2023 All-Star break’s biggest NHL surprises: Devils and Kraken are both for real

The NHL All-Star weekend is here, so it’s time to look back and consider the season thus far. While some teams and players met or exceeded expectations, others came as a significant shock for a variety of reasons.

Let’s look at some of the NHL’s biggest surprises from the 2022–2023 season.

Seattle Kraken

Expectations for the Seattle Kraken were high going into the 2021–22 campaign. Why wouldn’t they be? Just consider the Vegas Golden Knights’ performance during their rookie campaign.

The Kraken could certainly accomplish the same feat. Seattle ultimately finished with 60 points and a minus-69 goal differential to place 15th in the Western Conference. It seems that the Kraken wouldn’t be competitive for some time.

Rather, it only required one offseason. The Kraken have 63 points during the 2023 NHL All-Star break, three more than they had all of the previous year. They are currently leading the Pacific Division.

The goalkeeper position is still precarious, but the Kraken are playing stronger defense, and some new faces have significantly improved the offense.

  • Matty Beniers is leading the Calder Trophy race with 17 goals and 19 assists, and it looks like he will be a foundational piece for this fledgling franchise.
  • Andre Burakovsky, the team’s big free agent acquisition, has lived up to his payday with 13 goals and 39 points in 48 games played.
  • Those two have played a big role in the Kraken scoring 177 goals, which is fifth in the NHL.

There are some possible red flags for Kraken, such as their unusually high shooting % and unreliable goaltending, but they have given themselves a lot of leeway.

Climate Pledge Arena has been rocking, and it looks like the Seattle hockey fan community will get to enjoy some postseason hockey this spring.

New Jersey Devils

Few people outside of the Devils’ locker room believed that this squad was capable of the first half that they put together after going 27-46-9 the previous season. One of the NHL’s biggest success stories thus far is the Devils, who have a 32-13-4 record (68 points) and are currently in second place in the Metropolitan Division.

Jack Hughes, who is only 21 years old, has become a superstar. In 49 games, he scored 33 goals, and he’s headed to his second straight All-Star Game. With 3.47 goals per game, the Devils’ offense ranks sixth in the league under Hughes.

The Devils are also seeing an upswing between the pipes. Since Martin Brodeur left New Jersey, the Devils have finished in the top 10 in goals against just once after finishing in the top 10 in 19 of the 20 seasons Brodeur spent with the franchise. Vitek Vanecek is changing the narrative for the Devils, who hit the All-Star break third in the NHL in goals against.

In 32 games this season, Vanecek ranks fourth in goals-against-average (2.29) and fifth in wins (21) among NHL goalies and has been victorious in his last nine starts dating back to Dec. 28. During the month of January, Vanecek posted a 2.07 goals-against-average and a .932 save percentage for a Devils team that hopes to catch the Carolina Hurricanes atop the Metropolitan Division.

After winning a franchise record 13 consecutive games early on this season, the question was whether or not the Devils were just off to a hot start. That question has been answered.

Calgary Flames

The Flames being out of the playoffs before the All-Star break comes as a bit of a surprise because I projected they would win the Stanley Cup before the season even started.

Calgary managed to reload with some significant acquisitions of its own despite losing Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk in the same summer, at least on paper.

In sending Tkachuk to the Florida Panthers, the Flames received star winger Jonathan Huberdeau and top-pairing defenseman MacKenzie Weegar. Calgary also made a splash in free agency by signing Nazem Kadri, who played a big role in delivering a Stanley Cup to Colorado last season. Add those players to an already talented roster, and it seemed like a coup for the Flames.

Unfortunately, it just hasn’t worked out that way. Neither Huberdeau nor Weegar have panned out to this point. We’ll talk more about Huberdeau in a minute, but Weegar has been equally disappointing.

He is on pace for just two goals and 25 points on the year, but at least his on-ice impacts have been strong. The Flames control 57.24% of the expected goals with Weegar on the ice at five-on-five, so a turnaround could be on the way.

The Flames still have a good chance of finding their stride eventually. This team’s roster is loaded with talent, and Darryl Sutter is an experienced head coach. However, given how fiercely tough the Western Conference playoff battle will be, Calgary cannot afford to make any more mistakes.

Florida Panthers

After winning the Presidents’ Trophy last season, expectations remained high for the Panthers. The team saw trade deadline addition Claude Giroux leave to sign with his hometown Ottawa Senators, but the Panthers didn’t sit on their hands. Florida’s front office made a huge splash with that aforementioned deal with Calgary.

However, at the All-Star break, Florida has just a 24-22-6 record (54 points) and sits in fifth place in the Atlantic Division. To make matters worse, they’re currently on the outside looking in when it comes to the playoff picture, three points behind the Pittsburgh Penguins for the second Wild Card spot in the East.

This is a team that scores the seventh-most goals (3.40) in the league on the season, so it’s not like they’re failing to put the puck in the net.

