Any discussion of the top story in hockey in 2018 begins and ends with the Humboldt Broncos tragedy. Nothing even came close. So, we’ve chosen to devote one year-end piece to Humboldt, which ran on TheHockeyNews.com yesterday, and another to the top 10 NHL stories we’ll remember long after the calendar flips to 2019.
Here they are:
1. The redemption of Alex Ovechkin: From the time he started 2018 with three goals in his first two games, Ovechkin was on a mission this year. Actually, it was a dual mission to reassert his relevance among the best players in the game and prove his Washington Capitals were indeed a championship team and not a perennial also-ran. Both boxes were checked off with gusto. In terms of offense, Ovechkin was a one-man wrecking crew in 2018, leading the NHL with 15 playoff goals en route to winning the Conn Smythe Trophy. Nobody in the history of the Stanley Cup embraced the experience more than Ovechkin, but he also came back hungrier and more at ease with the burden of winning behind him. Now, suddenly, the biggest question surrounding Ovechkin is whether or not he’ll challenge Wayne Gretzky for the all-time goals record. With four games remaining in 2018, Ovechkin had 69 goals in 99 games, including playoffs.
2. Johnny T.O.: The Toronto Maple Leafs landed the biggest free agent in NHL history July 1 and John Tavares fulfilled a childhood dream, becoming the only Toronto-born player to jump to The Center of the Hockey Universe™ in anything resembling his prime. The moved changed everything, instantly making the Leafs a serious contender for the Stanley Cup and completed a forward contingent that is without peer in the NHL in terms of depth of talent. Once the puck dropped, he and Mitch Marner meshed brilliantly and with four games remaining in 2018, Tavares was on pace for a career-high 54 goals.
3. Vegas Strong: Continuing on their mind-boggling final three months of 2017, the Vegas Golden Knights never let up. Not only did they become the most successful expansion team in the history of professional sports, they made a run to the Stanley Cup final before running out of gas after winning Game 1. They almost singlehandedly drove the price for an expansion franchise up to $650 million and provided a template for success that will be almost impossible to match. And after starting the 2017-18 season by crashing back to earth, the Golden Knights finished the year in firm possession of a playoff spot in the Western Conference.
4. Goodbye to the Sedins: After a combined 34 seasons, 2,636 games and 2,111 points Henrik and Daniel Sedin took their last shifts with the Vancouver Canucks, leaving behind a legacy of excellence and integrity that will likely land them together in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Both intensely proud and competitive, the Sedins were not content to continue on as secondary players, otherwise they would have been back for more. But after recording a very respectable 55 (Daniel) and 50 (Henrik) points, they decided it was time to leave the game on their terms. They even handled their diminished roles and spots in the Canucks lineup with their typical class and level-headedness. “We understand, we know what’s going on,” Daniel told The Hockey News in 2018. “We’re not stupid hockey players.”
5. I’ll take it from here: And just as two Swedish legends in Vancouver were prepared to pass the torch, one of their countrymen was there to willingly take it from them. After setting the record in the Swedish League for scoring by a junior-aged player, Elias Pettersson went on to lead the league in playoff scoring and his Vaxjo team to the championship. Despite missing six games with a concussion, Pettersson established himself as the favorite for the Calder Trophy and distanced himself from the rest of the field with every passing game. His eye-popping skills and the maturity of his game have accelerated the Canucks’ rebuild and had them competing for a playoff spot in the Western Conference when they were expected to be a serious contender in the Jack Hughes Sweepstakes.
6. Capital Punishment: The Ottawa Senators were in the headlines for all the wrong reasons in 2018. It’s hard to believe that any organization could have had a more extensive string of ham-handed public relations disasters than the Senators endured. Not all, but almost all of them started at the top with owner Eugene Melnyk. A suspected case of cyber bullying between the girlfriend of Mike Hoffman and Erik Karlsson’s wife led to both of them being traded. Crowds at the Canadian Tire Centre were terrible in 2018 and there was a constant pall of negativity surrounding the franchise. And just for good measure, the year ended with former assistant GM Randy Lee pleading guilty to harassment stemming from an incident at the scouting combine and a combined $1.7 billion in lawsuits and countersuits between Melnyk and his business partner over their failed bid to build a downtown arena. And that interview with Sens defenseman Mark Borowiecki prior to the season. Woof.
7. Here comes No. 32: What was undoubtedly the longest gestation period for an expansion franchise finally came to an end when Seattle was granted admission into the Original 32. The NHL and Seattle had been doing a ritualistic mating dance for years, one that was always held up by the inability to find a suitable place for the team to play. Once Seattle’s city council gave approval for $700 million in renovations to the Key Centre to accommodate big-league hockey, approval from the board of governors came in the form of a $650-million rubber stamp. The NHL wisely placed Seattle’s debut to the 2021-22 season, largely because it, like everyone else, knows there will be a lockout the season before.
8. Coaches on the firing line: In the space of 44 days in November and December, five NHL coaches were given their walking papers – John Stevens in Los Angeles, Joel Quenneville in Chicago, Mike Yeo in St. Louis, Todd McLellan in Edmonton and Dave Hakstol in Philadelphia. In addition to that, Doug Weight was fired by the New York Islanders and Glen Gulutzan was let go by the Calgary Flames after the season. Barry Trotz left the Capitals after winning the Stanley Cup and replaced Weight and Bill Peters took his coaching talents to Calgary to replace Gulutzen. Ken Hitchcock announced his “retirement” after failing to lead the Dallas Stars to the playoffs.
9. Terrible Tom Wilson: There was not a more polarizing player in the world than Tom Wilson in 2018. When he wasn’t scaring the daylights out opponents with his scoring ability and physical impact, Wilson was suspended and gaining enemies around the league. His hits on Zach Aston-Reese in last year’s playoffs and Oskar Sundqvist in the pre-season placed him firmly in the Raffi Torres predatory headhunter category. The latter earned him a 20-game suspension that was reduced to 14 on appeal to the NHL-NHL Players’ Association independent arbitrator. Despite constant contact with the NHL Department of Player Safety and a publicly stated intention to toe the line, Wilson still crosses it. And it’s all amplified by the fact that he’s so damn good, scoring 10 goals and 17 points in his first 15 games back from the suspension. He’s almost singlehandedly stoked the rivalry between the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins.
10. An Avalanche of offense: At a time when super lines in the NHL are all the rage, none was better than the trio of Nathan MacKinnon between Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen in 2018. With four games remaining in 2018, the three players had combined for 71 even-strength goals in 2018, with Rantanen and MacKinnon vying to become the first two teammates to finish 1-2 in NHL scoring since Marty St-Louis and Steven Stamkos in 2012-13.