By Neil Becker
Heading into the Christmas break, NHL fans had been treated to many early-season entertaining feel-good surprises.
A few major storylines include the second-year Seattle Kraken getting off to a shockingly strong start, along with the New Jersey Devils, Vegas Golden Knights and Boston Bruins dominating in the season's opening months.
Fans also got to witness young players such as Dallas Stars forward Jason Robertson, along with Buffalo Sabres forward Tage Thompson and New Jersey Devils forwards Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes, to name just a few, who this season have made that jump to superstardom.
Another player who can't be left out is Sabres defenceman and their 2018 first overall pick, Rasmus Dahlin, who heading into Christmas, had also surprised with his sudden development as he continues to make a strong case to be in this year's Norris Trophy conversation.
Naturally, during a long regular season, fans are also bound to witness various disappointments, such as a team's slow start and players not meeting expectations. As the calendar flips to 2023, there is still lots of time for these teams and players to turn things around. So, with approximately 45 games or so remaining, all is not lost for them as they headed into the holidays.
Among the biggest first-half disappointments come out west where Edmonton Oilers goalie Jack Campbell hasn't come close to living up to his lucrative five-year $25 million-dollar contract that he signed last summer as an unrestricted free agent.
Campbell had played only 15 games, where he has posted an 8-6-0-1 record with a 4.02 GAA, and a .876 save percentage. It's safe to say that Oilers management was not expecting this kind of start from this prized free agent. In fact, Campbell lost the starting job to Stuart Skinner.
Staying with the Oilers, another major disappointment has been the performance of their 2016 first-round draft pick, Jesse Puljujarvi. This season he has looked lost and has admitted in interviews to struggling and having a loss of confidence. In 35 games played, he has scored only two goals and eight points and has an unflattering plus/minus of -12.
Credit the Oilers, who have for years been patient with his development. It's apparent, however, that he needs a fresh start with another organization.
A compelling argument can be made that Calgary Flames forward Jonathan Huberdeau has yet to get off to the fastest of starts with his new team. Following a season with the Florida Panthers, which saw him score 30 goals along with a career-high 115 points, this star forward was traded in the off-season to the Flames, where he has had to learn an entirely different system while getting used to playing with new linemates.
Huberdeau, who was drafted 3rd overall in 2011 by the Panthers, has so far played 32 games where he has scored only six goals and 24 points.
Two teams who have thus far underachieved and have been disappointments include last year's Presidents' Trophy winners Florida Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks.
The Panthers, who finished with a league-best 122 points last season, currently have a 15-16-4 record which has them seven points out of a playoff spot.
Meanwhile, the Canucks, who got off to a dismal 2-6-2 start, have been playing catch-up ever since and sit with a 15-15-3 record and seven points out of a post-season berth.
In my opinion, the biggest surprise has been the second-year Seattle Kraken, who heading into Christmas break, found themselves with a solid 18-10-4 record and third place in the Pacific Division.
This is quite a big improvement compared to last year, when this expansion team finished in 30th place with a 27-49-6 record.
A big reason for Seattle's improvement is the play of 6'3" 201-pound forward Andre Burakovsky, who, after winning the Stanley Cup last year with the Colorado Avalanche, signed a five-year $27.5 million unrestricted free agent deal with the Kraken.
Burakovsky, who also won a Stanley Cup back in 2018 with the Washington Capitals, has, in 32 games this season, scored ten goals and is the Kraken team leader with 28 points.
Back in mid-October, Seattle took the league by storm when they set the tone for a solid season by going on a five-game winning streak.
While they more than likely won't be serious Stanley Cup contenders this spring, it's not a far fetch that Seattle, come April, will gain experience from being in a playoff race.
Another big reason for their early season success is the development of the franchise's very first draft choice, former University of Michigan forward Matty Beniers, who at the 2021 draft was selected first round second overall. So far this season, he has played 32 games where he has definitely impressed with 11 goals and 25 points, along with a plus/minus of +5.
Seattle added some more offence and veteran leadership last off-season when they traded for veteran forward Oliver Bjorkstrand, who last year was coming off a career-high 28 goals and 57-point season with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Bjorkstrand has in 32 games this year, scored four goals along with 16 points.
