NHL teams have just passed the midpoint of their 2019-20 seasons, which is pretty amazing when you consider this season has been three years long. Or does it just feel like that to me because of all the teams yo-yoing in the standings due to parity, the parade of scandalous coach firings and watching too much of the New Jersey Devils?
It’s been a memorable season, at times actually for the right reasons. Here are 15 of the most shocking events in and around the NHL this season, including a few updates on where we currently stand in their collective aftermath:
The Bill Peters reckoning
The defining moment of the 2019-20 season thus far. Akim Aliu‘s accusation that Peters used racial slurs toward him, coupled with corroborated accusations of physical abuse of players while with the Carolina Hurricanes, led to Peters being suspended by the Calgary Flames before he tendered his resignation in November. The fallout from this has been palpable, from physical abuse allegations that led to Blackhawks coach Marc Crawford’s removal from the Blackhawks’ bench for a month, before he issued an apology; to Aliu’s revelation that an ECHL equipment manager wore blackface to dress as Aliu at a Halloween party, which led to a slew of apologies and condemnations; to the NHL saying it would take action in the form of a four-point plan that includes an abuse tip line and a new committee on NHL diversity.
Deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN this week that the league is also using outside investigators to continue to look into how the Hurricanes handed the Peters abuse issues at the time. A reckoning on many fronts; but will it carry over into 2020?
Mike Babcock gets tarnished
The fact that Mike Babcock was fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs with over $21 million owed to him through 2023 was shocking enough. But even more shocking was the hit his sterling reputation took when allegations of mental abuse were made public. There was the time he had rookie Mitch Marner rank his teammates based on effort and then shared the list with the bottom-ranked players — something the Maple Leafs admonished him for and for which he apologized to Marner. There were also the allegations of mental abuse towards forward Johan Franzen when both were with the Red Wings, as Franzen claimed he had an emotional breakdown because of it.
No amount of Canadian gold medals or hagiographies from friends in the media could prevent Babcock’s character from getting tainted by his tactics. Wherever he resurfaces next, it’s going to have to be with an explanation and crisis PR-vetted apology in hand.
Jim Montgomery‘s “material act of unprofessionalism”
Montgomery was fired in December for a “material act of unprofessionalism,” which GM Jim Nill quickly noted was not related to racial language or physical abuse, which is an actual sentence I’ve written about this season. The exact reasons for Montgomery’s firing remain murky — the best I could get in Dallas is that they’ve remained off the record out of respect to his family — but the primary catalyst was alcohol abuse, for which Montgomery said he’s getting treatment after this “wake-up call.” (According to The Fort-Worth Star Telegram this week, that included excessive public intoxication “at the popular bar Moxies, which is owned by Dallas Stars owner Tom Gaglardi.”)
Best of luck to a talented coach, who clearly needs to get himself in order before he gets back behind a bench.
All the other coaching changes
Sometimes coaches are fired for hockey reasons, too! The Sharks fired Pete DeBoer on Dec. 11 for a season of bad goaltending, porous defense and a diminished roster unable to generate the team’s typical offense. Bob Boughner took over, has won four of 12 games, and discovered, yes, all of that is true.
The Devils fired John Hynes after 26 games of disastrous hockey undercut by bad goaltending, and interim coach Alain Nasreddine has stopped the bleeding now that Mackenzie Blackwood has a .919 save percentage since December. Don’t weep for Hynes, as he was hired this week to take over in Nashville for Peter Laviolette, whom the Predators fired because of a middling record and — once more, with feeling — bad goaltending.
The Devils decided to get a jump on their tank, and admit the 2017-18 Hart Trophy winner wasn’t re-signing with them, by trading Hall on Dec. 16 to an unexpected destination: the Arizona Coyotes. Unexpected in the sense that the rest of the NHL had yet to catch on to the fact that they’re a contender and a cap ceiling team, and that new owner Alex Meruelo is going to be aggressive in ensuring they remain that way.
