Ranking the Best Redemption Stories of the 2016-17 NHL Season

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2017

Ranking the Best Redemption Stories of the 2016-17 NHL Season

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    One of the greatest joys of being a sports fan is witnessing the redemption stories that are annually carved out in every league.

    Players, coaches and even underachieving organizations can become vessels of triumph once they start turning their fortunes around.

    The best redemption stories require a team or an individual to triumph over adversity. Here are the best examples we've seen in the NHL so far in the 2016-17 season.

Matt Irwin, Nashville Predators

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    His name doesn't make headlines, but journeyman defenseman Matt Irwin has fought his way back to the NHL level after a one-year detour in the minor leagues.

    Originally undrafted, Irwin signed with the San Jose Sharks organization in 2010 after his second year of NCAA hockey at UMass Amherst. He reached the NHL during the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season as a steady third-pairing defender with good size at 6'1" and 207 pounds. Irwin even chipped in eight goals during the 2014-15 season.

    He signed on with the Boston Bruins after San Jose let him go to free agency during the summer of 2015 but found himself assigned to the AHL's Providence Bruins for the year after just two games in Boston. He took a league-minimum $575,000 contract to move back to the Western Conference in July 2016, catching on with the Nashville Predators.

    Irwin started the year in the minors, but he was recalled to Nashville after just four games and has been a steady presence since. Averaging a solid 17:48 per game, Irwin has collected 11 points, and his impressive plus-16 leads all Predators.

    Nashville management rewarded Irwin for his reliability by signing him to a one-year contract extension in January, per James O'Brien of NBC Sports. He's guaranteed a raise to a still-humble $650,000, but at this point, it's not clear whether he'll be back in Nashville next season. The 29-year-old is a depth player who almost certainly won't be protected ahead of the expansion draft, so his bargain price and consistent play could make him an attractive target for the Vegas Golden Knights.

    That might not be a bad thing. A move to the expansion team could give Irwin a chance to take another step up the depth chart and become a linchpin top-four blueliner for the new franchise, boosting his redemption story by another notch.

    Grade on the Redemption Scale: C

Alex Burrows, Vancouver Canucks

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    The Vancouver Canucks and their fans have endured a painful five seasons since the team lost a seven-game Stanley Cup Final to the Boston Bruins in 2011.

    It took some time for the organization to acknowledge that the team's championship window had closed, but previous general manager Mike Gillis traded away star goaltender Roberto Luongo in 2014. Incumbent boss Jim Benning has gone on to get rid of a number of the other key players from that long playoff run like Ryan Kesler, Kevin Bieksa, Dan Hamhuis and Chris Higgins.

    Late last season, it looked like the end of the road had also come for Alex Burrows, the undrafted superpest turned 35-goal scorer whose overtime goal in Game 7 of Round 1 against the Chicago Blackhawks in 2011 earned him the nickname of Dragon Slayer.

    Burrows dropped to just 22 points in 2015-16 and was a healthy scratch several times late in the season as Vancouver limped to a 28th-place finish, spurring chatter that the time had come for the organization to cut ties with the lifelong Canuck by buying out the last year of his contract. Benning put those rumours to rest early in the offseason, telling Ben Kuzma of The Province in July that "[Burrows is] going to be part of our group."

    Sure enough, Burrows has played an important role this season as a veteran mentor on a line with emerging stars Bo Horvat and Sven Baertschi, as well as remaining a key part of the team's penalty-killing unit.

    As an impending unrestricted free agent, Burrows' name has been mentioned in trade rumours this year, but he wants one more kick at the can with the Canucks. "We know it won't be easy," he told yours truly in a Q&A for Sportsnet. "We're sitting a couple of points out right now...but that's what makes it fun. That's why you play the games, play these meaningful games and try to push for a playoff spot.

    "There's nothing better than playing in the playoffs. That's our main goal."

    Grade on the Redemption Scale: C+

Sam Gagner, Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    Before the Edmonton Oilers picked Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Nail Yakupov with the first overall draft picks in three consecutive years, Sam Gagner was the original face of the team's future. Chosen sixth in 2007, Gagner made the jump to the NHL as an 18-year-old and put up a promising 49 points in his rookie season.

    But Gagner was unable to build on his impressive debut. Those 49 points still represent a career-high total, and his career in Edmonton flatlined. A trade in the summer of 2014 landed him with the Arizona Coyotes; his subsequent stint the following year with the Philadelphia Flyers included a month-long stay in the AHL after he went unclaimed on waivers in December 2015.

    Gagner found an opportunity this season when he was willing to sign a one-year contract at a bargain-basement rate of $650,000 with the cap-strapped Columbus Blue Jackets. Fifteen of Gagner's 34 points so far this year have come on the man advantage with the NHL's most consistent power play, and his 14 goals are just four shy of his best tally.

    Still just 27 years old and an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, Gagner has redeemed himself to the point he should be able to cash in with his next contract—especially if he can bury a big goal or two for the Blue Jackets in this year's playoffs.

    Grade on the Redemption Scale: B-

Andrew Shaw, Montreal Canadiens

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    A shock went through the NHL when Andrew Shaw was announced as the Montreal Canadiens' ambassador for the league's 2017 Hockey is for Everyone initiative at the beginning of February.

    As a member of the Chicago Blackhawks in 2015-16, Shaw was suspended for one game and fined $5,000 for using a homophobic slur after he was assessed a penalty late in a first-round playoff game against the St. Louis Blues, per Chris Kuc and Chris Hine of the Chicago Tribune.

