It was an incredible decade for the NHL that saw a new team enter the league and immediately become a Stanley Cup contender, an old NHL city get a new NHL team and some dramatic shifts to the balance of power in the league thanks to a series of blockbuster trades and free agent signings. We continue our look back at the past decade with the top 25 NHL stories from the 2010s. See which ones make the cut.
After two decades without the NHL, Winnipeg finally got its own team again when the Atlanta Thrashers relocated north for the start of the 2011-12 season. Fans flocked to the arena and created one of the most intense home-ice advantages in the league, but the team rarely provided much excitement on the ice. The Jets basically continued to play like the Thrashers, only in a different uniform and in a different city. That finally changed during the 2017-18 season when they won the first postseason game in franchise history (Atlanta or Winnipeg) and reached the Western Conference Final before losing to the expansion Vegas Golden Knights in five games.
It was starting to look like it may never happen for Ovechkin and the Capitals. After winning three Presidents' Trophies and then falling short in the playoffs every time and never being able to get past the second round or the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Caps finally broke through during the 2017-18 season and exorcised all of their postseason demons. They beat the Penguins, they overcame a 3-2 series deficit in the Eastern Conference Final, for once they were the ones who had the hot goalie, and all of the breaks finally went their way at the right time. Now they have their championship, and no one can ever take it away from them.
No sport has struggled with labor peace more than the NHL, and less than a decade after losing an entire season (2004-05) to a work stoppage, the NHL lost another half season in 2012-13 to the third lockout of the Gary Bettman era. The 2012-13 season ended up being a 48-game campaign (similar to the 1994-95 season, also cut short by a lockout) and saw the Chicago Blackhawks win the second of their three Stanley Cups in the salary cap era.
This is probably one of the most unbelievable stories in the history of the NHL, let alone the past decade. When the NHL expanded to 31 teams for the 2017-18 season, there were a lot of critics who wondered if the Vegas Golden Knights would be a success. On the ice, expectations were understandably low because they were an expansion team. But their immediate success turned Vegas into one of the hottest tickets in the league. The Golden Knights have been a Stanley Cup contender since Day 1 and reached the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season, losing in five games to the Washington Capitals.
The best player of the generation had the majority of his peak years crushed by a concussion and neck injury that limited him to just 99 out of a possible 224 games between the 2010-11 and 2012-13 season. It all started with a two-game sequence in 2010-11 with hits from Dave Steckel and Victor Hedman that cut short what was his best season. Crosby's career speaks for itself, and he will be remembered as one of the best players to ever play in the NHL, but it still feels like we were robbed of fully seeing him at his absolute best.
The biggest free agency saga of the past decade had to be John Tavares, the longtime face of the New York Islanders franchise, leaving the team in the summer of 2018 to join the Toronto Maple Leafs, his hometown club. It gave the Maple Leafs an incredibly talented core and raised the expectations in Toronto to Stanley Cup or bust. Meanwhile, expectations were at an all-time low for the Islanders, but they rebounded under the leadership of new coach Barry Trotz and actually advanced further than the Maple Leafs in the playoffs.
This kind of goes hand-in-hand with the Capitals finally breaking through, but it's big enough of a move that it deserves its own recognition. Trotz became the first coach since Mike Keenan in 1994 to leave a Stanley Cup-winning team the following season. The reason: The Capitals and Trotz could not come to terms on a new contract that would have made him one of the highest-paid coaches in the league. He ended up being hired by the New York Islanders and helped orchestrate one of the most stunning one-year turnarounds in recent league history.
With their Game 7 win over the Vancouver Canucks in Game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins finally brought the Stanley Cup back to Boston for the first time since the 1971-72 season. It was the start of a great run for the Bruins that saw them reach two more Stanley Cup Finals in the next decade. Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, Zdeno Chara, Tim Thomas, and Tuukka Rask were at the center of that run.
It had been nearly two decades since a team won the Stanley Cup in consecutive years when the Penguins accomplished the feat during the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons. What made their run so stunning is that it came at a time when everyone had started to close their championship window in the Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang era. The Pens needed a coaching change, some major trades and a couple of in-season call-ups in 2015-16 to start their run, but all of it together reopened their window and produced two more Stanley Cups.
