Professional sports rarely follow a script, and every season there are surprising developments, both positive and negative, on a team and individual level. As the 2020-21 NHL season starts to enter its stretch run we wanted to take a look at some of the more surprising developments across the league this season.
Every year the Florida Panthers seem to make 15 different changes to their roster while also changing coaching staffs and front office personnel every other year. The only constant with the team has been losing. This year, the losing has stopped. Thanks to their two-headed monster of Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau, along with some shrewd depth additions and a Hall of Fame coach ( Joel Quenneville), the Panthers have been one of the league's best teams and have suddenly emerged as a serious contender in the NHL. This might be the best team the Panthers have ever had. Few people, if any, saw that happening in the preseason.
It was just seven games into the 2020-21 NHL season when Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford just walked away from the team, abruptly announcing his resignation. Rutherford had been with the team for seven years and won two Stanley Cups, but had faced some criticism in recent years for a lot of decisions and moves that did not work out. Still, his future with the team seemed secure and his resigning shocked everybody. He was eventually replaced by former Philadelphia Flyers general manager Ron Hextall who, along with new president of hockey operations Brian Burke, will take the team in a different direction. What that direction is remains to be seen.
The Minnesota Wild have been one of the NHL's forgotten teams for most of its existence. Even when the Wild have been good there has not really been anything even remotely exciting about them. They never play a flashy brand of hockey, very little star power, and never a major threat to win a championship. It is not necessarily a huge surprise that they are good this season, but it is a surprise that they have become one of the league's most exciting teams. The biggest reason for that: Star rookie Kirill Kaprizov who has instantly become one of the league's must-see players. It is rare for one player to completely transform a team's identity, but Kaprizov has helped accomplish exactly that for the Wild.
While the Panthers are the NHL's biggest positive surprise, the St. Louis Blues have to be one of the biggest disappointments. Given their roster and recent success the past two years they seemed to be a lock for one of the four playoff spots in the West Division. Instead, they find themselves in a fight with Arizona and San Jose for the fourth spot and as of the first week of April are on the outside of the playoff race. Injuries and sub-par goaltending have put a huge dent in their success this season.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have a reputation for not being able to retain star players, and it happened again early this season when Dubois requested a trade for a change of scenery. He ended up being moved to Winnipeg for Patrik Laine and Jack Roslovic in a deal that has not exactly worked out as planned for Columbus. The Blue Jackets have tried to turn Laine into a 200-foot, two-way power forward and have essentially robbed him of the one thing he excels at. Roslovic, meanwhile, has already been a healthy scratch in Columbus despite posting decent numbers offensively. It remains to be seen what Laine's future is in Columbus, but given the Blue Jackets' recent history it would probably be wise to not invest in that Laine jersey at the team store just yet.
It was not the first coaching change of the season (that belonged to Claude Julien and the Montreal Canadiens), but the most surprising coaching change came in March when the Calgary Flames, a substantial disappointment, fired Geoff Ward and replaced him with Darryl Sutter. Sutter had been out of the NHL coaching game since leaving the Los Angeles Kings a few years ago and returned to Calgary for his second go with the team after previously coaching them nearly two decades earlier. It has not made any sort of a difference in the result, while Sutter already seems frustrated with the roster he has to work with.
Maybe this is not surprising as much as it is impressive, but McDavid even coming within striking distance of a 100-point season with a 56-game schedule is one of the more impressive displays of hockey dominance we have seen in quite some time. His 1.68 point per game pace through his first 41 games puts him on a 95-point pace for a 56-game season. Well within striking distance. That would be a 138 point pace over an 82-game season, which would be one of the highest marks the league has seen in decades.
The Tampa Bay Lightning began their Stanley Cup defense with their most dynamic offensive player, forward Nikita Kucherov, sidelined for the entire regular season due to preseason surgery. He is expected to be ready for the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Lightning have not really missed a beat without him and still own one of the NHL's best records with one of the league's best teams.
The Blackhawks captain has not played this season as he remains sidelined due to an unspecified illness that he and the team have remained extremely quiet about. There have been few updates, only for the Blackhawks to say it is something that is being resolved between him and the team's doctors and medical staff. Chicago has been able to hang around in the playoff race for most of the season, thanks in large part to a surprising goaltending performance from Kevin Lankinen, but is starting to slip in that race.
After his buyout from the New York Rangers, Henrik Lundqvist signed a one-year contract with the Washington Capitals to share the net with Ilya Samsonov and take a run at the Stanley Cup his Hall of Fame resume has been missing. But just before the start of the season Lundqvist announced he would have to take time off to undergo heart surgery to correct an issue that had been found by doctors. His recovery is going well and he is back on the ice working out but it is not yet known when or if he will play in a game.
Given the overall strength of their division, nobody should have had very high expectations for the Buffalo Sabres, even after their offseason additions of Taylor Hall and Eric Staal. They seemed to be a long shot to even compete for a playoff spot and were expected to finish somewhere outside of the top-four in the East Division. But did anybody really see them being the worst team in the NHL and going 17 consecutive games without a win? There were a lot of factors at play there, from the unbalanced schedule and injury issues with Jack Eichel and Linus Ullmark just to name a few, but this has still turned out to be a lousy team that is set to miss the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 10th consecutive season. Hall and Jeff Skinner have also been massive disappointments offensively.
For a while, it seemed like Fleury's time as the Vegas Golden Knights starting goalie was coming to a close. He lost his job in the 2020 playoff bubble to Robin Lehner, and then Vegas re-signed Lehner to a long-term contract extension in the offseason. It seemed that he was coach Peter DeBoer's preferred goalie, and given the way the two goalies had played in recent years it was not a bad assumption. But Fleury has not only reclaimed his starting spot during the 2020-21 season, but he has also played some of the best hockey of his career and might even be in line for some serious Vezina Trophy consideration for the first time.
There were a lot of reasons to count out the Arizona Coyotes this season. Playing in a top-heavy division with several Stanley Cup contenders (Colorado and Vegas specifically), a good St. Louis team (or so we thought), and a Minnesota team that had a chance to be good (and has been) was always going to be challenging enough. Add in the fact the Coyotes roster is short on offensive talent and lost Taylor Hall to free agency and it would have been easy to put their playoff chances down near the bottom of the league. But as we enter the NHL's stretch run the Coyotes find themselves in a playoff spot with a favorable schedule the rest of the way. If they actually finish ahead of the Blues it would be one of the more surprising developments of the season.
Carter Hart is supposed to be the goalie that ends the Philadelphia Flyers' decades-long search for a franchise netminder. During the first two years of his career he flashed that ability and gave Flyers fans hope that he could not only be the player to secure that position for the next decade but that he might even be able to help turn them back into a Stanley Cup contender. None of that has happened this season. Instead, Hart has been one of the league's least productive goalies and even found himself on the bench for a stretch of games after having his practice habits and work ethic called out by coach Alain Vigneault. He could still end up being the goalie the Flyers hope he can become, but this season has been a little bit of a hurdle on that path.
Over the past two years, no team in the NHL has won more playoff games than the Dallas Stars. They were in the Stanley Cup Final just a few months against the Tampa Bay Lightning. They started the season with an impressive four-game winning streak. Now? They find themselves facing an uphill battle just to even get back in the playoffs, needing to jump over multiple teams while also making up significant ground. The biggest issue for this team has been injuries, as Tyler Seguin, Alexander Radulov, Ben Bishop, and Roope Hintz have all missed significant time this season.