As the hockey season comes down to the final games of the regular season, it’s time to reflect on what was another crazy year in the National Hockey League. Every year, there are things that come out of nowhere in the sport that gets people talking or just change the status quo. 2017-18 was no different for several players, teams, and other facets. In the NHL, feel-good stories are what make the league so special. The surprises to come out of this year all will hold a special place.
When it was first announced that Las Vegas was getting a hockey team, no one would have ever thought that it would pre-cursor to what was an unprecedented historic season. The franchise, the Vegas Golden Knights, was looked at to be how all first-year professional teams would be, bad and a few years from competing. Well, the organization obviously didn’t get the message.
Fueled by an unforsaken tragedy in the city of Las Vegas just before the season got underway, the Golden Knights were placed in the heart of hockey fans across the nation.
The Knights quickly established themselves that they weren’t an ordinary expansion team, going 8-1-0 in their first nine games. After that sizzling start, Vegas kept on winning. They made their home rink, T Mobile Arena, a fortress and their fun and fast style made them one of the most enjoyable and most feared teams to play. Beyond the team success, little known forward William Karlsson quietly ascended as one of the games best goal scorers.
Karlsson, 25, who was selected from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the expansion draft, only scored six goals in the 2016-17 season. When this season ends, he will have scored 40-plus goals and tripled his point total.
Behind William Karlsson, Erik Haula’s breakout season has flown under the radar. Haula found a niche on the second line leading to him recording his first 20-plus goal campaign and eclipsing the 50-point plateau.
Vegas surprise season came with so many accomplishments. They set the record for the most points by an expansion team in their inaugural season (84). They became the first team in 38 years an expansion team made the playoffs in its inaugural season. And to top all that, they would go on to win the Pacific Division. The Golden Knights will definitely be remembered as the best story of the season, but a few other clubs have come out of nowhere to put their stamp on 2017-18.
The Colorado Avalanche and the New Jersey Devils worst to competitive in a hurry definitely made for some good headlines.Both these clubs were in the bottom five of the standings the season prior, and with both still rebuilding, not many critics around the league saw both teams looking at another losing season.
Instead, the Devils and Avalanche rebuilding efforts both accelerated and one or both teams could see playoff hockey. Colorado bench boss, Jared Bednar has done an outstanding job of molding his team. MVP candidate, Nathan MacKinnon has had a stellar season, while their young core (Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, Tyson Barrie and Alex Kerfoot) took a monster step forward and all have had phenomenal campaigns which have the future pointing upwards in Denver. As for the Devils, coach John Hynes has watched his sextet push the team to its first playoff birth in six seasons. Taylor Hall, their Hart Trophy contender, is at the end of the best season of his career and their rookie threesome (Nico Hischier, Jesper Bratt, Will Butcher) has brought a breath of fresh air to the franchise.
Beyond the Avs and Devs, the Winnipeg Jets and Philadelphia Flyers have made noise. Winnipeg, who only has made the playoffs once since moving to the True North, became one of the best teams in the Western Conference, led by goal-scoring machine Patrik Laine, a deep forward group, and the emergence of Vezina Trophy candidate, Connor Hellebucyk. In Philadelphia, the Flyers went from losing ten games in a row in November to a contender for the Metro Division title and a return to the playoffs.
One of the biggest reasons for the Flyers resurgence, forward Sean Couturier.
Couturier only played in 66 games in the 2016-17 season and registered only 34 points. This year, “Couts” shocked the hockey landscape as he began to produce at a wild rate. The 25-year old by years end will have set a career high in goals, assists, and points Couturier’s play earned him a reputation around the league this year as one of the top-two way players in the game.
Contrary to believe, one of Couturier’s former teammates was moved to another team mid-summer and has excelled in his new home. That player’s name is Brayden Schenn.
Schenn was having success with the Flyers, but in St. Louis his game has taken on a whole new dynamic. On the first line with Jayden Schwartz and Vladimir Tarasenko, Schenn’s offensive talents have been on full display. A new career-best in assists have made Schenn a top-25 forward in the league. He’s been a big component of the Blues fantastic season and playoff push.
Last but not least, we have Eric Staal of the Minnesota Wild.
Staal, 33, signed with Minnesota back before the 2016-17 season and did produce a solid first season with 65 points. But when the calander turned to this year, Staal turned back the clock and has totaled his most productive season in almost a decade. From the beginning till now, the Thunder Bay, ON native hasn’t stopped pushing himself, which has resulted in his first 40-goal season since 2008-2009 and first 70-plus point season in six years.
Eric Staal’s season continues to show that you never know what to expect over the 82-game odyssey and that’s what makes surprises in the NHL so unique.