As the NHL schedule approaches the midway point, here’s my list of NHL players whose performance has been the most surprising thus far. Feel free to add your own in the comments section.
Thomas Vanek, Buffalo Sabres. A two-time 40-goal scorer, Vanek’s been among the league’s notable scorers for several years, but no one would’ve predicted he would lead the NHL scoring race for nearly a month into this season. He’s cooled off from his earlier torrid pace, and was overtaken this weekend by Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos. Still, the fact Vanek was the scoring leader for the first third of this shortened season certainly took me by surprise.
Craig Anderson, Ottawa Senators. Since last season, Anderson’s provided a measure of stability between the pipes the Senators were lacking for some time. Few would’ve expected, however, he’d be the NHL’s best goalie a third of the way into this season. He’s taken his game to a higher level, with the second-best GAA (1.45) and best SP (.951) in the league before being sidelined by a sprained ankle. Hopefully for the Senators, he won’t be out of commission for long.
Viktor Fasth, Anaheim Ducks. Few NHL fans knew of this 30-year-old Swede when he began the season, but they’re “Fasth” learning just how good he is. Fasth ranks among the league leaders in wins (8), GAA (1.78) and SP (.933), and his performance has some observers suggesting he could push Jonas Hiller out of the starter’s role. The Ducks rewarded Fasth for his impressive debut by re-signing him to a two-year contract extension.
PA Parenteau, Colorado Avalanche. When Parenteau departed the NY Islanders last summer and signed with the Colorado Avalanche, his critics believed his 67 points last season were the result of playing with John Tavares. As of February 23rd, Parenteau had 14 points in 16 games, putting him on pace for 41 points in this 48-game season, becoming among the few bright spots in an otherwise dismal season for the Avalanche. Looks like there was more to Parenteau’s game than being Tavares’ sidekick.
Chris Kunitz, Pittsburgh Penguins. Admit it, Kunitz is one player you’d never expect to be among the NHL’s leading scorers. As of February 22nd, he was tenth overall in scoring with 20 points, ahead of such notables as Carolina’s Eric Staal, New Jersey’s Ilya Kovalchuk and San Jose’s Joe Thornton. In 18 games-played, he’s been held scoreless in only five.
Ray Emery, Chicago Blackhawks. Since undergoing career-threatening hip surgery nearly three years ago, Emery has battled to prove he’s still a worthwhile NHL goaltender. Though still in a backup role in his second season with the Blackhawks, Emery won all of his first seven starts while posting up solid numbers (2.10 GAA, .930 SP). He won’t supplant Corey Crawford as the starter, but if he maintains his current level of play, he could become a sought-after commodity in an otherwise thin free agent goalie market this summer.
Francois Beauchemin, Anaheim Ducks. When the Toronto Maple Leafs dealt Beauchemin back to the Ducks, he was considered washed-up. Critics claimed the only reason he played so well in his first tenure with the Ducks was from playing alongside Chris Pronger. Beauchemin may have struggled in Toronto, but he’s rediscovered his game back in Anaheim. He’s currently leading the Ducks in ice time and plus-minus, as well as leading the league in the latter.
Raphael Diaz, Montreal Canadiens. The second-year Hab was not a name you’d expect to see among the NHL’s leading scorers for blueliners, yet Diaz’s 12 points ranked him third in team scoring and tied for third among NHL defensemen. It remains to be seen if he’ll still be among those leaders by season’s end, but his performance so far has been among many pleasant surprises for the resurgent Canadiens.