By Sal Barry, Kyle Scully, Blake Isaacs & Jim Howard
Before we fully turn our attention to the season that lies ahead, here is a look back at the biggest hockey stories of the 2017-18 season.
Ovechkin Leads Capitals to Stanley CupThirteen seasons into his career, Alex Ovechkin was starting to look like one of those great players who would never win the Stanley Cup.
That changed in grand fashion this season as Ovie and the Caps went from “could haves” or “should haves” to Stanley Cup Champions. But it would not have been the same — or possible, for that matter — had Ovechkin been just a member of a Cup-winning team. Ovie did what Ovie does best, leading the capitals with 15 playoff goals, including three in the Finals, and won the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP. Really, it couldn’t have been any other way for Ovie and the Caps.
This was the first Stanley Cup Championship for the Capitals since joining the league in 1974-75. More importantly, their Cup win will silence those who question Ovechkin’s legacy if he never got to sip from Lord Stanley’s Cup at least once in his career. This cements his place as one of the all-time greats- Sal Barry
Golden Knights Have Epic First SeasonIn its second season, the now long-running cartoon classic The Simpsons aired “War of the Simpsons,” whose central conflict focused on Homer deciding what mattered more; his marriage or catching a legendary catfish nicknamed General Sherman.
While he dutifully picks his marriage, Homer still bemoans his desire to be forever praised at a local bait shop, a feat he believes he will never achieve, and yet he does as the bait shop owner concocts a hyperbole for the ages after someone inquiries about the history of the fish:
“Yep, General Sherman. They say he’s five hundred pounds of bottom-dwelling fury, don’t you know. No one knows how old he is, but if you ask me, and most people do, he’s hundred years if he’s a day…Well, one fella came close. Went by the name of Homer. Seven feet tall he was, with arms like tree trunks. His eyes were like steel: cold, hard. Had a shock of hair, red, like the fires of Hell.”
Most expansion teams spend their first few years suffering, but Vegas never wavered, finishing the year with a record of 51-24-7. A group made up of misfits and cast-offs from the rest of the league sparked the imagination of the hockey world, while earning a host of stats and records that will likely never be topped again by any expansion team. Since 1992, the average expansion team collected just 57 points, whereas Vegas nabbed 109 points; that is almost double.
The Knights also sold out all 41 of their home games. Their average attendance was 18,042 fans, which is 103.1% of capacity for hockey at T-Mobile Arena.
The Knights’ success continued into the playoffs, smashing records with every drop of the puck. Their odds to win the Western Conference were 100:1 and the odds to win the Stanley Cup were at 500:1. Before the Finals, they had a home record of 6-1. The last time a first-year expansion club reached the Finals was in 1968, though that was guaranteed due to the division alignment. The Knights even retired their first number in their first season, setting aside number 58 to honor the victims of the Vegas shooting that occurred just before the start of the season.
Just like Homer, despite losing their own legendary fish, the Vegas Golden Knights will long be remembered as the lone expansion team that almost made it. – Kyle Scully
U.S. Women’s Team Wins Olympic GoldSince becoming an Olympic medal sport in 1998, Women’s Ice Hockey has been nothing short of awesome — at least for North American fans.
A Gold Medal game between Canada and the U.S. was almost a given. In 1998, it was the U.S. who beat Canada for the gold, inspiring the country’s next generation of female hockey players. But since then, the U.S. always had to settle for silver (2002, 2010, 2014) or bronze (2006), while Canada won every gold since finishing second in 1998.
That changed in dramatic fashion this year, with the U.S. beating Canada for the gold — in a sudden-death shootout, no less. It doesn’t get any closer than that, showing just how evenly-matched the U.S. and Canadian Women’s teams were this year. Although winning the silver is only a minor setback to the Canadian Women’s program, winning the gold will inspire another generation of girls to lace ’em up, further growing the women’s game in the U.S. – Sal Barry
Tom Dundon Buys the HurricanesRon Francis is a man of very few words. Peter Karmanos Jr. is a man of all the wrong words. Meanwhile, Tom Dundon, the new majority owner of the Carolina Hurricanes, is a man of a LOT of words — and we still don’t know what they all mean!
Sweeping in like a front of warm air in the dark days of Carolina’s December, Dundon took everyone by surprise by when he plunked down a big ol’ check for $420 million, more than the minimum required, and as soon as the press’ microphones were in front of him, it was clear he was a Chatty Kathy. He talked freely and openly to everyone who wanted a moment of his time, be it the media or fans just walking through the hallways of PNC Arena.
But in the half a year since, both the Hurricane fanbase as well as the national media still aren’t sure where the man is going to take this team. Up, hopefully — and I don’t mean to Canada.
