The NHL regular season ends Saturday, but come Monday morning everyone will be busy obsessing over playoff matchups, and the 82 games we just spent weeding out 14 teams will be forgotten. So rather than waiting until then, we’ll do our year-end wrap-up a few days early. I mean, how much can really change in just 60 hours?
Let’s take a look back on the 2014-15 season by handing out a dozen made-up awards to the players and teams that made it memorable.
Biggest Season-Long Theme: Goaltending Is Voodoo
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Considering how often a goaltender can single-handedly decide the outcome of a game or a series or even a whole season, it might be the most important position in hockey. However, that poses a bit of a problem, because we do not understand how it works. Like, at all.
Look at this season’s top stories: You have Andrew Hammond in Ottawa, which was all kinds of fun but made no sense on any level. Just one year ago, Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk was considered so awful that the goalie graveyard that is the Edmonton Oilers gave him away to the Predators, who gave him away to the Canadiens, who then assigned him to the AHL even though their other goalies were hurt. Today, he may be the league’s most important player.
We also had Rangers backup Cam Talbot, an undrafted free agent who had to replace injured All-Star Henrik Lundqvist and ended up outplaying him. In Winnipeg, a veteran with one of the league’s worst résumés and a rookie backup with three career games have combined to become unbeatable. The Sabres traded all of their goalies and acquired a guy in Anders Lindback who may well have been the worst in the entire league, and he’s playing so well he might single-handedly ruin their season-long tanking master plan. The Blues have an All-Star as their starter but thought it would be a good idea to sign the ghost of Martin Brodeur. The Stars had one of the most established guys in the league, and he was awful and ruined their season. Jimmy Howard is losing his job to a former 141st overall pick. Also, the Oilers now have a guy named Tyler Bunz, which is neither here nor there, but I still wanted to mention it.
None of this makes any sense, and yet we’ll do what we always do with goaltending: Wait until the season is over, look back at the random chaos that just went down, and pretend we saw any of it coming. Of course, we didn’t, just like we almost never do. How could we? Goaltending is voodoo.
It’s also going to dominate these awards. Sorry for the spoiler, but you had probably already figured that out.
Best Feel-Good Story: The Hamburglar
There’s no better proof of the “goaltending is voodoo” theory than Hammond, a 27-year-old rookie with lousy minor league numbers who gets called up as a we-have-no-other-choice emergency injury replacement and then goes on a history-making hot streak. Next thing you know, fans are throwing hamburgers on the ice and the Senators are making a miracle playoff run that could still see them steal a wild-card spot.
On Tuesday, Hammond was shelled for three goals in the first period of a must-win game against the Penguins. Then he stood tall the rest of the way as Ottawa roared back from down 3-0, earning a 4-3 win in overtime to keep their playoff hopes alive. It was a miracle, but Hammond didn’t seem all that fazed since pretty much every game he’s played this year has been a miracle. After the game, he was asked about the last time he enjoyed hockey as much as right now. “I don’t know if there’s another time in my life,” Hammond said. “It’s the NHL. It’s what I’ve always dreamed about playing.”
Does Hammond’s story make any sense? Not really. Can it last? Probably not. While it’s possible he’ll turn out to be the next Dominik Hasek or Tim Thomas, showing up late before kicking off a lengthy career as a top-tier guy, it’s much more likely he’s the next Jim Carey or Steve Penney. For now, though, that doesn’t matter. Andrew Hammond is making all of us feel like we could be NHL goalies, too.
Best Trade: Dubnyk to Minnesota
This one’s as easy as they come, so let’s up the odds a bit: Where does the Dubnyk trade rank among the best ever?
Remember, when the deal went down on January 14, the Wild were in 12th place in the West, eight points out of the playoffs, and riding a six-game losing streak. Their about-to-be-fired coach was losing his mind. Essentially, they were done. And then Dubnyk shows up, they win their first game 7-0, and they basically turn into the 1977 Canadiens.
Granted, that’s not all Dubnyk, but he’s started every game since the trade, and he’s been consistently fantastic. The Wild are headed to the playoffs as a wild card, and they’ll be just about everyone’s sneaky dark-horse pick to go on a deep run. If that happens, the Dubnyk deal really will have to go into the discussion for the great trades of all time. Not bad value for giving up only a third-round pick.
Worst Trade: Jaromir Jagr to the Panthers
Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI/Getty Images
On paper, there was nothing wrong with this deal. Florida acquired the veteran winger from New Jersey in exchange for a second-round pick in this year’s draft and a third-rounder in 2016. For a trade-deadline rental, that’s about right, and Jagr was reasonably effective for the Panthers as they chased an Eastern playoff spot.
