The game isn’t played on the spreadsheet, it’s played on the ice. If anyone could predict a sport with perfect accuracy, there wouldn’t be much need for the sport. It’s the chaos that makes it fun and there are few sports more chaotic than hockey when it comes to predictions.
Before the season we (plus Shayna Goldman) spent an entire month previewing how good we expect every player and team to be this season. Naturally, there have been many players who have been a lot better than expected. That’s who we’re highlighting this week: the biggest surprise for each team to date, with a direct comparison between their current Net Rating and what their Net Rating was projected to be at this point of the season.
From William Karlsson to Thatcher Demko to Sam Reinhart, here are the biggest surprises of the year so far.
Net Rating is as of games played on Nov. 8.
Last week: 2
Sean’s ranking: 1
Dom’s ranking: 1
Before the season we ran a poll asking fans to tell us which teams our season preview series was too high or too low on. The biggest consensus was on Boston being too high — as if you all learned literally nothing last season.
The Bruins are once again running away with the Atlantic division and while they can thank a few surprises up front, the most important person to thank is Jeremy Swayman. Thought last year’s absurd goaltending numbers were a fluke? Guess again. Linus Ullmark has been great himself, but it’s Swayman that’s really stealing the show with a .951 save percentage. Only Thatcher Demko has saved more goals above expected.
The Bruins are elite, again. Do not doubt them ever again.
Last week: 1
Sean’s ranking: 2
Dom’s ranking: 3
This week’s rankings will be full of good players who, for the time being, seem to have leveled up — and nobody fits the bill more than Karlsson, who’d earned a reputation as a high-end defensive center who lacked high-end offensive production. Obviously, that wasn’t an issue for the Golden Knights — 2023 Stanley Cup winners, et cetera — but it was reasonable to wonder whether it’d loom a little larger after Reilly Smith’s departure. It hasn’t. Through his first 11 games, Karlsson was third in the league in five-on-five points per 60 and had tied a Vegas record with a nine-game point streak.
Last week: 3
Sean’s ranking: 4
Dom’s ranking: 2
While other defensemen are putting up eye-popping counting stats to lead the Norris race to start the season, don’t overlook what Miro Heiskanen is doing at five-on-five. The point totals aren’t quite there yet — Dallas’ power play, well, sucks — but Heiskanen has been a beast beyond our wildest expectations. And that’s saying a lot for someone we believed was a top five defender entering the season.
Heiskanen leads all defenders with a 66 percent expected goals rate and is top five in relative impact too. The Stars are dominating at both ends of the ice with Heiskanen out there and it’s looking like he’ll be in the thick of the Norris trophy race this year as a result.
Last week: 5
Sean’s ranking: 5
Dom’s ranking: 4
All aboard the Gus Bus!
Last year Erik Gustafsson was on a league minimum contract with Washington, took over the reins on the top pair when John Carlson went down with injury and crushed it. He produced, he drove play, and he looked weird doing all of it. But dammit — he got results.
Gustafsson’s reward for that? A 25,000 raise on another one-year deal.
Teams just didn’t trust him, and it didn’t help that he was sparsely used after Toronto acquired him at the deadline. Fair enough, but the Leafs sure could use him these days as the Gus Bus has been turbo-charged this season. Gustafsson has nine points in 13 games, 56 percent of the expected goals and 64 percent of the actual goals (that ability to earn more than expected is something he’s done his entire career). With another one defenseman lost to injury on his watch, Gustafsson has once again stepped up and held his own in a bigger role too.
Maybe next year he’ll get a contract he actually deserves.
Last week: 10
Sean’s ranking: 3
Dom’s ranking: 8
Take your pick.
Quinn Hughes looking like the best defenseman in the world is one great choice, as is his partner — the steady Filip Hronek looking like a legit No. 2. The duo are first and second in outperforming their expected Net Rating thanks to their incredible start together. Brock Boeser is another strong option, scoring at an absurd 69-goal, 101-point pace.
Who isn’t over-performing in Vancouver might be the best question. If we had to pick just one option though, it might be best to go with Thatcher Demko.
