The NHL in 2012: A Year in Review

Tavares

This year has been a turbulent one for the NHL (and in turn, fantasy hockey). The 2011-12 regular season saw some fantastic performances from the likes of Henrik LundqvistEvgeni Malkin, and Erik Karlsson. The playoffs saw the Los Angeles Kings completely dominate the competition en route to capturing their first Stanley Cup in franchise history. However, all of the positive momentum generated by the game has been snuffed out by the most ridiculous and unnecessary work stoppage in the history of professional sports.

What have been the 10 biggest hockey stories from the past calendar year? I’ll shift the focus a bit to the world of fantasy hockey, since, you know, this is a fantasy hockey site and everything.

The NHL had done a great job of rebuilding its brand after the 2004-05 lockout. NHL COO John Collins worked hard to develop a relationship with HBO, and the 24/7 Winter Classic series was hockey’s way of tapping into a brand new market. A new wave of talent around the league emerged as the future of the league – Claude Giroux and John Tavares looked poised to join Steven Stamkos, Malkin, and Sidney Crosby at the top.

And speaking of Crosby, he appeared to have finally emerged healthy after a lengthy battle with head and neck injuries. I will do my best to include lockout discussion only where it is absolutely necessary – I know at this point all hockey fans are so sick of the dreaded “l” word.

10. Claude Giroux’s arrival

There was a lot of pressure on Giroux this past season in Philadelphia. The Flyers decided in the summer of 2011 to jettison Jeff Carter and Mike Richards out of town, and that meant Giroux was the club’s new top line center and face of the franchise. He embraced the pressure, and was one of the best NHL players from start to finish. Giroux is the classic example of a player being more than the sum of his parts.

He was a prolific scorer in junior, but many thought he was too slow or too small to dominate at the NHL level (he slipped into the bottom third of the 2006 1st round). What Giroux lacks in straight-away speed or strength he makes up for in skill, vision, creativity, and hockey sense. Giroux has the “it” factor that I talk about from time to time. He simply “gets” the game of hockey. He knows how to lead, how to best use his teammates, when to shoot, when to pass, and where to be on the ice.

He isn’t as physically imposing as Ovechkin. He isn’t as powerful as Crosby. And he isn’t as elegant as Malkin. But he is just as effective as any of them.

Don’t wear out the repeat button:

I will always have a soft spot for Giroux because I saw his dominance coming before he was a household name. I have had my fair share of misses, too (and the evidence is in the 500+ daily ramblings I have written), but I knew there was something special with Giroux after seeing him at the end of his QMJHL career. It did surprise me how quickly he adapted to the NHL game, though.

Oh, and Giroux also has the best contract in hockey.

9. King Henrik’s reign

Lundqvist became the first goaltender in NHL history to record at least 30 wins in his first seven seasons in the league. An argument could be made for him to win the Hart Trophy every single season – he is the backbone of a very good club in the Big Apple, and the Rangers are able to play their system because they have so much confidence in Lundqvist.

At the age of 30, Lundqvist still has many more years in him. He made his NHL debut after the last NHL lockout – what will he do for an encore this time around?

In a time when NHL goaltenders seem to fluctuate performance-wise from season to season (Andrew Raycroft, Ilya Bryzgalov, Ryan Miller, the list goes on and on), Lundqvist’s consistent elite play allows him to stand alone as the best goaltender in the NHL.

8. Detroit’s 23 consecutive home wins/Lidstrom’s farewell

The Red Wings have been the NHL organization that all the others aspire to be like for the past 15 years. Regardless of who wears the winged wheel, Detroit finds a way to win year after year. A large part of that continued success has been thanks to the consistently dominant play of Nick Lidstrom, who laced up his skates in the NHL for the final time this past season.

Detroit lost in the first round to the Nashville Predators this year, but their season will be best remembered for their NHL record 23 consecutive home wins. In an age of parity across the NHL, 23 straight wins is a ridiculous total. It took a heroic performance from Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo for the streak to finally get snapped. It is very likely that the Red Wings stumble a bit without Lidstrom to lean on for 20-25 minutes each night. But he made sure to leave on his terms, which is important for pro athletes.

