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A starting lineup of NHL players having surprisingly good seasons

There are plenty of reasons to be disappointed the NHL regular season was indefinitely put on pause — some far more serious than others.

Before the stoppage, hockey fans got their usual fix of superstars lighting up the league, but like every season there were also many pleasant surprises.

Since we don’t yet know when or if hockey might return, we thought of putting together a starting lineup (three forwards, two defencemen and a goalie) of players who were in the midst of surprising seasons.

Mika Zibanejad, RW, New York Rangers

With 11 goals and 13 points in his six most recent games, there weren’t many players hotter than Zibanejad before the NHL suspended play.

The 26-year-old Swede — acquired along with a seventh-rounder in 2016 from Ottawa in exchange for Derrick Brassard and a second-round pick — has improved in each year since arriving on Broadway. He had a career year in 2018-19 with 30 goals and 74 points but had been operating on a different level this season with 41 goals and 75 points through only 57 games, putting him seventh in the NHL in points per game.

Zibanejad began the season with back-to-back four-point outings and it was a sign of things to come. With 22 multi-point performances, including a five-goal game in early March, when Zibanejad’s on he’s really on.

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J.T. Miller, C, Vancouver Canucks

There were more than a few skeptical eyebrows raised when Jim Benning sent a first- and third-round pick to the Tampa Bay Lightning in order to acquire Miller prior to the 2019 NHL Draft, but Miller’s performance this season has been worth the price.

All indications are that in addition to his presence on the ice he’s been a positive, calming influence in the locker room.

The 27-year-old had more of a depth role on a stacked Tampa Bay squad one season ago and has taken full advantage of his increased role and ice-time with the Canucks. Miller has already set new career highs with 27 goals and 72 points in 69 games with Vancouver, while boasting strong possession numbers. He had also been outstanding in the face-off circle, winning 59.2 per cent of his draws, which is the second-best in the NHL with only Sean Couturier faring better.

Dominik Kubalik, LW, Chicago Blackhawks

If you were to look at a list of Calder Trophy contenders at the start of the season you’d probably have to do quite a bit of scrolling before you got to Kubalik. After all, he was 23 and hadn’t skated in a regular-season NHL game after being selected in the seventh round of the 2013 draft.

The versatile Czech forward had performed well with Ambri-Piotta in the Swiss league the past two seasons and a strong showing at the 2019 IIHF world championship helped land him a one-year deal with the Blackhawks. He leads all rookies with 30 goals and all rookie forwards with 46 points.

Tony DeAngelo, D, New York Rangers

Tied for third in goals and fourth in points among all blueliners, and doing so while averaging less than 20 minutes per game, DeAngelo has provided the Rangers with unexpected production in his third year with the team and isn’t afraid to mix it up when things get physical despite being listed at 5-foot-11 and 180 pounds. DeAngelo, a first-round pick from 2014, has finally found his footing in the NHL after a pair of early-career trades. The only negative aspect of this for the Rangers is the 24-year-old pending restricted free agent is potentially playing himself into a big contract.

Jaccob Slavin, D, Carolina Hurricanes

Slavin is the type of defenceman who always fly under the radar due to his style of play and the fact his point production doesn’t jump off the page. He has a career-high 36 points in 68 games this season, although 32 of which have come at even strength which ranks sixth among back end talent. The defensive stalwart notably tops the NHL in takeaways, a category almost always led by a forward.

Pavel Francouz, G, Colorado Avalanche

With a 21-7-4 record, a .923 save percentage and 2.41 goals-against average, Francouz has been terrific in the Colorado crease. Tristan Jarry, Elvis Merzlikins and Darcy Kuemper are also thriving on their respective teams but their success didn’t come out of the blue like Francouz’s. He put up great numbers with Chelyabinsk Traktor in the KHL before moving to the AHL last season. The Avs were two points behind the Blues for first place in the West with a game in hand and the undrafted 29-year-old is a major reason.

Francouz has been such a pleasant surprise for the Avs that he was rewarded with a two-year, $4-million extension in February.

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Written by Sportsnet

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