NHL players, teams that leveled up this season

Sports

It’s hard to think about leveling up at a time when hockey is sinking into an abyss of positive tests, postponed games and a best-on-best Olympic tournament that will exist only in our daydreams and video game simulations.

So let’s remember the good times, shall we? Here are 10 players and teams that took the leap, found the next gear and achieved higher levels in 2021 — and what might await them in 2022.

Here’s a good reminder about how 12 months in a pandemic can feel like 12 years. In December 2020, Fox was coming off an impressive rookie season that saw the 22-year-old finish fourth for the Calder Trophy behind well-hyped fellow defensemen Cale Makar and Quinn Hughes and forward Dominik Kubalik.

But fourth is great! That portends good things would eventually happen for Fox — “eventually” in this case being the first half of the following year, when Fox owned the 56-game 2021 season and became only the second defenseman to win the Norris Trophy in his second season.

The other was Bobby Orr.

This season, Fox is tied for the league lead in points with Victor Hedman and would have played his way into a lead role on Team USA had the NHL gone to Beijing. There’s leveling up, and then there’s a meteoric rise like that of Fox.

In 2022: Fox leads the Rangers to their first proper playoff berth since 2017.

I was thinking the other day why Kadri being third in points per game (1.58) behind Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid hasn’t been talked about nearly enough. There have seemingly been more stores about when the bottom is going to drop out of his season — “Should you fade Nazem Kadri’s point streak?” and “Cash out on Nazem Kadri?” for starters — than how incredible it is that Kadri has a 5.2 points per 60 minutes average.

Maybe it’s because the Avalanche aren’t a .732 points percentage team like last season. Maybe people have just become accustomed to players blowing out their stats in a contract year. Whatever the case, Kadri isn’t disappearing. Well, at least until his inevitable postseason suspension.

In 2022: Kadri gets paid. By someone. Hopefully Colorado.

In the span of a year, Zegras went from making his pro debut with the AHL’s San Diego Gulls to finding sporadic success with the Ducks in 2020-21 to becoming a rookie sensation in 2021-22 with 25 points in 30 games — one of them coming as an assist for one of the most memorable goals of the last 20 years in the NHL.

He’s done news conferences with Baby Yoda strapped this chest. He’s done more goofball, endearing interviews than Tom Holland. He was last seen being majorly frightened by Kevin Shattenkirk in a bear suit, and he’s just the best:

In 2022: Zegras wins the Calder, even if he doesn’t lead rookies in scoring.

There was a time when “Minnesota Wild” and “goal scoring” were antithetical. Heck, as late as 2018-19, the Wild averaged 2.56 goals per game, 27th in the NHL. Their franchise goals per game average: 2.63. (I mean, Marian Gaborik could only do so much.)

But last season and 30 games into this season, coach Dean Evason‘s version of the Wild is patently offensive. Last season, they averaged 3.21 goals per game, tied for second-most in franchise history. This season, they’re averaging 3.63 goals per game. Thanks, Kirill Kaprizov!

In 2022: The Wild win the Winter Classic. Might as well get one of these predictions out of the way early.

The general evaluation of Stephenson has been as a solid NHL center blessed with the opportunity to play between Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone, two wingers who could probably carry me to a few points, provided I’m not completely out of breath and looking for a Red Bull by my third shift.

Anyway, a funny thing happened this season: Instead of being the center keeping a spot warm for someone like Jack Eichel, Stephenson’s point-per-game pace, and the continued excellence of that line, made people wonder if the Golden Knights aren’t better off not bequeathing his wingers to the surgically repaired star.

In 2022: Stephenson remains a top center on the team after the Knights are inevitably forced to trade William Karlsson for cap space.

For his first two seasons in Buffalo, Thompson was best known as the prospect the Sabres received from the St. Louis Blues in the Ryan O’Reilly trade, and that he wasn’t Jordan Kyrou or Robert Thomas. He then had 12 points in his first 66 games with Buffalo.

Thompson showed a little life last season, and then a lot more in his first 30 games in 2021-22, with 10 goals and eight assists. His ice time jumped by nearly four minutes per game on average. Credit much of it to coach Don Granato’s decision to move him to center.

“If you think about where he was last year right before training camp started to where he is today … pretty incredible trajectory,” said GM Kevyn Adams.

In 2022: Thompson never plays the wing again.

The Juice had shown potential before, but he was always the understudy to Pekka Rinne. The Predators legend hung up his glove after a 2020-21 season that saw Saros finally eclipse his mentor in games played and overall effectiveness, finishing sixth for the Vezina.

Was it a fluke season for a player seeking — and receiving — a big, new contract? No! It turns out he’s just a really good goalie, with the second-best save percentage (.926) in the NHL during 2021 …

… right behind this guy, who has the highest save percentage (.930) of any goalie with at least 30 games played in this calendar year. He also has a 32-8-4 record.

As goalie analyst Steven Valiquette told me: “He’s a street hockey goalie. That’s meant to be a backhanded compliment, because I don’t think people can read off of him. He’s very reactionary. He’s unorthodox.”

There’s something poetic about a goalie who wins by any means necessary trying to elevate a team that can’t seem to unlock its own success.

In 2022: Saros and Campbell are Vezina finalists.

The most successful regular-season team of the 2021 calendar year was the Carolina Hurricanes, with a .724 points percentage. The second most successful team was the Colorado Avalanche (.711). The third? The Florida Panthers! Can you believe this?

If they remain on track in 2021-22, it would mark the first time in franchise history the Panthers had consecutive seasons with a points percentage higher than .600. They lost Joel Quenneville, who resigned after the investigation into sexual assault that occurred while he was coaching the Chicago Blackhawks, and interim coach Andrew Brunette has managed to keep them chugging along.

