The Top Feelgood Storylines of the 2016-17 NHL Season so Far

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2017

The Top Feelgood Storylines of the 2016-17 NHL Season so Far

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    Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

    With the NHL's All-Star break drawing near, it's an excellent time to take stock of what we've seen in the 2016-17 season so far.

    There is plenty of uncertainty about which teams will be contenders and pretenders come playoff time. As a result, fans are already dialed in to watching the ever-changing standings on a night-by-night basis. Even during the dog days of winter, nearly every game is significant.

    There's plenty to be excited about within those games, too. We're seeing revered veterans hit impressive milestones as an exciting group of young players shows that the game of hockey will be in good hands through the next generation.

    Add in a few underdog stories and the revitalization of some once-proud franchises, and hockey fans have had plenty to smile about this season so far.

    Here's a look at the top feel-good stories of 2016-17.

Jaromir Jagr Reaches No. 2 in All-Time Scoring

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    Jaromir Jagr's mullet keeps growing, and so does his list of NHL achievements.

    With his 45th birthday around the corner in February, Jagr's the second-most productive player in NHL history. He scored his 1,888th career point on Dec. 23 against the Boston Bruins to pass Mark Messier in the league's all-time points race.

    Jagr will most likely stay in second for many years to come. He'd need more than 900 additional points to catch leader Wayne Gretzky, who sits at the top with 2,857 points. But Jagr also has a cushion of more than 500 points between himself and his closest challenger—the second-most productive active player is Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks, who has 1,370 career points.

    After an amazing 2015-16 season that saw him lead the Florida Panthers in scoring with 66 points, injuries to youthful linemates Jonathan Huberdeau and Aleksander Barkov have been part of the reason why Jagr has tallied just 29 points in 48 games so far this season. 

    Will he play until he's 50? Can he break the 2,000-point threshold? And just how long will that mullet grow? The NHL's oldest player continues to inspire with his commitment to the game he loves.

Alex Ovechkin and Henrik Sedin Hit 1,000 Points

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    As we ponder the prospect of Jaromir Jagr reaching 2,000 points, two other longtime leaders have crossed the 1,000-point threshold in the 2016-17 season—both with the teams that drafted them.

    Alex Ovechkin, 31, tallied his 1,000th career NHL point with a goal just 35 seconds into the Washington Capitals' 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 11. It was Ovechkin's 880th career NHL game. Henrik Sedin, 36, earned his 1,000th point on a nice setup from his twin brother, Daniel, against former teammate Roberto Luongo and the Florida Panthers in his 1,213th career game on Jan. 20.

    At least one other superstar should also hit the 1,000-point mark this year. Ovechkin's longtime nemesis, Sidney Crosby, is sitting on 989 points in 746 career games as he chases his third league scoring title and second Rocket Richard trophy as the top goal scorer.

    There's also an outside chance that Daniel Sedin could reach 1,000 points before the end of the year. He has 967 points in 1,189 career games, so he needs another 33. It'll take quite a tear after the All-Star break for him to get there this year, though—he has 26 points in 47 games this season.

Connor and the Kids Take Charge

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    Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports

    Hockey fans are rightfully wary of the enormous hype that can surround top prospects as they make their way at the NHL level.

    For every first overall pick like Sidney Crosby (2005) and Alex Ovechkin (2004), who were able to quickly achieve superstar status, there are also corresponding picks like Patrik Stefan (1999), Alexandre Daigle (1993) and even Nail Yakupov (2012), who have fallen well short of elite standards.

    Lately, though, the tide has turned. Auston Matthews, chosen first overall in 2016, is proving that his nontraditional hockey upbringing in Arizona is not hampering his ability to adapt to the NHL game, and Connor McDavid, the first pick from 2015, is making a case for himself as the league's most valuable player in just his second NHL season.

    Through 48 games, McDavid leads the league with 55 points, and the young captain has been the catalyst that has pulled the Edmonton Oilers back to respectability and potentially their first playoff berth in 11 seasons.

    Matthews and his band of young teammates with the Toronto Maple Leafs have been similarly effective, as have other teenagers like Patrik Laine of the Winnipeg Jets, Noah Hanifin of the Carolina Hurricanes, Zach Werenski of the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Philadelphia Flyers' duo of Ivan Provorov and Travis Konecny, to name a few.

    Salary-cap restrictions make young players attractive to their general managers, thanks to their inexpensive entry-level contracts. But they wouldn't be on NHL rosters if they weren't showing they could play.

    The speed, skill and enthusiasm of today's young guns bode well for the entertainment value of the NHL in years to come.

Little Guys Make Big Impressions

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    Today's NHL is making room for young players and also offering plenty of opportunities for smaller players to succeed.

    Before the 2004-05 lockout, the NHL's biggest stars were some of its biggest players—from forward Eric Lindros at 6'4" and 230 pounds to defenseman Chris Pronger at 6'6" and 210 pounds. Martin St. Louis was an outlier—an undrafted forward who measured just 5'8" and 176 pounds but who proved to be one of the most talented scorers in the game as he collected two scoring titles, a Hart Trophy and a Stanley Cup while amassing 1,033 points in 1,134 NHL games.

    These days, it's heartwarming to see so many smaller players following in St. Louis' undersized footsteps. Up front, we're treated to the speedy Johnny Gaudreau of the Calgary Flames, Mitch Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Cam Atkinson of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who sits in the top 10 in NHL scoring and is on pace for an 80-point season despite being 5'8" and 182 pounds.

