Biggest Winners and Losers from the 2013-14 NHL Regular Season
After 1,230 NHL games, the 2013-14 season is officially in the books.
The final playoff spots were decided Friday, making the weekend somewhat anticlimactic. But the race for the top seeds in the West came down to Sunday, with the Anaheim Ducks securing the No. 1 seed and the Colorado Avalanche settling for the second seed in the conference.
Before we get the engines revved for the start of the 2014 Stanley Cup playoffs Wednesday, it's time to take a little stock of the regular season's winners and losers.
This is not designed to be a comprehensive list, as it will instead highlight some of the season's most memorable accomplishments and sadder moments.
Losers: Victims of Headshots
Hockey is a contact sport, and there are bound to be incidental collisions involving players' skulls, but it was yet another banner year for contact with the head that was mostly avoidable.
Sixteen players were suspended during the 2013-14 regular season for illegal contact to the head, which includes the rare instance of a player (James Neal) kneeing another player (Brad Marchand) while he was down on the ice and, in the same game, Shawn Thornton attacking Brooks Orpik from behind and punching him in the head while prone on the ice.
In the preseason, Zack Kassian was suspended for brandishing his stick as a weapon and breaking the jaw of Sam Gagner, one of three acts during the exhibition schedule that featured blows to the head that resulted in supplemental discipline by the NHL.
That's a total of 19 suspensions for hits to the head totaling 83 games.
In the last 82-game season in 2011-12, there were 17 suspensions for head-related infractions totaling 70 games.
At best, things aren't getting better as head shots aren't being lessened despite suspensions. Maybe the new head of player safety at the NHL who replaces Brendan Shanahan will levy heftier punishments in 2014-15.
Winners: Rookie Head Coaches
Craig Berube received his first crack at an NHL head-coaching gig three games into the season. Peter Laviolette was fired after an 0-3 start by the Philadelphia Flyers, and Berube was promoted to the head gig after seven seasons as an assistant with the team.
He led a turnaround that landed the Flyers in the playoffs. They dipped as low as 1-7-0 but finished 41-27-9 under Berube.
Jon Cooper in Tampa Bay and Patrick Roy in Colorado were hired before the season and have also led wonderful turnarounds with their clubs. Cooper inherited a team that finished 28th in last year's standings; Roy took over a club that ended last season in 29th place.
The Lightning fought their way into the playoffs despite missing Steven Stamkos for nearly three months with a broken leg. The Avalanche rose to the top of the West with a young core and Vezina-worthy goaltender in Semyon Varlamov.
Yes, the Edmonton Oilers didn't go anywhere with first-year coach Dallas Eakins behind the bench, and Peter Horachek didn't lead a comeback after he replaced Kevin Dineen midseason in Florida. But overall, it's fair to say it was a good year for rookie coaches when three of them could be Jack Adams Award finalists.
Loser: Chris Stewart
Poor Chris Stewart.
There he was, enjoying life with the St. Louis, one of the best teams in the NHL. His season was going reasonably well—he had 15 goals and 26 points in 58 games—and he was in position to play a supporting role on a team that could contend for the Stanley Cup.
Then the trade deadline arrived, and Stewart's career received a sobering punch in the stomach.
The Blues felt they needed to improve their goaltending, so they acquired Ryan Miller and Steve Ott and dealt Jaroslav Halak and Stewart to the Sabres, by far the worst team in the NHL.
“I was a little disappointed at first," Stewart said later about the trade, per Dan O'Neill of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "You go from being ranked to win the Stanley Cup to being out of the playoffs in a day. Initially it (stunk), but I wasn’t necessarily happy with my role on the team. I’m happy with my role here and I’m going to get an opportunity to play big minutes and be the player I can be.”
To make matters worse, Stewart suffered a lower-body injury in his second game with the Sabres that cost him nearly the rest of the season. He returned last week just in time to play a few more meaningless games while his former team prepares for a first-round matchup with the Chicago Blackhawks.
Winner: Thomas Vanek
The flip side of the Chris Stewart coin is Thomas Vanek, who was essentially transferred from one maximum-security prison to another before making a jailbreak and run for the Canadian border.
Vanek was wasting away in Buffalo before an early-season trade sent him to the Islanders. After going from Alcatraz to Shawshank, Vanek tunneled his way to Quebec and joined the Montreal Canadiens at the trade deadline.
After arriving in Montreal, Vanek had three games without a point. But as the Canadiens caught fire down the stretch, so did Vanek. The Canadiens finished the season 11-3-1 with Vanek posting six goals and 14 points in those games.
