As we count down to 2020, looks back over some of the most interesting stories of 2019. Not necessarily be the best of the year, per se, but memorable games, moments and events that are worthy of reflection.

On Christmas Day, it's 2019 in the NHL.

Embedded Image

Hockey's cultural reckoning

Three NHL coaches came under fire in 2019, with players revealing past incidents involving abusive behaviour. Stories regarding Mike Babcock, Bill Peters and Marc Crawford came flooding out in the wake of Babcock being fired by the Toronto Maple Leafs, and more players continue to bring past incidents to light.

After Babcock was fired by the Leafs on Nov. 20, it was revealed that he asked a then-rookie Mitch Marner to rank his teammates from best to worst in terms of work ethic during the 2016-17 season. Babcock would later show that list to the rest of the team. Team president Brendan Shanahan said he addressed the incident with Babcock at the time, who apologized to Marner.

The more damning accusation against Babcock came from former Detroit Red Wing Johan Franzen, who was coached by Babcock from 2005 until 2015, and claims he suffered verbal abuse at the hands of his former coach.

Franzen said the situation came to a head during the 2012 first-round playoff series against the Nashville Predators and forced him to seek professional help.

“I get the shivers when I think about it, that incident against Nashville in the playoffs. It was coarse, nasty and shocking…But it was just the tip of the iceberg. It was verbal attacks. He said horrible things,” Franzen told a Swedish newspaper in translated quotes.

Babcock has yet to comment on the Franzen incident, while former Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said he was not aware of any inappropriate behaviour between the two.

Days later on Nov. 25, former player Akim Aliu accused Peters, head coach of the Calgary Flames, of using racial slurs towards him back in 2009-10, when he was a rookie forward with the AHL’s Rockford IceHogs.

“He walked in before a morning pre-game skate and said ‘Hey Akim, I’m sick of you playing that n----- s---,’ ” Aliu told TSN, with Peters, who was then the Ice Hogs head coach, referring to Aliu’s selection of hip-hop music. “He said ‘I’m sick of hearing this n-----s f------ other n-----s in the ass stuff.’ 

“He then walked out like nothing ever happened. You could hear a pin drop in the room, everything went dead silent. I just sat down in my stall, didn’t say a word.”

Two of Aliu’s Rockford teammates corroborated the incident to TSN.

The next day, former Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Michal Jordan said that Peters kicked him and punched another player on the bench during an NHL game. Current Hurricanes head coach, Rod Brind’Amour, then an assistant to Peters, confirmed the incidents happened and said that Hurricanes management handled it directly.

The Flames investigated the claims against Peters and he was not behind on the bench on Nov. 27 against the Buffalo Sabres. He apologized to the Flames and GM Brad Treliving in a statement that same day. 

Peters announced his resignation as Flames head coach on Nov. 29.

Long-time NHL coach Crawford, who currently serves as an assistant for the Chicago Blackhawks, was put on leave Dec. 2 by the team after allegations were made against him regarding his conduct during his time with another organization.

Former NHLers Sean Avery, Brent Sopel, Patrick O’Sullivan and Harold Druken shared violent incidents involving Crawford. 

Crawford will be reinstated on Jan. 2 by Chicago, with the organization citing that he sought counselling in 2010 to address his actions and continues to undergo therapy today. He also released a statement apologizing to the players who publically shared stories.

In the wake of these incidents coming to light, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said in a statement:

“Going forward, our clubs are on notice that if they become aware of an incident of conduct involving NHL personnel on or off the ice that is clearly inappropriate, unlawful or demonstrably abusive, or that may violate the League's policies, involving NHL Club personnel, on or off the ice, we at the League office - Bill Daly or me - must be immediately advised. There will be zero tolerance for any failure to notify us and in the event of such failure, the club and individuals involved can expect severe discipline.” - Brianne Spiker

Embedded Image

What happened to the Lightning?

The Tampa Bay Lightning held a 3-0 lead over the Columbus Blue Jackets after the first period in Game 1 of the opening round of the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs.

Everything was going as it was supposed to.

The Lightning ran away with the Presidents’ Trophy with an incredible 128 points and their 62 wins tied the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for most victories in a single season. The Blue Jackets, on the other hand, just snuck into the second Eastern Conference wild-card spot after picking up Matt Duchene from the Ottawa Senators at the trade deadline.

A 3-0 advantage seemed just about right. That was until the Blue Jackets turned the hockey world on its head.

Nick Foligno scored in the second before David Savard, Josh Anderson and Seth Jones netted goals in the final frame for the 4-3 comeback victory, stunning the Bolts and their fans at Amalie Arena.

Game 1 was a collapse no doubt, but with Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov and Victor Hedman in the fold, Tampa would be fine, right?

The Blue Jackets hammered the Lightning 5-1 in Game 2 and then 3-1 in Game 3. Columbus scored three empty net goals in the third period of Game 4, putting a stake in the heart of Tampa Bay’s season. The Lightning became the first Presidents’ Trophy winner to be swept in the opening round of the playoffs.

