And while every team has had its fair share of surprises during the campaign, we set out to identify the biggest of them for all 32 here.
How we rank: A panel of ESPN hockey commentators, analysts, reporters and editors rates teams against one another — taking into account game results, injuries and upcoming schedule — and those results are tabulated to produce the list featured here.
Note: Previous ranking for each team refers to last week’s edition, published on Dec. 1. Points percentages are through Tuesday’s games.
Previous ranking: 2
Points percentage: 0.760
Upcoming schedule: @ ARI (Dec. 10), @ COL (Dec. 12), vs. OTT (Dec. 14)
Florida has handled adversity surprisingly well so far. Head coach Joel Quenneville resigns? Enter Andrew Brunette. Aleksander Barkov, Gustav Forsling or Sergei Bobrovsky (who’s surprising many with a bounce-back season) get hurt? It’s next man up. The Panthers keep proving they can weather a storm, without losing more than two consecutive games in regulation all season.
Previous ranking: 4
Points percentage: 0.704
Upcoming schedule: vs. TB (Dec. 9), vs. CHI (Dec. 11), @ EDM (Dec. 14)
Jack Campbell has been shockingly good in net for Toronto. Even his breakout campaign last season hasn’t lessened the surprise of his current surge, which has him sitting atop the NHL goalie field through 20 games at 13-4-2 with a .942 save percentage and 1.78 goals-against average.
Previous ranking: 6
Points percentage: 0.673
Upcoming schedule: vs. CAR (Dec. 9), vs. BOS (Dec. 11), @ CHI (Dec. 13), @ NSH (Dec. 14)
Calgary is the most surprising team of the season. Period. And Andrew Mangiapane must be the NHL’s most unexpected star. Darryl Sutter’s squad has used great defense, excellent goaltending and red-hot offensive performances to go from “bubble playoff contender” to “could they go all the way?” Through it all, Mangiapane has kept producing, with 17 goals in 25 games.
Previous ranking: 3
Points percentage: 0.731
Upcoming schedule: vs. PIT (Dec. 10), @ BUF (Dec. 11)
Nicklas Backstrom is one of the NHL’s best centers and hasn’t played a minute for the Capitals this season due to injury. But, surprise! Washington isn’t missing a beat. Between Alex Ovechkin scoring at will and Evgeny Kuznetsov having a surprising resurgence of his own, the Capitals are humming right along.
Previous ranking: 1
Points percentage: 0.729
Upcoming schedule: @ CGY (Dec. 9), @ EDM (Dec. 11), @ VAN (Dec. 12), @ MIN (Dec. 14)
The Hurricanes had a shockingly good start. Like, they’d only lost two games all season before falling in overtime to San Jose late last month; that kind of good. To see the spiral that followed — a 1-4-1 record with losses to Seattle and Ottawa (at home!) — was the most surprising blip out of Carolina this season.
Previous ranking: 10
Points percentage: 0.771
Upcoming schedule: vs. COL (Dec. 8), @ BUF (Dec. 10), vs. NSH (Dec. 12), @ COL (Dec. 14)
There’s an element of surprise in how the Rangers’ young offensive stars have struggled to score this season (the “Kid Line” of Alexis Lafreniere, Filip Chytil and Julien Gauthier has eight goals between them, for example). But the real shock is Igor Shesterkin. Whatever the expectations were for him as Henrik Lundqvist‘s successor, Shesterkin has blown them away as New York’s best player.
Previous ranking: 7
Points percentage: 0.740
Upcoming schedule: @ SJ (Dec. 9), @ LA (Dec. 11), @ VGK (Dec. 12), vs. CAR (Dec. 14)
The Wild are, somewhat surprisingly, top five in NHL scoring. What’s more eye-popping is the balanced attack that’s gotten them there. Through 24 games, Minnesota had just two players (Ryan Hartman and Marcus Foligno) with more than 10 goals, while 14 players had contributed at least three markers, and 12 were in double-digit point totals.
