By Rob Ficiur
In a few days the NHL will be celebrating All Star weekend. The best players of the league will come together to show case their talents. The winning team in this year’s three on three tournament wins one million dollars. Every year, no matter the sport, there are debates about who was neglected in this year’s selection process.
In this article I will spot light three surprise Stars. These are players who have exceeded expectations. They will not be house hold names. Without their surprising play their team would not be where they are today.
1. Chad Johnson – Calgary Flames – When the Flames missed the 2016 playoffs fans blamed the inconsistent goaltending. During the off season the Flames solved that problem but not in the way we thought. Fans were thrilled draft weekend when Calgary acquired Brian Elliot form St. Louis. Elliot had been an elite goalie the last few years in a winning Blues team. His 23 wins and eight losses predicted a banner year for the Flames.
So far Eliot’s play has been a disappointment. His record of eight wins and ten losses is as inconsistent as the net minders were last year in Calgary. While Elliot’s play has improved since a disastrous first two months – his current play would put the Flames on pace for a 74 point season.
On the July 1, free agent frenzy Calgary did solve their goaltending problems when they signed veteran backup goalie Chad Johnson. Calgary would be the 30 year old goalie’s sixth NHL team. Since all teams need goaltending depth, the signing of the Calgary native was almost a non-event. Even though he won 17 games in Boston (three years ago) and 22 in Buffalo the last year no one saw his acquisition as significant.
Fast forward six months and the Flames are in a playoff position because of their defacto number one goalie Chad Johnson. His 16 wins in 28 games puts the Flames on pace for 97 points in the season – just enough for the squeak into the playoffs.
This surprise hero saved the season for his home town Flames.
2. Patrick Maroon – Edmonton Oilers
On Feb. 26, 2016 the Oilers acquired this fourth line depth winger for a fourth round draft pick and a prospect. Maroons 26 goals in 204 games as an Anaheim Duck suggested that a fourth round pick might be a bit much to give for a bruising but slow 27 year old forward in an ever faster NHL.
In Maroon’s first game as an Oiler he scored two goals an added two assists. Were his eight goals in sixteen Oilers games last year a fluke? This year Maroon’s play has improved with eighteen goals in 48 Oiler games. Maroon is on pace to score 30 goals, which is more than he had in his five years in Anaheim.
How can Patrick Maroon lead the Edmonton Oilers in goals? No doubt part of it is the emergence of Connor McDavid as an elite NHL star. For years we heard McDavid would be good, but in his second year Connor has exceeded all the hype. (McDavid was in the running for one of my surprise awards – even with high expectations, no one realistically expected him to lead the league in scoring at age 19.)
Thirty years ago then Oilers coach Glen Sather allegedly said that a fire hydrant could score 40 goals a season playing with Wayne Gretzky. Blair McDonald scored 46 goals playing with Wayne Gretzky his first year in the NHL. McDonald scored a total of 45 goals the rest of his NHL career while not playing with #99. There are super star players who make those around them better than they really might be.
Will Patrick Maroon become a consistent goal scorer or will he fade away? No one knows. We do know that Maroon had has surprised everyone with his play in Edmonton the last eleven months.
3. Peter Budaj – Los Angeles Kings
Two years ago Budaj’s hockey career was going downhill. He won zero games (same as me) playing in the American Hockey League. At age 32 (then) his NHL days were all but over. Last year he resurrected his minor league career and was named most valuable player in the American hockey league. This year, with elite goalie Johnathan Quick out since game one, the 34 year old Budaj has returned to the form that won him 32 games a decade ago.
Budaj’s .915 save percentage is one point lower than Quick’s career average. Budaj’s 2.17 goals against average is better than Quick’s 2.27 career average. If I had predicted that a 34 year old goalie who had not won an NHL game in more than two seasons could come out of nowhere to lead his team to a playoff battle – you would rightfully think I was out to lunch.
With the All Star game in Los Angeles it is too bad the NHL didn’t pick Budaj over Coyotes goalie Mike Smith to attend the game. Whether he is an all-star there is no doubt Peter Budaj is a surprising star in the NHL this year.