The Top Feel-Good Storylines of the 2013-14 NHL Season
There are great storylines to follow every NHL season. Some of them even the most cynical hockey fans can't deny tugs at their inner child's heartstrings a little.
Whether it was watching New York Islanders winger Kyle Okposo welcome his first baby into the world on the NBC show NHL Revealed during a dominant breakout season, or seeing some of the league's backup goaltenders thrive when thrust into the spotlight, or an irresistible urge to tune into every outdoor game thus far, the league is in good shape heading into the Olympic break.
Some compelling stories have played out over the first two-thirds of the season. Here's my offering of the 10 best so far.
10. The Colorado Avalanche About-Face
Few, if any, prognosticators thought the Colorado Avalanche would even be a threat to make the playoffs this season after a disastrous one a year ago saw them finish with just 39 points—better only than the lowly Florida Panthers.
But the Avs are on track to finish as a top-10 NHL club thanks to a new attitude brought on by rookie head coach Patrick Roy. He has the collection of talented offensive weapons and unheralded defenders playing great hockey more often than not. He has a goaltender who is not letting an off-ice legal issue become a distraction—a situation that could easily have derailed another player's season, especially one who plays a position that requires more mental fortitude than most.
They're also overcoming an awkward contract situation with Ryan O'Reilly, who was signed to an offer sheet last season when the Avs played hardball with the restricted free agent in waiting.
The surprise started with a stellar October, when a pair of six-game winning streaks gave their fans early hope of a miraculous turnaround. Others wondered when the wheels would fall off. It hasn't happened, and the Avs are proving to be a legitimate threat on a nightly basis.
Even if you have always considered Roy to be arrogant, it's tough to hate on what the Avs have accomplished so far this season. He has his players listening to every word and willing to go through a brick wall for him, making him a clear favorite for Coach of the Year.
9. Jaromir Jagr: The 40-Year-Old Version
His point-per-game days are a decade in the rearview mirror, but 41-year-old Jaromir Jagr is winning over a whole new generation of hockey fans with his play this season. He joined the New Jersey Devils to fill in for the departed Ilya Kovalchuk, who decided to split for Russia while still in the prime of his NHL career.
Jagr did the same thing previously, leaving the greatest league in the world for the green (at least when it comes to dollars) pastures of the KHL, but he came back somewhat a shadow of his former self four seasons later. After bouncing from the Philadelphia Flyers, to the Dallas Stars, to the Boston Bruins, Jagr has found a nice fit in Jersey.
His return to the league and 60-point-plus pace has allowed him to pass former Pittsburgh Penguins teammate Mario Lemieux for sole possession of 10th on the all-time assists list, not long after overtaking Mark Messier for seventh on the all-time goal list.
8. Tyler Seguin's Image Makeover
From first-round stud to off-ice dud with the Boston Bruins, Tyler Seguin is the center of attention with the Dallas Stars now—but in a good way this time.
The 21-year-old prospect is a point-per-game player with a young and talented Stars forward group that includes Jamie Benn and rookie Valeri Nichushkin. The three of them have formed a deadly line for much of the season. Instead of playing the wing, where the Bruins felt he was going to have to learn to play because of the difficulties young centers often have defensively, the Stars have him in his natural position. The payoff has been huge.
Barring injury, Seguin looks as if he will surpass the career totals he set in his sophomore season with ease. He has the potential to be a 30-goal guy, which is a great quality for a center to have.
More importantly, you haven't heard any concerns from Stars management about Seguin's off-ice behaviour after he fell out of favor with the Bruins because of his alleged lack of professionalism.
He's a great story for those who enjoy tales of redemption. And his story will continue for many, many years.
7. Ben Bishop Shoulders the Load
When Steven Stamkos went down with a badly broken leg in November, most assumed the Tampa Bay Lightning's chances of making the playoffs went down with their young star.
Not with Ben Bishop between the pipes. The towering goaltender, who fills a lot of net with his 6'7" frame, has helped the Lightning weather that devastating injury by virtue of his consistency. He leads the NHL in wins and save percentage, despite the pressure of it being his first season as a starter in the league.
Somehow, he was left off the U.S. Olympic Team roster, which only makes it more fun to root for Bishop as part of his underdog story.
He was the "extra man" in the Ottawa Senators goalie rotation before being shipped to the Bolts for Cory Conacher and a fourth-round draft pick at last year's trade deadline. He has thrived ever since.
Bishop allows the guys in front of him to play a confident game, knowing their backstop is reliable behind them, and his performance so far has him in the Vezina Trophy conversation as the league's most impressive goalie.
