It’s never too late to look back at the past season. There were milestones to celebrate and key injuries to lament, but the fairytale of a jolly giant tops the season’s biggest stories.
It was never boring. Before the first puck was even dropped on the 2015-16 season, shocking stories were reverberating through the hockey world and more were on the docket. Sometimes, these plotlines were happy, sometimes they were unsettling. But they definitely made an impact. We’re well into the summer now, but to encapsulate the 2015-16 season, we have chosen 10 moments that defined the NHL. Some of these stories had quick impacts, while others will continue to shape the careers of the players involved for years to come. We lead off with what was truly a winding and stunning tale, that of John Scott. This season made a player from a dying breed into a folk hero and brought countless hot takes and debates to the fore, leading up to All-Star Game weekend. Some folks complain that the mid-season get-together is pointless, but after what happened in Nashville, it’s hard to agree with that anymore.
1. John Scott named All-Star Game MVP It started off as a snarky podcast prank and turned into the feel-good story of the season. When 6-foot-8 enforcer John Scott was first touted as a potential All-Star Game candidate online, it seemed like a joke that would eventually die. But the NHL let the fan vote proceed, and nothing could stop the momentum. Scott won his slot and became Arizona’s representative for the mid-season classic. He was also the Pacific Division’s captain. When the Coyotes traded him to Montreal right before the weekend festivities were about to begin, there were howls from the hockey world, as fans believed the NHL was conspiring to keep Scott away. An unnamed NHL executive even allegedly tried to convince him to give up his spot, but Scott was unbowed. He went to Nashville and took part in the skills competition wearing a generic NHL sweater, but the all-star mini-tournament is where the story hit another level. Scott scored two goals in the Pacific’s win over the Central, even laying out buddy and former teammate Patrick Kane with a hit. Fans went nuts when Scott wasn’t included as an option for MVP, and after the Pacific won the tournament with a victory over the Atlantic, their will took the day: Scott was named MVP and found all of his 260-pound frame hoisted into the air by his jubilant teammates. How good was this story? There’s already been talk about a movie version.
2. Connor McDavid smashes into the boards The number of what-ifs inspired by one play can be remarkable. But when Edmonton Oilers super-rookie Connor McDavid crashed into the boards during a Nov. 3 game against Philadelphia, that’s what we faced. McDavid missed the next 37 games with a fractured clavicle, essentially destroying the Oilers’ hopes of making the playoffs for the first time in a decade. Edmonton stumbled down to the Pacific Division basement again, finishing 29th overall. On an individual level, McDavid likely lost his shot at rookie of the year honors in the process. Although he was named a finalist for the Calder Trophy, his resume wasn’t as strong as it could have been had he played all 82 games. Sure, his points-per-game rate of 1.07 was fantastic, but the small sample size of 45 games opened the door for Chicago’s Artemi Panarin and Shayne Gostisbehere of the Flyers, who missed a good chunk of games himself because Philadelphia didn’t call him up from the AHL until mid-November.
3. Dennis Wideman hits linesman In terms of truculence, Calgary Flames defenseman Dennis Wideman isn’t the first name that comes to mind. That’s just one fact to consider in what was one of the stranger incidents in recent years. After taking a hit from Nashville’s Miikka Salomaki Jan. 27, Wideman rose from the ice in an apparent dazed state. As he skated toward the bench, he levelled linesman Don Henderson with a cross-check. Did Wideman do it on purpose? That was the million-dollar question. He was given a 20-game suspension by the NHL (later reduced to 10 games by an arbitrator, though Wideman had served 19) and forfeited $564,516.13 in salary. The defenseman and the NHLPA maintained Wideman had sustained a concussion on the hit and didn’t know what he was doing. Commissioner Gary Bettman disagreed and cited a text message revealed during senior executive Colin Campbell’s hearing on the matter, where Wideman complained about the “stupid refs and stupid media.” Wideman also didn’t leave the game after the hit and was seen arguing with staff on the bench. Henderson didn’t return to the ice for the remainder of the season. The story didn’t die when the season ended. In June, the NHL filed a lawsuit against the NHLPA, wishing to vacate the third-party reduction of the suspension.
4. Jonathan Drouin demands a trade In the end, Jonathan Drouin and the Tampa Bay Lightning had a pretty great season that saw the team come within one win of the Stanley Cup final. But it was a rollercoaster ride for player and team. Drouin, the third-overall pick in 2013, had been on a short leash early in his Tampa Bay tenure. As the calendar flipped to 2016, the Lightning sent him down to Syracuse in the AHL, and after a few games Drouin pulled himself out of the lineup, demanding a trade to an NHL team that would play him. The Lightning suspended him, and the saga dragged on for a month and a half, until Drouin agreed to play for Syracuse again. In April, he was called up by Tampa Bay, and Drouin ended up scoring the game-winning goal in his return. With captain Steven Stamkos sidelined by a blood clot, Drouin made the most of his opportunity and became an essential weapon in Tampa Bay’s attack, notching 16 points in his last 19 games (including the playoffs).
