2019-20 NHL Regular Season Recap

In Commissioner Gary Bettman's video address to the public on Tuesday, the 2019-20 NHL regular season was officially deemed as concluded. The decision to end the regular season at anywhere between 68 and 71 games (depending on which team you go by) comes after about two and a half months of postponement due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As is the case with each NHL season, 2019-20 brought numerous surprises, disappointments, and expectations that were basically met.



COVID-19 threw a wrench in the wheels of many players who were in the midst of watershed seasons. Washington's Alex Ovechkin was two goals shy of his second straight 50+ goal season (it would have been the ninth of his career). Boston's David Pastrnak and Toronto's Auston Matthews were just as close to the 50-goal mark as Ovechkin, but it would have been the first occurrence of both their young careers. Colorado's Cale Makar and Vancouver's Quinn Hughes were piecing together phenomenal rookie seasons with 50 and 53 points, respectively. Latvian-born Elvis Merzlikins emerged as the likely cure to Columbus' goaltending woes, all while the team in front of him succumbed to myriad injuries. Leon Draisaitl (110) and Connor McDavid (97) ranked first and second in the league for points... and they're teammates.


Though it was ended quite unceremoniously, let's take a look at all the things the 2019-20 NHL regular season had to offer.



SURPRISES


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It's hard to say if Ovechkin's surpassing of the 700 career-goal mark was a surprise or something we all kind of felt was coming. Either way, it's an enormous accomplishment. Ovechkin now sits in eighth place for all-time NHL goals and, with 706 as of Mar. 12, is three goals away from passing Mike Gartner for seventh place. Meeting Wayne Gretzky's near-unthinkable 894 career goals might actually be in Ovechkin's sight; if he can maintain the pace of goals he's set almost every year of his 15-year career (he averages 47 per season), there really isn't a reason why he couldn't pass Gretzky.


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Ovechkin's fellow Capital, Carlson, turned 30 this year but seems to just now be hitting his prime. He carried over an impressive 70-point campaign in 2018-19 and grew it into a 75-point campaign this season. With the Caps having played only 69 games in this truncated regular season, that means Carlson averaged over a point per game for the first time in his career. He and Josi- who has 10 fewer points than Carlson- are the frontrunners for the Norris Trophy for the league's best defenseman.


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The success of Philadelphia has been a surprise to many, especially given the long-term absences of two key players. Center Nolan Patrick- the Flyers' second overall pick in 2017- did not see any ice time at all this season due to a nagging migraine condition. On Dec. 11, the team announced that Oskar Lindblom would be out for the forseeable future after being diagnosed with Ewing's sarcoma. Despite this, the Flyers finished the season just a single point behind Washington for first in the Metropolitan Division- ranking fourth overall in the Eastern Conference. Before losing their last game of the regular season against Boston on Mar. 10, Philadelphia went on an unprecedented nine-game win streak, catapulting past Columbus, Pittsburgh, and New York (Islanders).


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When Joonas Korpisalo left the Blue Jackets' Dec. 29 game against the Blackhawks with an injury, Elvis Merzlikins had yet to tally a win in only nine previous NHL starts. Before Korpisalo's return in late February, Merzlikins had gone 13-5-4, recorded four shutouts, and won eight straight starts between Jan. 11 and Feb. 7 (he subsequently lost seven straight between Feb. 8 and Feb. 22). Merzlikins and Korpisalo's dual effort in net earned Columbus a .913 team save percentage, tying them with Colorado, Winnipeg, and Chicago for the fourth-best save percentage in the league. The Jackets and Predators are tied at seven shutouts for the second-most in the league this season.


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A 74-point campaign in 2018-19 may have been an omen for what was to come in Mika Zibanejad's next season, but his 2019-20 bid was simply unthinkable. Zibanejad recorded 74 points in 82 games with the Rangers last year, which is great, but then he turned around and racked up 75 points in just 57 games this year. Zibanejad scored 41 goals this season, which shattered the 30-goal record he set last season. Not only was 2019-20 the first season in Zibanejad's career wherein he averaged over a point per game, he also brought his on-ice rating to a +9 after accumulating a -35 rating over the previous two seasons. Zibanejad leads New York in goals as well as shooting percentage, with a 19.7 percent conversion rate.


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Of the Detroit Red Wings' 17 total wins in 2019-20, four of them came from sweeping the season series against their division-rival- the Montreal Canadiens. As if it were possible for this era of Red Wings to sweep anyone, let alone a team with a more than 30-point advantage in the standings and whom they played four times this year, the 2019-20 season provided exactly one (1) glimmer of positivity for Wings fans. At least they have Moritz Seider and Alexis LaFreniere (possibly) to look forward to.


