For months, the defining moment of 2019 was the St. Louis Blues winning their first Stanley Cup. Especially since everyone is now copying that "promote an interim coach, find the song in your heart and you too can go from worst to first!" thing.
But then Don Cherry and Bill Peters personified the sports' diversity and inclusion problems. Then Mike Babcock, Marc Crawford and Peters (again) symbolized the physical and mental abuse by coaches against players at every level of hockey. And the definitive moment was redefined.
As we turn our attention to 2020, these scandals are still being investigated and scrutinized by the NHL. They will, in some way, help define how the next year in hockey plays out. But there are plenty of others who will add their own definitions.
Here are the people who will matter most in hockey in 2020.
(Note: NHL commissioner Gary Bettman isn't listed here, because he doesn't need to be. He remains the most influential figure in the NHL. He'll always matter most, as everyone except Gary Bettman will tell you.)
The Capitals star entered the holiday break with 681 career goals. Assuming he has 15 more goals in him this season -- a fairly safe assumption, given his durability and average of 0.61 goals per game -- Ovechkin will pass Teemu Selanne (684), Mario Lemieux (690), Steve Yzerman (692) and Mark Messier (694) into eighth on the all-time list. The next milestone is 700 goals, accomplished by seven players in NHL history.
Yet as the assault on Wayne Gretzky's 894 continues, Ovechkin has other Baltic sculpin to fry in 2020: chasing a second Stanley Cup with a Washington team that very much looks like a contender for it. Prepare the public fountains in D.C. thusly.
Since retiring in 2015, Carcillo has been providing needles for the hockey power structure's balloons on a variety of issues, including concussion awareness and mental health of players. His Twitter feed (@CarBombBoom13) became a clearinghouse of news on those topics, as uncomfortable and as alienating as it could feel for him. "It's been difficult to be a man on an island. But I have a really great tool with social media," he said.
In 2019, in the wake of the coaching scandals, Carcillo's role as an abuse survivor and player advocate took on a new urgency. His call for stories of abuse from his peers inspired over 400 players to message him, many of them talking about the sexual abuse they suffered in minor and junior hockey. How he moves forward with this campaign could help define the movement in 2020.
Carcillo is also one of the most vocal skeptics about the NHL's role in fixing these problems. Look no further than his reaction to the league's "coach abuse hotline" that was recently announced.
"Do I think that NHL players will call into a hotline and the NHL's going to listen to their voicemails? Absolutely not. There's always fear of reprisal," he said.
There are certainly times when the volume of Carcillo's work can seem scattershot or overwhelming. But on the big issues, few voices have the legitimacy and the reach of the former NHL brawler.
Davis has been with the NHL since November 2017, when she was hired as the league's executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs. But her role took on new prominence this month, when it was announced that Davis would lead a "multidisciplinary council to suggest initiatives, monitor progress and coordinate efforts with all levels of hockey" in response to the recent coaching behavior controversies, and specifically the racist language used by former Flames coach Bill Peters against Akim Aliu.
"This has just accelerated our timeline and our resolve. There's often some kind of defining moment for an organization that causes that organization to both accelerate its efforts but also to become a rallying call for that organization. So I see that as positive," she said at the NHL board of governors meeting in December.
Davis has been doing great work outside the spotlight in the NHL for the last two years, but this announcement put her front and center on the league's diversity and inclusion challenges. "[It's about] creating an environment where people -- players and people within our sport -- feel a level of trust such that they believe they can now step forward and speak the truth. Speaking truth to power is hard," she said.
Will he get another coaching job in 2020? That greatly depends on Babcock. As Mark Whicker wrote in the OC Register recently, "Mike Babcock's career is long past rewinding. It also might be salvaged if humiliation changes him as profoundly as success did."
Humiliation is an understatement. The stories of mental abuse from his days with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings have sandblasted the gold off his coaching standard. Can anyone look at Babcock and not think of Johan Franzen being driven to a nervous breakdown on the bench? Or Darren McCarty saying the Red Wings "won in '08 in spite of [Babcock] and lost in '09 because of him"?
As Whicker notes, there is a path back for Babcock. One with public mea culpas and behavioral counseling. One with a tacit admission that his tactics were wrong, and that he can change with the times. In other words: the kind of crisis public relations that can provide cover for his next employer should one want to hire him. And, in the process, a potential template for other shamed coaches to use in their comeback attempts.
Of course, the real fascinating thing is when Babcock would want to get back to work, given that he's collecting a reported $22 million-plus from the Leafs through 2023.
Hall is the CEO and founder of SportsMEDIA Technology, the company tasked with making puck and player tracking (finally) a reality for the NHL. SMT became the league's primary partner after it split with Jogmo World Corp. -- which had been developing the data processing side of tracking for a few years -- due to what Bettman called "organizational and financial challenges."