5. Jaromir Jagr passes Gordie Howe Florida had a pretty noteworthy year overall, especially with actor Kevin Spacey jumping on board the ‘Spacey in Space’ sweatshirt meme. But how about Jaromir Jagr? At 44, he put together another great season, posting 27 goals and 66 points to help the Panthers to the Atlantic Division title. In the process, he passed Gordie Howe for third all-time in points. Jagr now boasts 1,868 (Howe had 1,850) and trails only Mark Messier (1,887) and Wayne Gretzky (2,857). He also joined Howe as the only two players in NHL history to record 25 goals in 18 seasons. Howe did it 20 times, but knowing Jagr’s fitness and commitment, it’s possible he gets to that plateau as well.
6. Penguins soar again Thanks to a systematic demolition of San Jose in the final, the Pittsburgh Penguins took home the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup and the second of the Sidney Crosby era. Back when he was ‘Sid The Kid’ in 2009, championships seemed like they’d be commonplace, but the Penguins managed to stub their flippers in many a post-season. This year provided an unlikely crew to get the job done. Coach Mike Johnston was fired mid-season and replaced by Mike Sullivan, who had the Pens pick up the pace with devastating effect. Line juggling also found a perfect home for Phil Kessel, where the ‘HBK Line’ was formed with Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin. And let’s not forget the goalie that stoned the competition throughout the playoffs. Nope, not veteran Marc-Andre Fleury – rookie Matt Murray, who turned just 22 while pursuing the title. Murray had more wins and starts in the playoffs than he did in his very short regular season NHL career, but none of that showed during his terrific run, which also featured star turns by Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang.
7. Carey Price hurt Everything was going so swimmingly for the Canadiens. Montreal won its first nine games of the season and superstar goalie Carey Price was in the zone. But then a mysterious lower-body injury knocked him out of the lineup for the better part of November. Although he returned to win three straight games, Price ended up spraining the MCL in his right knee against the New York Rangers Nov. 25, and that was it. He was done for the season. The wheels came off immediately thereafter. The Habs went 4-10-1 in their next 15 games and won just three games in all of January en route to a 13th-place finish in the Eastern Conference after finishing second the year before. Price’s absence revealed a structurally inept lineup that couldn’t win without superb goaltending. If there was any upshot, it’s that the Habs finally tested out Alex Galchenyuk as their top-line center and the youngster looked fit in the role. Montreal’s miss ended up being a countrywide phenomenon. This season was the first since 1969-70 in which no Canadian team made the playoffs. While teams such as Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver were expected to struggle, Montreal seemed like a lock, while Calgary, Ottawa and Winnipeg had fighting chances. Needless to say, TV ratings took a hit, especially during the opening rounds of the all-American playoffs.
8. Patrick Kane faces a circus It was a most uncomfortable of training camp press conferences. Chicago Blackhawks star Patrick Kane faced reporters to say what he could about accusations he had sexually assaulted a woman at his home in the Buffalo area during the summer. Chicago stood by him, and Kane maintained his innocence during a super-charged saga. Charges were never officially brought against Kane, and the situation became a circus when the alleged victim’s mother claimed her daughter’s rape kit was left on her front door, torn open. The story took another huge twist when the plaintiff’s lawyer quit over the mother’s “fabrications” surrounding the rape kit. In November, Kane found out he would not face charges at all, with the district attorney saying the case was “rife with reasonable doubt.”
9. Alex Ovechkin scores 50 for the third straight season To be sure, there are team goals Alex Ovechkin has yet to accomplish, but you can’t question the man’s goal-scoring prowess. For the third straight year, Ovechkin hit the 50-goal mark. This would be impressive in any regard, but he is also the only NHLer to score 50 goals during that span, and he has done it every season. Now at 525 career goals, Ovechkin passed Hall of Famers Bryan Trottier, Jean Beliveau and Darryl Sittler en route to his fourth-straight Rocket Richard Trophy. His 50 also went a long way in helping the Capitals to the Presidents’ Trophy, though Pittsburgh ended the franchise’s Stanley Cup hopes in the second round.
10. Coyotes hire John Chayka At 26, John Chayka became the youngest GM in NHL history when the Coyotes hired him this summer. An analytics background got him on the radar, and he had already been working for Arizona as an assistant GM, but now Chayka has a much bigger portfolio. He replaces the fired Don Maloney, whose only crime seemed to have been a philosophical disagreement with coach Dave Tippett and ownership. Tippett is now also the executive vice-president of hockey operations, and he will dictate the big picture of the franchise to Chayka, who will be in charge of putting together that roster vision. Having part-owner Gary Drummond come on board as president of hockey operations is a head-scratcher, but the ascendancy of Tippett apparently has the support of captain Shane Doan, so that’s a good sign. With Arizona moving its AHL team to Tucson and a change in arenas probably coming in the next year or two, there’s a lot happening in the desert right now. Having a boy wonder GM is just the start.
This is an edited version of a feature that appeared in the 2016 Champions Issue of The Hockey News magazine. Get in-depth features like this one, and much more, by subscribing now.