Short-season sample sizes can be fun. They often produce unexpected stars whose numbers don’t have time to regress over an 82-game schedule. In the 1994-95 season, Ken Wregget led all goalies in wins. In 2012-13, thanks to a late Sidney Crosby injury, Martin St-Louis became the oldest scoring champion in NHL history at 37. And the abbreviated 2020-21 campaign is producing some surprise heroes, particularly among aging veterans thought to be long past their primes.
Who are the most unexpectedly awesome performers of the 2020-21 season? The list is long, and the likes of Marc-Andre Fleury, Ondrej Palat and Joe Pavelski seriously warrant consideration, but these are my picks for the five biggest shockers so far. How sustainable are their efforts between now and the end of the season?
DUSTIN BROWN, RW, KINGS
It’s been a long time since the rugged Brown, 36, was considered a bona fide top-six forward in the NHL. The Kings won their last Stanley Cup seven years ago. He relinquished the captaincy to Anze Kopitar five years ago. Before 2020-21, Brown had failed to reach 20 goals or 40 points in five of his previous seven seasons. He was producing at roughly career-low rates in terms of generating chances and shots at 5-on-5 over his past couple seasons. But now? Brown’s 13 goals in 25 games lead the Kings and tie him for seventh in the NHL.
So what’s changed? Honestly…not much. Brown isn't generating any more chances this year than he has in recent seasons. The reason why he’s scoring is luck. He’s converted 20 percent of his shots, more than double his career efficiency of 9.9. And we can’t say he’s scoring more because he’s improved his shot quality. He’s averaging the fewest scoring chances and high-danger chances per 60 of his career at 5-on-5. He actually has the lowest expected goals per 60 of his career. Sustainability: 2/10
KEVIN LANKINEN, G, BLACKHAWKS
What a story! Lankinen, 25, went undrafted. He didn’t play hockey in North America until 2018-19 with AHL Rockford. He was considered the No. 3 option in a three-man competition with Malcolm Subban and Collin Delia for the Blackhawks’ vacant No. 1 netminding job after they moved on from Corey Crawford. Now, halfway through the season, he’d have a shot to be a Vezina Trophy finalist if the vote happened today. He has propped up a poor defensive club and kept it comfortably in a playoff position. Lankinen has managed a .919 save percentage despite facing the third most shots per 60 at 5-on-5 among goalies with 500-plus minutes played.
So is he the real deal? Lankinen was no joke in Finland. He guided the national team to gold at the 2019 World Championship, posting sparkling numbers. That he’s been as brilliant as he has while facing such a difficult workload is a testament to his ability. He sure looks like an NHL goaltender. That said, a team can only hang its goalie out to dry so many times. Lankinen’s regression has already begun. His save percentages by month are .937, .917 and .893. It doesn’t mean he’s going to fade into oblivion. It just means there’s a reason why he’s getting his first NHL opportunity at 25. Perhaps the real Lankinen is something better than average but not yet great. Sustainability: 6/10
MIKE SMITH, G, OILERS
Sam Montembeault. Martin Jones. Michael Hutchinson. Mike Smith. Those are the bottom five goalies in goals saved above average per 60 minutes at 5-on-5 from 2018-19 through 2019-20 (min. 1,000 minutes). That’s a fancy way of saying Smith graded out as one of the five worst goalies in the league over that span. And could you blame him? He was in his late 30s, after all. It was an accomplishment that he was still in the league.
Yet here we are in 2020-21, and the same Smith who got nuked for five goals in 27 minutes during his only post-season appearance last year…has been one of the best goalies in the NHL. At age 38. Only Andrei Vasilevskiy has fared better than Smith against high-danger shots. Smith’s .927 SP is the second-best of his career. What’s interesting about Smith’s 2020-21 situation is that he appears to be responding to a an improved defense in front of him. Smith averages one fewer shot against and one fewer high-danger shot against per 60. So can the Oilers count on this caliber of goaltending through the end of the season? It’s tough to say. There’s always a risk of a 38-year-old athlete’s play falling off a cliff at any point, and Smith’s improved play has been dependent on him faring amazingly well against high-quality chances. But Smith doesn’t actually have a history of breaking down late in seasons. He’s actually a stronger second half goalie than first half goalie in his career. So maybe he keeps the magic going a couple more months. Sustainability: 5/10
.JORDAN STAAL, C, HURRICANES
Staal’s career highs in goals, assists and points entering Season 15 of his career: 25, 29, 50. Staal’s pro-rated pace this season at 32 years old: 34-41-75. Where is the offensive explosion coming from? Even more so than Brown in L.A., Staal is relying on freak luck. He is actually posting career lows across the board in shot generation, chance generation and high-danger shot attempts. He has never put fewer pucks on net per 60 than he has so far this season. He's scoring because an 11.5-percent career shooter is clicking at 22 percent right now. Not sustainable. What might be sustainable, however, is a Selke Trophy campaign. Staal is winning more than 59 percent of his faceoffs, he’s averaging 2:28 of shorthanded ice time per game for a team with a top-10 penalty kill, and he’s matching up against opponents' top forwards every game. So while the offensive numbers look fluky, perhaps he’ll keep getting recognition for his overall body of work. Sustainability chances: 4/10
TYLER TOFFOLI, RW, CANADIENS
Freed from a conservative offensive system in L.A. with a mid-season trade last year, the natural goal-scorer Toffoli blossomed into a point-per-game producer with the Vancouver Canucks, and he’s maintained roughly that pace in his first season with the Habs after signing a four-year, $17-million contract. His 15 goals place him third in the league behind only superstars Auston Matthews and Connor McDavid. Is Toffoli experiencing a mid-career glow-up at 28?
He doesn’t pass the shooting-percentage test. He’s at 18.8, easily his highest mark ever. He’s at 10.8 for his career, and his best shooting season ever was 14.8 before this one. That said, Toffoli’s work isn’t entirely fluky. He’s scoring on more of his shots, but that’s largely because he’s getting higher-quality shots. He’s generating the most scoring chances and high-danger chances per 60 of his career. So it’s not a case of simply writing off Toffoli’s hot start. He's becoming a more dangerous shooter. We’re seeing legitimate differences in his output this season, so he could remain a top-10 goal scorer in the league all year. Sustainability chances: 8/10
Advanced stats courtesy of naturalstattrick.com