NHL: Highlights and lowlights

Publish date:

BEST COACH: Mike Babcock, Ducks and Red WingsCanada's 2010 Olympic coach took teams to three Stanley Cup Finals, winning with Detroit in 2008 and losing Game 7s with the middling Ducks in 2003 and the defending champion Red Wings last June. Babcock is relentless and fanatical about details, figuring if the small stuff is perfect, the big picture will take care of itself. He knows the game and -- as important -- the makeup of his teams and character of his players as well as any coach in the post-expansion era.

BEST GM: Ken Holland, Red WingsWithout the gaudy top draft picks that have helped turn teams into champions - Pittsburgh is Exhibit A -- the Red Wings under Holland simply go about their annual exercise of excellence. The result: Stanley Cups in 2002 and 2008 and a trip to the 2009 final. Holland has had fewer salary-cap problems than the estimable Lou Lamoriello of New Jersey, demonstrating a remarkable ability to navigate his franchise no matter what the economic system. Of course, Holland has the NHL's best support group, which included Scotty Bowman (until he left for Chicago in 2008) and still boasts assistant GM Jim Nill and European scouting director Hakan Andersson.

Click here for Michael Farber's complete All-Decade team

BEST FRANCHISE: Red WingsSure, they won two Cups and an NHL-best 15 playoff rounds during the decade, but the following explains why the Red Wings are the franchise of the 2000s: Hakan Andersson, their eyes in Europe, suggested that Holland select a lanky center from Sweden named Jonathan Ericsson with the 291st, and last, pick of the 2002 draft. After the draft, Andersson went to Ericsson's coach and told him he would be better off putting the lanky kid on defense. Ericsson is now in Detroit's top six, a defenseman with star potential.

WORST FRANCHISE: ThrashersSorry to pick on them, but they edge the Blue Jackets for this dubious on-ice distinction. Both made the playoffs once in the decade. Both were swept in four games, mostly because you can't be eliminated in three. The difference is that Atlanta goalie Kari Lehtonen colored his hair a Thrashers shade of blue to help, ahem, inspire the team. (So much for dyeing and going to heaven.) The Jackets look like they have a firmer foundation heading into the next decade than Atlanta, which, if it can't re-sign potential unrestricted free agent Ilya Kovalchuk, might as well padlock Philips Arena. (Off the ice, of course, the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes, currently wards of the league, are the runaway winner.)

BEST SINGLE-SEASON TEAM: 2001-02 Red WingsTheir fourth line in the 2002 Stanley Cup finals featured Igor Larionov centering Luc Robitaille and Tomas Holmstrom. Larionov and Robitaille are now in the Hall of Fame. (Holmstrom will also be going if the Hall establishes a wing for players who set up shop on the edge of the crease during power plays and talk trash.) While Detroit's 116 regular-season points fell two shy of Colorado's team of all-stars the previous year, the Wings' credentials were impeccable. Robitaille and Larionov represent just a sliver of slam-dunk Hall of Famers on that team, which included Steve Yzerman and Brett Hull (already enshrined), Dominik Hasek, Chris Chelios, Brendan Shanahan, Lidstrom and Sergei Fedorov.

WORST SINGLE-SEASON TEAM: 1999-00 ThrashersLike molten lava from a volcano, the natural disaster of the expansion Thrashers started in one decade and ran downhill into the next. This 14-win team would make anybody want to spew. The estimable Ray Ferraro, a respected forward, was minus-33 that season, which didn't even win the green jacket on the team. (Yannick Tremblay was 45 under.) GM Don Waddell made a grave miscalculation by choosing Damian Rhodes to be his No. 1 goalie. Rhodes was emotionally and temperamentally unsuited to face the amount of rubber that is the lot of all expansion-team goalies.

MOST DRAMATIC REGULAR-SEASON GAMES: Maple Leafs-Canadiens; April 7, 2007; Islanders-Devils; April 8, 2007This is a two-fer, a pair of games that were as inelegant as they were riveting. On the ultimate Saturday night of the season, in an emotional match between two heritage franchises, the Maple Leafs rallied to defeat Montreal 6-5 and eliminate the Canadiens from the final Eastern Conference playoff spot. To earn that last berth, all the Maple Leafs needed the following day was a New Jersey win over a team that was missing injured goalie Rick DiPietro. In the 17th game of his NHL career, Islanders third-stringer Wade Dubielewicz, a stumpy, balding Everyman, beat the Devils 3-2 in a shootout, knocking out the Leafs and giving New York the eighth spot. Woe, Canada.