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The Mikael Granlund-Kevin Fiala trade that occured in February of 2019 was, at the time, largely expected to pan out in Nashville's favor. Over a year has gone by and it seems that Fiala has taken to the Wild with lots more fervor than Granlund has with the Preds. In 2019-20, Fiala led Minnesota in points and point shares, coming in a close second behind Zach Parise in goals. Nashville dumped Fiala because of his lackluster play and imploding backcheck, but as of the Mar. 12 season pause, Fiala had scored more goals (23) than any other player on the Preds' roster. With Granlund having shown only occasional bursts of greatness in gold, it's not even guaranteed the Preds will choose to keep him around after this summer. Fiala signed a two-year contract with Minnesota in September, which will earn him $3 million per year.


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How the Edmonton Oilers, of all teams, manage to have the top two scorers in the entire NHL on their roster alone is kind of baffling. Leon Draisaitl, with 110 points, and Connor McDavid, with 97, are the first tandem of teammates to lead the league in scoring since Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr's 1995-96 reign with Pittsburgh (excluding the abbreviated 2012-13 season). Draisaitl leads the league in assists with 67, and McDavid is tied with the Rangers' Artemi Panarin for second with 63. The pair dominated last season as well, coming in at second and fourth place in league scoring, but weren't getting much support from the rest of the team. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins' total came the closest to Draisaitl... and he was still almost 40 points short. The 2018-19 Oilers finished second-to-last in the Western Conference, missing the playoffs entirely. Player by player, this season wasn't much different- the difference is that they're winning. With Draisaitl and McDavid providing their firepower, Edmonton is just behind Vegas at the top of the Pacific Division. Draisaitl specifically has terrorized the Preds this season; in just three games, he scored eight goals and tallied two assists.


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It isn't very often that the two teams who play for the Stanley Cup one year are able to turn right back around and win their respective conferences the next year; St. Louis and Boston are the first teams to do so since Chicago and Pittsburgh in 1992-93. Given the serendipitous nature of the Blues' rise last season, it is a bit surprising that they've been able to maintain their status as Best in the West. With the Bruins, it's more conceivable. Boston has now posted three-straight 100+ point seasons and stand alone as the only team in 2019-20 to enter three digits in the standings, winning the President's Trophy without much competition.



DISAPPOINTMENTS


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The 2019-20 Devils were poised to be one of the most improved teams by October. Last June, they drafted Jack Hughes first overall on Friday, then acquired defenseman P.K. Subban from Nashville and forward John Hayden from Chicago on Saturday. A week later, they signed free agent Wayne Simmonds to a one-year contract worth $5 million. A few weeks after that, New Jersey traded for Vegas' stealthy forward, Nikita Gusev- adding more depth to an offense that was already beginning to scare the rest of the NHL. Plus, they still had a restless, but optimistic Taylor Hall in a Devils uniform. As of today, in June of 2020, the Devils' plan to sneak into the NHL's competitive ranks has largely collapsed in on itself. Hughes scored only seven goals in 61 games and finished the season with a devastating -26 on-ice rating. Hall was traded to Arizona in December even after recording 25 points in 30 games. The Devils flipped Simmonds to Buffalo at February's trade deadline after notching only 24 points in 61 games. But it's Subban who has, by a wide margin, been the Devils' biggest letdown. An embarrassingly low 18 points and -21 rating is not what New Jersey had in mind for Subban's production when they agreed to pay him $9 million per year for the next eight years. Subban is simply too giant of a cap hit for him to keep that kind of pace; if he doesn't improve, the Devils are in even bigger trouble. For the second season in a row, New Jersey finished last in the Metropolitan Division- even with all the "improvements" they made in the offseason.


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The Sabres would probably like to attest that they are, in fact, more futile than the Devils. Buffalo began the 2019-20 season by going 9-2-1 in their first 12 games, with captain Jack Eichel recording six goals and 10 assists in that time. The Sabres then proceeded to go 2-8-2 in the 12 games immediately after. They were never able to reclaim their October glory for the rest of the season. If you can recall, the Sabres enjoyed a similar success streak in 2018-19 as well. In November of 2018, Buffalo won 10 games in a row... then subsequently lost five straight and never recovered. The Sabres haven't made the playoffs in nine years, and their captain is becoming increasingly fed-up with each lapsing season. Eichel has been vocal about his frustrations with the team for a while now; on Saturday, Eichel once again reiterated them. Eichel was on pace to have the best season of his career in 2019-20, had it not been cut short by COVID-19. In 68 games, Eichel tallied 78 points and a +5 rating (the highest of his career). Right now, however, he's wasting away in Buffalo. Eichel has a no-movement clause built into his $80 million contract that will begin at the start of the 2022-23 season; GM Jason Botterill will need to decide if he wants Eichel to wait it out, or if he's tired of Eichel's attitude towards the team he's charged with leading. On paper, the Sabres have a decent enough roster to be able to make the playoffs, and they'll give you a glimmer of hope each season before plunging into Buffalo-brand mediocrity once more.


