Our top 10 surprises so far this season
Steven Stamkos is the story of the opening quarter pole. The goal-a-game wunderkind has become an inspiring model of what hard work and dedication, combined with oodles of talent, can yield on the ice. But surprising? Not that much after last season's shared Rocket Richard honors with Sidney Crosby.
Here's a list of the 10 players that have so far surprised the hockey world (and feel free to come up with others!):
The newly named Thrashers captain is easily on pace to eclipse his career high of 49 points with Chicago two seasons ago, putting up 23 points (8-15) in 22 games as of Friday morning. Atlanta knew it was getting solid two-way game, leadership, character and toughness in Ladd, but did it count on him leading the team in scoring?
The Jackets have had a lot of surprising performances but I keyed on this lad, who is playing top-four minutes while posting the second-best plus-minus on the team. Jackets GM Scott Howson also singled him out a few weeks ago to ESPN.com as a player who has delivered more than expected.
It's safe to say no one had the 30-year-old leading all NHL blueliners in scoring at the quarter pole; combined with a plus-11 rating, he's been dynamite. Not bad for a guy seemingly always involved in trade rumors every season.
OK, of all the choices at hand before the season, would any Kings fan have predicted Williams would be leading the team in scoring at Thanksgiving? Three straight injury-riddled seasons made you wonder if the former 76-point scorer could ever get it together again, but this season he's been the Williams of old. Here's hoping he stays healthy.
6. Ondrej Pavelec, Atlanta Thrashers
We're happy he's playing again after that scary early-season collapse, and he's been out of this world since his return. As of Friday morning, the goalie's .942 save percentage and 1.84 GAA are both third in the league (he never had a GAA under 3.00 before in his NHL career).
The 25-year-old had 12 goals combined in three previous NHL seasons. He had 10 as of Friday morning. What the heck is going on? For starters, he worked on his skating with former world pairs figure skating champion Barb Underhill in the offseason, as recounted in a nice "Hockey Night in Canada" feature by my pal Elliotte Friedman in October.
That a former Vezina Trophy winner is having a great season is hardly a surprise on its own. But let's be honest -- when Tuukka Rask earned the No. 1 job last season, few people thought he'd ever relinquish it, especially with Thomas on the north side of 35. But surprise, surprise, indeed. Thomas told ESPN.com earlier this season that offseason hip surgery, along with a mental recharge, helped him get reenergized for this season. At 11-1-1 with a league-leading .955 save percentage, what else can you say?
Look back to most season previews in September and click on Montreal. Not too many people figured Price could fill Jaroslav Halak's skates after the Slovak's sensational (some would say miraculous) playoff performance last season. The pressure on Price this fall in one of hockey's biggest fishbowls was out of this world. And what does he do? Exceed anyone's expectations, except perhaps his own. Leading the NHL in wins at Thanksgiving? Raise your hand if you honestly predicted that would happen.
2. Dustin Byfuglien, Atlanta Thrashers
The naysayers were aplenty when the Thrashers announced before camp that Byfuglien would play defense this season. Why move this past spring's clutch power forward to defense? Made no sense, the critics said. Well, Byfuglien isn't going to turn into Rod Langway anytime soon in the defensive zone, but ranking second in the league among blueliners in scoring while playing quality minutes and not being a minus easily qualifies him as a nice surprise (unless, of course, you are GM Rick Dudley, coach Craig Ramsay or Byfuglien himself).
Flyers center Danny Briere remembers first seeing the Russian at a skate with Flyers teammates before camp.
"At first I had no clue who that goalie was. Then we started taking penalty shots at the end of the practice. We couldn't score on him," Briere said with a laugh. "I was like, 'Who's this junior kid?' Then we realized who he was and that he'd likely start the season in [AHL] Adirondack."
With Michael Leighton out due to injury, Bob the Goalie made his North American debut to open the NHL season. And with a 12-3-1 record at Thanksgiving, that is a surprise!