With the 2021 NHL season structured as it is, and being played when it is, hockey fans were preconditioned to expect the unexpected before it started.
Oh, it’s already been a ride. Well over 100 players listed on the coronavirus-related absences list. Thirty-five games being postponed and rescheduled due to positive tests. Four more games being rescheduled due to heavy snowfall … in Texas. One game being suspended and then restarted due to the sun melting the rink’s ice. Did we mention that that last game was played at Lake Tahoe? Surprise!
On the ice, the season has been filled with surprises both great and small. We’ve collected 20 of them and grouped them into handy tiers, to best define their unpredictability.
It’s the NHL surprise tiers ranking, as the season rolls on into March.
Not entirely unexpected tier
Connor McDavid keeps getting better: One of the true joys of this season has been watching Connor McDavid. Specifically, when someone other than Connor McDavid has a great offensive game earlier in the day and McDavid has one of those “Last Dance” Michael Jordan “… and I took that personally” performances, where he threatens the single-game points record. He’s averaging 1.81 points per game and is going to probably crest over 100 points in a 56-game season. Oh and don’t look now, but he’s playing a bit of defense, too. The NHL’s No. 1 must-see player.
No bounce-back campaigns for Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson: Hey, what happened to that revert-to-form season from the San Jose Sharks‘ star defensemen? Burns has his lowest points-per-game average (0.47) since 2011-12 and Karlsson is — you guessed it — injured again.
Nicklas Backstrom, Capitals MVP: Washington’s leading point producer? That would be the 33-year-old Backstrom, with 22 in his first 18 games. He’s produced through the team’s lineup interruptions due to COVID-related absences, and produced consistently: Backstrom has points in 14 of 18 games this season.
Reports of Boston’s demise were greatly exaggerated. A lot of us thought the Bruins might take a step back with Torey Krug and Zdeno Chara off their blue line and no significant upgrades in the offseason. A lot of us were wrong, as the B’s are 11-3-2 out of the gate.
Auston Matthews‘ goal pace: The Leafs star is the first player in 15 seasons to score 18 goals in his first 18 games of the season. He’s on pace for 52 goals in this 56-game season, as his 0.90 goals-per-game average would be the highest since Mario Lemieux‘s 0.99 in 1995-96. In the words of my friend James Mirtle, I say he does it.
Very peculiar indeed tier
Alexis Lafrenière is the new Jack Hughes: Hughes, the No. 1 overall pick in 2019, struggled mightily last season as an 18-year-old before returning with a vengeance (11 points in 14 games) in year two. The Rangers have to hope for the same trajectory for Lafrenière, the 2020 first-overall pick, who has two points in 16 games as a 19-year-old rookie. Not many would have expected that Lafrenière would already be out of the Calder Trophy race in February.
The Blues aren’t a playoff lock: We went into the season thinking the West Division … sorry, the “Honda West Division” … would have three playoff spots occupied by the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche and the St. Louis Blues. If the season ended today, the first two would be in … while the Blues (.550 points percentage) are currently sixth. Injuries have been a factor.
The JVR-aissance: Who had James van Riemsdyk as the comeback player of the year? The Philadelphia Flyers winger leaders his team in scoring with 22 points in 16 games; a blazing 1.40 points-per-game pace for a player who averaged 0.61 points per game last season.
Scoring is … down? Some of the firewagon hockey we’ve seen this season — especially in the North Division — may have warped general perceptions about leaguewide offensive output. But after 274 games this season, the goals-per-game average is 2.96, which would be the lowest in the NHL since 2016-17. That’s with a .907 league-wide save percentage, which would be the lowest in 14 seasons.
The impending Nashville fire sale: The Predators‘ .444 points percentage start has their owners “angry and confused” and has the rest of us wondering if Nashville is going to break up this roster. It’s never a good sign when there’s been more discussion about where Mattias Ekholm might be traded than if the Predators can rally for a playoff spot.
‘I’m sorry … what?’ tier
Oof, Taylor Hall: While he’s never been a dominant goal-scorer, Hall has also never been a player who averages [checks notes] 0.06 goals per game, but here we are. The Sabres’ free-agent prize has one goal in 16 games, although he has contributed 10 assists. Also surprising: That he’s played only 16 minutes more with Jack Eichel than without him at 5-on-5 this season.
