Commentary

Shaq, Manning … and these five NHL teams

Updated: February 7, 2008, 12:50 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

Mike Huckabee taking the Georgia primary -- there's a bit of a surprise.

Shaq on the block and headed to the Suns -- there's a surprise no one saw coming.

The Giants blunting Patriots perfection -- an enormous surprise.

It comes with some sense of comfort in this age of scoops, predictions, guarantees, fan interactivity and self-proclaimed insiders that some stuff still genuinely surprises.

So, too, it goes with the NHL season. In October, there was no shortage of speculation and predictions about what was going to unfold in the world's premier hockey league over the succeeding months, some of which has actually happened.

Scott Niedermayer did come back as some said he would. Sidney Crosby did find the going tougher in his first post-MVP campaign. The fans did start showing up in St. Louis again.

But a few other things, specifically the performance of a group of clubs that entertained some gloomy forecasts going into the 2007-08 season, have indeed surprised fans and the industry. For this week, anyway, New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning is the patron saint of the big surprise, so we've assigned Manning heads to those NHL clubs that have done a fair bit better than many believed they would.


Phoenix Coyotes (67 points in 2006-07; on pace for 91 this season)
Why we're surprised: After firing GM Mike Barnett last spring, the Coyotes seemed intent on going with youth after dabbling with fading vets in a bid to stay competitive.

That, it seemed, meant likely falling to the bottom of the standings for a year or two to add more talented prospects. The Desert Dogs seemed to lack punch up front, Ed Jovanovski didn't appear to be a defensive stalwart anymore, assistant coach Rick Tocchet was still on the inactive list from a gambling scandal and the goaltending was a mess. But coach Wayne Gretzky has done a terrific job of inspiring and organizing the Coyotes, coaxing helpful performances out of players such as forward Radim Vrbata and improving both special teams.

Why we shouldn't have been surprised: Well, Anaheim GM Brian Burke said he would trade goalie Ilya Bryzgalov if he wasn't going to be No. 1 with the Ducks, and he was true to his word. The Coyotes were positioned cap-wise and standings-wise to acquire Bryzgalov on waivers, and he has helped turn their season around. In other words, if you're bad enough, sometimes good opportunities come along.

• SURPRISE RATING: Five out of five.


Boston Bruins (76 points in 2006-07; on pace for 91 this season)
Why we're surprised: The stench and impact of the Joe Thornton trade seemed set to last for years. But lo and behold, players acquired in exchange for Thornton have paid dividends, including Chuck Kobasew and Andrew Ference. Goaltending, aided by pickup Alex Auld, has been much better than expected, with Tim Thomas called to the All-Star Game last month. Zdeno Chara has returned to being a mountain of a man on defense and Marc Savard is as underrated an offensive player as there is in the game. The B's seemed to lack depth everywhere, but they've made up for it with grit and industriousness.

Why we shouldn't have been surprised: Claude Julien is a good coach who took the blame twice for situations that weren't his doing. Defense and doggedness still go a long way in this league. Julien, very successful at the minor pro level, has taken a team without many stars that needed a strong sense of identity and has the Bruins playing over their heads.

• SURPRISE RATING: Four out of five.


Columbus Blue Jackets (73 points in 2006-07; on pace for 85 this season)
Why we're surprised: When a team is such a well-established loser that it holds the dubious distinction of being the only NHL club never to have qualified for postseason play, you expect that losing culture to continue. Even worse, the team's best young players, Rick Nash and Nikolai Zherdev, seemed to be going sideways last season, which was a main reason why president/GM Doug MacLean lost his job. Finally, the vets the team did have, notably Sergei Fedorov and Adam Foote, appeared to be doing a deep fade as their careers came to an end.

Why we shouldn't have been surprised: Slashing goals-against is still the quickest way to improve in the NHL, and the Jackets have gone from 26th to 16th to seventh this season in terms of keeping the puck out of their net. This was a project right up coach Ken Hitchcock's alley.

• SURPRISE RATING: Four out of five.


Dallas Stars (107 points in 2006-07; on pace for 99 this season)
Why we're surprised: Really, this is more about being surprised this team didn't take a major step backwards in the league's toughest division, the Pacific. A bad start that cost GM Doug Armstrong his job pretty much confirmed the worst suspicions about a roster that seemed lacking in everything but orneriness. Most significantly, few imagined the Stars already owned a player (center Mike Ribeiro) who would make up for the fact that Mike Modano is no longer the big points producer he had been throughout his career. Maybe having Brett Hull at the top has inspired a few Dallas attackers.

Why we shouldn't have been surprised: The Stars are a proud, successful organization, right there after New Jersey, Colorado and Detroit in terms of being among the NHL's most consistent teams over the past decade. There's a winning edge and attitude there that shouldn't have been easily dismissed.

• SURPRISE RATING: Three out of five.


New Jersey Devils (107 points in 2006-07; on pace for 97 this season)
Why we're surprised: The exodus of talent out of the Devils' dressing room in recent years  Scott Niedermayer, Scott Stevens, Scott Gomez and Brian Rafalski  seemed set to finally catch up with the club, particularly with no comparable influx of talent coming the other way. Moreover, improving Atlantic Division teams in New York, Long Island, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh held the potential to finally put the Devils in the position of fighting a battle on too many fronts. Moving into a new building this season, finally, meant the first nine games of the season would be on the road, a lousy position for first-year coach Brent Sutter. All in all, it was a recipe for a big fall.

Why we shouldn't have been surprised: Martin Brodeur just doesn't do losing. He's chasing down Patrick Roy's all-time wins record for goalies and Terry Sawchuk's all-time shutouts record and gives the Devils absolute certainty at the position that leaves many other teams guessing on a regular basis.

• SURPRISE RATING: Three out of five.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.