Surprises aren’t appreciated by everyone; these people are insistent on being told if something is in the works behind their back. With the National Hockey League’s latest campaign coming upon us, it’s a chance to pour over the players who shattered their expectations—if they had some to begin with—and whose presence graced an organization. For someone to be included in this list, it had to be their career-year to date; that goes without saying.
Next, the leap in their maturation must be a significant one—we’re not exactly going to cram in individuals who raised their highest production by ten points. And the key words are the ‘regular season’, as the playoffs are not why we’re gathered here today. No disrespect is intended for Sean Bergenheim or Joel Ward, who fired all calibers of bullets round for round during the postseason.
If surprises aren’t to your liking, do not read past this point.
20) Brian Boyle (New York Rangers)
Brian Boyle’s job was hanging in the balance during the 2010 off-season. The 6′ 7″ behemoth had yet to amount to much of anything as a professional, so he received tutelage from an unconventional source; a figure skater. Former Olympic skater Barbara Underhill saw the issues in Boyle’s movement straightaway and the healing process began. The results speak for themselves: he totaled a career-best 21 goals, 35 points, ran over others like a train and looked comfortable on his feet for a change. Well done Miss Underhill.
19) Clarke MacArthur (Toronto Maple Leafs)
In a city that is known for its pressure-filled mix of loyalists and media attention, the hectic nature of it all is overwhelming. Further to that, there’s the possibility of a batch of waffles hitting the rink with a chorus of boos on top instead of the typical maple syrup. An irksome showing in Buffalo, coupled with a bottoming out in Atlanta, put MacArthur out of the loop before Toronto inked him. The high-risk, high reward forward finally rose up to the occasion, blending in on a unit with Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin to near perfection. It goes to show what a man may achieve on his third, and likely final, chance.
18) Claude Giroux (Philadelphia Flyers)
Not so much of a shocker here, as everyone and their uncle knew Giroux would hit superb heights in this league. For those in need of a quick reminder, Phoenix Coyotes forward Paul Bissonnette tweeted that the Ontario native‘s hands are softer than a baby’s feces. Maybe so, because he’ll stick-handle through a maze effortlessly, thread the needle with a pinpoint pass or just put a goaltender out of commission. Simon Gagne is Philadelphia’s last player to lead the club in scoring two years in a row, but for how long? Giroux’s meteoric rise confirmed that he’ll anchor the offense and the trading of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter means he’s a leader now.
17) John Carlson (Washington Capitals)
Shortlisted for the Calder Trophy, Carlson showed off his wits and maturity on Washington’s back end as they transitioned to a more behind-the-puck approach. Their regular season and playoff credentials speak for themselves, in unusually differing forms, but the former London Knight is dead serious about the postseason past staying in the past. Actions speak louder than words, and Carlson doesn’t have a problem putting his desires into practice.
16) P.K. Subban (Montreal Canadiens)
His one-timer is a cannon. He jets up the ice without a care in the world. Celebrating a goal for him means that the opposition might shake their heads in disgust. Plain and simply, P.K. Subban loves to entertain the crowd and the Bell Centre has all the atmosphere he can demand. One way or the other, the 22-year-old can inject himself into the storyline, but it’s preferred that he uses that confidence of his to hurt the other team and not the Canadiens.
15) Teddy Purcell (Tampa Bay Lightning)
Purcell filed for arbitration back in July and who can blame him? His secondary scoring provided Tampa Bay with an extra push, as his 17 goals and 34 helpers will unveil. He cost Tampa Bay $750,000 in wages, which is the kind of cash many soccer players bring home for three months worth of time, and in Euros. Whether or not they were entitled to that many digits worth of earnings is another story. Now that Purcell is re-signed, he and the Lightning can get on with their promising futures, and he’s already mentioned his goal of justifying his deal.
