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What if the NHL Season Doesn't Return?

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to provide uncertainty in the sports world, we take a look at some of the top storylines that could be lost if the NHL season is shut down.

This week the Senators announced four additional members tested positive for coronavirus—bringing the league’s publicly known total to seven players—while stay-at-home orders become the norm and the league’s pause persists amid continued public health concerns. The NHL, at large, has pinned its hopes on a potential summer return date, but there’s a creeping possibility no one wants to face: What if hockey doesn’t return this season? For the second time in the last 106 years, no one would hoist the Stanley Cup. Drama and record chases, dashed. Here are some potential on-ice storylines we’ll miss out on if the season is completely lost:

The Battle of Alberta and McDavid’s Grand Stage, Delayed

All 6’2”, 202 pounds of Matthew Tkachuk, bound together with agitative fibers, and a pair of questionable hits was all that was needed to instill hatred and reinvigorate one of hockey’s most storied rivalries. Turtle costumes (mocking Tkachuk’s initial unwillingness to answer the bell), goalie fights and 140 penalty minutes in the next two matchups ensued. With Edmonton and Calgary sitting in second and third place in the Pacific, the Flames own a 3–1 series lead with one game left unplayed on the schedule and an action-packed playoff series looming.

And it might never take shape, this year. The rivalry, theoretically, won’t go anywhere even if goaltenders Mike Smith and Cam Talbot, who swapped cities and jerseys in the offseasons, leave in free agency. But they weren’t the main attraction: Connor McDavid reached the postseason in his sophomore campaign and never returned. Bolstered by a historically great power play and Leon Draisaitl’s Hart campaign, McDavid and the Oilers were primed to take center stage in the playoffs with the perfect foil in the Flames to greet them. Skill, speed and old-time distaste on display. All for naught.


The Rocket Richard Race

In seven of the last eight seasons, Alex Ovechkin has swept up Rocket Richard trophies with minimal fanfare and relative ease, claiming the award by an average margin of five goals since 2013. Not so this year. Ovechkin, David Pastrnak and Auston Matthews each lay claim to the title of the NHL’s top goal scorer but the season’s pause siphoned the life out of the league’s most contested award race.

Pastrnak (48 goals) leads the trio in shooting percentage and game-winning goals. Ovechkin (48) was on the cusp of finishing with the most goals in a single season by a player 34 or older, ever. Matthews (47) is knotted with Ovi for the lead in even-strength scores and would have crossed the 50-goal plateau for the first time in his career. The NHL hasn’t seen a trio of snipers score as many goals 70 games into the season since 1996. Like sluggers launching bombs in a late-September home run battle, the Rocket Richard provides a subjectiveness-free, down-to-the-wire contest to watch how much twine elite scorers can pick off before season’s end. In a league that struggles to leverage its star power compared to the NBA, any race of the sort is welcomed. But, one of the best quests to win the Rocket Richard since its inception would quietly wither away, unnoticed.

Hot Streaks Evaporated

The Blues were dead last on Jan. 3, 2019, won 30 of their next 45 games behind Jordan Binnington’s breakout second half, made the playoffs, claimed the Stanley Cup and gave St. Louis the championship journey of a lifetime. While not quite part of the Blues’ ilk or zero-to-hero storylines, the Flyers and Wild’s dark-horse playoff pushes are stuck in neutral.

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Philadelphia won nine of 10 games heading into the pause; Minnesota won 12 of its last 17 to climb within one point of the West’s final playoff spot. With Claude Giroux’s re-ascendance to stardom and Sean Couturier’s Selke bid out East and Kevin Fiala’s breakout campaign up North, each team might not receive an earnest end to potential storybook seasons. And there are others, too. The Kings, after spending the season in the cellar, were on a seven-game winning streak. Predators goaltender Juuse Saros is slowly taking over for Pekka Rinne, compiling a 6-2-0 record, .948 save percentage and a 1.82 goals against average in his last nine appearances. Mika Zibanejad was scoring at a goal-a-game pace since February. All potentially on layaway until next year.

Forgettable Seasons, Forgotten

On the other end, seasons that didn’t quite go as expected will be rendered as minor footnotes. The Panthers can take a mulligan next year on goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who has a career-worst 3.23 goals against average fresh off of signing a seven-year, $70 million contract. The sting of the Sharks sudden plummet down to the bottom of the Western Conference standings won’t have to be prolonged through the beginning of spring. Instead, San Jose can collect its lottery pick, pass go and move on.

First- and second-overall picks Jack Hughes and Kaapo Kakko, with 44 combined points, can skate quietly into their sophomore seasons. Coyotes winger Phil Kessel, despite scoring fewer than 20 goals for the first time in a dozen seasons, won’t receive the ire of Arizona fans for not doing more to make the playoffs, because there won’t be a playoffs to make. There won’t be any falling short for the Predators, either, as they can return their status as one of the best teams on paper next season without added postseason disappointment.

Veterans Retiring

Not everyone is like Joe Thornton, untraded, 40 years old and still Jumbo, who believes he still has “years” left in the tank. He has a couple of cohorts—Patrick Marleau (40) and Jason Spezza (36) have both indicated their desire to play one more season—but the list is thin and there are a few standout veterans who could’ve already played their last game. Namely Justin Williams, who came out of retirement midseason to take part in his 19th year in the NHL.

Mikko Koivu, 37 and the first and only permanent captain in the Wild’s history, is in the final year of his two-year contract and The Athletic’s Michael Russo had reported in February that the centerman was contemplating retirement before the pause took effect. America’s winningest goaltender, Ryan Miller, has seen a steady decline in three years with Anaheim and his deal also expires at the end of this season. One-time teammate Corey Perry has suffered knee and foot injuries in recent years and his hoped-for renaissance in Dallas hasn’t gone as planned. Nothing is final, but Father Time is knocking.

No Return on High-Priced Rentals

Take a brief trip back 15, 20 years ago. A new box-office smash becomes available at Blockbuster. You rent the movie, the rental period draws to a close, open the box and there’s nothing inside. Multiply that times a factor of millions of dollars and a few draft picks and prospects, and team’s who went all-in prior to and at the deadline could be looking at a negative return on their trades.

Players and teams of note include Taylor Hall, who the Coyotes acquired for a 2020 first round pick, a conditional third in 2021 plus prospects; Tyler Toffoli, added by the Canucks for a 2020 second round pick; and Brenden Dillon, obtained by the Caps for a 2020 second round pick and a 2021 conditional third. Taking a swing and whiffing in the postseason is one thing. Not having the chance to swing is another. There hasn’t been a scenario like this in league history and the only thing, right now, to avoid coming away empty-handed would be if unrestricted free agents sign with their current teams.