Life without hockey is sad. It has been three weeks since an NHL game was last played, but it feels like three months.
The 2019-20 season was shaping up to be a good one, and there were plenty of positive stories across the league.
To cheer you up during this lonely time, we revisited a feel-good story for every team this season:
Note: Emily Kaplan handled the Metro and Central divisions, while Greg Wyshynski wrote on the Atlantic and Pacific.
Cam Fowler‘s renaissance. The 28-year-old Ducks defenseman had his best offensive season since 2016-17 with a 0.49 points-per-game average (29 points in 59 games) and nine goals, and had his best shooting percentage (7.7) since 2014-15. Coach Dallas Eakins cut Fowler’s average ice time by 1:23 per game, and got one of the puck-moving defenseman’s best seasons, especially relative to his teammates in a campaign near the cellar for the Ducks.
Alex Meruelo. The billionaire became the only NHL majority owner of Hispanic descent last July, and we quickly learned the Coyotes had a new economic reality. In 2017-18, they had the lowest cap number in the NHL; last season it was 23rd in the league; but this season, only the Toronto Maple Leafs had a higher cap figure than Arizona. This new economic stability allowed the Coyotes to aggressively add Phil Kessel and Taylor Hall via trades in the last calendar year. Whether or not they make the playoffs, it’s clear that the Coyotes have a stronger wind in their sails as a franchise. Now, about that new arena …
Pasta’s many hats. Whether the regular season restarts or not, David Pastrnak had a phenomenal and historic season. His 48 goals were the most by a Bruin since Cam Neely‘s 50 goals in 1993-94. But his best tricks were his hat tricks: Pastrnak tallied four of them in 2019-20, giving him eight for his career; he’s the youngest player in NHL history to have that many of them. His masterpiece: The Bruins’ 4-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks on Oct. 14, in which Pastrnak accounted for all four goals. Also, he wore a resplendent salmon-colored suit to the game.
October. OK, so it didn’t exactly work out for the Sabres … again. And yes, strong starts followed by a slide into oblivion appear to be this team’s modus operandi. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t still remember the good vibes from Buffalo’s grand opening under new coach Ralph Krueger, in which they went 9-2-2 and outscored opponents 43-32. Jeff Skinner had seven goals and three assists in 13 games … before scoring seven goals in his next 46 games. Ugh, just remember October, Sabres fans. It was good then.
Rivalries are fun! It started with the ongoing Matthew Tkachuk troll war with Drew Doughty and the Los Angeles Kings. It was waged with words — Doughty called him “a guy that kinda thinks he’s really good but isn’t” — and on the ice with two intense games in October, one of which featured nearly featured a line brawl. It continued with the Battle of Alberta’s return to prominence as the NHL’s best rivalry, with games against the Oilers that featured goalie David Rittich‘s stick-flip celebration, a goalie fight, an 8-3 game, and Zack Kassian getting a two-game suspension for attacking Tkachuk. Even better for the Flames: They won three of four against Edmonton.
Andrei Svechnikov: Not just a trick-shot artist. The emergence of the 20-year-old Svechnikov has been really fun to watch. In December, Svechnikov scored the first lacrosse style goal in NHL history, which obviously drew eyeballs. But his consistency in his sophomore campaign has been what excites his coaches the most. The No. 2 pick of the 2018 draft has 61 points (24 goals, 37 assists) through 68 games after scoring 37 points in 82 games as a rookie.
Dominik Kubalik‘s big debut. One thing the Blackhawks’ front office has done extremely well over the past few years is mine European leagues for diamonds in the rough (see: Artemi Panarin, Erik Gustafsson, Dominik Kahun, Jan Rutta and Michal Kempny.) Chicago found its latest late-blooming star in the 24-year-old rookie Kubalik, who has already scored 30 goals. At the pause, he’s only two goals shy of tying Petr Klima‘s record for a Czech-born rookie, set 34 years ago.
