The Best and Worst of the NHL in 2017
Dave Lozo and Down Goes Brown look back at 2017 and hand out awards for the best and worst hockey moments of the year.
Photo by Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports
The year is over, so now seems like a good time to hand out some awards for the past 12 months of NHL action.
I mean, the year isn't over over. There's still four days to go. But the odds of anything really interesting happening in any four-day segment of the NHL regular season are minimal, so we feel safe in jumping the gun just a bit.
So today, it's over to Dave Lozo and Sean "Down Goes Brown" McIndoe, your two cranky uncles from the Biscuits hockey podcast. VICE Sports asked them to hand out some Best and Worst awards, and after taking the time to explain the concept of actually liking something to them, they agreed. Here's what they came up with.
(If anything happens over the next four days that would require a rewrite, please contact Dave.)
Most Valuable Player: Connor McDavid
This is a relatively easy one. You could make a case for Sidney Crosby, who got another ring. Maybe you argue for a non-forward like Erik Karlsson or Sergei Bobrovsky. Maybe you take a stand for a better-than-you-think case like Nikita Kucherov or even Brad Marchand.
You could make all of those cases. And we'd listen quietly, nod politely, and then give the award to McDavid anyway.
Do you think the "valuable" in most valuable player is just a fancy way of saying the best player in the league? Cool, then that's McDavid, who is still two years away from his prime and already does things that nobody else can do.
Or do you prefer the old-school definition, that measures a player's importance to his specific team? In that case it's even easier, because McDavid got the Oilers to the playoffs in his first full season. When he's not on the ice, Edmonton still often looks hopeless. But the Oilers are going to rebound from their terrible start and make the playoffs anyway, because McDavid will drag them there.
Least Valuable Player: Zac Rinaldo
Rinaldo spent all of the 2016-17 season in the AHL, then was demoted to the Arizona Coyotes over the offseason. The result: One goal, three points, one sucker punch, and (presumably) yet another big suspension.
Nobody's defending Rinaldo these days. (OK, fine, almost nobody). In fact, just about everyone is lining up to be the loudest voice tearing him apart. And it's well-deserved, because Rinaldo has more games worth of suspensions over his career than goals scored. He's the sort of player who used to have a role in the NHL, and increasingly doesn't anymore.
We'll see if there's still a place for him when he gets back from his latest suspension. We're going to have to wait a while.
Best Goaltender: Pekka Rinne
John Gibson (.930) and Sergei Bobrovsky (.926) are 1-2 in save percentage; Braden Holtby (47) has nine more wins than the next-closest goaltender and Cam Talbot's workload last season was a big reason why the Oilers won so many games, but Rinne's work in the regular season and postseason gives him the edge.
In the 2017 calendar year, he's fourth in wins (36) and save percentage (.922) and posted a .930 save percentage in the playoffs as the Predators came within two wins of a Stanley Cup. Rinne is in the mix for the Vezina Trophy this season, as he entered the holiday break 18-6-3 with a .923 save percentage.
Best Defenseman: Erik Karlsson
Another easy one. While Karlsson didn't earn another Norris in 2017, finishing second to San Jose's Brent Burns, he followed that with a strong playoff run and a great start to this season. He's been slumping since then, but it's one of those slumps that has more to do with the percentages working against him than any noticeable drop in play. Even when things are going bad, he's still capable of monster games, and the fact that he's doing it all on an ankle made out of duct tape and broken lego pieces is all the more impressive.
And if there was any doubt that he was winning this year's honors, Karlsson closed out 2017 by planting himself in the middle of one of the league's most fascinating soap operas. Will he re-sign in Ottawa on a record-shattering deal? Does he already have one eye on the door in free agency? If so, do the Senators have to trade him? Nobody knows right now, which means these days Karlsson is fun even when he's not on the ice.
Best Goal: Kris Russell's own goal against Toronto
I'm not even kidding when I say this was the best goal of the calendar year. There's nothing not great about it. Russell absolutely rips it through his goalie's legs. The look on Nazem Kadri's face. The announcers not realizing what happened. The Edmonton media's defense of Russell's gaffe days after ripping Connor McDavid over a turnover.
I honestly can't even remember another goal from the year. I watched like 90 percent of playoff games and maybe I can remember one goal, that one the Preds scored but didn't count against the Penguins when it should have counted. Hell, that's not even a goal, so yeah, Russell's game-winning own goal is the only goal that happened in 2017.
Worst Goal: Patric Hornqvist's Stanley Cup winner
There are different kinds of Cup-winning goals. At the top tier, you've got Bobby Orr's flying winner. A notch below, there's Darren McCarty's solo effort, Patrick Kane's mystery goal, and OT winners from guys like Bob Nystrom, Jason Arnott, and Alec Martinez.
