Tuesday November 4th, 2008

With the season merely a month old and polls still open as to which players will exceed expectation (Patrick Sharp and Zach Parise don't count, as we figured they'd have good seasons) and which will fall short, here is an early look at some of the league's surprises (for good or ill) as precincts have started to report:

Tim Thomas, G, Bruins

With shutouts against Vancouver and Edmonton, Thomas became the first Bruins goalie to record back-to-back blankings since Byron Dafoe in 1999. Thomas' streak ended at 154 minutes 43 seconds against Calgary on Oct. 30. His robust .944 save percentage leads the NHL, great numbers for a goalie making $1.1 million in his walk year.

Shea Weber, D, Predators

With 12 points in 11 games, the man with the booming shot is already halfway to his total of 20 last season, when he spent much of the schedule trying to ignore the effects of a kneecap he dislocated early in the season. Weber watchers say his four-point game against Columbus on Oct. 18 was his best as a pro.

Alexander Semin, LW, Capitals

He won't make Caps' fans forget that Ovechkin guy, but Semin, who spent much of his career as an inconsistent threat, had the best offensive month of anyone in the league. He led the NHL with 16 points, including eight goals, and was a solid plus-7. He also turned up the verbal artillery in a recent interview when he said Penguins' superstar Sidney Crosby was nothing special.

Philip Kessel, C, Bruins

Much has been asked of the Bruins' top pick from '06 (No. 5 overall) and Kessel is finally delivering in his third season. He seemed to take his playoff benching in Game 1 against Montreal last spring to heart. He played better during that series and he began this season with six goals in his first six games. Kessel is competing more, taking after his dad, Phil Sr., a former CFL quarterback.

Nikolai Zherdev, RW, Rangers

After toiling in the obscurity of Columbus, Zherdev has found a home in the bright lights of the Big Apple with 12 points and a plus-9 in 14 games. Once thought of as a below-average defensive forward, he highlighted his signature game of the season last week against Atlanta with a rinklong dash followed by diving sweep check from behind against Todd White. Zherdev then scored the go-ahead goal and added an assist in the final period. The previous week, he scored a tying tally against the Penguins with eight seconds to play in a game the Rangers eventually won.

Mikko Koivu, C, Wild

With the losses of Brian Rolston and Pavol Demitra, the other Koivu has emerged as a leader on the streaking Wild. Earlier this season, he and older brother Saku of the Canadiens became the first sibling captains to face each other in an NHL game. With nine points in his first four games, Mikko is justifying his nickname: The Franchise. Coach Jacques Lemaire says Koivu is evolving into one of the best two-way players in the game.

Filip Kuba, D, Senators

Believe it or not, Kuba is now the first defenseman in NHL history to record assists in the first eight games of a season. Brad Park held the record of assists in seven consecutive, set as a Bruin in 1981. At 6' 4" and 225 pounds, Kuba is one of the league's least physical players for his size, so he'd better contribute offensively. With his solid production, he has been earning not only his points, but his minutes; at 25 a game he is averaging four more than any other Senator backliner.

Marty Turco, G, Stars

The numbers paint a bleak early-season picture for the 35-year-old: (3-5-2; 4.34; .837). Remember, this is a team that many people picked to challenge the Red Wings in the Western Conference finals. After Turco allowed five goals in a recent loss to Boston, he blamed his teammates after the game for poor communication and for trying to block shots instead of clogging the passing lanes.

Mathieu Schneider, D, Thrashers

Despite a solid game on Monday against the Panthers, the 39-year old has gotten off to a terrible start, looking slower than he did in the Detroit and Anaheim systems that could better cover for defensive errors. Schneider's minus-11 rating is the worst in the league and his team's irresponsible forwards aren't helping the $5.6 million man whose 1,200 NHL games are as many as the rest of the Thrashers' defensemen combined.

Brett Lebda, D Red Wings

How can a defenseman who plays on the Red Wings be minus-9? Though he plays fewer than 15 minutes a game, Lebda has been noticeably uncomfortable. The Wings are 8-2-2 in 12 games and Lebda has yet to record a plus outing in any of them. Wings' coach Mike Babcock has said Lebda isn't moving his feet as well as he did last season.

Brendan Morrison, C, Ducks

With six respectable 50-point seasons on his resume, the free agent center was supposed to be the key to a second line that would help the Ducks balance their scoring this season. Instead, Morrison has just one assist and a minus-7 rating in 13 games. The man who never used to get hurt may be feeling the effects of off-season knee surgery.

Ed Jovanovski, D, Coyotes

Maybe the most telling stat about the veteran defenseman isn't his zero points or minus-6 in nine games, but his measly four penalty minutes. That's either a sign of discipline or passivity, and Coyote watchers are sensing the later in what may be yet another season without a playoff berth.

Chris Drury, C, Rangers

The clutch veteran center has rung the iron so many times this season, he could open his own post office. How many guys bang a shot off both posts in their careers? Drury had two in a week. The new Ranger captain has just two goals (in 43 shots), five points and a minus-5 rating for one of the league's top teams. Before his recent two-goal outing against the rival Islanders, Drury had yet to score in his team's first 11 games. He is getting his chances, but he's been target-impaired over the season's first month.

Gary Roberts, LW, Lightning

You have to give any 42-year old credit for surviving the NHL wars, but Roberts has always been a rugged character guy who contributes offensively. His 50-goal days are behind him, but even playing 10 minutes a game on a checking line, he should have gotten on the board by now. Roberts is without a point in Tampa and though coach Barry Melrose loves this kind of player, he probably expected at least token production from his warrior winger and mentor to Steve Stamkos.

Marty Biron, G, Flyers

Biron was a huge reason for the Flyers' surprise push to the Eastern finals last spring, but he was pulled in his first start -- against the Islanders on Oct. 8 -- and let in more softies and cheap rebounds in October than he did during the last few months of 2007-08. Biron has allowed four goals or more in four of his eight starts. He claims to be seeing the puck better now, but he refused to watch a tape of his performance against the Isles. If only he could rewind the machine to April and May.

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