Everybody loves Cale. Sure, it has been a season with multiple precocious rookie defensemen, but can we take a second to appreciate Cale Makar? After being thrust into playoff action last spring, the defenseman jumped into regular NHL action this season, looking like a natural. He rarely looks flustered. As Nathan MacKinnon told ESPN in January: “There are so many things that are amazing about him. He’s such a freak athlete. He’s so fast and powerful. I think he’s one of the best D-men in the league already. But he’s got this quiet confidence about him.”
No Bob, no problem. The Blue Jackets moved on from two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky, and somehow didn’t lose a step in net. That’s because the (far less pricey) combination of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins has been a treasure trove for Columbus. “You know, everybody thought we were taking a bit of a chance, or we were risky or whatever you want to call it,” GM Jarmo Kekalainen told ESPN in March. “But I always said if you want to look at a potential No. 1 goalie, why not look at your own backups first?” The strategy worked.
Gurianov’s star turn for Dallas. Denis Gurianov is a 2015 first-round pick that some feared would not be an impact player in the NHL. In a 21-game audition last season, he scored only one goal and four points. Turns out, we just needed a little more patience. The 22-year-old Gurianov officially arrived this season, and he has been a delight to watch, despite playing sheltered minutes. He leads Dallas with 20 goals through 64 games, which is the most of any first-year player in franchise history since Jamie Benn‘s 22 in 2009-10.
Owning Montreal. There weren’t exactly a plethora of choices for the Red Wings this season, and we’re not counting “Steve Yzerman returns!” from last offseason. But one absolute highlight was the inexplicable owning of another Original Six team, the Montreal Canadiens. The Red Wings swept the season series against the Canadiens (4-0-0), outscoring them 14-9. Had the Canadiens swept them, Montreal would be two points out of a wild-card playoff spot. Consider this: Detroit’s season series victory over Montreal accounted for roughly 31% of their regulation wins this season!
The continued ascendance of Leon Draisaitl. A star was born when Draisaitl hit 50 goals last season. He matured into an MVP this season. The Oilers forward needed only 71 games to set a career high in points (110) and assists (67) during what probably will end up being a Hart Trophy-winning season. He helped propel the Oilers, whether he was playing with Connor McDavid or without him — and especially when McDavid was out of the lineup.
Retiring No. 1. It’s both understandable and extraordinary that Roberto Luongo was the first member of the Panthers to have his number raised to the rafters. But on March 7, his No. 1 was retired by the team, putting him in an exclusive group of athletes who have played more than 10 seasons in South Florida. “This is definitely not the end,” said Luongo, who remains an adviser for the Panthers. “Maybe it’s the end on the ice but I’m here every day. I’m at every home game. I feel like I’m part of the team still. … I’m fully invested in trying to bring whatever I can to take this team to somewhere it’s never been before.”
Taking the Stadium Series. Despite being in the midst of a lost season, the Kings approached their Stadium Series game at the Air Force Academy in February to make a statement about their improvement as a team and as a point of personal pride. Their 3-1 win, secured with two goals in the last minute of play against the Colorado Avalanche, was perhaps their most satisfying experience of the season — as well as a bittersweet goodbye for Tyler Toffoli, who tallied a hat trick before being traded to Vancouver. It was a win coach Todd McLellan said the team would “remember and cherish.”
Resilience personified. It has been a strange season for Minnesota, from the Wild’s 1-6 start, to the unceremonious firing of coach Bruce Boudreau, to the admission that GM Bill Guerin almost orchestrated a trade to send Zach Parise to the Islanders. Nonetheless, Minnesota has to feel good about its resilience. The Wild are — impressively — only one point out of a playoff spot. And they’ve done it with a roster many have criticized as being too old, and too bogged down by bloated contracts.
