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Campbell leads list of first half's surprising players

by Adam Kimelman
The 2011-12 season reaches its mid-point upon the completion of Monday night's game between the Washington Capitals and the Los Angeles Kings. But, is going to take all week to look at the significant stories as the League makes the turn and heads toward the Stanley Cup Playoffs. We'll look at the races for the League's individual awards, while profiling some of the most surprising players and teams as we look ahead to the final three months of the season.

Certain NHL players come with preconceived expectations. So it's no surprise to see a Sedin or two atop the scoring race, Steven Stamkos leading Rocket Richard competition or Tim Thomas near the top of the major goaltending marks.

But the real fun in each season is the unexpected. The rookie emerging from nowhere to make a major impact; the young player whose development accelerates from neutral to turbo-charged; the veteran presumed to be destined for the discard pile who earns major minutes; the injury-prone player now finally healthy and producing at a game-changing level.

Those types of performances have dotted the landscape in the first half of the 2011-12 season; here are a dozen that really stood out.

Brian Campbell
Defense - FLA
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 30 | PTS: 33
SOG: 67 | +/-: 2
1. Brian Campbell, D, Florida -- Prior to this season, Campbell was regarded as one of the reasons the Blackhawks had to break up their team after winning the Stanley Cup in 2010. When the Hawks were able to trade him to the Panthers this summer, it was seen as a smart salary dump of an aging player who wasn't going to perform to the level of the $7.1 million he was due through the 2015-16 season.

The move certainly gave the Hawks cap flexibility, but it also gave the Panthers the No. 1 defensemen they needed. All Campbell has done in 41 games is post 30 assists and 33 points, both second among all NHL defenseman. He's also a plus-2 while playing an average of 26:41 per game, fourth in the entire NHL.

"It's like he's got eyes behind the back of his head," teammate Tomas Kopecky told the South Florida Sun Sentinel. "He has the best vision to read the game and anticipate where the players are going to be."

2. Michael Del Zotto, D, N.Y. Rangers -- Last season, Del Zotto earned an unwanted hat trick -- three demotions to the American Hockey League.

The early absence of Marc Staal opened a spot on the team's blue line this season, and the third-year defender has grabbed a hold of it and doesn't show any sign of releasing. He has 23 points in 39 games, but most impressive is his plus-25 rating -- he entered the season a career minus-25.

"He's matured," Tortorella recently told the Washington Times. "He's matured off the ice, first, as far as how he handles himself -- what it is to be a pro, learning to be a pro."

3. Brian Elliott, G, St. Louis -- It's safe to say no goaltender had a worse time in 2010-11 than Elliott, who split 55 games between the Senators and Avalanche. Among NHL goalies who played at least 25 games, his 3.34 goals-against average was the fourth-worst, and .893 save percentage was the fifth-worst.

Not quite the numbers you want going into a contract year, eh?

The best offer the unrestricted free agent got this past summer was a two-way contract from the Blues and a chance to compete to be Jaroslav Halak's backup.

Not only did Elliott win that battle, he's put up numbers that dwarf Halak's. In 21 games he's 15-5-0, and his 1.62 GAA and .940 save percentage are second in the League.

"He put himself in position to re-establish himself in St. Louis," Blues general manager Doug Armstrong told USA Today. "He has done that and more."

4. Ray Emery, G, Chicago -- Felix Potvin may have been nicknamed "The Cat," but that moniker today could go to Emery, who is in his fourth life as an NHL goalie.

A hip injury supposedly was going to end his career in 2010, but a risky surgery allowed him to return late last season with the Anaheim Ducks and help them reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Anaheim didn't bring him back, and the best job Emery could find this past summer was a training-camp invitation from the Blackhawks.

Emery not only earned a full-time job, but has worked his way into serious playing time for one of the top teams in the Western Conference. He's 9-3-2 in 15 games, and before his current two-game losing skid, ran off a streak of six wins in seven games.

"He's been great for us. He's done an outstanding job of getting an opportunity to get more net time and winning some games. Each and every time he's been in the net, he gives us a chance to win. We're comfortable with him." -- Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville on Ray Emery

"He's been great for us," Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville said. "He's done an outstanding job of getting an opportunity to get more net time and winning some games. Each and every time he's been in the net, he gives us a chance to win. We're comfortable with him."

5. Jason Garrison, D, Florida -- In a League overflowing with elite offensive-minded defensemen, none of them has more goals than the Panthers' undrafted 27-year-old blueliner in his second full NHL season.

