NHL

Reviewing the 2019-20 NHL regular season

By Sports Desk May 29, 2020

And just like that, the 2019-20 NHL regular season is in the books.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced on Tuesday that the league will conclude the season by diving right into a 24-team playoff in two yet-to-be-decided hub cities to crown a Stanley Cup champion.

In the unique playoff format, the top 12 teams from each conference - ranked by points percentage from when the season went on pause due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 12 - will make the playoffs.

The top four teams in each conference will compete in a round-robin tournament to determine final seedings. The teams seeded five through 12 will participate in a play-in tournament featuring a best-of-five series to determine who advances to face the top four seeds. The playoffs will continue with a second round, conference finals and a Stanley Cup final.

All of this will take place when medical experts determine it is safe for games to resume.

“Let me assure you that the reason we are doing this is because our fans have told us in overwhelming numbers that they want to complete the season if at all possible,” Bettman said Tuesday. ”And our players and our teams are clear that they want to play and bring the season to its rightful conclusion."

So once the regular season was brought to an end, it was time to hand out some hardware and recognise some achievements from the 2019-20 regular season.

The Boston Bruins won the Presidents' Trophy with 100 points and 44 wins - their seventh straight season with 40 or more victories. The only other time Boston notched at least seven consecutive 40-win seasons was when they reeled off 12 straight from 1968-69 to 1979-80.

Boston thrived behind Tuukka Rask and Jaroslav Halak, who earned the William M. Jennings Trophy for allowing a league-low 167 goals. Rask had a league-best 2.12 GAA, the second time he's led the NHL in GAA after posting a 1.97 in 2009-10. That 10-year span between leading the league in GAA is the longest by a goalie since Hall of Famer Patrick Roy led the NHL in 2001-02 after not leading since 1991-92.

Boston's David Pastrnak and the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin tied for the league lead with 48 goals to share the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy as the top-goal scorer. For Ovechkin, it extended his record for most seasons leading the league in goals scored to nine, now two more than Chicago Blackhawks legend Bobby Hull.

While Ovechkin managed to add to one record, the shortened season robbed him a chance of matching another.

With 48 goals, Ovechkin finished just two scores shy of matching Wayne Gretzky and Mike Bossy for the most 50-goal seasons in NHL history. It's a good bet if the season wasn't interrupted by coronavirus and a full 82-game season transpired, Ovechkin would have managed a pair of goals in Washington's final 13 games and got his name next to Gretzky and Bossy in the record book.

It's a similar story for Pastrnak. The Bruins had a dozen games left when the season was paused and ultimately cancelled, costing him a chance to become the first Bruin 50-goal scorer since Cam Neely tallied exactly 50 in 1993-94. At 24, Pastrnak became the youngest skater to lead the league in goals since the Tampa Bay Lighting's Steven Stamkos scored 60 as a 21-year-old in 2011-12.

Ovechkin may have been one of the league's top goal scorers, but he didn't lead the Capitals in points, with John Carlson recording eight more than his team-mate's 67.

Carlson's 75 points were the most by a defenseman this past season, which works out to an average of 1.09 points per game. His points-per-game average is the highest by a defenseman in a single season since the Detroit Red Wings' Paul Coffey averaged 1.29 points in 1994-95.

An Edmonton Oiler once again won the Art Ross Trophy as Leon Draisaitl finished the season with a league-leading 110 points after Conner McDavid took it home in 2016-17 and 2017-18.

The Edmonton franchise has won the Art Ross Trophy 10 times, now one more than Chicago and the Montreal Canadiens to stand alone for second most, trailing only the Pittsburgh Penguins' 15.

Draisaitl, the first German-born skater to lead the league in scoring, led the NHL with 33 multi-point games and had a league-best 67 assists. He becomes just the third Oiler to lead the NHL in assists, joining McDavid and Gretzky, who accomplished the feat with Edmonton nine times.

McDavid finished with 13 fewer points than Draisaitl, but his 97 points were still good enough for second most in the NHL. Draisaitl and McDavid are the first set of team-mates to be the league's top two leading scorers since the strike-shortened 2012-13 season, when Tampa Bay's Martin St. Louis had 60 points and Stamkos had 57. Prior to that, the last team-mates to go 1-2 in points was in 1995-96, when Mario Lemieux had 161 and Penguin team-mate Jaromir Jagr had 149.

The last time Edmonton had the league's top two scorers was in 1986-87, when Gretzky had 183 points and Jari Kurri was second with 108. (To answer your next question, that difference of 75 points behind the league's number one and number two scorer is the second-largest gap in NHL history behind only the 79-point difference in 1983-84, when Gretzky had 205 points and Coffey had 126.)

