I love surprises. And the Avalanche have been chock full of them this year. Some are obvious (Joe covered one yesterday), but I think the sheer number of unexpected improvements from a lot of the same guys who "participated" in last year's mail-in season makes it possible that a few of the surprises fall through the cracks. In light of that, and since we've got an extra off-day to fill, I thought I'd look at surprise improvements from Avalanche players, in order from least to most surprising.
Anderson has been rock solid, although I'm not sure he's really taken any of us by surprise statistically. He does appear to have that starting goalie swagger that no Avalanche goalie other than Patrick Roy has possessed, and that part isn't something everyone saw coming. But his stats - 2.68 GAA and .916 Save Percentage are right on par with his career numbers (2.82 / .912). I would say that's right in line with what we expected.
With 21 points in 31 games, he's already topped his career high 19 in 53 games last year. His PPG rate has almost doubled from .36 to .68. Not a complete shock, of course, because we've all seen that he has a belt full of NHL tools at his disposal. The question has always been whether or not he had the desire to use them, and that was certainly in question earlier in the season when Stewart was briefly demoted. As Joe pointed out yesterday, he has come on strong lately.
Yes, his season is all but over. But before wrecking his ACL in a freak collision, Jones had already set a career high for goals, points and set a record for most predictable nickname. I placed him a bit higher than Stewart on the DDC Surprise O Meter scale mostly because Stewart was a 1st round draft pick and Jones was taken 288th overall - the lowest Quebec / Colorado draft pick to make the NHL.
In my opinion, Wolski hasn't gotten anywhere near enough notice for the season he's having. His 33 points have him 22nd in the league in scoring. He needs 17 more points to set a career high and his .92 PPG is well above his career average going into this season of .61. Wolski's point totals have dropped every year he's been in the NHL, so this breakout season is a welcome turn of tale for WW. He still seems to attract way to much ire from the fans but geez, folks, he's not a power forward. Get over it already. He's scored a point in 25 of the 36 game's he's played in this year - 70%, which blows away the 55% for Stastny and 45% for Hejduk.
Hannan isn't as young as the other guys on this list, but I think he deserves some props for the improvement to his game. Hannan's struggles in his first two seasons in Denver are well documented. So we might as well make sure it's in print that Hannan - not Kyle Quincey or Adam Foote - has been the Avs' most consistent defenseman this year. I have long been on the record that Hannan's $4.5 million isn't the disaster it's been made out to be, and I think he's been well worth that money this year. He's even been providing a little offense, which is a welcome addition.
Nothing surprised me more this fall than Kyle Cumiskey making the club out of camp. I always enjoyed watching him play, but didn't have faith that he'd ever pull it together in the pros. He's proving me wrong. Cumiskey has been breathtaking to watch this year (he's currently on the shelf with a foot injury). He's been steady defensively (a part of his game he'd already been pretty good at), but he's also been greatly improved on the offensive side of things (a part of the game where he previously stunk at). His .29 PPG rate still isn't hot (works out to 24 points over a full season), but it's double his career rate going into this year (.13).
On a team full of surprises, Ryan "Mitch" Wilson has got to be the biggest surprise of them all. Wilson was never drafted, despite being the top-scoring defenseman in the OHL. Twice. The knock on Wilson seemed to be his lack of skating as well as some defensive deficiencies. Check out one scout's comments on Wilson from back in 2005:
He’s too knock-kneed for me; he’s got some offensive gifts but my groins get sore watching him skate! There’s no way that he can be an NHL player and skate like that, his knees will wear out from rubbing together.
When Wilson was acquired in the Jordan Leopold trade, I don't think any of us thought of him as anything less than a throw in. Kent Wilson of Matchsticks and Gasoline called him "a long shot to ever be an NHLer" while a genius here at MHH pointed out that the 2nd round pick obtained in that deal was "the key" of the deal (yeah, it was me). Surprise. Wilson has been an absolute find, and even if Stefan Elliott (the aformentioned 2nd rounder) never plays a minute in the NHL, that trade is looking right now like it's going to go down as an absolute steal for former GM Francois Giguere. Wilson doesn't look much to me like a knock-kneed defensive sieve. He's been reliable defensively, he's shown some spark offensively and he's already had so many open-ice hits that whenever I see someone in another jersey get run over out of the corner of my eye, I immediately say "yep, that was Wilson." And about 75% of the time, I'm right. His ice time has steadily increased (12:25 in October, 14:41 in November, 18:16 in December) and he's starting to get used more and more both on the PP and the PK. When Kyle Cumiskey returns, Joe Sacco may have a really tough decision on his hands. That's high praise for an undrafted free agent who was considered AHL filler just 9 months ago. The secret may be out though. To sponsor Wilson's page at hockey-reference you'd have to shell out $25, more than any other active Avalanche player. Yes, really. You have a problem with that?