November may very well be the best month for all of professional sports. You’ve got the NFL season nearing its playoff push, the World Series in the MLB and the tip-off of the NBA season, but the sport that really earns its keep in the 11th month of the year is hockey. After almost two months of competition, the playoff picture is already being painted. Here’s your primer on the 2015-16 NHL season.
(NOTE: Originally published in AHS School Newspaper, November 2015 Issue)
New Faces in New Places
The NHL offseason is always the most chaotic of any sport due to General Managers’ constant battle with the Salary Cap. This summer was no different. Elite players such as Phil Kessel, Dougie Hamilton, Milan Lucic, Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp changed addresses to the shock of their fans. The following players are off to fast starts with their new teams.
- Phil Kessel, Pittsburgh Penguins
Despite some stellar 30-goal seasons in Toronto, the Maple Leafs grew tired of Kessel’s suspect defense and lack of leadership, shipping him to Pittsburgh for a package of prospects. The move instantly made the Penguins’ already-potent offense arguably the best in the league. Kessel has 6 goals and 11 points in his first 16 games as a Penguin, with half of his tallies coming via the power play. Whether his center is Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, you can be sure that Kessel will put up at least a 30-goal season if he stays healthy.
- Patrick Sharp, Dallas Stars
Sharp was jettisoned from Chicago this summer despite his top-rate production for the Blackhawks and his critical role on three championship teams. Sharp’s price was steep for Dallas; they parted with valuable defenseman Trevor Daley. But much like the Penguins’ pursuit of Phil Kessel to pad an excellent pre-existing offense, Sharp is another proven producer on a Stars team that includes Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza. Sharp has already accumulated 7 goals and 7 assists for 14 points in 17 games, an instant fit for a much-improved Stars squad.
- T.J. Oshie, Washington Captials
Oshie, dubbed by some as “Captain America” after his outstanding performance in the 2014 Winter Olympics, was made expendable by the St. Louis Blues this summer, and the Washington Capitals were more than grateful to acquire the star forward. Oshie is a great fit alongside Alexander Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on the top line. The price was right, as Oshie’s 9 points in 16 games, as well as his steady defensive play, make the Capitals happy.
Top NHL Trends
The NHL is a trendy business. Every year, a new fad sweeps across the league. Here are some of the top stories in the NHL so far in 2015-16.
Rookie Sensations Take the League by Storm:
This season, rookies are playing a large role on most every NHL team. Spearheaded by first- and second-overall picks Connor McDavid (Edmonton) and Jack Eichel (Buffalo), rookies are impressing early. Other young guns to keep an eye on include defenseman Noah Hanifin (Carolina), Dylan Larkin (Detroit), Max Domi and Anthony Duclair (Arizona) and Artemi Panarin (Chicago).
Tired of seeing too many games reach the luck-based shootout, the NHL decided to change the previous Overtime format from five minutes of 4-on-4 to five minutes of 3-vs-3 action. The result has been a huge success. Breakaways and odd-man-rushes dominate the OT period, leading to more OT goals and fewer pesky shootouts.
Marginalization of Fighting:
For the third consecutive year, fighting in the NHL has gone way down. The role of the enforcer is murkier now more than ever, and the NHL-leading Columbus Blue Jackets are only on pace for about 41 fights, which would be the lowest league-leading total ever in any full season since the Philadelphia Flyers’ “Broad Street Bullies” popularized fighting in the mid-1970s.
The Top Five
Breaking News: The NHL will be hosting a fantasy draft this coming offseason in which all players are up for grabs. Okay not really, but imagine how fun that would be! Configuring a top five list in a league with at least 50 blue-chip players is nearly impossible, but here’s my best shot.
- Carey Price, Montreal Canadiens:
While I am aware just how gutsy it is to say that a goalie is the best player in the NHL, I am standing by my opinion. No player is more valuable to his individual team than Price is to the Canadiens. Without his brick-wall-like-self backstopping the Canadiens’ crease, Montreal would never be a Cup contender.
2. Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins:
Someone has finally dethroned “Sid the Kid” as the NHL’s finest player. But Crosby still keeps racking up points, as well as individual awards. Despite a slow start to the 2015-16 season, Crosby is the league’s best combination of speed, skill, finesse, and even enough spunk to keep everyone on their toes.
3. John Tavares, New York Islanders:
The Islanders struck gold when they drafted Tavares first overall in the 2009 NHL Draft. Coming off of a 38-goal, 86-point, near-MVP season, there’s reason to believe that Tavares could get even better this season, a scary thought for his opponents.
4. Jonathan Toews, Chicago Blackhawks:
You know what you’re going to get with “Captain Serious”, Jonathan Toews. The Blackhawks’ center has only reached 70 points once in his NHL career, but provides consistency every night, timely offense, and some of the league’s finest defense by a forward. There’s no better man to lead the Blackhawks.
5. Jamie Benn, Dallas Stars:
After a season in which he led the league in points and solidified his elite status, I’d take Benn over guys like Steven Stamkos, Alexander Ovechkin, and Ryan Getzlaf. He’s the complete package, as well as the league’s best left winger.
Eastern Conference Champions: Washington Capitals
Western Conference Champions: Chicago Blackhawks
Stanley Cup Champions: Chicago Blackhawks