7. The Justin Schultz saga

The Edmonton Oilers have struggled mightily over the past three seasons – that is news to no one. They have received the 1st overall pick in three straight years, but their best fortunes may have come in early July when prized free agent defenseman Justin Schultz opted to sign with Edmonton over the likes of Vancouver, Toronto, and Philadelphia. Schultz currently leads the AHL in scoring (as a rookie defenseman no less), and he has the talent and upside to develop into one of the best defensemen in the game.

The best part of Schultz’s performance is that he has had to live up to so much hype and pressure. He was billed as the third best free agent available after Parise and Suter by many in the media. He had NHL teams basically crawling over themselves to sign him. Going to Edmonton was a great decision for Schultz – he’ll get more ice time than he would have elsewhere, and that will lead to more goals and assists (and a bigger contract in two years from now).

That isn’t trying to take away from Nail Yakupov’s potential impact (of the four young star forwards in Edmonton, Yakupov may have the highest upside). But the Oilers weren’t going to go anywhere without a capable puck moving defenseman. I have made the point before – a team with a strong forward group and no defensemen who can pass the puck is like buying a Lamborghini or Ferrari and then putting the cheapest possible fuel in it.

Schultz’s NHL impact is going to immediate. His adjustment to pro hockey has been impressive (to say the least), and the AHL is a very strong league right now. Schultz is generating headlines on the ice for the right reasons.

Schultz ranked as #1 on my top 10 keeper league defensemen list back in July, and he has only tightened his stranglehold on that position with his play in Oklahoma City.

6. Evgeni Malkin’s continued dominance

No Crosby, no problem. Malkin continued to terrorize opposing defenders and goaltenders with his skill and ability to do so many things with the puck on his stick. He found chemistry with James Neal on his wing, and the two combined to form the NHL’s most lethal scoring punch. Malkin and Neal finished first and second in shots on goal in the league – the first time that teammates have placed one and two in that category since Brendan Shanahan and Brett Hull did it with the Blues in 1993-94.

5. Sidney Crosby is back… again

Sidney Crosby’s road to recovery dominated headlines for both 2011 and 2012. He first returned to the Pittsburgh lineup against the New York Islanders on November 21st of last year, and he had an immediate impact with four points that night. However, his first return didn’t last long, and he was sidelined after a David Krejci elbow to the head. Crosby didn’t return again until March of 2012.

He suited up for only 22 games this past season, but he managed to record 37 points in that short time. The Penguins, confident in his health, gave him a 12 year, $104.4 million contract extension this past summer. At an $8.7 million cap hit, Sid the Kid will be an absolute bargain for the duration of his career (assuming he can stay healthy).

Crosby has the ability to dominate in so many ways, and that translates over to fantasy hockey pools. He scores goals if Pittsburgh needs him to. He passes the puck better than any other player in the league; outside of perhaps Datsyuk and Henrik Sedin (it is debatable). He plays with a tenacity and an edge that earns him penalty minutes (Pittsburgh may not always like them, but poolies do). He is defensively responsible and a very prolific five-on-five offensive player, which leads to great plus/minus numbers. Simply put, Crosby does it all in real life, and in fantasy hockey, too. He is the main reason why I am so excited about my chances of winning my keeper pool in the near future (my team, the Crosby Show, has been on hiatus for the better part of two years thanks to his injury).

4. The addition of hits as a fantasy hockey statistic

Finding relevant statistics to use in fantasy sports isn’t always easy. Baseball lends itself to the use of many statistics thanks to the nature of the sport, and the same could be said for football (different positions require very different statistics) and basketball (a steal is a steal, a rebound is a rebound, and a block is a block). However, in the hockey world, many statistics aren’t as accurately measured. One of those statistics is hits. Statisticians from rink to rink around the NHL seem to have different definitions for what constitutes a hit. For example, the New York Ranger players generally receive the benefit of the doubt when it comes to hits with home games.

