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NHL’s Biggest Surprises & Disappointments so far

NHL's Biggest Surprises & Disappointments so far Annie Devine/via Flickr

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We have reached the All-Star break of the NHL season and it’s been a pretty interesting and entertaining one, so far. It will only get that much more interesting and entertaining when the league resumes play on January 31 and the playoff races start getting intense.

With all 30 teams having played more than half their season already, we are starting to get an idea of what teams will be playing for the Stanley Cup in April. Apart from that, though, this time gives us a chance to look back at the first part of the season and see what teams have done better than we thought and which ones have not lived up to expectations.

Today, I’ll be giving you the NHL’s biggest surprises and disappointments up to this point in the season, in my opinion. Since most of us don’t like ending things with bad news, we’ll go ahead and start with teams I feel have been disappointing, or underachieving, this season.

TOP 5 DISAPPOINTMENTS

1. Tampa Bay Lightning-To say that the Lightning have underachieved so far this season is probably a big understatement. Having been to back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals the previous two seasons surely had Tampa fans believing they weren’t far away from getting a second Stanley Cup championship. This season, however, has been a rough one.

The Lightning are currently 12th in the Eastern Conference, six points out from the final wild card spot. Probably the biggest reason that they have underachieved this season is they have been riddled with injuries.

They’ve only had two players play in every game so far this year. Their biggest loss has been not having captain Steven Stamkos for all but 17 games and he is not expected back until about March.

It also doesn’t help that they’ve allowed the second-most goals in the conference. This is coming off a season where they were tied for the fourth-best defense in the NHL.

If they can stay in contention until Stamkos returns, they have a chance to get above the playoff line. This next month and a half will surely make or break their season.

2. Florida Panthers-The 2015-16 season marked the Panthers’ greatest regular season in their team’s history. They set franchise records with 47 wins and 103 points to claim their second-ever division title. Despite getting knocked out in the first round of the playoffs, expectations were high coming into this season. Things have not panned out, however, for Florida’s other team.

The Panthers find themselves 10th in the East, four points from the final playoff spot. They’re also 13 points behind Montreal for first in the Atlantic Division, so the chances to repeat as division champs are pretty slim to none.

Their biggest problem this season has been putting the puck in the net. Florida has scored the second-fewest goals in the conference and fourth-fewest in the entire league. This is a year after they were the sixth-highest scoring team in the league.

At this point in the season, they only have two players with 10 or more goals. That’s usually a recipe for not getting a lot of wins.

3. New York Islanders-Eastern Conference teams keep finding their way onto this list and, when you look at what the Islanders did last season and where they currently sit, it’s pretty easy to see why they made the list.

New York finished fifth in the East and won a playoff series for the first time since 1993 during the 2015-16 campaign. Despite losing key players during the off-season, expectations were still pretty high. Like the Panthers, though, they have not met them.

The Islanders, at the moment, are five points from the final wild card spot and find themselves 11th in the conference. While they are in the middle of the pack in goals for and against in the conference, their biggest issue this season has been being consistent.

They’ve had various stretches so far this season where they’ll win two, three games in row followed by three, four straight losses. Fluctuations like are a common cause that leads a team to miss the postseason. What also hasn’t helped has been the lack of production from off-season signing Andrew Ladd.

Ladd signed a massive seven-year deal with New York  in the summer, but has not lived up to it as he has only 14 points in 43 games. Maybe letting Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen go in free agency wasn’t a good idea after all.

4. St. Louis Blues-Some people may see this team’s name and think, “This guy is nuts! The Blues are in a playoff spot!” And you’re right, they are in a playoff spot. That’s not the reason they made this list, however.

Despite holding down the first wild card spot in the Western Conference, St. Louis doesn’t look like the team that made the Western Conference Final last spring.

The biggest reason is because their defense is nowhere near what it was during the 2015-16 campaign. Last season, the Blues allowed the fourth-fewest goals in the entire league with 201 goals against. In 49 games so far this year, they’ve already allowed 152.

It’s been so bad defensively that the team left starting, and struggling, goalie Jake Allen at home prior to a trip to Winnipeg last week to see if he could regain his form.

For a team that had the run they did last spring, sitting just one point above the playoff is not where they expected to be at this point. If they don’t straighten things out on the defensive side of the puck, though, don’t be surprised if they’re on the golf course instead of in the Scottrade Center when the playoffs start.

5. Dallas Stars-The Stars are another team that has not been able to continue their success from the previous season into this one.

Dallas won their first division title since 2005-06 last season, finished atop the Western Conference, and was one game away from reaching the Conference Final. Things were surely looking up for them this season. However, it has not worked out that way.

Like the Blues, the Stars have had a very leaky defense this year. They’ve given up the second-most goals in the Western Conference and entire league. Their offense has also tailed off this season.

Dallas led the league in scoring last year, but are currently 17th in goals scored. At the moment, they only have three players with 10 or more goals. Part of that can be attributed to the injuries this team has suffered.

