We’re nearly halfway through the NHL season and, as always, there has been a fair share of surprises around the league. Whether it has been a predicted Cup contender getting off to an underwhelming start or an under-the-radar team leaping into a top playoff position, this season has kept us guessing. So which of this season’s surprises are for real?
First, a look at this year’s overachievers (stayed tuned for this season’s underwhelming teams on Thursday)…
New Jersey Devils
Before this season began, who had the Devils even competing for a playoff spot? Let alone leading the Metropolitan division? Through 39 games, the draft lottery winners have gotten off to a blazing start at 22-10-7, putting them two points behind the red-hot Washington Capitals with two games in hand.
The Devils have had their fair share of surprises in 19-year-old forward Jesper Bratt and rookie defenseman Will Butcher. Neither Bratt nor Butcher were high draft picks; Bratt was a 2016 sixth-round pick and Butcher was a fifth-round selection in 2013. Despite their low draft positions, both players have been impressive with 25 and 24 points, respectively, in their rookie campaign. Combined with Taylor Hall and fellow rookie Nico Hischier, New Jersey is tied for league’s ninth best offense in goals for, a huge improvement from their 28th-ranked attack last season.
On defense, the Devils have been fairly solid, but it has been goalie Cory Schneider who has continued to play large in net for New Jersey since arriving in 2013. Posting a .920 save percentage, Schneider ranks 17th amongst all goaltenders. One area of concern on the Devils’ blueline, however, is a lack of scoring outside of Butcher, though they have tried to address the issue with the trade for Sami Vatanen, who has put up four points in 14 games so far.
Should the Devils be considered for real after a strong first half of the season? They surely are prime contenders for a playoff spot, but the jury is still out on if this is a team that can make any noise come playoff time. Their special teams are fairly good, as both the power play – seventh-ranked at 21.6 percent and penalty kill – sixth-ranked at 83.9 percent – are solid. Despite this, a point of concern for New Jersey is a lack of scoring outside of Hall, Hischier, Bratt, and Butcher. New Jersey traded away center Adam Henrique for Vatanen. Their second line center, Travis Zajac, has only four points on the season and second line winger Blake Coleman has just 11. Perhaps the return of both Kyle Palmieri and Marcus Johansson can help, but as of right now, the Devils still need depth scoring to make any noise come April.
After getting trounced by Toronto on opening night, the Winnipeg Jets have become one of the biggest surprises of the 2017-18 season. Currently sitting at 23-11-7, the Jets also boast a third-ranked scoring attack while being middle of the pack in goals allowed at 19th.
Leading the charge for Winnipeg, as always, is the trio of Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, and Patrik Laine, who have done a lot of damage on both even strength and the Jets fourth-ranked power play. With Scheifele, Laine, and Wheeler all on the Jets’ number one unit, Winnipeg has been successful on 24.2 percent of their power plays. Wheeler (18 points), Laine (15 points), and Scheifele (13 points) are among the leaders in points on the man advantage. As for scoring outside of their big three, rookie Kyle Connor has fit in nicely on Winnipeg’s top line, while forwards Nikolaj Ehlers and Bryan Little have played well on the second.
Despite being known as a team that has been plagued by bad defense and poor goaltending in the past, the Jets are playing much better defense in front of Connor Hellebuyck these days. In return, Hellebuyck has enjoyed a stellar season; the 24-year-old netminder has a .922 save percentage in 33 games as the Jets’ top goaltender. Going forward, Winnipeg will rely heavily on Hellebuyck, with backup Steve Mason having an extremely inconsistent season.
With a deep scoring attack, a talented defense with Dustin Byufglien, Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba, and Josh Morrissey, top-tier special teams, and a young goaltender playing well, the Jets should definitely be taken seriously in the Western Conference.
Vegas Golden Knights
The Golden Knights have easily been the most surprising team in their inaugural season. They’re the winners of eight straight games and are riding high with the second-most points in the league (56), thanks to a 27-9-2 record. This Vegas team is nowhere near the most talented in the league, so how have they done this without a single big-name player on their roster? An extremely balanced attack and good (enough) goaltending to make up for the extended absence of Marc-Andre Fleury.
Piecing together an offense from other team’s castoffs, Vegas has iced the fifth-highest scoring offense with 133 goals through 38 games. Scavenged from the Florida Panthers, forwards Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith have been excellent for Vegas on a line with William Karlsson, who was picked off of Columbus’ roster in the expansion draft. The three each have at least 31 points, with Marchessault’s 37 leading the way. After Vegas’ scorching start, where they were scoring at such an unforeseen clip, the offense was expected to dry up and the Golden Knights would, in turn, come back to earth, but Vegas just keeps scoring and winning games.
Much like the offense, the Golden Knights’ defense has no stars and is made of up second and third pairing defenseman. But players like Colin Miller – selected from Boston – and Nate Schmidt – from the Capitals – have given Vegas some scoring punch from their blue line, while veterans Luca Sbisa and Deryk Engelland have given quality top pairing minutes. One area where Vegas has struggled has been on the penalty kill, which is successful on 80.3 percent of kill opportunities, good for 21st in the league.
What’s been most impressive about Vegas through the first half of the season is that they have had all this success without their top goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who missed 25 games with a concussion. In his place, after also coming back from injury, Malcolm Subban excelled, starting 12 games, and winning 10 of them, while registering a .922 save percentage. Not bad for a guy who many had given up on. Without Fleury, Vegas also has turned to three other goaltenders in Maxime Lagace, Oskar Dansk, and Dylan Ferguson, who have went a combined 9-6-1.
Vegas has definitely solidified themselves as a blue-collar team who should not be taken lightly. Even without an extremely strong special teams, Vegas’ efficient offense and the return of Marc-Andre Fleury has them poised to bring playoff hockey to Las Vegas.