NHL’s 5 Biggest Surprises at American Thanksgiving

American Thanksgiving has become a big date on the NHL calendar — particularly for playoff implications — and a terrific time to evaluate the lay of the land through approximately 25 games.

The NHL season is a marathon — and there are still two-thirds to go in the 82-game schedule — but this holiday weekend offers a chance to highlight the early surprises, disappointments and frontrunners for awards.

When it comes to surprises, these are the five biggest to date.

Edmonton Oilers

So much has been surprising about Edmonton’s start, but the Oilers’ place in the standings — leading the Pacific and second in the Western Conference at American Thanksgiving (Thursday) — is the real shocker. No pundits predicted Edmonton to be the division leader and most had them missing the playoffs (yours truly included).

Connor McDavid,Mikko Koskinen
Connor McDavid and Oscar Klefbom, left, have been leading the way for the Oilers, but goaltender Mikko Koskinen has also been huge for Edmonton. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Several of the Oilers’ players have been pleasant surprises, including James Neal, Mikko Koskinen and Ethan Bear. Dave Tippett also has the special teams performing surprisingly well. There is no bigger surprise than the Oilers in general right now.

New York Islanders’ Streak

The Islanders set a franchise record by earning at least a point in 17 straight games from Oct. 12 to Nov. 25, surpassing the successful streaks from their dynasty days in the early ’80s.

This run was as surprising as it was amazing, considering the Islanders’ mediocre roster and modest expectations for this season. But full credit to Barry Trotz and his staff, proving time and again that coaching can still impact results in today’s NHL.

Barry Trotz
When Barry Trotz barks orders, everybody listens on the New York Islanders’ bench. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

Mike Babcock’s Firing

Everybody knew Babcock was going to be on the hot seat this season — he acknowledged as much in training camp — but nobody expected him to be the first coach fired. That was surprising despite the perceived power struggle with general manager Kyle Dubas.

Most anticipated the leash being long enough to get the Leafs to the playoffs again, with his future in Toronto hinging on post-season success. But Babcock lasted only 23 games, with a six-game losing skid spelling the end for the prestigious coach with two Olympic gold medals and a prior Stanley Cup ring to his name.

Toronto Maple Leafs head coach Mike Babcock
Mike Babcock ran out of answers in Toronto. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov)

Babcock failed to win a playoff round with Toronto, getting fired on Nov. 20 — partway through his fifth season of an eight-year, $50-million contract as the league’s highest-paid coach thanks to those past accomplishments. Babcock has been replaced by Sheldon Keefe, who was always the preferred coach for Dubas, and the Leafs responded with a three-game winning streak to move back into a playoff position at American Thanksgiving.

RELATED: 11 potential landing spots for Mike Babcock

The firings of Don Cherry from Hockey Night in Canada and Bill Peters from the Calgary Flames — despite being billed as resignations or “stepping down” — were less surprising given the circumstances. Those were a sign of the times and what won’t be tolerated in today’s society.

Rookie Defencemen Making Immediate Impact

Cale Makar, Quinn Hughes and Adam Fox are taking the NHL by storm as rookie defencemen. All three were playing college hockey last season and are now starring for Colorado, Vancouver and the Rangers, respectively.

They are playing key roles and logging big minutes already — including top power-play time — and there is a decent chance they would finish 1-2-3 in Calder Trophy voting for the league’s rookie of the year as of today.

Avalanche defenseman Cale Makar
Cale Makar of the Colorado Avalanche. (Stan Szeto/USA TODAY)

Makar has emerged as the clear frontrunner for that award at American Thanksgiving, but it’s surprising to hear his name also entering the Norris conversation as the league’s top defenceman despite his rookie status.

No Stanley Cup Hangover

Typically a long playoff run — and a short offseason full of celebrating — takes its toll the following campaign and can result in a sluggish start, but surprisingly neither finalist is suffering from a Stanley Cup hangover. That is a very real concern — even more so than the sophomore slump — but both the reigning champion St. Louis Blues and runner-up Boston Bruins were topping the standings in their respective divisions and conferences at American Thanksgiving.

Jordan Binnington St. Louis Blues Stanley Cup
Jordan Binnington and the St. Louis Blues are rolling right along since winning the Stanley Cup. (Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

Their goaltenders, Jordan Binnington and Tuukka Rask, would be Vezina nominees as of today, and both teams have continued to win despite losing star forwards Vladimir Tarasenko and Patrice Bergeron. It has been surprising to see St. Louis not skip a beat and for Boston to become such a force this season, with both teams contending for the Presidents’ Trophy in the present.

Agree or disagree — who or what have been the biggest surprises in the NHL at American Thanksgiving? Feel free to weigh in by leaving a comment below.