It’s almost the end of the calendar year 2016, which really means absolutely nothing in relation to the 2016-17 NHL calendar. But, if you really want to get technical — or philosophical, or whatever — a ‘year’ is really just an arbitrary man-made metric we use to keep time that has no real value or meaning outside of our own little world anyway.
So even though it’s not the official midway point of the season, and the NHL year has yet to reach any significant milestone (50 games, All-Star break, ETC…), let’s use the New Year as an excuse to do what us humans do best this time of year: recap things and rank them subjectively.
Here’s a look back at the early stages of the 2016-17 season and some of the biggest surprises from the early stages of the season.
1. Columbus Blue Jackets’ Success
Last season, the Columbus Blue Jackets were an Eastern Conference punchline. Their coach was a blowhard who couldn’t get results, their stars we underachievers at best and uninspired at worse, and the whole organization was staring a potential rebuild in the face after finishing second to last in the conference.
What a difference a year makes.
Now, the Blue Jackets are running roughshod through the NHL and have the fewest losses of any team in the league. Trading budding, but oft-frustrating superstar Ryan Johansen for burgeoning defenseman Seth Jones appears to have stabilized the Jackets’ blue line, which was a major point of emphasis for the club after they allowed 252 goals against last season (second most in the NHL behind only the Calgary Flames).
Perhaps even more surprisingly, John Tortorella, a man known for being anything but a players’ coach who wore out his welcome in Vancouver with rapid precision, has connected with this young Columbus team and has gotten them to buy in.
There’s no denying Tortorella’s acumen as a hockey coach — especially considering he just reached the 500-win plateau and is one of the best American coaches of all time — but there was some doubt about whether his brash style could work in today’s game.
Clearly it can, and as a result the Blue Jackets are thriving and have clearly been the biggest surprise of the young 2016-17 season.
2. Florida Panthers Fire Gerard Gallant/New York Islanders’ Failures
Two teams in the Eastern Conference that many had poised to take a big leap forward in their development in 2016-17 were the Islanders and the Panthers. Both teams made the playoffs last year with relative ease and competed against each other in a thrilling first round series that was seemingly a glimpse of the future for these two young and talented squads.
Now, we’re on the cusp of 2017, and both teams are on the cusp of having a different head coach from the one they had during that playoff series back in April. Gerard Gallant has already been shown the door in Florida and Jack Capuano is one more three-game losing streak away from getting the boot as well.
The Islanders, due to free agency, were forced to shuffle around some key pieces and losing glue guys like Matt Martin and Kyle Okposo have clearly hurt the team’s chemistry, while injuries in Florida had a similar effect.
Even though Florida has seemingly righted the ship, they have a long way to go before they’ve proved that they’re ready to seriously compete in a stacked Eastern Conference in 2017.
3. Devan Dubnyk’s Re-Resurgence
Everyone’s focused on the wall that Donald Trump wants to build along the United States’ southern border with Mexico, but what’s gone under the radar is the wall that’s already in existence along our northern border that’s been as impenetrable as any wall around.
This wall, otherwise known as journeyman Minnesota Wild goaltender Devan Dubnyk, has been unstoppable in the early stage of the 2016-17 season and leads the league in pretty much every meaningful statistical category for goaltenders.
Dubnyk has been the biggest reason for the Wild’s success this year and if he can continue to be even a shell of the goalie he’s been through the first portion of the year the rest of the way, the Wild can do some damage in the Western Conference this year.
4. Sidney Crosby Somehow Getting Better
Love him or loathe him, Crosby — the best player in the world for the last decade — is arguably having his most impressive start to a season since he joined the league in 2005 as a teenager. He’s on pace for a 100-point season and is on pace to net over 60 goals if he keeps up his current scoring pace.
But even more impressive has been Crosby’s transformation into a leader and his evolution into being one of the better two-way centers in the game.
And, it bears mentioning, he’s still only 29 years old. We’re witnessing a once-in-a-lifetime player, who continue to grow his tools and transform into a better player year in and year out. It’s impressive stuff.
5. Viva Las Vegas
It’s happening. When the 2017-18 season gets underway roughly nine months from now the puck will be dropping in Las Vegas, making the NHL the first major professional sports league to infiltrate Sin City.
I’m still shocked that this is reality and that the NHL actually made this happen. The results are going to be interesting, to say the least. Las Vegas is obviously one of the tourism capitals of the United States and in theory this makes Vegas an even more attractive destination for NHL fans looking to catch their team in a place where they can have a good time.
But can hockey carve out a niche in the desert and attract a loyal local fan base?