Previous ranking: 8
Points percentage: 0.720
Upcoming schedule: @ TOR (Dec. 9), @ OTT (Dec. 11), vs. LA (Dec. 14)
It’s shocking how Tampa refuses to be rattled. Nikita Kucherov has been sidelined since Game 3. Victor Hedman has only recently begun rebounding from a bad start. Brayden Point‘s out. Mathieu Joseph missed time. But 21-year-old rookie Gabriel Fortier has come in as a reinforcement, Anthony Cirelli is embracing opportunity and Andrei Vasilevskiy is, well, Andrei Vasilveskiy. On they go.
Previous ranking: 5
Points percentage: 0.667
Upcoming schedule: vs. BOS (Dec. 9), vs. CAR (Dec. 11), vs. TOR (Dec. 14)
It’s surprising to see talent-laden Edmonton still struggle with a pattern of inconsistency — start slow, scramble into the second and attempt a whirlwind third-period comeback. It didn’t work in the playoffs last spring and it’s not doing them much good this season, either. Edmonton is 0-6-0 this season when trailing after the first period and 7-7-0 when giving up the first goal.
Previous ranking: 9
Points percentage: 0.636
Upcoming schedule: @ NYR (Dec. 8), vs. DET (Dec. 10), vs. FLA (Dec. 12), vs. NYR (Dec. 14)
Nazem Kadri sitting in the top five in scoring through the quarter mark? Didn’t see that coming. And the Avalanche going 7-1-0 while Nathan MacKinnon was out with an injury? Another shocker. The Avs’ depth has blossomed more than expected this season, and they look formidable because of it.
Previous ranking: 12
Points percentage: 0.611
Upcoming schedule: @ CBJ (Dec. 9), @ PIT (Dec. 11), @ STL (Dec. 12)
Anaheim is rebuilding — and it’s been shockingly good in the process. Troy Terry is a surprising point-per-game player. Trevor Zegras is making a case for Calder Trophy consideration. And Ryan Getzlaf was, prior to suffering an injury last week, turning back the clock with his best season in years. Oh, and John Gibson has been every bit the elite netminder. A rebuild is rarely looked so good!
Previous ranking: 19
Points percentage: 0.636
Upcoming schedule: @ VGK (Dec. 8), @ LA (Dec. 9), @ SJ (Dec. 11), vs. STL (Dec. 14)
The Stars’ biggest surprise of the season? Jake Oettinger. Dallas needed a complement in net for veteran Braden Holtby and it has found it, perhaps unexpectedly, in Oettinger. The 22-year-old went 5-0-0 after being recalled, with a 1.41 goals-against average and .951 save percentage. And wouldn’t you know, suddenly Dallas is rocketing up the standings.
Previous ranking: 17
Points percentage: 0.580
Upcoming schedule: @ WSH (Dec. 10), vs. ANA (Dec. 11), vs. MTL (Dec. 14)
Let’s talk about the surprising run of Jake Guentzel (because really, we should be). Amid all the COVID drama in Pittsburgh, Guentzel been picking up the slack of a Penguins team that’s averaging fewer than three goals per game; the winger had points in 20 of his first 24 games, scored a hat trick in one period against Vancouver last week and is on a 12-game point streak.
Previous ranking: 16
Points percentage: 0.595
Upcoming schedule: @ VAN (Dec. 8), @ EDM (Dec. 9), @ CGY (Dec. 11), vs. VGK (Dec. 14)
The Bruins not being in a playoff spot through 21 games? A little surprising. More shocking? That anyone is surprised by 33-year-old Brad Marchand still being both the Bruins’ top scorer and as provocative as ever.
Previous ranking: 13
Points percentage: 0.583
Upcoming schedule: vs. DAL (Dec. 8), vs. PHI (Dec. 10), vs. MIN (Dec. 12), @ BOS (Dec. 14)
The idea was for Vegas to be a strong Western Conference contender, so the team’s bad start (due in part to injuries and illnesses) was a shock to the standings. The Golden Knights are on the rise in part because of a more pleasant surprise: Chandler Stephenson. The forward led Vegas with nine goals and 22 points in 24 games, bringing consistency when the Golden Knights were lacking for it.
