The Biggest Overachievers in the 2017-18 NHL Season So Far

Carol SchramFeatured ColumnistNovember 28, 2017

The Biggest Overachievers in the 2017-18 NHL Season So Far

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    With increased scoring in the NHL this season, many of hockey's biggest names have taken up residence at the top of the statistical leaderboards.

    Alex Ovechkin is in his rightful spot as the top goal scorer, a healthy Steven Stamkos leads the league in points and Sergei Bobrovsky is making his case to be the first back-to-back Vezina Trophy winner since Martin Brodeur a decade ago with his league-leading .935 save percentage.

    But the familiar players aren't the only ones at the top of their games. Every season, new faces emerge. This year is no exception. Some are on their way to carving out spots among the league's top stars, while others could turn out to be enjoying temporary success.

    There's one thing most of this year's overachievers have in common: contract status. Five of the six players featured are headed toward some form of free agency and will be negotiating new deals before the beginning of the 2018-19 season.

    From front to back, here's a look at the NHL's dream team of overachievers as we approach the two-month mark of 2017-18.

Vladislav Namestnikov, LW, Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Age: 25    

    2017-18 Stats: 23 GP, 10-12-22, plus-six

    Contract Info: Second year of a two-year deal with a cap hit of $1.9375 million. Vladislav Namestnikov will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights at the end of the season.

          

    Why He Has Surprised

    A move from center to left wing has landed Namestnikov on one of hockey's hottest lines. As a result, he's on pace for a career year.

    Playing with a healthy tamkos and the still-improving Nikita Kucherov, Namestnikov has seen his average ice time jump by more than four minutes per game, including more time on the league's top power play. His offense has increased accordingly.

    Producing nearly a point per game, it won't be long before Namestnikov surpasses his previous high of 14 goals and 35 points from 2015-16. Part of a talented group of Tampa Bay forwards, he was an unexpected choice to ride shotgun with Stamkos and Kucherov. With the line's success through the early part of the season, he won't be getting replaced anytime soon.

William Karlsson, C, Vegas Golden Knights

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    Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Age: 24

    2017-18 Stats: 22 GP, 13-9-22, plus-seven

    Contract Info: Second year of a two-year deal with a cap hit of $1 million. William Karlsson will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights at the end of the season.

          

    Why He Has Surprised

    The first-line center and leading scorer for the overachieving Vegas Golden Knights was the consolation prize offered up by the Columbus Blue Jackets in the expansion draft.

    Per Omnisport (h/t Yahoo Sports), the Jackets gave Vegas a first-round draft pick in 2017 (24th overall), a third-round pick in 2019 and the contract of injured forward David Clarkson in exchange for the assurance that the Golden Knights would not target young forwards Alexander Wennberg and Josh Anderson or goaltender Joonas Korpisalo.

    It turned out to be one of Vegas general manager George McPhee's slickest moves. He extracted a significant bounty from the Blue Jackets in exchange for some help in reaching the salary-cap floor and landed a player on the cusp of a breakout season.

    The Anaheim Ducks drafted Karlsson in the second round in 2011, and he was then shipped to Columbus in a 2015 trade-deadline deal centered around the Ducks' acquisition of defenseman James Wisniewski. In his two full seasons in Columbus, Karlsson scored 20 and 25 points, failing to carve out a niche for himself in a deep pool of young talent.

    With a chip on his shoulder and 18 minutes of ice time per game, the Swedish sniper is making the most of his opportunity in Vegas this season. His 13 goals, including three game-winners, have quickly made him a fan favorite—and he's setting himself up for a significant raise on his next contract.

Josh Bailey, RW, New York Islanders

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Age: 28

    2017-18 Stats: 23 GP, 5-23-28, plus-three

    Contract Info: Final year of a five-year deal with a cap hit of $3.3 million. Josh Bailey will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

          

    Why He Has Surprised 

    By the time a player hits his age-28 season, his hockey ceiling is usually well-defined. Bailey is still showing upside with the New York Islanders. A promising prospect who was drafted ninth overall in 2008, Bailey has established himself primarily as a playmaker but has only recently shown he has what it takes to be a top-line player.

    Last season, Bailey finished second on the Islanders in scoring, with 56 points, and his 43 assists led the team. This year, he's tied for ninth in the NHL scoring race and two points ahead of John Tavares on the Islanders. His production has him on pace for 82 assists and 100 points over a full season.