To say that Tom Dundon is unorthodox is probably the understatement of 2017-18. We think/hope he’s a man of vision and has a solid plan, but sometimes the words and actions can be two different things. The Hockey Media takes him at his word or interpolates things to the extreme, like saying that the origination is having a fire sale causing all the other fan bases to froth at the mouth about how they can snag a young defenseman for peanuts.
The restructuring of how this front office will make its decisions is not revolutionary to business; it’s not even that outrageous in pro sports. But hockey has been behind the times for quite a while. GM’s are paid a hell of a lot of money and now coaches are too. Coaches are supposed to be the easiest and most expendable piece on the team; they get fired when the team doesn’t perform and GM’s not far behind that. If Tom gets this to work, if he’s ideas prove successful for a weak team in a strong division, if the team can turn more of a profit than last year’s $3 million then this league of parity may start looking at their own internal staff, and GM’s will take a mighty big gulp when their contracts are up. Money doesn’t grow on trees after all, not even in sunny North Carolina. – Jim Howard
Support for the Humboldt BroncosThe what, the where, the why and the how are all unimportant. The most important thing in the tragedy of the Humboldt Broncos crash are the people. The ones who died, the ones lived, the community who continues to stand through it all.
The entire hockey community came together on April 6, 2018 when 16 people lost their lives on a lonely highway just north of Tisdale. The Humboldt Broncos, a junior ice hockey team playing in Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League, were traveling by bus, getting ready to compete in their next playoff game when a semi-trailer truck collided with them. It was a moment that would alter the entire hockey world.
A GoFundMe account was established only hours after the crash and raised $15.2 million before it stopped accepting money, but that didn’t keep people near and far from donating another $3.8 million.
The money will go to victims and their families. To Evan Thomas’ family, who said he was considering becoming an orthopedic surgeon. To Logan Boulet’s family; he had just signed up to be an organ donor, and six of his organs were transplanted or prepared for transplants.
Each person on that bus had a story. Some will continue, like Xavier Labelle who was recently released from the hospital after surviving with multiple injuries including approximately 20 broken bones. Ryan Straschnitzki may not be able to walk again, but he is determined to one day play for the Canadian Olympic sledge hockey team.
That is the spirit of this tragedy. Remember those were lost and the legacy they leave behind, but be inspired those who survived and their unrelenting will to live. – Kyle Scully
The Sedin Twins RetireTheir first names are Daniel and Henrik — but they will forever be known as the Sedin Twins, bound together by ice, two lives that could not possibly be more unified. After 18 years of the highest caliber of hockey spent playing for the Vancouver Canucks, Daniel and Henrik Sedin have officially retired.
It was GM Brian Burke’s masterful plan that brought the two future icons to the Canucks. Thanks to some clever tactics, Burke completed several transactions that netted him the second and third overall picks in the 1999 NHL Entry Draft, giving him the chance to pick the greatest twins since Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Their remarkable career will be filled with impressive stat lines that anyone lucky enough to lace up a pair of skates would envy. They combine for 2,111 points with Henrik capturing a whopping 830 assists and Daniel finishing his career with 393 goals, with most of the goals only manifesting themselves thanks to plays created by his brother.
All those numbers didn’t just come from selfish play, but rather served as guiding light for a team that would find itself making constant trips to the playoffs, culminating in a chance for the Stanley Cup in 2011 where they ultimately fell short, losing the Bruins in brutal seven-game series.
On their own both players would’ve been great, but it was Vancouver’s foresight to draft them both that made them legends. Like Lewis and Clarke, Bill and Ted, Ross and Rachel, two heads are always better than one. – Kyle Scully
Jaromir Jagr Waived by FlamesFor every NHL player like Daniel or Henrik Sedin, who get to end their NHL career on their own terms, there are many others who get demoted, cut or otherwise let go by their team and then fade away. But no one thought that would be how Jaromir Jagr’s NHL career would end. Not even Jagr, who did not see the 2017-18 season as his last in the NHL.
And yet, that is what happened when the Calgary Flames waived Jagr after 22 games. No other team claimed the now-46 year-old, oft-injured right wing, who opted to return to his hometown and play for the Kladno Knights. Jagr recently announced that he will spend the 2018-19 season playing in the Czech Republic, lest an NHL team comes calling.
That seems unlikely, and that is too bad. Jagr is second all-time in points and third all-time in goals in the NHL. He played 24 seasons in the NHL, winning two Stanley Cup Championships and numerous personal awards. A player like Jagr should have gotten a “farewell tour,” much like Teemu Selanne had in 2014 or the Sedin Twins had towards the end of this season. – Sal Barry
The Avalanche Turn It AroundIt takes a lot for a team to go from dead last in their division one year and then make the playoffs the next. But, it happens, and happens a little more in the NHL than it does in other leagues. It can happen because a team signed a few big free agents, avoided the injury bug, or just started to play better. Most teams don’t come within one point of DOUBLING their total from the previous season. But the 2017-18 Colorado Avalanche did.
