Ovechkin’s year? A Season in Review
Well, the 2007-2008 campaign has come and gone, and it is now time to reflect on the highs and lows the NHL brought to us this season. An amazing fresh rookie crop, a venture in Europe and plenty of physical play, September was full of promises, but did the league live up to the expectations? To fully answer this question, it is necessary to step back in time and see what happened from the pre-season to Lidstrom raising the Cup first for the whole of Europe.
Before the season even began, the Penguins surprised no one in naming their new captain. In a move as predictable as the Moose getting the “C” in NYC, the Kid’s jersey was graced in the Steel city. This year, Crosby was proud to accept the honour, and there was no talk of being too young or not ready. To anyone who knows their hockey, the Penguins are Sid’s team, and this was the logical option. With a new captain, the youngest in the history of the NHL, and an incredibly talented nucleus of players, the upcoming season had a whiff of new era in Pittsburgh and they were truly allowed to hope.
However, the pre-season did not bring only good news. The Philadelphia Flyers had some discipline issues, and one of their new players, Steve Downie, was a little over enthusiastic in a game against the Ottawa Senator. He delivered a violent blow to the head to Dean McAmmond who was injured in the incident. After reviewing the video footage of the incident, Colin Campbell gave his verdict: a 20 game suspension, the fifth longest in NHL history. Unfortunately, it was far from being the last case Campbell had to deal with this year.
The table was then set for the official start of the season, which for the first time ever, was scheduled to start overseas. The Kings and the Ducks made their way to London, England to kick off the year in fashion at the O2 arena. The venture turned out to be a great success with both games being played in front of a full house, and the British fans even had a chance to see the Stanley Cup up close. The California teams delivered a good show, splitting the honours of the two game series with a 4-1 win each. It was also a baptism of fire for Kings’ goalie Jonathan Bernier, and he responded to the call admirably, beating the defending champions 4-1 in the season opener. The experience might not have been as positive for the newly appointed captain of the Ducks, Chris Pronger, however as the crowd at the O2 religiously booed him every time he touched the puck. Why you ask? Well, the reason could be seen as tw-fold; firstly, there are a lot of Canadian ex-pats in London and some Canadians still haven’t forgiven Pronger for requesting a trade out of Edmonton, and secondly, when asked to comment on the possibility of a European division in the NHL a few days prior to the game, he said that no Canadian would ever want to be drafted and sent to Europe to play. Not a smart move Chris, know your audience. After the overall success of the weekend, the NHL went on to announce that next year, games will take place in Prague and Stockholm featuring the Rangers and Lighting in the former and the Penguins and Senators in the latter. While I am sad that the big show is not coming back on my turf, I cannot help to be happy for the Swedish and Czech fans. Note to the NHL marketing department though, please have more commemorative pucks, they sold like hot cakes and you might want to consider bringing boxes of cards to sell, everything else was there!
The month of October got the fans to wonder if we were back to the days of the Broad Street Bullies, yes more discipline problem in Philadelphia. One of their forwards, Jessie Boulerice, cross-checked Ryan Kessler of the Canucks in the face with an unsurprising result, the longest suspension in NHL history at this point. A 25 match ban which therefore matched the sentence handed down on Chris Simon for his stick work on Ryan Hollweg last year.
It was still fairly early in the season when the ground shook in Atlanta for coach Bob Hartley. After a 6 games losing streak, Don Wadell decided enough was enough and gave Hartley his marching orders. This came as quite a surprise to most as the Trashers managed their first playoff berth in 2006-2007, and unfortunately for them, it would not result as hoped in salvaging their season as they missed the playoffs.
Later in the month, there was further proof the Flyers had officially gone back in time. Patrice Bergeron was knocked unconscious by defenseman Randy Jones in a boarding call. Jones got off lightly with a two game suspension, but it would be months before Bergeron skated again. He sat out the rest or the season, and missed the playoffs as well. Let’s hope 2008-2009 is much better for him.
Early November saw one of the most constant NHL player in history, Brendan Shanahan, reach the important 1,300 points milestone. A goal originally credited to Jagr was given to Shanny after review. On the night, his NHL career point totals reached 630 goals and 670 assist for 1,300 points. At the end of the 2007-2008 campaign he had 650 goals and 690 assists for a total of 1,340 points in 1,490 NHL games. A wonderful track record for Shanahan, and I sure hope he can carry on for a few seasons.