6. A Rookie Uprising
One of the highlights of the early season was rookie San Jose Sharks sniper Tomas Hertl's four-goal performance against the New York Rangers—the one that he capped off with a sick between-the-legs move that had the hockey world debating whether it was appropriate or showboating.
A serious knee injury has him out of action, but there are plenty of other freshmen impressing this season.
The Colorado Avalanche's first overall pick, Nathan MacKinnon, leads the rookies in scoring with 35 points through 52 games as an 18-year-old, and Tampa Bay Lightning Calder candidates Tyler Johnson and Ondrej Palat are picking up slack for a team missing its top scorer in Stamkos.
Forwards Chris Kreider (New York Rangers) and Mark Scheifele (Winnipeg Jets) have finally become integral pieces of their squads, and defenseman Torey Krug is already a two-way threat for the Boston Bruins in his first season.
Calgary Flames 19-year-old Sean Monahan has 14 goals and 21 points in 46 games and looks like a big piece of that rebuilding franchise's future.
It's a young man's league, and that may never have been more obvious than now.
5. So Far So Good for Sidney
Nobody wants to see the best player in the game not playing the game because of injury.
That has happened too often over the past few years with Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who has battled multiple concussions and a broken jaw among the many bumps and bruises so many NHLers play through on a daily basis.
This year, he has avoided serious injury and has responded with an amazing 74 points in 53 games. Fans can't help but be glued to him when he's on the ice.
He'll captain Team Canada at the Sochi Olympics and is so far a stellar candidate for the Hart Trophy.
4. Alex Ovechkin Seeking 60
For most players, totals of 32 and 38 goals would be considered career years. For Alex Ovechkin, they were awful seasons, and only now is he considered truly back on top of his game following those "disappointing" 2010-11 and 2011-12 campaigns.
He's on fire now, with 38 goals through 49 games, and is chasing that elusive 60-goal plateau he hasn't reached since his third season.
It's something to root for, because it doesn't happen often in today's NHL with goaltenders among the best athletes out there armed with all kinds of technical knowledge and scouting reports.
For Ovechkin, it's an even more special year because the Olympics are back home in Russia. It may be no coincidence he's back to the elite level he showed over his first few years in the league.
3. The Return of Paul Maurice
Paul Maurice has long been considered one of the smartest coaches in hockey.
The youngest head coach ever to win 1,000 NHL games, Maurice is back in with the Winnipeg Jets after a layoff of more than two years, and he has his new team off to a great start under his tutelage.
They've gone 6-2 over his first eight games, showing resilience even when down in games and the ability to win in overtime. The Jets are embracing an underdog attitude, and it's been paying off with points since former coach Claude Noel was fired on Jan. 12.
Winners of their first six games under Maurice, the Jets look capable of climbing the standings rather quickly.
2. Josh Harding's Healthy Start
If Josh Harding was healthy and playing right now, he'd have been the top story of the season.
As it stands, his start to the year was still enough to have him come in as the runner-up. And it's more than just the fact he plays one of the hardest positions in professional sports with a debilitating disease in multiple sclerosis.
MS can cause blurred vision and affect balance and co-ordination—three of the most important traits of an NHL goalie. But Harding doesn't talk about his illness. He lets his work on the ice tell the story.
And before a bit of a setback over the holidays, it was a pretty phenomenal tale of perseverance and success against all odds. He already won the Masterton last year for sticking with the game. This year, he was on track for Jennings, and maybe even Vezina chatter thanks to a 1.68 goals-against average, .933 save percentage and record of 18-7-3.
He's on injured reserve at the moment, but the team hopes he can get his health back on the right track during the Olympic break and come back as the starting goaltender.
1. Alex Steen's Surprise Season of Snipe
Like Harding, Alex Steen was off to a rip-roaring start before injury got him off track.
But Steen has returned from a concussion and picked up right where he left off—as one of the league's best goal scorers.
Now dealing with a toe fracture, Steen shows no signs of lingering concussion symptoms and clearly hasn't lost his offensive touch. The St. Louis Blues sniper has scored three times in his past four games, and he put up seven points in his first six games back in January after sitting out for 11 with the head injury.
What makes this season remarkable is he's scoring at an Ovechkin/Stamkos level and doesn't exactly have a history of lighting the league on fire.
The 29-year-old has been very consistent as a Blues winger since coming over from the Toronto Maple Leafs in his fifth NHL season. He has twice been a 20-goal scorer but is already at a career-high 27 this season—and counting.
Some feel he's not even back at his best yet.