Which team is the biggest surprise of the 2011-12 season?

The NHL's 2011-12 season has been filled with surprises, both good and bad. Although some of the divisional leaders (the Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins, for instance) are fulfilling expectations, there are a lot of teams which have fallen well short of their expectations, and in their place have been many teams far exceeding theirs.

One of the teams far exceeding expectations is, of course, the Ottawa Senators. Fans of the Sens quickly recall dire pre-season predictions that ranked the Senators at or near the bottom of the NHL standings come season's end, and few of the fans thought the Sens would have had anywhere near the success they're having today. The reasons for the surprising turnaround are many, starting first and foremost with Ottawa's forwards.

Many pundits openly wondered where Ottawa's goals would come from this season, looking at the question marks surrounding just about every one of the players up front for Ottawa. Daniel Alfredsson? Old, getting older, and fighting injuries, they thought. Jason Spezza? Immature, and not capable of leading an offence. Milan Michalek? Chronically injured. Nick Foligno? Enigmatic and unpredictable. After those four, it was a toss-up of unproven youngsters who weren't expected to do much. All of these assumptions have been disproven so far this season.

On defence, it was at least as unfortunate. Erik Karlsson was expected to once again lead the Senators' from the blue line, but no one could realistically have predicted the success he's had so far. Little was expected of Filip Kuba and Sergei Gonchar after their disastrous years last year, but both have rebounded quite well--especially Kuba, who's become the most valuable defensive defenceman on Ottawa's roster. Not much was known about David Rundblad, and not much was seen of him before he was dealt early in the year. It was hoped Chris Phillips would rebound from an abysmal season that ended with him at -35, and although he's not as relied upon as he has been in the past, his +12 +1 ranking this season shows some improvement.

In goal, it was expected that most Senators wins would be because of Craig Anderson. Although he has almost single-handedly won some games (Saturday in Montreal a primary example), the team has won in spite of him on other nights, especially earlier in the season.

But, with all the surprises this year, are the Ottawa Senators the biggest surprise? It's difficult to say.

There are plenty of other candidates:

  • Anaheim Ducks: Bad surprise. The Ducks finished fourth in the Western Conference last year, and they didn't lose any key pieces in the off-season (former Sens Andy Sutton and Ray Emery were likely the biggest losses), so they were seen as a sure-fire bet as a playoff team. Instead, they're in second-to-last place in the league, and your guess on how that happened is as good as mine. Teemu Selanne has once again defied his age, and is leading the team in scoring, but Ryan Getzlaf, Jonas Hillar, and (especially) Bobby Ryan have fallen well short of expectations. They've fired their coach, and the GM has said that just about everyone is available on the trade market. Seems like Anaheim is gearing up for a rebuild when they were expected to compete for a Stanley Cup.
  • Columbus Blue Jackets: Awful surprise. Matt Wagner of The Cannon said it best: "When you are given the ingredients for a chocolate cake and somehow turn out a horrifyingly undercooked tuna casserole, people notice." Off-season acquisitions included such big names as Jeff Carter, Vinny Prospal, and James Wisniewski, but suspensions and injuries have really hurt the Jackets this season--but not as much as poor goaltending has. Steve Mason has faltered as starter this year, with a GAA of 3.46 and a SP of .882. Curtis Sanford has done better in his games, but not well enough to move Columbus out of the last-place spot the team has occupied for just about all season.
  • Florida Panthers: Good surprise. Despite some pretty big splashes in the off-season, few people expected the mish-mash of players to come together with any degree of cohesion under rookie coach Kevin Dineen. Well, they did, and then some. Although they're cooling off now that people have caught on, the Panthers started the season like gangbusters, and took an early lead on the Southeast Division and the Eastern Conference (both of which they've since lost). Surprising seasons from off-season signings Kris Versteeg, Brian Campbell, and Jose Theodore were the key parts of their early-season success. The Panthers lost their lead in the Southeast Division, knocking them down to seventh in the East and falling fast, so it could turn out that their surprising success was short-lived.
  • New York Rangers: Good surprise. It was expected the Rangers would be in playoff position, but name me someone who says they'd predicted the Rangers would be well ahead of all takers across the league and I'll name you someone who's (probably) lying. The Rangers biggest reason for success is Henrik Lundqvist, but even scoring through the lineup, led by a healthy Marian Gaborik, has put the Rangers where they are today.
  • St. Louis Blues: Good surprise. The Blues are perhaps the most surprising team in the league, but they've almost certainly got the most surprisingly successful player in the league in Brian Elliott. Elliott had an absolutely awful season with the Senators and Colorado Avalanche last season, but so far this season he's taken the starting reins from Jaroslav Halak, led the Blues to the top spot in the Central Division, and earned his first nod as an NHL All-Star. Forwards David Backes, T.J. Oshie, and newcomer Jason Arnott have contributed to the success, too, but Elliott's been the driver of the Blues' bus.
  • Tampa Bay Lightning: Terrible surprise. Tampa Bay's been scoring goals fairly well this season (at least at the top of the lineup), but keeping them out has been a major problem--despite head coach Guy Boucher's extremely conservative 1-3-1 system. Dwayne Roloson has been terrible and Mathieu Garon has been little better, while the defence has been exposed as undersized and inefficient. While some might have predicted some struggles this season, no one would have predicted Tampa Bay falling to last place in the Eastern Conference--which is where they sit today.
  • Washington Capitals: Bad surprise. Washington was the Eastern Conference's best team in the regular season last year, and with the acquisitions of Tomas Vokoun and Roman Hamrlik, not to mention several good role-players, it was expected the Capitals would improve on that this year. Instead, the opposite has happened, and before their win last night, the Capitals were sitting outside the playoffs. With the win, they're still barely in it, although they are clawing their way back towards their expected standing. Their primary scoring--namely Alex Ovechkin--isn't scoring as well as he has to, but their secondary scoring has failed to produce as well as they need to, as well. Vokoun's numbers are in line with his career totals, but something just hasn't been working for the Capitals. If it was former bench boss Bruce Boudreau, and the Caps end up in a playoff spot (which seems likely as they improve and Florida falls back to Earth), they've certainly got the skill to compete for a Stanley Cup.

This list may not even be complete. The Montreal Canadiens, Buffalo Sabres, and Calgary Flames are all playing below expectations, while the New Jersey Devils and Winnipeg Jets are both better than expected.

Which team, in your estimation, has been the NHL's biggest surprise so far?

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