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Would you have ever believed that after a 101-point 2018-19, the Sharks would sink to the very bottom of the Pacific Division? San Jose's start to the Joe Pavelski-less 2019-20 season accurately proved to be a death knell for its remainder. The Sharks- who have been consistently projected as Cup winners for the last couple seasons- lost the first four games of this year, won the next three, then went 1-6-1 over the next eight games. San Jose's D-corps had been its show pony until now; they started the season with Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, and Brenden Dillon on the blue line. Vlasic recorded only 15 points in 70 games, Karlsson went down with a broken thumb in February, and Dillon was traded to Washington on Feb. 18. They also lost fan-favorite veteran Patrick Marleau to a trade with Pittsburgh just months after resigning him. Now, every aspect of the Sharks' game is an issue. In 2019-20, they had the fourth-least Goals For in the league (180), fourth-highest Goals Against (225), and the second-worst team save percentage (.895). Their starting goalie, Martin Jones, tied his 2018-19 save percentage for the worst of his career and their backup, Aaron Dell, didn't do much better (.907 SV%, 3.01 GAA).


Credit: NHL.com

The Canadiens' third overall pick in the 2018 draft was sent down to the minors on Feb. 1 after what can best be characterized as a "Sophomore Slump". Jesperi Kotkaniemi came into his second NHL season having recorded 34 points in 79 games with Montreal in his rookie season and a repaired left knee, to boot. Kotkaniemi was sidelined with a concussion on Dec. 5, just as he was struggling to produce in the first place. Before his injury, he'd recorded just three goals and two assists while already being 22 games into the season. Upon his return, Kotkaniemi recorded only two goals between Dec. 29 and Feb. 1. Once Kotkaniemi was sent town to Laval, he played 13 games with one goal and 12 assists... and then he suffered a splenic injury on Mar. 6, ending his sophomore season in an unprecedented fashion.


MET EXPECTATIONS


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If I was making $11.6 million a year, I'd find some way to perform at a monster level, too. Last summer, for the first time in his career, Artemi Panarin finally got to choose for whom he was going to play. Not surprisingly, signed a seven-year contract with the Rangers- making his home in the epicenter of the Western world and playing his hockey in the most famous arena on the planet. And boy, did the Rangers get what they paid for with Panarin. At the end of the 2019-20 regular season, Panarin was tied at 95 points with Boston's David Pastrnak for the third-highest point total in the NHL, and he and Edmonton's Connor McDavid tied at 63 assists for the second-most in the league. Panarin finished just behind Colorado's Ryan Graves for the highest on-ice rating this season, coming in at a whopping +36. Among forwards, Panarin handily leads them in the +/- metric; the next highest-rated forwards are Tampa Bay's Brayden Point and Anthony Cirelli, who are tied at +28. Despite having a Hart Trophy candidate and a 40-goal scorer (Zibanejad) on their hands, a stroke of luck is what got them into the 24-team playoff this year as the 11th seed in the Eastern Conference.


Credit: Fred Chartrand/AP Photo

It should come as no surprise to anyone remotely tuned into NHL happenings that Ottawa and Detroit are still mired in Rebuild Mode- to put it as nicely as possible. The 2019-20 Red Wings are officially the worst Red Wings team ever; with a pathetic 39 points on the season, this year's Detroit team edged out the 1985-86 squad (40 points) for the title of Least Likely to Succeed. No other NHL team even came close to the Red Wings this season- Ottawa's 62 points ranked second-worst in the league. To be clear, that's a 23-point deficit. Ottawa has alternated between being the worst and second-worst team in the NHL for the last three seasons now. For the Senators, however, the light at the end of the tunnel is a little closer than it is for Detroit. Anthony Duclair had the best season of his career since his rookie 2015-16 season in Arizona. Brady Tkachuk was a stud last year and would have had an even better sophomore season had COVID-19 not cut it short. Defenseman Josh Norris is likely to begin his rookie season in 2020-21. On top of that, Ottawa claims not one, but two spots in the upcoming draft lottery (thanks to the 2018 Erik Karlsson trade). This means that, mathematically, the Senators have a 25 percent chance at drafting Alexis LaFreniere first overall as well as another highly-probable whack at a second top pick. As for Detroit, they have an 18.5 percent chance at the first pick of the 2020 NHL Draft, so could just as well wind up being the team that drafts LaFreniere. The Red Wings are still anticipating the breakouts of Joe Veleno, Filip Zadina, and Erik Brannstrom, and are optimistic that Moritz Seider will play in the NHL this coming season after a solid 2019-20 in Grand Rapids.


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Colorado is hot- and hey, why shouldn't they be? Even after enduring the final month of the regular season without Nazem Kadri, Philipp Grubauer, Matt Calvert, and Mikko Rantanen, the Avalanche are in third place leaguewide and locked up one of the 2020 NHL Playoffs' top seeds. Nathan MacKinnon is just stupid good; in 69 games this season, MacKinnon recorded 93 points and a +13 rating, ranking him fifth among all active NHL players. This is the fourth straight season wherein MacKinnon has lead the Avalanche in points- problem is, he's kind of alone on the mountaintop right now. The next highest-scoring Avs player is rookie Cale Makar, who has 50 points on the year. To Colorado's credit, Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog- both of whom typically compete with MacKinnon's offense- have missed significant time this season.

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