The NHL regular season wraps up this weekend. In theory, that would be the time to post a “season in review” piece. But let’s face it, we’ll all be 100 percent focused on watching our teams head toward the playoffs and the two-month battle for the Stanley Cup. Or, failing that, hoping they fire everyone they’ve ever employed. Definitely one of those two.
In either case, let’s get a head start on things by wrapping up some of 2013-14’s loose ends now, with these awards honoring regular-season excellence, or lack thereof.
Most Entertaining Train Wreck: Toronto Maple Leafs
With all due (dis)respect to the Canucks, Oilers, and Capitals, this one isn’t an especially tough call. We pegged the Leafs’ season as a de facto referendum on hockey analytics way back in October, but it ended up being so much more.
From a CEO who arrived and immediately started planning a Stanley Cup parade to a front office that handed out the worst contract of the salary-cap era to a coaching staff that has resorted to just making stuff up and hoping nobody notices, the Leafs have spent the season aggressively assuring everyone that they know what they’re doing. Now, thanks to yet another late-season collapse, they’re going to miss the playoffs again, and fans are screaming for the whole thing to be blown up. Except it probably won’t be. After all, re-signing Dave Bolland will solve everything.
If you’re a fan, it’s been painful. But if you’re not, then you never want this show to end. This entire Leafs season has been like spending eight months getting lectured by the self-professed smartest guy in the room while waiting to see when he’ll notice his fly is wide open. He still hasn’t.
Least Entertaining Train Wreck: New York Islanders
“If you don’t want something good to happen to New York Islander fans, you are a legitimately horrible person and your parents did a bad job raising you.” I wrote that heading into last year’s playoffs, and I stand by it. The franchise hasn’t won a playoff round in more than 20 years, and has spent most of that time as the league’s go-to punch line. Mike Milbury, Alexei Yashin’s buyout, Rick DiPietro, terrible ownership … if something terrible could happen to the Islanders, it would.
So when they went into this season clinging to some small strand of optimism, it was hard not to root for them. They’d made the playoffs last year, and their roster featured some real live talent like John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. None of it played goal, which turned out to be sort of a problem, but it was better than nothing. And a month into the season, they even pulled off an old-fashioned blockbuster, acquiring Thomas Vanek from the Sabres in a pricey deal meant to solidify their status as playoff contenders.
We all know how that turned out. The season was a disaster, Tavares got hurt at the Olympics, the Islanders will finish dead last in the Metro, and they ended up having to flip Vanek to Montreal for a fraction of what they paid for him. Islanders fans are sick of hearing about that one. Let’s never speak of it again.
It’s been awful. And if your parents did a good job, you’ve hated every second of it.
Worst Injury: Tomas Hertl’s Rookie Season Cut Short
It’s been a rough year for NHL players. We had Tomas Vokoun’s blood clot, followed by Josh Harding’s storybook season being truncated by health concerns, though both goalies could be on the verge of returning. Then it was on to a pair of life-threatening health scares in Kris Letang’s stroke and Rich Peverley’s in-game cardiac event. Thankfully, both players will be OK, with Letang already back playing (though we don’t know yet whether Peverley ever will). Needless to say, all four situations transcended traditional hockey health problems.
But in terms of more typical on-ice concerns, let’s award this one to the knee injury that ended the regular season of Sharks rookie sensation Tomas Hertl. He’d spent the first three months of the season racking up goals (and infuriating old-school types) before Kings captain Dustin Brown caught him with a knee-on-knee hit, damaging ligaments and requiring surgery. The loss of Hertl didn’t exactly devastate the powerhouse Sharks, but it robbed hockey fans of another half-season of highlights, not to mention a much closer Calder race.
The good news: Hertl could still make a return during the playoffs. Maybe even in time for the first round against, most likely, Dustin Brown and the Kings.
Worst Injury That Somehow Ended Up Being Not All That Bad: Steven Stamkos Breaks His Leg
Well, maybe “not all that bad” is pushing it. After all, when Steven Stamkos slammed into the Lightning goalpost on November 11, the resulting fractured tibia cost him months of rehab, more than 40 regular-season games, quite possible another Rocket Richard Trophy, and a spot on the Canadian Olympic team.
But it was also the moment when the hockey world collectively agreed it was safe to write off the Tampa Bay Lightning. A year after finishing 28th overall, the Lightning were leading the Eastern Conference with 24 points when Stamkos went down. Surely, with their best player out long-term, they’d collapse back down toward the league’s basement, where everyone had expected them to be.
Except that they didn’t. Powered by a breakout season from goalie Ben Bishop, the Lightning survived the loss of Stamkos (and, later, the forced trade of Martin St. Louis) to cruise to a playoff spot. While they’ve looked less than impressive since the Olympic break, it’s still been an inspiring performance that should earn first-year coach Jon Cooper some Jack Adams votes. And somehow, they did most of it in spite of Stamkos being sidelined with an injury that should have ruined their season.
(Now that Ben Bishop injury, on the other hand …)
Best Performance by a Team I Thought Would Be Terrible: Colorado Avalanche
The Lightning weren’t the only team that apparently missed the preseason expectations memo. The Avalanche finished 29th last year, a result that cost coach Joe Sacco his job. It also cost GM Greg Sherman his, kind of, since he still works there but doesn’t seem to do anything.
That pair was replaced by Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic, which seemed like a lame attempt to earn some PR points by bringing back popular players from the franchise’s glory days to distract from the current misery. That sort of thing never works (right, Pat LaFontaine?), and while the Avs were certainly loaded with long-term potential, there was every reason to think they were years away from reaching it.