Some poolies feel that having a statistic that isn’t measured precisely across the league takes away from the integrity of fantasy hockey. I, however, disagree. There are many reasons why I like the inclusion of hits in fantasy hockey, and I have seen more and more leagues hop on board over the past year:

Unlike PIM, hits are generally viewed as a “positive” statistic. Meaning that a hit usually contributes positively to a team, whereas a penalty often has the opposite effect. Now there aren’t studies that show a direct correlation between hits and team success, but at least it is tracking something that players and teams reward.

And two, tracking hits allows for a wider variety of players to have fantasy value. Suddenly players like Luke Schenn and Brooks Orpik have value in fantasy hockey pools. And many leagues are also starting to record block shots, which places even more of a premium on these gritty defensemen.

Hopefully the NHL and its statisticians can establish a more uniform way of recording hits. It won’t be perfect, since hockey is such a fast-paced sport, but it can be improved upon.

3. The Kings run wild on the rest of the NHL 

To many hockey fans, the LA Kings emerged out of nowhere before embarking on a dominant Stanley Cup run. However, they started to show signs of being a dominant team as early as January. After changing coaches and acquiring Jeff Carter, the Kings started to find the back of the net with some consistency. They received elite goaltending from Jonathan Quick all season, but they provided him almost no goal support for the first few months.

The Kings were a dominant even strength team, and since NHL referees often swallow their whistles during the playoffs, these teams tend to perform very well in the postseason (Boston and Vancouver were both great even strength teams in 2010-11). The Kings had all of the ingredients necessary for a Cup victory – great goaltending, mobile and tough defensemen, deep and talented forwards, and impressive depth up the middle (led, of course, by Anze Kopitar, who made easy work of the top centers in the Western Conference).

The Kings also benefitted from several cap friendly contracts. Quick signed a massive extension in the offseason, and Brown will be due for a raise in the near future, as well. However, hats off to GM Dean Lombardi for rebuilding his team the right way, and striking while the iron was hot with a pair of bold transactions (acquiring Carter and Mike Richards).

2. The concussion epidemic

It isn’t unique to hockey, and the issue of concussions in sports is only going to become increasingly serious. Even as we find out more and more about concussions,  the world’s top doctors still don’t have a great grasp on concussions – what causes them, how to recover from them, and what the long term ramifications are. We saw some of the scary results in the autopsy of Derek Boogaard – his brain was damaged to the extent that had he lived, he would have had full-blown dementia by the time he was 40 or 50 years old.

Until these pro sports leagues start taking concussions seriously (I fear it is going to take a death for that to happen), players are going to continue to play through headaches and bumps and bruises. Awareness is an important first step, but it is just that – the first step.

My recommendations include more transparency and consistency in the punishment process.

1. The lockout

The lockout sucks. Many people have lost their jobs because of it. DobberHockey has been hit hard. Jarome Iginla has lost a combined $14 million thanks to the past two lockouts (and probably 60-80 goals, as well). This lockout, unlike the last one, appears to be driven by ego, greed, and selfishness. The last lockout was a necessity to fix a broken system. And while the current system in the NHL isn’t perfect, the two sides should have figured this thing out a long time ago. Gary Bettman and Don Fehr are both master negotiators, but there are no winners in this battle. The players lost. The league lost. The fans and people employed by hockey lost the most of all. The casual fans are gone. The passionate fans were angry, but now they are apathetic. And the only thing worse than an angry fan is one who doesn’t care at all.

In addition to my regular job as a personal trainer (which I left a few months ago), I started my own sports/fitness blog, AngusCertified. I have enjoyed putting a lot of sweat equity into DobberHockey and watching it grow. The lockout has hurt our business significantly, but that is an unfortunate cost of doing business in an industry which locks out its employees every seven or eight years. That being said, I am confident that this site will once again rise to the top with our incredibly strong team of writers and unrivalled community full of passionate and knowledgeable hockey fans.

My sports writing journey started at DobberHockey way back in 2006, and it has continued to develop over the years. I love sports and I have grown to love writing, too, so the marriage of the two is only natural. Here are some of my favorite pieces from the past year:

2011-12 Prime Cuts (the fourth annual version)

Top 10 Keeper League Lists for 2012:

Using Advanced Stats in Fantasy Hockey

The Top 50 NHL Trade Values