The Canucks have steamrolled the entire league so far and Demko has been papering over a lot of the warts in the meantime. For as strong as the Canucks’ record is, a lot of things have gone their way in the early going. Vancouver is a bottom five xG team this season at five-on-five and has the sixth worst expected goals against on the penalty kill. No matter, Demko has saved the day with a .948 save percentage, allowing 13 fewer goals than expected over just nine games. His expectation was much lower than that (as it would be for any goalie).
Demko came into the season expected to be a top 10 goalie, but what he’s doing so far has made that 0 unnecessary. He’s top 1 so far.
Last week: 9
Sean’s ranking: 6
Dom’s ranking: 6
The Kings are the real deal. It’s easy to admit that now. They’re crushing all the fancy stats and there isn’t a single skater on the team with a negative Net Rating. The depth here is immense and that makes them a seriously scary team. There’s a number of players who deserve kudos here — Adrian Kempe, Trevor Moore and Quinton Byfield especially — but the biggest surprise might be in net.
“Yeah, but what about their goaltending?” Yeah, what about it?
Cam Talbot looked like an odd bet. He was at an age where he looked like he could be legitimately washed and was coming off three straight sub-par seasons. This year he’s been everything the Kings need him to be: good enough. In fact, he’s been even better with a .928 save percentage and 3.1 goals saved above expected. If he can keep that up, look out.
Last week: 4
Sean’s ranking: 7
Dom’s ranking: 5
Any time we have a chance to talk about how good Stanley Cup winner Jack Johnson looks, we have to take it. The much-maligned defenseman has been awesome to start the season, crushing a sheltered role on the third pair with 65 percent of the expected goals. The goal rates aren’t quite there, but it’s not like he’s actively hurting the team. Something about Johnson in Colorado just works. Good for him.
Last week: 8
Sean’s ranking: 8
Dom’s ranking: 7
Brett Pesce would be a security blanket for most other NHL defensemen. Skjei is no different — and he’s had to play most of this season without his partner. Life with Tony DeAngelo or Jalen Chatfield is a little different, but Skjei is still managing to thrive. He’s producing points, contributing on the power play and generally looking like a solid second-pair guy all on his own.
Last week: 6
Sean’s ranking: 9
Dom’s ranking: 9
As long as he had a standard Tyler Toffoli season — a 30-goal pace as a top-six winger and power-play element — the Devils’ offseason trade was always going to pay off in a big way; Tom Fitzgerald stole him from Calgary, sending back Yegor Sharangovich and a third-round pick for a proven scorer in the last year of his contract.
Toffoli, of course, has been even better than advertised, scoring at a 55-goal pace, leading the Devils in goals and helping them stay afloat without their top-two centers. Fitzgerald is talking contract extension already. Makes sense.
Last week: 11
Sean’s ranking: 10
Dom’s ranking: 10
It’s not just that Reinhart had nine goals in his first 12 games; it’s that he came about them the right way. Reinhart started Thursday sixth in the NHL in overall expected goals, with 6.48, and scored an overtime winner on Wednesday. A third straight season of 30-plus goals seems to be incoming, along with a nice, fat new contract. He’s in the final year of the three-season, $19.5 million deal he signed with Florida back in 2021. Nice time to have the league’s third-best Net Rating behind only Quinn Hughes and Auston Matthews.
11. Toronto Maple Leafs, 6-5-2
Last week: 7
Sean’s ranking: 12
Dom’s ranking: 11
It’s tough to imagine any Leaf having a regular season good enough to matter all that much. We know how this team will be judged. Rielly, though, deserves some credit for putting up 10 points in his first 13 games while playing gigantic minutes along a banged-up blue line. More importantly for Toronto, Rielly’s on-ice goals against/60 was 1.87 coming into Thursday night’s games; he’s only been below 2.47 once over the course of a full season. Rielly looked like he leveled up last postseason — this might be a continuation of that trajectory.
Last week: 14
Sean’s ranking: 11
Dom’s ranking: 13
With all due respect to Brandon Hagel, whose current plus-2.7 Net Rating triples his season-opening projection, there’s only one choice here. After all, we knew Hagel was good. That wasn’t the case for Johansson, who’d put up an .886 save percentage and a minus-24.3 Goals Saved Above Expected in 35 NHL games spread over five seasons.