    Not long ago, it was virtually impossible for any defenseman under 6'0" to find regular work in the NHL, but that's changing, too. Torey Krug, at 5'9", is in his fourth full season as a key member of the Boston Bruins' blue line. He has been joined by other smaller defenders like Tyson Barrie of the Colorado Avalanche, Shayne Gostisbehere of the Philadelphia Flyers and Jared Spurgeon of the Minnesota Wild.

    For now, only the goal crease remains the sole property of hockey's big men. As the enforcer era comes to a close, small, skilled players are finding more and more opportunities to have NHL success.

Toronto Maple Leafs' Return to Respectability

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    Toronto loves its hockey, but it has been two generations since it's had the chance to cheer for a champion.

    Despite the passion for the Maple Leafs as "Canada's team" in the country's most populated region, Toronto hasn't enjoyed a Stanley Cup celebration since back in 1967, when the league was made up of just six teams, and the playoffs lasted a mere two rounds.

    More recently, the Leafs have earned a playoff berth just once in the last 11 years and have undergone a top-to-bottom franchise overhaul over the past three years, with the addition of team president Brendan Shanahan, general manager Lou Lamoriello and head coach Mike Babcock.

    In just the second season of his eight-year contract with the Leafs, Babcock is getting results on the ice. Anchored by goaltender Frederik Andersen and led offensively by their cadre of exciting young talent, the Leafs remain mistake-prone, but their 21-14-8 record for 50 points through 43 games is good enough to have them in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt.

    A Toronto appearance in the postseason is good for the NHL, good for hockey in Canada and good for Sportsnet, which likely found itself scrambling for attention from its subscribers in 2015-16, when none of the NHL's seven Canadian teams reached the postseason. 

The Streaking Revival

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Jon Azpiri of Global News recently ran a story about three young ladies who streaked across the ice during a Vancouver Canucks game back in 1974, when public nudity was a popular fad.

    That's not the type of streaking being referred to here, though. We're talking about the number of extraordinary winning stretches we've seen in the 2016-17 NHL season.

    The Washington Capitals' nine-game winning streak recently ended with that wild 8-7 overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Jan. 16. We also saw the Philadelphia Flyers win 10 straight games between Nov. 27 and Dec. 14. The Minnesota Wild won 12 in a row between Dec. 4 and 29.

    But all of those streaks pale in comparison to the unlikely run of John Tortorella's Columbus Blue Jackets. Last season's 27th-ranked team got within one game of tying the NHL's all-time record for the longest winning streak. Columbus logged 16 consecutive victories between Nov. 29 and Jan. 3, moving into the top spot in the NHL along the way.

    Tortorella started the season firmly on the hot seat after his disastrous run with Team USA at the World Cup of Hockey, but he's now a long way from the unemployment line. In fact, the Blue Jackets' success means Tortorella will have to work on All-Star Weekend as the coach of the Metropolitan Division team.

Budaj Is Back

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    When starting goaltender Jonathan Quick went down with a serious groin injury during the first period of the Los Angeles Kings' first regular-season game of 2016-17, it looked like the Kings would need to make a deal for an established No. 1 netminder if they wanted to keep their playoff hopes for the season alive.

    It didn't take long for the Kings' minor league netminder, Peter Budaj, to eclipse new backup Jeff Zatkoff as the top fill-in man while Quick has been sidelined. Since taking over in net, Budaj has been nothing short of spectacular.

    In his prime, the 34-year-old Slovak appeared in just under 300 NHL games with the Colorado Avalanche and Montreal Canadiens between 2005 and 2014, when he lost his job as Carey Price's backup. He then toiled primarily in the AHL for two seasons, appearing in just one NHL game.

    Though he owns a career goals-against average of 2.69 and a save percentage of .904, Budaj is running at 2.12 and .917, respectively, with four shutouts this year. He's fourth in the league in minutes played behind Cam Talbot, Martin Jones and Cam Ward and has posted a 20-13-3 record in his 39 appearances this season—good enough to keep the Kings in the thick of the Pacific Division playoff hunt.

    There's still no definitive timeline for Quick's return, though general manager Dean Lombardi suggested to Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times in December that he could be back by mid-February or early March. If Budaj has delivered even the possibility of a playoff berth by the time Quick takes over, he'll have laid down one of the best bullpen performances in recent NHL history.

Big Beard Belongs to Best Blueliner

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    You probably remember former San Jose Sharks head coach Todd McLellan using Brent Burns at forward for a while, starting in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season. Did you know that Burns was drafted as a forward?

    Because he made his NHL debut on the Minnesota Wild blue line, NHL stat pages refer to Burns as a defenseman, but take a peek back at an OHL stats page for his junior team, the Brampton Battalion, from his draft year of 2002-03. Sure enough, there's Burns listed as a right wing.

    As if Burns wasn't already unique enough with his big beard, his sleeve tattoos and his love of snakes and other animals, Greg Wyshynski of Puck Daddy suggested that Burns may also be the most successful forward-turned-defenseman in NHL history.

    Burns was a Norris Trophy finalist for the first time in 2015-16, and with his 19 goals and 47 points so far this season, he's tied for fourth overall in NHL scoring and miles ahead of every other defenseman in the NHL offensively—Victor Hedman of the Tampa Bay Lightning is ranked second with 38 points.

    And Burns' offensive output doesn't mean he isn't taking care of business at his own end of the ice. The Sharks rank fourth in the league with just 2.28 goals allowed per game, and Burns' plus-16 is far and away the best plus/minus number on his team.

    Burns enjoyed plenty of time in the spotlight when the Sharks went to the Stanley Cup Final last season. The quirky blueliner should be the favorite to earn San Jose's first-ever Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman when the individual awards are announced in June.

                    

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com and current through games completed Jan. 20.