    Coach Doug Weight's combination of Bailey, Tavares and Anders Lee has given New York a potent top line. The team is exceeding expectations and holding down a playoff spot in the tough Metropolitan Division.

    There has been plenty of talk about whether Tavares will re-sign with the Islanders as he approaches unrestricted free agency. His wingman, Bailey, is also a UFA at the end of the season. Their strong chemistry could tempt them to proceed as a Paul Kariya/Teemu Selanne-type package deal when deciding where they would like to play next season.

Will Butcher, D, New Jersey Devils

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Age: 22

    2017-18 Stats: 23 GP, 2-16-18, plus-seven

    Contract Info: First year of a two-year entry-level contract with an average annual value of $975,000.

           

    Why He Has Surprised 

    It's always nice to get something for nothing. The New Jersey Devils were pleased to sign 2017 Hobey Baker winner Will Butcher as an unrestricted free agent this summer, following his NCAA Division I championship season at the University of Denver.

    The Devils needed to add depth on their blue line. Recent rule changes have made the NHL a much more welcoming place for undersized puck-moving defensemen like the 5'10", 190-pounder.

    The Wisconsin native has taken full advantage of his opportunity from the start, turning heads with three assists in his first NHL game. His 10 power-play points are tied for second in the league among defensemen, helping to revive a previously moribund Devils unit and ignite the offense on a team that has long been known to have trouble scoring.

    Butcher's 18 points tie him with teammate and first overall draft pick Nico Hischier for fourth place in rookie scoring. Butcher is also in a tie for fifth in scoring by defensemen with stars Kris Letang, P.K. Subban, John Carlson and Kevin Shattenkirk.

    He didn't enter the NHL with the fanfare of a Jimmy Vesey or a Kevin Hayes, but in the early going, Butcher is proving to be one of the most effective NCAA free agents to break into the league in many years.

John Carlson, D, Washington Capitals

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Age: 27    

    2017-18 Stats: 25 GP, 2-16-18, minus-eight

    Contract Info: Final year of a six-year deal with a cap hit of $3.967 million. Carlson will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

           

    Why He Has Surprised

    During the offseason, the Washington Capitals said goodbye to defensemen Karl Alzner, Nate Schmidt and short-timer Kevin Shattenkirk. One result of losing so much depth on the back end has been an increased workload for Carlson.

    At a time when most teams are easing off on the minutes for their top blueliners, Carlson has seen his ice time spike to 26 minutes and 39 seconds per game this season. That's nearly four minutes more than his career average and fourth-most in the league.

    Given that heavy workload, perhaps Carlson's team-worst minus-eight can be taken with a grain of salt. After all, power-play points don't count toward plus-minus, and Carlson's 10 points tie him for second in the league among defensemen.

    Like Bailey, Carlson is on the cusp of unrestricted free agency. And also like the New York Islander, he's on pace for 59 points, which would be a career-best offensive season.

    With a small pool of defensemen expected to be available in free agency next summer, Carlson is setting himself up to trigger a bidding war and reel in a massive new contract come July 1.

Connor Hellebuyck, Winnipeg Jets

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Age: 24

    2016-17 Stats: 19 GP, 13-2-2, 2.31 goals-against average, .927 save percentage

    Contract Info: One-year contract with a cap hit of $2.25 million. Connor Hellebuyck will be a restricted free agent with arbitration rights at the end of the season.

            

    Why He Has Surprised

    The Winnipeg Jets balked on their transition to Hellebuyck as their No. 1 goaltender after he posted a 2.89 goals-against average and .907 save percentage in 56 appearances last season.

    Uncertain their goalie of the future was good enough to backstop an impressive group of young skaters up front, general manager Kevin Cheveldayoff paid big bucks to lure Steve Mason to the frigid Canadian prairie with a two-year, $8.2 million contract. That proved to be just the motivation Hellebuyck needed.

    After two subpar starts from Mason to start the season, coach Paul Maurice turned back to Hellebuyck. It worked.

    The fifth-round draft pick from 2012, who excelled in college at UMass-Lowell, has improved his numbers dramatically—and the Jets are finally winning. Hellebuyck is tied for third in the league, with 13 wins, and Winnipeg has climbed to third place in the league standings.

    It was worth paying Mason if it helped to bring out the best in Hellebuyck.

            

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com, current through games played Monday, November 27. Contract information from CapFriendly.