And then the games started, and the Avalanche were good. Really good. And they stayed that way all season long, to the point where they were still in the running for the Presidents’ Trophy into the season’s final week.
So, what happened? We could point to plenty of things — a maturing team, a fantastic rookie season from Calder Trophy sure thing Nathan MacKinnon, excellent goaltending. And, maybe most important, a bunch of unsustainable percentages that add up to a conference-leading PDO, which should come crashing back to earth any second now. [Checks watch.] Yep. Any second now.
But I’m going to just go ahead and chalk it all up to Roy, because it’s more fun that way. From his glass-banging meltdown in his very first game, he’s been great fun. He’ll probably beat out Cooper to win the Jack Adams. And if the Avs can keep defying the odds, he may end up winning a whole lot more than that.
Most Impressive Statistical Feat: Nathan Horton’s Phantom Goal
Nathan Horton is going to go down in history as having scored a goal in a game in which he did not play. I’m sorry, but that’s just cool.
It’s the result of a bizarre set of circumstances revolving around the Peverley situation in March. The incident came six minutes into the game, with the Jackets leading the Stars 1-0, thanks to a Horton goal. The NHL made the right call and postponed the game, which was eventually rescheduled, and played Wednesday night in Dallas.
In a confusing twist, the league decided to keep the postponed game’s score, but throw out all the other stats and start fresh with a full 60-minute game for the makeup. Horton didn’t play Wednesday night due to an injury, but still gets credit for the goal scored in March.
So for scoring a goal without playing, Horton earns this award in a photo finish over Alexander Ovechkin, who seemed set to lead the league in goals scored while also posting the worst plus/minus rating. Sadly, Steve Ott surged into the minus lead this week, bumping Ovechkin down to a tie for second-worst. I guess he quit on that, too.
Best Trade: The Ryan Miller Blockbuster
While the Roberto Luongo trade was shocking and the Martin St. Louis deal was just plain odd, this one isn’t a very tough call. The February 28 blockbuster between the Blues and Sabres involved four players, a good prospect, and at least one (and maybe two) first-round picks.
It was a classic rebuild move for the Sabres, and earned strong reviews for rookie GM Tim Murray. For the Blues, it was a “push the chips into the middle” type of deal that made it clear they’re focused on finally winning the first Stanley Cup in franchise history. A great trade all around.
(And no, I’m not just saying that because I predicted it back in November. That was no big deal, I get predictions right all the time. Like … um … well … like that time I said the Bruins might be good this year. Yep. Nailed that one too. )
Worst Trade: Thomas Vanek Traded to the Islanders From Buffalo
Hey, come on, I said I didn’t want to bring up Thomas Vanek again, remember? Islanders fans have suffered enough. Find something else.
Worst Trade: Thomas Vanek Traded From the Islanders to Montreal
Worst Trade, Non–Thomas Vanek Edition: Ales Hemsky Goes to Ottawa
This trade was a bit of a deadline-day afterthought, with the Oilers finally unloading their longtime winger in exchange for a pair of midround picks. It wasn’t much, but even in the middle of the annual deadline panic, it was the best they could get.
Hemsky’s looked very good in Ottawa since the deal, including back-to-back three-point games immediately after arriving. But he hasn’t been enough to save the Senators, who quickly plummeted out of the playoff picture.
So the deal was a bust for Edmonton and didn’t really work out the way Ottawa would have hoped. Meanwhile, every playoff team that gets eliminated because it can’t score will be wondering why it couldn’t have scrounged up enough spare change to acquire Hemsky. It’s the rare trade where literally nobody wins!
(Except for Islanders fans, who win by default because it didn’t involve Thomas Vanek.)
Most Awkward Subplot: The Martin Brodeur Situation
Martin Brodeur’s Devils are a long shot to make the postseason, which means this is the week he’ll wrap up a career that’s been unquestionably one of the greatest … oh, wait. He’s not retiring. I keep forgetting that part.
Or at least, he hasn’t decided to retire quite yet, and seems to be leaning toward returning for another year. That’s all well and good, of course, except for the part where the New Jersey Devils don’t really seem to want him anymore. Or at least, they don’t want him to play all that much.
At this point, there’s no question that Cory Schneider is the better goalie, and you could even make the argument that the Devils’ insistence on treating Brodeur as a co-starter this season cost them a playoff spot. On the other hand, this is Martin Brodeur we’re talking about — the league’s career leader in just about every major goaltending stat, the owner of three Cup rings, and a New Jersey Devils icon for 20-plus years.
But it doesn’t sound like he’ll finish his career that way. He was even rumored to be on the block at the trade deadline, which led to him getting the emotional “one last ovation” treatment from Devils fans only to end up sticking around after all. And now you wonder if he’ll even get a chance at a real good-bye, as the Devils have given all four April starts to Schneider.
Oh well. New Jersey fans can always give him a standing ovation when he comes to town next year, wearing the NHL equivalent of a Jerry Rice Seahawks jersey.
Most Oddly Muted Story: Teemu Selanne’s Good-bye Tour
Speaking of legendary players facing the end of their career: Remember Teemu Selanne? Legendary player, beloved by all, playing in his final season before hanging up his skates at the age of 43? Ring any bells?
And yet here we are with just days left in the regular season, and the whole Selanne Farewell Tour thing just never ended up being that big a deal. Maybe it was because he had a bad year. Or maybe the Ducks have been so good that we’re all assuming we’ve still got two months left to enjoy him. Or maybe we’re all just too busy trying to figure out what gift we should buy Derek Jeter, since that’s apparently mandatory now.
Still, I thought the Selanne thing would be a bigger deal. This is one of the most popular players in league history, and he’s finishing out what will absolutely, positively be his last NHL season ever.