2016-17 NHL Season Recap – Part 1 – Penguins Stanley Cup Champions and Awards
This years NHL season recap will be in three parts again. Recapping the Stanley Cup Champions and handing out awards, followed by Best of the Year and Worst of the Year.
The 2016 Stanley Cup Champions
The Pittsburgh Penguins won their 3rd Stanley Cup in eight years and were the first team this century to win back to back championships in any sport. That is quite an impressive accomplishment in the salary cap era. The team was largely the same from last years team. The biggest move they made was the one they chose not to make. That was keeping Marc-Andre Fleury. It was the right move.
The Penguins regular season was largely uneventful other than Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang both getting injured again. Sidney Crosby was second in the NHL in points and first in goals. Crosby was second in points per game average and Malkin was fourth. It was business as usual. Conor Sheary and Justin Schultz also continued their progression. The Penguins spent their season trading the top three places in the division back and forth with the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets, before settling into the second seed.
They opened their defense in the first round against a young Blue Jackets team who had been red hot at various times during the season and had something to prove. The Penguins faced adversity right off the bat, similar to last season, when Matt Murray was injured before Game 1 warm-ups and was replaced with Fleury. But Fleury looked better than ever, racking up big saves all series long. Despite having almost identical records, the series wasn’t really all that close. As only Game 3 and 4 had any drama in them. The Blue Jackets were only able to win that Game 4 and lost in five. Jake Guentzel, who finished 4th in playoff scoring, had a hat trick and the game winner in overtime in Game 3.
In the second round, the Penguins faced off against their rivals the Capitals for the tenth time. And just like most of the other times, the result was the same. Three of the first four games were decided by one goal but the Capitals only one won of them to find themselves in a 3-1 series hole. The Capitals had big wins in Game 5 and 6 to make you think that maybe this would be the year they would finally beat the Penguins. But that was not to be the case, as the Penguins won in seven. It felt like a foregone conclusion, at this point, that the Penguins would win it all again.
In the Conference Finals the Penguins took on the seventh seeded Senators. Despite each team having a blowout of the other, the rest of this series was pretty even. With the other five games all being one goal games. Fleury was removed during the Senators blowout and Matt Murray played the rest of the way. Splitting the playoffs was probably the best scenario, as both goalies were able to come in fresh. Even though the series was mostly even and the Penguins won, this was probably the hardest series for the Penguins. The Senators played a stifling trap that frustrated the Penguins best players, enabling them to only score three goals in the first three games of the series. But this enabled them to get value experience for when they played a similar style team in the Predators.
The Stanley Cup Finals set up an interesting dynamic of a top defense vs a top offense. The defending Stanley Cup champions versus the 16th seed. The Nashville Predators and Pittsburgh Penguins really couldn’t have been any more different. This series was basically dominated by the home team until Game 6. With four blowouts in five games. Game 1 and Game 6 were the only really entertaining games. Game 6 was the first elimination game and you could tell it made the Predators nervous. As they weren’t really their usual self at home. I’ll admit the Predators got hosed in the second period on Colton Sissons denied goal because the ref blew the whistle too early. But this really wasn’t the best officiated playoffs. Although the whole game would have likely been different if the goal counted, the Penguins did score in the third period so the game would have just went into overtime. Where the Penguins probably would have won. Even if the Predators would have won Game 6, it’s highly unlikely the Predators would have won Game 7 on the road.
In the end Sidney Crosby won his second Conn Smythe trophy in a row. Although he performed well both postseasons, I still believe he mostly won because of who he is. You could make a case for Phil Kessel last season and Evgeni Malkin this season to win. The Penguins have also not lost a playoff series under their new coach Mike Sullivan, which is highly impressive.
The Penguins have a great chance at a three peat next season. But they just lost a lot of assets that will make their run a lot harder. Fleury, Nick Bonino and Chris Kunitz all just left. But as long as Crosby and Malkin are in their primes, they will always be in contention.
Breakout of the Year
Leon Draisaitl – Edmonton Oilers
Draisaitl came into his own in his third season and second full season in the NHL. He just missed out on scoring 30 goals and averaging a point per game for the season. His versatility is also an asset. As he can play the wing with Connor McDavid or center his own line. He only got hotter as the postseason rolled around. He had the highest point per game total in the playoffs with 16 points in 13 games. He needs to work on his discipline though, as spearing people in the playoffs is never a good move. At least he admitted it was stupid. Hitting the 100 point mark for Draisaitl is in the realm of possibility next year.
Rookie of the Year
Austin Matthews – Toronto Maple Leafs
A no-brainer here, it was hard to match the rookie season Austin Matthews had. Matthews started out his season with a bang. Scoring four goals in his first game. He ended up being in a very select club to score at least forty goals in a rookie season. He also chipped in eight game winning goals. He was pretty consistent as well, having only two streaks over four games without producing a point. He also helped lead the Maple Leafs to their first playoff birth in four seasons. He does need to work on his playmaking ability though, so he can develop into more of a dual threat instead of just a goal scorer.
Goalie of the Year
Sergei Bobrovsky – Columbus Blue Jackets
This was a close one between Sergei Bobrovsky and Braden Holtby but Bobrovsky gets it in a squeaker. He’s numbers were better, as he lead the NHL in GAA and SV%. But he also helped the Blue Jackets go on their epic 16 game winning streak, playing in 14 of those. Then he reeled off three straight shutouts a couple of weeks later. It’s hard to imagine a player winning two Vezina trophies with his second team after his first team, the Flyers, gave up on him. It’s ironic because the Flyers are still looking for a goalie.
Most Value Player to his Team/Best Player
Connor McDavid – Edmonton Oilers
This was also pretty much a no-brainer as well. But one thing that should not be overlooked is the important role Leon Draisaitl also plays. But Draisaitl will forever be in Connor McDavid’s shadow much like Mark Messier was in Wayne Gretzky’s shadow. McDavid help architect one of the biggest turnarounds in a season with a 33 point increase over last season. McDavid only had a few pairs of back to back games where he had no points. He never went more than two games without scoring a point. At just 20, McDavid has already scored 100 points, led the NHL in scoring and won the Hart Trophy. Not too shabby. But he does have a few weakness to his game. He needs to work on winning face-offs. A 43% winning percentage for a top line center isn’t very good. He also needs to start shooting more. He seems to always be looking to pass first, even when he has a decent opening to shoot. But I suspect he’ll be hitting the 100 point mark every season for the next decade.