SUNDAY I LISTED THE 5 NHL TEAMS I THOUGHT WERE THE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENTS LAST SEASON. TODAY I THOUGHT I’D SHARE THE 5 I THOUGHT WERE THE MOST SURPRISING
5. NEW JERSEY DEVILS
After bleeding high profile free agents the past few seasons (Zach Parise in 2012, David Clarkson last summer) and the “retirement” of Ilya Kovalchuk, no one outside of the most optimistic Devils fan thought New Jersey had a shot at the post season. Most observers, myself included, thought the Devils would have been in the running for the first overall selection in last June’s entry draft if the NHL hadn’t stripped them of their first round pick for trying to circumvent the salary cap with, you guessed it, Ilya Kovalchuck’s contract (the NHL would ease the penalty, awarding New Jersey the 30th overall selection). But while New Jersey was never really in the playoff conversation last season, they were never out of it either, finishing 10th in the Eastern conference and surprisingly only missing the post season dance by five lonely little points. In fact, GM Lou Lamoriello was able to leverage last season’s surprising success to convince Jaromir Jagr to return for another season, lock up their current top blue liner Mike Greene for another four years and lure Mike Cammilleri away from the Calgary Flames as a free agent. Not bad for a team a lot of people wrote off last summer.
4. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
While I didn’t think the Bolts would finish as low as they did in 2013 (finishing higher then only Florida in the East and drafting third overall), I didn’t think they were playoff material either, especially after they bought out Vincent Lecavalier, the former face of the franchise. But Tampa Bay started the season by winning games. A lot of games. When Steve Stamkos broke his leg in November, sidelining him for three months and costing him a spot on Canada’s Olympic team, most people wrote them off. But they kept winning. Just after the Olympics, when long time sniper and future Hall of Famer Martin St.-Louis demanded a trade because he felt snubbed by Tampa Bay GM Steve Yzerman for initially being left off Canada’s Olympic roster (Stevie Y wasted little time tapping St.-Louis to replace the injured Stamkos), many observers felt that would disrupt Tampa’s chemistry more then enough to crash their season. But they kept winning (and managed to get an excellent return for the disgruntled St.-Louis). Buoyed by a Vezina caliber season from goalie Ben Bishop and carried by a collection of young forwards that Yzerman had quietly assembled, the Lightning soared from second last in the East in 2013 to the top of their division in only a single season.
3. COLORADO AVALANCHE
Like the Lightning, I didn’t think Colorado was going to do as poorly in 2014 as they did in 2013, when they finished dead last in the West and owned the second worst record in the league. But I hardly expected them to go from the basement to the top of their division (arguably the toughest in the NHL) either. But rookie coach Patrick Roy coaxed an outstanding season from goalie Semyon Varlamov and guided a dynamic collection of young forwards to the Pacific Division title, bringing respectability back to a once mighty franchise that had fallen on desperate times in recent years. Varlamov was nominated for the Vezina as the NHL’s top goalie, 2013 first overall pick Nathan MacKinnon won the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year, Matt Duchesne enjoyed a breakout season that saw him named to Canada’s Olympic roster over the likes of Taylor Hall and Claude Giroux, Ryan O’Reilly proved why he was so coveted as a restricted free agent the previous year, power forward Gabriel Landeskog proved why he was named the youngest captain in team history (and represented his native Sweden in Sochi) and Paul Stastny regained his former glory. Throw in vets Alex Tanguay and P.A. Parenteau and after suffering through years where Colorado couldn’t buy a goal, the Avs terrorized opposing goalies with one of the deadliest attacks in the NHL last season.
2. MONTREAL CANADIENS
Be honest, did you really think the Habs would be the only team from north of the border to qualify for the NHL post season? And did you honestly expect them to get all the way to the third round? I didn’t, particularly when they ran up against their long time rivals from Beantown in the second round. In a lot of people’s eyes, Boston was destined for a second consecutive appearance in the Stanley Cup final, and the 2011 Stanley Cup champs were also the 2014 Presidents Cup winners, dominating the NHL during the regular season. And when the Bruins went up 3-2 in the series, a lot of people were ready to throw in the towel on the Habs. Including yours truly. But with Carey Price saving more rubber then a recycling plant in the Habs net and defenseman P.K. Subban becoming a more unstoppable force of nature with every game, the Habs proved to be the real deal. And had Price not been injured in the opening game of the Habs third round series against the New York Rangers, you could very well have seen the Bleu et Blanc facing off against the L.A. Kings in the Stanley Cup Finals. And speaking of New York . . .
1. NEW YORK RANGERS
The Rangers were by far the most surprising team this past season. New York enjoyed a decent regular season, finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference and twelve overall, but weren’t exactly the sexiest pick to represent the East in the Stanley Cup finals. Even the trade deadline acquisition of Martin St-Louis drew little attention. After all, it was hardly a secret that St.-Louis, who demanded a trade out of Tampa Bay following the Sochi Olympics, would only waive his no trade clause for the Rangers, And while they raised a few eyebrows when they knocked the Philadelphia Flyers out of the playoffs in the opening round, it wasn’t until the second round that the blue shirts started to make some real noise. When the Rangers found themselves on the wrong side of a 3-1 deficit during their second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, most fans gave them up for dead. But the Rangers roared back, sending Sidney Crosby, Evengi Malkin and company packing, winning the first game of their comeback without St.-Louis, who was attending his mother’s funeral. And for an encore, the Rangers knocked the red-hot P.K. Subban and Montreal Canadiens out next, clawing and fighting their way to the Final. True, the Rangers benefitted from a weaker Eastern Conference (the east looks like it’s completely up for grabs next season), but they displayed no shortage of tenacity in their unlikely trek to their date with Los Angeles.