Top NHL stories of 2014-15 and revisiting our crystal ball
Sports predictions are as common as rain, but what actually transpires is usually another thing entirely. When it comes to the NHL, it’s a long time between the start of the season in early October and when everything (the race for the Stanley Cup, the awards, the draft and the onset of free agency) is finally done by early July. A lot can happen in between, much of it impossible to foresee. So as hockey settles into summer, we look back at the major storylines from what proved to a thrilling and highly surprising season.
We also revisit our preseason forecast package and pressing questions for each team to see how accurate they were. (Partly cloudy; three scribes picked the Blackhawks to win the Cup but the Kings, Bruins, Stars, Sharks and Blue Jackets rained on our prognostication parade.)
First, the top stories:
Hockey players are proud to play through anything. Bruised ribs, broken jaws, fractured fingers—few things prevent them from lacing up their skates. Mumps, however, are different story. At least 22 players, including Sidney Crosby, on six teams (Ducks, Blues, Wild, Devils, Rangers and Penguins) were diagnosed with or suspected of having the virus, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control, is contagious, especially in closed quarters like locker rooms and causes the swelling of the saliva glands along with fever, aches, fatigue and loss of appetite. With emergency immunizations and quarantines, the scary outbreak, which began in mid-October, eventually subsided in the new year, leaving players to deal with their usual bumps and bruises.
• IMPROBABLE HEROES
It’s a story as old as hockey: a goalie comes out of nowhere, plays at a level well above any he has ever achieved, and takes his team to new heights. But for that story to play out in three cities was truly remarkable.
Two seasons ago, Devan Dubnyk posted a 3.36 goals-against average with Edmonton, numbers that surely signaled the start of a journeyman's career for the 2004 first round pick (No. 14). After being traded to Nashville, Dubnyk started the ’14-15 season in Arizona after signing with the Coyotes as a free agent. He eventually found his way via trades to Montreal and then Minnesota, where he posted a dazzling .936 save pct. and 1.78 GAA in 39 starts. A workhorse and savior who righted the struggling Wild and anchored their run to the playoffs, Dubnyk finished third in the Vezina Trophy race and was rewarded with a six-year, $26 million contract.
Scott Darling’s career has taken him all over the hockey world, including stints with 10 teams in five different leagues, but last season he found a home in his native Chicago. The journeyman made his NHL debut with the Blackhawks, securing a spot as Corey Crawford’s backup and posted a sparkling 1.94 GAA. During the postseason, when Crawford struggled, Darling was there to save him with efforts that included a 50-save, triple-overtime win over Nashville in the first round. Crawford played in most of Chicago’s playoff games, but Darling surely helped stabilize the Hawks’ Cup run.
In February, Andrew Hammond, a 27-year-old with one game of NHL experience, was called up from AHL Binghamton after starter Craig Anderson and backup Robin Lehner were injured and he promptly propelled the previously struggling Ottawa Senators on a second-half tear to the postseason. In 23 starts, Hammond—nicknamed the Hamburglar—went 20-1-2, allowing just 42 goals in that stretch. His fine play earned him a three-year, $4.05 million deal with the Sens.
Their long-term success could prove fleeting, but all three netminders gave their teams an amazing boost.
• OVECHKIN’S BIG YEAR
Often lost in his disappointing playoff and Olympic defeats is the fact that Alex Ovechkin remains a potently consistent points producer in the NHL. The 2014-15 season was a special one for him. He led the league with 53 goals, 10 more than the second-leading scorer, and finished tied for fourth in points (81). He did it all while adapting to the demands of new coach Barry Trotz, who sought to make him more responsible and effective without the puck. Although Ovechkin sputtered at times in the playoffs against the Islanders and Rangers, he demonstrated that he’s still well in his prime and worthy of his Hart Trophy nomination.