Previous ranking: 11
Points percentage: 0.560
Upcoming schedule: @ SEA (Dec. 9), @ VAN (Dec. 10), vs. BUF (Dec. 14)
The Jets have had a surprisingly difficult time scoring goals. Before last weekend’s wins over New Jersey and Toronto by a combined 14-7, Winnipeg was 30th overall in goals (1.92 per game) since Nov. 6, and it was shut out three times in that stretch. The tide seemingly has begun to turn though, and that’s hardly a shock given what Mark Scheifele, Nikolaj Ehlers & Co. are capable of doing.
Previous ranking: 14
Points percentage: 0.600
Upcoming schedule: vs. DET (Dec. 9), vs. MTL (Dec. 11), vs. ANA (Dec. 12), @ DAL (Dec. 14)
It’s surprising that St. Louis is still a contender in the Central Division, given the up-and-down season it has had. Five straight wins to start, then a stretch of seven losses in 10 games (including to Arizona — on home ice!), players going in and out of COVID protocols … it’s a lot. And shockingly, the Blues were very much in the playoff mix through 24 games, at 12-8-4. That’s something.
Previous ranking: 21
Points percentage: 0.580
Upcoming schedule: @ NYI (Dec. 9), @ NJ (Dec. 10), @ NYR (Dec. 12), vs. CGY (Dec. 14)
Has there been a more pleasant surprise for Nashville than the return of Matt Duchene? Probably not. The Predators have been waiting for Duchene to break out the way he has, with 13 goals and 24 points in his first 24 games. That’s helped Nashville get off to a stronger start than expected, in a tight Central Division race.
Previous ranking: 24
Points percentage: 0.558
Upcoming schedule: @ STL (Dec. 9), @ COL (Dec. 10), vs. NYI (Dec. 14)
Detroit certainly wasn’t expected to be a playoff contender. But the surprising play of rookies Lucas Raymond, Moritz Seider and Alex Nedeljkovic helped propel Detroit into a wild-card spot through 25 games. That’s shocking.
Previous ranking: 22
Points percentage: 0.500
Upcoming schedule: vs. DAL (Dec. 9), vs. MIN (Dec. 11), @ TB (Dec. 14)
The most shocking thing out of the Kings’ camp must be prospect Brandt Clarke being left off Canada’s World Junior Championship roster. He’s a projected future star. Another shocker? Drew Doughty returning from injury about a month ahead of schedule. That’s impressive no matter who you are.
Previous ranking: 15
Points percentage: 0.542
Upcoming schedule: vs. ANA (Dec. 9), @ SEA (Dec. 11), @ VAN (Dec. 14)
The Blue Jackets have gotten surprisingly good goaltending. Elvis Merzlikins was 10-4-0 to start and top 12 among NHL starters with a .920 save percentage. Daniil Tarasov has come in for the injured Joonas Korpisalo and put up a .926 save percentage (but still needs his first win). Overall, it’s some solid netminding for a Columbus team that’s been top five in shots against this season.
Previous ranking: 18
Points percentage: 0.500
Upcoming schedule: vs. PHI (Dec. 8), vs. NSH (Dec. 10), @ NYI (Dec. 11), @ PHI (Dec. 14)
The Devils have a surprisingly ineffective power play when you consider who’s available to play on it. Yes, Jack Hughes was missing for weeks, but Dougie Hamilton, Dawson Mercer, Andreas Johnsson, Jesper Bratt and Nico Hischier weren’t. Yet New Jersey was 31st overall (13.1%) on the power play through 23 games, while allowing three short-handed goals. Ouch.
Previous ranking: 20
Points percentage: 0.558
Upcoming schedule: vs. MIN (Dec. 9), vs. DAL (Dec. 11), vs. SEA (Dec. 14)
San Jose surprised with a hot start in the Pacific, and they remain in playoff position as of this week. That’s despite not having their leading scorer from last season (Evander Kane) and and dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak early on. It’s a credit, in part, to another surprising development: James Reimer‘s resurgence. Through his first 14 appearances, Reimer was 8-4-1 with .934 save percentage and 2.11 goals-against average.
