NHL Power Rankings: Biggest surprises from 2021-22 season

NHL Power Rankings
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In this week’s NHL Power Rankings we take a look back at the 2021-22 regular season and 15 of the biggest surprises that took place.

These surprises range from league-wide trends in goal scoring, to team performances, to surprising coaching changes, to individual performances

It is also important to keep in mind that not all surprises are positive.

Which performances make the cut?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

1. The NHL’s goal scoring surge continues. This seems like a fairly important development because it might dictate which way the league goes in terms of playing style. Skill and offense are starting to take more of a priority, resulting in a league average of 6.3 goals per game, the highest mark in 26 years, equaling the 6.3 per game average from the 1995-96 season. This scoring surge resulted in the Florida Panthers averaging more than four goals per game, eight 100-point scorers (and one 99-point player: J.T. Miller), four 50-goal scorers, and a 60-goal season from Auston Matthews.

2. The Islanders fire Barry Trotz. You have to go back to the early 1980s dynasty to find a more successful run of hockey for the New York Islanders than the Barry Trotz era. Prior to his arrival the team made the playoffs just seven times in the previous 23 years and won just a single playoff series during that stretch. In Trotz’s four years they made the playoffs three times, won five playoff series, and reached back-to-back Eastern Conference Finals. They took a clear step backwards this season and missed the playoffs, mainly because of an 11-game losing streak in November when their schedule and roster was disrupted by COVID. Outside of that stretch they were 37-27-7 on the season. Even if you can not remove that stretch and accept the season long result, it is still a very quick change for the second-most successful coach in franchise history.

[Related: Islanders fire coach Barry Trotz]

3. Vegas is not good. At the start of the season the Golden Knights seemed like a clear Stanley Cup contender and a slam-dunk Pacific Division champion. That only increased when they acquired Jack Eichel early in the season. But salary cap issues, injuries, and some questionable decision-making resulted in a bitterly disappointing season that saw the Golden Knights shockingly miss the playoffs for the first time in franchise history. The changes already began with the firing of head coach Peter DeBoer.

[Related: Golden Knights have nobody to blame but themselves]

4. But the Kings are good! The Kings took an absolutely massive step forward in their rebuild, adding Viktor Arvidsson and Phillip Danault to their roster, while also getting huge performances from returning veterans like Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, Adrian Kempe, and Alex Iafallo. It resulted in a surprising playoff berth and taking Edmonton to a seventh game in the First Round. This development, combined with the young talent they still have on the way, makes for an extremely bright future in Los Angeles.

5. The Canadiens are the league’s worst team. There was always an expectation that Montreal was going to take a step backwards this season after their stunning Stanley Cup Final run. Not sure anybody expected the Canadiens to be the league’s worst team. Carey Price missed most of the season, Shea Weber missed all of it and is probably done as a player, while their top young players struggled with misuse from former coach Dominique Ducharme. Perhaps the most surprising development of them all was the hiring of Martin St. Louis as head coach.

6. The Blues become an offensive powerhouse. Always one of the league’s best defensive teams, the Blues transformed into one of the league’s top offensive teams this season. Vladimir Tarasenko sticking around and returning to elite scorer status certainly helped, but so did the addition of Pavel Buchnevich and huge breakout seasons from top young players Robert Thomas and Jordan Kyrou.

[Related: Blues have transformed into offensive powerhouse]

7. Paul Maurice resigns. After parts of nine seasons in Winnipeg, making him one of the longest tenured coaches in the NHL, Maurice abruptly resigned as head coach of the Jets in the middle of the season, sighting the team’s need for a new voice. Maurice seemed to be on the hot seat every year but always managed to stick around, and then it was ultimately him that made the decision to step away. The new voice did not really help the Jets.

8. Chris Kreider: 50 goal-scorer. When the Rangers signed Kreider to a seven-year contract extension two years ago they obviously believed he still had a lot of good hockey ahead of him and could be a part of their rebuild. They probably did not anticipate him scoring 50 goals in a season. Before this season his career in a single season was 28, and in his age 31 season he erupted for 52 goals (including a league-best 26 power play goals) to finish in the top-five of the goal race.