Sharks lose their bite
DeBoer paid for the Western Conference finalists’ epic stumble that saw them go from 3.52 goals per game last season down to 2.66, while giving up 3.34 goals per game thanks in part to a .889 team save percentage. GM Doug Wilson’s gamble that a slew of young players could fill out a lineup that saw Joe Pavelski, Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist all walk last summer was so misguided that he had to turn to 40-year-old Patrick Marleau as a bandage.
Meanwhile, Martin Jones has a minus-10.1 goals saved above average over the last two seasons, per Evolving Hockey. Yet the Sharks are eight points out of a playoff spot despite a minus-30 goal differential. Parity!
Last season, the Florida Panthers‘ narrative was “good team, if only they could get a save.” They went out and signed Sergei Bobrovsky, who makes many saves, for seven years and $70 million. And then he … stopped making them, to the tune of an even-strength save percentage of .897 and a goals saved above average of minus-3.2. Not great, Bob!
Mea culpa: Not putting Mike Sullivan in my top three for the Jack Adams was a dereliction of my duty as an Awards Watcher. He’s kept this ship very steady through an absurd amount of injuries, a list that includes Sidney Crosby being limited to just 17 games. That includes a defense that has averaged 2.70 goals allowed per game, down from 2.90 last season. Part of that is coaching, and a lot of it is the emergence of Tristan Jarry (.934 save percentage!) in goal. Oh, and it doesn’t hurt that Evgeni Malkin has been in a 1.33 points-per-game beast mode for 30 games this season.
In the last 25 years, there has been one defenseman who had a higher points-per-game average at season’s end than Carlson does through 44 games (1.23), and that’s Paul Coffey, then of the Red Wings, with 1.29 points per game in 45 games of a lockout-shortened 1995 season. We’re always bellyaching about the Norris Trophy going to “the best offensive defenseman” but, um, what if it’s an offensive defenseman having one of the best statistical seasons since Gary Bettman has been commissioner? Is that OK?
WHAT A MOVE. WHAT A GOAL. 🤯
New year, same Connor McDavid. 💁♂️ pic.twitter.com/mwNERgAx0X
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) January 7, 2020
Maple Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly revealed this week that he has been playing through a previously undisclosed injury that we’ll assume isn’t related to the ones his ego and pride suffered on this Connor McDavid goal. Everything about this belongs in the Louvre, from the no-look deke, to the power-up he collected to go around Rielly, to the slick finish. The sheer amount of my non-hockey friends who have mentioned this goal to me is evidence that “posterizing” is universal language in sports.
The Lightning hit the afterburners
Questions about Jon Cooper being on the hot seat were circulating in October when the Lightning weren’t the Lightning, falling outside the playoff picture with inconsistent play. Those questions passed as quickly as a Florida thundershower after the Lightning became the Lightning again in late December, embarking on an eight-game winning streak in which they outscored their opponents 38-17 and are now second place in the Atlantic.
Don Cherry is fired
Cherry, 85, was fired by Rogers Sportsnet on Nov. 11 after calling immigrants “you people” in a television rant and accusing them of not supporting Canada’s fallen soldiers. Cherry later clarified that “you people” could easily be a reference to the “Irish or Scotch,” although one wonders how he would assess their status so quickly.
His firing was celebrated by those who wanted his antiquated views expunged from Canada’s centerpiece hockey broadcast. His firing was derided by those who felt “P.C. culture” had unjustifiably cost him his job. He hasn’t left the public eye completely, but his takes have been relegated to a podcast.
The best personal rivalry in the NHL got even better this season in a game back in October. Tkachuk had two goals and an assist, including a late game-tying goal for the Flames against the Los Angeles Kings. Doughty had two assists and the winning goal in overtime, after which he rather emphatically celebrated.
For those keeping score at home, that’s an “are you not entertained?” arm stretch, followed by a WWE crotch-chop, followed by a Hulk Hogan ear cup to collect the boos from Calgary fans. “Nobody went home disappointed with Doughty or Tkachuk’s performances tonight,” said Kings coach Todd McLellan in an understatement.
