Top Ten Surprises of the 2011-2012 NHL Season

There is still more than a month left before the Stanley Cup playoffs, but this season has already given us plenty of excitement and surprise. So I thought it’d be fun to visit 10 of the biggest surprises this season has offered up so far. So without further ado…

10. The Detroit Red Wings record setting 23-straight wins at home.

Why is this surprising?

I know at first, it isn’t that hard to believe. There is a strong tradition of winning in Detroit and fan support there is always amongst the top in the league. But consider how long this record lasted before this season. The last team to hold the record was the Boston Bruins (22 straight) during 1929-30 and ’30-31. In those days, professional hockey was a much different game. Stars played entire careers with one team and dynasties were more frequent. The current game is ripe with parity and regardless of who you play, there’s always a chance of suffering a loss.

You also have to consider that during the streak, Detroit didn’t have their No. 1 goalie Jimmy Howard for a number of games during the final stretch. Howard’s fill-in – Joey MacDonald – won six straight to help break the record. For a backup to achieve a streak like that in pressure situations is pretty admirable.

9. The Buffalo Sabres are out of playoff contention.

Why is this surprising?

After last season, owner Terry Pegula vowed to spend heaps of money to turn Buffalo into a Stanley Cup contender. To sure up the blue line, he signed Christian Ehrhoff through 2021 at a cap hit of $4 million. He also brought on Robyn Regehr for about the same price through 2013. If that wasn’t enough, Pegula snapped up Ville Leino from Philadelphia to increase goal scoring at the hefty price of $4.5 million through 2017. It seemed that Buffalo was going to be a real contender in the 2011-2012 season. But so far, they have been a disappointment. They are currently 11th in the Eastern Conference. The stars Pegula brought in are having down years and their best player, goaltender Ryan Miller, just hasn’t looked himself for much of the season. He has had some injury problems and the backup Jhonas Enroth hasn’t been able to help during Miller’s absences. The Sabres still have a shot at making the postseason, but the team really needs to turn up the intensity in its remaining 17 games.

8. Concussions are increasing at a high rate.

Why is this surprising?

The expansion of Rule 48, plain and simple. After losing the face of the league (Sidney Crosby) and a number of others to concussions last season, NHL officials met in the offseason and expanded rule 48 to eliminate the dangerous hits to the head that were causing many of the concussions in the NHL. Check out this quote from an article written by Dan Rosen of NHL.com last year:

“There were hits this year that we want eliminated from the game and we need to make sure we don’t end up back in this situation again next year,” said former NHL veteran Mathieu Schneider, special assistant to NHLPA Executive Director Donald Fehr. “Without getting real specific, players and managers, and as my thinking would be, the Board of Governors and our Board, want to keep the physical play in and want to put some onus on guys being aware on the ice, but at the same time there are hits that we want to rid ourselves of. By expanding Rule 48, we’re hoping to be able to do that.”

That didn’t happen.

This is just a sample set of the players who suffered concussions this season so far: Sidney Crosby Claude Giroux, Mike Richards, Michael Sauer, Jeff Skinner, Joni Pitkanen, Kris Letang, Chris Pronger,  Zbynek Michalek, Robert Bortuzzo, Jay Beagle, Milan Michalek, Brayden Schenn, Radek Martinek, Marek Zidlicky, Nathan Gerbe, Nicklas Backstrom, Ryan Miller, James Reimer and Jonathan Toews.

Brendan Shanahan, the director of player discipline, has handed out his fair share of suspensions stemming from concussion-causing hits this season, but obviously the suspensions and the rule expansion haven’t done enough to take head-shots out of the game.

7. The Philadelphia Flyers are the highest scoring team in the NHL.

Why is this surprising?

