5 Most Surprising Players of the 2022-23 NHL Season So Far

With nearly half of the 2022-23 campaign already in the books and 2023 just around the corner, what better time than the present to highlight several of the most surprising performances of the season to this point? The players on this list are a mixture of rookies making a name for themselves in their debut seasons, highly-regarded prospects who had yet to pan out (until now), and veterans marred by injuries, inconsistent play, or both in recent years. For one reason or another, their strong play this season was unexpected, but their performances have altered the trajectory of their careers and their teams’ short-term fortunes for the better.

As a note, I tried to avoid young players who looked to just be following a natural path of growth and development, although it could be argued that there were some exceptions. For example, climbing into a completely different stratosphere in terms of the calibre of player they appeared to be would be enough to garner recognition.

Each season represents a new opportunity for players to rewrite their legacies and develop new reputations, and 2022-23 has been no exception. Without further ado, here are the five most surprising players (and five honourable mentions) of the season so far.

Tage Thompson, Buffalo Sabres

2022-23 Statistics: 33 Games Played (GP) – 26 Goals (G) – 24 Assists (A) – 50 Points (PTS) – 18:54 Average Time on Ice (ATOI)

It’s a testament to how dominant Tage Thompson has been to start the season for his play to be considered surprising after an unexpected 38-goal, 68-point output for the Buffalo Sabres in 2021-22 following years of frustrating inconsistency. The 6-foot-7 behemoth has exceeded the lofty expectations placed upon him after inking a seven-year, $50 million contract this past summer (beginning in 2023-24), producing career-high rates in nearly every offensive category.

Many would be wary of giving such a contract to a player who quadrupled their previous career high in goals and almost doubled their career-best shooting percentage (SH%), but the Sabres gambled on a burgeoning star and are being repaid for their faith. Considering how he’s burst out of the gates this season, general manager Kevyn Adams and his supporting staff look like managerial savants for trusting their judgment and exercising clairvoyant-like foresight.

Tage Thompson Buffalo Sabres
Tage Thompson, Buffalo Sabres (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Among skaters to have played at least 200 minutes at 5v5 this season, Thompson ranks third in goals per 60 minutes, 25th in primary assists per 60, and third in points per 60. His underlying shot- and chance-generation rates aren’t too shabby, either, as he’s also firing the most shots per 60, the third-highest clip of expected goals per 60, and the second-highest rate of scoring chances. Eye-popping scoring totals aside, Thompson is creating and converting on a bounty of opportunities every night, suggesting he will remain a legitimate 40- to 50-goal threat over the course of his prime.

Thompson’s shooting percentage remains high (33rd among qualified forwards in all situations), but that isn’t out of the ordinary for the league’s top shooters. It’s unlikely that he maintains his 66-goal, 128-point pace over the entire campaign, but there’s little doubt that the NHL’s upper echelon of goalscorers has a new member.

Pyotr Kochetkov, Carolina Hurricanes

2022-23 Statistics: 15 GP – 10 Wins (W) – 3 Losses (L) – 1 Overtime Losses (OTL) – .928 Save Percentage (SV%) – 11.2 Goals Saved Above Expected (GSAx)

Leave it to the Carolina Hurricanes to mine another rookie sensation in 23-year-old Pyotr Kochetkov, currently the proud owner of 18 career games in the NHL. His performance isn’t a huge surprise given his second-round draft pedigree and a resume of strong play in both the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) and American Hockey League (AHL), but rather the pace at which he’s ascended to his current standing. An injury to Frederik Andersen thrust Kochetkov into the limelight, and he’s outplayed both Andersen and backup Antti Raanta to a significant degree.

According to MoneyPuck, the Russian netminder ranks seventh among goalies with at least 10 games played in cumulative goals saved above expected (GSAx), but second in GSAx per 60 minutes, which accounts for differences in games played. Kochetkov also boasts the third-highest save percentage (SV%) among qualified goalies this season (.928), and his consistency is impressive given his lack of NHL experience. Using quality starts as a proxy (games in which a goalie posts a SV% above the league-average mark), he ranks 12th among qualified goalies in terms of the percentage of his games that are considered quality starts. For a freshman playing in a high-pressure position, he’s been a rock.

In comparison, Andersen owns a record of 5-3-0 with a SV% of .891 and has allowed 3.6 goals above expected while Raanta is 7-2-2, but also carries an .886 SV% while allowing 4.9 goals above expected. Neither has performed up to expectations, and both rank within the bottom quartile of qualified goalies in both SV% and GSAx. For a leading Stanley Cup hopeful, that is just not good enough.