14) Mike Santorelli (Florida Panthers)
Change is in the air at Florida—as in Scottie Upshall, Tomas Fleischmann, Ed Jovanovski, Sean Bergenheim, Marcel Goc, Jose Theodore, Kris Versteeg, Tomas Kopecky, Brian Campbell and no Tomas Vokoun. Abandoned by Nashville, his original finder, Santorelli slyly broke out of his shell. We say slyly because he was the 178th overall pick in 2004, had three points on his player sheet prior to 2010 and the Panthers’ fans weren’t good for filling an entire row, let alone an arena.
13) Brad Marchand (Boston Bruins)
At first, you wouldn’t stand a shot at picking Marchand out of a group photograph. Later though, you’d have his biography memorized because the impact he created for the Boston Bruins involved more than goals or assists. Sure, those two categories turned out great results, but the integrity and two-way efforts really endeared him to the coaching staff. Locked for two years and $5 million, Marchand’s pay raise had to happen, but the respect he’s gained is the ultimate currency.
12) Cam Fowler (Anaheim Ducks)
Anaheim couldn’t resist Fowler’s upside, awarding him a meriting 22 minutes of ice time on average and receiving a return that delighted them. As far as they are concerned, the -25 rating is a minor speed bump because if his offensive capabilities and nerves of steel in a position that can silence doubters or awaken them. His 20th birthday is still months away and most other 19-year-old’s impact the National Hockey League only in the form of a Playstation 3. A winner with the Windsor Spitfires at the 2010 Memorial Cup, this kid has the tools to lift a more prestigious Cup one day.
11) Sergei Bobrovsky (Philadelphia Flyers)
Philadelphia’s goaltending carousel didn’t let us down, as usual. While the constant changes in the playoffs reeked of insecurity, Sergei Bobrovsky owned Philadelphia’s starting gig for better parts of the season and brought hope to the organization that they’d be in safe hands. Exhausted from his work schedule, the Russian’s numbers took a hit eventually, but 28 wins and a .915 save percentage are hardly worth a complaint from the management. Ilya Bryzgalov’s attainment brought one of the best and with Bobrovsky learning from his countryman, the Flyers boast not one, but two worthy goalkeepers.
10) Jordan Eberle (Edmonton Oilers)
A goal-of-the-year candidate (voted as the top scoring moment months later) attracted envious glances at Eberle for the sheer beauty of it and the simple fact that it was his first NHL tally. It’s a pity that more positive press was not dedicated to the Edmonton Oilers, as they couldn’t take one step forward without falling two steps backwards. Side note: it was closer to three steps back actually because they won less than one-third of their 82 fixtures, but we’ll let it slide at two. The youth is piling up, so much so that they’re coming off more as a boy band than professional hockey club. Funny as it may sound, none of it erases Eberle’s legitimacy as an explosive forward.
9) Tyler Ennis (Buffalo Sabres)
This spark plug ignited matches with speed and tenacity all year long, zooming by his markers and coolly finishing chances. Ennis turned in a series of virtuoso displays, even burying his 20th goal at the last possible juncture of the season. Best remembered for his performance of gigantic proportions during Game Five at Philadelphia, the sneaky 21-year-old kept his health intact while teammates rushed for the treatment table. Watch out for Ennis because he’s got a contract year on his mind and extra motivation to play passionately. As if he needs any more spirit.
8 ) Taylor Hall (Edmonton Oilers)
By the time Hall finished his fight with Derek Dorsett in March, the first scrap of his career, a plethora of people were asking themselves why he’d done it. The superstar-in-the-making had been in a fine groove offensively, but he came to the conclusion that he had no choice but to defend himself. Everything there is logical, except for his decision on who to square off with. Dorsett is Columbus’ enforcer and a fighter with actual experience to go on as opposed to Hall, who ended up spraining his ankle to prematurely end a rookie year that was getting better by the day.