Instead of languishing in Buffalo or on Long Island, Vanek is now in a position to compete for a Stanley Cup and drive up the price of his next contract this summer.
Loser: The New Rule Changes Designed to Increase Scoring
The NHL's pursuit of new and inventive ways to increase goal scoring took an interesting turn before the season—the size of goaltenders' leg pads would be reduced as would the depth of the nets, thus allowing more room behind the net to create plays and score on wraparounds.
It did not have the desired effect.
Goal scoring was at about the same levels they were the past three seasons while save percentage actually increased despite the alterations to the pads and nets. It appears the only way to raise scoring to the levels that existed in 2005-06 is to call more obstruction penalties, although the NHL seems against going back to that level of stringent officiating.
The real losers here are likely the goaltenders, as the NHL will probably go back to the drawing board and look at other ways to add more offense to the game.
Winner: Columbus Blue Jackets
Everyone enjoys a good underdog story (unless your favorite team barely missed the playoffs because of said underdog), so there's a lot to enjoy about the Columbus Blue Jackets.
After missing the postseason in 11 of 12 seasons and four consecutive seasons from 2010-13, the Jackets are going back in their first season as members of the Eastern Conference. In their one trip to the playoffs in 2009, they were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in the first round, so the franchise is still searching for its first playoff victory.
If the youth and talent on the roster is any indication, it likely won't take another four seasons for the Jackets to reach the playoffs after this season.
Ryan Johansen (21) is a star in the making and would likely be a household name if he played in any other market. Ryan Murray (20), Boone Jenner (20), Cam Atkinson (24), Artem Anisimov (25) and Sergei Bobrovsky (25) are part of a young corps that is supplemented by talented veterans Nathan Horton, Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski and Nick Foligno.
The Blue Jackets will always be second fiddle to Ohio State in Columbus, but they are in great shape to contend for playoff berths and more for years to come.
Losers: Canadian Franchises (Not Based in Quebec)
Originally, this slide was to be dedicated solely to the Toronto Maple Leafs, but then I thought, "Well, the Ottawa Senators were just as disappointing, if not more than the Leafs, based on preseason expectations."
After I decided this would be a Sad Ontario Hockey Slide, I remembered there's no sadder province in Canada than Alberta. The Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers have perfected the science of being terrible to the point that it would be criminal to ignore their ineptitude.
All set, I remembered the Vancouver Canucks. New coach, fired general manager, goaltenders traded, a popular player with no managerial experience hired to run and a miss of the postseason? Disregarding the failures in British Columbia would be a failure on my part.
Oh right, the Winnipeg Jets. It seems mean to kick a team when its down, but when it's always down, you really have no choice but to kick it when it's down.
The only Canadian franchise headed for the 2014 postseason is the Montreal Canadiens. French Canada is the best Canada, people in French Canada have always said, and it turns out it's true this season.
This is the first time since 1973 that only one Canadian franchise qualified for the playoffs. The country that gave the world hockey has mostly forgotten how to ice a successful hockey team.
Winner: Matt Niskanen
Before this season, Matt Niskanen was best known as "that other dude in the trade that sent James Neal to the Pittsburgh Penguins." After this season, he will likely be known as "that dude that got a ridiculous contract after one great season with the Pittsburgh Penguins."
The 27-year-old, who at one point wondered if he was long for the NHL as his playing time was cut with the Dallas Stars, saved the Penguins' bacon as Kris Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik and Rob Scuderi all left the lineup with injuries and medical ailments this season. He served as a No. 1 defenseman at times and produced his best NHL season.
Niskanen finished with a career-best 10 goals and 46 points in 81 games while averaging more than 21 minutes per game. He led all defensemen in plus/minus (plus-33), a statistic that isn't really all that telling but one his agent will likely present when he's fielding contract offers this summer.
The timing of Niskanen's breakout season could not have come at a better time—he will hit unrestricted free agency in the offseason and will likely command a four- or five-year contract worth as much as $5 million per season.
It's been a dream season for Niskanen and it's not even over yet.
Loser: Martin Brodeur
The winningest goaltender in NHL history makes this list as a loser because as far as individual 2013-14 seasons go, very few, if any, had a worse campaign than Martin Brodeur.
Just focusing on statistics, Brodeur had a .901 save percentage in 39 starts, the worst mark in the league for any goaltender who played that many games. While many will focus on the Devils' 0-13 mark in the shootout, allowing the worst goaltender in the league to make 39 starts was just as detrimental to the team's chances of making the playoffs.