Florida’s goaltender struggles can be attributed to their 3.50 goals-per-game average. Veteran Sergei Bobrovsky (12-13-2, 3.24 GAA) and rookie Spencer Knight have alternated duties in goal (9-7-3, 3.05 GAA). One of the Panthers’ goalies needs to play much more consistently if they want to have a chance at the playoffs.

San Jose Sharks | Erik Karlsson | Defense

Karlsson had been in decline since he joined the Sharks ahead of the 2018-19 season. He’s turned back the clock and is one of the frontrunners to win the Norris Trophy now. On an otherwise bad team, Karlsson has excelled, and he is probably preventing the Sharks from being even higher in the draft lottery.

Through 51 games played, Karlsson has 16 goals and 66 points. He hasn’t posted numbers like those since 2016-17, when he did it in a full season. Now, Karlson is on pace for 106 points, which would be an incomprehensible number for a defenseman.

It would be fair to wonder whether Karlsson is just piling up empty-calorie points on the power play, but that is just not the case. San Jose has been brilliant with Karlsson in the game at five-on-five. In those situations, the Sharks own 56.41% of the expected goals and have outscored opponents 69-54.

Karlsson’s $11.5 million salary cap burden initially appeared to be a weight around the team’s neck through the 2026–27 season.

Karlsson is currently living up to and exceeding that deal. In order to help the rebuilding process, San Jose may even be able to trade Karlsson for some valuable assets.

Buffalo Sabres | Tage Thompson | C

The Sabres can make the playoffs for the first time since the 2010–11 campaign. One of the main narratives underlying their success is Tage Thompson’s star of power.

Thompson proved why he was a part of the 2018 trade that sent veteran forward Ryan O’Reilly to the St. Louis Blues in a deal that benefited both organizations during the 2021–22 season.

In 78 games last season, Thompson collected 68 points (38 goals and 30 assists). Although he contributed significantly, Thompson wasn’t really anticipated to rise to the pinnacle of the sport so quickly.

Yet in just 50 games during the 2022-23 campaign, Thompson has already equaled his point total from last season with 34 goals and 34 assists. The 25-year-old stud has six multi-goal games on the year, including a five-goal performance in December. Simply put, Thompson has become one of the sport’s most electrifying players.

Thompson was selected to his first NHL All-Star Game earlier this month, but had be replaced by teammate Rasmus Dahlin after suffering an upper-body injury against the Carolina Hurricanes on Wednesday.

While the team is still awaiting further testing, early reports are suggesting that it’s not an injury that should keep Thompson on the shelf very long.

Thompson had high expectations last year, but so far this year, he has truly raised the bar with his play. That sounds a little concerning given that he has a chance to far surpass his point total from the previous season.

Jonathan Huberdeau | LW | Calgary Flames

With 30 goals and 115 points, Huberdeau ended the 2021–22 season in fifth place in the Hart Trophy voting. He was sent to Calgary in July as part of the Matthew Tkachuk deal, which felt like a masterful move on the part of Flames general manager Brad Treliving.

But Huberdeau hasn’t been able to find his footing in a Flames uniform for whatever reason. Huberdeau has just 10 goals and 33 points as of the All-Star break, which puts him on pace to finish egregiously behind his previous season’s totals.

Even more troubling is that Huberdeau’s lack of output doesn’t appear to be solely the result of bad luck.

Huberdeau’s shooting percentage is right in line with his career average, and he is only slightly below his expected goal total of 11.07, per Natural Stat Trick. When it comes to his assist total, nine of his 23 are secondary assists. That doesn’t bode well for future success either.

The Flames need to get Huberdeau going after the All-Star break, whether it’s something as simple as him finding it difficult to adapt to a new system in Calgary or a step back for Huberdeau himself.

Johnny Gadreau | LW | Columbus Blue Jackets

It was evident that Johnny Gaudreau would be the best player in that class when he notified the Calgary Flames that he wouldn’t be re-signing with the team before the 2022 offseason.

He was, and in an unexpected move, he agreed to a seven-year, $68.25 million ($9.75 million AAV) contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Many people were taken aback by the decision, which may not have been the best one at this point in the year.

Gaudreau has just 49 points (14 goals & 35 assists) in 51 games, which puts him on pace for 79 points (23 goals & 56 assists) on the season. His 49 points are tied for 36th across the league and that final projection it’s a far cry from the career-high 115-point season that Gaudreau put together in his final campaign in Calgary.

It’s obviously way too early to say that Gaudreau signing with the Blue Jackets was the wrong move. However, playing with a lethal goal scorer like Patrik Laine should’ve probably led to a little bit more success through the first half of the year.

This a franchise that currently sits in last place in the East with just 34 points, so it’s hard to categorize Gaudreau’s early tenure as anything other than a nasty surprise.