The struggles of Steven Stamkos and the Lightning, Phil Kessel and the Penguins, plus the wide-open Calder Trophy race are among the NHL’s big surprises of the year.
There has been no shortage of surprises in the NHL this year and today we’re looking at five of the most notable ones.
• Leo Komarov is outscoring Phil Kessel
Let’s just say that Phil Kessel being dealt by the Toronto Maple Leafs after the hiring of coach Mike Babcock was the least surprising NHL news of 2015. Sure, the return wasn’t all that great (forwards Nick Spaling and Kasperi Kapanen, defenseman Scott Harrington, and first- and third-round 2016 draft picks with Toronto coughing up $1.2 million of Kessel’s salary during each of the next seven seasons). And Kessel landed with an already potent offense in Pittsburgh, where he was expected to shine.
Expectations were tremendously low for the Leafs with their best player gone and the team in full rebuild mode. But Babcock has squeezed every drop of effort and talent from an other middling roster and Toronto’s leading scorer is now Leo Komarov, who was typecast as nothing more than a gritty winger under previous Leafs coaches. Komarov has delivered an astounding 15 goals this season, his career high.
And Kessel? Even with time spent on the wing with either Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, he mustered just 11 goals in his first 33 games. The Penguins’ problems run deeper than Kessel, but as a whole, Toronto looks to have come out ahead on this trade right now.
• The rise and fall of Steven Stamkos and the Lightning
Last June the Tampa Bay Lightning came within two wins of the Stanley Cup, which would have been the first for Steven Stamkos. That the talented sniper has yet to sign an extension with a team that seemingly has all the pieces to contend again in 2015-16 is now a source of endless intrigue. The manner in which the relationship between the player and GM Steve Yzerman has deteriorated (at least as it appears from the outside) is shocking.
Rumors about where Stamkos wants to play next season have been flying for weeks, especially with regard to Toronto, his hometown. (He recently insisted that he wants to stay.) After Tampa Bay re-upped coach Jon Cooper, who is rumored to not be on the best of terms with the team’s franchise player, further doubt was cast over Stamkos’s future with the Lightning. They now sit two points out of a playoff spot and Stamkos has netted just 14 goals through 34 games, on pace for his lowest total through a full 82-game season since his rookie year, when he scored 23 in 2008-09. One of the major storylines to watch when the calendar turns to 2016 will be if he and his team can get back to their consistent, winning ways.
• Blue Jackets turn to Tortorella
Can’t get the most out of a seemingly talented group of players? Getting panicked a little too early in the season about your team’s performance? Hey, Torts to the rescue!and thus making a trade that much more difficult to arrange.
• Connor McDavid injured
This is more disappointment than surprise. Players are sidelined by injury all the time but Connor McDavid's broken left collarbone, suffered on November 3 in a game against the Flyers, was a major letdown. The highly anticipated center entered his rookie NHL season full of hope and promise as the best young player since Sidney Crosby and delivered 12 points through 13 games. McDavid’s injury also led to an even bigger surprise: a wide open race for the Calder Trophy as Rookie of the Year.
Had McDavid remained healthy, the trophy likely would’ve been his to lose. But now Max Domi, Dylan Larkin and Artemi Panarin have emerged as frontrunners.
• Jets still struggling to take the next stepDrawing up against the tough Anaheim Ducks (whose struggles this season are also a major surprise) wasn’t an easy task for the Jets in their first playoff series since the franchise’s return to Winnipeg. Though they were ahead in the third period of the first three games, they still couldn’t hold off the Ducks and were eventually swept. There had been some real hope entering the 2014-15 campaign, so it was hard not to consider the abrupt end of their season a bit of a disappointment.
This season has been more of the same: great expectations and middling results. The Jets now sit eight points out of a playoff spot in the tough Central Division. Consistency has been hard to come by as many on this young team have struggled to find their way. Losing goalie Ondrej Pavalec (knee sprain) was a blow, but with more than enough firepower potential this team should be able to survive his absence.