7) Corey Crawford (Chicago Blackhawks)
Young Crawford jumped into Chicago’s net when Marty Turco’s resiliency to remain a starting goaltender came into doubt because of his aging body. Posting 33 wins, a 2.30 goals against average and a .917 save percentage, this late bloomer was sensational for a club that tussled with mediocrity all season. However, thanks to an incompetent Dallas Stars side, the Blackhawks drew up a playoff spot and Crawford came within an inch of joining Nikolai Khabibulin and Antti Niemi as masked men the Vancouver organization keep on a dart board.
6) Kevin Shattenkirk (St. Louis Blues)
The secret is out about this 22-year-old rearguard. Having been tacked onto a trade that hyped Chris Stewart and Erik Johnson as the biggest pieces, Shattenkirk is the x-factor who can be of tremendous service on the powerplay. Another offensive defenseman—they seem to grow on trees these days—who shone in his first season, he’ll have to build on it but the potential is there. There can be no question that he’s a major part of St. Louis’ plans going forward, alongside Alex Pietrangelo, a 43-point man himself. Regarding what Shattenkirk will pray to avoid, five syllables hop into mind—Michael Del Zotto.
5) Michael Grabner (New York Islanders)
Who could have seen this coming? His move to Long Island was not greeted with wide enthusiasm, as Grabner was an anonymous face—unlike the team’s losing streak. Something clicked in January, and then, you would be hard-pressed to read an article about the Austrian which did not cite goals, speed, Calder Trophy or all of the above. Flat-out flying when he hits the higher gears on his skates, it’s primarily such footwork that launched him to 34 tallies, and subsequently, a handsome five-year deal to remain untouched in May.
4) Ville Leino (Philadelphia Flyers)
“I was thinking, ‘That damn Ville Leino again’.” Duncan Keith said it best about the Finn who was an itch that, for a while, could not be scratched by the Chicago Blackhawks in the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. Crushing the Buffalo Sabres with a Game Six overtime winner a few months back, that same man signed an appetizing contract with them. He is expected to take over a center position, forfeiting his spot on the right wing effective immediately. As a pass-first player who plays keep-away until he locates an open man, Leino should be a smooth fit.
3) Logan Couture (San Jose Sharks)
Taking full advantage of his experience from the previous year, Couture leaped into San Jose’s upper bunch of forwards—otherwise known as the top six. Although he fell short in the Calder Trophy sweepstakes, fashioning a 32-goal, 56-point total and eight game-deciding tallies does place him in the upper echelon of youthful influences. Now, with Dany Heatley and Devon Setoguchi out of sight and out of mind, San Jose will be more reliant on Couture up front.
2) P.A. Parenteau (New York Islanders)
One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Glen Sather didn’t think twice about re-signing Parenteau, so the winger joined New York’s arch nemesis in Long Island. Accompanying John Tavares and Matt Moulson on the first line, the Quebec native served his mates strongly, both as a distributor and a scorer. Paying him $600,000 in salary, Garth Snow snagged a talented forward who produced more points than any player from the Rangers, barring Brandon Dubinsky. Seeing his efforts not go unnoticed, Parenteau was wisely rewarded with a one-year contract extension by the Islanders.
1) Jeff Skinner (Carolina Hurricanes)
Broadcasters couldn’t resist discussing his lack of age, and facial hair, as Skinner was one of six teenagers from the 2010 draft class to play on their club’s season-opening contest. The 19-year-old stuck around in Carolina and General Manager Jim Rutherford predicted that he would do just that in October. Where to begin for his achievements? A 63-point effort led all rookies and trailed only captain Eric Staal among teammates, he was named to the 2011 All-Star Game to replace Sidney Crosby and last but not least, he won the Calder Trophy as the top freshman.
Honorable Mention: Milan Lucic, Drew Stafford, Mark Giordano, David Jones, James Wisniewski, Sergei Kostitsyn, Erik Karlsson, Matt D’Agostini, Nikolai Kulemin, James Reimer, Kris Letang, Keith Yandle.