The best NHL storylines on hold due to COVID-19 pandemic

Arun Srinivasan
Contributor
The coronavirus has robbed the NHL of one of the best seasons in recent memory. (Getty Images)

Prior to the suspension of the 2019-20 NHL season due to the COVID-19 outbreak, we were in the midst of one of the best seasons in recent memory.

This year presented us with plenty of compelling team and individual storylines, which rarely felt manufactured as part of our constant news cycle.

We’re all waiting for hockey to come back. In the interim, here are the six best storylines that are on hold as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

McDavid’s best shot at long playoff run

It’s a shame Connor McDavid hasn’t received much support, with the exception of Leon Draisaitl, throughout his remarkable start to his career. Few would fault you if you forgot the Oilers advanced to the second round of the playoffs in 2016-17, the lone time McDavid entered the postseason.

This year was shaping up to be different. Through 71 games, Edmonton sits second in the Pacific Division, playing at a 95-point pace, and for the first time in McDavid’s career there’s genuine reason to believe the NHL’s brightest star could make a real push at a sustained playoff run.

McDavid ranks second in scoring with 97 points, trailing only Draisaitl (more on him below) and while it’s hard to believe he’s just entering his prime, having celebrated his 23rd birthday in January.

When McDavid missed six games due to a quad injury, Draisaitl and Co. ensured the team didn’t fall apart, going 3-2-1 in his absence. Kailer Yamamoto recorded 26 points in 27 games, proving the Oilers didn’t stunt his development by rushing him up to the NHL in previous seasons, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Zack Kassian provided ample secondary scoring, while Ethan Bear has been a surprise revelation on the back end.

We can’t wait for hockey to resume and see if McDavid can elevate his team to grander heights in the postseason.

Draisaitl pulling away with the Hart Trophy

Edmonton Oilers center Leon Draisaitl is the presumptive favourite for the Hart Trophy. (Curtis Comeau/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

This blog isn’t all about the Oilers, but their superstar duo dictated the course of the season. While McDavid is the league’s most talented player, Draisaitl has been the league’s most valuable, and there’s an important distinction to be made.

Draisaitl is leading his own line, flanked by Yamamoto and Tyler Ennis and is running away with the Art Ross Trophy with 110 points, holding a 13-point lead over McDavid. Some argued that Draisaitl shouldn’t be considered the front-runner because he plays on the same team as McDavid, who is the face of the NHL.

This season, Draisaitl has elevated to a new tier and during a crucial stretch of the year when McDavid was out of the lineup, he carried the team. He’s a near-lock to win the Art Ross Trophy and could make a comeback in the Rocket Richard race too, with 43 goals. It would be hard to overlook his individual accomplishments and overall dominance, while negating his case off a straw-man argument.

David Pastrnak emerged as the best player on a Bruins juggernaut, but he plays on the NHL’s best line, on the league’s best team, and the goaltending duo of Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak might’ve provided more real value to the Bruins. Nathan MacKinnon is a force to be reckoned with, but he trails Draisaitl by a whopping 17 points in the scoring race. Due credit to the field, but their arguments aren’t as strong as Edmonton’s center.

Draisaitl could inspire a legion of new German hockey fans and players. Instead of dreaming to be the next Toni Kroos or Timo Werner, maybe there will be a few kids looking up to Draisaitl instead.

The year of Alexander Ovechkin

The 2019-20 season really belonged to Alexander Ovechkin. (Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images)

McDavid may be the NHL’s most talented player, Draisaitl may be the NHL’s most valuable player but the year might belong to Alexander Ovechkin, as he’s been at the forefront of the league’s most memorable moments.

Ovechkin became the eighth player to reach the 700-goal mark on Feb. 22 against the New Jersey Devils and the game came to a brief standstill as the entire Capitals team spilled onto the ice to mob their beloved captain.

Even the Devils had to applaud.

