2015-16 NHL Season Recap – Part 1
This NHL years season recap will be in three parts for the first time. Recapping the Stanley Cup Champions and handing out awards, followed by Worst of the Year and then Best of the Year. I don’t recap drafts because it’s kind pf pointless. There’s no way to judge players that have never played an NHL game. You can grade a team if they filled their needs or not but just because they drafted a position they needed, doesn’t mean that player will produce right away or ever.
The 2015-16 NHL season was even more wide open than last year. And the playoffs were quite unpredictable at times. Sadly, there was almost no drama in the clinching of any playoff spots. As the new playoff format doesn’t tend to lead to anywhere near as much suspense and drama as the old format did. I kind of wish they would bring back the old format. We had two 1st round match-ups that were the same 1st round match-ups the year before. Something you never had under the old format.
The 2016 Stanley Cup Champions
The Pittsburgh Penguins won their 2nd Stanley Cup in seven years with only a few holdovers from the previous team that won it all. Going into the season, I think it’s safe to say no one would have picked this team to win it all. Even after they won it all, I’m still shocked. Mostly because I never would have a thought a team with the six defensemen they had, would ever be capable of winning a Stanley Cup. I mean let’s face it, when your best defenseman, by a long shot, is Kris Letang, that isn’t saying much. It also goes against the mantra of most of the recent cup winners (Blackhawks, Kings, Bruins) which were known for their great defensemen. But the Penguins found a way to do it anyway.
The reshaping of the Penguins started in the off-season as they picked up Phil Kessel and Nick Bonino via trades where they didn’t give up anything they needed to acquire them. Then the season begin and, just like the Blackhawks last season, the season didn’t start out so special for the Penguins. In fact it started out even worse. At Christmas time the Penguins were 12th in the conference after 33 games. Hard to get excited about that or like their chances very much. Things were so bad, Sidney Crosby wasn’t even in the top 50 in scoring for probably the first time ever in his career. But a few games before they hit rock bottom, they fired their coach and replaced him with Mike Sullivan. Sullivan had been coaching the Penguins minor league team. In hindsight, this was genius for two reasons. 1) The last time the Penguins fired their coach, they won the Stanley Cup in the same season. 2) Since Sulivan coached the minor league team, he would have a really great feel for any players that had played for him there and how they would fit in with the Penguins. That turned out to be very significant.
After a few bumps to start the coaching change, the Penguins became the hottest team in the second half of the NHL. Sidney Crosby also became the hottest scorer in the NHL, finishing 3rd overall. The Penguins finished out the season on a 19-6 run. Even Phil Kessel got hot after a tepid start. But it wasn’t all great news, as the Penguins ended up losing their top two goalies to injuries to start the playoffs in the last few games of the regular season. Not really where you want to be. But the Penguins always had someone step up when needed.
In the first round the Penguins played the Rangers. This was the only time I picked the Penguins to win a series. The series wasn’t that close or all that entertaining really. The only drama was how well the Penguins 3rd string goalie would fare and he did pretty well. The Penguins outscored the Rangers 21-10 so it sounds as exciting as that score differential was. The Penguins got Matt Murray back in the 3rd game and the Rangers only scored four goals after that happened.
In the second round, the Penguins played their arch rivals the Washington Capitals. In reality they aren’t really rivals but people like to think so because it’s Crosby vs Alex Ovechkin. I picked the Capitals here because, like everybody else, I stupidly thought the Capitals had finally turned the corner. But how wrong we all were. But in truth, this was still a great series. Three games went into overtime and five of the six games were all decided by one goal. The problem was the Capitals ended up down 3-1 so it was pretty much a foregone conclusion they would lose. It’s hard to imagine that the only game they won at that point was the Game 1 overtime winner. Usually big overtime wins help propel your team but it didn’t in this case. Braden Holtby had a few shaky goals but overall he played pretty well. Unfortunately, the rest of them didn’t bail him out. The Capitals had one of their signature get 50 shots on goal games but lose anyway in Game 3. For some reason they just have the knack of hitting a hot goalie in the playoffs. That goalie was Matt Murray. But at some point the Capitals are just going to have to start converting more of your 50 shots, regardless of how hot the opposing goalie is. Despite the Penguins best effort to give away Game 6, by taking a 3-1 lead into the 3rd and having three consecutive delay of game penalties against them, they still found a way to win in overtime.
