Like any NHL year, there’s always a player or two who has remarkable year that no one saw coming. While watching the guys you know will play at the top of the sport do so is always exciting, the guys who sneak up on us are a special thrill. There just some players who you watch play and know they have what it takes to be at the top of the game and all you can do is wait for them to put it together. These are some of the players who have done so this year.
Goalies have to have the hardest job in all of sports. When they do their job right no one notices. Whey they do it wrong, every one notices. A quarterback can blame a bad pass on getting hit or hurried because the line didn’t hold up, or someone didn’t run the right route. Pitchers can always say they were given bad signs by someone. Going to a new team in the same conference would always be tough on a goalie. Leaving aside all the off ice adjustments, the on ice ones of coaching differences, an entirely new team to play behind, and then 14 sets of skaters to learn the shooting tendencies of. Doing all of that and having an average year for yourself would be an accomplishment. Doing all of that and putting up sv% and gaa numbers that would win you a Vezina most years is even more remarkable. To do that while playing for a team who’s existence is greatly in question makes Mike Smith an extraordinary player this year. Not only has he more than doubled his single season win total, the 161st pick of the 2001 draft has improved his sv% from .899 last year to .925 this season. Smith is netting two million a season this year and next, its unlikely he’ll have trouble getting a raise if his next season is anything like this.
Despite being drafted in the middle of the labor dispute that produced the lost season, and having Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin at the top of his draft class, this player had a few more questions attached to his dossier than most when he first took to NHL ice. As the number five selection in 2004 his draft rights were picked up by the Phoenix Coyotes. He had other plans. After a year in the USHL with the Green Bay Gamblers, and three years at Minnesota, Blake Wheeler was a free agent. He made the choice to go where in the Sinden era very few NHL free agents went and joined the Boston Bruins. As a rookie he had a very respectable year putting up 21 goals. Then he flatlined. Injuries to the team, lack of surrounding talent, and unmotivated players around him mean that would be his best year in Boston. In the middle of the season last year he and former 2003 first round pick Mark Stuart were shuffled out of town for not a great deal more than glass beads and trinkets. The Bruins went on to win the Cup, the Thrashers failed to make the playoffs. During the off season the team was sold and Wheeler and company had to move north of the border to a small city where expectations were through the roof. He’s delivered. He leads the team in points. Has eclipsed his best single season before with almost 20 games left to play and he sits just outside the top 30 scorers in the NHL.
This time last year out of work general managers, eager assistant general managers and various talking heads were all waiting for the ax to fall in Ottawa. The Senators were having a wretched season, the prospects they were cycling through the lineup didn’t seem to help and neither Alfredsson nor Spezza seemed able to stop the bleeding. This year one of the big reasons no ones looking for a front office vacancy in the Canadian capital is their third year blueliner. Erk Karlsson produced a lot of points in his second season, but was continually exposed defensively. While the team owner was the first to compare him to Bobby Orr as perhaps the best defenseman of all time, it is unlikely he’ll be the last. No one regardless of what they think of Karlssons defensive zone prowess can doubt he’s among the two or three top reasons the Senators have been in playoff position from the word go and have even challenged for the division lead. Between his slick skating, sharp shooting and precision passing, it’s no wonder teammates Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza are smiling so much more this year than last.