Andrei Vasilevskiy’s training-camp back surgery forced Johansson into workhorse minutes, and he has responded, putting up perfectly respectable numbers (.907 save percentage, 3.52 GSAx) and buying the Lightning time while Vasilevskiy recovers.
(Editor’s note: we decided on Johansson before he turned into a pumpkin Thursday night, though he’s still above his preseason projection despite the performance).
Last week: 19
Sean’s ranking: 13
Dom’s ranking: 12
Nino Neiderreiter — Adam Lowry — Mason Appleton
If you took a look around the league’s third lines before the season started and saw this one, chances are your reaction would’ve been something like “yeah, that’s fine.” Nothing special and it shows with a combined Net Rating of zero.
To be fair, that’s decent for a third line — though they’ve been even better than that to start. Nino Niederreiter and Mason Appleton both have 10 points in 13 games. Adam Lowry has nine. That’s some strong depth for the Jets and it stems from the trio dominating the run of play at five-on-five. In 82 minutes together, the trio has 66 percent of the expected goals and has outscored opponents 8-3. Yeah, that works.
Last week: 12
Sean’s ranking: 15
Dom’s ranking: 14
It’s rarely a good sign when a defenseman is a team’s leading scorer. That’s not ideal for an Islanders team that was already facing questions about its offensive ability and whether Mathew Barzal and Bo Horvat were good enough as top dogs.
But it’s less bad when it’s a team’s blossoming offensive stud from the backend who’s starting to prove he’s the real deal back there. Noah Dobson, take a bow. He’s got 12 points in 12 games to start the year and has been on the ice for 66 percent of the goals too. He’s stepped up as the team’s lead dog and is playing 25 minutes per night while earning some of the toughest minutes on the team.
Last week: 13
Sean’s ranking: 14
Dom’s ranking: 18
Coming into Thursday night, DeBrincat had managed just one point in seven games since Oct. 24. The fact that he’s in this group, though, is a testament to how good he was at the start of the season for the Red Wings, scoring nine goals in his first seven games. He’s still leading the team in that category by a comfortable margin, despite coming back to earth a bit. His job is to put the puck in the net — and even the best in that department experience some up-and-downs.
Last week: 17
Sean’s ranking: 17
Dom’s ranking: 15
John Gibson + Lukas Dostal
There may not be a bigger pleasant surprise in the league than the Ducks, and while their skaters deserve credit — hello, Ryan Strome! — that success, as it so often does, starts in net.
Gibson, elite rep aside, came into 2023-24 five seasons removed from having a positive impact on goals saved above expected. At the moment, he’s 10th in the league in that category (5.49). Dostal, meanwhile, has been just as good after winning the backup job in training camp. If we’re talking about the Ducks as more than an early-season mirage, it’ll be because those two keep it together.
Last week: 15
Sean’s ranking: 16
Dom’s ranking: 17
The Coyotes have been a fun surprise to some to start the year and Sean Durzi has been a huge part of that. He’s been so much better than advertised and looks like he could be a legitimate top pair threat for the Coyotes. Durzi is playing 23 minutes per night, has eight points in 12 games and is earning some stellar results at five-on-five to boot. All that for a second-round pick? That’s tidy business right there.
Last week: 20
Sean’s ranking: 18
Dom’s ranking: 16
It’s Tristan Jarry. Just kidding. Penguins fans can at least feel good about Rust’s return to reliable form; coming into Thursday, he was leading the team in five-on-five scoring. In 2022-23, his production dipped enough for him to change his offseason regimen, and it seems to have paid off. He scored the overtime winner against the Kings on Thursday night, making extra sure the second one counted with an emphatic celebration.
Bryan Rust had his OT winner taken away due to an offside review.
He immediately got it back. pic.twitter.com/CXWClyaJYt
— Danny Shirey (@DannyShireyPGH) November 10, 2023
Last week: 18
Sean’s ranking: 19
Dom’s ranking: 19
In a perfect world, someone other than Mittelstadt would be leading the Sabres in five-on-five scoring, assists and overall points. While his more offensive-minded teammates find their footing, though, Mittelstadt has been outstanding in a more front-facing role. Coming into Thursday, only six players in the NHL had more than Mittelstadt’s 10 five-on-five points.
