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What We Learned: The NHL’s biggest surprise this season

Ryan Lambert
Puck Daddy

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Hello, this is a feature that will run through the entire season and aims to recap the weekend's events and boils those events down to one admittedly superficial fact or stupid opinion about each team. Feel free to complain about it.

The biggest surprise of the season hasn't been the struggles of a number of the league's top players, the continued emergence of others, or even the inability of some of its best teams of the last three or four seasons to put together something even remotely resembling a good start.

It's been the Edmonton Oilers.

The team just about everyone said would finish dead last in the league for the third consecutive year is, instead, first in the West with just two regulation losses in 11 games. Through the same stretch last season, they had just three wins.

So what's different? Looking at the roster, you would probably have to say "not much."

They've got many of the same players they did last year, including, obviously, the large number of young guys. In fact, 12 of the 25 players that have dressed for at least three games this season are under the age of 26. And while many of them aren't scoring a lot if at all, those that are have done so at an extremely high rate.

Obviously the contributions of Ryan Nugent-Hopkins — a team-high five goals and 11 points — despite getting shielded pretty well in terms of ice time and quality of competition (he averages a little under 16:30 a night against some of the weakest defenders other teams ice) can't be overlooked, but his running buddies on the so-called Kid Line seem to have improved considerably over the summer. Jordan Eberle and Taylor Hall led the team in points last year with totals in the low 40s, but now have 10 and nine, respectively. And in fact, Hall rebounded from what many saw as a slow start with one goal in his first six games pretty impressively.

But because those kids aren't even the first line, perhaps everyone is overvaluing their contributions in the grand scheme of the Oilers' success.

(Coming Up: The Penguins' incredible injury history; Montreal columnist gets away with garbage; all hail Claude Giroux; Ovechkin looks like Ovechkin for once; Wojtek Wolski's gross elbow on Alfredsson; Sharks miss Nabokov battle; Tyler Seguin doesn't believe Tyler Seguin has a congenital hip condition; the Devils in a tailspin; Fabian Brunnstrom on waivers; the problem with Panner; Panthers play the waiting game; Sedin's spiffy pass; Danny Carcillo is suspended; the lack of Landeskog hype; and is Phil Kessel ever going to stop scoring goals?)

How about Ryan Smyth, whose return to Edmonton seems to have sparked a career renaissance? He's logging hard minutes against top competition and, like Eberle, has 10 points.

How about Ryan Jones eating hard minutes as well, even if he's not producing anywhere near Smyth's level (a result of his not getting much time on the power play)?

How about Shawn Horcoff with seven points in 11 games coming off an injury-shortened season?

How about the fact that Ales Hemsky, typically the team's top points man (he had 64 in 69 games over the last two years), has played just two games?

Then of course there's the defense, buoyed by a major contribution from Ladislav Smid and Tom Gilbert. Smid is 15th in short-handed time on ice per game, despite all but one player ahead of him being on teams that take more penalties than do the Oilers. He's also tops in blocked shots in the league with 40 in 11 games.

Gilbert eats nearly 25 minutes a night against the best competition opponents have to offer, most on the team by about three minutes per game. Meanwhile Corey Potter has chipped in big-time offensively with seven points in nine games. The whole team is third in the league in blocked shots with 184. It's crazy.

But that last bit plays a huge role in what is obviously the most important thing here. The starts by Devan Dubnyk and especially Nikolai Khabibulin, have just been spectacular. The Oilers have allowed more than two goals in just one game out of 11 this year, which is an insane amount, all things considered. They allowed that few in just 24 games last year. And obviously Khabibulin will never be able to maintain a 1.12 GAA or a save percentage of .960 forever, and when he falters, the team's inability to score goals en masse will probably prove disastrous. Allowing just 18 goals in 11 games is all well and good, but scoring just 25 in that time isn't going to help anyone win over the course of a season.

But for now, the Oilers are an extremely exciting team, despite playing in a slew of low-scoring games because, as you might expect, it's all scramble scramble scramble every time the other team comes into their zone. Most changes look like a fire drill. And if that kind of play isn't your kind of thing, the games are always worth tuning in for if only to see the young, talented players' moments of precocious brilliance, which seem to become more common all the time.

Really, it would be great to see the Oilers keep this up all season, but that's unrealistic for a number of reasons. So let's just enjoy this fun, exciting team winning game after game after game while we can.

What We Learned

Anaheim Ducks: You'll recall that Jason Blake's wrist injury, picked up in the Ducks' home opener when Brent Burns stepped on his wrist, was supposed to keep him out for three months. But now he thinks he'll be back by the second half of the season.

Boston Bruins: Tyler Seguin has a congenital hip condition? Not so, says Tyler Seguin.

Buffalo Sabres: The Sabres would probably like it if someone who isn't Thomas Vanek or Jason Pominville could start producing goals at some point in the near future. Through the first 10 games of the season, the Sabres have scored 29 goals (a pretty good amount), and 16 of them came with either Vanek or Pominville recording a point.

Calgary Flames: Scary sequence for Miikka Kiprusoff.

Flames fans are used to those by now, though.

Carolina Hurricanes: The Hurricanes really took it to the Blackhawks on Friday night and earned perhaps their most impressive win of the season. Oddly, though, even that could have been better. They didn't do much of anything following a double minor to Patrick Kane on Eric Staal, and Staal later failed to convert a penalty shot.

Chicago Blackhawks: Two games for Danny Carcillo, of whom Brendan Shanahan is so contemptuous that he sent Rob Blake to do the video instead.