This past offseason, the Flyers gutted the scoring of their team. They sent their captain Mike Richards to Los Angeles. From 2007-2011, he averaged 28 goals, 42 assists and 70 points per season. The Flyers also sent center Jeff Carter to the Blue Jackets. From 2007-2011, he averaged 36 goals, 30 assists and 66 points per season. And not to go unnoticed, Philadelphia also lost Ville Leino to Buffalo. Last season, he scored 19 goals, 34 assists and 53 points.

It seemed that the Flyers were losing a ton of firepower to free up cap room to sign goalie Ilya Bryzgalov. But despite those players and their juicy numbers going elsewhere, the Flyers have still averaged 3.25 goals per game. They have scored 208 goals this season, six more than second ranked Boston. The Flyers have managed to climb to the top of the scoring list by getting help from a number of different players. Scott Hartnell leads the team with 31 goals, followed by Claude Giroux’s 23 and 22 from Wayne Simmonds. Currently, the Flyers have 10 players with 10 or more goals.

6. Tampa Bay is 10th in the Eastern Conference.

Why is this surprising?

Last year, the Lightning was the team to beat in the postseason. After recovering from a 3-1 deficit against Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay surged to win three straight to win the series. Then they easily swept Washington in the second round. And in the Eastern Conference finals, it took the eventual Stanley Cup champion Bruins seven games to finish off the Lightning. Steven Stamkos was coming into his own (and is currently the league leader in goals (47) and points (80)) and the veteran leadership of Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier is still there. So what is so different between this year’s team and last year’s?

Goaltending.

Somehow, Dwayne Roloson was outstanding last season with the Bolts, especially in the playoffs. Everyone predicted that the 41-year-old net minder was too old to carry the team, but that’s exactly what he did. Now, it seems that his age has finally caught up to him. Add in the fact that the Tampa Bay blueliners are relatively poor and haven’t provided their goalies with much help all season long. But even though the situation for Tampa has looked dismal for most of this season, they remain only two points out of a playoff spot and six points back of the Southeast Division lead.

5. The Florida Panthers may win the Southeast Division.

Why is this surprising?

The Panthers haven’t made the postseason in 10 years. It is the longest drought in all of hockey.  Although the Southeast Division is shaky at best, the winner will reap the benefits of a No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Panthers have led the division for the majority of the season. Over the past few weeks, the position has wavered, allowing both the Winnipeg Jets and the Washington Capitals to claim the top spot for a few games. But the fact remains that the Panthers have been the best team in that division for the majority of the season and they probably deserve to win the Southeast.

Florida has been led by the stellar scoring line of Stephen Weiss, Tomas Fleischmann and Kris Versteeg. Collectively, the three have scored 58 goals, 83 assists and 141 points. And even though the goaltending staff had to mix and match because of injuries (starter Jose Theodore has started only 37 games) it has managed to win 30 games between Theodore, Scott Clemmensen and Jacob Markstrom to post a solid .915 save percentage and a goals against average of 2.64. Those numbers may just be good enough for a division win come April.

4. The Washington Capitals are on the verge of missing the playoffs.

Why is this surprising?

For starters, Vegas gave the Caps 7/1 odds of winning the Stanley Cup before the season. The only other team given the same odds was the Vancouver Canucks, which came within a game of winning Lord Stanley’s hardware last season. The Caps were favorites for a win because of their scoring depth, with guys like Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom. They also had a solid defense with outstanding blue liner Mike Green and experienced veterans Dennis Wideman and Roman Hamrlik. Goaltending seemed like it could be an issue, but Washington management was confident that sending their previous starter Semyon Varlamov to Colorado wouldn’t hinder the 2011-2012 season because of the young talent of Michal Neuvirth, Braden Holtby and acquired veteran Tomas Vokoun.

But unfortunately for Washington, this season has been sub-par at best. They are ranked 21 in goals against per game and they rank 13th in goal scoring. After an 8-0 start, Washington has won more than two games in a row only three times this season. But because the Capitals are in the weak Southeast Division, they still stand a chance at making the playoffs and are currently only one point out of the playoff picture.

