The 2021 season has been a year full of surprises, and St Kilda have had its fair share with border closures, breakout performances and some stunning wins.

While the year may be over for Brett Ratten’s men, there were plenty of surprises to come out of the senior 22 in 2021.

From rejuvenated Saints, eye-catching recruits from out of nowhere and the players who have thrived from the shuffling of the magnets, here are the six surprises of St Kilda's 2021 season.

Daniel McKenzie

Daniel McKenzie has found himself well-placed for a big 2022 season. Photo: Corey Scicluna.

It was nearly a year ago that Daniel McKenzie was watching the Saints break their 10-year drought without a finals win in a thrilling elimination final victory. Now, he is in their best 22.

It is a testament to the work ethic of the 25-year-old wingman, whose move into the role has reignited his AFL career. Not playing a game in 2020, McKenzie is now an important piece to the midfield, bringing a relentless attack on the footy and outstanding running capacity to boot.

Despite missing a significant chunk of the season due to a calf injury, the hard-running wingman would finish 2021 with a career-high average of 15 disposals and an elite effectiveness of 83 per cent through the midfield, hitting targets at the highest rate of any St Kilda player and burning off opponents with his work into space.

There is one statistic that stands out from the rest, however: the Saints went 7-5 with McKenzie in the team and 3-7 without him.

In the simplest terms, the Saints were a better side in 2021 when Daniel McKenzie was in it.

Cooper Sharman

Cooper Sharman burst onto the AFL scene in his first five games. Photo: AFL Photos.

Arguably the biggest surprise packet of the season, mid-season recruit Cooper Sharman has left the St Kilda faithful excited at what 2022 could hold.

The 21-year-old has shone on the AFL stage with 10 goals in his 13-and-a-half quarters of senior football, closing out the year with a final bag of four against the Dockers. Each game additionally yielded multiple majors.

Sharman’s average of 2.6 goals per 100 minutes was close to the highest in the AFL in 2021, slightly behind Coleman medallist Harry McKay. He was also ranked number one for forward-50 marks per 100 minutes. His ground-level work is impressive for a tall forward, with the young Saint sitting the top-five for both groundball gets and tackles.

With a fantastic set of hands, a strong presence in the air and a simple yet efficient kicking action, Cooper Sharman certainly made his presence known in 2021.

Jack Sinclair

Jack Sinclair has been pivotal for the Saints down back. Photo: AFL Photos.

Moving back to move forward. That was the motto that Jack Sinclair adopted for the 2021 season, and it paid dividends.

Asked by Brett Ratten to move into the backline, the 26-year-old took the opportunity and ran with it, quite literally as he and Bradley Hill provided the running link between defence and the midfield.

While the move may have been unorthodox, given that Sinclair has played in the midfield and up forward for his entire AFL career, it would lead to the No. 35’s best season to date.

Averaging 21 disposals per game (a career high), Sinclair has now become one of the first players selected thanks to his reading of the ball across half-back and his calmness under pressure. 

With the Trevor Barker Award set to take place this Friday, the St Kilda half-back will be a big chance to poll well for the 2021 season. 

Tom Highmore

Tom Highmore has slotted in seamlessly during his first season of AFL footy. Photo: AFL Photos

Not too many people would have predicted that Tom Highmore would be as impressive as he was during his first season of AFL footy.

The 23-year-old was taken with pick No. 45 in the 2020 draft, and despite making his debut against the Giants in Round 1, it was his showing in Cairns that truly cemented Highmore as one to watch.

The No. 34 would collect 22 disposals and 13 marks, eight of which were intercepts. It would set a trend for the rest of the year where Highmore would be the go-to intercepting defender, his style blending in smoothly with the rest of the backline.

Jimmy Webster

Jimmy Webster assumed the lockdown role on small forwards with gusto this season. Photo: AFL Photos.

One could often wonder what Jimmy Webster was capable of if he had some luck with injuries. Well, this year they found out.

Playing in 20 of the 22 games this year, the No. 29 excelled in locking down some of the competitions best small forwards, taking on the role in the absence of the injured Ben Paton.

All-Australian Charlie Cameron was kept to just five touches and held goalless when the Saints travelled up north, while Brownlow medallist Dustin Martin, Tom Papley, Jamie Elliott, Liam Ryan and Brad Close are among those who have struggled to get going when matched up on Webster.

Likely to poll handsomely at this year’s Trevor Barker awards, the 2021 season is one that the fearless defender will be looking to build off heading into next year.

Leo Connolly

Leo Connolly has been a welcome addition to the St Kilda backline. Photo: AFL Photos.

While he may have missed out on a debut during his first season in the AFL, Leo Connolly has more than made up for it in year two.

The young defender burst onto the scene following the bye, debuting last-minute as the medical sub against Richmond before finding himself in the starting 22 a week later against the Magpies.

From there, Connolly hasn’t looked back, and despite missing the final two games of the year due to concussion, he has offered promising signs down back.

Silky smooth on both sides of the body and calm under pressure when coming out of defence, the 20-year-old has impressed on the big stage and will be keen to build on a strong start to his career.