Barely a week after Shanahan reached his milestone, another veteran NHLer attained his own. Mike Modano beat Phil Housley’s record for the most points by an American born player. The mark stood at 1,232 points since Housley retired in 2003. Today, the record stands at 1,283 and every point Modano gets increases the mark. It is only fitting that he should be the holder of that record, although credit and respect are due to Housley as after all, he was a defenseman and not a forward. He took 1,495 games to reach his impressive total so talk about an offensive defenseman! Best of luck to Modano in further increasing the gap between he and his fellow American pursuers. Only a few days later, Jeremy Roenick also became only the third US born player to get to the 500 goals mark. The future sure looks bright for the States with talented players such as Patrick Kane skating in Modano’s and Roenick’s footsteps.
November also saw Eric Lindros finally calling it quits, not finally because he played for long, far from. But finally because the guessing game (the will he, wont he) had been going on for some time for the power forward. A career which can be described as both impressive and too short came to its conclusion. No doubt he put up impressive numbers with 865 points in 760 games for the Flyers, the Leafs, the Rangers and the Stars. However, in my opinion, there is still a feeling of a promise not fulfilled. Immediately held as being the Gretzky or Lemieux of his generation, Lindros didn’t really deliver. I know a lot of people will think I am mad and that his numbers speak for themselves, but ultimately, he didn’t manage to win the Stanley Cup or be the great leader he could have been. His career was marked by numerous injuries and concussions, but to me, the highlight was and remains his complete refusal to even entertain the thought of playing for the Quebec Nordiques. He certainly didn’t make any friends by behaving in such waym but hey, in the long run, it looks like it was better for the Nordiques turned Avalanche that way. Forsberg, Ricci, Duchesne, Hextall and Simon all had a huge impact in the future of the franchise, so thanks for saying no thanks Lindros. That being said, I do wish the injuries would have left him alone, and he could have had an uninterrupted career.
In what truly had been a month of accomplishment in the NHL, Martin Brodeur notched his 500th victory and joined Patrick Roy in the incredibly exclusive club of 500+ victories. In his career, Roy totalled 551 wins. and having already got 538, it is safe to presume that Brodeur will overtake him as the leader in career victory next season. What is even more of a feat is the fact that Brodeur got to this total in only 14 seasons. This truly makes you realize how many games a year the Devils’ workhorse plays in, because no to OT/shootout wins are not included in the total so it is not why he got there so quick. When his career ends, Brodeur will not only be the leader in victories and victories in a season, but he will also be remembered as the NHL’s most constant goal tender, winning 30+ matches in 12 consecutive seasons and counting.
At the start of the month, the Ducks got a welcome addition. Well not so much an addition, more like a return. Yes, Scott Niedermayer finally decided to come back after sitting out the first 28 games of the season. While it was great for the sport to have him back, much was said about the way his absence at the start of the season meant more cap space for the Anaheim outfit and extra rest for the veteran which could render him fresher come playoff time. However, this wasn’t an unusual situation for the Ducks as Finnish veteran Teemu Selanne also missed the start of the season to ponder retirement. Just like the experienced D man, he came back too but in February. Unfortunately for the Ducks, even Scott and Teemu were not enough to allow them to capture the Cup for a second time.
No such luck for the Penguins though, as their number one goalie, Marc-André Fleury suffered an ankle injury mid-December. However, far from being the catastrophe many anticipated, it gave backup goalie Ty Conklin a chance to revive his ailing NHL career, and he grabbed it with both hands. At the end of the year, he had taken part in 33 games, his most since 2003, getting a respectable 18 wins, 2.51 GAA and a save percentage of .923. The Pens were highly pleased with his performance and Fleury had to fight to get the top job back, which he did admirably. This is a big part of the success the Pens enjoyed this year, depth, players stepping up when their teammates were injured.