Jesper Boqvist New Jersey Devils Pyotr Kochetkov Carolina Hurricanes
Pyotr Kochetkov of the Carolina Hurricanes makes a save on Jesper Boqvist of the New Jersey Devils (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Even so, Kochetkov’s start to the season and Andersen’s impending return to the lineup put the Hurricanes in a bind. He doesn’t own an extensive track record of NHL appearances, but his play has been a significant reason for how Carolina has accrued a 22-6-6 record and second-place position in the overall league standings. He is exempt from waivers so the team could send him down worry-free, but that risks handing the net back to a pair of inconsistent, injury-prone veterans instead of riding the hot hand.

Crucially, both Andersen and Raanta are unrestricted free agents (UFAs) at the end of the season, so allowing Kochetkov to transition into his long-term role as an undisputed starter seems like a proactive decision. Running with a goalie triumvirate is another option, but that’s a sub-optimal use of their assets in the crease, when one of the three could be used in a trade to bolster other problem areas, such as their misfiring special teams.

Regardless of which decision the Hurricanes’ management group makes, Kocehtkov has been a welcome revelation and should be a favourite for the 2022-23 Calder Trophy as the NHL’s top rookie this season.

Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks

2022-23 Statistics: 35 GP – 13 G – 33 A – 46 PTS – 25:07 ATOI

Of the names on this list, there is perhaps none as surprising as that of two-time Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson, often considered the preeminent offensive defenseman of the past decade. Yet, after years of inconsistency precipitated by numerous lower-body injuries, which sapped him of his mobility and evasiveness, the 32-year-old blueliner is back among the elite at his position and in pole position to claim his third Norris Trophy.

Between the 2019-20 and 2021-22 seasons, Karlsson only scored at a 50-point pace and struggled immensely in the defensive zone despite carrying the largest cap hit among all defensemen at $11.5 million average annual value (AAV). His pact was lauded as arguably the league’s worst and portrayed as a major reason why the San Jose Sharks would be unable to kickstart a much-needed rebuild. Given his age, injury history, and the years remaining on his deal (four more after this season), it’s difficult to shake such proclamations, but Karlsson has done his best with his play this season.

Erik Karlsson San Jose Sharks
Erik Karlsson, San Jose Sharks (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Karlsson leads all NHL defenders in a number of categories, including goals, assists, points, and even-strength points, all the while logging 25:07 minutes per night (eighth overall). Those totals represent a 30-goal, 107-point pace over 82 games, which would be the highest mark by a defenseman since Paul Coffey’s 113 points in 75 games in 1988-89.

It’s unlikely that Karlsson can maintain such a historic pace or that he will continue to shoot at a 12.9 percent clip (the highest of his career), but his rising shot- and chance-generation numbers bode well for his rest-of-season outlook.

That Karlsson has regained his offensive form is not as surprising as his formidable two-way impact, especially at 5v5. With him on the ice, the Sharks account for 52.4 percent of all shots (SF%), 52.6 percent of the expected goals tally (xGF%), 53.6 percent of scoring chances (SCF%), and 55.5 percent of high-danger opportunities (HDCF%).

Those aren’t the most impressive raw marks in the league, but the fact that his relative metrics (difference between when he’s on the ice compared to not) are among the highest at his position despite his heavy workload on a bottom-feeder team shows how significantly he’s influencing games this season.

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Unlike Karlsson’s individual performance, the Sharks are fading fast. The team ranks 29th overall in points percentage (PTS%) and has only won three of their last 10 games. Karlsson’s age profile and contractual status make a trade to a contender more difficult, but it could be accomplished through the laundering of his cap hit through retention, and at least one organization believing in him in the medium term.

If so, there is sure to be no shortage of interested suitors for a future Hall-of-Fame defenseman rekindling the spark that once made him so special.

Josh Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets

2022-23 Statistics: 34 GP – 6 G – 33 A – 39 PTS – 23:27 ATOI

Like Karlsson, Winnipeg Jets’ blueliner Josh Morrissey has seen his reputation recover this year after several seasons in which he seemed incapable of shouldering the level of workload reserved for a team’s number-one defenseman. Hiring Rick Bowness as the team’s head coach appears to have injected new life into a group less than a year removed from rumoured locker room issues, and the 27-year-old Morrissey has been one of the biggest benefactors.