BEST POSTSEASON GAME: Flyers-Penguins; May 4-5, 2000Surely length matters -- and Game 4 of Eastern Conference semifinals took precisely seven hours from the time the first puck was dropped. But it was the delightful manner in which Flyers forward Keith Primeau ended this titanic five-overtime match between intrastate rivals that makes it a keeper in the hard drive of memory. With the score 1-1 and the players almost in a trance-like state from exhaustion, Primeau drove down the right wing, went backhand to forehand to beat a defender and fired a shot over the shoulder of Penguins goalie Ron Tugnutt, ending the match after 92:01 of extra play -- more than an additional game and a half.

Click here for a gallery of our top 10 games of the decade

BIGGEST TRADE: Joe Thornton from the Bruins to the Sharks for Brad Stuart, Marco Sturm and Wayne Primeau; Nov. 30, 2005Although it lacked the emotional pull of the other big Bruins trade -- Raymond Bourque shipped to Colorado in 2000, where he would win his only Stanley Cup a year later -- Jumbo Joe's deal was Brobdingnagian. This was a classic case of buyer's remorse. Three months earlier, the Bruins had signed Thornton to a three-year, $20 million contract. But with the memories of the 2004 playoffs still fresh (playing with injured ribs, he had no points in seven games in a first-round loss to Montreal), Boston shockingly dumped its captain. Thornton wound up with 92 points in 53 games after going to San Jose, winning the Hart Trophy.

BEST FREE-AGENT SIGNING: Scott Niedermayer, Ducks; Aug. 5, 2005Brian Burke, whose bombast occasionally camouflages his wiles, is among the most prescient of GMs. He desperately wanted the slick Niedermayer, who had played his entire career with New Jersey. What could Burke offer the free-agent defenseman, other than money? Unlike 29 other teams, he could give Niedermayer the chance to play with his own brother, Rob, a sturdy winger. Following the lockout, Burke got his man, for four years at $27 million. Anaheim won the Cup in 2007 with Scott capturing the Conn Smythe Trophy. (Rob played a critical role on the shutdown line with Sami Pahlsson and Travis Moen.)

WORST FREE-AGENT SIGNING: Wade Redden, Rangers; July 1, 2008The Blackhawks have multiple entries -- defenseman Brian Campbell, goalie Cristobal Huet, etc. -- but the Rangers edge them in this dubious area. Prior to the salary-cap era, there could not be a "worst" free agent because no matter how ill-advised the signing -- think Bobby Holik's $45 million deal with the Rangers in 2002 -- wealthy teams could bury mistakes. Now a toxic contract is the gift that keeps on giving, and Redden's six-year, $39 million deal in 2008 was Chernobyl. Although his play had dipped noticeably while he was in Ottawa, the Rangers still bestowed riches upon him. Unless coach John Tortorella can extract more than the faint glimmer of life that Redden showed in the 2009 playoffs, this will weigh heavily on the team (and GM Glen Sather's curriculum vitae) for another four-plus seasons.

BIGGEST DRAFT STEAL: Henrik Lundqvist, seventh-round pick (205th overall), by the Rangers in 2000Notable players have been chosen lower -- 2009 Game 7 Stanley Cup hero Max Talbot by Pittsburgh at No. 234 in 2002; first-pair Islanders defenseman Mark Streit at No. 262 by Montreal in 2004 -- but there was no better late pick than Lundqvist. Generally teams don't find a No. 1 goalie deep in the draft, but New York got one who is now among the best five in the NHL. The King backstopped Sweden to the 2006 Olympic gold medal. He was also included in a People magazine list of the 100 Most Beautiful, although shockingly, his identical twin -- Stars defenseman Joel Lundqvist, picked 68th overall by Dallas the same year -- was not. (Bet that got Joel's zygote.)