Next was the Eastern Conference Finals against the Tampa Bay Lightning. This was a great series and the Penguins biggest challenge in the playoffs. Two of the games went into overtime and all of the games were close, except for Game 6. Having sad that, most of the games were wildly inconsistent. With momentum shifts occurring back and forth multiple times in a game. Bryan Rust hadn’t done much in the playoffs besides notching three points in the final game of the Rangers series. He didn’t do much in this series either, until it mattered. Game 1 was a solid game marred by the injuries to Ben Bishop and Tyler Johnson. Game 2 featured Crosby’s game winner in overtime. One of three playoff overtime winners he had. Murray was sensational at times. When the Lighting won Game 5, I though the series was a given for them. I didn’t expect the Lightning to win Game 6 because it’s incredibly hard to win three games in a row against an opponent, unless you are sweeping them. Although I wasn’t expecting the Penguins to crush them either. Game 7 was all you could really hope for. Although I expected the Lightning to play better than they did. And I really think Steven Stamkos returning was more of a distraction and didn’t help them. But this is about the Penguins and Bryan Rust single-handedly winning Game 7 for the Penguins. I find it highly unlikely that Rust would even have been playing in the game if Sullivan wasn’t the Penguins coach. Game 7’s usually create the unlikeliest of heroes and Rust was that hero for the Penguins. Seemingly always in the right place at the right time.
Next was the Stanley Cup Finals against the San Jose Sharks. The Sharks, after two decades, shed their choking, underachiever label and finally made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. But then it all fell apart. I had wrote in my preview that I believed the team would keep playing like they had and my only concern was Martin Jones. He seemed shaky at times against the Blues and is young. I thought the series hinged on him and his play. If he played well then the Sharks would win, if not they would lose. On the contrary, it was the opposite. Jones was spectacular and the rest of the team didn’t even show up. If you watched the previous three rounds that the Sharks played, you would know that the team the Penguins faced, didn’t remotely resemble that team. This was probably due to lack of Stanley Cup experience on the team and the fact that they just seemed happy to finally be there. Either way it ended with Joe Thornton crying, again. But let’s not take away from the job the Penguins did. The ironic thing was, despite how bad the Sharks played, the first three games were all one goal games and two went into overtime. But after the Penguins won Game 4 you could pretty much tell it was the beginning of the end. Game 5 was one of the better games I’ve seen in a long time. And was the kind of hockey I had hoped the whole finals would be. All of the goals were scored in the 1st period and the Penguins rattled off 46 shot on Jones, which was impressive. But the Sharks could not carry that momentum over to Game 6, where the Penguins clinched their 4th Stanley Cup in franchise history. Crosby cemented his legacy as one of the best players ever with this win. The duo of Crosby and Malkin have now won two Stanley Cups to tie the Penguins duo of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr. Crosby, 28, is still in his prime and now has almost a decade to try and do what his current boss couldn’t do, win a 3rd Stanley Cup.
Breakout of the Year
Evgeny Kuznetsov – Washington Capitals
Kuznetsov had one of the biggest breakouts in some time. His first season in the NHL was only 17 games long. Last season he almost played a full season but only scored 37 points. This season Kuznetsov almost notched a point a game with 77 points in 82 games. He was also an All-Star replacement for Alex Ovechkin. But you could see all of this happening when he scored five goals and seven points in 14 last years playoff games. Sadly, he wasn’t able to replicate his success this playoffs which is one of the reason the Capitals were bounced in the 2nd round. It should be noted that Kuznetsov played five seasons in the KHL before coming to the NHL, which is quite a lot. But Kuznetsov has now found his groove in the NHL and should put up even bigger numbers next year.
Rookie of the Year
Connor McDavid – Edmonton Oilers
From the NHL site:
To be eligible for the award, a player cannot have played more than 25 games in any single preceding season nor in six or more games in each of any two preceding seasons in any major professional league. Beginning in 1990-91, to be eligible for this award a player must not have attained his twenty-sixth birthday by September 15th of the season in which he is eligible. The latter fact was perhaps most prominent when in 1979–80, first-year phenom Wayne Gretzky was not eligible to win the Calder Trophy despite scoring 137 points (the previous rookie record at the time being 95), because he had played a full season in the World Hockey Association in 1978-79.
