NHL Power Rankings: Surprise of the Season edition

Mike Palm joins Follow The Money to discuss the Golden Knights vs. the Avalanche, and why he is pretty sure of himself that the Oilers will come out of the North Division, and can definitely contend for the Cup.

Not everything has gone according to plan for anyone this season.

Sometimes the surprises are good, sometimes not so much. Every team has had something unpredictable happen.

In this week’s Power Rankings we focus on the biggest surprise of the season for each of the NHL’s 31 teams.

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1. Vegas Golden Knights
It’s hands down Marc-Andre Fleury, who should at least be a Vezina finalist, if not the winner, after seemingly losing his No. 1 job in last year’s playoffs. An injury to Robin Lehner opened the door and Fleury has pieced together one of the better seasons of his career. Now we have an interesting dynamic heading into the playoffs again.

2. Carolina Hurricanes
Alex Nedeljkovic came with some promise, but also with the memory of a mediocre four-game NHL look last season. So seeing him get into the Calder Trophy finalist fray has been huge for a team that, in recent seasons, has had a weakness in net. Nedeljkovic won’t win the rookie of the year (that’s a two horse race), but he could be the third choice. He’s earning playoff consideration, too, with a .932 save percentage this season. Suddenly goaltending isn’t such a weakness here anymore.

3. Washington Capitals
The Caps tried to bolster their netminding with veteran help, but when Henrik Lundqvist wasn’t healthy enough to play it left them with Vitek Vanecek as the backup. Then he had to play a far greater role early in the season than anticipated. We’ve seen so many times how a goalie can set back even the best teams, but Vanecek was up to the challenge and didn’t lose in regulation until Feb. 1. He’s played 32 games this season with a .910 save percentage after spending the past four seasons in the AHL. The Caps were always expected to be at or near the top of their division, but that Vanecek is a reason why they’ve been able to hang there was unexpected.

4. Tampa Bay Lightning
Victor Hedman is still getting some Norris consideration in some corners as the numbers indicate maybe that shouldn’t be the case anymore. And that’s surprising in itself. It’s maybe also a little surprising that the Lightning rank among the top teams in shots for and against and special teams measures, even though Nikita Kucherov has been out all season. The one-time Hart winner’s absence has had basically no effect on the Lightning. That should be surprising. Kinda doesn’t feel like it.

5. Toronto Maple Leafs
After last season’s disappointing playoff loss in the qualifying round to Columbus, and given the one consistent knock against this iteration of the Leafs, who would have thought its grit, toughness — or “dirtiness” — would become part of an identity that others talk about. Still 25th in penalty minutes and 29th in hits (which really says more about their success as a puck possession team) they’re noticeably tougher on their opponents this season. Even Joe Thornton got in on it with his badgering of Nikolaj Ehlers over the weekend.

6. Colorado Avalanche
A great value addition in Devon Toews, and another year experience for 22-year-old Cale Makar and Sam Girard have helped the Avs tighten down on the defensive side of things. They remain an offensive powerhouse, but the Avs also average the fewest shots against per game and fewest 5-on-5 scoring chances against per game (via Natiral Stat Trick), after sitting 17th and 12th, respectively, in those categories last season. It’s helped round them into an even scarier contender and perhaps the favourite heading into the playoffs.

7. Minnesota Wild
Challenging for a top-two spot in the West and being one of the first six teams in the league to clinch a playoff berth? No one saw that coming. The Wild are trying to move out of the mire and the contributions they’ve gotten from a variety of early-20s players up front and in the crease has been key in doing so. Kirill Kaprizov has been the story, but how about Jordan Greenway sitting one even strength point behind him?

8. Pittsburgh Penguins
Gotta stop even wondering if the window is closed due to a small sample of uninspiring play. The Penguins have been terrific since a slow January, with a 27-12-2 record ever since. Sidney Crosby has been great as usual, but the Pens have been able to get on track even without Evgeni Malkin since mid-March.

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9. Florida Panthers
The degree to which they have improved on defence has been a shocker and should have Joel Quenneville cemented in the Jack Adams discussion. But, boy, there have been a ton of surprising performances on the team. From Carter Verhaeghe’s second-year breakout, to Chris Driedger earning playoff start consideration and one of Patric Hornqvist’s best point-per-game seasons of his long career, the Panthers are tougher to play against and getting the most out of everyone. That is not a characteristic you’d say has followed this franchise.

10. Boston Bruins
Just a couple weeks before the trade deadline it was close to crisis mode for the Bruins. Secondary scoring, predictably, was an issue. As of April 3, the Bruins were fourth in the East, just four points ahead of Philadelphia and the New York Rangers, and had won two games in a row just twice in the past month and a half. Tuukka Rask was out with injury and then Jaroslav Halak followed. It could have started to unravel, but the surprising performance from 22-year-old Jeremy Swayman stabilized things. In seven key games this month, Swayman has a .946 save percentage and allowed more than two goals in a game just one time. Rask and Halak have since returned, but Swayman’s NHL arrival — in his first season out of the University of Maine — helped save Boston’s season.