The Kraken's fourth line, which consists of Daniel Sprong, Brandon Tanev and Morgan Geekie, has also been the team's unsung heroes who have been critical to the team's fast start.
Geekie is a strong defensive player who excels at killing penalties. Heading into Christmas, he had scored four goals, and 13 points while leading the team defensively with a plus/minus of +16. Tanev has chipped in with five goals and 16 points, along with a plus/minus of +15, while Sprong has produced ten goals, 19 points and a solid plus/minus of +11.
Former Philadelphia Flyers goalie Martin Jones, who on July 13, 2022, signed as an unrestricted free agent with the Kraken, has gotten off to a strong start. Jones, who inked a one-year $2 million contract, posted a 14-5-0-3 record with a 2.99 GAA and one shutout.
Seattle is also getting strong seasons from rugged defenceman Adam Larsson who is a +13, and forward Jared McCann, who has 16 goals.
These are exciting times for this talented Kraken team, who have taken a giant step towards being in playoff contention. They are definitely the number one early-season surprise.
The second biggest early season surprise has been the New Jersey Devils, who heading into December boasting an unexpected 19-4-0 record. Looking to rebound after finishing last season 28th overall with only 63 points, the Devils headed into Christmas with a 22-10-2 record which has them sitting fifth overall.
A big reason for the Devils success has been the maturation of former first-round picks Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier, who are having breakthrough seasons.
Hughes, who was selected by New Jersey 1st overall in the 2019 draft, has, at 21 years of age, turned this season into a superstar. After the first 30-plus games, Hughes is on pace to demolish last year's numbers, where he posted career highs of 26 goals and 56 points. Heading into Christmas, Hughes leads the Devils with 18 goals and 39 points.
Hischier, selected by the Devils 1st overall in the 2017 draft, is another forward on pace for a breakout campaign. Hischier, who is only 23 years of age, is coming off a season which saw him score a career-high 21 goals and 60 points. This year, in 33 games, he has scored 13 goals and 31 points.
Jesper Bratt, selected 162nd in the 2016 draft, is another young power forward who has found his stride. Last year, he enjoyed a career season which saw him score 26 goals and 73 points. So far this season, in 33 games, he has totalled 12 goals and 33 points, along with a plus/minus of +13.
A big addition that has so far paid dividends was the acquisition of defenceman John Marino, who was traded from the Pittsburgh Penguins to Jersey last July. So far, he has totalled nine points and an impressive +11 and has really bolstered the blue line.
New Jersey has also gotten some strong goaltending from Vitek Vanecek, who has posted a 12-4-0-2 record with a 2.41 GAA and a .909 save percentage.
Devils fans have reason to be excited about the future as the young players are blossoming into stars and are now ready to dominate. This coming spring, it's very realistic that New Jersey could go on a deep playoff run.
The third early season surprise has been the Toronto Maple Leafs goaltending tandem of Matt Murray and Ilya Samsonov.
Last July, when Murray was traded from the Senators to the Leafs, and unrestricted free agent Samsonov signed a one-year deal with Toronto, there were questions about whether these were good moves.
Murray, who earlier in his career won two Stanley Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, has over his career missed time due to injuries, including concussions.
Last season, during Murray's second year with the Senators, he lost his first six games before things really bottomed out when on November 28, 2021, he was placed on waivers and sent down to the AHL's Belleville Senators. Eventually, Murray returned to the Senators but suffered another injury setback when on March 4, 2022, his season ended due to a concussion.
After finishing last year with a 5-12-2 record with one shutout and a 3.05 GAA in 20 games with the Sens, Murray has with the Leafs gotten off to a solid 8-2-0-2 record with a 2.34 GAA and one shutout. So far, he has definitely proven the critics wrong.
Samsonov, originally selected 22nd overall in the 2015 draft by the Washington Capitals, came to Toronto after playing 89 games with the Capitals, where he had a save percentage of a little over .900 and a 52-22-8 record.
So far, Samsonov has answered his many critics as he has gone 10-3-0 -0 with a 2.07 GAA 2 shutouts.