BIGGEST DRAFT BUSTS: Alexander Svitov, third overall pick by Lightning in 2001; Stanislav Chistov, fifth overall pick by Ducks in 2001They go as an entry, these two not-so-Wizards of Ovs. Not that 2001 necessarily was a lights-out draft -- the Kings, at No. 18, probably would like a do-over on Jens Karlsson -- but this pair of feckless Russians was an utter disaster for two scuffling franchises. Svitov had 13 goals in 179 NHL games while Chistov scored 19 in 196. At least Tampa Bay was able to wheel Svitov to Columbus for veteran defenseman Darryl Sydor, who would play on the their 2004 Cup winner. Svitov and Chistov both currently haunt the KHL in Russia.

Click here for Allan Muir's views on the decade in trades, free agency and the draft

CINDERELLA: Martin St. Louis, 2003-04He's officially listed as 5-foot-9 but is maybe 5-6 -- short enough that when he met his future wife at the University of Vermont, she felt obliged to wear flats. (If this is a Cinderella story, it must involve shoes, no?) St. Louis was undrafted out of Vermont and spent the 1997-98 season in the IHL and AHL before joining the Calgary Flames as a free agent and scoring four goals in 69 games over two seasons. Tampa Bay signed him as a free agent in 2000. Four years later, St. Louis would lead the NHL in assists and points and win the Hart and Lester B. Pearson MVP trophies for the Stanley Cup champions.

SIGNATURE PLAY: Alexander Ovechkin's highlight goal; Jan. 16, 2006His tally against Phoenix is the reason the Good Lord invented YouTube. Hit the replay button. Now, again. Again. (We're channeling our inner Herb Brooks here.) Try describing, in 50 words or less, the goal that the Capitals' rookie left wing scored that day. Here's our feeble attempt: He barrels down the right side, fights off a defenseman, crosses over in front of the crease, falls, hooks the puck with the crook of his blade and shovels it past goalie Brian Boucher while on his back. Actually, we prefer Coyotes' analyst Darren Pang's post-goal comment: "Holy jumpin' ... You got to be kidding me."

MOST OUTSTANDING SINGLE-GAME PERFORMANCE: Marian Gaborik; Dec. 20, 2007In a display of unsurpassed virtuosity, the Wild winger scored on the Rangers by (in order) rifling a one-timer, batting the puck out of the air on the power play, shoveling in a power-play backhander, batting another puck out of the air and cashing a breakaway. That's five goals. Said New York captain and current teammate Chris Drury, from whom Gaborik stole the puck on the breakaway, "He could have had seven or eight." Indeed, Steve Valiquette, who replaced Lundqvist in goal, made a sparkling pad save to deny Gaborik late in the game. Gaborik also assisted on the one Minnesota goal he didn't score in the 6-3 victory.

Click here for a gallery of memorable performances of the decade

BIGGEST VILLAIN: Todd BertuzziThere was a time, roughly between 2002 and 2004, when this hulking presence on the West Coast Express line was hockey's fiercest power forward. Then his life -- and that of Colorado's Steve Moore -- changed forever. In the third period of a game on March 8, 2004, Bertuzzi, in evident retaliation for a borderline hit that Moore had made on linemate Markus Naslund in a previous game, stalked the Avalanche forward and sucker-punched him in the back of the head. Moore went down and Bertuzzi landed on him, driving his face into the ice. Moore suffered a neck injury that ended his career. The NHL suspended Bertuzzi -- ultimately the incident wound up costing him about $500,000 in salary -- while the Crown in British Columbia also weighed in, pressing criminal charges. Bertuzzi ultimately accepted a plea deal for assault.

BEST TEAM RIVALRY: Penguins vs. FlyersThe decade had nothing resembling the Hatfields-McCoys lunacy of Colorado vs. Detroit in the '90s, so the Penguins and Flyers will have to do. Primeau's goal in the fifth overtime of their first-round playoff game in 2000 was a singular moment between the franchises, but the rivalry didn't warm until 2005 with the arrival of Sidney Crosby. Or, as they call him in Philly, Cindy Crosby. Crosby's debut in Philadelphia on Nov. 16, 2005, didn't go at all well. Flyers defenseman Derian Hatcher whacked him with his stick across the mouth -- no call -- and Crosby's subsequent complaints earned him an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty. The playoff series in 2008 and 2009 -- including Crosby's battles with Mike Richards -- made for outstanding hockey theater.

