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Cullen: What I didn't expect in 2013-2014 NHL season

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Scott Cullen
1/21/2014 5:59:55 PM
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As might be anticipated, given my gig here at TSN, I spend lots of hours poring over numbers, trying to forecast the NHL season and yet, for all those efforts, there are surprises.

A lot of times it's because percentages (shooting, save, on-ice shooting) are finding their way back to more normal levels, but sometimes players get opportunities that just weren't easy to see before the season started.

Leaving out injuries, because I don't pretend to hold that psychic power, here are some of the season's biggest surprises for each team.

I did not expect...

...C Nick Bonino to be the third-leading scorer on the Ducks, behind Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. I projected Teemu Selanne to be third, but he was way back and I still had virtually every other secondary Ducks forward pegged ahead of Bonino, who had 33 points in 112 career games coming into the season.

...RW Reilly Smith to be the Bruins' leading goal-scorer, with 15, through 48 games (passed by Brad Marchand Monday afternoon). Smith had decent underlying numbers as a rookie, but he scored three goals in 37 games last year, so I figured that he might be an okay third-liner for the Bruins if everything broke right. Turns out he's been a much more valuable contributor.

...the Sabres to open the season with a pair of 18-year-olds on defence. A team that didn't have much reason to expect a winning season (I ranked them 29th in the preseason), thought that their best course of action would be to have 2013 first-round picks Rasmus Ristolainen and Nikita Zadorov taking regular turns on the blueline. That experiment was eventually abandoned, as the Sabres made organizational changes, but that decision -- no matter how promising those defencemen could be in the future -- was a puzzler.

...D Kris Russell, who had spent his career as a protected, third-pair defenceman, to be so solid while playing more than 23 minutes per game for the Calgary Flames. 26-year-old Russell will be an unrestricted free agent at season's end, but looks like one that the Flames should keep.

...the complete collapse of LW Jiri Tlusty. Sure, he wasn't going to keep scoring on 19.7% of his shots, like he did while scoring 23 goals in 48 games last season, but Tlusty opened the year with Eric Staal and Alexander Semin on the top line and he's since plummeted down the depth chart since and has six goals and 11 points in 40 games.

...this year's offensive surge (45 points in 51 games) from Blackhawks D Duncan Keith, who may be having the best year of a great career. Could have gone with Antti Raanta's solid play in goal when he was pressed into action, but I'm trying avoid the injury thing, and while I expected better from Bryan Bickell, it's not a huge surprise that he couldn't hold his spot on Jonathan Toews' wing.

...that D Andre Benoit would be playing top-four minutes on the Colorado Avalanche blueline. A 30-year-old who had played 41 career NHL games before he was signed as a free agent to a one-year, $900,000 contract, Benoit has logged 20:41 per game and ranks second among Avs defencemen with 18 points in 47 games.

...this kind of breakout from Blue Jackets C Ryan Johansen. Oh, it was always a possibility, because he's a fourth overall pick that has shown flashes, but he struggled last year and was a healthy scratch in the AHL playoffs, so I did not foresee his sudden emergence as a bona fide No. 1 centre.

...Stars LW Ryan Garbutt to be tied for fourth on the team in goals, with 10 in 41 games. Garbutt, 28, had five goals in 56 NHL games prior to this season, but he's become an effective, workmanlike player who generates shots on goal at a rate similar to some of the top goal-scoring wingers in the league.

...Red Wings C Stephen Weiss to be such a disaster. His 2013 season was a mess, but he cut his season short for wrist surgery, so it was easy enough to write off four points and a minus-13 in 17 games as something that would be corrected once Weiss was healthy. With four points in 26 games this year, Weiss has obliterated that theory and now leaves the Red Wings in a tough spot, staring at $20.5-million over the next four years for a once-productive player who has eight points in 43 games since the start of last season.

...the defence and goaltending for the Edmonton Oilers to be so terrible. Since Devan Dubnyk has moved on, let's focus the attention on a team-wide defensive issue. The Oilers have a shot deficit with virtually anyone on the ice (save rookie D Martin Marincin, who has played 13 games) which, combined with subpar goaltending, leads to another lottery pick.

...stalled progress for second-year Panthers LW Jonathan Huberdeau, who had a promising rookie season, but has seen his shots per game collapse from 2.33 to 1.53 in Year Two, and he's sitting with 20 points through 47 games after tallying 31 points in 48 games last season.

...Kings rookie RW Tyler Toffoli to have such difficulty sticking in a regular role. After scoring 11 points in 22 late-season and playoff games last season, Toffoli seemed a good fit for a Kings team that could use more production from their forwards. For whatever reason, and it can't be entirely based on point production, Toffoli has been returned to the AHL, where he has 10 goals and 16 points in 13 games.

...anything significant from Wild G Josh Harding. No, I did not expect the goaltender who has been a solid career backup, but played just five games last season because of MS, to deliver what was probably the best goaltending performance over the first half of the season. Health remains an issue for Harding, but his spectacular play this year (1.65 GAA, .933 SV%) exceeds all possible expectations.