Patrick Sharp, Ales Hemsky, Cody Eakin, and Jiri Hudler, guys who were looked as secondary offensive support, have all missed at least 22 games (Hemsky has only played in one game all season).

They are just three points from the final playoff spot, despite these problems. However, like St. Louis, they surely weren’t expecting to be fighting just to get into the postseason. And like their conference semifinal opponent from last season, if they don’t plug up their defensive woes, they’ll be watching the playoffs from home.

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Well, I think that’s enough with disappointing news. Let’s move on to my top-5 surprises this season.

TOP 5 SURPRISES

1. Columbus Blue Jackets-I’m certain people expected the Blue Jackets to be better this season with John Tortorella behind the bench for a full season. I just don’t think they thought they would be this good.

Columbus is third overall in the NHL with 68 points. They are also second in a heavily stacked Metropolitan Division and came within one win of tying the NHL record for the longest winning streak in a single season earlier this season. It’s pretty much a given that this will be their best regular season in franchise history.

Like most teams that have a tremendous turnaround, the Blue Jackets have done it by tightening up defensively. They are the fourth-best defensive team in the league, allowing 2.35 goals against per game. This comes after being the second-worst defensive team the season before.

They’ve also done it on the offensive side of the puck as they have nine players with 20 or more points and six with 10 or more goals.

Columbus isn’t a doormat anymore. They’ve become a contender for the Cup and don’t be surprised if they make a run this spring.

2. Edmonton Oilers-I’ll be the first to admit: I wasn’t expecting much from this team this season. They sure are making me look dumb right now.

With their wins over Anaheim and San Jose on Wednesday and Thursday, the Oilers enter the All-Star break tied with San Jose for first in the Pacific Division.

As expected, superstar Connor McDavid has been the primary catalyst to their shooting up the standings. McDavid currently leads the league in scoring with 59 points in 51 games. He’s also had help as Edmonton has seven other players with 20 or more points.

With 31 games left, the Oilers are in a good position, as they sit 11 points above bitter rival Calgary, who hold the last wild card spot. So, barring a monumental collapse after the break, we should be seeing the Oilers in the postseason for the first time since they reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2006.

We’ll just have to see what this young team can do when they get there.

3. Ottawa Senators-Since reaching the Stanley Cup Final in 2007, the Senators have basically alternated postseason appearances. After missing out last season, they are in a position to make it back this spring. Just don’t think many though they’d be where they are.

Ottawa is second in the Atlantic Division, seven points behind Montreal, but with three games in hand. Like Columbus, their turnaround has been led by better defensive play.

The Senators were third-worst in goals allowed last season. This year, they are sixth-best. Their offense isn’t the most prolific in the league, as they sit in the bottom third in goals for. Come playoff time, should they get in, that could be a problem.

We’ve seen, however, how far a strong defense can carry a team. It has them within striking distance of a division title, which they haven’t won since 2005-06, and like Kevin Garnett said, “anything is possible!”

4. Toronto Maple Leafs-Like the Oilers, not many people had big expectations for the Maple Leafs coming into the 2016-17 season. Coach Mike Babcock had preached patience when he took over as bench boss prior to the previous season since they were “rebuilding”. It looks like Auston Matthews and his teammates have decided to speed up the rebuilding process.

A year after finishing 27 points out of the final playoff spot and dead last in the Eastern Conference, Toronto is currently in the fight for the last wild card position this year.

The Leafs are one point behind Philadelphia for the second wild card spot, with three games in hand on the Flyers. They’re also just three points behind Ottawa for second in the Atlantic Division. Toronto hasn’t finished in the top-2 of their division since 2003-04.

Matthews has been the catalyst for this amazing turnaround as he leads the team with 23 goals and is tied for first in points on the team with 39. He’s also had plenty of help as the Leafs have nine other players with 20 or more points.

They may still be too young to challenge for a Cup this year, but there’s no denying the strides they’ve made this season. The future sure does look promising for Toronto.

5. Minnesota Wild-It’s not a complete surprise that the Wild have improved from last season to this one because that’s what Bruce Boudreau does-he wins a ton during the regular season. It’s just surprising that they’re atop the division they’re in.

Last season, the Central Division was considered the strongest in the NHL. With teams like Chicago, Nashville, St. Louis, and Dallas it’s easy to see why. So, it’s not surprising why a team like Minnesota wouldn’t be expected to challenge for the division. However, not only are they challenging for the top spot in the division, they’re in the running for top spot in the entire league.

The Wild sit atop the Central, four points ahead of Chicago and with three games in hand. They are also just three points behind Washington for the President’s Trophy, an accomplishment they’ve never reached.

They have benefited from the league’s second-best defense and a resurgent Eric Staal, who leads the team in scoring. If they can keep this up in the playoffs, Boudreau and the franchise have a good chance of reaching their first ever Stanley Cup Final.

Well, that’s my list. What do you think? Are there other teams you find more surprising/disappointing? Let me know on Twitter (@carlosemedellin).