BEST INDIVIDUAL RIVALRY: Sidney Crosby vs. Alexander OvechkinThe NHL made a delightful commercial in 2008 in which Ovechkin orders half the room-service menu ("five lobsters ... lots of ketchup") and then gives his name as Sidney Crosby. (Crosby's one line, when he sees the room service carts, is, "Ovechkin.") Well, they are what they ate, or at least what Ovechkin ordered: lip-smackin' terrific. In a sense, this is a virtual rivalry -- unlike, say, Crosby or Ovechkin vs. the Flyers' Richards --- because they rarely share the ice. Just the spotlight. The second-round Pittsburgh-Washington series in 2009 was a magical seven games of Can You Top This? They each had eight goals. Ovechkin had six assists, one more than Crosby. Amazing.

MOST COLORFUL PLAYER: Alexander OvechkinWhether he is riding a Zamboni outside Madison Square Garden or scoring physics-defying goals, Ovechkin has been the most exciting player on NHL ice since Gilbert Perreault and the most Bunyanesque character off it since 1970s bon vivant Derek Sanderson. Ovechkin is a worth-the-price-of-admission guy, a dervish with a feral hunger for goals and hits. His enthusiasm remains remarkable. (That said, we could have been spared that "hot stick" goal celebration when he netted his 50th in 2009. At first glance, he looked like he was giving the stick CPR.).

BEST INNOVATION: The shootoutAs Kings coach Terry Murray said last October, "I hate the shootout" -- his team had just lost one -- "but fans love it." What's not to love, except its brevity? (There should be five shooters, not three.) If the shootout remains an unabashed gimmick, it's one that works because it determines a winner and loser, the outcome for an investment of $50 and two-and-a-half hours that everyone outside of soccer fans have come to expect. The shootout rewards skill and occasional creativity, even from unlikely sources. In 2005, shortly after the concept was introduced, Rangers defenseman Marek Malik, who isn't exactly Bobby Orr, won a shootout in the 15th round against the Capitals with a shot between his legs. This was the best 15-rounder at Madison Square Garden since Ali-Frazier.

WORST INNOVATION: The loser pointAlong with four-on-four overtime and the shootout came the consolation prize. You do win for losing in the NHL, as long as you have evened the score after the regulation 60 minutes. Not only has the loser point sucked the life out of many games that are tied late in the third period, it has skewed standings with three-point games. (This season Toronto had twice as many points in October from losses than wins.) The current standings -- with headings W, L, OTL, SL, PTS -- aren't read as much as decoded. A simple W, L (and maybe a GB, like baseball) would make four-on-four and the shootout more than a sop to fans and add much needed transparency.

BEST NEW ARENA: Xcel Energy Center, MinnesotaOpened in 2000, it has all the amenities of a new millennium building. (Love that Minnesota-style lodge on ice level.) But congratulations to the Wild for making it the best of the modern rinks. The Wild genuflects to high school hockey in the state, hanging jerseys of all the teams in the concourse. It also has the endearing, albeit dopey, tradition of some quasi-known figure saying, "Let's play hockey" before the opening puck drop. Of course, Minnesota fans make the building. They are pleasant, knowledgeable and supportive -- probably more than the team deserves.

BIGGEST NEAR-MISS: Jim Balsillie attempt to buy the Coyotes, 2009The future of more than a franchise rested in the hands of a Phoenix bankruptcy court judge with the mellifluous name of Redfield T. Baum. If Baum had ruled (against a 26-0 vote of the NHL's Board of Governors) that Balsillie had the best bid for the franchise, pro sports could have turned into a free-for-all. In theory, any potential owner could then have bought -- and relocated -- a team, league rules and wishes be damned. Judge Baum ultimately rejected both Balsillie's and the NHL's bids, but in November awarded the team to the league after it tweaked its bid. Balsillie, the Research in Motion co-CEO, chose not to drag out the legal proceedings with an appeal. That sound you heard was all pro sports franchises heaving a sigh of relief.