The NHL hockey season does not fit snugly into the Gregorian calendar, but that’s not going to deter us from looking back at 2018.
What were the events, the teams, the players, that caught your eye during the year? Which moments would make the cut if we were compiling a 2018 NHL Yearbook?
For starters, it would have to be Alex Ovechkin, in a Las Vegas fountain, clutching the Stanley Cup. Or Alex Ovechkin, on the Washington Capitals’ plane ride home, napping with the Stanley Cup. Or how about an enthralled Alex Ovechkin looking up to the heavens as he’s enveloped in a swarm of ecstatic team mates, moments after Game Five ended in Vegas with a 4-3 win for the visiting Caps. Which meant a 4-1 series win for the long suffering franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup.
Then the Ovie Tour began. The Great 8 was everywhere with his new friend Stanley, and very few were complaining. You could feel the intensity of his celebration, his joy…his relief, from finally capturing the Big One, and forever silencing all of us who ever questioned his heart, his passion, his pure love for playing the game of hockey.
Without a doubt, the future Hall of Famer would grace the cover of our 2018 Hockey Yearbook.
A close second would be the team his Capitals beat in the Stanley Cup Final. The Vegas Golden Knights. The expansion Vegas Golden Knights.
The 31st team surprised pretty much everybody by coming out of the gates strong to begin the 2017-18 campaign, but since our yearbook only covers the latter part of that equation, it’s their stubborn insistence that they become a Western Conference power in their initial foray into hockey that earns them a prominent spot in our 2018 Hockey Yearbook.
The Golden Knights defied all expectations, and the speedy team took down some powerhouses on their way to the Stanley Cup Final. The record will show they actually won the first game 6-4, before Washington made the necessary adjustments and took the next four matches.
While that was a disappointing ending to a truly fairytale run, it didn’t tarnish the gold that was the greatest expansion team in North American sports history.
Okay, those two entries are easy to pick. What else made the grade in 2018?
How about the plethora of NHL head coaches that walked the plank during the autumn of 2018? Five (and counting) were handed pink slips before Christmas, with only the Edmonton Oilers truly executing a 180 degree pirouette, and getting themselves back into the playoff race.
And this coaching carnage came about after a season (2017-18) where nary a bench boss lost his gig during the actual season. The Rangers said goodbye to Alain Vigneault, but only after the Broadway Blueshirts had missed the Eastern Conference playoff cut by a whopping 20 points.
Yes, coaches are hired to be fired, and yes, it’s much easier to get rid of the coach than half the roster, but it’s usually patently unfair to load all of the blame on the guy with the whistle and clipboard. Keep in mind, as this article is being typed, Jon Cooper of the Tampa Bay Lightning is the NHL head coach who’s kept his current gig for the longest stretch. He was hired March of 2013. That’s an eternity in today’s NHL, because a jaw dropping 18 of the current 31 bench bosses have been behind said bench for less than 2 years.
Let’s turn the page, and see what’s featured next in our 2018 Hockey Yearbook. How about NHL hockey in Seattle?
Fresh off the off-the-chart success of the Vegas Golden Knights, expansion is no longer a dirty word, and the NHL has seen fit to fill in the North Western map with a franchise in Emerald City. The Seattle whatever they’ll be called will join the Pacific Division in time for the 2021-22 campaign, and an instant rivalry with the neighboring Vancouver Canucks will be born.
The unrealistic expectations the Golden Knights set are an unlikely target to reach for the nascent franchise, though you can bank on the lazier members of the hockey intelligentsia making that comparison all season long. The more interesting question will be, which team will win the Stanley Cup first, Vegas or Seattle? The race is on, or will be soon.
The Hockey Hall of Fame welcomed in six new members in November. One of the top NHL goaltenders of all-time (arguably the best), Martin Brodeur, led the class, followed closely by diminutive sniper Marty St. Louis. Those two were obvious choices.
Russian superstar forward Alexander Yakushev first came to North American prominence during the iconic 1972 Summit Series between the Soviet Union and Canada. The highly skilled left winger joins goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, and the late Valeri Kharlamov, as members of that great team that are enshrined at the corner of Yonge and Front Streets.
Other inductees included Willie O’Ree, who played with the Boston Bruins, and when he did so on the night of January 18th 1958, he broke the colour barrier in the NHL. Granted, it would be a long time before the likes of Mike Marson, Grant Fuhr, and Jarome Iginla would be in the league, but it had to start somewhere. And it did with Mr. O’Ree, who then worked with the league’s diversity committee in an effort to make the game truly for everybody.
And by everybody, we mean everybody. When I played minor hockey back in the early 1970’s in St. Albert, Alberta, only boys were involved; girls didn’t play hockey. But they do now, and they play it well. Jayna Hefford is a prime example. She tore through Kingston minor hockey, and worked her way up to the Canadian National Team, where Jayna was part of four Olympic gold medal winners, in addition to other honours.