Garrison leads all NHL defensemen with 11 goals, after entering the season with just seven in parts of three previous NHL seasons.

He's not just a one-trick player, however; his plus-6 rating leads the team's defensemen, and he's second on the team with 68 hits and 66 blocked shots.

"He's a late bloomer, late developer, but he always had a strong work ethic and a desire to play hard," Panthers assistant coach Gord Murphy told the Miami Herald. "Those are the qualities you look for in a strong NHL defenseman. He has that."

6. Adam Henrique, C, New Jersey -- The 2008 third-round pick was slated to spend his second professional season continuing to develop in the American Hockey League. But an early-season injury to Jacob Josefson changed those plans, and by early November he found himself centering the Devils' top line, flanked by All-Stars Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk.

"Two years ago if you told me I'd be centering these two guys," Henrique said, "I don't know if I would have believed you."

He's more than done his share to help the Devils. His plus-9 rating leads the team, and he ranks in the top three among all NHL rookies in goals (12), assists (20) and points (32). He also plays more than two minutes per game on the penalty kill, and his three shorthanded goals are tied for second in the League.

7. Jaromir Jagr, RW, Philadelphia -- One of the bigger questions entering the season was just what Jagr, at age 39 and three seasons removed from playing in the NHL, would have left to contribute this season.

Jaromir Jagr
Right Wing - PHI
GOALS: 12 | ASST: 19 | PTS: 31
SOG: 87 | +/-: 11
The answer has been all-star play.

Jagr has 12 goals and 14 assists in 34 games, and his top-line presence has allowed linemates Claude Giroux and Scott Hartnell to prosper into all-stars. And that's not all he's made the better. The Flyers are just 3-3-0 in the six games Jagr has missed with groin problems, and their power play dips from 19.6 percent with him to just 17.8 percent without him.

8. Joffrey Lupul, RW, Toronto -- After back problems and a blood infection limited Lupul to just 77 games the past two seasons, not much was expected from the 28-year-old forward entering the season.

Instead, Lupul has had a career renaissance playing alongside Phil Kessel on the Leafs' top line. His 47 points are tied for fourth in the League at the halfway point, and he's on pace for his first 90-point NHL season.

Lupul and Kessel have developed into the top 1-2 punch in the League and have the Leafs poised to end their six-season playoff absence.

9. Milan Michalek, LW, Ottawa --
Injuries have limited Michalek to 66 games in each of the past two seasons. Now that he's finally healthy, the forward is showcasing his elite skills at a level that's surprising even for a four-time 20-goal scorer.

Michalek has 20 goals in 38 games, putting him on pace for a career-best 40 (he missed five games due to a concussion). Most important for the rejuvenated Senators, he's been scoring consistently -- the longest he's gone between goals is five games.

10. Matt Read, RW, Philadelphia -- On a team stacked with top-end forward depth, not much was expected from Read, an undrafted free agent signed last March. That he made the Flyers out of training camp was a bit of a surprise, but he's continued to develop into a key piece for a team battling for the top spot in the Eastern Conference.

The 25-year-old even earned a spot on the top line when Jagr missed two recent games with a groin injury. He's been the Flyers' most versatile player, skating at center and on the wing, playing the point on the power play and as one of the team's top forwards on the penalty kill. He's tied for the lead among rookies with 13 goals, and he's third among rookie forwards in average ice time per game (17:31).

11. Tyler Seguin, C, Boston -- The second pick of the 2011 Entry Draft had a small part in the Bruins' run to the Stanley Cup last June. This season, he's taken a leading role in the team's attempt to repeat.

At the halfway point of the season, the 19-year-old forward leads the team with 16 goals and 37 points, and his plus-32 rating is the best in the NHL. He's already blown past last season's totals of 11 goals and 22 points, and it doesn't seem like he plans on slowing down any time soon.

12. Kris Versteeg, RW, Florida -- It's been quite a roller-coaster ride the past three seasons for Versteeg. He played a key role on a Blackhawks team that won the 2010 Stanley Cup, but then spent last season shuffling between the Maple Leafs and Flyers, finding neither situation a good fit, due in part to a pair of sports hernias he had surgically repaired during the summer.

In June, the Flyers traded him to the Panthers, and just like that, Versteeg's career is back on the upswing. In 40 games, he leads the Panthers with 17 goals and 38 points.

Contact Adam Kimelman at Follow him on Twitter: @NHLAdamK
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