• PRICE’S BIGGER YEAR
The last goalie to win the Hart as the NHL’s MVP was Montreal’s Jose Theodore, who posted a 2.11 GAA and 30 wins in 2001-02. Carey Price blew those numbers out of the water. The netminder’s sterling 1.96 GAA, .933 save percentage and franchise record 44 wins were all good for the Hart as well as the Vezina Trophy. Now established as the league’s top keeper, Price was at times heroic while Carey-ing the Canadiens and their 20th-ranked offense to 110 points, the NHL's second-highest total during the regular season, and a playoff berth that was hardly assured at the beginning of the season.
• THE GREAT TANK BATTLE
They call them generational players—Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur, Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros, Sidney Crosby. They are the especially gifted talents who transform franchises and become Hall of Fame legends. This season, the grand prize for the also-rans who were lucky enough to have their draft lottery balls roll their way: Connor McDavid, a center who Wayne Gretzky himself called one of the best players to enter the league in the last 30 years, followed closely by Boston University’s Jack Eichel, only the second freshman (Paul Kariya was the first, in 1993) to win the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player.
In an attempt to secure their services, there was a perceived battle among the league’s weakest teams for last place and the best lottery odds. Buffalo traded two starting goaltenders and finished 30th, with 54 points and a 20% chance of winning the top pick. Arizona dealt two of its best players, defenseman Keith Yandle and forward Antoine Vermette, and finished 29th, two points ahead of the Sabres, with a 13.5% chance. But in the end it was was Edmonton (28th; 11.5%) that won the Great Tank Battle, receiving its fourth No.1 pick in six years.
Sabres fans, some of whom wore McDavid sweaters and openly rooted for opposing teams, consoled themselves with the choice of Eichel, a Ryan Getzlaf clone who will be a first-line center for 15 years. The Coyotes ended up picking third and taking highly regarded center Dylan Strome.
• ISLES' LAST STAND AT THE COLISEUM
The decaying old barn in the Long Island suburbs saw a lot of hockey history after the Islanders made it their home in 1972. There was the meteoric ascent of a hapless expansion franchise into a dynasty with its “Drive for Five” Stanley Cup run that included a record 19 consecutive playoff series victories. The glory years were followed by hard times and plenty of losing, frustration and even bizarre episodes like convicted con man John Spano’s attempt to buy the team. During its darkest days, the arena once known as Fort Neverlose was often derided as the Nassau Mausoleum, but with the rise of John Tavares and a promising young team, the Coliseum was again embraced with great affection. When the Isles announced they were moving to Brooklyn and the sparkling Barclays Center for the 2015-16 season, it made 2014-15 the team’s last on Long Island.
Amid much sentiment and emotion, Islanders fans were treated to one last great show. The team stormed out of the gate and compiled a 47-28-7 record, challenging or topping franchise marks set by its immortals. Tavares had an MVP-caliber season, with 38 goals and 48 assists. New acquisitions Jaroslav Halak, who broke Billy Smith’s record for consecutive wins (11) and wins in a season (32), Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy helped solidify the defense.
And though the Isles lost in the first round to Washington in seven games, they were able to give the faithful one final thrill—a 3-1 victory in Game 6 that closed out the Coliseum with a win.
• COLLAPSE OF THE KINGS, BRUINS AND SHARKS
Los Angeles, Boston and San Jose had been playoff fixtures during the last decade. The Kings won the Cup in 2012 and '14. The Bruins won it in 2011. The Sharks were a consistent threat to go deep in the postseason though they ultimately proved to be disappointments.
This season none of the three met high expectations. LA suffered a proverbial Cup hangover and was unable to overtake upstarts such as Calgary and Winnipeg for a playoff berth amid locker room turmoil and the distraction of defenseman Slava Voynov’s arrest on a domestic violence charge. The Sharks, after stripping Joe Thornton of his captaincy, landed outside the playoff bubble as did the Bruins, whose lethargic start helped them fell prey to the strong second-half run by Ottawa.
Changes were afoot. Boston fired general manager Peter Chiarelli and the Sharks, desperately in need of a recharge, parted ways with coach Todd McLellan. The Kings, who also had to endure the arrests of forwards Mike Richards (painkiller possession) and Jarret Stoll (cocaine) went into the summer trying to retool by trading for Boston power forward Milan Lucic, whose hard-charging style could help revitalize their offense.
