We are nearly 100 games into the NHL schedule and there have been plenty of surprises so far. From unexpected goalscorers to teams that should have no business being near the top of the standings, it’s been an interesting October, to say the least. So without further ado, let’s take a look at five of the biggest ones as we get ready for Halloween and the month of November.
Sabres Hanging Out in the Penthouse Instead of the Basement
Many prognosticators, including myself in my initial power rankings by position piece at the beginning of the season, expected the Buffalo Sabres to struggle for wins. That hasn’t happened as they have a record of 5-1-1 and are currently second in the Atlantic Division. Surprisingly ahead of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Toronto Maple Leafs, who have both played one more game than them.
Leading the charge in Buffalo is none other than the ageless Craig Anderson, who at the ripe age of 40 is still going strong even after considering retirement in the offseason. He currently is running with a 1.98 goals-against average (GAA) and .939 save percentage (SV%), which is among the league leaders right now. If he keeps this up, he might be in the conversation for the Vezina Trophy. I don’t think anyone had that on their bingo card at the beginning of the season.
Without the star power of Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart this season, the Sabres have relied on a cast of characters that include the even-strength contributions of Victor Olofsson, the re-emergence of first-round pick and NHL All-Star Zemgus Girgensons, and finally, the rock-solid defence led by Rasmus Dahlin and Colin Miller. Who knew that the removal of Eichel would make this team a cohesive group of players that could win hockey games? I know I sure didn’t.
Brandon Tanev Ahead of Leon Draisaitl in Goals
Since coming into the league in 2015 as an undrafted free agent out of Providence College, Brandon Tanev has carved out an NHL career as a tenacious, hard-working forward with a personality that is loved on and off the ice. His headshot photos are a thing of legend now as he looks shocked in every one of them. He not only stands out in those photos but on the ice and in the dressing room as well.
Now six full seasons into his NHL career and third team overall, Tanev has become a fan favourite in Winnipeg, Pittsburgh, and now Seattle. Chosen by the Seattle Kraken in the 2021 Expansion Draft from the Pittsburgh Penguins, he has been one of the bright spots for his newest team so far. Currently leading the team in goals with six and almost halfway to his career-high of 14 he had with the Winnipeg Jets a few seasons ago, he is surprisingly two goals ahead of Leon Draisaitl and only one back of Connor McDavid. His goalscoring binge probably won’t last, but he is basking in the spotlight right now.
Raymond & Dahlen Leading Calder Trophy Race, Not Caufield
Cole Caufield of the Montreal Canadiens was supposed to be running away with the Calder Trophy this season. Admittedly, it’s early to be writing off the dynamic young star at this point, but he’s not starting his bid off on the right foot so far. On a team that is struggling to find their legs after a Stanley Cup Final appearance and significant losses in Shea Weber, Phillip Danault, and Carey Price, he has hit a bit of a rough patch in his rookie season. With no goals and only one point in eight games, he is behind the eight-ball when it comes to any awards right now.
The two players who are making a significant push for it happen to be two Swedes by the names of Lucas Raymond and Jonathan Dahlen. One was a highly-touted first-round pick back in 2020, while the other has gone through two organizations before landing his first NHL gig in San Jose.
Starting with Raymond, who is a superstar in the making, by the way, has already begun his NHL career with a bang. Posting his first hat trick against Marc-Andre Fleury and the Chicago Blackhawks and now leading all rookies in goals (4), points (8), and plus/minus (plus-5), impressive doesn’t even begin to describe his season so far.
Perhaps more surprising than Raymond’s dominance is the emergence of Dahlen as a Calder Trophy contender. Selected 42nd overall by the Ottawa Senators during the 2016 Draft, he has been traded twice in his career already. Once by the Senators to the Vancouver Canucks for Alex Burrows in 2017 and then again by the Canucks to the San Jose Sharks for Linus Karlsson in 2019. After two very productive seasons in the Swedish Hockey League (SHL) with Timra IK where he accumulated 61 goals and 148 points, he finally made his NHL debut against the Winnipeg Jets on Oct. 16, 2021.