9. Tage Thompson‘s breakout season. Speaking of unexpected seasons, how can we ignore Tage Thompson? One of the key players acquired in the Ryan O'Reilly trade with St. Louis a few years ago, Thompson looked like he was never going to develop into a key player for the Sabres, scoring just 15 goals in his first 104 games with the team. He erupted this season with 38 goals in 78 games. Can he repeat it? Was it just a fluke? Or is he now suddenly a part of the Sabres’ core and able to salvage something from the O’Reilly trade?

10. Troy Terry‘s breakout season. Thompson was not the only mid-20s player to come out of nowhere with a big season. Terry’s career path has been almost identical to Thompsons, scoring just 15 goals in 127 games over his first three seasons with the Anaheim Ducks. His underlying numbers were always strong, but it never really produced consistent results. This season it did to the tune of 37 goals in 75 games, helping him become a part of an impressive young Ducks core alongside Trevor Zegras and Jamie Drysdale.

11. Matt Duchene: 40-goal scorer. Before this season the Nashville Predators had never had a 40-goal scorer in a single season. This season they had two, with Filip Forsberg and Matt Duchene both reaching that mark. Duchene is probably the most surprising of the two because his first two seasons with the team were so disappointing. It reached the point where they left him unprotected in the expansion draft for Seattle. The Kraken passed on taking that contract and Nashville was rewarded with a career year (43 goals, 86 total points) from Duchene.

12. Michael Bunting‘s Calder candidacy. After a solid showing in his first look with the Arizona Coyotes a year ago, Bunting was not tendered an RFA contract and allowed to become an unrestricted free agent. Toronto pounced on it and signed him to a two-year contract worth $1.9 million (total; only a $925,000 salary cap number per season). He ended up being one of the biggest free agency steals of the year, scoring 20 goals and 63 total points and becoming a finalist for the Calder Trophy.

[Related: Bunting, Zegras, Seider are 2021-22 Calder Trophy Finalists]

13. Joe Pavelski still has it. Jake Oettinger emerging from the pack of goalies to become the team’s starter is also a small surprise, but as a recent first-round pick he was always seen as the future of the position. The bigger surprise in Dallas might be the simple fact that Pavelski is still an impact player, so much so that he was rewarded with a contract extension to keep him in Dallas beyond this season. This has turned out to be the rare UFA contract signing for a mid-30s player that has worked out exceptionally well. He finished this season with 27 goals and 81 total points.

14. Tuukka Rask’s return, and then retirement. There was a ton of mystery surrounding Rask in the offseason and once the season began as to whether or not he would return to the Bruins and what he would look like when he did. He eventually rejoined the team in December, played four games, struggled, and then called it a career. It was an outstanding career, but it probably did not end the way anybody envisioned it.

15. Josh Norris making Karlsson trade look like win for Senators. The Senators have to take the wins where they can get them. It is not often you trade a player as good as Erik Karlsson and get a great return, but the Senators may have achieved that with the Karlsson deal. They not only got the draft pick that resulted in Tim Stützle, but they also acquired Norris who had a fantastic year this season. He scored 35 goals in 66 games and looks like a key part of their long-term plan.

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    Kuzmenko signs 2-year extension with Canucks

    Andrei Kuzmenko
    Bob Frid/USA TODAY Sports
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    VANCOUVER, British Columbia — Forward Andrei Kuzmenko signed a two-year contract extension with the Vancouver Canucks on Thursday.

    The deal has an average annual value of $5.5 million.

    The 26-year-old Kuzmenko has played in 47 games for the Canucks this season with 21 goals and 22 assists, four penalty minutes and a plus-4 defensive ranking.

    Kuzmenko ranks second on the team in goals and power-play goals (nine) this season.

    His 43 points are also tied for third on the team in overall scoring, while his 32 even-strength points (12 goals, 20 assists) are second on the Canucks.