Actually, it’s the Jack Roslovic trade: We’ve had one significant trade this season, as the Blue Jackets sent disgruntled center Pierre Luc-Dubois to the Winnipeg Jets for disgruntled winger Patrik Laine. Oh, and the Jets threw in disgruntled center Jack Roslovic … a Columbus native who is outscoring both Laine (10 points) and Dubois (4 points) with 12 points in 13 games.
The rise of Kevin Lankinen: Due respect to Ottawa, but the Chicago Blackhawks were supposed to have the worst goaltending in the NHL this season. Enter the Finnish rookie, 25, who languished in the minors for two seasons before leading the surprising Blackhawks with an 8-3-3 record and a .921 save percentage. Even with Patrick Kane playing at a Hart Trophy pace, Lankinen might be their MVP.
Stars of the waiver wire: The harsh economic realities of the NHL, from the revenue crash to the flat salary cap, have made teams become aggressive in trying to shed payroll. So big names like Adam Henrique of the Ducks, Frans Nielsen of the Red Wings, Paul Byron of the Canadiens, Loui Eriksson of the Canucks and James Neal of the Oilers have passed through waivers this season. As has Rangers defenseman Tony DeAngelo, for different reasons.
The Canucks are a mess: Our primary concerns about Vancouver before the season was that they didn’t know how to defend on a playoff-caliber level (check) and that the goaltending battery of Braden Holtby and Thatcher Demko wouldn’t hold a candle to the work Jacob Markstrom did for them last season (check). What we didn’t anticipate: That their offense would be wildly inconsistent, that they’d lose four of five games against Montreal, and that they’d have a putrid .391 points percentage after 23 games. Ugh.
Jaw-dropping, mouth-agape shockers tier
Marc-Andre Fleury‘s Vezina-caliber season: The Vegas Golden Knights goaltender went from the offseason trading block back to his role as starting goaltender as Robin Lehner has been out of the lineup. The results so far: an 8-3-0 record, with a league-best .942 save percentage and a 1.55 goals-against average. (Meanwhile, when Lehner did play, he had an .890 save percentage in five games, after signing a five-year contract extension. His struggles are also a surprise, come to think of it.)
The Panthers are good: After 18 games, the Florida Panthers have a .722 points percentage, which is second best in the Central Division. Jonathan Huberdeau has 23 points in 18 games. More importantly, goalie Chris Driedger is 7-2-1 with a .928 save percentage, as the Panthers made the difficult (but productive!) decision to give the goalie making $850,000 more reps than the one making $12 million this season (Sergei Bobrovsky).
Los Angeles Kings, playoff contenders: Anze Kopitar is a point-per-game player again. Drew Doughty is making his personal case for the Canadian Olympic team with his best season in ages. They’re back in the top 10 in goals-against average (2.67) for the first time in four seasons. The Kings have been waiting for that sweet spot, where the star veterans on the roster combine with their deep prospect pool to become a contender again. Are they ahead of schedule?
Habs fire Claude Julien: This should probably read “Carey Price plays poorly enough to get his coach fired,” but that’s not surprising on several levels. Julien getting fired qualifies as a shock if only because Montreal got off the block so well and because he’s being replaced not by assistant Kirk Muller, who was also fired, but by 47-year-old Dominique Ducharme, who has never been a head coach professionally.
Brian Burke, Ron Hextall take over Penguins: The shock of all shocks. Not just GM Jim Rutherford abruptly stepping down, not just Flyers great Hextall taking over in Pittsburgh, but Brian Burke leaving the creature comforts of Sportsnet commentary for the newly created president of hockey operations role with the Penguins. They’re tasked with getting Sidney Crosby another Stanley Cup. We imagine the surprises have just begun.
Three things from Lake Tahoe
1. It’s unfortunate the NHL was dunked on by critics for suspending the Golden Knights vs. Avalanche game on Saturday. Sure, it’s embarrassing to have to hit pause on a game after one period because they decided to play a game on ice under the midday sun in Lake Tahoe. But the NHL is beholden to its TV partners in decisions like these. “[The start time] was established a long time ago, in conjunction with NBC and for the purpose of hitting their available windows and maximizing distribution/impact,” deputy commissioner Bill Daly told me over the weekend.
