Given the competition Florida faces in its division and the franchise's track record in the past decade, there is no team or player that is a more unlikely candidate to be where it currently is. The Panthers, however, aren't alone on the list of surprises through the first quarter of the season, with many teams and players far exceeding -- or falling short -- of preseason expectations.
Here are a few other surprising developments from the season's first quarter.
The Call of the Wild:
This past offseason was one of significant change for Minnesota, as the Wild brought in Mike Yeo
as their new coach and shipped Brent Burns
and Martin Havlat
to San Jose in separate deals for Devin Setoguchi
and Dany Heatley
. While the addition of a scorer of Heatley's ilk is a sexy one to be sure, few had the Wild making the playoffs, let alone leading a division that includes the defending Presidents' Trophy winners. But 25 percent of the way through the season, there are the Wild ranking among the elite not just in the Northwest, but the entire League. Heatley and Setoguchi have played their part, as has veteran Mikko Koivu
, but credit Yeo's coaching and the play of Niklas Backstrom
and Josh Harding
in net for Minnesota's success. The Wild are letting in less than two goals per game.
The Need for Read:
Right Wing - PHI
GOALS: 9 | ASST: 5 | PTS: 14
SOG: 48 | +/-: 7
There was a great deal of concern over who would fill the void for Philadelphia after the team traded away Jeff Carter
and Mike Richards
this past summer, and while most eyes have been on the impressive performance of Claude Giroux
-- and justifiably so -- undrafted rookie Matt Read
has performed at a near point-per-game pace. In 17 games this season, the free agent-signee out of Bemidji State has potted 9 goals and added 5 assists. He's been particularly impressively in the last two weeks, lighting the lamp six times in his last five games and tallying two game-winners.
The Garrison Goal Machine:
A list of the top goal-scoring defensemen includes many familiar names like Nicklas Lidstrom
, Dustin Byfuglien
and even Sheldon Souray
, who is having a tremendous season after spending 2010-11 in the minors. But who is that at the top of the list? Why, it's Florida's Jason Garrison
. Anyone who had Garrison and his 7 goals leading all blueliners a quarter of the way into the season should stop reading this article and book a flight to Las Vegas immediately. Before this season Garrison had played 113 NHL games over three seasons, during which he netted a grand total of … 7 goals. In just 20 goals this season Garrison has doubled his output.
Rising from the Ashes … Again:
For each of the past two seasons the Phoenix Coyotes
have been derided as a team that was either not expected to win or likely to get bogged down by an uncertain ownership situation. Each of the past two seasons Phoenix has wound up in the playoffs. With the departure of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov
this offseason it seemed that, finally, the denouement for Phoenix had come, but with talented players like Keith Yandle
, veteran leadership from Shane Doan
, a rejuvenated Mike Smith
in net and the brilliant coaching of Dave Tippett
, the Coyotes are once again riding high and very much in the mix for the top spot in the West.
How 'Bout Them Stars:
Sutter lays into sputtering Flames
Brian Hedger - NHL.com Correspondent
One day after his team's poor showing in a 4-1 loss at Columbus, Flames coach Brent Sutter
went off on his players -- demanding that they sacrifice more for the betterment of the team. READ MORE ›
Most expected the Stars, who missed the playoffs for a third straight season in 2010-11, to be an afterthought in 2011-12 -- particularly considering that, like the Coyotes, Dallas lost a huge free agent in center Brad Richards
. The Stars seem like a deeper team than a year ago despite losing Richards, having gotten off to one of the best starts in the League. A recent slump slowed them down somewhat, but the Stars are still right in the thick of the Pacific race and would be back in the postseason if it started today.
Signs of Life in Ontario:
The Battle of Ontario is often a flashpoint for regional pride in the province with Canada's capital and its biggest city, but in the NHL standings it hasn't quite had the same impact considering Ottawa's last-place finish in 2010-11 and Toronto's six-year playoff drought. Not so anymore. Both the Leafs and Sens have gotten off to impressive starts that have them battling for the Northeast Division crown with Buffalo and the defending-champion Bruins. While many prognosticators figured Toronto to have legitimate postseason aspirations, Ottawa was a popular choice to get the first pick in next summer's draft. As it stands now, neither team can afford to think about next season. They're both in the race right now.
The Kessel Run:
Speaking of Toronto, the Leafs can attribute a large part of their success to sniper Phil Kessel
, who appears to have finally become the dynamic two-way player GM Brian Burke
expected him to be when he acquired him from Boston. Kessel could always score -- he's had 30 goals in each of the last three seasons -- but he had a plus rating in just one of his five full seasons and not once since coming to Toronto. Now Kessel is exceeding expectations on both sides of the puck. After 21 games, Kessel is a plus-6 for the Leafs and at his current pace he'll score as many goals as he did in 2010-11 by the All-Star break. Right now Kessel is on track for 62 goals and 50 assists. Both would be nearly double his previous career highs.
Burnt to a Kris:
Having drafted Kris Versteeg
in Chicago, Florida Panthers
general manager Dale Tallon
knew what he was getting, but he probably assumed it would be the consistent 20-goal scorer Versteeg has been since he entered the League. Versteeg's track record had been solid yet unspectacular, but something about the Sunshine State agrees with him. Through 20 games Versteeg has 11 goals and 14 assists, numbers that would land him with 45 goals and 57 assists in a full campaign. That's almost 50 points more than his personal best in 2008-09 with Chicago.