On the other end of the scale, you have controversial winners like Brett Hull and Henri Richard, plus ugly goals like Uwe Krupp and, uh, Chris Phillips.
This year's winner may have been the ugliest yet, coming on a bank shot from behind the net.
Bonus points for the goal coming in the 59th minute of a 0-0 game that—let's be honest—was a painfully dull way to end what had been a pretty fun series. Really, hockey gods? You couldn't have given us a Sidney Crosby end-to-end rush or a Phil Kessel snipe? This is why we can't have nice things.
Worst Re-appropriation of a Timeless NHL Logo: Red Wings Nazis
You know what the NHL loves? Original Six teams. You know what Nazis love, apparently? Original Six teams. When Nazis marched on Charlottesville in August with tiki torches, one group that called themselves the Detroit Right Wings carried signs with a barely augmented Red Wings logo, which caused the hockey organization to put out a statement denouncing the group.
The statement had an affect, as the group immediately shut down its social media channels. There's no story that's more 2017 than a sports league embroiled in politics making the strong stand to protect its brand from Nazis so it can sell more crappy pizza at its taxpayer-funded arena.
Worst Cover Story About Retiring Early: Henrik Zetterberg
In less sensitive Red Wings news, Zetterberg is signed to one of those cap circumvention contracts the NHL doesn't consider cap circumvention. He is signed through 2020-21 but is only scheduled to earn $1 million per year over the final two years, so he was asked about it in the wake of Marian Hossa's early retirement in a similar situation.
Did Zetterberg dodge the question? Did he say he plans to honor the contract even when the base salary drops from $7 million to $1 million? No, he said the 12-year deal was to "fool the system" and the plan when he signed it was to retire early, maybe as soon as next summer when the base salary drops to $3.3 million.
At least Hossa had the decency to not brag about his situation in advance.
Best Coach: Peter Laviolette
This ends up being tougher than you might think. Some of the best coaches from 2016-17, like Guy Boucher and Todd McLellan, are already in trouble this year, and Mike Sullivan is outside the playoffs right now. Assuming we want somebody who's actually been on the job all through 2017, that rules out guys like Mike Yeo, John Stevens, and Gerard Gallant. We'd want to see at least one playoff round won this year, which rules out John Tortorella, Mike Babcock, and Joel Quenneville, among others.
Luckily, one name passes all the tests: Laviolette, who snuck the Predators into the playoffs and then got them to within two games of a championship. With Nashville looking Cup-worthy again so far this season, we'll hand this made-up award over to Laviolette.
Trade of the Year: The Matt Duchene three-way
Despite NHL GMs being giant wimps who hide under their desk when the phone rings, we ended up with some decent candidates for this category. The best trade from any one team's perspective was probably the Blues revitalizing their top line by getting Brayden Schenn from the Flyers. The Jonathan Drouin deal finally happened. And Artemi Panarin-for-Brandon Saad was a fun one-for-one.
But we'll go with the obvious choice: The three-way deal that finally ended the Matt Duchene watch, sending the disgruntled center to Ottawa in a trade that saw Kyle Turris head to Nashville and a busload of futures go to Colorado.
The deal had everything fans like to see in a trade. It was bold. It was creative. And thanks to Duchene's slow start in Ottawa, it allowed us all to declare near-immediate winners and losers. Will we revise that view down the line? Probably, but for now we get to feel smarter than an NHL GM. And, really, that's what it's all about.
Best Endorsement from a Religious Organization: Pope Francis
Other sports may have more fans and better ratings but do they have a religious leader extolling the virtues of an NHL marketing ploy about inclusiveness? Suck it, NFL! Jesus wants more outdoor games! Bible readings during intermissions! Players now say "peace be with you" during handshake lines!
The NHL's Declaration of Principles the Pope loved so much were funny on their own but became a real joke when the Pittsburgh Penguins visited the White House a month later for a photo op with the least inclusive President in American history.
Worst Trend: Teams that aren't moving pretending that they're moving
Nobody believes you, Calgary. Same with you, Ottawa. We all know that an NHL that's only had one franchise move in two decades isn't going to suddenly abandon a reasonably successful Canadian market because the owner has hurt feelings. Knock it off.
And sure, maybe this isn't a new trend. Teams in every sport play this game all the time, and the NHL seems to be perfectly fine with its owners pulling it out at every opportunity. But that doesn't make it any less annoying for fans who've supported a team for decades, covered their house with team gear, and then passed that fandom onto their kids. They deserve better than a league that lies right to their face.
