Weekend notebook: surprises of 2011-12

In the spirit of the holiday break, we bring you a six-pack of players who have been surprises for their respective teams this season:

Brian Elliott, St. Louis Blues

Has there been a more dramatic turnaround in the league this season?

Elliott, 26, was unwanted in Ottawa last season and shipped to Colorado, where the Avalanche didn’t retain his services, either, after a season in which he posted awful numbers, albeit for a pair of doormat clubs.

Hat in hand, the native of Newmarket, Ontario, accepted a two-way contract with the Blues with the only promise that he could battle young Ben Bishop in camp for the right to back up Jaroslav Halak.

And Elliott signed the exact same deal as Bishop -- $600,000 NHL salary, $105,000 AHL salary.

“I thought he made a really wise business decision to take the exact same contract that Bishop had,” Blues GM Doug Armstrong told ESPN.com this week. “If he would have come in at $900,000 or something like that, we may have maybe looked at it from a business perspective and wondered if it was worth the extra money. But he came in under the exact same contract and made it a true competition on the ice.”

In the end, Armstrong said, Elliott and Bishop had good camps, but the Blues decided to keep the more experienced Elliott on the NHL roster.

“He’s certainly made the most of the opportunity,” Armstrong said.

You think? How about leading all NHL goalies in goals-against average (1.52) and save percentage (.944) entering Friday night? Unreal.

Funny how a player can react when his career hangs in the balance.

“He had to recalibrate, he had to re-establish himself,” Armstrong said. “Early in the year, he played a great game in San Jose and was able to follow that up. And quite honestly, we’ve played a really good team game in front of him also to try and minimize second opportunities.”

Indeed, the Blues give up the fewest shots of any team in the NHL, so that certainly doesn’t hurt.

Elliott, meanwhile, is slated to be an unrestricted free agent July 1.

“We haven’t talked to any of our players yet who will be unrestricted,” Armstrong said. “Once we get to the 45-, 50-game mark, it may be time but we haven’t got there yet.”

You better bet they’ll want Elliott back to continue his terrific tandem with Halak.

Jason Garrison, Florida Panthers

Had you told anyone on the Florida Panthers in September that Jason Garrison would be leading all NHL defensemen with 10 goals entering their last game before the Christmas break, they would have asked how many drinks you’ve had.

After all, Garrison entered the season with seven career goals in 113 career NHL games as mostly a rugged, defensive blueliner in his first two years.

But first-year coach Kevin Dineen saw the merits of trying out Garrison’s heavy shot on the power play. Combined with Brian Campbell’s silky smooth setup passes teeing him up, Garrison has struck gold with his thunderous blasts from the point.

“He’s got a cannon for a shot, he gets some nice feeds from Soupy and he’s been a real fun surprise for us,” Panthers GM Dale Tallon told ESPN.com this week. “We’ll certainly take it.”

And it just so happens that the 27-year-old Garrison, a native of White Rock, British Columbia, is slated for unrestricted free agency July 1. He’ll be getting a raise from the $675,000 he’s earning this season, and Tallon told ESPN.com both sides have begun preliminary contract talks.

"Cha-ching" might just be Garrison’s new middle name.

Eric Nystrom, Dallas Stars

Stars GM Joe Nieuwendyk joked with ESPN.com in early October that the Sean Avery contract was the gift that keeps on giving.

Little did he know how true that actually would end up being for the Stars.

When the New York Rangers demoted Avery in the first week of the season, it threatened to put the Stars under the league’s minimum salary floor, because suddenly half of the winger’s contract was coming off the cap (the Rangers claimed Avery off re-entry waivers from the Stars during the 2008-09 season, keeping Dallas on the hook for half his four-year deal).

So the Stars were forced to scramble and pick up a salary ASAP as not to fall under the floor. They scoured the early-season market -- there certainly wasn’t much out there -- and settled on Nystrom from the Minnesota Wild organization.

To Nieuwendyk’s credit, he told me the very day, Oct. 12, Nystrom was acquired that the Stars felt they picked up a player who could help them and that it wasn’t solely a payroll-saving transaction.

Still, Nystrom never ends up with the Stars if the Rangers don’t demote Avery first.

“Funny how things play out sometimes, right?” Nieuwendyk told ESPN.com this week.

The 28-year-old Nystrom, son of famous Islanders player Bob Nystrom, has put up 11 goals in 28 games for the Stars, nothing short of stunning while playing on an effective third line with Vern Fiddler and Radek Dvorak.

