Biggest Surprise: The Phoenix Coyotes
You can call me a homer all you want but it's absolutely the truth. Yes, both the Colorado Avalanche and the Los Angeles Kings had terrific starts, but both have started to cool and have settled back into third in their respective divisions. I guarantee you none of them had as difficult of an off-season that the Coyotes had. And yet with no solid owner, corporate support, and a shoe-string budget, these guys managed to find the components they needed (coaching included) to win or at least force the game into overtime, something that the most recent incarnations of the Coyotes lacked. Blame the system, blame the goaltending, blame the solidarity. Whatever it is, I hope they keep it up!
Biggest Disappointment: Don Waddell is still the General Manager for the Atlanta Thrashers
You can say what you want to say about the dismal performance of the Carolina Hurricanes after making a "Cinderella"-style run into the playoffs (see: St. Louis Blues) but Atlanta hockey fans have been patient for too long as they are now watching with fear that their franchise winger, Ilya Kovalchuk, may be wearing another sweater come next season. There's always been an enormous amount of potential with all the players who've played on the Thrashers but it always ends up in a mediocre result. Is it the coaching, is it the players, or is it the one constant of Atlanta's team since their inception? With their ownership situation in flux it looks like the only option for hockey fans in Atlanta is to sit through it. They're damned if they go to the games, and they're damned if they don't go because then the team will relocate due to poor performance (which will undoubtedly give someone ammunition that hockey can't succeed in the south.)
Biggest Stunner: The Detroit Red Wings
When was the last time the Red Wings were out of the top-8 playoff spots? If you said 20 years ago during the 1989-1990 season, you'd get a gold star! Yet as I write this they're currently ninth overall in the Western Conference. You can say that it was the free agents who left, but I say it was the injuries that decimated the team (even if Hossa signed, he wouldn't have been ready at the start of the season so the Wings could be just as screwed with him as they were without him.) Nevertheless, players heal, Babcock's hair's still sweet, and Jim Howard is taking the necessary steps forward in his development to start looking like a legitimate NHL goaltender. I think they'll pull the Anaheim Ducks of last season and sneak into the party come April.
Best Forward: Hendrik Sedin
When his brother Daniel got injured, a lot of detractors took issue with the fact that he never played without his brother before and would, therefore, be an unproven commodity. The result? He's already amassed 20 goals on the season while putting up an NHL best 62 points. Considering that he's still on the favorable side of the plus/minus rating on a somewhat-underachieving Vancouver Canucks team, that should speak volumes about what he's been providing to his club. He's made Alexandre Burrows into a star and now that his brother's back, the Canucks are going to have a top line that's absolutely dangerous.
Best Defenseman: Mike Green
How this guy wasn't named to the Canadian Olympic team is entirely beyond me. There aren't too many defensemen who've been able to generate a point-per-game level of production, but Green does just that and then some. He's gotten far better at playing in his own zone; making the transformation from a power-play specialist to a potential Norris Trophy contender. I don't think you'll be seeing him fighting as much, but when you're scoring as much as he does, you're hurting your team worse than the opposition by doing so.
Best Goaltender: Ryan Miller
Now, this was a hard decision for me to make because both Martin Brodeur and Ilya Bryzgalov have been goaltenders to watch. But Miller's been dominant on a Buffalo Sabres squad that many people (myself included) figured to be a spoiler squad. Yet as I write this, the Sabres are the best in their division, and Miller's high-level of goaltending is the largest reason for their success. Miller's transformed from a decent starting option on a strong team to a franchise goaltender who can carry the team when times are tough.
Best Rookie: Tyler Myers
In all the noise that's being made over John Tavares, Matt Duchene, Jim Howard, and Simeyon Varlamov, not to many people are talking about what Myers is doing for his team. As Buffalo's first round choice in last year's draft, he's put up 26 points in his inaugural season as a defenseman while displaying a strong presence in the defensive zone, something most offensive-minded d-men don't do so well when they're first in the league (see: Mike Green and Keith Yandle). Add the fact that he's a strong skater and 6'7", he's got the speed and size teams crave for a blueliner. All this from a guy who's still 19 years old. Kudos to Buffalo for making this selection when they did; it looks like they've got a top-level defender for many seasons to come.
Best Guy You've Never Heard Of (Until Now): Zenon Konopka
Now, everyone knows I love the tough guys around here. But what does it say when a guy can be as adept at fighting as he is at being a sound faceoff specialist and team leader? It says "Hey, if Rick Tocchet's my coach, I can get an NHL job by working hard every night", which is exactly what's happened in Konopka's case. He's had a few sniffs of NHL action prior to this season, but he's been largely an injury replacement until now. Now, he might not scare anyone offensively at the major league level, but he's a proven scorer in the minors and was able to transition his fighting game from the minors into a successful one in the majors. If he keeps winning the fights and the faceoffs, he'll have a home in Tampa Bay for a good minute.
Oh, he's pretty damned entertaining too, especially when he has to ham it up. Check this out...