It’s not a shock — he was sixth in the league last season in five-on-five primary assists/60. It is, however, a step forward.
Last week: 23
Sean’s ranking: 20
Dom’s ranking: 20
Surprises may be hard to come by in Minnesota as a whole, but to his credit, Jonas Brodin has done his part and more to start. We figured he’d be a solid and capable defensive defender who plays at a top pair level. In Jared Spurgeon’s absence, he’s looked like a true No. 1 defenseman.
Brodin’s play took a dip last year, but he’s back and better than ever to start with 69 percent of the goals and 57 percent of the expected goals. He’s been amazing defensively while the rest of the team around him drowns, but he’s also done well offensively as well. His six points in 12 games is solid and the Wild are also earning chances and goals at a very strong rate with him out there. Once Spurgeon comes back, The Wild will have an elite one-two punch on the backend (plus Brock Faber who has looked great). Now they just have to figure the rest of the team out.
Last week: 24
Sean’s ranking: 21
Dom’s ranking: 21
Last year was a bit of a disappointing debut for Oliver Bjorkstrand with the Kraken. He was fine but not much more than that. He scored a bit at five-on-five, but gave some of it back the other way. That’s changed so far this year as he’s been a bright spot in Seattle’s five-on-five game with 75 percent of the goals. He had two goals including the winner against Colorado on Thursday.
Last week: 28
Sean’s ranking: 22
Dom’s ranking: 22
The Blues are playing at an 89-point pace and would be a lot worse off if they weren’t getting vintage Jordan Binnington between the pipes most nights. Through eight games, Binnington has a .921 save percentage and saved 2.5 goals above expected, an impressive start that has him looking like his 2019 self. If only the rest of the Blues could follow — only one skater, Justin Faulk, currently has a Net Rating above expected. Ouch.
Last week: 26
Sean’s ranking: 23
Dom’s ranking: 24
Kaiden Guhle’s strong start was mentioned last week in 16 Stats, but it bears repeating once again as his play has stayed strong over the last week. Guhle’s expected goals percentage is 57.9 percent, nearly five percentage points above the next-best Montreal blueliner. With Mike Matheson struggling on the top pair, it would be wise to see whether Guhle can handle an even bigger role.
Last week: 22
Sean’s ranking: 25
Dom’s ranking: 23
The Shane Pinto situation, as discussed in detail on our site, was a disaster for the Sens. The only way it could’ve worked out worse, though, would’ve been if they dumped Joseph at the start of the season to fit Pinto’s contract, then lost him for 41 games anyway.
In a rare bit of good luck for Ottawa, though, Joseph is still on the roster and going supernova in his expanded role. He started Thursday second in the NHL in five-on-five points (11). That was as many as Auston Matthews.
Last week: 21
Sean’s ranking: 24
Dom’s ranking: 25
The Flyers indeed managed to lose to the Sharks a few days ago, but don’t blame that one on Farabee. He scored the Flyers’ only goal of the game and has generally looked the part of a player in the process of making The Leap. Now all he has to do is weather the inevitable dip in shooting percentage; he started Thursday night at 20.0.
Last week: 25
Sean’s ranking: 26
Dom’s ranking: 26
Kudos to Ryan O’Reilly for his strong start. Last year it looked like his days as a top line center were over. He was officially on #WashedWatch in St. Louis and while his production jumped in Toronto, he was getting caved in during the playoffs. So far he’s looked like his vintage self in Nashville driving play at an elite rate and scoring at a point-per-game pace (and shockingly scoring a lot himself). He’s been a great fit with the Predators so far.
Last week: 27
Sean’s ranking: 27
Dom’s ranking: 29
It seems a little disingenuous to say that anything, really, has gone well for the Blue Jackets. Merzlikins, though, has shown legitimate signs of bouncing back after a brutal 2022-23. Meltdown on Monday night (and .897 save percentage) aside, he’s a playable goaltender once again. That wasn’t the case last season.
