Most surprising was the departure of Dexter's finance minister, Graham Steele, who had become the face of the NDP government's program of fiscal restraint and was widely considered to be among Dexter's most able cabinet ministers.
Steele was replaced by Maureen MacDonald, who was shifted from the health portfolio to become the province's first female finance minister. She was replaced at health by Dave Wilson.
Steele said it was simply time for a personal change in direction after having worked as a political staffer and then as an elected politician for the NDP for 11 years.
"This is being done at my request," said Steele. "I feel the need between now and the next election to re-connect with my family and my health and my constituency."
Transportation Minister Bill Estabrooks also announced that he would not be running again after 14 years in public life. Dexter announced backbencher Maurice Smith would be his replacement in cabinet.
All of the ministers involved in Wednesday's shuffle represent Halifax-area constituencies.
Steele said he will stay on as a backbencher until the next election, adding that he doesn't have a job lined up.
He also didn't rule out an eventual return to either provincial or federal politics, but said that wouldn't happen in the "immediate future."
Dexter said Steele came to him in March and the decision was made after a series of discussions, even though he tried to talk him out of leaving.
"I talked to him as best I could about these things," said Dexter.
"But if you know Graham, he comes will fully formed opinions and ideas and by the time he said what he said he had made the decision."
Liberal Opposition Leader Stephen McNeil said he was surprised by the suddenness of the shuffle and wondered why Steele's "steady hand" was leaving cabinet.
McNeil speculated that perhaps Steele was unhappy with the direction the government intended to take with an election likely on the horizon next year.
"Here's a man who, for the last three years, has gone around the province preaching fiscal restraint," said McNeil. "To be leaving now doesn't make sense."
Estabrooks, a former school teacher, was elected in 1998 and had been battling health problems for some time.
"Parkinson's (disease) is grinding away at me," said an emotional Estabrooks, who added that the last year in particular had been difficult.
"It's a pace thing, particularly when the house is in session," he said. "It's tough, I'll miss it."
Wilson's appointment as health minister led to Leonard Preyra being brought into cabinet for the first time, replacing Wilson as communities, culture and heritage minister.
Dexter called the cabinet changes an opportunity for political renewal ahead of an election that he said would likely be called in 2013.
However, Progressive Conservative Leader Jamie Baillie said the shuffle would change little for the voting public.
"This is just a P.R. exercise that they are engaged in to get Nova Scotians off the real issues, which are taxes and power rates and jobs," said Baillie.
The last time Dexter made any significant changes to cabinet was in January 2011.
At that time, Dexter bumped up the size of his cabinet to 14 members by adding two positions, saying the change was necessary because of the heavy workload his ministers were working under.