On July 4, 2012, the Minnesota Wild made their boldest series of moves ever when they signed the top two free agents on the market — Parise and Suter — to matching 13-year, $98 million contracts. This was during the time period when NHL teams were handing out mega-long-term, front-loaded contracts to reduce the salary cap hits over the term of the deal. How did this work out for Minnesota? Probably not as they expected. The Wild have been a consistent playoff team but have never made it beyond the second round and only twice made it out of the first round in the Parise-Suter era. Both players are now in their mid-30s and still have five years remaining after this season on their deals.
The New Jersey Devils reached the 2011-12 Stanley Cup Final and were so close to winning another championship thanks in large part to the play of All-Star forwards Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk. Within two years, everything fell apart for them. Parise left in free agency for Minnesota following the season, and then one year later Kovalchuk, in the middle of a mega-contract with the Devils, abruptly announced his retirement from the NHL and returned to the KHL. He spent more than five seasons playing in the KHL before returning to the NHL before the 2018-19 season, signing a three-year deal with the Los Angeles Kings.
After winning three Stanley Cups and helping put together one of the most successful teams of the salary cap era, the Blackhawks decided to part ways with Quenneville, one of the most successful coaches in the history of the league, early in the 2018-19 season. It was stunning just because of how successful Quenneville was and how many problems the Blackhawks seemed to have had beyond the coach. Quenneville ended up joining the Florida Panthers the following offseason, while the Blackhawks have continued to take steps backward as their championship window rapidly slams shut.
One year after the Capitals finally kicked down the Stanley Cup door, the St. Louis Blues did the same, erasing years of disappointment and misery for their fans. The Blues also made it difficult on themselves, going from the worst record in the Western Conference in early January to the top of the NHL mountain in June. As if that was not crazy enough, the player who helped spark the turnaround was Jordan Binnington, a rookie goalie who started the season as a backup...in the American Hockey League.
On the afternoon of June 29, 2016, there were three major roster transactions across the NHL in a span of 60 minutes that dramatically shook the landscape of the league. The first was the Oilers trading Hall, at the time their best player and one of the best left wingers in the league, to the New Jersey Devils for defenseman Adam Larsson. It was a one-for-one trade, and it stunned pretty much everyone outside of the Oilers front office that the return was so little. Hall went on to win the league MVP two years later, while Larsson has been nothing more than a solid but unspectacular second-pairing defender. It was one of the most one-sided trades of the decade.
This was the other massive trade on June 29, 2016. After years of trade rumors and speculation that they might do it, the Canadiens finally traded Subban, one of the most popular players to play for the team in generations, to the Nashville Predators in a one-for-one deal for Shea Weber. It was a curious move because Weber was older, had a worse contract and probably wasn't as good as Subban at the time. But the Canadiens wanted to shake things up and make a bold move, so they did. Weber is still a good player when healthy, but he has started to break down. Subban, meanwhile, helped lead the Predators to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He was then traded to New Jersey two years later.
The Flyers' quest to find a franchise goalie took a dramatic turn in the summer of 2011 when general manager Paul Holmgren, never one to shy away from a bold trade, traded his two core players (Mike Richards and Jeff Carter) to retool his team around Bryzgalov, signing the goalie to a massive contract. While the Carter and Richards trades brought a lot of talent to Philadelphia, the Bryzgalov contract was a complete disaster that ended in a buyout two years later. Richards and Carter were also reunited in Los Angeles and helped the Kings win two Stanley Cups. The Flyers have made the playoffs just four times in eight years and made it out of the first round just one time.
Everybody loves to talk about the potential a restricted free agent offer sheet every offseason, but they almost never happen. And when they do, they almost always get matched. The most intriguing offer sheet of the past decade came in 2012 when the Flyers signed restricted free agent defenseman Shea Weber to a 14-year, $100 million offer sheet. It was just one year after the Flyers overhauled their team for Bryzgalov and was another insanely bold move. The Predators, having already lost Ryan Suter to the Minnesota Wild in free agency, had no choice but to match the offer. It produced a ton of "what if" scenarios. What would the Predators have done with the draft pick compensation? How would the Flyers build around that contract? Would it inspire other offer sheets in the future?