28. Washington Capitals, 5-4-2
Last week: 30
Sean’s ranking: 29
Dom’s ranking: 27
With Nicklas Backstrom on the shelf, possibly for good, McMichael has moved back to his natural position down the middle. Coming into Thursday night, he was second on the team in expected goals percentage at five-on-five (57.07) and looking like a player who deserves to stick on an NHL roster. Some are calling him the best Connor Mc—- in the league.
Last week: 29
Sean’s ranking: 30
Dom’s ranking: 28
Calgary is in the “not much has gone well” camp, but Markstrom — if nothing else — has looked better this season than last. The save percentage is ugly, the goals saved above expected is not. Seems like a tradeable player, if nothing else.
Last week: 31
Sean’s ranking: 28
Dom’s ranking: 30
Chicago brought Perry in to provide decent five-on-five play, power-play minutes and, yes, leadership. The guy has done his job.
31. San Jose Sharks, 1-10-1
Last week: 32
Sean’s ranking: 31
Dom’s ranking: 31
The entire team
Finding positive surprises on the Sharks is impossible (aside from their win over the Oilers on Thursday night, of course). Let’s instead bask in the glory of their abhorrent start.
Before the season their goal differential was projected to be around minus-60. Folks — they’re almost there with 70 games to go. Just another couple 10-1 losses and we’re set.
This is history in the making and it shows with the team’s collective Net Rating compared to what it should’ve been: somehow 36 goals worse already. Unreal.
There’s bad. There’s real bad. And there’s San Jose.
Well… then there’s another team.
32. The Kansas City Chiefs on skates
33. The Denver Nuggets also on skates
34. The Texas Rangers, you guessed it, on skates
46. San Jose Barracuda
47. An actual shark
59. The mere concept of PDO
60. The 2014-15 Edmonton Oilers
61. The 1984-85 Edmonton Oilers at their current age using the same gear they had in the 1980s
84. Anytime the Power Rankings are Taylor Swift themed
85. People who complain about the Power Rankings being Taylor Swift-themed
86. People who think these should be the Power Standings and are mad the Oilers are ranked somewhere below 32nd because there are only 32 teams and realistically they should never be ranked below an actual shark, let alone the mere concept of PDO — neither of which can play hockey
87. Canucks fans who don’t understand the mere concept of PDO and think this time it’ll be different
97. A local peewee hockey team with a lot of gumption that just won the state championship against all odds after being taken over by a begrudging, but loving coach with a lot of heart
98. A local peewee hockey team that was favored to win the state championship after winning it all five years running, but blew it in the dying seconds thanks to their hubris
110. All the morons who thought the Oilers were the Stanley Cup favorite this season
111. The Suez Canal Boat
112. Edmonton Oilers, 2-8-1
Last week: 16
Sean’s ranking: 112
Dom’s ranking: 112
All of these are positive — and this one is too, just spun differently. Hard to find an actual positive on this team other than “they can’t be this bad!”
Connor McDavid is the best player in the world. That’s still true after 10 games (sorry Leafs and Canucks fans). At some point, Connor McDavid will start playing like Connor McDavid and the Oilers’ fortunes should turn once that happens.
Right now, reality isn’t aligning with expectations to the point that only two players in the entire league have been worse than expected and they both play for San Jose (Jan Rutta and Mario Ferraro). McDavid’s difference from expectations is at John Klingberg levels — that’s how bad it’s been. He has just two goals and 10 points in 10 games and he’s getting cooked at evens with the team’s worst expected goals rate. All of that is unlike him to the point his Net Rating is only barely above average.
This bad spell isn’t all on goaltending, it’s also on the safest bet in the world — McDavid providing elite-plus results — not hitting. Part of that is on injuries McDavid is currently dealing with. But even a 60 percent McDavid should be better than this.
His start has been one of the most surprising things of the season. We’ll bet on a turnaround every day of the week.
For the Oilers sake, hopefully, it’s not before it’s too late. It can’t get any worse than this… right?
(Photo of Connor McDavid: Thearon W. Henderson / Getty Images)