Six long months ago the NHL began its 2017-18 season. Every team had an optimistic outlook, but as we now gear up for the playoffs, 16 teams are left standing with a shot to win the Stanley Cup in June.
There is still a lot of hockey to be played and much excitement ahead both on and off the ice. The draft lottery comes up on April 28, where we’ll learn where Rasmus Dahlin is likely to land and help shape the future of an organization. June will give us a champion, and the draft, which has become a busy trading period for the NHL. Finally, free agency is on the horizon and the future of John Tavares still hangs in the air.
For now, we look back at the regular season with six things we learned.
PARITY RULES THE NHL
If you would have said before the season started that each of Colorado, New Jersey and expansion Vegas would make it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs and one of them would win a division title, you’d have been laughed off stage. If you needed any more proof that the NHL was a league of parity, 2017-18 showed you that anyone has a chance to reach their conference’s top eight after 82 games.
The Avalanche especially were a shocking development after suffering to a terrible 48-point season in 2016-17, the lowest mark of the salary cap era. But after trading Matt Duchene for futures in November, something turned on for this team. Led by an MVP-calibre season from Nathan MacKinnon, Colorado slipped into the final wild-card spot with a big win over the Blues in its final game of the season.
The Devils, who won the lottery last spring to pick Nico Hischier first overall, were thought too young and thin to survive a tough Metropolitan Division. But they had their own MVP candidate in Taylor Hall lead the way and help rookies like Hischier and Jesper Bratt flourish. Vegas was the best story of all, the most competitive expansion team of all-time, and a Pacific Division winner.
Meantime, things went completely wrong in Ottawa, Edmonton and Calgary. The closest thing to a modern dynasty, the Chicago Blackhawks, also saw their season go off the rails after goalie Corey Crawford went down to injury, which opened the door for the likes of Colorado to make a push.
The question is which of these surging teams stick, and which of the struggling ones bounce back? The Flames, for all their struggles at home, still look to have had their season done in by bad luck more than anything else. Edmonton still has Connor McDavid, one of the two best players in the world, who joined Wayne Gretzky as the only two players with multiple Art Ross Trophies at age 21 or younger. He won his second scoring title with 108 points and had a whopping 18 more even-strength points than the next highest scorer. Chicago still has its big stars and head coach Joel Quenneville will be retained, so there’s no ruling them out.
Do the Avalanche, who lean heavily on one line, have enough to return to next year’s post-season, or what kind of (if any) regression is coming for the Golden Knights? Will there be a surprise team that drops out of contention next season? In the NHL, it’s proven that anything can happen and anyone has a chance. In what could be another wild off-season of trades and signings, the league landscape could shift yet again next season.
ERIK KARLSSON MAY HAVE PLAYED HIS FINAL GAME AS A SENATOR
After coming within one goal of reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2017, the Ottawa Senators got aggressive on the trade market early this season by trying to upgrade at the centre position in acquiring Duchene. The cost was Kyle Turris, top prospect Shane Bowers and a first-round pick either this summer or next. Hefty price, yes, but Ottawa had another Cup run in mind.
Instead, the season quickly became a disaster with the low point coming on Dec. 16 when the Senators hosted an outdoor game against the Canadiens. A weekend that was to be a celebration for the franchise was overshadowed somewhat by owner Eugene Melnyk’s comments speaking to the media, in which he floated the idea of potential relocation if a new area couldn’t be built, or if enough fans didn’t start showing up to Canadian Tire Centre.
“I’m not going to blow a lifetime of working hard to support a hockey team. It’s not gonna happen,” Melnyk said. “The bigger question is whether I’m prepared to blow all that money I made over many years in a different industry in a different country.
“How long can you underwrite a team?”
Just a couple of weeks earlier, captain Erik Karlsson, who will be UFA eligible in the summer of 2019, made comments about what he’ll do at the end of his contract that sent worry through the Senators fan base.
“When I go to market, I’m going to get what I’m worth, and it’s going to be no less, no matter where I’m going,” Karlsson told the Ottawa Sun.
So what is Karlsson, a 27-year-old, two-time Norris Trophy winner, worth? Drew Doughty, another defenceman due for UFA status in 2019, suggested the two would discuss their situations and use P.K. Subban’s $9 million AAV as a starting point. But as the cap rises, so too are the anticipated prices on two of the best defenders in the game today. Could either approach $13 million?
Karlsson in some ways saved that outdoor game weekend with a heroic on-ice effort, playing 32:55 and earning one assist in a 3-0 win. He spoke directly to the fans afterwards as well.
But as the season went on and Ottawa’s playoff hopes rapidly faded, speculation only picked up that Karlsson wasn’t long for the organization. Leading up to the Feb. 26 trade deadline the Senators were sellers and Karlsson was one of the top names believed to be available. Though negotiations were had, he ultimately stayed in place.
“Multiple teams phoned, but Erik’s a franchise player and we felt there was no franchise deal out there that could satisfy us to make the best hockey deal,” GM Pierre Dorion said post-deadline. “We’ll see what the next few months bring, but if Erik Karlsson is here on July 1 we will be making him a contract offer.”
Notably, after Karlsson’s final home game this season, he was seen picking up the game puck and stuffing it in his pants, fanning the flames of speculation once again.
