Between divisional realignment, the looming Seattle Kraken expansion draft and ongoing concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020-2021 NHL Season was bound to be an unpredictable one. It has not disappointed! Without further ado, I bring you the top ten biggest surprises of the current NHL season:
10. Quinn Hughes Takes Several Steps Back in His Defensive Game
If you followed hockey at all last year, you remember the crazy Calder Trophy debate: Cale Makar vs Quinn Hughes. The two stellar rookie defensemen had the entire hockey world split as they both proved themselves to be dynamic puck movers and phenomenal difference makers from the point. And while it was Colorado's Cale Makar who took home the hardware, Quinn Hughes showed that he too was a franchise-changing defenseman. So, during the 2020 off-season, Vancouver General Manager Jim Benning decided to hand Hughes the keys to the blueline and ship the long-time Canucks defensive defenseman to Calgary. This year, Vancouver has struggled to build on their post-season success and that is largely due to Quinn Hughes' unexpected defensive ineptitude. Without the support of the defensively reliable Tanev, Hughes-y's advanced stats have taken quite the hit. Despite averaging 0.74 points/game as a defenseman, the Canucks have a goal differential of -17 when Quinn is on the ice. Far lower than that of any other Canucks player! Now that's a tough look! And while I know Quinn Hughes is too talented a player not to turn this around, I'm glad to be on Team Makar right about now.
9. Dallas Stars Struggle Despite Excellence in the Bubble
Playoffs in the bubble were absolute madness last year and while a stacked Tampa Bay Lightning team did hoist Lord Stanley as expected, almost every other team was a bracket buster. Strong teams such as Toronto, Vegas, Colorado and Washington had their hopes of a Cup dashed early, as underdogs like the Canucks and Stars thrived under the pressures of the bubble. As a Vegas fan, I am still salty with Miro Heiskanen and Dobby for completely STEALING the conference finals series from a far better Golden Knights team. However, credit where credit is due, the Stars went on a tear for the most important part of the year and gave the juggernaut Lightning a run for their money in the Finals. Here is where things get interesting: Despite the entirety of their core group staying together, the Stars have dealt with a brutal falling from grace this season. With 9 regular season games left to play, the Stars are poised to miss the playoffs just a year after their remarkable Cup Finals run. The last time a Stanley Cup Finals runner-up missed the playoffs in their following season was in 2013 when the New Jersey Devils failed to reach playoff contention after falling 4-2 to Los Angeles the year prior.
8. Chaotic Calder Race
Where do I even begin with this one?! I got this year's Calder trophy race COMPLETELY WRONG and I'm sure I wasn't the only one. Like most Canadian hockey fans, I was on the Alexis Lafreniere hype train... one that derailed super fast after he had only two points in sixteen games. Kirill "The Thrill" Kaprizov wasn't even on my radar when I was picking Calder favourites. In fact, I actually thought Wild fans were overrating their dynamo KHL prospect. OUCH! The chaos of this year's Calder race goes far deeper than two guys though. For example, who could honestly say they expected Jason Robertson to be in the mix for the NHL's best rookie? Well, with 33 points in 39 games and a +15 goal differential, Robertson is a sneaky candidate to steal the Calder from Kaprizov. As for Laffy, I have tons of faith in the kid. He's going to turn it around, Jack Hughes wasn't a bust and neither is Laffy! Give him time :)
7. Kirill Kaprizov Singlehandedly Makes Minnesota Hockey Fun Again
Kirill "The Thrill" Kaprizov. "Dolla Dolla Bill" Kirill. No matter what you choose to call him, there is no denying the obvious: Kirill Kaprizov has singlehandedly made Minnesota Wild hockey fun again! Well... him and those gorgeous Reverse Retro jerseys! No word of a lie, I could watch Kirill Kaprizov skate for hours. He's just one of those guys that leaves his heart and soul on the ice, game in and game out. And its not just that Kaprizov has made games more exciting to watch... he's actually leading the Wild to the promised land. Playoffs! For years, the Minnesota Wild have been trapped in the dreaded state of mediocrity- not good enough to compete for the Stanley Cup but not bad enough to win the draft lottery. Because of Kirill, no team wants to play Minnesota in a playoff series. He's nothing short of electrifying!
- If you haven't had the pleasure of watching Kirill Kaprizov play yet, I strongly recommend seeing Kirill Kaprizov- "Paradise" on YouTube. It is truly a blessing to be able to watch this kid play NHL hockey -
6. Carter Verhaeghe and a Crazy Breakout Season
The Florida Panthers unearthed a hidden gem this year in Carter Verhaeghe. If the name doesn't ring a bell, don't worry, I forgive you. The promising forward played limited minutes on a deep Tampa Bay Lightning roster last year, before being released in the resigning phase of free agency. Panthers GM Bill Zito signed him to a team-friendly two-year, 1-million dollar deal and the rest is history! Carter Verhaeghe has enjoyed a surprise breakout season as a Panther, registering 35 points in 42 games and a phenomenal +23 goal differential. Even better, Verhaeghe is 3rd in the entire NHL in goals per 60 minutes, only behind Connor McDavid and Mikko Rantanen! Not bad, Carter! Not bad at all!