But the problem is that their chase failed, and now we’re left with a Jagr-less postseason for the second straight year. That’s just wrong. The man is a legend, and at 43 years old, how many good seasons does he have left? Five, maybe six at the most — and he shouldn’t be spending any of them on non-playoff teams.
So here’s my proposal: We make an exception to the whole trade deadline thing and let the Panthers put Jagr back on the block this week. Would it be dishonest? Sure. But wouldn’t it be worth it if it meant seeing Jagr suiting up for the Canadiens or the Predators or the Ducks? Really, anyone but the Blues, since they’d probably put him in goal.
Most Under-the-Radar Trend: Standings Inflation
Hey, would you like to hear about why the loser point is dumb? Too bad, because we’re doing it anyway. This season, our two favorite dead horses combined to create an odd situation that really only revealed itself over the past few weeks: point totals have gone crazy.
Since the loser point was introduced in 1999, and especially since the shootout was added to the mix in 2005, fans have had to adjust their expectations for what constituted a good record in an era when three-quarters of the league finishes over .500 every year. That wasn’t a good thing, but heading into this season, we’d settled into the new reality: A team would need 90 points to be a serious contender in the playoff race, and it would probably take 95 to really feel safe.
Except, with two franchise players available in the 2015 draft, the league’s worst teams all bottomed out at the same time. This was purely coincidence — tanking is a myth, the NHL assures us — but it’s been hard to ignore. Since 2008, only one team had finished with less than 60 points in a non-lockout season; this year, two teams are under that mark. We also hadn’t had a non-lockout season with more than three sub-70-point teams in the cap era; this year there could be five.
All of those dead points at the bottom of the standings combined with the lack of any truly dominant teams at the top end resulted in a bunch of extra points finding their way to the middle of the league. And that’s meant the bar to make the playoffs is ridiculously high. It may take 99 points to qualify for the postseason in both conferences. In the ’90s, there were years when that would have made you the Presidents’ Trophy runner-up.
If more teams embrace the Sabres’ unabashed “get bad to get good” model, we should expect to see this continue. It’s the sort of thing that would drive fans in other sports crazy — imagine if baseball suddenly had a half-dozen 100-win teams every year, or an NFL where 10 wins was considered average — but the hockey world is apparently OK with it.
Biggest Injury: Mark Giordano
While NHL players are constantly getting hurt, often in ways we never hear about, the first half of the season was remarkably free of major injuries to top players. That ended over a stretch of two weeks in February when Tyler Seguin, Patrick Kane, and Giordano were all lost for the regular season.1
Kane will be back at some point in the playoffs, assuming Chicago can last long enough.
With all due respect to Seguin and Kane, whose health issues probably cost them a shot at the Art Ross, the biggest injury was to Giordano, Calgary’s top blueliner and best player. He was having a career year and seemed to be running away with the Norris when a torn biceps ended his season. The team announced the full extent of the injury shortly after the trade deadline.
Yet Calgary, in one of the season’s best stories, would make the playoffs if they were to start today. They face the defending champs next, but if the Flames do hold on to the season’s most unlikely playoff berth, they’ll have had to overcome the league’s biggest injury-related loss to do it.
Most Entertaining Meltdown: The San Jose Sharks
You know the story by now: First, they established a decadelong run as one of the league’s very best teams. Then, they blew a 3-0 series lead to the Kings in the first round of last year’s playoffs, losing the series in seven and becoming only the fourth NHL team to collapse like that. Then they promised massive changes. Then they barely changed anything. Then they stripped Joe Thornton of his captaincy while pretending they weren’t. Then they started off well. Then the rest of the season happened. The end.
Well, not quite “the end,” because we’re leaving out the part where Thornton called GM Doug Wilson a liar and told him to “shut his mouth.” While Wilson has assured us that everything is totally cool, something has to give in San Jose this offseason — and it could come as early as next week. Maybe Wilson gets fired. Maybe coach Todd McLellan does. Maybe both. And maybe Thornton agrees to waive his no-trade clause, kicking off a major reworking of a San Jose roster that seemed so good on paper.
But if that happens, don’t forget all the years this team was among the league’s best and just couldn’t get a bounce in the playoffs. And don’t pretend you didn’t appreciate all the joy the Sharks brought us over the last few months as it all fell apart. You liar.