11. Edmonton Oilers
You can look at Mike Smith’s season and think his largely sturdy play has been a game-changer for the Oilers, or you worry that a lull might arrive come playoff time. But the fact is that Smith has been one of the better goalies in the North Division all season. His 11.16 goals save above average ranks eighth in the league, better than any Canadian team goalie, and his .923 save percentage is the highest it’s been since 2011-12, when he led the Arizona Coyotes to the Western Conference final. Who saw that coming from Edmonton’s crease?

12. Dallas Stars
It’s generally been surprising to see the Stars be able to overcome injuries and scheduling challenges and stay in the playoff race to the end, but more specifically the offensive explosions from a couple of early-20s forwards has come out of nowhere for the defence-first team. Count me as a long-time fan of Roope Hintz, but the better than point-per-game production he’s delivered is a huge step up. And rookie Jason Robertson getting into the Calder race with enough even strength points to tie Nathan MacKinnon wasn’t something anyone predicted.

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13. New York Rangers
Sure they’ve hammered on some of the teams below them in the standings, but the Rangers have the best goal differential (+35) in the East Division and are clinging to life in the playoff race. The best days are ahead, but the way they’ve clearly separated from the three teams below them — especially the two rebuilding ones — has been a nice surprise indicating they’re ahead of schedule.

14. Nashville Predators
Eeli Tolvanen was not on Nashville’s opening night roster and didn’t play his first game until February. When he got into the lineup, he wasn’t playing a ton and only had three points in his first 11 games. The 22-year-old in the last season of his ELC seemed closer to a “break” than a “make” so to see him then become a key cog in Nashville’s renewed playoff push has been a shocker. Since March 6, Tolvanen leads the Preds with 0.81 points per game (17 in 21) as the team has gone 17-9-2.

15. New York Islanders
We’re no longer surprised that the Islanders are good. But when they go sour for a while…that’s a different story. Since captain Anders Lee was lost to injury, the Islanders are 27th in 5-on-5 Corsi, 22nd in shots against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5, and 25th in points percentage. Since acquiring Kyle Palmieri and Travis Zajac to help with depth and scoring, the Islanders have the 31st-ranked 5-on-5 offence.

16. St. Louis Blues
Are they all the way back? If so, that would be quite a surprise after a slow season followed an underwhelming bubble playoff. The Blues could have sold some pieces (like Mike Hoffman) at the deadline, but stuck it out instead and now that may be paying off. They’re 6-4 since the deadline and just took two out of three from Colorado in the past week. Hoffman’s been their leading scorer in that time. Jordan Binnington is returning to a level that earned him his big extension. Maybe this surprise still has to play out a bit, but if they keep this run going for the next couple of weeks, I’m not sure the Blues will be a welcome sight in Round 1 of the playoffs.

17. Winnipeg Jets
The big surprise happened early on when Patrik Laine’s time with the team came to an end. The writing may have been on the wall, but GM Kevin Cheveldayoff has usually let these situations play out a bit longer in the past. This time he jumped on a deal that presented itself to add Pierre-Luc Dubois and stabilize the centre position.

18. Montreal Canadiens
Rest hasn’t helped Carey Price as much as anticipated when Jake Allen was acquired, and recapturing last playoff’s level is no sure thing anymore for Price. After seeing how fast the Habs got out of the gate — even accounting for the fact not all of that was sustainable — it’s been shocking to see how inconsistent the offence has been. Just 2.2 goals per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 since mid-February, which is 20th in the league and sixth in the North Division.

19. Chicago Blackhawks
That Chicago hung around the playoff race as long as it did was a surprise, and a result of a few contributions no one was predicting. Kevin Lankinen was the story early, but as he’s started to struggle so have the Hawks to stay in the race. But more than that, Pius Suter became a versatile and productive player, Brandon Hagel’s second half has seen an uptick in points, and Kirby Dach has lived up to the hype since returning in late-March.

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20. Philadelphia Flyers
Turns out being the team that allowed Buffalo to end its 18-game winless streak buried the Flyers, who are 22nd by points percentage, 28th in goals for and 27th in goals against ever since. Goalies are voodoo, it’s true, but Carter Hart’s mid-season meltdown was a huge and unexpected part of the Flyers’ downturn.

21. Arizona Coyotes
Just that they didn’t sell off anything. The Coyotes desperately need picks and prospects and don’t have their own first-rounder this summer. They have six notable UFAs, but were still in control of a playoff spot at the deadline. Now they’re fading as the Blues start to surge.

