 21 shots are third behind only Derek Stepan and Christian Fischer among all skaters in Arizona. He’s producing and could be a minor breakout candidate if he keeps this up.
Upon his signing in Boston, we noted that Jaroslav Halak could help push Tuukka Rask this season. Instead, the 33-year-old keeper looks like he’s could be a candidate to split starts with the Bruins’ long-time No. 1 netminder. He’s deserving of the time he’s getting, too, posting a .933 save percentage in five appearances thus far, which is significantly better than Rask’s .901 SP performance in five outings.
Maybe surprise is the wrong word to use given he has a history of 30-goal seasons, but Jeff Skinner is certainly grabbing the bull by the horns in Buffalo. Brought in to fill the net, he’s done just that with five goals and seven points through nine games. He’s second only to Jack Eichel in scoring for the Sabres, and Skinner is either playing his way towards a healthy extension in Buffalo or a big-money pact come next summer.
Elias Lindholm wasn’t the more notable of the two players acquired in the summer blockbuster between the Flames and Hurricanes, but he’s been a revelation in Calgary. Not only is Lindholm second in average ice time among all forwards, he’s leads the Flames with six goals and his nine points put him in third place behind Matthew Tkachuk and Johnny Gaudreau. Calgary certainly isn’t complaining.
Speaking of the swap between the Hurricanes and Flames, it doesn’t appear Micheal Ferland plans on slowing down any time soon. Though his ice time is lagging behind that of primary linemates Sebastian Aho and Teuvo Teravainen due to the difference in power play minutes, Ferland is filling the net unlike any other skater in Carolina. His six goals are tops on the team and his nine points put him second in team scoring. A consistent half-point per game scorer in Calgary, he looks like he could be the league’s best third wheel this season.
Alex DeBrincat appears to be every bit the offensive dynamo he was drafted to be, and his performance as part of Chicago’s top line has been outstanding. But that’s a matter of meeting potential for DeBrincat. The real surprise for the Blackhawks has been Henri Jokiharju. Though not fair to say he was shoehorned into the lineup, it’s safe to suggest few saw him fitting in as a top pairing defenseman quite this quickly. His five assists aside, Jokiharju has performed well alongside Duncan Keith and seems to have the confidence of the coaching staff.
Last season, Alex Kerfoot got off to a red-hot start only to fall apart during the back half of the season. To wit, he scored eight goals and 13 points in his final 39 games after putting up 11 goals and 30 points in his first 40 outings. Kerfoot looks to have rediscovered that early-season scoring touch, though, with one goal and six points in nine games to start the campaign. The Avalanche need consistency in the middle of the lineup, and Kerfoot providing that would be a boon to the top-heavy attack.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Seth Jones’ injury forced blueliners into bigger roles in Columbus, and none more so than Markus Nutivaara. His average ice time in the Blue Jackets’ first eight games is two and a half minutes higher than it was last season, and he’s met the challenge with some impressive offensive output. He has five assists through eight games, all at even strength, and he’s fired 17 shots on goal. A deep blueline looks like it has another piece with which to work.
So, Miro Heiskanen was supposed to be NHL ready this season. That much we knew. No one knew exactly how NHL ready he was, though. At this point, it appears Heiskanen might be a candidate to fall into the Charlie McAvoy category by season’s end, which is to say the Stars defender will be one of the best rookies in the league but won't get the credit he deserves given his offensive totals won’t match up against those of the freshman forwards. His 20:40 ice time average is third among defensemen in Dallas.
Detroit Red Wings
The absence of Mike Green, whose return date remains up in the air, opened up opportunity in Detroit. No one has seized that opportunity quite like Dennis Cholowksi. The rookie rearguard has consistently skated the biggest minutes on the Red Wings blueline, with his 22:14 average leading the team and two games in which he’s skated nearly 25 minutes. Better yet, though, he’s contributing with two goals and five points in seven games. The 2016 first-round pick looks ready for the big stage.