Weirdest Subplot: When Latvia Rigged the All-Star Vote
Biggest Story That Turned Out Not to Be a Story at All: The End of Enforcers
Early in the season, as several notable veterans found themselves in the minors or out of work altogether, it became apparent that the enforcer role was being eliminated from the NHL. There hadn’t been a rule change or a directive from the league; teams were just evolving away from using a roster spot on a specialized fighter.
Would the game be taken over by the rats, as many had predicted? Would it be open season on the league’s star players? Would something — an injury, a violent incident, an especially egregious cheap shot — convince teams to start bringing enforcers back, triggering an all-out arms race to load up on the available heavyweights?
And then, nothing. The season went on, and we all just sort of forgot about it.
The few remaining enforcers mostly behaved. John Scott got himself suspended in December. Shawn Thornton stayed out of trouble. Players still fought, but not as often, and the penalty minutes and fighting major lists were mostly topped by middleweights like Cody McLeod and Steve Downie.
And that was about it. Don Cherry complained once or twice, and there’s no doubt many fans agreed with him then and still do. But that was really as far as it went. We’re headed into the playoffs, the time of year when enforcers are traditionally removed from the lineup and shown to the press box, but this year it won’t even be necessary. They’re already gone.
Most Obvious Award: The Hart Trophy Goes to Carey Price
Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images
Last year was my first as a voting member of the PHWA, and I can tell you: The whole thing is exhausting. I spent years scoffing at the dumb writers and all of their indefensible picks right up until it was my turn to fill out a ballot.
Therefore, I appreciate anyone who makes the job a little easier, and this year Price has done just that for the biggest award of them all. He’s going to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP, and he’ll win it easily. Sure, Alexander Ovechkin has made a late charge, and there will be the usual pocket of support for Sidney Crosby if he can drag the Penguins over the finish line. But Price is going to win.
The bad news is that a goalie winning MVP usually means only one thing: Scoring is down again. Barring a maniacal late surge by someone, this will be the first non-lockout year since 1967 that the Art Ross will be won by a player with fewer than 90 points. That’s pathetic, and it’s yet another sign the league needs to get serious about boosting offense. We could spend days arguing over exactly how to do that,2 but history tells us the league will introduce some minor tweak that won’t actually work instead.
Least Obvious Award: The Norris Trophy Goes to … Umm …
Or we could just make the nets two inches bigger and be done with the discussion forever.
Can I just vote for Price here, too?
The Norris seemed headed for Giordano right up until he got hurt, and now the field is wide open. Drew Doughty, who’s having another excellent year and has somehow never won the award? Shea Weber, who helped lead the Predators to the top of the standings? Erik Karlsson, the brilliant Senator who dominates offensively but still has holes in his defensive game? P.K. Subban, who is P.K. Subban? And should we really cross Girodano’s name off the list just because he got hurt at the end of the season? If he’d missed the first month instead, he’d still be in the running, right?
By the way, the Calder isn’t much better. All year long we had a perfectly straightforward little “flashy forward vs. dependable defenseman” battle going between Filip Forsberg and Aaron Ekblad, and then Johnny Gaudreau and Mark Stone had to show up and complicate things. Scram, you punk kids. The old people have enough to worry about right now.
Most Disappointing Team: To Be Determined
OK, I know I said we could feel safe handing out these awards today, but I need to punt on this last one. We know the candidates: The Bruins, Penguins, and Kings all came into the season as Stanley Cup favorites, and all three went into this week fighting for their playoff lives.
The Penguins had a chance to take care of that last part on Tuesday in Ottawa, but blew that 3-0 lead. The odds say they’ll probably still make it, but Pittsburgh’s offseason shakeup was supposed to restore the team’s status as a Cup front-runner. Instead, it has the look of a first-round casualty. If that happens, there could be even bigger changes coming this summer, including breaking up the highly paid superstar core.
The Bruins are in similar territory, trying to hold off Ottawa and grab one of the East’s last spots. Unlike the Penguins, the Bruins have at least been reasonably hot over the past few weeks. But they’re still in danger, and we don’t even have to speculate about big changes if they miss out: CEO Charlie Jacobs has all but confirmed that everyone’s job is on the line.
And then there are the Kings, who are in the worst shape of the three. They still controlled their own destiny heading into Tuesday’s action, when they somehow found a way to lose to the Oilers. That moved the danger meter up to “critical,” and L.A. could be officially out as early as tonight.
In October, if a time traveler from the future had told you the Penguins, Bruins, and Kings would finish in the top three spots in the overall standings, you would have shrugged. If he’d told you they’d all be struggling just to make the playoffs, you would have had him committed. That’s how strange a season it’s been. And it’s why we need to put a hold on this last award until the end of action on Saturday. I guess 60 hours can matter after all.