Therefore Artemi Panarin is not a rookie and doesn’t deserve the award. It’s baffling that the NHL didn’t disqualify him as he played two season in the KHL. Which basically means the NHL doesn’t view the KHL as a major professional league. Even though it is. It’s hard to know what Panarin would have produced if he was really a rookie. Although just because you play in the KHL doesn’t mean you’re going to start out at the same level in the NHL as Kuznetsobv can attest too. But it still disqualifies him in my book and he’s a lot older than most rookie of the year candidates at 24. McDavid deserves it because if he was never injured he would have been 3rd or 4th in the NHL in scoring. Some people say well you don’t know that, he might have hit a rookie wall. While there’s now way to know for sure, I’m confident he would not have hit a wall. None of the true greats ever hit a rookie wall. But he does join Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby in not winning the Calder trophy. Ironically, Gretzky didn’t win the award because he previously played in the WHA and was disqualified. But McDavid wins my rookie of the year award. Shayne Gostisbehere is a close second, as he played critical minutes and scored critical points for the Flyers.
Goalie of the Year
Braden Holtby – Washington Capitals and Ben Bishop – Tamp Bay Lightning
It’s hard to argue with Braden Holtby’s season. He’s season this year was reminiscent of Carey Price last season. But it’s also hard to leave off Ben Bishop, who led the league in GAA and SV% and had twice as many shutouts as Holtby did. That’s not to say that numbers tell the whole story, because they don’t, but they do matter. Holtby stood on his head when needed and help propel the Capitals to the best record in the league. He also tied Martin Brodeur’s record for most wins in a season. It’s pretty likely that if you removed Holtby from the Capitals, they wouldn’t have won nearly as many games. But Bishop has had a strong body of work over the last few seasons. Even though the Lightning are a pretty solid defensive team, they’ve shown that they go further with Bishop. Even though it seems likely the Lightning will move on without him. It’s also safe to say if it wasn’t for Holtby, Bishop would have won this year. I think he deserves a split.
Most Value Player to his Team/Best Player
Sidney Crosby – Pittsburgh Penguins and Patrick Kane – Chicago Blackhawks
Last year this was a slam dunk for John Tavares, assuming you discount Carey Price which I did. This year it’s pretty hard. Most players you would think of for this award had another teammate right there with them in scoring. If you go by handing the Hart Trophy to the most valuable player to his team then Sidney Crosby would win. If you give it to the player who had the best year, then Patrick Kane would win. I usually go with the the former but Kane had such a remarkable year, it’s hard to overlook. So that’s why I’m splitting this award as well.
Patrick Kane had probably the worst off-season of his career. To follow that up with his best NHL season ever, says a lot about him as a player. 106 points was the most points to lead the league since 2012. Let’s not forget his memorable 26 game point streak, which was the longest by any U.S born player. Kane almost looked like he wanted to cry when the streak was over. He helped with the development of Panarin and stayed out of trouble off the ice. He was also more integral in the scoring for the Blackhawks as Jonathan Toews had his worst statistical season of his career. Ironically, Captain Clutch tied his career high in game winning goals with eight. The Blackhawks were bounced in the 1st round of the playoffs this season but Kane had seven points in seven playoff games and scored in all but two of them.
As for Sidney Crosby, well, as he went so did the team. When the struggled the Penguins struggled. When he got hot, the Penguins got hot. Now all the credit doesn’t go to Crosby, as the HBK line was integral to the Penguins success down the stretch as well as the goaltending. But that line also didn’t get hot until Crosby did, of course it wasn’t really a line before then either. Even though he wasn’t on the same line, Crosby would draw the top defensive pairings. And unlike all the other top scorers in the league, Crosby didn’t have any linemates in the top 20, or even the top 50, in scoring. Evegni Malkin was injured for almost half the season and wasn’t able to pick up the slack, like he normally does, when Crosby struggles. Having to deal with high expectations, a slow start, a coaching change and lackluster defense isn’t easy for a captain to go through. Especially when he isn’t playing with All-Star caliber wingers. In any season starting out as bad as Crosby did and then recovering to end up 3rd overall in scoring is impressive. In many respects this was Crosby’s finest NHL season to date, regular season and playoffs.
Author: Alex Mueller
Alex Mueller graduated from Temple University with a minor in journalism over a decade ago. He’s been writing about NHL hockey, on and off, since the Fall of 2009. He’s written for Pucking Awesome, the Checking Line and now Hockey Recaps. He played goalie at San Diego Ice Arena. His first novel, Bobby Sterling vs Truth, is available on Amazon now.