Every NHL season inevitably brings us many twists and turns that no expert could have seen coming. If this weren't the case, it wouldn't be very interesting to watch. This year is certainly no exception. We're about 1/3 of the way through the 09-10 campaign, and here are a handful of the biggest surprises so far:
Strong Starts Out West
It's a tossup for which is more surprising: Los Angeles or Colorado. Most observers expected LA to be in the running for the playoffs this year, but nobody expected them to push the Sharks for the Division Title. The overdue emergence of Kopitar as a top 10 scorer isn't shocking, but compared to his performance last year, it is a surprise. As for the Avalanche, they were picked by most to challenge for the first overall draft selection. Instead, they're a fair bet to reclaim their long-held grip on the Northwest division title. A big part of their success so far has been the surprising play of newcomer Craig Anderson. Both LA and Colorado are currently in the top 10 of points in the league, a feat that none could have predicted.
The Return of Richards
In terms of personal performances, to me the most surprising is the resurgence of Brad Richards. I had all but written him off as a top notch forward in the NHL. After several mediocre seasons, punctuated by various injuries, I didn't see how he would ever return the point-per-game player he was during the Lightning's Cup run in 2006. But here he is, back in the top 10 and carrying the load for the Stars. Hats off.
Redwings - Outside Looking In
Coming out of the lockout, I (and many others) predicted (or was that prayed for?) the inevitable demise of the Redwings. After all, the team whose payroll resembled the Yankees couldn't possibly compete if forced to play on equal footing. Year after year, Holland made us look silly, until the point where we came to believe this franchise was infallible. Now, after 2 consecutive years in the finals, we're looking at the possibility of Detroit actually missing the playoffs. Something they haven't done in 20 years. Through 27 games, the Wings already have piled up 10 losses. And there's no real cause for optimism (or pessism, depending on your perspective). The biggest injury they're dealing with is Franzen, and he's not due back for months yet. It may be time to come to terms with the possibility of a postseason without the Wings.
A few teams have struggled more than expected to start the season, but none compare to the shockingly awful start by the Canes. Carolina seemed to be back on the upswing after rallying late last season and driving their way into the semifinals. Apparently they're still hurting from the smack laid down by the Pens last spring, as they've shown absolutely no signs of life this season. Injuries to Staal and Ward have only made things worse. The defense is the worst they've seen since moving from Hartford. What's particularly surprising about their start is that they didn't really change much in their lineup from last year. There's still time to turn this around, but at this point, they're looking to lock in last place by the Olympic break.
Eric Staal, Martin Havlat, Steve Mason
Tough to pick who has been the most disappointing surprise in terms of individuals this season, but these guys are all in the running. Injuries have further scarred the situation for Staal and Havlat, but these guys should have been sent to their rooms without desert long before that even happened. Maybe I'm especially bitter because I drafted 2 of these guys and it's killing me now.
Ovechkin Finally Suspended
One of the most surprising events of the season is that the league finally got the pills to suspend Ovechkin 2 games after yet another blatant attempt to injure another player. It's too bad they passed on the opportunity when he did the exact same thing to Gonchar in last year's playoffs, or a week ago when he boarded Kaleta from behind, or any one of other countless cheap shots he's laid on his unsuspecting opposition. Campbell's job isn't easy, but he's made criticizing his decisions easy by clearly biasing his punishments based on the box office draw of the accused.