This last section of the quarterly reports for the current NHL season serves two purposes. First it tells what significantly happened in the final quarter of the season, and second, it wraps up the meaning of the regular season as a whole.
1. Columbus Blue Jackets
The franchise was in decline and so was the career of former Stanley Cup Champion coach John Tortorella who got horrible results with Team USA in September’s World Cup. But the Blue Jackets. mainly a team of no-names, responded to his coaching and unexpectedly produced a near NHL record of 16 straight wins and gave their franchise the best regular season in their history. It remains to be seen if this can generate better attendance in the future.
2. Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs have improved in coaching, at the general manager level, and they selected Auston Matthews as the number one player in this year’s draft and he has turned out to be everything they hoped for. For the first time since before the ownership of the Ontario Teachers Pension Fund, there is real hope for this franchise. The Leafs have made the playoffs for only the second time after the Teachers horrible ownership has ended and regardless of what they do in the post-season, it is onward and upward for the team.
In any order…
1. Dallas Stars
After making enormous progress last year, it was the task of the Stars to build on the foundations they had established and take the next step to being a legitimate contender in the Western Conference. Instead they never showed anything of their potential all year. Dallas has some notable names on their roster, meaning that many large contracts could either be traded or dumped in the off season in response to this underachieving performance.
2. Los Angeles Kings
A few years ago, the Kings were winning Stanley Cups and were one of the two teams favored to win it all at the beginning of each year. They are still an excellent defensive team but their attack has dwindled into minuscule levels. They will be drafting a top forward or an attacking defenseman in the off season.
3. Tampa Bay Lightning
On paper the Lightning had the second best roster in the Eastern Conference behind the Pittsburgh Penguins and General Manager Steve Yzerman signed all his free agents in an attempt to win the Stanley Cup now. Then Steve Stamkos got injured and the team never responded, just like the Montreal Canadiens did last year when Carey Price got hurt. Yzerman has already made significant changes to the disappointing roster by trading goaltender Ben Bishop who always seemed to get injured at the wrong time to Los Angeles and is committing to Andrei Vasilevskiy and Peter Budaj. A more serious problem is whether the Lightning can build a team around Stamkos who has a habit of getting seriously injured for long periods of time too easily and too frequently. Stamkos is the kind of player who could put a team over the top but he is not much good if he is always on the sidelines.
Still The Teams To Beat
Until it is proven otherwise, the Pittsburgh Penguins in the east and the Chicago Blackhawks in the west are the teams to beat and should be favored in the playoffs.
Washington Capitals won the President’s trophy again and the Minnesota Wild and coach Bruce Boudreau posted pretty regular season numbers. But until they do it in the playoffs…
Most Puzzling Team Of The Year
The Philadelphia Flyers had a 10 game winning streak and seemed certain to make the playoffs comfortably and somehow failed to do so.
It Didn’t Matter/Bad Decision
5 teams, Florida Panthers, St. Louis Blues, New York Islanders, Boston Bruins, and Montreal Canadiens fired their coaches. Of the 5, the first one to do so, the Florida Panthers, who fired Gerard Gallant even though he had a winning record and had won a division title only the year before, were the only team who failed to respond and improve under their new coach and tumbled down the standings to a losing record. Of course this is typical of a team that seldom makes the playoffs and regularly gets bad attendance. Gallant is now one the leading candidates to be hired in the off season.
Hot At The Right Time
The Calgary Flames fashioned the longest winning streak of the fourth quarter, 10 games, and put themselves into the playoffs. Honorable mention: Boston Bruins.
Here At Last
The Edmonton Oilers finally made the playoffs after 10 years with their noses to the window, under Sidney Crosby’s heir apparent, Connor McDavid. But what is startling is how bad most of the over-all number one picks in this period that Edmonton had were. The Oilers parted with two more of them this year. Nail Yakupov now plays a minor role with St. Louis. And New Jersey got Taylor Hall in the off season to boost its attack and has become bad defensively, falling to the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, still with the Oilers has the worst plus-minus ratings on the team. Are his days numbered? Is there a lesson to be learned here? That high number one picks are not always the best way to build a team.
End Of An Era
1. Detroit Red Wings
The Mike Ilitch glory years are over with the sad death of the man most responsible for reviving the franchise. Added to the loss of Gordie Howe, these are sad times in Detroit. The Red Wings failed to make the playoffs after a record 26 straight years but this is not a time of condemning but saluting a great organization. The reason Detroit fell was because they have not been able to draft top players for a long time. A new era will begin next year with new ownership, a new arena, and a top draft choice.
2. Vancouver Canucks
The Sedin brothers era is winding down. Unlike Detroit which made the most of its glory period and won four Stanley Cups, the best the Sedins could do was take Vancouver to a 7 game Stanley Cup Final. It’s been downhill ever since. Soon the Sedins will retire and join Trevor Linden and Pavel Bure as the best all-time Canuck players. But Vancouver is still waiting for its moment of glory.
Off Season Drama
1. The Future of the New York Islanders
This season should prove one thing. Things cannot get any better for the New York Islanders until they solve their arena problem. Usually when a team has a bad season like the Islanders did in which they fired their coach, you can point the finger at the owner, the management, the coach, or the roster. But none of these things can really be applied to the Islanders and they find themselves in the extremely rare case where the facility they play in is probably the deciding factor.
The Barclay Center is the poorest arena in the NHL. Built for basketball, it has the second smallest seating in the league which the Islanders cannot sell out, has bad ice, and is the only rink that has obstructive view seats. The Islanders cannot remain there and be a viable team in the NHL. It is shabby treatment for a team with such a notable history. The best hope for the team is a possible new arena in Queens and the second option is to take up the offer of Hartford which made an open pitch for the Islanders to become the Whalers and plans to renovate the XL Center to get back into the NHL. But if the Islanders with their glorious history disappeared, it would be a tremendous loss of face and status for the NHL in the United States.
2. Will Quebec Get a team?
Somehow the Quebec City situation has to be resolved. The NHL loves the new Videotron arena and is more than happy with the fanatical Quebec market that is now over 800,000 in the city and stretches from half way to Montreal into the Maritime provinces. But they cannot abide potential owner Pierre Karl Peladeau. So what happens? The NHL grants an expansion team to Quebec with brand new owners either from within or outside of the Province of Quebec? Peladeau manages to reconcile with the NHL Board and finally his offer is accepted? An existing NHL franchise is shifted from the Eastern Conference to Quebec like what happened to Winnipeg? Or does Quebec remain in limbo until its ownership problem is solved… potentially indefinitely forever.
3. Where will Arizona Play?
The NHL has publicly stated that the Arizona Coyotes have no future in Glendale. Insanely, there is actually a bill before the Arizona legislature promising taxpayer money to build yet another arena for a franchise that has had only one decent season in its history, and is vacating a facility, built at a cost of several hundred million taxpayer dollars specifically for the Coyotes that is only 13 years old. But it has been predicted that such a bill is unlikely to pass leaving the Coyotes with no future in Phoenix unless a miracle occurs. If the Coyotes move, it has to be to a western city or the league conferences will become even more unbalanced. Las Vegas is gone as an option and Seattle, whom the NHL favors, still cannot resolve its arena problem. So will Houston, Kansas City, Portland, Milwaukee, Oklahoma City, San Francisco, even Saskatoon come to the rescue?