The biggest first-quarter disappointment, in my opinion, has been the lack of production from Oilers forward Puljujarvi. Puljujarvi was selected 4th overall in the 2016 draft and looked upon as a top prospect and a future impact player.
His NHL career started out well as he made the 2016-17 Oilers team out of camp and, on October 12, 2016, in the season opener, scored his first NHL goal. That turned out to be the high point as he ended up registering one goal and eight points in 28 games before being sent down to the Oilers AHL team, the Bakersfield Condors.
The following season, Oilers management had reason to feel encouraged as a more mature Puljujarvi improved to 12 goals and 20 points in 65 games. Unfortunately for Oilers fans, Puljujarvi's production badly decreased as he scored only four goals and nine points in 46 games during the 2018-2019 season before missing a year in the NHL due to holding out.
Since returning from that holdout, he has played 120 games with the Oilers over the past two seasons, where he has scored 29 goals and 61 points. Last season, Puljujarvi produced 14 goals and a career-high 36 points. While these aren't numbers expected of a first-round draft pick, the hope was that at 24 years of age, he was ready for a breakout year.
To say that things haven't worked out this season for the 6'4" 201-pound forward would be an understatement. Similar to last season, he has had his chance playing on the number one line with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl and has not produced. As mentioned earlier, Puljujarvi entered the Christmas break with only two goals and eight points, which is way below par. He has admitted to playing terribly, and various trade rumours have been swirling involving the big Finn.
The second biggest early-season disappointment has been the defending Presidents' Trophy winners, the Florida Panthers, who at Christmas time found themselves shockingly out of a playoff spot.
One reason for their struggles has been the play of goalie Sergei Bobrovsky who in 21 games has an unflattering 7-11-1 record with a 3.29 GAA, one shutout and a .895 save percentage.
A second reason has been captain Aleksander Barkov's slow start. Barkov, who is currently sidelined with an injury, has played only 25 games this year, where he has produced six goals along with 22 points and a plus/minus of +5. This a far cry from his stats a year ago when he scored 39 goals, 88 points and finished with +36.
Defenceman Aaron Ekblad has also struggled this year to the tune of scoring only four goals and 14 points in 24 games, along with a plus/minus of -14. Quite a difference from last year's numbers, where in 61 games, he produced 15 goals and 57 points, along with a +38.
Ekblad was injured just before Christmas in a game against the New York Islanders.
Injuries have definitely been a factor for the Panthers, who in the last month have had goalie Spencer Knight, defenceman Radko Gudas, Ekblad and forwards Colin White, Anton Lundell, Patric Hornqvist, Barkov, and Chris Tierney go down with injuries or illness. They are also missing 31 goal scorer Anthony Duclair who is still recovering from off-season surgery.
The Panthers have a steep hill to climb, but once healthy, they are too good not to make up the deficit and qualify for post-season play.
A third early-season disappointment has been the Calgary Flames, who, after 35 games, have gone 16-12-7 and sit one point up on the Edmonton Oilers for the second and final wild-card spot.
The Flames, who finished sixth overall with 111 points last season, came into the season with high expectations.
Starting goalie Jacob Markstrom has had a rough start by going 11-8-4 with a dismal .894 save percentage. Markstrom, a Vezina Trophy finalist last year, went 37-15-9 with a .922 save percentage and nine shutouts.
Star forward Jonathan Huberdeau, fresh off a 115-point season with the Florida Panthers, was traded in the off-season to the Flames. High expectations were placed on Huberdeau, who signed an eight-year $84 million contract with the Flames. So far, he has scored only six goals and produced 24 points. It's fair to say that the Flames were expecting more.
Forward Andrew Mangiapane has also been having a down start to the year. Coming off a career-high 35 goal, 55- point season, this 26-year-old has taken a step backwards by scoring only seven goals and 14 points and a -8 in 35 games.
The good news is that there is still plenty of hockey to be played, so teams such as the Panthers and Flames, along with a player such as Puljujarvi, can still find their groove and turn their seasons around.
Fans can look forward to witnessing some more entertaining feel-good post-Christmas surprises in what should be an action-packed, entertaining rest of the NHL season.