THE TRANSATLANTIC MAGAZINE
The 2020-21 NHL season earned its place in the annals of hockey as a season without match. In many ways, it was a season of depletion, a half-shaped placeholder for what has become a standard-bearer product of professional sport. But in other ways, the NHL’s 103rd season was more generous than its many predecessors, giving its fans exactly what they needed in a shrunken, disorientating world. As the final four teams do battle in their quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup, what better time to look back on the NHL’s most inimitable season to date?
As much as the NHL feigned imperviousness to Covid-19’s upside-downing of the world, the pandemic’s effects were obvious to every watcher of every game. The empty stands were adorned with gargantuan adverts, even painted faces, but the vacuity of the rinks was impossible to hide. If you closed your eyes during a match and let the canned applause morph into a kind of white noise of sport, you could experience a moment of recall for the feeling of community that hockey - any popular sport - invites fans to join. But these moments never lasted long, and in the end, watching the games on TV left you with a sense of lacking.
However, there was another side to this shortcoming - the fact that NHL games were being played at all. The 56-game season provided a lasting sense of optimism that the league could keep calm and carry on even in the midst of an epochal health crisis. On 13th January the first puck fell in the first game and guess what? It was exciting. The players battled as hard as ever. Admittedly, there was a looseness to those early match-ups, a shinny-hockey feel, but it actually added to the experience by showing millionaire athletes in a more honest, love-of-the-game light. The players seemed as thankful for the season as the fans - something that tends to get lost in a regular NHL campaign.
The season produced some eye-candy stats in terms of player achievement. Take Edmonton Oilers centreman Connor McDavid as an example. The young star tallied 105 points in 56 games (33 goals and 72 assists) to win the Art Ross Trophy for most points while achieving an astounding 1.88 points-per-game average. For the sake of comparison, McDavid notched 97 points in the previous season, with a point-per-game average of 1.51. McDavid’s teammate and fellow centreman, Leon Draisaitl, managed to put up some impressive numbers as well, maintaining the upward trajectory of his budding NHL career with 31 goals and 53 assists in 56 games (1.5 PPG), earning him runner-up to the Art Ross.
And let’s not forget about Toronto Maple Leafs centreman Auston Matthews, whose 41 goals in 52 games earned him the Rocket Richard Trophy for the league’s top goal-getter. The twenty-three-year-old’s 0.79 goals-per-game average - a significant jump-up from his 0.67 GPG average last season - has cemented Matthews’ status as a future franchise player. Matthews’ increased output wasn’t enough to lift the Leafs past the Montreal Canadiens in the first round, but it has given notice to the league that the American star is indeed the real deal.
Meanwhile, at the blue line, another Oiler saw his stats benefit from bloating this past season; defenceman Tyson Barrie’s 48 points (8 goals and 40 assists) enabled him to put up a career-best point-per-game average of 0.86. In the ever-competitive East Division, New York Rangers blueliner Adam Fox bested his last-season total of 42 points by posting 47 this year (5 goals and 42 assists) - a feat made more impressive by the fact that he managed to achieve it in fifteen fewer games. His achievement garnered attention from the league’s head office in the form of a nomination for the James Norris Trophy for best defenceman.
Between the pipes, the season produced an overly exaggerated linkage between goalie and team success. The President’s Trophy winner and runner-up - the Colorado Avalanche (82 points) and the Vegas Golden Knights (also 82 points) - both saw their starting netminder (Marc-André Fleury and Philipp Grubauer respectively) earn Vezina Trophy nominations for best goaltender. In the meantime, over in the Central Division, Alex Nedeljkovic, backstop of third-ranked Carolina Hurricanes (80 points), placed atop the league’s goals-against (1.9) and save percentage (0.93) ladders, putting the finishing touches on a stellar rookie campaign in which he netted the Hurricanes points in 18 of his 23 starts, earning himself a Calder Trophy nod for top rookie in the process.
Speaking of rookies, the Minnesota Wild’s 2015 fifth-round pick, Russian left-winger Kirill Kaprizov, won his own Calder nomination by amassing 51 points (27 goals, 24 assists) in 55 games. Finishing just behind Kaprizov and rounding out the Calder Trophy cohort was American left-winger Jason Robertson, who used his debut season to notch 17 goals and 28 helpers for the Dallas Stars. The ultimate winner of the trophy is anyone’s guess although the good money says that it will come down to a horserace between Nedeljkovic and Kaprizov, given their teams both won playoff berths. Whoever ends up getting his name on the Calder, one thing is clear: the NHL is not in want of young talent.
Not even a global pandemic could keep the NHL from realising its latest expansion dreams. As the league lumbered through its most uncertain and tumultuous season in recent memory, the management team behind the Seattle Kraken were quietly jumping through the innumerable hoops required to join hockey’s most exclusive membership group. The Kraken will ice their first roster in the coming season as a member of the Pacific Division in the Western Conference with high hopes of replicating the success of the NHL’s previous addition, the Golden Knights. The Kraken will be the first Seattle hockey team to chase the Stanley Cup since the 1924 edition of the Seattle Metropolitans.
It’s been a tough sixteen months, no doubt about it. Covid has pushed society to brinks that had been previously unimaginable. But through it all, the NHL, along with many other professional sporting leagues, has refused to pack it in. Despite the empty arenas, the phoney crowd noise, the cancelled games due to outbreak - despite everything - the games went on, and continue to go on. Sure, the season will be asterisked in history, an anomaly, not quite right, but it exists - a fact that should be celebrated in the name of hockey, sport and humanity alike.