When it became apparent the ice was unplayable, the league did right by player safety by moving the restart to 9 p.m. local time and over to cable, which melted away any chance the game would draw viewers back East. Which is a shame, because it was still a striking sight in the dark and a competitive game played on ridiculously fast ice.
I don’t know … it seems like the same people who are so quick to criticize the league for never doing anything interesting are also the first ones to kick mud on it when their occasional experiments get wonky. See also: NHL All-Star Game Skills Competition.
My favorite part of the sun delay was the fact that the Avalanche wanted to keep the momentum of their 1-0 lead and keep playing on a surface that resembled a Slurpee. “The ice was bad but we never even thought of stopping. I didn’t think it was a possibility. I thought we were just going to grind it out and muck it up,” said Nathan MacKinnon.
Meanwhile, the Golden Knights were like, ‘Hey, dude, our skates are making sparks on the exposed concrete.’ Or as Alec Martinez put it: “There was a reason why we postponed it. They did the best that they could be, but the sun was beating down on it a little bit too much. It was melting the ice. There were some big chunks taken out. We obviously don’t want anyone getting hurt. If there are big chunks out of the ice, it’s going all the way down to the cement and that’s creating a difficult and dangerous playing environment for all of the guys. I think the league did the right thing in postponing it.”
2. Last week in this space, I explained how a successful Lake Tahoe weekend could usher in a new era of outdoor events for the NHL in places like Central Park and Mount Rushmore. To that end, it was a good news/bad news weekend.
The good news: The Flyers vs. Bruins game on Sunday set an all-time audience record on NBCSN with 1.068 million viewers. It’s the first game to do over a million viewers on the network. The first period of the Vegas vs. Colorado game on NBC earned 1.398 million viewers before the pause. So the interest was there to see what hockey in an exotic locale looked like. (Having four compelling teams certainly helps too.)
The bad news: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman sounded very much like someone who viewed the Tahoe games as a symptom of having no fans in arenas vs. the start of a new phase of outdoor games.
“I think these events are in large measure enhanced with the energy and the excitement our games get from having so many of our fans at these games. I believe our players thrive on that energy,” he said. “We’re in a unique season and a unique year. We wanted to have a special event. But I think we belong in front of our fans, in large numbers, when we do these events.”
Translation: We’d rather sell stadium tickets to 45,000 fans and then sell all of them $30 hats instead of hoping sponsorship money helps us break even at a game played in the middle of a golf course.
3. This was the first hockey game I had covered in person since last March. It was an honor to be back at the rink. COVID-19 protocols and a lack of facilities meant that the media could watch only a part of each game, standing up on a riser behind one of the goals, facing the mountains. We were then bused back to Harrah’s South Lake Tahoe where the media room was set up, to watch the game on a projection screen before doing Zoom interviews later in the day.
At the end of the night on Sunday, there was a loud crash in the media workroom. Part of the ceiling of this ballroom we were in fell on one of the socially distanced work stations. (No one was hurt.)
A ceiling tile just fell on a table in the Lake Tahoe NHL media room. No one was sitting there (thankfully). pic.twitter.com/k39ukV8Ake
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) February 22, 2021
After hearing a few more cracks in the tiles because of flooding in the ceiling, NHL media relations rustled us up and quickly led us out of the room. While completing my game story at the craps table crossed my mind, I ended up finding a corner of the hallway to set up shop.
Whether you were working indoors or on the ice, something up there didn’t like you in Lake Tahoe.
Winners and losers of the week
Winner: Boston Bruins‘ vibe
— Boston Bruins (@NHLBruins) February 21, 2021
The Bruins’ 1990s tracksuit vibe at the Lake Tahoe game was one of the most glorious things we’ve ever witnessed and should put a neon-colored stake in the heart of the “pregame business wear” tradition. Patrice Bergeron was the catalyst for it, saying that if the Bruins were going to wear their Reverse Retro jerseys inspired by the ones worn by Cam Neely and Ray Bourque, then they should go full-on late-1980s/early-1990s fashion. The only thing brighter was the sun.
