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Five Pleasant Surprises in NHL Season

by Photo of Andrew Wallach

What teams have exceeded expectations so far in 2014-2015?

Five Pleasant Surprises in NHL Season

NHL Early Season Surprises

1. New York Islanders

The Islanders had high hopes going into last season. Those hopes were gashed by poor goaltending and the eventual season-ending injury to their captain John Tavares in the Olympics. They finished last in the Metropolitan division with 79 points and questions began to surface about the future of head coach Jack Capuano. General Manager Garth Snow addressed his team's biggest need by trading for Jaroslav Halak to solidify the goalie situation. Even with that trade and other roster moves, there was not much expected from this team in a competitive division.

With one season left before moving to Brooklyn, the Islanders want to build momentum and raise anticipation for their big move. So far this season, they have done just that. With 42 points in their first 31 games, they sit in second place in the division and seem poised to make a run towards the playoffs. Tavares has returned from injury to lead the team in points, and young guns Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome have provided much needed scoring depth. If Jaroslav Halak can play at least decently in net, this team has the potential to score a lot of points and make some noise come playoff time.

2. Nashville Predators

For the first fifteen years of their NHL existence the Predators only had one head coach. Barry Trotz led them to the playoffs in seven out of those fifteen years, but was fired following last season's disappointing finish. Trotz's defensive-minded system might have hampered the offense a bit, especially with defenseman Shea Weber leading the team with only 56 points. But I think the bigger issue for Nashville was the inconsistency in net. Pekka Rinne missed much of the year with an infection, and the team ended up starting a total of five different goalies. None of them, however, had save percentages over 91 or goals against averages below 2.6/game. Those are not numbers indicative of winning hockey.

Peter Laviolette became the second coach in franchise history when he signed on to man the bench. He is a Stanley Cup winning head coach who preached an offensive system, a clear 180 in coaching philosophies. Laviolette has clearly made an impact. The Predators have 42 points in the first 30 games and sit in third place in the Central Division. The biggest reason for their turnaround has to be the resurgence of Rinne. I'll get more into him later on in this post, but for now lets just say that he is the backbone of this team. They will most likely go as far as he can take them for the remainder of the season. Fans should get their Nashville Predators tickets now while they can, because this team appears to be on their way to playoff hockey. 

3. Vancouver Canucks

Last season was a mess for the Canucks. They hired former Rangers coach John Tortarella to replace Alain Vigneault. But he, and the team, went off the rails and the season ended in disappointment. They finished with 83 points and no playoff spot in a season where much was expected. That led to turnover in the front office as a new President/GM was appointed and Tortarella was replaced after just one season. It seemed that Vancouver's next coach would have to deal with an aging roster and a team lacking an identity.

Apparently, new coach Willie Desjardins didn't get the memo. Even with all-star goalie Ryan Miller not playing at his usual high level, the Canucks are sitting in second place in the Pacific Division with 38 points in their first 31 games. The Sedin twins are of course tied for the team lead in points with 26 apiece, and newcomers Radim Vrbata and Nick Bonino are close behind them providing secondary scoring. If Desjardins can keep his boys focused and playing at this level, he will certainly be one of the frontrunners for coach of the year. Canucks tickets are once again a hot commodity in Vancouver. 

4. Winnipeg Jets

Not much was expected from the Jets going into last year. But things got so dysfunctional that they had to fire head coach Claude Noel. Winnipeg finished dead last in the Central Division with 84 points despite a strong finish under interim head coach Paul Maurice. They were fifth worst on the power play and only average in goals scored per game. Not good stats when your goalie situation is as poor as theirs was. Ondrej Pavlec was swiss cheese in net, allowing more than three goals per game and barely stopping 90 percent of shots faced.

The organization made a good move in removing the interim tag and naming Maurice head coach. Despite that, the goalie questions were not addressed in the offseason and not many fans were in a hurry to get their Winnipeg Jets tickets for this year. But Maurice has improved the culture around this team and gotten the players to believe that a playoff appearance is possible. They are currently fourth in the division with 38 points in 32 games and would be in the playoffs if they started today. With much of the season left to play, they will have to count on Pavlej to continue to improve in net in order to compete in a tough Western Conference playoff picture.

5. Pekka Rinne

My last pleasant surprise is the overall health and superb play of Nashville Predators goalie Pekka Rinne. As i mentioned earlier when talking about the Preds as a team, Rinne has played at an MVP level so far this year. His numbers are ridiculous: 20 wins, 1.75 goals against/game, and a save percentage hovering around 94 percent. If the season ended today, I have no doubt that he would get serious consideration for the Hart Trophy as league MVP and would probably be a unanimous choice for the Vezina Trophy. 

All of this is incredible considering what he endured last season. Coming back from that infection to play at this level is really astonishing. In this league, having an elite goalie can make the whole team look good. Predators fans are hoping that Rinne can continue this level of play and lead his team to the playoffs. 

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