After all the suspension troubles in Philly, it was nice to see them make the headlines for something else in December. They inked the excellent Mike Richards, who will no doubt soon be their captain, to a 12 year contract woth $64.8 million. Peace of mind for Flyers fan as he is not the type of players you would want to see get away. In his first two seasons, he managed 34 and 32 points respectively, but he really came into his own in 2007-2008, with 75 points in 73 games. Looks like the Flyers have finally found the leader they have been looking for. Is he the new Bobby Clark? Fingers crossed…
The New Year brought with it the Winter Classic held in Buffalo between the Sabres and Pens in front of 71,217 fans. After the success of the Heritage Classic between Montreal and Edmonton, it is easy to understand why the league would orchestrate another outdoor game. Thumbs up to the marketing department as they decided to involve their ultimate selling tool “Sid the Kid” in the game, and he did not let them down! In a scenario worthy of a Hollywood movie, the Kid won the game for the Pens in the shootout 2-1. The event was hailed as a success even though the weather did its best to make it harder for the players as it snowed continuously. Nevertheless, it was a day to remember in Buffalo and the event was reminiscent of an NFL game tailgaters included, cold or not. Rumour has it that next year, the Blackhawks will be involved in the event, again a smart choice by the league with both Kane and Toews getting bigger and bigger popularity wise.
Unfortunately for Crosby however, he suffered a high ankle sprain injury, and early prognostics predicted he would be out of action for six to eight weeks. Devastating news if there ever was one for Pens fans, or so we thought anyways. That was without taking into account what Evgeni Malkin could do. You could say that he saw Sid’s injury as his chance to steal the limelight and boy did he! In the first 16 games played without Crosby, Malkin scored 30 points. His stellar performance is the main reason the Pens remained contenders for top spot in the East despite the injury woes. At the end of the season, he had 47 goals, 59 assists for 106 points, a 21 point improvement from his rookie season performance. Here’s to hoping the Pens will manage to keep him and Crosby around together for a very long time!
In what can only be called a smart move, the Capitals ensured that they could keep their heart and soul by signing Alexander Ovechkin to a contract extension. The deal, valid for 13 years will bring Ovie $124 million, this represents an average of $9.5 million, an amount which dwarfs the $3.83 million he made this year. With this deal, both he and Crosby have committed their long term future to the team who drafted them, good news for the hometown fans, and the end of a slight hope, however remote, for the rest of us to see them move to our team. Although, you never know, Crosby only signed a five-year extension.
For the Colorado Avalanche, the New Year only brought one thing; more injury woes. After losing their uncontested leader, Joe Sakic, long term, the Avs saw Ryan Smyth break his ankle and Paul Stastny undergo surgery to remove his appendix. The season could have been a disaster for Colorado, had it not been for the antics of Jose Theodore who truly found his game back. Having struggled since being dealt from Montreal to the Denver team, he looked like the Theo who captured the Hart Trophy in the past. The cynics will say that it was written in the sky as his contract is due to expire this year, but I, for one, prefer to think that it was a combination of hard work and great coaching from Colorado’s goalie specialist, Jeff Hackett.
Another January, another All-Star game and with it came the usual critics…not entertaining enough, pointless, not tough enough and the list goes on. I myself love the All-Star weekend and can appreciate the amazing skills on display. While I do enjoy the physical side of the game, I prefer, by far, pure talent and amazing goals. The NHL nevertheless tried to improve the show with a breakaway competition meant to emulate the NBA’s All-Star slam dunk contest. This was a good idea, but the difference between hockey and basketball is that in hockey, there is actually someone trying to stop you from scoring, you cannot solely concentrate on the flashy moves, you have to think of what the goaltender will do. Ovechkin still tried to amaze the fans by dribbling the puck in the air and attempting what can only be seen as a baseball swing, there is no argument, the guy is a true showman! The game itself on Sunday saw the Eastern Conference beat the Western by a score of 8-7. All-Star games are never easy for the goalies!
This month, it was the turn of the Calgary Flames to invest in their future and tie up a defenseman who’s star has been rising ever since he joined the league in 2005-2006: Dion Phaneuf. The excellent defenseman signed a 6-year contract extension valued at $39 million, an average of $6.5 million a year, not a bad investment considering that in three seasons he has notched 49, 50 and 60 points as well as +5, +10 and +12 respectively. This year he has especially stepped up the physical side of his game, posting 182 penalty minutes nearly doubling his total of the two previous seasons. The Flames look like they have a clear plan for the future with Phaneuf, Kiprusoff, Iginla and Regehr all under contract for several years. It will be up to the GM to be smart and work with the salary cap to get the players necessary to complement this solid nucleus.