Last year’s Colorado Avalanche could be described as a stinky pile of unwashed hockey gear, and that would be putting it nicely.
They finished the season with 48 points and a .293 point percentage. Both of those stats are the worst in the NHL since the Atlanta Thrashers’ first season in the NHL in 1999-2000, before overtime losses and not including the 2012-13 lockout-shortened season. In a league with so much parity, it’s amazing that the Avalanche were able to just be below average at best this year, much less a playoff team. How did they do it?
They did in the simplest way imaginable — they just played better, and their star players led the charge. Captain Gabriel Landeskog bounced back from a dismal 2016-17 season, scoring 62 points this year; the second-highest total in his career. Tyson Barrie did the same thing. He enjoyed the best season of his career, notching career highs in goals, assists and points, (14-43-57).
But this year was all about the Avs’ top two forwards, Mikko Rantanen and Nathan MacKinnon. Rantanen was a no-name entering the season, scoring a solid 38 points (20 goals, 18 assists) in his first full year. But he blew up this year, scoring 29 goals and adding 55 assists, totaling 84 points. It is doubtful Rantanen would have taken a huge leap this year without linemate and former number one overall pick, Nathan MacKinnon. After a great rookie campaign, some were wondering if MacKinnon would ever take the leap from good to great. He made that leap this year, scoring a career-high in goals (39), assists (58), and points (97). He finished the season fifth in the league in points and was a finalist for the Hart Trophy.
The NHL is a stars league. It’s hard to compete without one superstar if not two. Although the Avalanche were bounced in the first round of the playoffs, they made huge strides this season thanks to the leaps made by their best players, especially Nathan MacKinnon. – Blake Isaacs
The Oilers’ Disappointing SeasonAt the beginning of the season any hockey fan would have told you that Vegas will be contending for a lottery pick while Edmonton will be contending for the Stanley Cup. They were all almost right. Almost.
The Oilers were riding high at the end of the 2017 season, making the playoffs for the first time since 2006 and defeating the San Jose Sharks in the first round before eventually losing to the Anaheim Ducks. Expectations for the 2018 season placed them in contention for the Stanley Cup alongside the Nashville Predators and the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Reality came crashing down almost immediately, as they lost 11 of their first 20 games in regulation. The rest of the season did not get much better for the young upstarts, finishing 6th in the Pacific Division and enduring a 263 goals against, putting them 25th out of 31 teams.
Blame for this monumental fall from grace was pointed at several different sources during the course of the season. GM Peter Chiarelli’s seemingly poor efforts in the draft, including trading two picks within the first 33 spots for defenseman Griffin Rienhart — who now plays for the Vegas Golden Knights. Or when he memorably dispatched Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle creating a major gap in goal scoring.
Poor Cam Talbot also found himself a scapegoat, but with no solid back-up and a workload that went unmatched by any other goalie, how can you not expect a drop-off. During the 2017-18 season though, Talbot managed just a .908 save percentage, fighting off 2,036 shots. Any workhorse would falter under that kind of weight.
Factor in an offensive drop from players like Milan Lucic along with sorely missed players like Taylor Hall, Patrick Maroon and Mark Letestu — who the team traded away for a bag of magic beans — and you had a recipe for disaster that ran all year long. Perhaps this was merely a test for a team still destined for greatness…next season. – Kyle Scully
Beer League Goalie Becomes NHL GoalieEvery season, there’s at least one emergency backup goalie (EBUG) who gets to fill in the second-string goalie role and get a little media attention for a night. But Scott Foster is perhaps now and forever the undisputed king of emergency goalies. Last season, Carolina Hurricanes equipment manager Jorge Alves appeared in net for the ‘Canes for 7.6 seconds, facing zero shots, but still becoming the first EBUG to actually set foot on the ice in an NHL game. Foster’s appearance for the Blackhawks on March 29, 2018 exceeded that by far.
Anton Forsberg was scheduled to start for the Blackhawks, but was injured before the game. So recent AHL call-up Collin Delia got the start and played well until getting injured in the third period. In comes Foster, a former NCAA Division 1 player who currently played beer league at a local rink. He played 14 minute and stopped seven shots, preserving a 6-2 win over the Jets.
Foster was named the First Star of the game and was mobbed by the media afterwards. Everyone wanted to talk to him, and seemingly every news outlet, from Time Magazine to Fortune Magazine, wrote about the accountant-turned-hockey hero. Foster’s feat as an EBUG who actually played in a game and faced some shots had never happened before, and it may never happen again. – Sal Barry
What do you think was the biggest story from the 2017-18 season? Leave a comment and let us know. ■