So now it's on Hall's firm to finally crack the code on the technology -- and I'm skeptical of this mixed-use of sensor tracking and optical tracking -- which could revolutionize how we assess players and analyze games. Oh yeah: and how we bet on hockey. That too. The plan is still to have the tech in the 2020 Stanley Cup playoffs with 2020-21 targeted for full implementation.
It may not hit the ice until 2021, but the Seattle expansion team is going to make a lot of news next year. Most notably, we won't have to refer to it as "the Seattle expansion team" after the franchise's nickname and colors are revealed at a fan event after the All-Star break. (Our choices: Sockeyes, if we're sticking to the actual potential names; Sasquatch, if we're being honest.)
Leiweke, the team's CEO, will have enormous input on both. But he's also the guy who hired GM Ron Francis, and then stood by him during the ongoing NHL investigation into physical abuse allegations against Peters when Francis was GM of the Carolina Hurricanes and Peters was the coach.
Barring something unforeseen, Francis will be tasked with hiring the first coach for Seattle -- something that could happen before the end of 2020, depending on the candidates' availability. It's here we'll recycle the speculation on Winnipeg Jets coach Paul Maurice, whom Francis played for and worked above in Carolina, and who is in the last year of his contract -- even though he recently said that he's very happy in the 'Peg.
When we say the words "NHL player agent," the first image that comes to mind isn't likely to be a 35-year-old woman. Which is (a) a shame and (b) about to change in a big way with Castonguay. A member of the ascendant Momentum Hockey agency, she's the agent for presumed 2020 first overall draft pick Alexis Lafreniere, and a trailblazer in a male-dominated industry.
"Knowledge is power," she told USA Today. "And I have that. As soon as I start talking hockey, they realize I know what I'm talking about; the fact I'm a female is forgotten."
Three potential free agents, all of them difference-makers.
After the New Jersey Devils cut ties with him, and as he has given little indication that he sees Arizona as his next long-term NHL home, Hall is expected to become the belle of the free agent ball this summer, following in the courtship footsteps of Artemi Panarin and John Tavares. While maximizing the financial rewards of this once-in-a-career moment is obviously paramount, there's speculation that Hall's desire to play for a true Cup contender might be the ultimate determining factor in his decision.
Meanwhile, Roman Josi's biggest fan currently resides in St. Louis. The Predators defenseman set the market price at $9.059 million annually against the cap, and Pietrangelo goes unrestricted next summer. The Blues aren't flush with cap space, and earlier this season they traded for a young, right-shooting defenseman they immediately extended for seven additional seasons at $6.5 million annually. Now, Pietrangelo is better than Justin Faulk. In theory, the Blues would no doubt like both on their roster. But the game is "get Petro to take a hometown discount," and he might not be playing it.
If Pietrangelo goes to free agency ... well, you can't exactly pop on over to Target to pick up a 24-minutes-per-game, Norris Trophy-contending captain. (Although they do have a few bins of Cody Cecis.) Even though he turns 30 in January, Pietrangelo is the kind of foundational piece teams will covet and rearrange their salary structures to acquire. Thinking of you, Kyle Dubas.
Then there's Holtby. Ilya Samsonov, 22, is clearly the heir to Holtby's crease in Washington as the 30-year-old approaches unrestricted free agency next summer. Remember that Target, with the defensemen? Yeah, you can't get a Vezina- and Stanley Cup-winning goaltender with a career .928 postseason save percentage there, either. Sergei Bobrovsky earned $10 million annually on a seven-year contract last summer, two months before he turned 31. What does Holtby get? Or could the hirsute netminder stick around for a few more years with the Caps?
These are a few of the people who will mold and shape what hockey in 2020 is going to look like. But as always, these things can be unpredictable: Who knew Craig Berube would come to define hockey in 2019? Or, better yet, that Gritty would define 2018?
Well, that's one way to erase the legacy of Brandon Saad with the Columbus Blue Jackets. I'll plead ignorance as to what that patch is. At least until the metal fans email me with what I presume will be the answer.
Three things about World Juniors
1. It has been incredible to watch the popularity of the IIHF World Juniors surge in the past decade here in the U.S. I think it's the result of three different factors: American hockey fans' growing interest in the NHL draft and prospect rankings; American sports fans' obsession with international tournaments and the jingoistic chest-beating that accompanies them; and, on a related note, that the U.S. has gotten really, really good at World Juniors. The Americans have won more gold medals (3) than Canada (2) since 2010, and have medaled in each of the last four tournaments. The Sleeping Giant has stirred.