The captains’ reunion. No one in the NHL does nostalgic celebrations the way the Habs do, and the captains’ reunion was no exception. In honor of their 110th anniversary as a franchise, the Canadiens brought together 12 of the team’s 13 living captains (including Shea Weber, who currently wears the C) on Dec. 4. Each current player honored the franchise’s captains by wearing their names on warm-up jerseys. For example, Finnish forward Artturi Lehkonen honored countryman Saku Koivu, who famously returned from lymphoma to play for Montreal. “He went through so much adversity. I’ve heard the stories, too, and I know it wasn’t easy. It’s pretty unreal. He came back and made a heck of a career out of it,” he said. The jerseys were auctioned off to benefit the Canadiens Children’s Foundation.
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) December 4, 2019
Juuse time. After a lackluster start to the season — which cost coach Peter Laviolette his job — the Predators reemerged as a threat in the West, and are currently in a playoff spot. They have solid goaltending to thank for that. While Pekka Rinne has struggled, his backup Juuse Saros, found his game this season to take the starter’s throne. In his nine games before the pause, Saros was 6-2-0 with a .948 save percentage and two shutouts.
The rise of Mackenzie Blackwood. Plenty of teams might like a redo on the 2019-20 season, but atop the list are the Devils, who made big summer splashes, and then it all backfired. While goaltending was a huge concern early in the season, it isn’t anymore. Over the last four months, Blackwood found his game. He has gone 14-6-5 in his past 27 starts while posting a .927 save percentage, plus two shutouts. Some holes remain for the Devils, but it appears they can count on Blackwood in the crease.
The Brooklyn experiment is over! Barclays Center was never well-suited to be a hockey venue, and it was inconvenient for the Islanders’ core fan base. After splitting their home schedule the past two seasons, the Isles will be making their Long Island return a full year early, according to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. “The Islanders should be on Long Island,” Cuomo said, announcing all 2020-21 games would be played at the Nassau Coliseum until the new Belmont Park project is ready.
The Bread Man delivers. The Rangers shelling out absurd money to get the biggest name on the free-agent market isn’t exactly novel. The new wrinkle this season: New York made a splashy summer signing for a player still in — or, perhaps just entering — his prime. (Typically, New York overpays for a guy on the wrong side of the curve). Seven years and $81.5 million is a big contract, but Artemi Panarin, with 95 points through 69 games, has proved well worth every penny thus far.
Bobby Ryan‘s return. In contention for the overall feel-good moment of the season, the 32-year-old tallied a hat trick in his first home game after returning from the NHL/NHLPA assistance program. Ryan, who admitted to a problem with alcohol in seeking recovery, scored a goal in the first period and then two goals 19 seconds apart in the third period. He wiped away tears on the Ottawa bench as Senators fans gave him a standing ovation after completing the trick.
Bobby Ryan gets emotional after recording hat trick in return from hiatus. 😢❤️
— theScore (@theScore) February 28, 2020
Oskar Lindblom‘s fight. Since Jan. 8, Philadelphia is tied with Boston for the best record in the NHL. But the feel-good story has been the way the 23-year-old Lindblom has been battling Ewing sarcoma. Lindblom has been around the team when he can, including an appearance at photo day in early March. “The guy never stops smiling,” Matt Niskanen said. “He was like that obviously before he got the news, and hasn’t changed. The guys love having him here. Even to chat for just a few minutes and see his face, it’s great.”
Penguins unearth another gem. The Penguins battled through a ton of early adversity but have found ways to stay prominent in the playoff picture. We need to talk about one of the most consistent scorers this season: Bryan Rust. In only 55 games, the 27-year-old has smashed his previous career highs in goals (27, up from 18) and points (56, up from 38). He has done this all despite missing the first 11 games of the season because of a hand injury.
Aaron Dell. OK, it hasn’t exactly been a season of sunshine and rainbows for the Sharks, who were last in the Western Conference at the time of the pause, without a first-round pick to benefit from it. But Dell, a 30-year-old goalie, was one of the few bright spots. San Jose’s goaltending was maligned for the past few seasons, and Dell took as much grief as starter Martin Jones. But the pending unrestricted free agent led the team with a .907 save percentage, .500 quality starts percentage and a plus-7 goals saved above average. Without Dell, it could have been worse.
