Avs, Scrivens and 2013’s biggest NHL surprises

As we break for the Olympics, it’s time to take a look at the players, teams and developments that defied the pundits preseason predictions. (Jack Dempsey/AP)

The Olympic Break puts us closer to the three-quarter pole of the 2013-2014 NHL regular season which makes it a good time to put the ego aside and reflect on which teams and which players have so far fooled all of us “expert” prognosticators with our pre-season predictions.

1) Top surprise teams:

Colorado Avalanche and Tampa Bay Lightning

Give Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy for doing the nearly impossible. Overnight they have seemingly changed the on-ice and off-ice culture of what had slumped into a struggling organization. Colorado has emerged as a Western Conference contender a few years ahead of schedule. And they’ve got the pieces to stay in the mix for years to come: four of their top five scorers are 23 or younger (Matt Duchene, 23; Gabriel Landeskog, 21; Ryan O’Reilly, 23; Nathan MacKinnon, 18; and Paul Stastny, 28).

Tampa Bay, meanwhile, are most surprising in how they have been able to continue to thrive offensively without one of the few true NHL superstars, the injured Steven Stamkos. Beyond the obvious in Martin St. Louis, the Lightning have found a solid supporting cast including Valtteri Filppula, Teddy Purcell, Alex Killorn and rookies Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat, all of whom have contributed to keep the Lightning as a strong offensive force.

2) Top surprise scorers:

Joe Pavelski and Kyle Okposo have millions of hockey poolies shaking their head that they didn’t select these two a few rounds earlier

The 29-year-old Pavelski has been a consistent 25-goal scorer throughout his NHL career but, but his form this season has him taking a run at 40 goals for the Sharks.

Playing in the shadows of John Tavares on Long Island, the 25-year-old Okposo has bounced back from a four goal output in last year’s lockout-shortened season to be a fixture among the top 10 N.H.L. scorers this season—and often flirting at breaking into the top five.

3) Top goaltending surprises:

Josh Harding and Ben Scrivens

Using the word “surprising” almost is doing a disservice to Harding, underplaying what he’s enduring. He is, as we know, dealing with a very public battle with multiple sclerosis while continuing to be an NHL goaltender. That’s amazing in and of itself, but to then lead all NHL goaltenders in goals against average and be second in save percentage is well and truly beyond what anyone could have expected. He doesn’t just battle; he succeeds.

It’s also a minor shock that Harding is second in save percentage to Ben Scrivens. After being traded from Los Angeles to Edmonton, Scrivens’s save percentage shot up during his unbelievable 59 save shutout victory over the San Jose Sharks. Just a taste of what Leafs fans are missing out on.

4) Most surprising trade:

Thomas Vanek from Buffalo to the New York Islanders in exchange for Matt Moulson

As the NHL trade deadline nears, we can expect to see a fair number of deals completed over the next few weeks. It is debatable that another “true” hockey trade like this one will occur. It came with little projected fanfare, and was a bold message by the New York Islanders that they expect to make the playoffs, even if right now they remain on the outside looking in. If they don’t qualify for the playoffs, it is more the “futures” that the Islanders gave up in this trade (including a first-round draft choice) that will make it look like an ill-advised transaction, especially if Vanek leaves as a free agent at the end of the season.

5) Most disappointing slide:

The Canadian Dollar

While not exactly a staple of pundit predictions when the hockey season starts, this development is relevant nonetheless. A healthy NHL financial picture revolves significantly around a strong Canadian dollar. We no longer have to hear the monthly updates from the likes of Rod Bryden in Ottawa almost a decade ago as his and other Canadian-based NHL teams struggled mightily to compete financially. The dollar unfortunately is slipping back to around where it was in Bryden’s era. It began the year at around 96 cents and is now around 89 cents. Because Canadian-based NHL teams take their revenues in Canadian dollars but pay their player salary expenses in American dollars, they are the seven franchises that are affected by the Loonie’s ups and downs. One estimate has it at about a $5 million hit to their financial coffers by virtue of this slide.

So now the NHL takes a two-week break for the Olympics, before launching into the final quarter of the regular season. We’ll see then if there are any other surprises to emerge.

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