Stamkos and Kucherov recorded two points each in the series after putting up 98 and 128 points respectively in the regular season.

"We lost in the playoffs," captain Stamkos said after the game. "If you don't accomplish your goal of winning it all, it's a failure. We don't care about what happened in the regular season.

"They were the better team. They executed their game plan. I don't know. I don't know what to say. If we had the answers, we would have found a way to win a game. It [stinks]."

It was probably the biggest playoff disappointment in NHL history and it appears the bad taste is still lingering.

Despite have one of the best lineups on paper, the Lightning are without a playoff spot heading into the holiday break. - Ryan Horne

Embedded Image

Blue Jackets go all in

Columbus Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen answered that question in February by not only holding on to the team’s two big-name pending free agents, but acquiring four more at the cost of almost his entire 2019 draft class.

Despite the fact that both winger Artemi Panarin and two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky appeared ready to bolt in the summer, Kekalainen decided to add to his playoff bubble team and try once again for the franchise’s first-ever postseason series victory.

Rather than waiting for the trade deadline, Kekalainen struck four days early, acquiring Matt Duchene from the Ottawa Senators for a package that included prospects  Vitaly Abramov and Jonathan Davidsson, a 2019 first-round pick and an additional conditional first-round pick, hinging on Duchene re-signing in Columbus.

Kekalainen, however, wasn’t done there.

Just one day later, the Blue Jackets GM struck another deal with the Senators, acquiring Ryan Dzingel and a seventh-round pick for Columbus’ second-round picks in both 2019 and 2020, as well as left winger Anthony Duclair.

Come deadline day, the Blue Jackets added two more players, defenceman Adam McQuaid for fourth- and seventh-round picks and goaltender Keith Kinkaid for a 2022 fifth-rounder.

In the span of four days, the team added four more pending free agents to their roster and left themselves with just two picks in the 2019 draft – in the third and seventh rounds – and despite all the cost, even a playoff berth was not yet guaranteed.

Following the Duchene trade, the Blue Jackets went just 6-6-1 and sat on the outside looking in of the playoff picture on March 21. Then, things started to click.

The Blue Jackets rifled off five straight victories and won six of their final seven games to clinch their third straight playoff berth.

Their reward? A first-round matchup against the Presidents Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning, who had lost just 16 games in regulation all season.

The Lightning had faced little adversity throughout the season and, in Game 1, it looked like we were about to see more of the same. Kick-started by a shorthanded goal from Alex Killorn just over four minutes into the game, the Lightning finished the first period up 3-0. Nick Foligno scored in the second period, but a daunting 3-1 deficit against the league’s best team was facing the Blue Jackets with 20 minutes to play.

David Savard led the comeback with a goal eight minutes into the frame, and thanks to Josh Anderson finding the back of the net four minutes later, the game was tied. Seth Jones’ power play goal just two minutes later lifted the Blue Jackets to a 4-3 victory in Game 1.

From there, the Blue Jackets cruised to 5-1, 3-1 and 7-3 wins, pulling off the most stunning first-round upset in recent memory and making Kekalainen’s gamble pay off.

In the second round, Columbus was eliminated in six games by the Boston Bruins. Two months later, Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, Dzingel and McQuaid all departed in free agency.

For the Blue Jackets, who made just three selections in the 2019 NHL Draft, the question must be asked, was a first-round victory worth it? - Mike Hetherington

Embedded Image

Tavares returns to the Island

He knew his decision to go home wouldn’t sit well with the New York Islanders fanbase.

When John Tavares signed a seven-year, $77 million contract with the Toronto Maple Leafs on July 1, 2018, Isles fans felt betrayed that their captain had elected to exercise free agency and depart the franchise where he spent his first nine seasons in the NHL.

On Feb. 28, 2019, Tavares returned to Nassau Coliseum for the first time in a visitors’ jersey.

"It was probably the hardest decision I've ever had to make in my life," Tavares told reporters the morning of the game. "Obviously, it took me some time to do it because of how difficult it was and really not sure what I wanted to do until I made the decision."

It was an emotionally charged day as Tavares faced questions before and after the game about his decision to leave the Island. He had 272 goals and 359 assists in 669 games with New York.

When he took the ice for the warmup, there was a chorus of boos. Fans held signs claiming he was a liar and disingenuous about his intention to stay with the team. They called him a ‘snake’ and ‘pajama boy,’ the latter a nod to his social media post of him wearing Maple Leafs pajamas as a kid.

When the game started, fans showed vitriol toward their former captain. Loud chants of “We don’t need you,” were directed at Tavares. They booed throughout his first shift on the ice. Anytime he touched the puck, Tavares was greeted with distain.

Fans took a brief pause from the chanting when the Islanders displayed a tribute video of Tavares during a television timeout. They cheered through most of tribute before reverting back to derisive chants.