Colorado Avalanche: Friday was Gabriel Landeskog's ninth game with the Avalanche and even though he hasn't gotten nearly as much hype as Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, he has been really excellent this year. Which is why people are now calling for him to play alongside Matt Duchene.

Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets' start is just about unconscionable given the way the team sunk money into free agents and trades alike this offseason, so at 2-9-1, they might swap out both their GM and coach by Monday.

Dallas Stars: Dallas is the best team in the West and can't seem to stop winning tight, low-scoring games. They've won exactly twice this year by a margin of more than one goal without the benefit of an empty netter (like they got Saturday), and never by more than two.

Detroit Red Wings Presented by Amway: The Red Wings put Fabian Brunnstrom on waivers ahead of Saturday's game with Minnesota. Wasn't it just like two weeks ago that Babcock was saying he could be a top-six player on that team? That's gotta be it for him in North American hockey, right?

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Edmonton Oilers: This headline really says it all, eh? Not one person saw them being in first place for even a second at any point this season.

Florida Panthers: Any Panthers fans hoping to get an eyeful of Mikael Samuelsson anytime soon are going to be disappointed. He's reportedly out for quite a while, with coach Kevin Dineen noting that it's not a "day to day" timetable. More like a week at least.

Los Angeles Kings: Hey, this guy brings up an interesting point: Has anyone seen or heard anything out of Dustin Penner this year? One assist and just 10 shots in eight games. Yikes. Maybe the biggest waste of money in the league.

Minnesota Wild: Great game out of Josh Harding to hand the Red Wings their fourth(!) straight loss and earn a 36-save shutout. It was only his second start since March 26, 2010. His only other one, coincidentally, was also against the Wings this year, when he made 38 saves but lost 3-2 in OT.

Montreal Canadiens: If a Boston-based columnist wrote this type of garbage about Habs fans, he'd have a warrant out from the Montreal PD the next day.

Nashville Predators: Cal O'Reilly was squeezed out of Nashville and onto the Coyotes (for a fourth-round pick) in a salary cap move, as Martin Erat made his return to the lineup. You'll recall that O'Reilly had a decent rookie year until he broke his fibula last season.

New Jersey Devils: Always tough when the GWG you allow comes off your own defenseman's skate on a pass from behind the net, but the larger concern should be that the Devils have won just one of their last five games, no?

New York Islanders: Shame, shame, shame. Evgeni Nabokov was in no condition to play against his old team on Saturday and instead the Sharks had the pleasure of facing Rick DiPietro, who was pretty much under assault all night.

New York Rangers: Brad Richards had three points — he's just what the Rangers need! — but the Blueshirts allowed the Senators to storm back into a game they led by three with 12 minutes to go and lost 5-4 in a shootout. That's unforgivable. They shouldn't even get a loser point for that.

Ottawa Senators: But it wasn't all sunshine and roses for the Sens, who lost Daniel Alfredsson when Wojtek Wolski elbowed him in the head. No word yet on his availability going forward. Gross.

Philadelphia Flyers: As if by magic and not by virtue of his being a really great goaltender, Ilya Bryzgalov has found his way back out of "the woods" with a 24-save, 5-1 win over Carolina. How did he do it? "iPhone compass," he said.

Phoenix Coyotes: The Coyotes, apparently sick of all the smartass reporters taking pictures of how comically small the crowds are at their home games, have banned photography from the press box. Hilarious.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Saturday's loss to Toronto was the Penguins' 100th straight game with at least one of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Jordan Staal out of the lineup. That's insane. (Ed. Note: Rob Rossi writes that there were actually two games in that stretch where all three played.)

San Jose Sharks: A fire captain in Sonoma County was caught embezzling more than $63,000 from the firefighters' union and using some of the money to buy Sharks season tickets. If he plays his cards right, he might be able to sit in those bail bonds guys' seats.

St. Louis Blues: The Blues were handed an ugly loss by Calgary on Friday night, and the power play in particular was a point of concern. However, no one in St. Louis noticed or cared.

Tampa Bay Lightning: Steve Yzerman wants mandatory visors. So shouldn't you want them too?

Toronto Maple Leafs: Is Phil Kessel ever going to stop scoring goals? I mean gee whiz.

Vancouver Canucks: Roberto Luongo gives up four goals on 32 shots in a win in which the Canucks scored seven, and gets praised. Some city.

Washington Capitals: This is such an Alex Ovechkin-y goal. I love it.

Winnipeg Jets: The Jets scored nine goals Thursday night and none on Saturday. Said Bryan Little, "It felt like we were robbed a bit of two points." Yeah, by Dwayne Roloson.

Gold Star Award

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Claude Giroux really wanted to make sure the Flyers won on Saturday after that embarrassing loss on Thursday, so he scored a goal and set up three more and got more than 23 minutes of ice time and played really good defense. All in all, a good performance.

Minus of the Weekend

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The news about Perry Pearn just gets worse, as he was apparently fired just a month after receiving an extension.

Play of the Weekend

This is such a nice feed from Henrik Sedin and a really difficult shot for Alex Edler to wire to the top of the net. Great goal.

Perfect HFBoards Trade Proposal of the Week

User "I3ig13ig" wants to shake up the Battle of Alberta, terribly.

To Edmonton:

RW Rene Bourque
D Anton Babchuk

To Calgary:

RW Linus Omark
C Sam Gagner
2nd Rounder in 2012
3rd Rounder in 2013

Signoff

If I travel all the way there and find out that you're a liar, I'll find you and take more than my money back.

Ryan Lambert publishes hockey awesomeness rather infrequently over at The Two-Line Pass. Check it out, why don't you? Or you can email him here and follow him on Twitter if you so desire.

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