5. Marc-Andre Fleury, The Ageless Wonder
Jaromir Jagr is the consensus "ageless wonder" of hockey right now but I believe that after this season, a case could be made for Golden Knights net-minder Marc-Andre Fleury. At age 36, The Flower is miraculously having the best season of his career between the pipes, posting an astonishing .925 SV% and 2.09 GAA. Talk about turning back the clock! The possibility of Fleury winning his first Vezina trophy in the golden years of his career is easily the most heartwarming surprise of this year's NHL season so far!
4. Zero to Hero- Starring Kevin Lankinen
The NHL has seen many underdog stories over the years however, very few players have went "zero to hero" the way Kevin Lankinen has. Flashback to the 2014 NHL Draft. 18-year-old Kevin Lankinen and his family leave their home in Helsinki, Finland and fly down to Philadelphia to witness the realization of Kevin's lifelong dream. Years of early morning practices and intense workouts, pressure-filled games and goaltending school. All to hear his name called by an NHL General Manager on draft day. Lankinen's name was not called that day in Philly. Instead, he was forced to take a more unconventional path to the NHL. After the draft day heartbreak, Kevin Lankinen returned to Finland where he would hone his craft in the Liiga (Finnish professional league). Then, in 2018, he was given the chance to play for Chicago's AHL affiliate in Rockford where he earned a starting role. Heading into this season, Chicago's goaltending looked bleak. I mean... a Malcolm Subban-Collin Delia tandem in net isn't scaring anybody! ENTER KEVIN LANKINEN. The former undrafted tendy has SHOWN OUT this year, registering an admirable .911 SV% and 2.89 GAA, while securing his future as a Blackhawk. Lank the Tank's emergence has been a fun storyline to watch this season and it just goes to show the importance of perseverance, not just in hockey but in life!
3. Pierre-Luc Dubois STOPS TRYING, Is Traded to the Jets for Laine and Roslovic
Blockbuster trades are nothing out of the ordinary in hockey. Quite frankly, the NHL generally sees at least one of them per season. The fiasco that occurred five games into this season was not your typical blockbuster trade. When was the last time, in any sport, that a player signed a contract and then immediately wanted out?! Because that is exactly what Dubois did! He renewed his contract this off-season to stay a Columbus Blue Jacket for the next two years... BUT HE DID SO WITH THE INTENTION OF DEMANDING A TRADE! Even worse, he literally refused to put forth an effort on the ice until he was traded. Very rarely will you see me say I don't respect a hockey player. While I may not like certain players, I almost always respect them and how they play the game. I have zero respect for PLD. And that disrespect stems from his infamous last shift as a Columbus Blue Jacket. If someone came up to me before the season, and told me everything that happened with Dubois in this situation, I would have said that they were full of it. Disheartening, really! This saga has been a jaw-dropper in the hockey world this year, and for all the wrong reasons.
- Check out Pierre-Luc Dubois' disgraceful last shift in Columbus with Steve Dangle in his video "NHL Worst Plays Of The Week: What Are You Doing Dubois?! I Steve's Dang-Its" -
2. Trevor Zegras Calls His Own Shot; USA Bring Home World Junior Championship Gold
The World Junior Tournament is an event to behold in the hockey world, and for great reason. The WJC provides a glimpse into the future of our amazing game and overall has acted as a spring board for so many of the NHL's top talents. In this year's tournament, Canada was the heavy favourite over the Americans to win the gold-medal game. Unfortunately, Trevor Zegras had other plans. In his pre-game interview, Zegras was oozing with confidence saying, "I honestly don't think (Canada's) been tested with a real team yet and I think we're kind of going on all cylinders right now. I think we're gonna catch them by surprise and we'll just go from there". Sure enough, Zegras was able to back up his talk, leading the United States to their first gold medal in the tournament since Clayton Keller and Adam Fox suited up for the red, white and blue in 2017. Trevor Zegras is a heck of a hockey player and he knows it! I love the swagger and cheeky attitude this kid exudes especially with how well he can back it up on the ice. Zegras is already one of my favourite players to watch!
- If you haven't seen them already, I strongly recommend watching "Trevor Zegras 2021 WJC Complete Highlights" on YouTube. Go see what all the hype is about! -
1. Buffalo Sabres Crash and Burn
Poor Sabres fans! I really feel for you guys... ten years without a playoff berth is a long time to be waiting. This year was supposed to be the year it ended too! Going into the season, Buffalo legitimately looked like a fringe playoff team. Jack Eichel finally had his scoring winger (Taylor Hall), and the center depth issue seemed to be resolved with the arrival of Eric Staal. Yet, here we are, at the end of another historically awful season for Buffalo. This year's Sabres are literally in the NHL record books as one of the worst hockey teams of all time, tying the 2003-2004 Penguins for the longest losing streak in NHL history with EIGHTEEN consecutive losses! Jack Eichel, Taylor Hall and Jeff Skinner, three players combining for $27-million of Buffalo's cap space only have a total of 49 points. To put that into perspective, Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins also combine for $27-million salary... BUT WITH 190 POINTS!!!!! NOBODY expected Buffalo to be as bad as they were therefore, their crash and burn is easily the biggest surprise of this year's NHL season. Sorry Sabres fans!