Oh, and speaking of which…
Worst Owner: Eugene Melnyk, Ottawa Senators
You could make the argument that he was the worst owner before he questioned the loyalty of a fan base that gifted him a life-saving organ and openly suggested he may move the team, but that cemented his status as worst owner. One day before an outdoor game in Ottawa, and this old man rambled about relocating and compared his team to a McDonald's. Folks, I'm loving it!
When the time comes to vote on a new downtown arena that will assuredly cost taxpayers something even if Melnyk says it won't, remember he only sees you as a faceless vessel for extract money and organs when he sees fit.
Best Social Media Post: Phil Kessel
Jaromir Jagr's eventual Hall of Fame discussion will take longer than the debate for this award. It's Kessel's "hot dogs in the Stanley Cup" post, which was basically a windmill dunk from the foul line on all his haters.
Best Game: Eastern Conference final, Penguins/Senators, Game 7
It was an utterly delightful, action-packed, tension-filled game for three periods and two overtimes before Chris Kunitz picked a spot against a screened Craig Anderson to end it. Kunitz and Mark Stone scored 20 seconds apart in the second period, then Justin Schultz scored what looked like the winning goal late in the third, only to have Ryan Dzingel tie it with 5:19 left in regulation.
It was a champ on the ropes vs. a huge underdog trying to pull an upset for the ages. It was a highly talented team vs. a trapping system. It was Canada's last hope for a Cup vs. the inevitability of America's continued hockey dominance. It had everything.
Worst Game: Eastern Conference final, Penguins/Senators, Games 1 - 6 (tie)
As memorable as Game 7 was, Games 1 through 6 of this series made you question every decision in your life that led you to watching hockey. The Senators were playing the only way they could to have success, which was to turn games into sleeping pills. There's no way anyone on the fence about hockey saw these games and became a lifelong fan.
As someone old enough to remember the Dead Puck Era, this was the first series since the full-season lockout that came close to resembling that period. Clogging the neutral zone should be illegal. Ban offside, remove blue lines, and let's move this sport forward.
Best Roster Overhaul Based on Spite: Dale Tallon in Florida
Technically, it's the best roster because it's the only roster that was overhauled for spite. We've all done things out of spite but Tallon became the first person to sabotage his team because someone else assembled it using analytics during a one-year absence from power. It's admirable how openly bitter and indifferent Tallon is about the damage he's done.
He let Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith go to Vegas for nothing; didn't re-sign Jaromir Jagr; swapped Jason Demers for Jamie McGinn; bought out Jussi Jokinen; signed Micheal Haley, and fired anyone with a calculator on their desk and banned the word "math" from the company offices.
OK, that last part isn't true, but considering how much Tallon hates analytics, it wouldn't be a surprise.
Best Rule Change: The slashing crackdown
It made sense—hey, maybe we shouldn't let players hack each other on the wrist or hand several times a shift. If we stopped that, maybe we wouldn't have to watch guys get their fingers guillotined off. That seems like an improvement.
And so the league went ahead and introduced the crackdown. And after some preseason complaints, players seemed to get the message, and the baseball swings largely came to an end.
What we didn't expect is that the new rule also seems to have been responsible for a scoring boost. It's not a big boost, but it's something, and for once it seems to be sticking. After years of trying to increase scoring with minor tweaks and meaningless adjustments, the league seems to have done it by accident. That's a strange way to see progress, but we'll take it.
Worst Non-rule Change: Not fixing offside reviews
With virtually everyone sick of watching linesmen squint at a tablet before waving off a goal due to an offside that had nothing to do with the play (and didn't even look all that offside), the league had an easy job for the offseason: Fix the review rules.
And they did… kind of. To their credit, the league added a minor penalty for incorrect challenges, which should never have been treated differently than failed stick reviews. But they stopped there, rather than making a common-sense switch like killing the awful skate-in-the-air technicality.
The whole "we have to get it right no matter what" argument is flawed and always has been, but if we need to have offside reviews can we at least get a version that doesn't eliminate goals because a skate may or may not have been a millimeter off the ice?
Best Moment That Made My Cold Heart Feel Something: Bryan Bickell’s shootout goal in his final game
When Bickell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, it was only a matter of time before his career ended. Wild goaltender Josh Harding was forced into retirement because of the same issue, and with Bickell in the final year of his contract, it only made sense that 2016-17 would be it for Bickell.
Carolina's last game went to a shootout. Bickell had never scored in a shootout but he ripped a goal off the post in front of his wife and daughter in attendance. Even if you're dead inside like me, you probably felt a feeling watching that.