...that the Montreal Canadiens, who could certainly use an offensive boost, would choose to keep LW Alex Galchenyuk's minutes under wraps. The sophomore winger ranks third on the Habs in 5-on-5 points-per-minute, yet he ranks eighth among Montreal forwards in ice time per game.

...G Marek Mazanec, a 22-year-old who had played 41 Czech League games over the past three seasons, to lead the Predators in goaltender games played. I know I've tried to avoid injury situations, but none of the Predators' scoring (good or bad) counts as shocking and even if Pekka Rinne was going to miss time with injury, Carter Hutton or Magnus Hellberg would have been my picks to play more minutes.

...that, as of the third week of January, G Martin Brodeur would still have more games played than Cory Schneider. It's not altogether shocking, given Brodeur's importance to the franchise, but rare is the team (especially one on the playoff bubble) that would have the goaltender with a .905 save percentage playing more games than the goaltender with a .924 save percentage, especially when the goalie with the .924 save percentage had such a vastly superior save percentage in the previous three seasons.

...LW Josh Bailey to fall back the way he has, from 11 goals in 38 games last season to four in 46 games this year, but the bigger surprise for me is how RW Pierre-Marc Bouchard was so quickly ejected from the lineup after a slow start that was due, in part to his own 7.8% shooting percentage, as well as a low on-ice shooting percentage that would have been bound to bounce back.

...Rangers rookie LW Chris Kreider to be so productive after he stumbled as a rookie pro (23 points in 48 AHL games, three points in 23 NHL games) last season. This year, Kreider has earned a regular turn on a scoring line and is delivering strong underlying stats too.

...that Kyle Turris would be the highest-scoring Senators centre, even with a relatively-healthy Jason Spezza on board. Of course, the expectation was that RW Bobby Ryan was going to play alongside Spezza, but it has turned out that the line of Clarke MacArthur, Turris and Ryan has really been the Sens' No. 1 unit.

...G Steve Mason to have an above-average save percentage. After four subpar years in Columbus, it was difficult to put too much stock in Mason's seven games (and .944 SV%) with the Flyers late last season. Now, Mason has been in steady decline since the beginning of December, but he's still fared better than expected overall. I suppose honourable mention here could go to C Vincent Lecavalier's decline -- his points per game (0.51) is his lowest since his rookie season, 1998-1999.

...the offensive breakthrough of Coyotes C Martin Hanzal, who has 34 points in 45 games, one off his career-high, set as a rookie in 2007-2008. They say it takes big forwards some time to reach their potential, but Hanzal is scoring at a much better rate than in any of his previous six NHL seasons.

...the season that Penguins D Matt Niskanen is having. While it would also be fair enough to point to LW Chris Kunitz, who I didn't peg for a point-per-game scorer, a healthy Sidney Crosby opens up the number of reasonable possibilities. For Niskanen, he has 26 points and is a league-leading plus-25, a great showing in a contract year.

...Sharks RW Joe Pavelski to be second in the league with 27 goals. Pavelski's been a terrific two-way player pretty much since coming into the league in 2006-2007, but when the Sharks started losing bodies up front, it's been Pavelski who has carried the day, scoring 18 goals in the past 20 games. He needs five in the remaining 32 games to set a new career high.

...24 goals in 37 games from Blues LW Alexander Steen. Like Pavelski, a strong two-way player, Steen got off to a ridiculous start with linemates David Backes and T. J. Oshie. It was slowed down by Steen's concussion, but he's back and his next goal will be a career best.

...Lightning G Ben Bishop to be Vezina contender. Sure, it was reasonable enough to think that Bishop could beat out Anders Lindback for the starting job, but what kind of expectations can you put on a 27-yar-old that has played 45 career NHL games. Honourable mention to C Valtteri Filppula, who has been far better than I anticipated after a down year in Detroit last season.

...Maple Leafs C Tyler Bozak to be closing in a point-per-game. While my projection for C Nazem Kadri's decline is within reason (he's below my points-per-game projection), Bozak putting up 23 points in 27 games is a major leap over previous seasons. He's doing it with unsustainable percentages and, due to injury, it's a smaller sample size, but I readily admit that I wouldn't have forecasted this kind of production for Bozak.

...any kind of contribution from Canucks C Mike Santorelli. After all, he is a 28-year-old who had four points in 34 NHL games last season and 15 points in 94 games over the previous two seasons. Of course, that would be the guy who has 28 points in 49 gams, playing more than 18 minutes a night for Vancouver this season.

...Washington's goaltending situation to suddenly become such a mess, but I'm going to go with surprising production from RW Joel Ward, who ranks (distant) second on the Capitals with 13 goals. His career-high is 17 goals and had 14 goals in 112 games through his first two seasons with the Capitals.

...that Jets C Olli Jokinen would be a productive player again. He had 14 points in 45 games last season and turned 35 in December. He's not a world-beater with 31 points in 50 games this year, but it's still unexpected.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.

Mike Santorelli (Photo: Canadian Press)

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(Photo: Canadian Press)
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