The Blues should market their hangover cure. Seriously, how did the Blues stave off a Stanley Cup hangover this season? After grinding it out from last place to the city’s first Stanley Cup, after playing “Gloria” ad nauseum, after losing their star forward Vladimir Tarasenko to a long-term injury in October … the Blues have somehow managed to still look excellent, cruising atop the Western Conference standings for nearly the entire season. This is a feat to be celebrated.
“Selke” Cirelli. The Lightning players like to goof on defensive ace Anthony Cirelli by calling him “Selke,” but the best jokes are grounded in reality. The 22-year-old center has emerged as a probable finalist for the award for best defensive forward, although the Flyers’ Sean Couturier remains the front-runner to win it. But based on how this award works, Cirelli is ahead of schedule: It took Couturier seven seasons before his first appearance as a finalist; should he win, it would be in his ninth season. Cirelli has time, and all the upside in the world, as he matures into one of the league’s top stoppers.
Happy Birthday, Kade. Last November, Jason Foster tweeted that his son Kade had his 11th birthday party, which was Maple Leafs-themed, and no one showed up. A few of the players, including Mitch Marner, tweeted birthday wishes, but then the team went a step further. Captain John Tavares called the young fan, and invited him and his Newfoundland family to attend a Maple Leafs game for a birthday present. They attended the morning skate and sat in on the team’s pregame meeting. “From the start when it took off and the Leafs made the offer to Kade to come up and see a game, to be honest it’s been overwhelming,” his father said. “The experience has been surreal, we’ve been treated like gold.”
Celebration of the Sedins. The Canucks’ number retirement ceremony for Henrik and Daniel Sedin served as a celebration of two of the greatest (and most unique) players in NHL history, serving as the cap on an era in Vancouver hockey that produced plenty of highlights and a Stanley Cup Final appearance. Plus, it produced an all-timer of a speech by their former teammate Kevin Bieksa:
— NHL (@NHL) February 13, 2020
One of Bieksa’s classic lines: “I don’t want to be the bearer of bad news, but part of the reason that they always knew where the other was on the ice is because they wore an earpiece.”
Remembering Hulk. The Golden Knights have one of the tightest bonds with their fans in the league. One of those die-hard fans, season-ticket holder John Baratta, died of a heart attack at 68 in early March. He was known for his Hulk Hogan-style mustache and penchant for ripping his shirt after Vegas goals at T-Mobile Arena. The Knights paid tribute to him with a video during their next game, and by handing out Hulk Hogan shirts to fans in Section 8, where he used to sit. When Max Pacioretty scored, this happened:
That one’s for John 💪 pic.twitter.com/8dcWT47NeH
— Vegas Golden Knights (@GoldenKnights) March 4, 2020
A tribute we imagine Hulk would have loved.
Ovi joins the 700 club. We might be robbed of seeing Alex Ovechkin record his ninth 50-goal regular season, which would tie Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy for the most in NHL history. At the time of the NHL season pause, Ovechkin was stuck on 48. But we did get to witness a special moment in February when Ovechkin was welcomed into the 700-goal club. As Mike Gartner said: “I’ve been told there are more guys that have walked on the face of the moon than scored 700 goals, and [Ovi] made it look easy!”
Leave it to Hellebuyck. The Jets’ blue line was a punchline around the league when the season began. Ravaged by turnover — including the surprise last-minute announcement that Dustin Byfuglien was taking time off — Winnipeg trotted out a hodge-podge defensive group and at times, it wasn’t pretty. Thankfully, Winnipeg’s stellar goaltending kept it competitive. Connor Hellebuyck is a legitimate Vezina Trophy candidate. The American has the second-most starts in the league (56) but still managed a .922 save percentage and an NHL-high six shutouts.