Tkachuk earned a roughing, tripping and misconduct penalty in the rematch just over a week later, but the two were curiously quiet in a December game, with Doughty saying he was “sick of” the rivalry talk. Please don’t take this away from us, boys.
Perhaps the most unexpected comeback of the season was from a retired player: Tim Thomas, who collected hardware with the Boston Bruins as one of the best goalies in the world and then disappeared from the public eye after retiring in 2014.
After much speculation, he revealed why: He believes a concussion in his final NHL season gave him brain damage. “I woke up the next morning after it and I couldn’t decide what I wanted to eat, where I wanted to go,” Thomas said. “I couldn’t plan a schedule. I survived following the team schedule the rest of the year and just made it through that season.”
Emily Kaplan had some poignant thoughts on the journey it has been covering Thomas.
It began when the veteran defenseman didn’t report to Winnipeg Jets training camp and made noise about retirement, despite having two years left on his contract. He was suspended without pay. In October, Byfuglien surprised the Jets by undergoing surgery on his own for the ankle, which the team claimed was healed when it was checked out last April and which Byfuglien’s camp said hadn’t healed correctly. There was talk of going to arbitration to determine the how and why of the injury that required surgery.
But Byfuglien has been working back from the surgery, and TSN has reported that the next phase of it is “testing the ankle” and a comeback could be in the making. A very odd ordeal.
— caleb childers (@childersruns) January 8, 2020
Putting “Original Six” on the back of a Bruins jersey is like putting “Hockey” back there: painfully redundant. But it’s also abject hubris; wearing this jersey to a place like Smashville is a declaration that the Bruins, by virtue of when they entered the league, are some pedestal on which the Predators can never climb. Which is the sort of sentiment that makes people loathe the concept of the “Original Six” and all the default favoritism they’re given. Plus, as my old podcasting partner Jeff Marek likes to promote, there is no “Original Six.” It’s an “Arbitrary Six” because the NHL fluctuated between four and 10 teams from 1917 through 1941.
Meanwhile, in a Capitals team store:
— James Flint (@JamesDinoFlint) January 6, 2020
Apparently in Washington, you’re either “Ovie” or “Novie.”
— NHL (@NHL) January 8, 2020
1. The NHL and adidas love to personalize jerseys to the city where an event is held. Last year’s sweaters from San Jose’s game were made from recycled plastic waste material collected from the ocean, because California is crunchy like that. Rather than making the St. Louis game’s jerseys out of, like, Proval cheese and recycled Bud Light hops, the league decided to honor the city by putting a five-bar musical staff from sheet music under the logo. Because what do we associate more with the blues, a free-flowing form of music rooted in unpredictable jam sessions, than sheet music? If only there was, say, some sort of physical monument in St. Louis with an iconic shape that looks dope on a jersey logo they could have gone with, huh?
2. The dark jerseys are fine. At best, they resemble the kind of logo plus striping you’d see on a 1990s snapback hat. At worst they evoke the Islanders’ fairly terrible black alternate jerseys. The white All-Star sweaters, on the other hand, look like a child got bored coloring a Shrinky Dink.
3. All-Star jerseys should either make you proclaim “take my money!” or have you repulsed by their garishness. These provoke neither reaction, unfortunately. Here’s to next season, when some form of international mini-tournament will take place at the All-Star Game and Adidas can get its jingoistic freak on.
Listen To ESPN On Ice
NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly joined us and made news about Alex Ovechkin, women players in the All-Star Game, the NHL in the Olympics and the Bill Peters investigation. That, plus our reaction to Peter Laviolette’s firing and midseason grades. Listen here, and please rate and review!
Winners and Losers of the Week
Winner: Larry David
— Christopher Knieste (@ChrisKnieste) January 8, 2020
After using “Curb Your Enthusiasm” to redeem the legacy of Bill Buckner and teach us all how to use the carpool lane to get to a Dodgers game on time, it turns out Mr. Larry David also has some hockey takes. A frequent attendee at Rangers games, he appeared on 98.7 ESPN Radio New York to lament coach David Quinn’s decision to bench rookie Kaapo Kakko in the third period of their game against Calgary.
