Thursday, April 9, 2015

Handing out some regular season awards

The NHL regular season ends Saturday, but come Monday morning everyone will be busy obsessing over playoff matchups, and the 82 games we just spent weeding out 14 teams will be forgotten. So rather than waiting until then, we’ll do our year-end wrap-up a few days early. I mean, how much can really change in just 60 hours?

Let’s take a look back on the 2014-15 season by handing out a dozen made-up awards to the players and teams that made it memorable.

Biggest Season-Long Theme: Goaltending Is Voodoo

Andy Marlin/NHLI/Getty Images

Considering how often a goaltender can single-handedly decide the outcome of a game or a series or even a whole season, it might be the most important position in hockey. However, that poses a bit of a problem, because we do not understand how it works. Like, at all.

Look at this season’s top stories: You have Andrew Hammond in Ottawa, which was all kinds of fun but made no sense on any level. Just one year ago, Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk was considered so awful that the goalie graveyard that is the Edmonton Oilers gave him away to the Predators, who gave him away to the Canadiens, who then assigned him to the AHL even though their other goalies were hurt. Today, he may be the league’s most important player.

We also had Rangers backup Cam Talbot, an undrafted free agent who had to replace injured All-Star Henrik Lundqvist and ended up outplaying him. In Winnipeg, a veteran with one of the league’s worst résumés and a rookie backup with three career games have combined to become unbeatable. The Sabres traded all of their goalies and acquired a guy in Anders Lindback who may well have been the worst in the entire league, and he’s playing so well he might single-handedly ruin their season-long tanking master plan. The Blues have an All-Star as their starter but thought it would be a good idea to sign the ghost of Martin Brodeur. The Stars had one of the most established guys in the league, and he was awful and ruined their season. Jimmy Howard is losing his job to a former 141st overall pick. Also, the Oilers now have a guy named Tyler Bunz, which is neither here nor there, but I still wanted to mention it.

None of this makes any sense, and yet we’ll do what we always do with goaltending: Wait until the season is over, look back at the random chaos that just went down, and pretend we saw any of it coming. Of course, we didn’t, just like we almost never do. How could we? Goaltending is voodoo.

It’s also going to dominate these awards. Sorry for the spoiler, but you had probably already figured that out.

Best Feel-Good Story: The Hamburglar

There’s no better proof of the “goaltending is voodoo” theory than Hammond, a 27-year-old rookie with lousy minor league numbers who gets called up as a we-have-no-other-choice emergency injury replacement and then goes on a history-making hot streak. Next thing you know, fans are throwing hamburgers on the ice and the Senators are making a miracle playoff run that could still see them steal a wild-card spot.

On Tuesday, Hammond was shelled for three goals in the first period of a must-win game against the Penguins. Then he stood tall the rest of the way as Ottawa roared back from down 3-0, earning a 4-3 win in overtime to keep their playoff hopes alive. It was a miracle, but Hammond didn’t seem all that fazed since pretty much every game he’s played this year has been a miracle. After the game, he was asked about the last time he enjoyed hockey as much as right now. “I don’t know if there’s another time in my life,” Hammond said. “It’s the NHL. It’s what I’ve always dreamed about playing.”

Does Hammond’s story make any sense? Not really. Can it last? Probably not. While it’s possible he’ll turn out to be the next Dominik Hasek or Tim Thomas, showing up late before kicking off a lengthy career as a top-tier guy, it’s much more likely he’s the next Jim Carey or Steve Penney. For now, though, that doesn’t matter. Andrew Hammond is making all of us feel like we could be NHL goalies, too.

Best Trade: Dubnyk to Minnesota

This one’s as easy as they come, so let’s up the odds a bit: Where does the Dubnyk trade rank among the best ever?

Remember, when the deal went down on January 14, the Wild were in 12th place in the West, eight points out of the playoffs, and riding a six-game losing streak. Their about-to-be-fired coach was losing his mind. Essentially, they were done. And then Dubnyk shows up, they win their first game 7-0, and they basically turn into the 1977 Canadiens.

Granted, that’s not all Dubnyk, but he’s started every game since the trade, and he’s been consistently fantastic. The Wild are headed to the playoffs as a wild card, and they’ll be just about everyone’s sneaky dark-horse pick to go on a deep run. If that happens, the Dubnyk deal really will have to go into the discussion for the great trades of all time. Not bad value for giving up only a third-round pick.

>> Read the full post on Grantland

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