On the February 10, everyone forgot about hockey in Buffalo. In a match between the Sabres and the Panthers, Clarke MacArthur hit Olli Jokinen, sending him flying head over heals, blades at face level is never good news in the NHL and unfortunately, Jokinen’s right skate struck his teammate Richard Zednik in the side of the neck .Thankfully, Zednik had the presence of mind to skate directly to the bench rather than collapse onto the ice, which ultimately probably saved his life. In the process of getting back to the bench he left a long trail of blood on the ice and everyone was immediately aware of the seriousness of the situation. Trainers for both teams rushed to his help and their fast intervention meant that Zednik was taken to hospital in good time, and the worst was therefore avoided. After the incident, the game was of course delayed for several minutes, and the atmosphere was sombre, to say the least, in the arena and the crowd was incredibly quiet. Cheers however graced after the announcement was made that Zednik was in stable condition and on his way to a Buffalo hospital. Comments from his teammates after the game said that they were all in shock and would have rather not finished the game, easy to understand why. This truly was a chilling image to see and highly reminiscent of the incident involving Clint Malarchuck nearly 20 years ago and sparked talks about mandatory neck protection for the players but most of them were very vocal to the effect that in such a physical sport, you cannot totally protect the players. Thankfully, Zednik had life saving surgery, and even though the injury ended his season, everyone is grateful that the consequences weren’t worst.
On to better news, another one of the fantastic rookies from the year 2005-06 got inked to a contract extension, this time The King, Henrik Lundqvist committed the next six years of his career to the New York Rangers. The deal was worth $41.25 million and guarantees the New Yorker have Lundqvist in goal until the 2013-14 season. If he had not signed a contract extension he could have been a restricted free agent on July 1, but he was clearly not interested in that option. The new contract makes him the second highest paid goaltender averaging $6.875 million per year which is behind Roberto Luongo’s $7 million per season. The Rangers have never been shy with investing money, but it has yet to give them much success in the ultimate goal, taking Stanley home. The last time they managed the feat was when the Moose led them to the 1994 championship against Bure’s Canucks.
When you think of the end of February, you immediately think about the trade deadline. This year it was on February 26, and it had its fair share of surprises. The biggest one for me was to hear that Bob Gainey had shipped out Cristobal Huet to Washington for a second round pick in the 2009 draft. This was a surprising move not only because it wasn’t exactly a big return but also because it meant that Gainey was putting all of his faith in the Price-Halak tandem for the upcoming playoffs. The second big surprise, in my view, was the Pens acquiring Marian Hossa and Pascal Dupuis from the Trashers, a smart move no one is denying that Hossa is a great player but they had to give a lot in return. Erik Christensen, Colby Armstrong, Angelo Esposito and a first round draft pick all made the trip to Atlanta. That is a lot considering that Hossa can potentially be an unrestricted free agent on July 1, and that Pittsburgh may not be able to sign him since they have to plan ahead and keep in mind that Malkin will be a restricted free agent come July 2009. In Colorado, the Avs got Adam Foote back from Columbus as well as signing Peter Forsberg for the rest of the season, it looked like the Avs were trying to get the old team back together. I was almost wondering if they were going to give Patrick Roy a call as well! In Dallas, the Stars pulled a blockbuster deal out of their hat; getting Brad Richards and Johan Holmqvist from Tampa Bay for Mike Smith, Jussi Jokinen, Jeff Halpern and a fourth round pick in 2009. It was only a question of time before Tampa Bay had to deal one of its big three to get a bit of breathing space in the cap world and Richards was the obvious choice. Dallas got a great forward and while they had to give up some talent for it, it was clear that Smith was not going to overtake Turco anytime soon, but he still deserved a shot at a number one job, which he will get in Tampa. The coming months would tell who had made good deals and who hadn’t.
