There have been some truly horrible stories in the National Hockey League this year.
The number of devastating injuries has been outrageous. The number of suspensions may have, in part, caused Brendan Shanahan to bolt for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ front office. There have been figurative black eyes, sniveling, backbiting and controversy – and not only in Washington and Vancouver.
But while many think of we in the media as hounds, only interested in controversy, I’m here to focus on the good that went down in the NHL these past six months.
These are the 10 best stories from the 2013-14 NHL campaign.
10. Jaromir Jagr’s ascent up all-time scoring lists: Last post-season, Double J didn’t score a goal in 22 games with the Boston Bruins. But in 2013-14, he led the New Jersey Devils in points and is second on the team in goals with two games left. And as Jagr passed the likes of Mario Lemieux, Marcel Dionne, Mark Messier and Steve Yzerman, he did it with a humble and hilarious flair few can pull off. Here’s hoping the Devils’ MVP returns to the league in 2014-15.
9. Playoff-bound Blue Jackets: John Davidson is one of the most likable figures in hockey. For that reason alone, I love the Columbus Blue Jackets’ story this year. They knocked on the door of the Western Conference tournament in 2013, but in the East this year, the Blue Jackets are still fighting for the Metropolitan’s No. 3 seed. Plus, as a young, feisty team with a solid goaltender, they have staying power. Now let’s hope they pick up that first franchise playoff win next week.
8. Jon Cooper’s fun bunch: Cooper was named head coach of the Tampa Bay Lightning mid-season in 2013 with nary a game of NHL experience. In his first full campaign as head coach in Tampa, Cooper’s club has not only exceeded expectations but did so without Steven Stamkos and with the added distraction of Martin St. Louis’ trade demands. Thanks to goalie Ben Bishop and a young defence corps, the Lightning are not only playoff-bound but could also claim home-ice advantage in the first round.
7. Gustav Nyquist catching fire: Nyquist was chosen in the fourth round by the Detroit Red Wings (120th overall) in the 2008 draft. That means every team passed him over three times, and some passed four times. He’s played with any number of linemates in the Wings’ injury-plagued season but leads the club in goals and is tied for second in points — all while playing in more games in the NHL than in his previous two seasons combined. What’s not to love?
6. Sid’s dominance: Sure, talking about Sidney Crosby is old hat by now. He’s the face of the league, the best player in the world, etcetera, but if we don’t take time to marvel at excellence, we are doomed to miss it. Crosby — enjoying his first full 82-game season since 2009-10 — has been downright awesome, posting 103 points in only 79 games. He’s running away with the Art Ross Trophy and is the odds-on favourite to win the Hart. Plus, he led Team Canada to a gold medal in Sochi this year.
5. Dallas’s deadly duo: Dallas Stars general manager Jim Nill pulled the trigger on the biggest trade of the 2013 offseason, acquiring Tyler Seguin from the Boston Bruins in a seven-player deal. Nill was taking a big risk by acquiring the young forward, and with a club that hadn’t made the playoffs in five years, the idea was to infuse energy into the fan base. “We got a young centre-iceman to build a team around,” Nill told me last month. “We got a foundation, and Tyler Seguin is a big part of it.” Playing with Jamie Benn, Seguin has flourished. One of the most lethal one-two punches in the sport, Benn and Seguin are Nos. 1 and 2 in team scoring. Dallas is playoff-bound for the first time in five years.
4. Flood of outdoor games: Sure, the Heritage Classic was kind of a bust and most of the open-air games weren’t very competitive, but the Winter Classic continued to amaze and set records for attendance. The Stadium Series game in Los Angeles pushed the envelope and made outdoor hockey a reality in any market. If the 2008 Winter Classic in Buffalo was the start of annual outdoor hockey, 2013-14 will be the year outdoor hockey took the next step.
3. Alex Steen’s career year: Toronto Maple Leafs fans won’t like this one. But Alexander Steen’s start — in which he scored 20 goals in the St. Louis Blues’ first 25 games — was one of the best stories. Even though a lower-body injury cost him 11 games, Steen is leading the Blues in points and goals and has more points than his previous two seasons combined.
2. Avalanche renaissance: Superstar players don’t always make the best coaches, yet Patrick Roy appears to be the exception. The Colorado Avalanche have gone from the NHL’s worst team to the top of the Central Division, thanks to contributions from likely Calder Trophy winner Nathan MacKinnon and young defencemen like Tyson Barrie, and Roy’s impact has been incredible. Semyon Varlamov has had a Vezina-nomination-calibre season — albeit a controversial one — and the Avs look like a tough out come playoff time. I’d call them the story of the year if not for…
1. Kris Letang’s comeback: Strokes kill people, or at least leave people in states of disrepair. So when we learned Letang had a stroke before the Olympics, it was fair to fear the worst. Yet less than two months after suffering a stroke, the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 26-year-old defenceman was back in the lineup. Letang was a Norris Trophy candidate just last year. His return to the ice is essential for the Penguins’ success and amazing for its inspiration.