    Kuzmenko leads all Vancouver skaters in shooting rate (24.7%) and ranks third in the NHL in that category (minimum of 20 games).

    He leads all first-year NHLers in almost every offensive category, including goals, assists, points, points per game (0.91), power-play goals, and power-play points.

    He has also had 14 multi-point games so far this season (second most on the Canucks), highlighted by his first-career NHL hat trick and season-high four-point game against Anaheim on Nov. 3.

    A native of Yakutsk, Russia, Kuzmenko spent his first eight professional seasons in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) with CSKA Moscow and SKA St. Petersburg, getting 200 points (85-115-200) in 315 regular-season games. He set career highs in goals (20), assists (33), and points (53) last season, ranking second in the league in scoring.

    Kuzmenko has also represented his country on the international stage on multiple occasions, totaling 16 points (10-6-16) and six penalty minutes in 37 games played. He was originally signed by Vancouver to a one-year, entry-level contract on July 13, 2022.

    Hurricanes top Stars in OT to win matchup of 1st-place teams

    Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
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    DALLAS – Martin Necas scored 1:34 into overtime to give the Carolina Hurricanes a 3-2 win over the Dallas Stars in a matchup of division leaders Wednesday night.

    Sebastian Aho had a short-handed goal and Brent Burns also scored for the Hurricanes, who lead the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The game-winner was Necas’ 19th goal this season.

    Dallas is still atop the Western Conference, and the Central Division, after its second consecutive 3-2 overtime loss at home. Jason Robertson scored his 33rd goal for the Stars, and 19-year-old rookie Wyatt Johnston got his 13th.

    Carolina goalie Frederik Andersen didn’t return after the first intermission because of an upper-body injury, soon after a strange sequence that ended with Robertson scoring on a shot from what seemed to be an impossible angle.

    The puck was bouncing on the ice behind Andersen and settled against the post after Tyler Seguin‘s shot before the goalie was able to swipe it away to his right. Robertson then shot from behind Andersen, and the puck apparently ricocheted off him and into the net for a 2-1 Dallas lead. Robertson’s 33rd goal matched his assists total.

    Antti Raanta replaced Andersen and stopped all 15 shots he faced – none in overtime – after the starter had four saves. Raanta had to shake off getting struck in the head by Mason Marchment‘s stick when the Stars forward was behind the net fighting for the puck midway through the third period.

    Stars goalie Jake Oettinger stopped 22 shots, including a glove save of Andrei Svechnikov‘s wrister with just more than five minutes left in regulation.

    Aho’s 200th career goal put Carolina up 1-0 midway through the first period. The Stars got even just more than two minutes later when Johnston scored unassisted after a faceoff.

    Johnston also had a shot ricochet off the post with just under six minutes left.

    In between the first two goals, Oettinger went into a fully extended split, with his right skate against the post, to deny Paul Stastny‘s attempt to knock in a loose puck.

    Burns tied the game at 2 in the second period, getting the puck after a faceoff, then skating over the top of the circle and scoring top shelf over Oettinger’s left shoulder.

    NOTES: Marchment was coming out of the penalty box at the same time Carolina made an errant pass in the second period. He had a breakaway attempt, but couldn’t get enough control of the puck to get off a quality shot. … Hurricanes defenseman Brett Pesce and Stars center Luke Glendening both got five-minute penalties for fighting in the second period.

    UP NEXT

    Hurricanes: Will play San Jose on Friday night in the first of three consecutive home games.

    Stars: Host the New Jersey Devils on Friday night in their last game before the All-Star break.

    Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry out until after the All-Star break

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH — Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry‘s on-again, off-again season is now off again.

    Coach Mike Sullivan said that the two-time All-Star will miss at least two games with an upper-body injury.

    Jarry was scheduled to start against Florida but reported an upper-body issue when he arrived at PPG Paints Arena. Casey DeSmith got the last-second start as the Penguins pulled out a wild 7-6 victory over the Panthers.

    Jarry is out through at least the All-Star break. Pittsburgh plays at Washington and then hosts San Jose before getting a full week off.