The damage done by Brodeur's words is impossible to measure, but they certainly didn't help. At times when Cory Schneider was getting the bulk of the starts, Brodeur would gripe about his lack of playing time. When Zach Parise returned to New Jersey with the Minnesota Wild, Brodeur talked about how the team allowed him to leave, and just last week, he said the Devils were a .500 team the past few seasons because mediocrity has become accepted.
Of course, that ignores that for the past two seasons, a goaltender with a save percentage slightly better than .900 was playing regularly.
Nothing he did this year will tarnish a legacy that includes five Stanley Cup Final trips, three Stanley Cup wins and two gold medals. But if this is Brodeur's final season, he's going out in anything but style.
Winners: Outdoor Hockey Games
Whether the motivation was to placate fans after a third lockout or to line their pockets with more money, the NHL held six outdoor games (well, five, since BC Place has a dome) that were all sold out and had excellent television ratings.
The Winter Classic between the Red Wings and Maple Leafs at Michigan Stadium drew 105,491, an attendance record for an NHL game. The Leafs won 3-2 in a shootout in a game that had a 2.9 rating, which tied the record set by the 2009 outdoor game between the Blackhawks and Red Wings at Wrigley Field.
This season also featured the first warm-weather outdoor game between the Ducks and Kings at Dodger Stadium. The warmer temperatures in California did nothing to affect the game, as a case could be made that ice for that contest was the best the NHL has ever had for an outdoor contest.
In all, 376,837 fans attended the NHL's Stadium Series games. Each game was heavily watched locally and generated enough revenue that the league hasn't ruled out playing six games again next season.
Players love outdoor games. Fans love outdoor games. The NHL loves outdoor games.
That's a win across the board for everyone.
Losers: The New Jersey Devils (in Shootouts)
Not to pick on the Devils, but they had quite the tumultuous season between the pipes, especially in the shootout. With a point on the line in the NHL's postgame skills competition, the Devils went 0-13, which is the worst single-season mark since the league began the breakaway competition to decide games in 2005-06.
If the Devils had just gone 6-7 in shootouts, they would have reached the postseason.
Instead, there was futility on display like never before. They went 4-for-45 in shootout attempts. Patrik Elias went 0-for-8; Travis Zajac went 0-for-6; and Adam Henrique and Ryane Clowe each went 0-for-5.
Martin Brodeur and Cory Schneider didn't hold up their end of the bargain in net, either. Brodeur went 0-5 in shootouts with a .500 save percentage, which ranks 72nd out of 79 goaltenders. Schneider lost the other eight games with a .552 save percentage, which ranks 63rd.
Dating to last season, the Devils have lost an NHL record 17 consecutive shootouts.
Winner: Nathan MacKinnon
At the 2013 draft, many experts believed the Colorado Avalanche needed to take Seth Jones with the first pick. The team's defense corps was one of the shakiest in the league, so adding a stud defenseman who could play right away appeared to make the most sense.
Instead, the Avs went with Nathan MacKinnon, and he has paid dividends immediately.
The 18-year-old leads all rookies in goals (24), assists (39) and points (63) and didn't miss a game all season. Only Sidney Crosby (102) had more points as an 18-year-old rookie since 2005-06, and MacKinnon's point total is the ninth most in NHL history for an 18-year-old rookie.
Some of the players on that list include Steve Yzerman, Ron Francis and Dale Hawerchuk.
MacKinnon is poised to be the next big thing in the NHL, and he will have a chance to become more of a household name with the Avs back in the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Losers: Fans of Teemu Selanne (So Everyone, Basically)
Teemu Selanne was the Boy Who Cried Retirement after nearly every season since the Ducks won the Cup in 2007, but this time it's for real—this was Selanne's final regular season, and once the playoffs are over, so is his career.
Selanne was the 10th pick in the 1988 draft and burst onto the NHL scene in 1992-93, when he had 76 goals and 132 points in 84 games for the Winnipeg Jets. He finished tied for fifth in scoring that season and won the Calder Trophy.
Twenty-two years later, Selanne will retire with the 15th most points in the history of the NHL.
Selanne seems to have chosen the perfect time to retire. He finished with just 27 points in 63 games and was rested when the Ducks played back-to-back games. At 43 years of age, time finally caught up with someone many hoped would play forever.
We will always have the #TeemuForever hashtag.