"I expected it was coming,” Tavares said after his team fell 6-1 to the Islanders. “I just tried to be open and honest. Obviously, nobody has to like my decision. I just tried to explain what it is and how I got to that point. It is what it is.”

At least one plastic snake was reported to have been tossed on the ice during the game and an Islanders jersey was tossed in Tavares’ direction as he left the ice.

Leaf fans who felt bad about Tavares’ treatment began a movement on social media to show their appreciation after his treatment in Long Island. Toronto mayor John Tory jumped on the idea, using the hashtag #TavaresDayTO ahead of the Leafs’ home game against the Buffalo Sabres on Mar. 2.

Tavares would return to the Island one more time during the season. On Apr. 1, Tavares scored the game-winning goal as the Maple leafs defeated the Islanders 2-1 to clinch a playoff berth.

On the tribute video: I watched the whole thing. It was really nice for the Islanders to acknowledge and I really appreciated that. It was great to see some great moments. Mostly as a team. - David Alter

Embedded Image

The rise of Jordan Binnington

On Jan. 2, the St. Louis Blues had the worst record in the NHL with goaltending tandem Jake Allen and Chad Johnson struggling. Five days later, rookie goaltender Jordan Binnington would record a 3-0 shutout over the Philadelphia Flyers, kicking off an improbable run.

The Blues went on a 30-10-5 tear, with Binnington taking the reins as the starter. The Blues climbed from last place to the third seed in the Central Division, securing a playoff spot.

In Round 1, the Blues beat the Winnipeg Jets in six games. They took on the Dallas Stars in Round 2, winning in seven games. In the Western Conference Final, the Blues dispatched the Sharks in six.

St. Louis rode Binnington all the way to the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup in their 52-year history, which included a championship-clinching Game 7 win over the Boston Bruins at TD Garden.

Despite not debuting until January, Binnington was nominated for the Calder Trophy as he finished the regular season with a .927 save percentage and 1.89 GAA.

A third-round (88th overall) pick of the Blues at the 2011 NHL Draft, Binnington had spent five seasons in the minor leagues and was being pushed down the depth chart, with Jake Allen locked in as the starter and the presence of fellow goalie prospect Ville Husso competing for starts in the AHL.

Binnington started every playoff game for the Blues and holds the record for most playoff wins by a rookie goalie in a single season with 16. - Brianne Spiker

Embedded Image

A collapse for the ages in Vegas

With a 3-0 lead midway through the third period in Game 7 of their first-round playoff series against the San Jose Sharks, the Vegas Golden Knights seemed destined for another deep playoff run.

Then Vegas centre Cody Eakin was assessed a major penalty and a game misconduct for crosschecking Sharks forward Joe Pavelski in a call that would change the course of the 2019-20 NHL playoffs.

The infraction looked bad in real-time. Pavelski left the game with a head injury and was bleeding from the impact, but replays confirmed that the incident didn’t warrant the punishment received.

Eakin crosschecked Pavelski off the faceoff, but Vegas teammate Paul Stastny delivered a shove to Pavelski, who fell awkwardly onto the ice.

"I've got no issues with that play," Pavelski said later told reporters. "Was it a five-minute major? No. I don't think it was. There’s different aspects. Am I glad they called it that way? Heck yeah.”

The Sharks scored four goals on the ensuing power play in 4:01, erasing the deficit and taking the lead for the first time in the game. The Golden Knights forced overtime when Jonathan Marchessault scored in the final minute of regulation.

Barclay Goodrow scored the overtime winner to complete the comeback for San Jose. They became the first team since the Boston Bruins in 2013 to successfully erase a three-goal deficit in the third period of a Game 7 and go on to victory.

“It’s a f---ing joke,” Marchessault said of the penalty to Eakin. “You call five minutes for that? They should have a hockey replay for that. It changed the whole outcome of the game.”

Golden Knights fans were upset, feeling their team got a raw deal. Sharks fans pointed to the fact that no team should give up four goals on a major power play, regardless of how the situation came to be.

The call influenced a major change to video review. In June, the NHL announced that review would be expanded for penalties, but only to determine the severity and not overturn the call itself. The move was a direct response to the Eakin-Pavelski incident.

The Sharks went on to defeat the Colorado Avalanche in seven games to advance to the Western Conference final, meeting the eventual Cup champion St. Louis Blues. The Sharks were the beneficiary of another controversy in that series.

In Game 3, Sharks defenceman Erik Karlsson scored the overtime winner after collecting a hand pass from Timo Meier. Hand passes result in an immediate stoppage in play from officials, but it was missed in this particular instance.

The play wasn’t reviewable at the time, but the replay rules have expanded to include challenges on any play that would have resulted in a stoppage of play in the offensive zone.

The situation was only made possible by the fact that San Jose got past Vegas in the first round in controversial fashion. - David Alter