    The 27-year-old Jarry has played well when he’s been in the lineup, posting a 16-5-5 record with a 2.65 goals-against average in 27 games. His availability, however, has been an issue of late. He missed more than two weeks earlier this month after being injured against Boston in the Winter Classic on Jan. 2.

    The Penguins are not as sharp when Jarry is out. Pittsburgh is 8-10-3 with DeSmith or Dustin Tokarski in goal this season. The Penguins recalled Tokarski from their American Hockey League affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton to back up DeSmith during Jarry’s absence.

    Letang scores twice in return, Penguins beat Panthers 7-6 in OT

    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
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    PITTSBURGH – Amid a nightmarish season off the ice, Kris Letang has been searching for joy. A sense of normalcy.

    He found a little of both.

    The veteran Pittsburgh defenseman scored twice in his return from a lower-body injury, the second with 54 seconds left in overtime to give the Penguins a 7-6 victory over Florida.

    “I was just happy to be out there,” Letang said. “Be in the atmosphere of the team.”

    Letang’s 17th season with Pittsburgh has been pockmarked by health issues and a profound sense of loss. He missed two weeks after suffering the second stroke of his career shortly after Thanksgiving. He then tweaked something in a loss to Detroit on Dec. 28.

    His father died unexpectedly a few days later, and Letang spent an extended amount of time with his family in his native Montreal, with his teammates making an unexpected stop to join Letang for his father’s wake at the end of a West Coast swing earlier this month.

    The Penguins activated him off injured reserve on Tuesday afternoon. Letang responded with four points in a rollicking game that featured 13 goals, the last Letang’s one-timer from just above the left circle on the power play that gave Pittsburgh just its fourth win in 12 overtime games this season.

    “It was kind of surreal, you know?” Letang said. “I didn’t know what to think or how it was going to go. These guys supported me for the last month… it’s just great to be back.”

    The Penguins, currently in the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, opened up a small bit of breathing room over the ninth-place Panthers by beating Florida for the 18th time in its last 21 trips to Pittsburgh.

    Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and Danton Heinen each had a goal and two assists for The Penguins. Rickard Rakell and Drew O'Connor also scored for the Penguins.

    Casey DeSmith struggled in place of Tristan Jarry, a late scratch with an upper-body injury. DeSmith stopped 33 shots, including both he faced in overtime, to win for the third time in his last 10 starts.

    “That was a huge two points for us,” DeSmith said. “Obviously we’re battling with them in the standings. Character win at home.”

    Carter Verhaeghe scored twice for Florida, including a tying goal with 2:32 left in regulation. Aaron Ekblad had a goal and two assists. Matthew Tkachuk and Sam Reinhart each had a goal and an assist. Colin White‘s sixth goal of the season 4:10 into the third gave the Panthers the lead but Florida couldn’t hold it.

    Alex Lyon made 42 saves after getting the start when Spencer Knight was unavailable for reasons head coach Paul Maurice would not disclose. The Panthers are 7-3-2 since January 1 to surge back into the fringe of contention.

    “We’re so much more of a different hockey team than we were a month ago at this time,” Maurice said. “Rallied around each other, battled as hard as they could to get a point on the road in the circumstances that we’re in. I couldn’t be more proud.”

    Neither Lyon or DeSmith – who got the heads up he was playing less than an hour before the opening faceoff – appeared quite ready to play on short notice. They gave up a six goals – three by each team – during a frantic first period that included Letang’s first goal since Dec. 15 and Tkachuk’s 25th of the season.

    Things settled down in the second. Ekblad’s short-handed goal put the Panthers in front but Crosby knotted the game at 4-4 with a pretty backhand through Lyon’s legs with 40 seconds to go in the period to set up a hectic third in which both teams squandered one-goal leads.

    “It wasn’t pretty but you need to find ways to win sometimes,” Crosby said. “We did a good job of that here today.”

    UP NEXT

    Panthers: Host Angeles on Friday night.

    Penguins: At Washington on Thursday night.