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.Corey Crawford
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.