NHL Surprises at the One-Month Mark

The 2011-12 NHL season is just one month in the books, but already the headlines are abounding. Without a doubt, this season has had more parody in its games than any in recent history.

Teams that no one expected to excel this late in the season are at the top of the league, and clubs projected to be Presi­dent’s Trophy contenders are looking up at them shell-shocked. The best example of this unexpected start to the season has to be last year’s Stanley Cup winner Boston Bruins’s 10 points in 12 games – good for last in the Eastern Conference. It’s safe to say that a bit of a “Stanley Cup hangover” wasn’t completely un­foreseen – plenty of champs have started their next seasons slowly – but the de­gree to which the Bruins are floundering is getting severe. Through their first 10 games, Boston was just 3-7-0, but since have picked up their scoring thanks in large part to forwards Tyler Seguin and Milan Lucic.

Just as surprising as the Bruins’s first month of ineptitude is the Edmonton Oilers’s 2011-12 season of steady suc­cess. Edmonton, who finished dead last in the league the past two seasons, has been great all season long and is currently sitting atop the Northwest division with 20 points through just 14 games. Thanks in large part to the play of this year’s number one draft pick Ryan Nugent- Hopkins, the Oilers have surprised every­one and now look like a top team to beat in the West. The line of Nugent-Hop­kins, Jordan Hall and Jordan Eberle has accounted for 32 points of the team’s 33 goals and propelled Edmonton into playoff talks.

While the Oilers are making headlines for all the right reasons, two other West­ern Conference foes are making them for all the wrong ones. The Vancouver Ca­nucks and Detroit Red Wings, who fin­ished last season as the number one and three seeds in the West, respectively, both have just 15 points thus far in 2011. The Wings hit a rough patch in October and into November, which dropped them sig­nificantly in the standings, by losing six straight before finally getting back to back wins on Tuesday and Saturday. However, both teams have improved their play of late, calming fans down to some extent, but they still sit at ninth and tenth in the conference and have a long way to go before the playoffs.

From an individual standpoint, the biggest surprise in hockey has to be the play of a duo of resurgent veterans taking the league by storm. Edmonton goalten­der Nikolai Khabibulin, 38, and Phila­delphia winger Jaromir Jagr, 39, have been superb this season since coming back onto the NHL stage. Khabibulin re­turned after winning back a starting job in Edmonton, and Jagr came back after returning to the United States from the Russian Superleague. Their returns to the NHL have undoubtedly been felt.

Last season, Khabibulin registered the most losses of any goalie in just 47 games and had the highest goals against average of any goalie with 3.40. During this past off-season, the man they once called “The ‘Bulin Wall” during his Cup run with Tampa Bay added to his prob­lems when a DUI charge landed him in jail and on house arrest. Now, Khabibu­lin leads the NHL with an unprecedented 0.98 GAA, is second in save percentage with .964 and is third in wins with seven. The season is early, and the near-40-year-old has a long season ahead of him, but if he keeps up his play, this season might be one of the greatest comebacks in recent NHL history.

Meanwhile in Philly, the future Hall-of-Famer Jagr has surpassed nearly all expectations by racking up 15 points in 14 games after a three year hiatus playing for the Russian Superleague’s Avangard Omsk. Playing on the Flyers’s top line with all-star Claude Giroux and grinder Scott Hartnell, Jagr has jumped back into NHL relevancy, and currently ranks thirteenth in the league in points with six goals and nine assists.

The rest of the NHL season is sure to have much in store. The return of Sid­ney Crosby, the fifth annual Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic between the Fly­ers and Rangers, and the progress of the various surprises in the league – Edmon­ton, Dallas and Co. – will be the focus of many hockey fans as the 2011-2012 season moves along.

Contact Ben Glassman at [email protected]