22. Ottawa Senators
A really rough start to the season and struggles from Matt Murray put the Sens well behind and took them out of the running for anything before long. But there’s been a lot of fight in this team. Over the past nine weeks, their .532 points percentage is 18th in the league and fifth in the North, only a shade behind Vancouver and Winnipeg. The good stories are aplenty: Drake Batherson’s goal streak and break out. Josh Norris’ strong and sturdy play down the middle.

23. Vancouver Canucks
The rough start to the season was unexpected, but not without its reasons (heavy schedule, little practice time, etc.). Still, Quinn Hughes’ defensive struggles and a gap being created between him and Cale Makar was a bit of a surprise (in a “not good” way), but on the flip side, Nils Hoglander’s contributions have been a nice surprise after losing Tyler Toffoli in free agency. The general early struggles from some of their best players was the biggest surprise of all, and then that they were able to start putting the pieces back together before the COVID outbreak to earn a longshot hope of a playoff spot without Elias Pettersson in the lineup.

24. Calgary Flames
For me, the surprise has been in how disappointing the Flames have been. It’s not as though I expected them to be Cup contenders because of a few playoff disappointments that followed this core, but from the time Bill Peters resigned in November of 2019 to the 2020 season pause, Calgary was Canada’s best team with a 24-15-3 record. They upgraded in net and on defence. Playoffs seemed a decent bet and a race to the end at least appeared in the cards. But they never really settled this season and despite a last gasp series against Montreal, Calgary’s playoff hopes have been a mirage for a few weeks. The response after replacing Geoff Ward with Darryl Sutter hasn’t come and now the core is going to get some heavy work done in the off-season. It’s been surprising how far out of it Calgary has really been.

25. San Jose Sharks
At the start of the season the Sharks were this team that had a wide range of outcomes. They could bottom-out again and get a high draft pick, or you could see a way this roster could keep the Sharks in the race and maybe get into a playoff spot. Instead they’ve been sort of in the middle, with good stretches here and there followed by bad ones. Even Martin Jones pieced together a good month in March, which qualifies as a surprise at this point.

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26. Buffalo Sabres
That Buffalo is a strong-odds lottery team again isn’t too surprising, even if pre-season expectations were heightened. It’s no surprise that Taylor Hall was traded ahead of his one-year deal expiring, or that a word like “embarrassing” was being used to describe another season. What has been surprising is the bit of life we’ve seen from the team over the past month.

The Sabres are 7-7-2 since their 18-game losing streak ended, including back-to-back losses to the Rangers this week. And, ya, the underlying numbers aren’t all great in this stretch (still 27th in 5-on-5 Corsi), but it’s been made up for in part by good goaltending performances from Dustin Tokarski, a couple from Linus Ullmark, and now Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen getting a shot. Rasmus Dahlin has looked like a refreshed and more confident player. Sam Reinhart continues his criminally underrated season-long performance. And they’ve showed this life without Jack Eichel. It guarantees nothing for next season, but a culture needs to be built up here and it’s nice (and surprising) to see a little push back when all is lost.

27. Detroit Red Wings
The Anthony Mantha trade was a huge surprise, but seeing Jonathan Bernier stay put when No. 3 goalies were in demand was a head-scratcher. No one thinks of Bernier as a starter for a playoff team anymore, but he battled admirably in 2021 behind a team not at all set up to compete. His .912 save percentage climbed to its highest since Bernier arrived in Detroit and his goals saved above average is better than the likes of Jordan Binnington, Darcy Kuemper, Anton Khudobin or either Penguins goalie.

28. Los Angeles Kings
A heck of a season from Dustin Brown, who matched his goal total from last season in 22 fewer games. Drew Doughty, perhaps partly motivated by Olympic roster projection snubs, has pieced together a strong offensive season himself, and is also top 20 in on-ice shots against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Cal Petersen taking over the No. 1 job pretty decisively also fits this ranking’s criteria.

29. Anaheim Ducks
After scoring five goals in 29 games last season, 22-year-old Max Comtois is Anaheim’s leading goal- and point-getter — a welcome development for a team in need of both offence and a younger core to take over. Troy Terry, Sam Steel, Max Jones, you’re up next.

30. Columbus Blue Jackets
They maybe played over their heads a bit in the playoffs last season, but the Blue Jackets made a reputation for being a tough out, so seeing them so meekly fade has been unexpected. It just got started off on the wrong foot in 2021, with young centre Dubois asking for a trade, and then Laine very unsurprisingly never seeming to settle under John Tortorella. Centre became a serious shortcoming for the team, culminating in a nine-game winless stretch this month that maybe puts them in position to draft one again.

31. New Jersey Devils
It’s hard to criticize or look too far into any underwhelming performance from a player or team that has contracted COVID this season because we don’t know the lingering effects, but it has been a surprise to see Mackenzie Blackwood struggle to keep a save percentage above .900. Following two strong years as a goalie on the rise, now we’re left with at least some question about what he is. Next season will loom large.

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