“Why did he bench Kakko in that third period? His first goal in 14 games, and an assist, he benches him because he takes a bad penalty. C’mon, that’s ridiculous,” David said. “You think putting him on the bench … you don’t think he knows he took a bad penalty? He knows! Benching him’s not going to do anything!”
Perhaps he put him on the bench because he respects wood.
Larry David, talking hockey? Prett-ay, prett-ay, prett-ay good.
Loser: Hiring practices
Imagine you’re managing a multi-million dollar business, and you have to fill one of the most important vacancies in the organization. How long would that take? How many people would you interview?
If you’re an NHL team like the Nashville Predators, the answers are “about 24 hours” and “just one guy, but he was a roommate and teammate with our assistant GM; our GM sorta knows him from USA Hockey; and two guys who used to work here, who fired this guy a month ago and want to get his salary off their books, totally vouch for him.” The National Hockey League, ladies and gentlemen. May its insular hiring practices forever endure.
The Rangers defenseman leveled Colorado’s Joonas Donskoi with a hit in their Tuesday night game and promptly answered the bell to fight Nazem Kadri for it. He was given a phone hearing by the Department of Player Safety for the hit and … wasn’t suspended? The rare instance of a player getting the call from DoPS and escaping without any punishment. (OK, he was punished by Kadri’s fists. And maybe that’s why the old school judges working in Player Safety decided that was punishment enough?)
Loser: Player safety critics
The official line from DoPS is that “while there was significant head contact on this play, Lindgren took a proper angle of approach, did not extend outward or upward and hit through Donskoi’s core. Therefore, under Rule 48.1 (i), the head contact was determined to be unavoidable.”
Yet the reaction on social media was “so what, he hit him in the head, and therefore must be suspended!” The rulebook is right here. We’re always asking for NHL officials to follow it, and yet when Player Safety adheres to it for a ruling like this, it’s lambasted. Not every hit is a suspension. This one, by the letter of the law, didn’t rise to one either.
It was always fairly obvious that Williams was taking the Teemu Selanne/Scott Niedermayer path this season, in which he ducks out for three months and then plays the second half of the season. He’s back, the Hurricanes are great and he’s getting the incentive-laden deal he deserves. Welcome back. Enjoy the Storm Surges.
Loser: The “Star” in All-Star Game
I’m torn on Alex Ovechkin skipping the All-Star Game. On the one hand, he’s done his time in this gimmick and has done more to sell the game for the last 15 years than any other player. On the other, the fans voted him in as captain, and we now only get eight guys we can vote in. So that makes him skipping a second straight game a bit of a bummer.
Bottom line: Without Ovechkin, Marc-Andre Fleury and whoever else ducks out, this All-Star Game will be missing some stars.
Going from the AHL last season to the Penguins’ backup goalie spot this offseason to sharing the starts with Matt Murray this season to the NHL All-Star Game as an injury replacement is some kind of trajectory.
Loser: Richard Belfitt
Belfitt is a referee in the National Ice Hockey League (UK), who delayed the start of the Peterborough Phantoms’ game against the Telford Tigers because he forgot his pants at home. So how’s your day going?
Death to the college hockey shootout! “I just don’t see how different overtime rules for different conferences benefits college hockey.”
There’s a massive “Miracle on Ice” reunion happening in Las Vegas soon.
Down Goes Brown breaks down the different kinds of midseason turnarounds you see in the NHL. ($)
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn’t read)
We’ve seen several stories recently about changing viewpoints on Mike Babcock, and this one from Pension Plan Puppets is recommended reading. “If I have to give credit for anything to Mike Babcock, it’s that his tenure taught me I ought to expect more than he achieved.”
In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN
Our midseason grades for all 31 NHL teams, which should both entertain and infuriate you.