Biggest surprise players of season debated by NHL.com

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There have been so many surprising performances throughout the first 15 days of the 2020-21 NHL season. Players across the NHL, young and old, have gone beyond expectations in one way or another. But which player has been the most surprising?

We asked nine NHL.com writers for their opinions.

Nikolaj Ehlers, Winnipeg Jets

Nothing against Ehlers, but when you pull up the list of NHL scoring leaders, his name pops. No one is surprised to see a top four of Edmonton Oilers center Connor McDavid with 14 points (five goals, nine assists), Oilers teammate Leon Draisaitl (six goals, seven assists) and Toronto Maple Leafs center Mitchell Marner (five goals, eight assists) tied for second with 13 points, followed by Los Angeles Kings forward Anze Kopitar with 12 points (one goal, 11 assists). But the Jets forward in the top five with 11 points (five goals, six assists)? Tied with Vegas Golden Knights forward Mark Stone (two goals, nine assists) and Vancouver Canucks defenseman Quinn Hughes (one goal, 10 assists)? I didn’t see that coming. I didn’t see Ehlers tied with nine other players for the second-most goals in the NHL either, behind Draisaitl, Colorado Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen, Montreal Canadiens forward Tyler Toffoli, Golden Knights forward Max Pacioretty and Canucks forward Brock Boeser, each of whom has scored six. Now Ehlers has to keep it going. — Nicholas J. Cotsonika, columnist

John Gibson, Anaheim Ducks

Gibson was barely on the fantasy radar entering the season because the Ducks had the fifth-worst points percentage in the NHL last season (.472), and their biggest offseason changes were the free agent signings of defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk and forward Derek Grant. But the Ducks goalie has started this season in dominant fashion, going 3-2-2 with a .942 save percentage (fifth in the NHL) and two shutouts, which are tied with Philipp Grubauer of the Colorado Avalanche, Semyon Varlamov of the New York Islanders and Petr Mrazek of the Carolina Hurricanes for the NHL lead. Gibson has needed to be at his best each game; the Ducks are 3-3-2 but last in the NHL with an average of 1.75 goals per game, putting Gibson in the way-too-early conversation for the Hart Trophy as NHL most valuable player. — Pete Jensen, senior fantasy editor

Video: Gibson earns Tuesday’s Pepsi Zero Sugar Shutout

 
Anze Kopitar, Los Angeles Kings

It’s easy to take Kopitar for granted. The Kings’ No. 1 center and captain scored at least 60 points 12 times and at least 20 goals 11 times in his first 14 NHL seasons. He’s as consistent a forward as you’ll find. But it’s been seven seasons since the Kings won the Stanley Cup in 2014 and Kopitar finds himself one of the few holdovers amid the rebuild. With so much inexperience around him, I figured his numbers would dip. Maybe he’d even be traded at some point. My bad for doubting him. Kopitar leads the NHL with 11 assists and he’s been the catalyst to the Kings’ 3-3-2 start. — Mike Zeisberger, staff writer

Jordan Kyrou, St. Louis Blues

Did you see the goal Kyrou scored in the Blues’ 5-4 shootout win against the Golden Knights on Tuesday? It was yet another fabulous play by an energetic player who finally is making the impact expected of him by the Blues. Kyrou stole the puck from Vegas defenseman Alex Pietrangelo, outmuscled him down the ice, and fought him off to get off a quick, high shot to beat Robin Lehner for his third goal and seventh point in seven games. The forward leads the Blues in scoring and always seems to be around the puck. Kyrou scored 12 points (five goals, seven assists) in 44 games in his first two NHL seasons, but this season he’s become a regular contributor and arguably the Blues’ best forward to date. — Dan Rosen, senior writer

Alexander Romanov, Montreal Canadiens

The proof of Romanov’s fit with the Canadiens is verified by the trust of coach Claude Julien; the 21-year-old rookie defenseman has played at least 20 minutes in three of his seven games. Romanov has scored two points (one goal, one assist) and is averaging 19:02 of ice time. He may not be the major driver of Montreal’s 5-0-2 start, he has more than justified his position in the lineup. — Tim Campbell, staff writer

Bobby Ryan, Detroit Red Wings

I expected Ryan to help the Red Wings — I called it my favorite signing of Oct. 9, the first day of free agency this offseason — but I didn’t expect him to make this much of an impact already. The forward has scored four goals in seven games; the Red Wings have 16 as a team. He scored eight points (five goals, three assists) in 24 games with the Ottawa Senators last season. Ryan recently said that a fresh start was welcome for him, after he took an extended leave of absence last season to enter the NHL/NHLPA player assistance program. He returned later in the season and won the Masterton Trophy as the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship and dedication to hockey. It’s looked so far like the change has worked. — Amalie Benjamin, staff writer

Video: CBJ@DET: Ryan scores in 2nd period

 

Tyler Toffoli, Montreal Canadiens

I figured the Canucks would be re-signing the forward for his production after they acquired him in a trade with the Los Angeles Kings on Feb. 17, 2020. But Vancouver’s loss was Montreal’s gain, and Toffoli, who agreed to a four-year, $17 million contract ($4.25 million average annual value) with the Canadiens on Oct. 12, has been outstanding in his new surroundings. He leads the Canadiens with nine points (six goals, three assists) in seven games to continue the hot streak that coincided with his trade to Vancouver last season, when he scored 10 points (six goals, four assists) in 10 regular-season games and four points (two goals, two assists) in seven postseason games for the Canucks. — Tracey Myers, staff writer

Vitek Vanecek, Washington Capitals

Vanecek was the Capitals’ No. 3 goalie before Henrik Lundqvist announced Dec. 17 that he’d be unable to play this season because of a heart condition. After Vanecek beat out veteran Craig Anderson for the backup job in training camp, the 25-year-old rookie was thrust into the No. 1 job when Ilya Samsonov went into quarantine in accordance with NHL COVID-19 protocols Jan. 20. Vanecek has thrived, going 4-0-2 with a 2.75 goals-against average and a .915 save percentage in six games. A second-round pick (No. 39) in the 2014 NHL Draft, Vanecek is the second Capitals rookie goalie to earn points in his first six NHL starts, joining Jim Carey, who went 6-0 with one tie in his first seven starts in 1994-95. — Tom Gulitti, staff writer

Scott Wedgewood, New Jersey Devils

Wedgewood has done a commendable job for the Devils, starting four straight games with Mackenzie Blackwood, the No. 1 goalie, on the NHL COVID-19 protocol list since Jan. 21. Wedgewood, who last played in the NHL with Arizona Coyotes in 2017-18, has a 2.81 goals-against average, one shutout and a .900 save percentage. The Devils haven’t given him much support, averaging 1.78 goals per game for him, third-fewest among goalies to start at least four games this season, behind Thomas Greiss of the Red Wings (1.17) and John Gibson of the Ducks (1.73). Wedgewood signed a one-year, two-way contract Oct. 11 to provide depth and, perhaps, an option for the taxi squad. He has been far more important than that this season. — Mike G. Morreale, staff writer

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