The most controversial selection was National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman. A number of hockey fans didn’t understand why the Hall saw fit to enshrine the polarizing figure, but a quick glance at his accomplishments since 1993 makes the argument for itself.
Under Mr. Bettman’s watch, the NHL grew in size from 21 teams to 32…and counting. It entered virgin territory in the U.S., as the league looked to expand its media footprint. Some markets have worked (Tampa, Anaheim, Dallas, Vegas); some are still a work-in-progress (Sunrise, Florida, and Glendale, Arizona). The league returned to a hockey hotbed (Winnipeg), and looked to the future (China, and Europe).
Mr. Bettman’s stewardship has grown the value of the league, raising all boats in the process. While many have reservations about some of what has happened (2004-05 season, or lack thereof, for example), the league has never been healthier. And make no mistake about it, the NHL is the premier hockey league on the planet. Its health matters to hockey.
Other NHL stories in our 2018 Yearbook include star centre John Tavares leaving the Islanders after nine seasons, and returning to Toronto to ply his trade with the hometown Maple Leafs. That infuriated many of the Islanders’ faithful, who argued that JT should have made his intentions clear to the team, but it’s rare that a player still in his prime holds all of the cards when it comes to unrestricted free agency, and Tavares played those cards wisely.
Three months in, he has compiled 36 points in his first 34 games for the Blue-and-White, and have helped make the Maple Leafs a force in the Eastern Conference. As for the Islanders, they didn’t dry up and blow away once Tavares relocated. As of mid-December, they sit in third spot in the Metropolitan Division, and barring unforeseen injuries, should be in the playoff mix come mid-April.
The Decline and Fall of the once mighty Chicago Blackhawks, and Los Angeles Kings, has been a sight to behold. Between the two teams, they captured five of the six Stanley Cups handed out between 2010 and 2015. But all good things eventually end, particularly in a cap era league, and as of mid-December, the ‘Hawks sit second last in the Western Conference. The only team below them in the standings? The Los Angeles Kings.
Also in the yearbook would be the NHL debut of great young players such as Rasmus Dahlin (Sabres), Andrei Svechnikov (Hurricanes), Jesperi Kotkaniemi (Canadiens), Brady Tkachuk (Senators)…and Carter Hart (Flyers).
For a franchise that once was graced with Hockey Hall of Famer Bernie Parent tending net for them, the Flyers have had their trials and tribulations with goaltenders over the decades. Granted, even having Parent in Philly was a bit messed up. The Flyers traded him to the Maple Leafs in early 1971 for goalie Bruce Gamble, and forward Mike Walton. Parent benefitted greatly by sharing the crease with his hero, goaltending legend Jacques Plante. That internship did wonders for Parent’s game, and once he returned from a forgettable stint in the World Hockey Association, the Legend of Bernie grew, and the Flyers won the Stanley Cup in 1974, and again in 1975. And haven’t won it since.
So passionate Philadelphia Flyers’ fans (and is there any other kind?) have been waiting for The Second Coming. Up-and-coming star netminder Pelle Lindbergh tragically died, in a car accident, in November 1985. Ron Hextall was a paradigm shifting goaltender during his first stint in orange, but never re-captured that magic when he was reacquired from the Islanders.
You could trot out a listing of the goaltending revolving door for any NHL franchise, but the Flyers list just seems to be a wee bit more convoluted. The likes of Brian Elliott, Petr Mrazek, Michael Neuvirth, Steve Mason, Alex Lyon, Anthony Stolarz, Jason LaBarbera, Rob Zepp, Ray Emery, Cal Heeter, Michael Leighton, Ilya Bryzgalov, and Brian Boucher, have all strapped on the pads for the Flyers over the past eight seasons.
As did Sergei Bobrovsky, who played 83 games with the Flyers before ending up in Columbus, where he won the Vezina Trophy with the Blue Jackets in 2013, and again in 2017. Ouch.
Carter Hart, the microscope is on you. And when we look back at our 2018 Hockey Yearbook five years from now, where will he be tending net then? Flyers’ fans hope it’ll be Philadelphia. Because it’s about time for someone to step up and own that crease.
We’re quickly running out of room in our 2018 Hockey Yearbook. Time to squeeze in some of the players who donned new uniforms. That list includes Erik Karlsson in San Jose, Jeff Skinner in Buffalo, Max Domi in Montreal, James Neal in Calgary, Max Pacioretty in Las Vegas, James van Riemsdyk back in Philadelphia, Ryan O’Reilly in St. Louis, Noah Hanifin in Calgary, Dougie Hamilton in Carolina, Alex Galchenyuk in Arizona, and Paul Stastny in Vegas.
The last 365 days have been a whirlwind, and 2019 is setting up to also be an interesting year, on and off the ice.