2. World Juniors is one of my favorite tournaments because the stakes are both incredibly high and hilariously low for American hockey fans, which must frustrate our neighbors to the north like Homer infuriated Frank Grimes. The U.S. wins gold? Awesome. We cheer, we gloat, we rag on Canada. The U.S. fails to win gold, and/or finishes behind Canada? Who cares!? It's junior hockey. We don't know our Kelowna from our Kamloops! None of this really matters! It's not the Olympics!
The beauty of this dichotomy are the reactions when Canada comes up short in World Juniors, and there are three instant reactions:
"Our best players are playing in the NHL." Well, our best players never picked up a stick because they were recruited to play football and basketball instead.
"Everybody needs to stop taking this so seriously, they're just kids." You typically hear this after several weeks of the Canadian media covering the team like it's the 1985 Oilers.
"We need to figure out what's gone wrong here, because our gold medal is in the possession of someone else." This is the part where Canadians start holding national symposiums on junior hockey goaltending pipelines. It's glorious.
So, in essence, win or lose, the U.S. wins.
3. Finally, on another World Juniors note, this was a bummer of a tweet from Kristen Whelan:
I'm so glad that whilst World Juniors and the Spengler Cup are on every TSN, we get the great privilege of watching U18 Women's Worlds online through a glorified doorbell cam pic.twitter.com/lSS4paqvt8— Kirsten Whelan (@kmtwhelan) December 26, 2019
There are apparently minimum standards for streaming, but the IIHF apparently felt the standard for the women's under-18 tournament was, "Hey, at least it's pointed towards the ice." Embarrassing.
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We recently had a chance to chat with Rob Paulsen, a Red Wings superfan who's one of the most accomplished voice actors in the business. He's the man who gave us Raphael from the Ninja Turtles and Pinky from "Pinky and the Brain." Listen here.
Winners and Losers of the Week
There was a time when it felt like the world just stopped around Christmas. Stores shuttered, streets were empty, and everyone took a breath for a day. Now, supermarkets are open at 6 a.m. on Dec. 25. The NHL taking a holiday break could be seen as the league leaving money on the table -- look at the frenzy surrounding NBA games on Christmas, for example -- but I think it's a quaint break for athletes who play an absolutely grueling season.
Loser: Lias Andersson
Andersson would say he didn't get the breaks with the New York Rangers, which is why he requested a trade from the organization last weekend. The No. 7 overall pick in 2017 has loads of talent and considerable swagger. But as Vincent Mercogliano noted, Andersson may have also had an unfortunate sense of entitlement.
Winner: P.K. Subban
Subban successfully proposed to Lindsey Vonn in August -- and Vonn flipped the script and proposed to Subban on Christmas. "Men deserve engagement rings too and this is what P.K. deserves," she said.
Loser: Anthony Beauvillier
The Islanders forward has a 14.5 shooting percentage this season, but we're assuming that doesn't include the shot he took in tweeting actress Anna Kendrick on Christmas Day -- no doubt after watching the new Disney+ original "Noelle." As of Thursday night, the "Pitch Perfect" star had yet to respond, despite the fact that outlets like the New York Post and Buzzfeed have picked up on the pickup attempt. So, perhaps a tentative "loser" here.
Winner: Sheldon Keefe
The Toronto Maple Leafs are playing at a 120-point pace under their new head coach. I'd like to think it's because they're generally relieved to be out from under Babcock's thumb. But it's probably because they're 16-7-4 with a healthy Mitch Marner in the lineup.
Loser: California coaches
Dallas Eakins' Anaheim Ducks, Bob Boughner's San Jose Sharks and Todd McLellan's Los Angeles Kings reached the holiday break tied for last place in the Western Conference, at 34 points. The last time all three Golden State franchises missed the playoffs was 1995-96.
As bold moves go, ranking the leading scorer of the decade at No. 15 and behind two teammates is right up there.
Interesting takes from Hemal Jhaveri on the Jeremy Roenick suspension.
Chicago Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook will undergo surgery on his right shoulder Friday and on both hips in early 2020, the right side in early January and the left side in early February. He'll turn 35 in April and has four years left on his contract after this season. What a completely unprecedented turn of events this would be if a veteran player with a regrettable and immovable contract was suddenly stashed on long-term injured reserve in perpetuity to remove that hit from a team's cap? Again, something we've never seen before, folks.
The NBA has sent a proposal to teams calling for a 78-game regular season, along with an in-season tournament for all teams and a reseeding of the playoffs when the field is cut to the final four clubs. Something to watch when it comes to the NHL, especially that reseeding bit.
A man's life was saved after he suffered a heart attack while playing hockey.
The drive to get Paul Henderson into the Hockey Hall of Fame remains an epic example of Canadian delusion.
Hockey tl;dr (too long; didn't read)
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