• BUMMER ON BROADWAY
It began as high drama. On January 31st, the Rangers’ King had to relinquish his throne after being struck in the neck by a puck. All-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist was expected to miss a few months with a scary vascular injury and Rangers fans who held high hopes of their team returning to the Stanley Cup Final were sent into a panic.
All their team did in response was go 25-7-3 en route to the Presidents’ Trophy as backup goaltender Cam Talbot established himself as a true No.1 in the league. Winger Rick Nash returned to form, scoring 42 goals, and the emergence of rookie forward Kevin Hayes gave the Blueshirts needed depth.
Among the heavy favorites to win the Cup, the Rangers eliminated the Penguins in five games and came back from a 3-1 deficit against the Capitals in the second round. But New York’s thunder was ultimately stolen by the Lightning in a disappointing 2–0 loss at home in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, ending an otherwise stellar season with a thud.
• MAPLE LEAFS MESS
Toronto, the NHL’s richest and first billion dollar franchise, happens to own the league’s longest Stanley Cup drought (now 48 years and counting). No matter who has been in charge, behind the bench or on the ice, the team’s ceaselessly optimistic faithful has been treated to a steady diet of heartbreak and torment. The 2014-15 season was no different. After compiling a 21-16-13 record, the Maple Leafs fired coach Randy Carlyle in early January. Under Peter Horachek, their interim bench boss, the Leafs promptly lost 33 of their last 42 games and finished out of the playoffs for the ninth time and the last 10 years.
It was all an unmitigated disaster as the Leafs went from playoff bubble team to bottom-feeder seemingly overnight while fans threw jerseys on the ice in protest and forward Phil Kessel took plenty of heat in the media for allegedly being “uncoachable”, a charge that was leveled at him and other Leafs by former coach Ron Wilson.
But help finally arrived. Mike Babcock, widely regarded as the best coach in the league, especially after his skilled handling of Team Canada, was hired away from the Red Wings in May with a record-setting contract and the Leafs began to be transformed in his image. Out went Phil Kessel. In came quality depth players Matt Hunwick, Shawn Matthias and P.A. Parenteau. Babcock wisely warned of pain in the short term, but there is a renewed sense of hope in hockey’s capital.
• NHL EMBRACES ANALYTICS
The statistical revolution in the NHL has now gained official acceptance. The league, in partnership with SAP, began offering on its official website so-called “advanced analytics” stats. Instead of just the traditional goals, assists, save percentage, plus/minus, etc. the league now provides additional stats for possession, shot attempts, shot length and more. With many in the hockey community, especially teams like the Maple Leafs and Oilers, pushing the benefits advanced stats, the league’s adoption of them has pushed them into the mainstream.
This welcome acceptance was juxtaposed with the tragic loss of one of hockey’s statistical pioneers. Matthew Wuest, the founder and operator of CapGeek, an invaluable site that posted contract and salary cap data for all teams, died in March after a battle with colon cancer. No one site has yet to fill the void of providing accurate salary info to a legion of interested fans.
• THE RISE OF JOHNNY HOCKEY AND THE FLAMES
For Calgary, saviors came in the form of young talent and, in one notable case, a 5’ 8”, 155-pound package. Johnny Gaudreau, the diminutive blazing, dazzling winger, took the league by storm, scoring 24 goals and adding 40 assists in his first NHL season after an outstanding career at Boston College. Johnny Hockey, as he’s better known, was a catalyst in revitalizing the Flames along with the Adams Award-winning coaching of Bob Hartley, 31 goals from 23-year-old center Sean Monahan, and defenseman Mark Giordano’s Norris-worthy (unfortunately shortened by injury) season. Expected to be an also-ran for the sixth straight year, Calgary made a surprising run to the second round of the playoffs.
