We’ve now passed the halfway mark of the 2015-16 NHL season. Most teams have played at least 41 games, and though there are still four months to go, it’s time we take a look at some of the early season surprises. Every year, some bad teams find themselves at the top of the standings, while some good ones end up in the basement, and this season is no exception.
Today, let’s take a look at five teams that have surpassed low early-season expectations to find themselves much higher in the standings than anticipated.
5. Boston Bruins
A playoff miss last year and a horrendous offseason had many writing Boston off as a team on the decline. With aging stars and little talent up front, it looked like the team that had dominated the Eastern conference for so long had finally passed its prime.
But the Big Bad Bruins aren’t going down so easy. Firmly in the Atlantic Division race, they remain a very tough team to play against. These may not be the Bruins of old, but they’re certainly not done yet.
4. New Jersey Devils
The Devils have long lingered near the middle of the league standings, never really contenders and certainly never an exciting team. The departures of Lou Lamoriello and Jaromir Jagr over the summer seemed to spell the end of an era for the Devils, and the start of a long rebuild.
But 42 games in, the Devils are closing in on the first wildcard spot, and are only four points behind the Rangers for third in the Metropolitan division. What’s more, the mind-numbing, stifling hockey we’re accustomed to seeing from New Jersey is slowly being replaced by a much more aggressive and dynamic style of play. The team still has a long way to go toward becoming a legitimate contender, but the fall of the Rangers and Penguins means that there could be a spot opening up in the Metro this year, and Cory Schneider just might be enough to help the Devils claim it.
3. Florida Panthers
The Panthers have spent most of this season right where they ended the last one – just outside the playoff race. But an incredible eleven game winning streak, fueled by the ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr and 2015 rookie of the year Aaron Ekblad, has placed the Cats at the top of the Atlantic Division, five points ahead of the Montreal Canadiens with a game in hand.
Is it sustainable? The stats suggest not, but a playoff appearance is certainly possible. It seems that every NHL postseason features a team that overcomes bad underlying numbers, and the Panthers just might be that team this year. The big question, of course, is whether or not this streak will be enough to draw fans into the arena, as Florida’s recent attendance issues have been well-documented across the league.
2. Phoenix Coyotes
A 29th-place finish in 2015 made the Coyotes the early frontrunners in this year’s Auston Matthews sweepstakes. It seemed meant to be: a local boy and potential superstar available in the draft the year the Coyotes hit rock bottom? The tank was officially on.
Not if Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Max Domi have any say in the matter. Arizona has taken advantage of a weak division to play themselves into second place in the Pacific with a sizeable lead over the Ducks, Flames and Canucks. They probably shouldn’t be doing this well – as with most teams on this list, the underlying numbers suggest serious problems – but it has to be a nice change of pace for the players and fans. Let’s just hope missing out on a good draft pick isn’t too detrimental to their long term success.
1. Dallas Stars
The Dallas Stars are fascinating.
On one hand, history says there’s no way a team so obviously lacking on defense should be leading the league. But on the other hand, the amount of high-end offensive talent in Dallas is frankly terrifying. After missing the playoffs last season, the Stars are finally looking like the team we expected to see after the Jason Spezza trade in July 2014. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn have become the most dynamic duo in the NHL. The acquisition of a good goaltender, the emergence of John Klingberg as an elite defenseman and, incredibly, the addition of yet another elite forward, has put the Stars second in the NHL standings with 62 points. What’s more, Dallas is near the top of the league in Corsi For Percentage, and low PDO suggests that their record is no fluke. Regardless of whether or not they’ll be able to turn this into playoff success, you cannot deny that this Stars team is one of the most fun in the NHL. In a league that seems to think that “exciting” is synonymous with “bad”, it’s refreshing to see a team finally break the mold.