“Eric’s been great for us,” Nieuwendyk said. “I think when you go through some of the things he’s been through, like signing in Minnesota and then being put in the minors, you get a young guy who is appreciative of the opportunity. It’s infectious around the locker room. There’s not too many rainy days with this guy. The sun is always shining. That positive energy has been terrific for our hockey team.”

The native of Syosset, N.Y., has one more year on a deal that pays him $1.4 million next season.

Mike Smith, Phoenix Coyotes

Ilya Bryzgalov exited Phoenix last summer, and Smith replaced him.

And with that, very few people in the hockey world held out any hope the Coyotes had a chance this season.

Coyotes GM Don Maloney told me last September during a preseason game in Glendale, Ariz., that if somehow his club could get top-15 goaltending this season, it would be able to hang in there.

I shook hands with Maloney and wished him good luck, while I thought, “Top-15 goaltending from Mike Smith and Jason Labarbera? Dream on!”

Once again, those of us who doubted the Coyotes are reminded not to have done so.

Smith, 29, entered the Christmas break sixth in the NHL among goalies with 15 wins and 15th with a solid .920 save percentage.

That’s nothing short of surprising for a guy who was discarded by the Tampa Bay Lightning last season and even spent time in the AHL.

“For the first 20 games of the season, Mike was at the top of the league in every category and was one of the very best goalies in the league,” Maloney told ESPN.com this week. “The last few weeks he hasn’t been quite as dynamic but he’s still giving us a chance to win every night.”

When Bryzgalov wouldn’t re-sign last June, it left the club with a big hole and not a lot of money to fill it. Maloney scoped the market and decided Smith was a worthy gamble, partly because Smith broke into the league under Coyotes coach Dave Tippett, when Tippett coached the Dallas Stars in 2006-07.

“For us, it came back to Mike’s age, Tipp’s familiarity with him, Burkey’s (goalies coach Sean Burke) potential tutoring. We just felt if could help him along he was poised to take on a No. 1 role,” Maloney said.

Maloney, the 2009-10 NHL GM of the Year, has been proved right so far.

Of course, the cynics will say any goalie can thrive in Tippett’s system.

“I think our system certainly helps Mike, but at the end of the day he’s still the guy stopping the puck,” Maloney said. “There’s games we had no right being in earlier this season that he kept us in. I just think it’s all come together for Mike.”

Milan Michalek, Ottawa Senators

Michalek, 27, has already surpassed his entire goal tally from last season (18) and is easily on pace to eclipse his career high of 26 goals he set in 2006-07 with the San Jose Sharks.

The obvious difference this season is that he’s finally healthy. Serious knee problems and ACL surgeries over the past few years have limited his durability and effectiveness. But the Czech winger is back.

“There’s no question that knee injury really hurt him and set him back,” Senators GM Bryan Murray told ESPN.com earlier this month. “That’s the real difference this season; he was able to work hard over the summer. He came to camp in great shape and his skating is really good at this point.”

A concussion suffered after colliding with teammate Erik Karlsson on Dec. 13 on the same night he scored his 19th goal (in 31 games) has sidelined him, but all signs point to a return after the holiday break.

He’s one of several key reasons the rebuilding Senators have surprised this season.

Michalek is in the fourth season of a six-year deal that carries a $4.33 million cap hit, paying him $4.75 million in salary next season and $6 million in 2013-14.

Joffrey Lupul, Toronto Maple Leafs

Lupul had a contract the Anaheim Ducks could not wait to discard last season.

Serious back problems -- including a scary infection -- limited Lupul over a two-year stretch, convincing the Ducks he wasn’t worth the $4.25 million a year he had coming through the 2012-13 season. Few people would have argued with them, either.

The Ducks found a willing trade partner when the Toronto Maple Leafs agreed to take Lupul and prospect Jake Gardiner in exchange for Francois Beauchemin last Feb. 9.

Gardiner, who has surprised himself this season in making the Leafs out of camp, was the main attraction, but Leafs GM Brian Burke was hopeful in the back of his mind Lupul would rediscover the touch that netted a career-high 28 goals for Burke’s Ducks in 2005-06.

“Never ‘had’ to take him,” Burke, disputing that notion, wrote ESPN.com via email this week. “The year I traded him to get [Chris] Pronger, he was our best forward in the playoffs. The deal last season made sense -- [the Ducks] were at a higher point than we were, couldn’t wait for the infection to heal while they paid him big dough. We were in a position to wait.”

Few knew what to expect from Lupul entering this season, but challenging for the NHL scoring lead certainly wasn’t among expectations.

Now healthy and his back problems a thing of the past, the 28-year-old entered Friday night with 37 points (15-22) in 34 games, a dynamic force alongside linemate Phil Kessel.