Question of the Week: Who has been the biggest surprise this season?

Adam Oates can't believe it either. - USA TODAY Sports

The shortened season is bringing lots of surprises. Raw Charge staffers weigh in on the biggest ones.

We all know this is going to be a season of surprises.

In a normal season, the team that's playing above its head will come down to earth, often right around January or February. The team that looks good on paper but can't seem to get it together finally starts to click. In an 82-game season, players go through a lot of ups and downs, and by February, their streaks are beginning to even out somewhat, giving us with a better understanding of what kind of year they're going to have overall.

But this year--this year it's different. With only 48 games, it's inevitable that the road is going to be bumpy all the way through. And we're all so starved for NHL hockey that we're going to magnify every high point and every low point. It's human nature.

Still, the thing about surprises is that we don't expect them to happen. Whether it's a superstar performer drastically underperforming or a scrub making people think he's a star, we see things we just couldn't predict. Hot starts that are incredibly hot. Slow starts by teams that should be contenders. Before last night, I was surprised by the Philadelphia Flyers struggling as badly as they have, despite Ilya Bryzgalov's performance, as opposed to because of it. Despite knowing that we're in for a lot of weirdness, we're still surprised. So I put it to my fellow Raw Charge staffers:

Which team or player across the league has surprised you most (good or bad)?

Here are their answers.

Clark Brooks, Raw Charge staff writer

I'm really surprised the Kings aren't better than they are. Granted, the defending champions didn't set the league on fire during the regular season last year. But as thoroughly dominant as they were during the playoffs, I thought they'd be better than a .500 record, floating between third and last in their division now. Longer than normal layoff? Sure. Same as everyone else in the league, though. Plus, you would think that would almost help a team get over any kind of championship hangover; it's not like the lockout allowed them to have extra time partying with the Stanley Cup.

Cassie McClellan, Assistant Managing Editor, Raw Charge

I'd have to go with the Washington Capitals. They were high on everyone's pre-season lists, and right now they've won only two of their first ten games. So many people blamed Alexander Semin for so many underachieving things, and now that he's gone to the Carolina Hurricanes, the team is even worse than they were before.
You could say that it starts and ends with their captain, Alex Ovechkin. There's been much talk about what's supposedly "wrong" with him, if he's reached his peak as a player, or if there's something else. No one knows for sure, and that bothers a lot of people. Particularly those who have picked him to win the Art Ross Trophy and/or the Hart Trophy. He currently has two goals and three assists in ten games.
It especially bothers those who have bought into that NHL-concocted rivalry between him and Sidney Crosby. Because if Ovechkin isn't Crosby's rival and anti-hero, then who is? That's now a serious discussion, as silly as that may be. (Steven Stamkos isn't getting as much love in this race as you might think in that discussion, either.)
Sure, you can partly blame the coaching change - it takes some times to adjust to a new coach's system. And you can also blame the lockout, to some extent. Some teams obviously need a longer training camp and preseason in order to be ready for the season. And, it appears that the Caps may be one of those teams. You can blame a lot of things, frankly, but the only fact anyone has to go on right now is that this team is performing far under most people's expectations.

In a shortened season, a weak start isn't something that they'll be able to make up down the road. After playing ten games into a 48-game season, it may not be that much of an exaggeration to say that the Caps are already out of playoffs. And for a team that some predicted to at least win the Southeast division, if not actually making it to the Eastern Conference Final and possibly the Stanley Cup Final this year, that's pretty crazy.

John Fontana, Managing Editor, Raw Charge

San Jose and Chicago running away with things in the Western Conference early on. With the shortened season, providing less opportunities for teams to make up points, its going to translate into these two teams likely simply warming up for the playoffs by mid-March... Or so it seems.

Meanwhile, lets also throw in the controversy in Vancouver between the anointed future in Cory Schneider and the past in Roberto Luongo, which is making me think of Conan O'Brien versus Jay Leno in the late night talk show SNAFU at NBC from a few years ago (...with apologies to Roberto Luongo, who is playing better than Jay Leno was hosting his own 10 PM talk show... And the Tonight Show for that matter). With all the trade talk brouhaha over the summer and leading in to the season, Lu standing on his head (1.53 GAA, .940 Sv% and a 3-0-2 record) compared to Schneider (3.13 GAA, .897 Sav% and a 2-2-0 record) should should be raising eyebrows and Canucks GM Mike Gillis' asking price for the services of @Strombone1.