    Shaw may not have been an obvious choice as a team rep for an initiative that celebrates "diversity, equality and inclusion," but he relished the opportunity to atone for his prior actions.

    "I knew people were going to think I was just doing it to save face," Shaw said, per Hine. "I knew that was going to happen, but I did it anyway. ... I think I'd be the best for that job because of what I went through last year, what I learned. I think I can use that and help others. Just try to be there for someone if they need someone to talk to. I'm a pretty good listener."

    In addition to his contributions on the ice, the 25-year-old Shaw is showing his regret for his mistakes and settling into what's expected to be a long-term situation with the Canadiens.

    Grade on the Redemption Scale: B

Eric Staal, Minnesota Wild

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    Eric Staal scored 100 points and won a Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes as a 21-year-old in just his second NHL season. He went on to captain the Hurricanes for seven seasons before being dealt to the New York Rangers in a 2016 trade-deadline deal that proved to be a dud. Staal managed just six points in 20 regular-season games in the Big Apple and went pointless in five playoff games as the Pittsburgh Penguins bounced the Blueshirts.

    Once regarded as a complete player with one of the best skill sets in the league, Staal had plenty to prove when he signed a three-year contract at $3.5 million per season with the Minnesota Wild last summer. It was a big step down for a player whose previous long-term contract carried a cap hit of $8.25 million per year.

    But Staal has found a fit on a Minnesota team that's about more than great defense this year—the Wild are also using a balanced attack to score plenty of goals. Staal ranks second in team scoring, behind Mikael Granlund, and he is one of five Wild players to have contributed more than 15 goals so far this season.

    Another chapter in Staal's redemption story will be written if he helps the Wild push past the second round in this year's playoffs.

    Grade on the Redemption Scale: B+

Canada's Teams

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    An entire country's national pride took a serious hit when the 2016 NHL playoffs began without at least one of the league's seven Canadian teams.

    Last year marked the first time since 1970 that fans saw an all-American postseason—and back then, the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs were the only Canadian representatives in the 12-team NHL.

    This year, the situation is looking much better in the Great White North. Through games completed on Friday, four of Canada's seven teams sit in playoff spots. The other three remain in the fight.

    The turnarounds have been especially impressive for the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs—teams that both have long histories of futility and that were bad enough recently to claim the first overall picks in the last two drafts.

    Seven points clear of the playoff cutline, the Oilers look like they're on the verge of returning to the postseason for the first time since they went to the Stanley Cup Final back in 2006. The Leafs sit third in a tight Atlantic Division race.

    The Ottawa Senators also deserve credit for an impressive turnaround under first-year coach Guy Boucher, especially on the defensive side of the puck.

    More Canadian teams means plenty more passion in the mix when the playoffs begin in April.

    Grade on the Redemption Scale: A-

John Tortorella

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    Gerard Gallant, Jack Capuano, Ken Hitchcock and Claude Julien have all been fired from their NHL head-coaching jobs this season. But John Tortorella lives on behind the bench of the Columbus Blue Jackets.

    After his disastrous flameout as the coach of Team USA at last fall's World Cup of Hockey, Tortorella was widely assumed to be on the hot seat in Columbus before the 2016-17 season began. Instead of being back on the unemployment line, Torts is being lauded as a slam-dunk finalist for the Jack Adams Award, presented to the NHL's coach of the year, according to Michael Traikos of the National Post.

    Torts' Blue Jackets surprised everybody by riding a 16-game winning streak to first place overall in the NHL from late November to early January, but their record since it ended has been a much more pedestrian 8-9-1. Columbus still has a comfortable 14-point playoff cushion, but the team has slipped to third place in the tough Metropolitan Division, behind the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, and is just two points ahead of one of Tortorella's former clubs, the New York Rangers.

    A first playoff series win in Columbus franchise history would be momentous if Tortorella and his team can pull it off this year. But the Jack Adams Award will be voted by the NHL's Broadcasters' Association at the end of the regular season. A nomination at this stage of his career would mark a massive achievement for the mercurial Tortorella, whose last NHL head-coaching job ended after just one season with the Vancouver Canucks in 2013-14.

    Grade on the Redemption Scale: A

Peter Budaj, Los Anglees Kings

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    Impressive play from Sergei Bobrovsky and Devan Dubnyk has put both goaltenders back in the Vezina Trophy conversation for 2016-17. Their comebacks pale when compared to that of Peter Budaj, whose strong play has saved the Los Angeles Kings' season.

    After starter Jonathan Quick was injured during the Kings' first game of the year, it quickly became clear that new backup Jeff Zatkoff wasn't going to be able to carry the load. Zatkoff allowed nine goals in his first two starts, then suffered a lower-body injury that kept him out of action for eight games in late October and early November.

    Called up from the AHL's Ontario Reign after spending the better part of two years in the minors, Budaj quickly steadied the ship in L.A., posting a 7-3-0 record while Zatkoff was sidelined.

    Even after Zatkoff returned to full health, Budaj continued to run with the ball. His stats line up alongside those of the league's top netminders: 26 wins, a .917 save percentage and a 2.18 goals-against average. Budaj's seven shutouts also tie him with Braden Holtby of the Washington Capitals for the No. 1 spot in the NHL.

    Now 34, Budaj's comeback is as impressive as it was unexpected. Once Quick returns to action, Budaj will supply great goaltending depth if the Kings do manage to squeak into the playoffs in the jammed-up Western Conference.

    Grade on the Redemption Scale: A+

    All stats courtesy of NHL.com, current through games completed Friday, February 10.

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