It only took one game before Dahlen was scoring his first two NHL goals. Ironically, that feat was done against Caufield and the Canadiens. The son of former NHLer Ulf Dahlen now has three goals and five points and has only been kept off the scoresheet three times in the seven games he’s played. Suffice it to say, he has been well worth the wait.
Mangiapane Second in Goals Behind Ovechkin
Andrew Mangiapane‘s insane goalscoring streak probably won’t last, but that shouldn’t discount the fact that he’s second in the NHL in goals with seven, only one behind the leader Alexander Ovechkin. With six goals in his past five games, he is playing some of the best hockey of his young career as only two teams have been able to stop him from rippling the twine this season.
What’s most surprising is the fact that Mangiapane is doing it with limited ice time and a low shot count. Averaging only 11:40 at even strength and 25 shots on goal, he’s making the most of his opportunities whenever he gets on the ice with the puck.
Montreal Canadiens’ 2-6-0 Start
The Canadiens have struggled out of the gate to gain any sort of momentum. Coming off an exciting run to the Stanley Cup Final, they are experiencing a significant hangover right now. Their stars aren’t scoring, the goaltending has been average at best and they’re giving up way too many shots and high-danger chances. The only bright spot so far has been the play of Jonathan Drouin, who leads the team in points with two goals and six points in eight games. He’s also been a feel-good story as he returned to the NHL after struggling with mental health issues last season.
If the Canadiens hope to make the playoffs and return to the Final for a second straight year, Caufield, Nick Suzuki, Josh Anderson, and Brendan Gallagher have to find a way to score and the defence core has to dig themselves out of the minus-hole they’ve gotten themselves into. The foursome of David Savard, Alexander Romanov, Jeff Petry, and Ben Chiarot is a combined minus-9 and the only regular defenceman on the positive side of the ledger is Chris Wideman, who plays an average of 16:43.
All in all, the Canadiens just have to find a way to pull together and play better hockey to get back into the conversation of the good teams in the NHL. Hopefully, Jake Allen’s 45-save shutout against the Sharks is the start of that happening, even though they still gave up way too many shots and chances.
Will These Surprising Storylines Continue?
It’s going to be interesting to see if any of these surprises continue as the 2021-22 season rolls on. The Sabres have started seasons strong in the past, only to see themselves fall back to earth and finish towards the bottom of the standings. The Canadiens have also come back from slow starts to find themselves in the playoff hunt come Christmas time. So really, anything can happen.
Raymond will probably continue his goalscoring and point production. He’s just too good not to. As for Dahlen, it will all depend on the ice time and linemates he gets. He has the skill to sustain the production, so I wouldn’t count him out of the Calder Trophy conversation come midseason.
Finally, Tanev and Mangiapane. Tanev likely won’t finish in the top 20 in goals, but he will remain a key part of the Kraken moving forward. His infectious personality and overall game are perfect for the team he is on right now. He’s a foundational piece for a franchise just trying to establish their identity in the NHL. Mangiapane is a burgeoning goalscorer in the NHL with 42 goals in his last 131 games, so expect the goals to continue, especially if Calgary Flames’ head coach Darryl Sutter gives him more ice time.
All in all, it’s been an exciting first month with lots more surprises to come. We haven’t even got to the Olympics, trade deadline, and playoffs yet, so stay tuned!
Matthew Zator is a THW freelance writer, media editor, and scout who lives and breathes Vancouver Canucks hockey, the NHL Draft, and prospects in general. He loves talking about young players and their potential. Matthew is a must-read for Canucks fans and fans of the NHL Draft and its prospects. For interview requests or content information, you can follow Matthew through his social media accounts which are listed under his photo at the conclusion of articles like this one about Tyler Motte.