Finishing third in the Calder Trophy race for top rookie, Gaudreau’s play drove the NHL’s sixth-best offense and 13th-best power play. During the postseason, the 21-year-old had nine points in 13 games, showing a maturity beyond his years and a bright future ahead in Calgary.
• EXPANSION GATHERS STEAM
Hockey in Las Vegas? Despite Commissioner Gary Bettman's initial insistence that nothing is in the works, it could soon become a reality. Businessman Bill Foley led a ticket drive this spring to gauge potential interest in a franchise based in Sin City and 13,000 fans responded. Now Foley is able to formally apply for expansion, a process the NHL officially declared open in early July, paving the way for the possible return of a team to Quebec City, which has built a sparking new arena. Seattle also became a favored site while Portland (Oregon), Houston, San Antonio, Milwaukee, Kansas City and even Hartford have been at least discussed.
Can the league support more teams? Is there enough interest in Vegas for serious hockey fans? One thing’s for sure: NHL players are likely destined to love their road trips to the Strip.
• COYOTES ARENA KERFUFFLE
After years of struggling and bankruptcy, the Coyotes acquired new ownership and were presumably set for at least until their new lease on Gila River Arena was due to expire in 2028. City Council members in Glendale, however, abruptly changed course by voting in June to end the $225 million deal, citing a conflict of interest allegedly involving two former city employees. Among the objections: the $15 million annual fee the city must pay the team to operate the arena. As the matter moved into court, it left a lot of uncertainty about the state of hockey in Arizona. Will the Coyotes be forced to find a home elsewhere? And will that home be in Arizona or somewhere else? The Coyotes insist they’re staying put. This is one battle that won’t be decided on the ice.
• BOLTS FROM THE BLUE
It took three kids and the blossoming of a Swedish stud defenseman to recharge the Lightning into serious Cup contenders. Forwards Ondrej Palat, Nikita Kucherov and Tyler Johnson (left to right in photo above)—who earned their nickname after coach Jon Cooper cited their uncanny chemistry as being like triplets)—skated circles around their opponents, scoring 199 points during the regular season as the Bolts racked up 108 points, the league's fifth best total. But it wasn’t until the postseason, when the trio combined for 61 points in Tampa Bay’s run to the Cup final, that they truly emerged onto the national stage. With their criss-crossing, deft passing and shooting, and dynamic play, they were unstoppable at times, though Johnson's then-undisclosed hand injury hindered him in the final.
Also receiving acclaim was the towering Hedman. The former No. 2 draft pick (2009) became an elite blueliner, playing top minutes and shutting down each opponent’s best players. With sniper Steven Stamkos, the dynamic Triplets line and a solid defense anchored by Hedman, the young Lightning are set for deep postseason runs for years to come.
• BLACKHAWKS WIN THE CUP
Been there, done that. All the Chicago Blackhawks did this season was win their third Cup in six years, establishing themselves as the post-lockout model franchise and team of the decade. Led by the otherworldly play of Conn Smythe winner Duncan Keith—who averaged a whopping 31 minutes of ice time during the postseason—the Hawks were never fazed, despite being down three games to two against the Anaheim Ducks in the Western Conference Finals and 2-1 to the Lightning in the Cup final. Their victory, their first on home ice in 77 years, presented veteran defenseman Kimmo Timonen with an emotional conclusion to his career. Though they are again battling post-championship salary cap issues, the steady hand of GM Stan Bowman is making the Cup look like it will be taking up frequent residence in Chicago.
• KESSEL TRADE ROCKS FREE AGENCY
The biggest move of free agency wasn’t a signing. It was a trade. On opening day, July 1, the Maple Leafs traded star winger Phil Kessel to Pittsburgh for Nick Spaling, prospects Kasperi Kapanen and Scott Harrington and draft picks. Kessel will certainly look great skating next to either Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin while Toronto gets a fresh start under new coach Mike Babcock. But of course the big question of how well Kessel will fit in with the Pens remains.