Loser: David Pastrnak
— Greg Wyshynski (@wyshynski) February 22, 2021
It’s bad enough that Pastrnak was dragged out of the Bruins’ dressing room celebration — where “Barbie Girl” was playing — but he had to be downright frosty while doing a Zoom interview with the media after the game, to the point where he said, “Boys, I’m freezing, are we done please?” Get that man some coffee.
Winner: Dominique Ducharme
Ducharme didn’t play in the NHL. He has never been the head coach of a professional team. He ended up on Claude Julien’s bench because there allegedly was a market for his services from another NHL team, so the Habs promised him an assistant coaching spot. He was the third assistant in the Montreal pecking order, behind Kirk Muller and Luke Richardson.
And now he’s the interim head coach of the Canadiens at 47 years old, with the potential to become the full-on head coach if Carey Price can stop a few more pucks and the power play reverts to the mean. That’s how you play the game.
Loser: Kirk Muller
The players apparently like Muller a lot in Montreal. When Julien had his health crisis and left the Toronto postseason bubble last summer, Muller did a more-than-admirable job in his absence. But he was fired along with Julien on Wednesday, watching as another assistant was named interim coach. Ducharme somehow avoided getting the blame for the team’s special-teams woes, despite contributing to them as a coach. Muller, who ran the power play, did not.
Winner: David Ayres
Beyond this article, I do not know anything about a movie being made of David Ayres’ incredible NHL moment, when the ice resurfacing machine driver became an emergency goalie for the Carolina Hurricanes and defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs last year. All I know is that a dude who looks like James Corden is getting +250 odds that Ryan Reynolds will play him in a movie.
Loser: Ottawa Senators goaltending
At this point, Ayres might be an improvement in Ottawa. The Senators have an .872 team save percentage, worst in the NHL this season. The Detroit Red Wings finished with a .886 save percentage last season. This would be the lowest since the Tampa Bay Lightning posted an .876 team save percentage in their .329 points percentage 1999-2000 season. Prayers up for Matt Murray and Marcus Hogberg.
Winner: Comebacks we want
The best type of workday! 😃 pic.twitter.com/2tWlS1iOmO
— Henrik Lundqvist (@hlundqvist35) February 23, 2021
Henrik Lundqvist hit the ice on Tuesday for the first time since having open-heart surgery in early January. And true to form, he looked great.
Loser: Comebacks we don’t want
Mike Babcock was given (another) platform to repair his reputation, this time on Sportsnet, getting increasingly more agitated that some would have the audacity to question his approach as a coach. (I’m pretty sure we’re three interviews away from him claiming that players bullied themselves.)
What has become clearer in all of these interviews: That Babcock can’t separate process from results, and apparently neither could the men who kept hiring him. He said he tried to reach out to former player Johan Franzen but didn’t hear back. Can’t imagine why.
The third Black player in NHL history is wondering why the league has never reached out to have him tell his story.
Akim Aliu talks Tony DeAngelo and the NHL’s efforts to fight racism: “I can see right through what’s going on with the league or some of the performative things that they’ve done. First and foremost, we still have owners in the National Hockey League that think that race is not a problem. We’ve had fans that we know of after the Matt Dumba speech in the bubble that had issues and didn’t renew their season tickets because they didn’t like the whole Black Lives Matter movement. That just shows what the fans of the NHL mindset is.”
Why the players should be blamed for the firing of Claude Julien.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio just learned the hard way: Don’t pick fights with hockey players.
“Expect a 20th anniversary edition of the inaugural NHL outdoor game to be played in Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium in late November of 2023.”
No need to sympathize with Mike Babcock. “When you confirm wrong-doings but attempt to make excuses for them rather than own them fully, there is no growth, and little to feel empathetic towards.”
Quantifying Connor McDavid‘s season: “Well, when you adjust for eras across the history of the NHL for single seasons heading into Monday night’s game, McDavid’s era-adjusted points accumulate to 158 — the ninth-best single season in NHL history.”
Really good long-form piece by Dan Robson on Donald Brashear and his demons.
From your friends at ESPN
My deep dive into the art of the goalie goal. Loved writing this and hope you enjoy reading it.