Between the 1990-91 and 2015-16 seasons the Detroit Red Wings were a mainstay in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, qualifying in each of the 25 years and being one of the most stable, consistent and successful franchises in all of professional sports. They reached the Stanley Cup Final six times, won it four times and were always in contention. That run finally came to an end during the 2016-17 season and has started a new streak: missing the playoffs. Barring a miracle turnaround, the Red Wings are on track to miss for the fourth consecutive season and given the makeup of their roster, there does not seem to be much hope of this new streak coming to an end anytime soon.
At the start of the 2014-15 season, everyone in the NHL knew there were two elite prospects at the top of the 2015 draft: Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel. This was also a time when the team with the worst record in the league was guaranteed one of the top two picks in the draft, which meant at least one of these two potential franchise players. The Buffalo Sabres and Arizona Coyotes were in a year-long race to the basement that actually saw Sabres fans enthusiastically cheering for the Coyotes in a late-season game. The Sabres ended up finishing with the league's worst record but lost the draft lottery. They picked second and ended up with Eichel. Arizona, meanwhile, was the biggest loser; they picked third and selected Dylan Strome. The Edmonton Oilers moved ahead of both teams and won the right to pick McDavid. The NHL ended up changing the draft lottery rules a few years later.
On the ice the Oilers have been the least successful team in the NHL over the past decade, and their only consistent success has been getting some great luck in the draft lottery. They won the top pick in 2010, 2011, 2012 and then again in 2015. Those picks turned out to be Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov and Connor McDavid. The latter was the big one and it infuriated fans — and teams — across the league because of the way the Oilers squandered their previous draft lottery successes. Edmonton being gifted the best draft prospect since Sidney Crosby seemed to be laughably unfair. And just as they did with the previous picks, the Oilers have failed to build a consistently competitive team around him.
The NHL had a major head shot problem. Marc Savard's career was ended by a brutal hit from Matt Cooke. David Booth's career was derailed by a similar hit from Mike Richards. There was nothing the league could do about them because they were, at the time, legal hockey plays. The addition of Rule 48, focusing on hits to the head, as well as the creation of the Department of Player Safety (led by Brendan Shanahan) at the beginning of the 2011-12 season was supposed to help put a stop to such plays. Suspensions rapidly increased and, eventually, targeted hits to the head started to decline. It is not a perfect system and there are flaws with consistency and enforcement, but things are dramatically better than they used to be.
Torres was one of the most notorious headhunters in the league and was the recipient of some massive suspensions for his constant reckless play. He was given a 25-game ban for an egregious hit on Marian Hossa in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, was banned for an entire series one year later and then in 2015 earned his most significant suspension when he was given a 41- game ban for a preseason hit on Jakob Silfverberg. He never played another game in the NHL.
The NHL has tried everything to make the All-Star game exciting: fantasy drafts, North America vs. The World, and the current 3-on-3 mini-tournament. The latter seems to be the most successful attempt, and it hit its peak during the 2015-16 season when longtime enforcer John Scott was voted into the game by fans. The league tried to talk him out of playing (which did not go over well). He not only played, but he also ended up stealing the show and recording a hat trick in the game.
Starting with the 1998 games in Nagano, Japan, the NHL had been sending its best players to the Winter Olympics every four years, producing an incredible best vs. best tournament. That run ended during the 2018 games, and it remains unclear when, or if, the NHL players will ever go back. The NHL seems determined to make the World Cup of Hockey work and serve as a replacement for the Olympics, but neither the players nor fans seem to share that same level of excitement.
This was probably the biggest NHL upset of the decade. The 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning tied an NHL record with 62 wins, had the league MVP and scoring champion, a Vezina Trophy winner in goal, a Norris Trophy winner on defense and a Jack Adams-caliber coach behind the bench. It was supposed to be their year to win it all. They not only did not do that, but they also did not win a single playoff game, getting swept in Round 1 by a No. 8 seed Columbus Blue Jackets team. It was the Blue Jackets' first-ever postseason series win, and it came after a bold decision at the trade deadline to go all in. Instead of trading pending free agents Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, the Blue Jackets instead added more in Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. It gave the city a taste of success but quickly fizzled in Round 2 and over the summer when all of the free agents departed.
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