On the free agency market, two moves will likely end up having the most effect. Restricted free agent Dougie Hamilton went from the suddenly retooling (or is it rebuilding?) Bruins to Calgary, adding to the Flames’ already stacked blueline. And RFA Brandon Saad went from cap-squeezed Chicago to Columbus, joining the Blue Jackets’ potent young core. With a lack of stars in the unrestricted ranks, defenseman Andrej Sekera signed the biggest deal, heading to Edmonton for a six-years and $33-million to help revamp the Oilers’ woeful defense. A spate of depth moves also helped shape an otherwise quiet July 1.
Our crystal ball revisited
Last October, seven SI.com staffers—Al Muir, Sarah Kwak, Brian Cazeneuve, Michael Blinn, Sam Page, Gabriel Baumgaertner and Eli Bernstein—gazed into the future. Here’s how their vision stacks up against what went down. The numbers in parentheses represent how many writers picked a certain team or player.
ACTUAL PLAYOFF FIELD
East: Rangers (5), Canadiens (7), Lightning (6), Capitals (3), Islanders (3), Red Wings (5), Senators (0), Penguins (7)
Our whiffs: Bruins (7), Blue Jackets (6), Maple Leafs (3), Flyers (2), Devils (2)
West: Ducks (7), Blues (7), Predators (2), Blackhawks (7), Canucks (3), Wild (4), Jets (0), Flames (0)
Our whiffs: Stars (7), Sharks (7), Kings (7), Avalanche (5)
ACTUAL CONFERENCE FINALS
East: Rangers vs. Lightning (0)
West: Blackhawks vs. Ducks (1)
Our whiffs: Bruins vs. Penguins (3), Bruins vs. Lightning (3), Bruins vs. Canadiens (1), Blackhawks vs. Kings (1), Blackhawks vs. Stars (1), Blackhawks vs. Sharks (2), Kings vs. Blues (1)
ACTUAL STANLEY CUP WINNER
Blackhawks (3) over Lightning
Our whiffs: Kings (2), Lightning (1), Bruins (1)
Notes: The Stars (3) and Blue Jackets (2) were popular picks to take the next step as both were coming off playoff appearances. Alas shaky goaltending consigned Dallas to the golf course while a wave of injuries derailed Columbus early on. As for fans who will suffer, we were right about the Leafs (1) and Oilers (1), though Panthers (1) partisans saw glimmer of hope, particularly in Calder-winner Aaron Ekblad. The Islanders’ (1) and Jets’ (3) faithful are fully entitled to serenade us with that old familiar refrain, “Watch some hockey, you morons!”
In the "We must be crazy but...” category, we obviously are for predicting that Ryan Nugent-Hopkins would score 80 points (he bagged 56), Joe Thornton would save his best hockey for the postseason, Bob Hartley would be the first coach or GM fired, the Leafs would make the playoffs while the Rangers wouldn’t, and the Jackets would fall short of the Eastern finals. In our defense, one scribe did predict the Avs would take a step back, another nailed Paul MacLean’s dismissal in Ottawa, and yet another picked Jamie Benn for the Hart. (OK, the Ross is pretty close...)
Speaking of Awards...
Hart Trophy: Carey Price (0)
Vezina Trophy: Carey Price (0)
Art Ross Trophy: Jamie Benn (0)
Norris Trophy: Erik Karlsson (0)
Calder Trophy: Aaron Ekblad (0)
Selke Trophy: Patrice Bergeron (3)
Adams Award: Bob Hartley
Hart: Sidney Crosby (3), Steven Stamkos (2), Patrick Kane (1) Jamie Benn (1)
Vezina: Tuukka Rask (4), Cory Schneider (1), Henrik Lundqvist (1), Ben Bishop (1)
Ross: Sidney Crosby (7)
Norris: Shea Weber (3), Victor Hedman (1), Duncan Keith (1), P.K. Subban (1), Ryan McDonagh (1)
Calder: Jonathan Drouin (4), Sam Bennett (1), Calle Jarnkok (1), John Gibson (1)
Selke: Anze Kopitar (2), Jonathan Toews (2)
Adams: Lindy Ruff (4), Todd Richards (2), Barry Trotz (1)