NHL: The Biggest Surprises of 2013 So Far

SURPRISE!: Not many expected the Anaheim Ducks to be the dominant force they have been this season

BY JEFF ANGUS

Many expected that the 2013 NHL season would bring about a lot of crazy and interesting news stories. Because the season is only 48 games long, the chances that luck or randomness factor in to the performance of a player or a team are a lot better than during a typical 82 game season.

Looking at the current scoring race, there aren’t really any surprise names at the top of the list. The top three scorers are arguably the top three players in hockey – Steven Stamkos, Sidney Crosby, and John Tavares. However, if you keep looking down the list, there are a few surprising names on there (as well as a few surprising names not on there).

Let’s take a look at five stories from the first month of hockey that have been quite a bit of a surprise.

5. CRAIG ANDERSON’S DOMINANCE IN THE NATION’S CAPITAL
Montreal Canadiens at Ottawa Senators (+110, 5)
Ottawa’s Craig Anderson has been phenomenal in 2013. And they will need him to continue his strong play when he returns from an ankle injury, as the club’s two best players (Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza) are out for the 2013 season (there is a chance Spezza returns at the end of the season or in the playoffs if Ottawa makes it).

Anderson spent the lockout working with Francois Allaire, and his hard work has definitely paid off. He has had stretches of dominant play in his NHL career (he was very good last year in Ottawa, and he carried the Avalanche to the postseason a few years ago). Is it time to start considering Anderson as one of the best in the game? He has allowed only 22 goals on the 459 shots he has faced this season (good enough for a sizzling .952 save percentage).

4. THE STRUGGLES OF SHEA WEBER AND RYAN SUTER
Dallas Stars at Nashville Predators (-175, 5)
Calgary Flames at Minnesota Wild (-175, 5)
Some expected Weber and Suter to regress a bit without each other this season, but I don’t think anyone expected the two defensive studs to struggle as much as they have (especially offensively).  The duo obviously benefitted tremendously from playing with each other – not only was there a level of comfort, but both of them are phenomenal puck movers. Without Weber, Suter has had to do more on his own (and he has been trying to force things a bit, likely feeling the pressure of his massive contract with Minnesota).

And without Suter, Weber’s offensive production had all but dried up before a recent scoring surge. Suter is starting to play better over the past few weeks, but he needs some help from Minnesota’s other defensemen. Weber hasn’t struggled as much as Suter has, but his production is still well below where you would expect. Suter is averaging close to 28 minutes of ice time per game – a full minute more per game than he played last season in Nashville. He has yet to score a goal through 17 games (although he does have nine helpers).

Weber has five points in his last five games after recording one measly assist in his first 13 games of the season. His ice time hasn’t changed at all from last season (26:09 per game compared to 26:10 per game in 2011-12), but he doesn’t have the swift-skating Suter at his side to help move the puck up the ice.

Expect both defensemen to rebound, but don’t count on them to repeat last season’s production at any point in the near future.

3. ONE-GOAL RYAN NUGENT HOPKINS
Edmonton Oilers at Chicago Blackhawks (-200, 5.5)
After dominating in the AHL during the lockout, the young Oilers were expected to do the same at the NHL level in 2013. That hasn’t been the case, and Nugent-Hopkins has been struggling most of all. He has been dealing with a chronic shoulder issue (not sure why this isn’t a bigger deal), and it is obviously affecting how he has been playing.

The shifty center has only one goal in 16 games this season after scoring 18 as a rookie last year. His linemate Jordan Eberle, who was leading the AHL in scoring when the lockout ended, has also struggled.

Last year, with Jordan Eberle on the ice, the Oilers scored on 12.8 percent of all shots they took 5-on-5. That is an extremely high figure – so high in fact, that only one player in the league (Steven Stamkos in Tampa Bay) bettered it. This year with Eberle on the ice, the Oilers have scored on just 4.8 percent of shots taken, which is at the other end of the scale – among the 368 forwards to play 40 or more games last season, 336 of them were more likely to see a shot turned into a goal while they were on the ice. The numbers are less drastic for Nugent-Hopkins (from 10.8 percent down to 6.7 percent), but the effect is the same. The drop in on-ice shooting percentage almost exactly matches the percentage drop in 5-on-5 scoring in both cases.

If Nugent-Hopkins doesn’t turn things around soon, do the Oilers think about finding a long-term fix for his shoulder (assuming one is warranted)?

2. INJURIES, INJURIES AND MORE INJURIES
With no preseason and a very short training camp, injuries were expected to be up this year. They are, but I don’t think many people predicted they would be as many injuries as there currently are across the league. And the rash of injuries isn’t related to rust or fitness – they aren’t all groin strains or other skating-related injuries.

The Senators, as mentioned above, have been hit hardest. However, the Red Wings, Oilers, Rangers, Flyers, and Capitals aren’t far behind. Injuries play a huge role in determining who emerges as Stanley Cup champ every year (it is usually the healthiest team as the playoffs drag on – look at Los Angeles last season and Boston in 2011), and this season they will also play a huge role in determining who simply qualifies for the postseason.

1. THE ANAHEIM DUCKS
Anaheim Ducks at LA Kings (-162, 5)
The Ducks are proving to be a lot more than a team off to a quick start. Anaheim is 8-2-1 in games where the other team scores first, and they have won six straight games. Viktor Fasth has been spectacular in goal, and the team rewarded his strong start with a two-year contract extension. Must be nice to earn a few million bucks off of a strong couple of weeks?

The Ducks are third in the NHL in goals for (3.3 per game), and their 26.9 percent efficiency on the power play is fourth best in the league.

Ryan Getzlaf is leading the charge offensively with six goals and 17 points in 16 games. After scoring only 11 goals in 82 games last season, Getzlaf had a lot to prove this season (and he’s looking for a nice new contract, too). After him, the offense has been spread out across a few lines. Teemu Selanne, Corey Perry, Saku Koivu, and Bobby Ryan have all been productive.

Depth forwards Andrew Cogliano, Nick Bonino, Kyle Palmieri, and Daniel Winnik have also been contributing. And the Ducks aren’t missing young defenseman  and former prospect Justin Schultz (who opted not to sign with the team to become a free agent) on the back end. Francois Beauchemin has been one of the best defensemen in the NHL in 2013, and Sheldon Souray has been lethal on the power play.

The Ducks are very for real, and they could make a serious run this year if they decide to pick up a piece or two at the trade deadline.