If you read this space regularly, you know I can sometimes delicately veer into negativity and pessimism if I'm discussing, say, video reviews for goalie interference. (But seriously: The Nashville Predators were straight-up hosed this week and the NHL is never going to get this right, ever.)
But one cannot survive on bile alone. As the regular season comes to a close this weekend, it's about time to highlight some of the truly wonderful events, storylines and individuals from the 2017-18 NHL season. This isn't a ranking, nor does it portend to be a complete list -- no emergency Blackhawks goalie, for example -- but it does cover many things that thawed this Arctic heart of mine over the past several months.
So, sunshine, rainbows and all of it. Here we go ...
The Vegas Golden Knights were actually a little too awesome this season. Like, there are about two dozen redemption arcs, including general manager George McPhee and coach Gerard Gallant; William "Wild Bill" Karlsson's season; Marc-Andre Fleury's existence; the Vegas Flu and home-ice advantage, not to mention the lingering bond with fans after the mass shooting in Las Vegas last October. The totality is almost too much to process, so let me boil it down to its essence: We just watched an expansion team race past 100 points -- and clinch its division in March -- in its inaugural season. This is why I don't bet on hockey ...
The scoring boom
Hey, great news: We can cancel that order for wider nets and Olympic-sized rinks, because scoring was up bigly this season. Heading into the final weekend, the 2017-18 season teams have an average of 2.97 goals per game. Toss out the whack-a-doo post-lockout season of 2005-06, and that's the highest average since 1995-96, aka the cusp of the trap era.
The slashing stuff quieted down
Remember when the first two months of the season were filled with players complaining about the crackdown on slashing, and how no one could figure out the standards and everyone was angst-ridden? Point of order: It might have fueled the scoring boom. Another point of order: Everyone would rather talk about how no one can figure out the standards on goalie interference.
Taylor Hall up, Edmonton down
I'll never forget the tone of betrayal in Hall's voice when the Oilers dealt him to the Devils, like they had robbed him of the chance to see Edmonton become a contender. So yeah, there's something undeniably delicious about Hall willing New Jersey to the playoffs, and probably winning the Hart Trophy, in a season where the Oilers are 17 points out. Meanwhile, Oilers GM Peter Chiarelli will spend the summer looking for what Hall already gave him, to add to a team whose forward momentum has been halted (and not just because Milan Lucic is such an anchor).
Connor McDavid vs. Sidney Crosby for Best Player Alive is kind of subjective. But Laine trying to snatch Ovechkin's goal-scoring crown is quantifiable. McDavid measures himself against himself, mostly. Laine has been candid that he'd like to accomplish greater feats than Ovechkin has in his career. So we're here for this burgeoning "feud." Especially since they're both so goofy.
Jared Bednar's revenge
No matter what happens with the Colorado Avalanche in their Saturday game for the wild card against the St. Louis Blues, I feel good for Bednar. He was thrust into this job when Patrick Roy lost his smile, had a horrendous first season, and then in Year 2 did what he does as a head coach: He won.
Every time he touched the puck this season, we remember that we are muggles while others are the wizards.
The Ottawa Revolt
Owner Eugene Melnyk's blatant swing at the fan base (at the Centennial game, no less) turned out to be the spark that lit the fire that ... well, inspired fans to buy a bunch of billboards to get him to sell the Senators. Their discontent is palpable, and the team has taken notice. Man, the reaction to the Erik Karlsson trade is going to be rich.
For those keeping score: The Bread Man achieved the highest points-per-game average of his career (1.00) without the aid of Patrick Kane. Kane had his lowest points-per-game average since 2012 without Panarin. And the guy who was traded for Panarin, Brandon Saad, had the lowest points-per-game average of his career. Oh, and the Jackets made the playoffs while the Blackhawks very much didn't.
He's going to finish more than 30 points ahead of Dustin Brown for the Kings' scoring lead, and he followed up the worst offensive season of his career with his best (1.14 points per game). We're not saying it was all Darryl Sutter last season ... but it was all Darryl Sutter last season.
- Chase Williams WPXI (@chasepwilliams) March 30, 2018
It's like Sid woke up on Opening Night and decided that 2017-18 was going to be the "insanely creative use of sticks to score goals" season.
This Sidney Crosby goal is worth watching from three different angles pic.twitter.com/qg3RibCXla
- Jim (@SportsingJim) March 22, 2018
Next season: Telekinesis. Sid will have it down after a few practices.
Roberto Luongo's grace
Lu did everything he could to try and lift the Florida Panthers into the postseason, while at the same time playing in his 1,000th NHL game and being an eloquent public voice after the Parkland shootings. We toss around that "great ambassador of the sport" stuff around too much, but does it ever apply here.
I heard about it during every radio hit in Nashville. I heard it about it from about 20,000 Predators fans. I even heard about it from the dang mascot: I picked the Predators to miss the playoffs.
In doing so, I made it clear it was one prediction I wanted to be wrong. Luckily for all involved, it was. Well, luckily for everyone expect me. I look like a giant pile of rotting catfish entrails for this idiotic hunch I played.
It's just inspiring to see someone go all carpe diem when handed a top line role. Couturier had a breakout offensive season, re-energized Claude Giroux and continued to play Selke Trophy-worthy defense. So kudos to Couts, even if he slowed the pace down late in the season.
It's really saying something about this season when Staal reversing the trajectory of his career and potting 41 goals for the Minnesota Wild is, like, the 30th most shocking thing that happened.
A renaissance on the ice, where he played well and played the role of mentor, and a transformation off the ice into some Slovakian sage of Instagram inspiration. And he has signed on to play one more season after this, to the delight of humanity.