No one should be even the slightest bit surprised by Connor McDavid anymore. Darnell Nurse, though, has really risen to the occasion with Andrej Sekera sidelined. His average ice time is two minutes clear of last season’s career high and he’s been far and away the best thing going on the Oilers’ blueline. Of course, no Oiler has offensive numbers that are all that impressive given McDavid has accounted for most of the offense in Edmonton, but Nurse’s goal and three points are tops among Oilers blueliners.
He’s by no means a rookie and he’s actually coming off of quite the campaign, but it’s hard not to take note of Evgenii Dadonov’s continued success. With three goals and eight points in seven games, Dadonov is tied for the Panthers’ team scoring lead and he’s been every bit the top-line player he was last season. In fact, the only forwards with more ice time than Dadonov are Vincent Trocheck and Aleksander Barkov, which indicates just how hard coach Bob Boughner is willing to lean on Dadonov.
Los Angeles Kings
There’s not a lot to write home about when a team has dropped five in a row by a combined score of 25-7. Alex Iafallo has been one of the lone bright spots in Los Angeles, though. With two goals and seven points in nine games, Iafallo is already well on his way to smashing his rookie season production of eight goals and 25 points, and he is getting to see more ice time for the Kings. His average is up nearly a minute per outing, which includes additional power play time.
Frankly, there were times during the final three months of the 2017-18 campaign where Devan Dubnyk looked pedestrian. Blame that on what you will, but he was nowhere near the Vezina Trophy candidate he had been twice in the three seasons prior. Dubnyk looks like he’s back in form this season, though, with an absolutely dazzling performance to start the season. His .944 SP through six games is proof that he can still be a game stealer for Minnesota, and he might be the best thing going for the Wild through the early season.
Montreal’s early-season surprise honor can go to no one but Tomas Tatar. Traded twice in the past several months, first at the deadline to the Golden Knights and later to the Canadiens in the Max Pacioretty deal, Tatar has been excellent for the Habs and has seemingly bounced back from his disastrous time in Vegas. His three goals and eight points in eight games put him first in Canadiens’ scoring and he’s formed a nice trio with Philip Danault and Brendan Gallagher.
An injury to Pekka Rinne has thrust Juuse Saros, the heir apparent to the Predators’ crease, into the spotlight. And boy, has he delivered. Heading into Tuesday night, Saros had won all four games he in which he had appeared, posted one shutout and had an outstanding .945 SP. He was beaten five times on 32 shots by the Sharks on Tuesday, but Saros' early performance has only furthered his standing as the heir apparent in Nashville.
New Jersey Devils
How can we not take a second to talk about Kyle Palmieri? The Devils winger has been a consistent goal scoring threat since his arrival in New Jersey, but he’s taken it up a notch through the early going this season. His seven goals in six games has set an unrealistic pace — he’s shooting 32 percent on 22 shots on goal and that won’t hold — but barring an extended slump or a spell on the injured list, Palmieri seems a lock to snap his career high of 30 goals.
New York Islanders
Veteran Valtteri Filppula took a significant pay cut to head to the Islanders this summer, his cap hit dipping from $5 million last season to $2.75 million for the current campaign. He’s sure not performing like a player making half of what he did last season, though. Filppula’s four goals and six points put him first and second, respectively, in scoring for the Islanders despite the fact he’s played primarily bottom-six minutes.
New York Rangers
Not all surprises are good surprises, which brings us to Vladislav Namestnikov. Remember last season, when Namestnikov had 35 points through his first 42 games in Tampa Bay? Well, after being shipped to the Rangers late last season and then getting a two-year, $8-million extension, he has paid New York back with one assist in eight games and he’s found himself in coach David Quinn’s doghouse. Namestnikov’s ice time average is less than 11 minutes, down about more than six minutes from his average over the course of the 2017-18 season.
The performance of the Senators as a whole has been remarkable, but Maxime Lajoie has been especially impressive. Given the influx of young talent and fresh faces, Lajoie was a relative unknown outside Ottawa to begin the season, but he’s maintained an average ice time up above 20 minutes per game and his seven points in eight games has put him on the radar. It should be said, too, that Lajoie is consistently finding his opportunities. His 23 shots are the most of any Senator.