Ovechkin is embedded in a race against the present, and a race against time. In the present, Ovechkin is looking to lead the Capitals to their second Stanley Cup in three years and they’ve looked like the NHL’s best team at certain checkpoints of the season. Ovechkin is tied with David Pastrnak in the Rocket Richard Trophy race, each sitting atop the league with 48 goals. They really should re-name the award after Ovechkin when his career wraps up, as he’s looking to win it for the ninth (!!!) time.

The race against history might be more compelling, however.

With 706 goals, Ovechkin is doing everything he can to catch Wayne Gretzky for the all-time record, as The Great One’s long-standing mark of 894 goals was previously thought to be unbreakable. A suspension of the season makes Ovechkin’s climb to the top all the more difficult, and we wish for the season to resume if only make the march against time a bit easier for the living legend.

Cale Makar vs. Quinn Hughes

Vancouver Canucks defenceman Quinn Hughes may have caught Colorado Avalanche defenceman Cale Makar in the Calder Trophy race. (Jeff Vinnick/NHLI via Getty Images)"n

It’s no secret the Yahoo Sports NHL staff are big fans of Colorado rookie defenseman Cale Makar, and lately, we’ve been showing out for Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes. This really is a two-person battle and it’s one we want to see play out in real-time.

Makar’s combination of speed and offensive aggression makes him — and the Avalanche as a whole — must-watch TV. He was the early leader in the race, and this is just one play that exemplifies why he’s already a star.

Hughes might’ve caught Makar for the lead, however. He’s emerged as Vancouver’s top defenseman and leads all players in rookie scoring with 53 points in 68 games, while Makar trails with 50 points in 47 games. Both players are logging over 21 minutes per game for their teams, but Hughes plays a larger role defensively for the Canucks and is part of the team’s de facto No. 1 pairing, while the Avalanche rotate four defenders with over 20 minutes per game.

There’s a compelling case for both players and it’s arguably the most fun individual award debate left.

Lightning’s shot at redemption

A year ago, Tampa Bay appeared to be unstoppable. Running away with the Presidents’ Trophy with a 62-16-4 season, the Lightning appeared to be the biggest favorite in recent memory.

To everyone’s surprise, Tampa Bay was swept during the first round in what has to be considered one of the biggest upsets in NHL history. Tampa Bay shook off a relatively slow start to the year and with 92 points to date, it is comfortably wedged into the second spot in the Atlantic Division.

Perhaps the Lightning learned something about the futility of regular season glory. With a core of Steven Stamkos, Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Andrei Vasilevskiy among several other high-end talents, it’s unfathomable that this group won’t lift the Cup once. This summer was shaping up to be a shot at redemption. Will they get their chance again?

All aboard the Maple Leafs’ roller coaster ride

How Does This Affect the Leafs? Ah, you’ve come to the right place.

All half-jokes aside, the Maple Leafs remain one of the most compelling storylines, both to their fans and the 30 other fan bases that despise them.

It’s been a tale of several seasons for the Maple Leafs, who ousted Mike Babcock to the delight of the fan base after a 9-10-4 start to the campaign. It’s perhaps a bit harsh to put it all on Babcock, who was instrumental in helping a young core develop, but unfortunately he failed to adapt to the modern game as his young stars outgrew his rigid style.

Sheldon Keefe entered in Babcock’s place and for a while, things were going swimmingly in Leafs Nation. Toronto went unbeaten in regulation from Dec. 14-Jan. 4 and fought its way back into the playoff race, as the team remained erratic as ever.

Toronto also suffered one of its most embarrassing losses in the 103-year history of the team, losing on home ice to the Carolina Hurricanes when emergency backup goaltender David Ayres kept his team in the game against Auston Matthews, William Nylander, Mitch Marner, John Tavares, as opposed to your pals who’ve had a few beers before lacing it up.

Ayres, for what it’s worth, turned into one of hockey’s most endearing stories in the process.

Toronto now holds a three-point lead over the Florida Panthers for the third playoff spot in the Atlantic Division. Whether you love them or hate them, you have to be somewhat invested in the Maple Leafs’ roller coaster ride of a season.

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