Surprise, Surprise!

on Wednesday, 21 September 2011.

Three Players Who Just Might Shock the World in 2011-12

With the preseason once again upon us, experts from around the world of hockey are clamoring to their crystal balls, eager to provide predictions for the season that lay ahead.

As always, there are a few topics upon which the media has chosen to focus its speculation; Steven Stamkos is widely expected to continue his meteoric ascension. The pressure is on in Vancouver as the Canucks look to prove their window of opportunity has not yet closed. And the number of two-cent donations piling up on Sidney Crosby’s status could fill a vault that would make Scrooge McDuck blush.

Each year, however, there are a small number of players who seem to appear from nowhere to take the league by storm.

The 2010-11 season was certainly no exception, with veteran net minder Tim Thomas leading the way. After a series of health-related issues forced him to forfeit his starting duties to back-up Tuuka Rask, Thomas was considered a long-shot, at best, to see regular playing time in the Boston crease...

He ended up having an OK year.

Whether it is a veteran player who is counted out too soon, or a blue-chip prospect that comes from nowhere (anyone remember Clarke MacArthur as a Buffalo Sabre?), every NHL season has its share of surprise heroes. Here’s a closer look at three players who I believe could fit the bill in 2011-12:

Dustin Brown - RW, LA Kings

The 26-year-old captain has long been one of the NHL’s most underrated players. Coming off the first season in his career in which he earned a positive plus/minus rating, Brown is quickly becoming the complete package Kings’ management was hoping for when they awarded him the "C" in 2008. With his yearly production consistently approaching 60 points, Brown has drawn offensive comparisons to Maple Leafs all-star forward Phil Kessel.

The comparisons, however, end there. Brown brings a physical presence and defensive awareness that could prove invaluable to a Kings franchise that is loaded with offensive talent. He finished last season with a respectable +17 rating and a whopping 300 hits. The not-so-truculent and only mildly pugnacious Kessel threw a total of 11 hits all season and registered a plus/minus of -20.

Factor in the additions of Mike Richards and Simon Gagné up front, along with returning offensive stalwart Anze Kopitar, and Brown appears to have the supporting cast needed to springboard himself into superstardom.

Jaromir Jagr - RW, Philadelphia Flyers

When the Flyers parted ways with captain Mike Richards and perennial all-star Jeff Carter, many within the hockey community were left scratching their heads. When they signed Jaromir Jagr, at the age of 39 and three years removed from NHL action, many wondered if GM Paul Holmgren had lost his marbles completely. But with talented young forwards like Claude Giroux, Wayne Simmonds and Brayden Schenn now expected to shoulder the bulk of the offensive load, Jagr could be just what the doctor ordered for the City of Brotherly Love.

While it’s true that Jagr’s best days are probably in the rear-view, he has spent the past three seasons playing at a point-per game pace with Avangard Omsk of the KHL. The Flyers will look to the five-time scoring champion and six-time Hart Trophy finalist to provide leadership and experience on a team that is stacked with young talent, but compared to last year’s opening night line-up, currently resembles a video game roster.

Jaromir Jagr may be a step slower, but the Flyers are more than capable of surrounding him with enough speed to compensate. Look for him to shine on the power play this season, where his wealth of experience and talent will serve him well.

Scott Gomez - C, Montreal Canadiens

Coming off a woeful 2010-11 campaign that saw him register career-lows in nearly every offensive category, Gomez has been the focal point of many critics since arriving in Montreal at the beginning of the 2009-10 season. His $7.3m cap hit certainly isn’t doing much to soothe the notoriously difficult-to-please Montreal fan base, either.

But there is an air of confidence around Scott Gomez this pre-season that equates to more than the usual "everyone is a contender in September" mentality. Gomez returned to his native Alaska for only one week this summer, spending the majority of his offseason working with a personal trainer and conditioning coach in New York. He has been doing, and saying, all the right things as the clock ticks down to puck-drop on October 6th.

"There's no one more embarrassed than me...If I had pulled my weight, who knows? I didn't. I'll be the first to look my teammates in the eye and say it. It won't happen again. It can't. It just won't...I want to deliver this season. Whether you've had a great season or a bad season, we're now at a new season," he said in an interview with the Montreal Gazette this summer.

Expect Gomez to benefit greatly from the continued development of winger Max Pacioretty, who is expected to return at full capacity this year after having his season cut short by a devastating neck injury on March 8th. The addition of sizeable forward Erik Cole should also clear up some free ice for the smooth-skating Gomez.

At only 31 years of age, Gomez has plenty left in the tank. If he can find his stride early and strike a balance with the proper line-mates, look for him to climb once again into the 60 point range. He may never live up to his monstrous contract, but he definitely has the potential to return to form as one of the league’s premier set-up men.

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