3. The Flyers goaltending woes continue.

Why is this surprising?

They Flyers haven’t had a dependable goaltender for close to a decade. After last season, the Flyers organization decided it had enough and on June 23, 2011, Philadelphia signed Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year, $51 million contract. The length of the contract was unprecedented for goalies in the NHL, but the Flyers had good reason to think it was a good move. Bryzgalov was the runner-up for the Vezina Trophy and a top-5 finalist for the Hart Trophy in the 2009–10 NHL season. His career goals-against average was an admirable 2.39 and his career save percentage was .915. He had also won more than 150 games in less than 10 seasons in the NHL. When the Flyers signed him, he was easily in the top-10 of goalies in the NHL and perhaps even the top five.

But this season has not been kind to Bryzgalov.

Although he has 23 wins this season, his save percentage is a paltry .898 (the worst of his career) and his goals-against average is 2.79, the second worst of his career. Bryz hasn’t looked comfortable between the pipes in Philly this season. And in the Winter Classic against the New York Rangers, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette elected to start last year’s No. 1 goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky. Bryzgalov was clearly upset with the decision and it was a clear sign that the team’s confidence in him has wavered. Philly still has a solid team with the most scoring in the league, but if Bryzgalov cannot find his mojo before the playoffs, the Flyers Stanley Cup hopes just may fade away this season.

2. St. Louis is only two points back of the overall lead in the NHL

Why is this surprising?

St. Louis has been a perennial bust. They have not won a playoff game since 2003-2004 and they haven’t won a playoff series since 2001-2002. The team also has not qualified for the playoffs in five of the last six seasons. But this season, after a 6-7 start that left St. Louis in 14th place in the Western Conference, the Blues fired head coach Davis Payne in favor of Ken Hitchcock, a man with more than 1,000 games of coaching experience and the 4th Blues head coach since 2006.

The move paid off.

Currently St. Louis is in second in the Western Conference and only one point back from first place Vancouver. The Blues have one of the best defenses in all of the NHL and are the league leaders in goals allowed per game (1.89), have allowed the fewest goals in the NHL (125) and are fourth in the NHL in plus/minus (plus-41). But best aspect of this team is between the pipes. Which leads us to…

1. Brian Elliott’s phenomenal year.

Why is this surprising?

No one could have predicted the year that goaltender Brian Elliott is having. His save percentage of .937 is second in the NHL and his goals-against average of 1.63 is tops in the league. The 26-year-old goalie also ranks third in shutouts with six. These stats are drastically better than his career numbers. In Elliott’s first four seasons – the majority of which were with the Ottawa Senators – his average save percentage was .912 and his goals-against average was 2.67. Elliott has only 20 wins this season, but that is only because he is effectively splitting time with Jaroslav Halak, who is having a tremendous season of his own. With these backstops holding the fort in St. Louis, who knows what the Blues will be capable of in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

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About Pete Dombrosky
Pete is a graduate of Penn State University and a life-long Steelers, Penguins, and Pirates fan. He covered men's hockey, golf, tennis, swimming and the enterprise beat as a reporter at the Daily Collegian, Penn State's award-winning, independent student-operated paper. He currently serves as the Assistant Managing Editor for Thrillist Media Group (www.thrillist.com).

2 Responses to Top Ten Surprises of the 2011-2012 NHL Season

  1. willsports says:

    These are all good points but really Elliot in #1? I think the Leafs having two top 5 scorers should be in there. Great blog. Check out
    betweenthelineshockeyandbaseball.wordpress.com

  2. Great point willsports. Kessel and Lupul sure have been outstanding this year. They were certainly in my consideration. But you’re right, at the least, they should get an honorable mention for what they’ve done. Too bad the rest of the team hasn’t been able to follow suit. With a little bit of goaltending and a couple of additions on defense, Toronto will be back to contending in the Eastern Conference.

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