We’ve long known what Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux can do. Same goes for Wayne Simmonds. And while the performances of Travis Konecny, Scott Laughton and Shayne Gostisbehere have been likewise impressive, the only thing anyone can talk about lately when it comes to the Flyers is Gritty. Sure, technically he’s not a player, but when is the last time a mascot has captured the imagination of the sporting world quite like this? The average North American is probably more likely to recognize Gritty than they are Giroux.
Is it fair to call Evgeni Malkin’s start surprising? It’s not as though Malkin scoring like one of the best players in the world is anything new, but it feels like his early season dominance has been lost in the shuffle. He has the best points per game rate of any player in the league and his three goals and 13 points have him three points off the league’s current scoring lead with two games in hand. This could be a big, big year for ‘Geno.’
San Jose Sharks
Timo Meier was long considered one of the top prospects in the Sharks’ system and he had himself a fairly impressive campaign in 2017-18, scoring 21 goals and 36 points in a middle of the lineup role in San Jose. Meier looks primed to develop into a top-six contributor for the Sharks, though, and he’s turning heads in the early season with a five-goal, eight-point start through nine games this season. He's tied for the team goal-scoring lead with Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues’ signing of David Perron to a four-year, $16-million pact seemed like an overreaction to his 66-point season in Vegas. Prior to the 2017-18 campaign, Perron had never cracked 60 points and had gone four seasons without hitting the 20-goal plateau. The veteran winger has fit in perfectly back in St. Louis, however, and his five goals and nine points already give him a healthy start on eclipsing 60 points for the second time in his career. Maybe he’ll even score 30 goals for the first time.
Tampa Bay Lightning
If there was a Johnny Bower Award for long-tenured minor leaguers who break out in the NHL, it would have gone to Yanni Gourde last season. At 26, he was playing his first full campaign in the big league and blew everyone away with 25 goals and 64 points. He’s proving he was no flash in the pan, too, with four goals and eight points in seven games so far this season. He’s going to get paid, and paid well, on his next deal if he keeps this up.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Morgan Rielly has proven throughout his young career that he’s no slouch offensively, but no one would have seen his outburst to start this season coming. After scoring a career high 52 points last season, Rielly is already more than one quarter of the way to a new career-best mark with four goals and 14 points in nine games. Offense is no concern for the Maple Leafs, and Rielly could put himself in the Norris Trophy conversation on his scoring alone if he continues to score as he has through the early season.
Expectations were high for Elias Pettersson given his performance in the Swedish League last season, but no one would have guessed he would be miss-four-games-and-still-have-the-team-points-lead good. Before he was sidelined with a concussion, Pettersson had scored five goals and eight points in five games. He’s set to make his return soon, too, which makes every Canucks game worth watching. He could be on his way to setting Vancouver’s rookie scoring record.
Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights’ first line has been as good as ever, with Jonathan Marchessault, William Karlsson and Reilly Smith combining for 23 points in eight games, but there hasn’t been much else for offense in Vegas. In fact, the real surprise has been how ineffective Max Pacioretty has been. Expected by many to bounce back from a down year in Montreal last season, Pacioretty has one goal in eight games. He’s not even on pace to best last season’s disappointing 17-goal output.
The Capitals committed big to John Carlson in the off-season, inking him to a monster eight-year, $64-million pact, and he’s repaying them early with gaudy numbers in the early season. In eight games, Carlson has ripped home five goals and 13 points. There’s no chance he maintains this pace, of course, but he looks like he could be on his way to matching and bettering last season’s career highs of 15 goals and 68 points.
Through two seasons, Josh Morrissey has registered 46 points in 163 games. His career best was last season’s seven-goal, 26-point effort, which came when he averaged slightly more than 20 minutes per game. But an injury to Dustin Byfuglien vaulted Morrissey onto the top power play unit, where he’s produced some magic. His seven points in nine games put him on pace to smash last season’s offensive numbers, and Winnipeg might want to start thinking about what retaining Morrissey is going to cost when the two-year bridge deal he signed this summer comes up.