March 6 marked an important date in Mats Sundin’s career. He became the 46th player in the league to have 1,300 career games. Sundin has been the best thing, if not the only good thing, for the Leafs over the last 13 years and his loyalty to the Toronto outfit was once more demonstrated by his refusal to waive his non trade clause, declaring: “I want to win with the Leafs, not with another team.” Sundin is no rental player and you sure have to admire that in him. In 1,305 games with Toronto and Quebec, he has gotten a total of 1,321 points; talk about consistency. I sure hope the Leafs sign him up for next season as the team just wouldn’t be the same without him and not in a good way.
The month of March also saw yet another suspension and no, surprisingly, it wasn’t a Philadelphia player! It was however another regular of NHL sanctions, Chris Pronger. The incident was showed over and over on numerous sports bulletins, broadcasted on YouTube and talked about for days. Pronger appeared to completely lose it and decide to stomp on Ryan Kessler’s leg with his skate, a decision which gave him a suspension of eight games, in effect, missing the rest of the season. Numerous questions were raised as to whether this was severe enough as Chris Simon got himself a 30 games ban for exactly the same action on Jarkko Ruutu back in December. Does Colin Campbell have favourites or does Simon’s goon tag simply mean harsher punishment?
On the brighter side of things, Ovechkin became the first NHLer to get to the 60 goals mark in over a decade. He finished the 2007-08 campaign with 65 goals (the last time the 60 goal barrier was broken was in 1995-96 when Mario Lemieux managed 69 and his Penguins teammate Jaromir Jagr followed suit with 62). There is still some way to go before AO can expect to beat the top three totals of Gretzky (92 and 87) and Brett Hull (86), but with the skills he has displayed in his first three NHL seasons, he can at least hope to get there one day.
The league and its fans were also rocked by news coming from the LHJMQ in Quebec where the winningest goalie in NHL history, Patrick Roy, now coaches the Quebec Remparts. Roy’s son, the Remparts backup goalie, attacked the Chicoutimi Saguenéens goaltender in what can only be qualified as a one way battle. What’s worst, even though he denied doing so, footage of the game appeared to show Roy encouraging his son to behave in this way. The hockey world was less than impressed and numerous comments were made questioning Roy’s ability to control his players as well as his suitability to one day coach in the big league.
All good things must end as they say and April saw the end of this eventful season, the Detroit Red Wings won the President’s Trophy (as per usual I am tempted to add). The Montreal Canadiens not only qualified for the playoffs contrary to preseason predictions by the so called experts, but also finished top in the east, and AO and his Caps clinched their first Division title just like Sid and his Pens. In the West, the Sharks and the Wild also won their respective divisions. A week into April, the playoffs match ups were set and looked as follows:
Montreal vs Boston
New Jersey vs New York
Philadelphia vs Washington
Ottawa vs Pittsburgh
Detroit vs Nashville
Calgary vs San Jose
Dallas vs Anaheim
Colorado vs Minnesota
In the next two months, we saw some of the most exciting hockey of the year. Detroit, being as solid as ever, once back-up Osgood stepped in Hasek’s shoes, Crosby and Co. dismissing the Sens in four, taking a deserved revenge from the humiliation they endured last year, Marty Turco proving that he can perform when it counts the most and the Habs making it to the second round with the rookie goalie who unfortunately for their fans could not pull out the same feature as past Habs greats who won the Cup in their rookie season (Roy and Dryden). Another interesting moment in these playoffs was Sean Avery inventing his own new infraction by dancing in front of Marty Brodeur to prevent him from seeing the puck, an idea far from appreciated by the Devils’ goaltender. By the June 7, it was all over but the crying for one team and the parade for the other as the Pens and Wings gave us quite a show in the Stanley Cup final.
Thanks to some of the members of sportscardforum.com for sharing their favourite moments of this season and therefore helping me write this article. We can now look forward to the next season, will the young Hawks make their mark? Will Steven Stamkos start in the NHL right away next year? Will Sundin, Jagr and Sakic still be around come training camp time? How many games will it take Brodeur to beat Roy’s wins record? Will the Great One finally manage to take his Coyotes to the playoffs? The list is endless, but, fear not, the NHL will soon be back to answer all of our questions with yet another exciting season, here’s to hoping it is as good as the last one!
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