As we know, the draft is now a busy trade season when more teams have cap room and the willingness to move players and assets they may not otherwise have in the regular season. The Senators are at a crossroads and face a few difficult decisions between now and the time they make their first pick at the NHL Draft. With the second-best odds to win the first-overall pick at the lottery, Ottawa has to decide whether or not to give up this year’s pick to Colorado, or keep it and send their 2018 pick to the Avs instead. But if Karlsson or others are traded, the Avs could end up with a very early pick either way.
This season didn’t go as planned for the Senators, but things could get worse before they get better. Will No. 65 be back with the team next October or is a blockbuster inevitable? It’s one of the top storylines to watch this off-season.
GOALS, SCORING OPPORTUNITIES TRENDING UP
There was a breakthrough of sorts in the never-ending search for ways to increase offence in the NHL this season, and you can see it in player stats. This marked the first season since 2009-10 that there were at least three 100-point scorers and had MacKinnon not missed eight games to injury, there would have been a fourth. Mathew Barzal, who led all rookies with 85 points in 82 games, became the third rookie in Islanders history to record a point-per-game average in his first season, joining throwbacks Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy.
From a team perspective, there was an average of 63.6 shots per game, a higher rate than any season since the early 1980s, per hockey-reference. Goals were up, too, though not to quite as high a level historically. With an average just shy of six goals per game between teams, this was the most offensive season since the first year out of the 2005-06 lockout, which was inflated by a strict clampdown on obstruction and an extreme high rate of power plays. Where this season we saw an average of 3.04 power-play opportunities a game, per team, the 2005-06 season had that average all the way up at 5.85.
What’s behind this? For one, dumping and chasing has started to take a back seat to keeping possession and entering the opposition’s end with the puck. The makeup of teams has changed, too, where the third and fourth lines are less of the traditional shutdown units we’ve seen in the past and pack more scoring punch and speed. Skill has taken over the league in all aspects.
BACKUP GOALIES AS IMPORTANT AS EVER
Though we still saw some heavy workloads at the goaltender position with Cam Talbot and Connor Hellebuyck each playing 67 games and Frederik Andersen getting into 66, there were a number of No. 2s who played prominent and season-saving roles for their teams.
In New Jersey, Keith Kinkaid stepped in for Cory Schneider when he injured his groin and then kept the job down the stretch as Schneider struggled to return to form. In the last month of the season, Kinkaid played both halves of back-to-back sets three times and lost only one of the six games. His save percentage approached .930 down the stretch after the trade deadline as the Devils won some huge games to claim the final wild-card spot.
Though St. Louis fell short, Carter Hutton started to take over the No. 1 role from Jake Allen and finished with a 26-17-7 record, 2.09 GAA and .931 save percentage. An injury to Hutton eventually opened the door for Allen to take back the job, but he started a huge game on Friday night and earned a 4-1 win over the Blackhawks to jump the Avalanche by one point heading into their win-and-get in game Saturday night. Since it was a back-to-back, Allen got the start against the Avalanche, where the loss ended the Blues’ season.
And in Washington (a Capitals team with one of the best goalies in the world), Braden Holtby‘s down season opened the door for 26-year-old German Philipp Grubauer to take the reins. In 35 games, he posted a .923 save percentage and a 15-10-3 record, setting up a first-round goalie controversy in D.C.
Ryan Miller, Juuse Saros, Aaron Dell, Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer all played more than 25 games and filled important roles for their teams at various points this season. The backup goalie position is as important as ever to fill with a player capable of assuming the top role in case of emergency and keeping their team in position to win. The Blackhawks, whose season spiralled out of control after Crawford went down, are a prime example of what can happen when the backups aren’t up to the task.
OVECHKIN STILL GREAT
Just missing out on the 50-goal milestone, Alex Ovechkin won another Rocket Richard Trophy in a season where he cracked the 600-goal mark for his career. Now 287 goals behind Wayne Gretzky’s all-time NHL record, The Great 8 continues to solidify himself as one of the best goal scorers in the history of the league, even without adjusting for era.
When Ovechkin “struggled” to 33 goals a season ago, it was mostly because of his lack of even-strength goals. For the first time in his career, Ovechkin scored more on the power play (17) than he did at evens (16), which made it looks like an age-related decline could be starting.
But this season, Ovechkin scored nearly as many even-strength goals (32) as he had in all situations a year ago. He trailed only McDavid in goals at evens, and only Patrik Laine in power-play markers.
If Ovechkin is to do the unthinkable and one day pass Gretzky, he has a chance to make up all the ground in the last years of his career. Gretzky’s last 40-goal season came when he was 31 while Ovechkin, now 32, is still going strong. In fact, after his age-32 season, Gretzky only hit the 30-goal plateau one more time.
EVERYONE LOVES THE SEDINS
As the season wound down and the Canucks ended up near the bottom of the standings again, Daniel and Henrik Sedin announced they would retire at the end of the year, which gave fans a chance to give them a proper send-off.
Their final home game, a 4-3 OT win against the Coyotes, ended about as perfectly as it could have, with Daniel getting the game-winner, assisted by his brother, 2:33 into the extra frame. In fact, earlier in the game, Daniel scored 33 seconds into the second period and Henrik got an assist on that one as well.
Their final game, however, came two nights later in Edmonton. Though neither of the twins registered a point, they had plenty of chances near the end of the game and in overtime — and then both shot in the shootout. Daniel scored, but Henrik did not and finished his career 0-for-6 in the skills event.
After the loss against the Oilers, Rogers Place gave the twins a standing ovation and every player and coach participated in a handshake line. It was a great way for them to go out as they head on their way to the Hockey Hall of Fame in a few years.