Tom Dundon buys the Canes
I've always wanted Mark Cuban to buy an NHL team, so I guess this is the next best thing. The franchise has never been more stable and yet completely chaotic. I'm here for outsiders coming in to shake it all up.
Finally, the Sedins say goodbye
It just doesn't get any better than this:
Second of the game for Daniel, scored at 2:33 of OT and assisted by Henrik, #33.
- NHL (@NHL) April 6, 2018
Besides the fact that the final home game for Henrik Sedin and Daniel Sedin featured some wonderfully creepy numerology, it was simply the perfect way for them to say farewell to the NHL and, more importantly, to the community they love. And they did it on their terms: no contract awkwardness, no unfortunate career coda in a strange uniform.
This one's bittersweet, because I'm going to miss this twin magic. But the Sedins finish their NHL lives as Canucks. It had to end like this.
Jersey Foul of the Week
Speaking of Vancouver:
- Kyle Bryan (@KyleBryan) April 6, 2018
This is a Nikita Tryamkin sweater. If you're not familiar with him, he was drafted No. 66 overall by the Canucks in 2014, played 79 games for them and is now considered perhaps the best defenseman in the Kontinental Hockey League at 23. Depending on who's telling the story, he either left the NHL because of his ice time or, in the words of GM Jim Benning, because his young wife didn't know English.
Bottom line: Not a Foul. Just a really, really curious hipster choice of sweater to wear to the game, considering Tryamkin may never return to the team.
Staying in Vancouver:
- Cal (@SouthpawCal) April 6, 2018
Two Sedin Twins Jersey Fouls. The one on the right made its way through social media during their final home game. It's a total Foul, but a hard one for us to really take a run at considering we want the Sedins on the same Hall of Fame plaque. Frankly, though, if you're going to do this gimmick, the cleaner look on the left is preferable.
Drafting a guaranteed Stanley Cup
Our friend Steve Whyno of the Associated Press went down a draft lottery rabbit hole this week and discovered the following: Of the past 30 No. 1 overall picks, only five have gone on to win the Stanley Cup.
Now, there's a lot to unpack here. Obviously you have to take into account your Alexandre Daigle and Patrik Stefan types, as the No. 1 pick doesn't always assure you a franchise player. And then you have to take the specific franchises into account: Some are going to gobble up top picks like Pac-Man and be the Penguins, and some of them are going to be the Oilers.
To wit, Whyno found that those five players -- Crosby, Fleury, Kane, Vincent Lecavalier and Mike Modano -- have their name on the Stanley Cup 11 times, thanks to multiple Cups for the first three players.
This got me thinking about the lottery, and the notion that the top pick is a necessity for eventual success. So I looked at the last 30 No. 2 and No. 3 overall picks in the NHL, and found this:
No. 2 overall picks: 15 Stanley Cups between nine players, including three for Brendan Shanahan (1987) and Evgeni Malkin (2004).
No. 3 overall picks: 9 Stanley Cups between six players, including four from Scott Niedermayer, aka. four more than Pat Falloon.
So the moral of the story is "draft Sidney Crosby, obviously, but it's OK if you end up with that second overall pick because those guys win more than the No. 1 guys do." So chin up, Buffalo.
Listen To ESPN On Ice
We had the pleasure of interviewing Howie Borrow this week, who is one of the Keepers Of The Cup for the Hockey Hall of Fame, and it was a fascinating chat. Plus, our friend Jason Brough of TSN Radio in Vancouver was on to talk about the Sedins. Stream it here, and grab it at iTunes here. Thanks for supporting the podcast, and please leave reviews wherever they're applicable.
Pick-your-opponent playoff update
Just a reminder that the Southern Professional Hockey League's beautifully ridiculous new playoff format debuts on Sunday night. Please recall that the SPHL is doing a "Challenge Round" in which the top three teams in the playoffs have a chance to select their first-round opponents from the teams that are seeded 5 through 8, with the top-seeded team going first. (Nos. 4 and 5 play each other, obviously.)
The 2018 Challenge Round Selection Show will be broadcast from the Von Braun Center in Huntsville, Alabama, on Sunday, beginning at 7:30 p.m. ET. There are going to be satellite fan appreciation parties around the league's other arenas. The broadcast will stream on the league's website.
A glance at the standings tells us that the Peoria Rivermen are the top seed, at 79 points. The final two teams in the playoffs are the Roanoke Rail Yard Dawgs (54 points) and the Mississippi RiverKings (56 points).
Again, this format could be effective if there's a compelling reason to select a particular team -- a key late-season injury, for example -- but it's hard to imagine a top seed would want to light a nuclear-level fire under anyone that isn't the No. 8 seed by picking them over the worst team in the draw. But hopefully this happens, because it would be super fun.
Hockey historian Joe Pelletier believes that Henrik and Daniel Sedin are certainties for the Hall of Fame. But on the first ballot? [Greatest Hockey Legends]
Wayne Gretzky, with another hat trick: Selling three multimillion-dollar Westlake mansions in the last two years. [LA Times]
Racial incident at a U.K. university ice hockey game. [Telegraph]
NHL Seattle team concept art. [News Tribune]
Is the NWHL coming to Detroit? [Detroit News]
Finally, from the great Sean Tierney of Charting Hockey, the least productive skaters this season:
You could look at some of the great work done by Barzal or Boeser this year. Orrr you could look at the NHL's least productive skaters. Choose your own adventure. pic.twitter.com/xSoBNIDfMY
- Sean Tierney (@ChartingHockey) April 6, 2018
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
Craig Custance tries his hand at hockey color commentating on the radio. [The Athletic]
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Chris Peters' magazine piece on the Hughes brothers is going to be one of the stories we revisit in about five years. [ESPN The Magazine]