The 2016-17 season is well past the quarter mark, and with the way things have gone so far the NHL is bound to only get more exciting as the season continues.
Every year we see a certain number of teams that either break expectations, or make fans feel completely foolish for believing in them in the first place. So far this season the NHL has seen 3 of each, helping define the league’s current playoff picture.
With that in mind, here are the 3 teams that fit each of those categories.
Top 3 Biggest Surprises
New York Rangers
Entering this season, it was hard not to believe that the New York Rangers’ contention window was beginning to close, and that a rebuild was on the horizon. Last season, they were eliminated from the playoffs in the 1st round by the Pittsburgh Penguins, and their farm system was ranked as one of the worst in the league after years of trading prospects and draft picks for NHL-ready talent.
A sudden decline for the the Rangers hasn’t been the case so far this season, with their offence taking over the league.
Currently tied for 1st in the Metro Division with a record of 23-11-1 (47 points), New York ices the scariest offensive unit in the NHL. With high-level contributions from players such as Rick Nash, Kevin Hayes, J.T. Miller, and Jimmy Vesey, it’s no wonder the Rangers have a league-leading 113 goals. The Rangers offence was good the year before (with 233 goal in 2015-16; the 7th most in the league), but no one could have expected their offense to be this good.
On top of it all, their goaltending duo of Henrik Lundqvist and Antti Raanta has been nothing short of sensational, posting a combined .923 save percentage, and an average of 2.26 goals against a game. Combine that with their solid defence and 6th best penalty kill in the NHL (84.4%), and coach Alain Vigneault’s team looks like a threat once again, capable of making a deep playoff run.
Columbus Blue Jackets
You’d be crazy if you predicted back in September that the Columbus Blue Jackets would be one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. After finishing last season with the 4th worst record in the NHL, it was hard to envision that they would be in the playoff race this season. Yet, that’s exactly where the Blue Jackets currently stand.
After Tuesday’s game against the Los Angeles Kings, the Blue Jackets have a record of 21-5-4 with 46 points, which is tied for 3rd place in the East. They look like the hottest team in the NHL with their 10-game win streak, and it’s been because of the great offensive play of Cam Atkinson, Brandon Saad, and Sam Gagner. Add that to their solid defensive core of Zach Werenski, Seth Jones, and Jack Johnson, and the brilliance of Sergei Bobrovsky, and it’s no wonder that the Blue Jackets are playing so well as of late.
Full credit needs to be given to coach John Tortorella, for helping turn Columbus from a laughing stock to a legitimate contender in only a single season. After facing scrutiny for his coaching style during the World Cup, Tortorella has revived his reputation by turning essentially the same roster from last season into a legit challenger for the Cup. Despite playing in the extremely competitive Metropolitan Division, the Blue Jackets appear to be on track to make just their 3rd playoff appearance in franchise history.
After yet another disappointing season in which the Edmonton Oilers finished with the 2nd worst record in the NHL, not many could have envisioned that this team would be ready to become a contender in their following season. Instead, the play of Connor McDavid has been so great that the Oilers are actually becoming the competitive team that many fans had longed to see.
With a record of 17-12-5, Edmonton currently is tied for 2nd place in the Pacific Division with 39 points. All of that has been possible because of the play of McDavid. In just his 2nd season in the NHL, the 1st overall pick in the 2015 draft has started a revelation for the Oilers, leading his team and the entire NHL in points with 40; coming from his 28 assists and 12 goals.
Besides McDavid, the Oilers have gotten solid contributions from their big free agent signing in Milan Lucic, as well as from Leon Draisital and Jordan Eberle. Additionally, goalie Cam Talbot has played well for the team with 15 wins and an average of 2.54 goals against. If the Oilers can keep this up, they may be able to put their 10-year playoff drought to an end come the spring.
Top 3 Biggest Disappointments
Fresh off their longest playoff run in franchise history, to go along with their acquisition of P.K. Subban for Shea Weber during the offseason, the Nashville Predators were considered a dark-horse to win the Cup entering this season. Instead, the team finds itself trying to overcome a sluggish start and keep their playoff hopes alive.
With a record of 15-12-5, the Predators are currently sitting outside of the playoff picture with their 35 points. Their struggles can be blamed on their inconsistencies, most notably from goalie Pekka Rinne, who has not been his usual self thus far; only posting 13 wins, a .918 save percentage, and 2.43 goals against a game. While they’ve had problems in net, having already allowed 86 goals, they haven’t been able to truly make up for it with them registering 89 goals so far this season. Their inconsistencies have also been present in their special teams, with their power play efficiency sitting at 20.2%, while their penalty kill (81.4%) sits in the bottom half of the league.
Fortunately, things are starting to look up in Nashville. Their star offensive players in Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg, and James Neal are beginning to heat up, while their defensive core of Subban, Roman Josi, and Ryan Ellis is starting to find common ground. They’re on a 2-game win streak, but the Predators still have a lot of work to do if they want to live up to their potential.
New York Islanders
Fresh off of winning their first playoff series since 1993, the New York Islanders appeared ready to take the next step in competing for a Stanley Cup. Instead, the Islanders are struggling to get out of the NHL’s basement.
With a record of 12-14-6, the Islanders find themselves at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings and with the 3rd worst record in the league, ahead of only the Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche. A possible explanation for their struggles is that Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss haven’t been effective in net, posting a combined .910 save percentage and an average of 2.95 goals against a game.
Additionally, the Islanders offensive unit, led by John Tavares, Brock Nelson, and Josh Bailey, has not been able to produce at a dependable rate. In fact, it’s the defensive core of Nick Leddy, Travis Hamonic, and Dennis Seidenberg that’s been keeping the Islanders from sliding down to the bottom of the league in goal production.
Combine all of their struggles with the impending rumors of coach Jack Capuano being fired in the near future, and it makes sense why the Islanders haven’t been able to focus on their way to a disappointing season.
Tampa Bay Lightning
After making it to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2015 and reaching the Conference Finals in 2016, it appeared as though the Tampa Bay Lightning were destined to go all the way this spring. So far this season, it’s starting to look like the Lightning might not even make the playoffs at all.
After Tuesday night’s game against the Detroit Red Wings, the Lightning boast a record of 16-14-3, leaving them in 4th place in the Atlantic and 6 points out of a Wild Card spot in the East. A possible explanation for their struggles is that many of their players are currently out of the lineup with injuries. Steven Stamkos is their biggest loss, with him being out 4-6 months with a torn meniscus, but it isn’t just him. Other key players such as Ryan Callahan, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov have also missed time due to injuries, which has hurt the Lighting from gaining any momentum.
In addition to their injury woes, their goaltending duo of Ben Bishop and Andrej Vasilevskiy has not been anywhere near their best. Their goalies have posted a combined .913 save percentage and an average of 2.64 goals against thus far, which is not helping the team get closer to a playoff spot. Put it all together, and it makes sense why the Lightning have been a disappointment so far this season.
All stats for this article are from Hockey-Reference.com.
You can find Michael Mazzei on Twitter @MichaelMazzei3.