On the flip side, who is disappointing the most early on? This one feels tougher for me to say because I want to give the excuse "it's early" which I didn't add to my assessments of San Jose, Chicago or Luongo. I look at Calgary, dead last in the West and I wonder if Jay Feaster was in Tampa last week because of the 20th anniversary or because he was submitting his resume to the Lightning for when the ax falls. I mean no disrespect to Jay, but the situation in Calgary seems to be getting worse with the roster aging and no clear path to the future for the club (besides a possibly sell-off of aging veterans).

As for a singular player -- Alex Ovechkin. 2 goals, 2 assists in 9 games? With the Capitals struggles, this is where a leader has to lead -- if not in stats, then in rallying the rest of the squad. He can go about ringing the bells of undersized players all he wants, but if he's not contributing on the score sheet and not invigorating the locker room to buy into Adam Oates system, then he's part of the problem in Washington. Of course, that is assuming Oates system works for the players in Washington. If there is a problem with the system or how Oates is applying it, the situation can be looked at as more of a Rick Tocchet versus Vincent Lecavalier kind of situation where the approach wasn't right and both the coach and the captain were too headstrong to find a common way forward.

Carolyn Christians, Raw Charge staff writer

I'm going to go with a player who I've been watching been real closely for about 8 games now. The 2012 poster-child for "Aloof Russian Enigma", Alexander Semin, arrived in North Carolina last month with little fanfare outside Raleigh. In a few short weeks, the guy who's been tagged with every hockey epithet ever concocted in Toronto, has demonstrated that he brings far more assets to the ice than his famous wicked wrister.

In fact, Semin hasn't put up but one goal with that heavy shot. Nevertheless, he is regarded by his coach, the Carolina GM, his teammates and his new found fans as perhaps the greatest thing to happen since waxed laces. And these are folks who have watched hockey studs like Eric Staal, Cam Ward and Jeff Skinner go from teenagers to hometown heroes in the last decade - and we also know that talent's often not enough to earn a playoff berth.

If you're looking for stats to prove I'm not just starstruck, how about these morsels:

  • Semin is leading among Carolina forwards for time-on-ice playing in all situations - yes that includes some on the penalty kill. He's fifth in the league in TOI/game. Coach Kirk Muller, who hockey resume is about as top-tier (and Canadian) as you'll ever see, is all about accountability when doling out icetime - clearly he trusts him. A lot.
  • Canes FancyStats guru, Corey Sznajder at ShutDownLine.com tweeted yesterday: "Semin is also a +20 in even strength scoring chances, which is, again, the best on the team. #wortheverypenny"
  • A simplistic stat, but worth mentioning, that Semin is second only to Eric Staal in plus/minus (+7 in 8 games on a team with negative goal differential) - and it's plain as day that without Semin, franchise centerpiece EStaal wouldn't be off to his best start in recent memory
  • In a game Tuesday night in Toronto vs the Maple Leafs, in front of the biggest of guns of Canadian hockey media, Semin earned 3rd star honors despite only a secondary assist. On can surmise this was because of the contributions made away from the puck. That's a tough crowd to impress with 200-foot play.
  • GM Jim Rutherford, who was regarded by many pundits as playing with fire when he signed this so-called lockerroom cancer to a $7million one-year deal last July, was quoted Tuesday in a story at CBC.ca to say: "He's such a talented player, he can do whatever he wants, quite frankly. If he's determined to score a goal, he's gonna get his chances. If he's going to play a two-way game, he can play it. He can kill penalties, play the power play. He's been every bit as good as I hoped he'd be."

So from someone like me, who feared a potentially similar narrative as unfolded a year ago with the embarrassment of a hockey player that is Tomas Kaberle, I'll say I was hopeful about Sasha, but prepared to have my patience tested.

I know it's really early, but Alexander Semin has far exceeded my expectations, and completely contradicted all those tales of laziness, inconsistency, disinterest, carelessness..... yada yada yada. For most of those who've watched these first eight games of 2013, Semin's got enough money in the "Good Sasha" bank that'll last a long long time before we feel an ounce of regret. Right now, the only surprise left is if Rutherford doesn't sign him to that multi-year extension before this season's over. Never did I see this coming.

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