It's been a revealing six weeks.
And while the usual stick-wielding suspects from Boston, Vegas, Carolina and Tampa Bay are among the NHL's top 10 teams heading into the weekend before Thanksgiving, there are several others surprisingly still lingering with the elite.
Two teams that failed to reach the playoffs in 2021-22 and weren't forecast to fare much better this time around—the New Jersey Devils and Winnipeg Jets—were within two and nine points of the league-leading Bruins through Thursday's games, while the Seattle Kraken, Detroit Red Wings and Philadelphia Flyers are each in early contention as well.
Their initial successes prompted B/R's hockey writing types to convene to determine which members of the quintet are most likely to stay in the fight for the long term and earn themselves coveted "contender" status and which are probably on the verge of falling back toward a more expected "pretender" status over the next several weeks.
The surprise squads are listed alphabetically by city/state name, and the aforementioned contender/pretender determination is included at the bottom of each summary.
Detroit Red Wings
It's been a long run of irrelevance in Detroit.
The Red Wings won four Stanley Cups in 11 seasons from 1996-97 to 2007-08 and followed the last title with another eight straight playoff appearances through 2015-16, but it's now been six years without a postseason berth and nine since they last won a series.
General manager Steve Yzerman has gone all-in on retooling the franchise for which he starred during the Cup years, and there have been signs of recent success, most notably a strong start in 2021-22 that had the team in contention through the first half and individual success stories that included a Calder Trophy for defenseman Moritz Seider.
It's been the same story so far in 2022-23, with Detroit going 8-5-4 while racking up 20 points that are good for 12th overall and fourth in the Atlantic Division, just a point off the pace of the three-time Eastern Conference champion Lightning.
A prize from a busy offseason, free-agent pickup Dominik Kubalik is playing at more than a point-per-game rate alongside holdover team captain Dylan Larkin, while another acquisition, veteran David Perron, is close behind with six goals and 14 points. Ville Husso, yet another of the GM's adds, is 6-2-3 with a 2.69 goals-against average in 11 starts as the No. 1 goalie.
Still, while there's plenty of reason for optimism, the road is full of obstacles.
A solid .588 points percentage has been good for just a narrow lead in an admittedly early Eastern wild-card playoff race. And considering the more proven commodities from Florida—and Pittsburgh and Washington lurking within three points—it seems a stretch at best to think the Red Wings will be able to hold the high ground for 65 more games.
So while the No. 1 draft pick is probably not in play, a true contending label isn't either.
New Jersey Devils
At this point, there's little to say beyond, "Wow!"
The New Jersey Devils have run as much off the contention pace as the Red Wings in recent years, missing the playoffs in nine of the last 10 seasons and not winning a postseason round since an ultimately unsuccessful run for a championship in 2011-12.
They've been no better than seventh in their division since 2017-18 and are 30th of 31 teams overall (minus the expansion Seattle Kraken) across the last four seasons with 248 points, ironically finishing ahead of only Detroit's 235.
But it's all changing in 2022-23. Big time.
The Devils are the undisputed talk of the early NHL season thanks to an 11-game winning streak that's taken them from a 3-3 start to a glittering 14-3 record that's good for first in the Metropolitan Division and second in the East and overall behind the Boston Bruins.
It's been a perfect storm of long-term building and recent tinkering for GM Tom Fitzgerald, who's constructed a team led by Jesper Bratt, Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier—each drafted from 2016 to 2019 and averaging more than a point per game—and augmented by outside acquisitions like defenseman Dougie Hamilton and goaltender Vitek Vanecek.
New Jersey is third in the league with 3.71 goals per game and fourth with a 2.41 GAA. The team also ranks second in shots on goal (36.9 per game) and first in shots allowed (24.6). By contrast, the fellow fast-starters from Detroit are mired in the middle of the 32-team pack in all four metrics, placing no better than 16th in any.
Those sorts of metrics over nearly a quarter season are no illusion, and it's far more likely the Devils will be competing for home ice come April than scrambling to get in the tournament.