Morrissey’s 33 assists and 39 points in 34 games already represent career-highs, and his six goals before the official midseason mark also put him on track to set a new benchmark in goalscoring. Not only has his increased outlay been remarkable on an individual level, but his production compares favourably to his positional peers. He’s tied for first in assists with Karlsson, second in primary assists (19), and only lags behind the Swede in total points, with all three marks representing his output in all situations.

Josh Morrissey Winnipeg Jets
Josh Morrissey, Winnipeg Jets (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Morrissey’s 11.2 percent on-ice shooting percentage (OiSH%) is the 18th-highest among qualified defenders (minimum 200 5v5 minutes), so his totals are a tad inflated by unsustainable finishing by his teammates. In addition, he’s posted sub-50 percent marks in terms of 5v5 SF%, xGF%, and HDCF%, which are also accompanied by negative relative impacts and suggest the team is losing the shot and chance battle when he takes to the ice.

Despite his (minor) defensive shortcomings, he could conceivably double his previous career highs while playing 19:40 minutes per game at even strength (20th among all defensemen). After two seasons of underperforming his $6.25 million AAV, the Jets are finally getting the production expected of a player in his tax bracket. For a Jets’ squad currently second in the Central Division, that’s the best Christmas present they could ask for this holiday season.

Ilya Samsonov and Matt Murray, Toronto Maple Leafs

Samsonov’s 2022-23 Statistics: 13 GP – 10 W – 3 L – 0 OTL – .924 SV% – 7.7 GSAx

Murray’s 2022-23 Statistics: 12 GP – 8 W – 2 L – 2 OTL – .925 SV% – 7.9 GSAx

Given that both Ilya Samsonov and Matt Murray have posted eerily similar numbers as a tandem and that neither has definitively claimed the Toronto Maple Leafs’ starting job as their own, I opted to include them as a single entry.

With his future in Toronto hanging in the balance, general manager Kyle Dubas acquired the two netminders under uncertain circumstances and staked his managerial reputation on the hopes that one or both could regain their form. Through the first few months of the season, both have overcome histories of health concerns and inconsistency to lead the Maple Leafs to third in the NHL by PTS% while contributing to the fourth-best team SV% (.915). Remove the disappointing Erik Kallgren from consideration (an .898 SV% in 10 games) and that mark looks even better.

After posting a .902 SV% in 89 games over three seasons with the Washington Capitals, Samsonov was cut loose by the team that drafted him 22nd overall in 2015, leaving the 25-year-old to sign a one-year, $1.8 million prove-it deal with Toronto. Behind a sturdier defensive structure (the Maple Leafs rank sixth in expected goals against per 60 at 5v5), the Russian netminder owns a .924 SV% and saved 7.7 goals above expected through 13 games.

Among goalies to have played in at least 10 games this season, those marks rank seventh and 12th in the league respectively and represent a tremendous return on investment for a goalie making less than $2 million this season.

Ilya Samsonov Toronto Maple Leafs
Ilya Samsonov, Toronto Maple Leafs (Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

Considering the contract given to him by the Ottawa Senators and the tumultuous trajectory of his NHL career, Murray’s resurgence is the more surprising of the pair. Since winning the Stanley Cup in both of his first two NHL campaigns, he’s had a SV% of .915 or higher once before this season and only played in 85 games between 2019-20 and 2021-22 while recovering from injury and dealing with the death of his father. That he currently ranks fourth in SV% and sixth in GSAx per 60 among goalies with at least 10 games played is a testament to his mental fortitude and the support within the Maple Leafs’ organizational structure.

As is the case with any goalie, no matter how elite, predicting their year-to-year performance is notoriously difficult. Even the likes of Andrei Vasilevskiy and Connor Hellebuyck go through extended periods of poor play once in a while, and assuming one’s strong performance will continue indefinitely is a foolish endeavour.

For now, the Maple Leafs are receiving one of the NHL’s best collective goaltending performances and should be considered legitimate Stanley Cup contenders as a result, recent playoff failures be damned.

2022-23’s Most Surprising Players: Honourable Mentions

Here are five additional honourable mentions to give us an even total of 10 players with unexpected starts to the 2022-23 campaign: Carter Hart (Philadelphia Flyers), Dominik Kubalik (Detroit Red Wings), Filip Hronek (Detroit Red Wings), Martin Necas (Carolina Hurricanes), and Karel Vejmelka (Arizona Coyotes).

Data courtesy of Hockey Reference, MoneyPuck, Natural Stat Trick, and the NHL.