In 2022: The Panthers continue their arch rivalry with the Tampa Bay Lightning, increasingly on more equal footing than ever before.

The best found a way to get better. McDavid’s 1.81 points-per-game average would be his highest over a two-season span in his career, if it holds. He has 154 points in his past 85 games, including 50 goals.

His highlight-reel goals have reduced opposing defenders to scenery. His ability to take over games remains unparalleled. And he still has room for improvement, especially on the defensive side of the puck — Auston Matthews, for what it’s worth, is the superior two-way player.

But if the best defense can be a great offense, then we might as well give McDavid the Selke Trophy. It’s a pity that he fell off the 200-point pace he was charting earlier this season.

In 2022: I mean, 200 points is never really off the table with McDavid, is it?


Jersey Foul of the Week

From our friends in Seattle:

Nothing like putting a 1984 Sammy Hagar reference on a 2021 expansion team jersey.


Three things about NHL players not participating in the Olympics

1. Having covered my share of NHL labor disputes, it’s gotta be frustrating for the players to have used their pandemic leverage to regain participation in the 2022 and 2026 Winter Olympics, and then ironically lose that participation in Beijing because of that same pandemic. Quite a twist!

I’ve been thinking a lot about the players. About Steven Stamkos, waiting a decade for a chance to represent his country in the Olympics, coming to the realization that it’s “something I probably won’t have a chance to do now.” About Connor Hellebuyck, the likely starting goalie for Team USA in 2022, who may not still be one in 2026. “I’ll be 32. I know I’ll be playing my best hockey, but it’s going to be a different story,” he said.

About all the players who would have gone for the first time, all the ones who would have gone for the last time. Such a bummer. Such a shame.

There are players who will grumble about the COVID-19 tests being so frequent that it begs for the kinds of postponements we’ve seen, as if the NHL gamed the system in order to get out of an event it didn’t want the players participating in anyway. I’m as conspiratorial as the next guy — I owned “The X-Files” on VHS! — but omicron is absolutely ripping through every city in North America right now. It’s not the frequency of testing, but the contagiousness of the variant. I don’t even think the NHL saw this coming at the time of their board of governors meeting. And that was on Dec. 9.

2. I’ve seen rampant pleas to the NHL and the NHLPA to fast-track the next World Cup of Hockey back into our lives to satiate our need for a best-on-best hockey tournament. That’s great. Let’s make it happen. It’ll drive revenue, fill airtime for television partners and put a spotlight on the young stars who should have been in the spotlight in Beijing in February.

One thing: It can’t happen in September. If you remember the 2016 tournament fondly, it’s because you forgot how uninspired the hockey was, what with players having not yet shed their offseason rust. Pause the season in February, this time for a tournament that actually makes the league some money.

But let’s not pretend the giant crystal paperweight given to the winner is, in any way, a replacement for an Olympic gold medal. It’s not. The World Cup of Hockey is an exhibition tournament worth a modicum of pride but without any of the consequence of the Winter Games.

Every call for a new World Cup includes a call to rid it of the “gimmick teams” that 2016 had, which of course ignores the fact that Team North America and Team Europe were the only interesting stories from that tournament. Bring back the same field as last time. May the best team win the paperweight.

3. The big winner in the NHL not going to the Olympics? The Chinese men’s national team. One assumes not having the host nation trailing by 20 goals after the first period of a preliminary game would be a good way to grow the sport in an emerging market. Heck, with Germany, Canada and the U.S. depowered without their NHL talent, one or two of these games might even turn out to be competitive. Which in itself would be a miracle on ice.


Winners and losers of the week

Winners: Professional players not in the NHL

We should give shoutouts to the Eric Fehrs, Jordan Schroeders, Mikhail Grigorenkos and Jacob De La Roses of the world, who will now have the opportunity to represent their countries, battle for Olympic medals and pray that they’re not quarantined for five weeks in China in the process.

Losers: ‘Jeopardy!’

On Tuesday, “Jeopardy!” ran a category on sports nicknames that included a question about former NHL star Rick Nash, whose answer indicated that his nickname was “The Slim Reaper,” which was a nickname I had never once heard applied to him. Kevin Durant? Yes, he’s the “The Slim Reaper.” Rick Nash, however, was only “The Slim Reaper” inside the confines of the New York Rangers‘ locker room, which is hardly the level of shared-knowledge trivia that should produce a clue on “Jeopardy!” Alex Trebek would never …

Winner: Calgary

The Flames announced that despite $307.4 million in corporate welfare from the city plus land, they’re walking away from their Event Centre Project because they’re “unable to resolve a number of issues relating to the escalating costs of the Project.” Which means the city now has a lot of money to do other things rather than to fund an oil billionaire’s real estate project.

Losers: NFTs

The Seattle Kraken tried their first NFT drop, and the results were … fishy. They tried to launch them Monday, only to postpone due to technical difficulties. Then they ran a tiered NFT purchase promotion in which one of the tiers gave purchasers two tickets to a Kraken home game for about $95 (keep in mind that’s about half the price of what the average Kraken ticket is going for this season).

According to @NHLtoSeattle, the team then changed the language of that tier to say that “winners” of the NFT would now get free tickets, making it into a drawing rather than a discount ticket transaction.

Winner: Alex Ovechkin

Kudos to Alex Ovechkin for his encyclopedic knowledge of his own career. Knowing the defenseman on “The Goal” was impressive.

Loser: Quoting Gretzky

I think at this point we know that Wayne Gretzky (A) believes Alex Ovechkin will break his goal-scoring record and that (B) he’s OK with it. I don’t think we need to ask him anymore. We certainly don’t need headlines like: “Ovechkin ‘will pass me’ for NHL goals record, Gretzky says: report.”


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