Previous ranking: 26
Points percentage: 0.400
Upcoming schedule: @ MTL (Dec. 9), @ TOR (Dec. 11), vs. CGY (Dec. 13)
Chicago’s biggest surprise is Derek King getting the team back on the rails after a disastrous 1-10-2 start. The Blackhawks went 8-4-0 in King’s first 13 games, and could still salvage something positive out of this season. But it’s also worth noting the shock of seeing Jonathan Toews without a goal through his first 24 games.
Previous ranking: 23
Points percentage: 0.435
Upcoming schedule: @ NJ (Dec. 8), @ VGK (Dec. 10), @ ARI (Dec. 11), vs. NJ (Dec. 14)
The Flyers have been surprisingly average in the face of so much potential. After 23 games, Philadelphia didn’t have one player with more than 10 goals, and it’s one of the NHL’s lowest-scoring clubs despite names like Claude Giroux, Cam Atkinson and Travis Konecny getting plenty of ice time. Having one of the least successful power plays in the league (14.3%) is shocking, too.
Previous ranking: 29
Points percentage: 0.405
Upcoming schedule: vs. NSH (Dec. 9), vs. NJ (Dec. 11), @ DET (Dec. 14)
What isn’t surprising about the Islanders’ slide this season? That 13-game road trip to open the campaign took its toll, as did a COVID-19 outbreak and postponement. But New York is inexplicably one of the NHL’s lowest-scoring teams, its power play has been hovering around the bottom five and the overall defensive game has been inconsistent. Not what you’d expect from a team that nearly made the last two Cup Finals.
Previous ranking: 27
Points percentage: 0.385
Upcoming schedule: vs. BOS (Dec. 8), vs. WPG (Dec. 10), vs. CAR (Dec. 12), vs. CBJ (Dec. 14)
The biggest shocker? The lack of production from Canucks’ stars Elias Pettersson and Brock Boeser, which has clearly contributed to the team’s bafflingly poor start. The second biggest shocker? That it took until this week for Vancouver to finally make changes, in replacing Travis Green with Bruce Boudreau and firing GM Jim Benning.
Previous ranking: 28
Points percentage: 0.400
Upcoming schedule: vs. WPG (Dec. 9), vs. CBJ (Dec. 11), @ SJ (Dec. 14)
It’s hard to be surprised by anything from a team that didn’t exist until this season. But Philipp Grubauer going from Vezina Trophy finalist to struggling starter (7-10-2, .886 save percentage) is a scenario not many would have predicted. Even on an expansion club roster.
Previous ranking: 30
Points percentage: 0.313
Upcoming schedule: vs. TB (Dec. 11), @ FLA (Dec. 14)
How surprising is it that Senators general manager Pierre Dorion actually said before the season started that “the rebuild is done” in Ottawa? Very. After 23 games, the Senators were 32nd in goals against and 31st in shots against, Matt Murray has been sent to the minors and there aren’t enough players stepping up fast enough to stop the bleeding.
Previous ranking: 31
Points percentage: 0.278
Upcoming schedule: vs. CHI (Dec. 9), @ STL (Dec. 11), @ PIT (Dec. 14)
The Canadiens are the worse surprise of the season. From a Stanley Cup finalist to the dismantling of their front office in less than six months. A shocking turn of events.
Previous ranking: 25
Points percentage: 0.380
Upcoming schedule: vs. NYR (Dec. 10), vs. WSH (Dec. 11), @ WPG (Dec. 14)
The most surprising thing Buffalo’s done was come out with a terrific 5-2-0 start. And if Craig Anderson hadn’t gotten hurt, maybe the subsequent free fall wouldn’t have been so dramatic. But the Sabres’ goaltending has been shockingly bad without Anderson, especially from Aaron Dell‘s first seven appearances (4.52 goals-against average, .872 save percentage) and Malcolm Subban‘s first start (.760 save percentage).
Previous ranking: 32
Points percentage: 0.240
Upcoming schedule: vs. FLA (Dec. 10), vs. PHI (Dec. 11)
Arizona has five wins on the season, and three of them came against teams in playoff contention. That’s a surprise.