Now that these regular season trophies have been sorted out, the attention turns to the ultimate prize – the Stanley Cup.

The 2019 Stanley Cup final began just over a year ago, with Game 1 taking place on May 27, 2019, but this year's champion is unlikely to raise the cup until the fall considering the NHL said training camps cannot open any earlier than July 10 as part of the league's return-to-play plan.

July 10 will be 121 days since the last NHL games were played on March 11. It has been a long wait without professional sports in the United States, but the NHL feels it has conceived a plan that is not only safe, but also creates an intriguing playoff format to crown a champion.

“We believe we have constructed an overall plan that includes all teams that, as a practical matter, might have had a chance of qualifying for the playoffs when the season was paused,” Bettman said. “And this plan will produce a worthy Stanley Cup champion who will have run the postseason gauntlet that is unique to the NHL."

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  • Mesut Ozil leaves Arsenal: How an ideal relationship ended in a necessary divorce Mesut Ozil leaves Arsenal: How an ideal relationship ended in a necessary divorce

    Mesut Ozil and Arsenal have officially gone their separate ways after seven and a half years together. 

    What was once a seemingly ideal football marriage has come to an end. Long since removed from the pedestal where he was once placed by Arsenal fans, Ozil has cut short his stay with the Gunners.

    Having coveted him for so long, Fenerbahce have got their man. The 32-year-old heads to Turkey, aiming to kick-start a career that had not so much stagnated of late but come to a complete standstill.

    Left out of Arsenal's squads for domestic and European duties this season, his most telling contribution in the final months of his career at the club was seemingly offering to cover the wages of mascot Gunnersaurus.

    The union had become broken to the point of no return in the closing stages, but there were plenty of good times before the inevitable break-up.

    FALLING HEAD OVER HEELS

    Ozil arrived at Arsenal in September 2013. The Gunners did not just break their transfer record to sign him from Real Madrid, they shattered it by paying around £42.5million.

    "This is an exciting day for all of us. We have signed a world-class player who is one of Europe's brightest young talents," said Ivan Gazidis, Arsenal's chief executive at the time, when the deal was announced.

    Gazidis was right: Ozil was 24, a Germany international and someone who had played regularly during three seasons in LaLiga. His departure from Madrid was not popular with players and fans alike in the Spanish capital, but a necessary consequence of a spending spree that included bringing in Gareth Bale from Tottenham.

    Arsenal's big-name recruit did not take long to make an impact, setting up a goal for Olivier Giroud 11 minutes into his Premier League debut away at Sunderland. It would be the first of many laid on for the Frenchman, who benefited more than any other team-mate from the playmaker's abilities.

    Ozil's eye for a pass and talent for producing subtle moments of skill saw him quickly enchant the club's fanbase. How could they possibly do anything but fall for him?

    His opening year in England saw him score five goals and contribute nine assists in 26 league appearances. He won the FA Cup, helping Arsene Wenger's side rally from an early 2-0 deficit to defeat Hull City 3-2 in the Wembley final. Two months later, he was lifting the World Cup in South Africa.


    THE GOLDEN YEARS

    Ozil's second season included a lengthy spell on the sidelines, restricting him to 22 outings in the Premier League. He did help them retain the FA Cup though, this time with a comprehensive 4-0 victory over Aston Villa.

    However, the Gunners saw the best of him in the two years that followed. In 2015-16, he laid on 19 assists – one shy of Thierry Henry's record – and created 146 chances, the latter number the most by any player in the competition for a single season since 2003-04. He was also the subject of seemingly thousands of Twitter memes, too.

    Arsenal ended up second in the final table, 10 points behind surprise champions Leicester City. The glass half-full type pointed to it being their best finish in 11 years, while the less optimistic sort strongly suggested it was more a missed opportunity.

    The following season was Ozil's best in terms of Premier League goals – eight in 33 games – but another possible title challenge faded after the turn of the year, leading to a finish outside the top four. There was yet another FA Cup success to at least ease the pressure on Wenger, but their streak of participating in the Champions League was over.

    Then, in February 2018, came Ozil's new contract. "I signed dat thing," he tweeted at the time, having committed through to 2021. Wenger was with him in the picture, though nobody knew at the time that the manager was coming towards the end of his tenure.

    A lucrative deal handed out to ward off potential suitors and tie down one of the club's leading names appeared a necessity at the time but would quickly become a millstone around the player's neck. The reported weekly salary was referenced so often in the media it should have been added to his name by deed poll.

    In terms of his future output, Ozil managed a mere six goals and five assists in 48 league games after the moment he put pen to paper for three more years.


    DRIFTING APART AND THE INEVITABLE SPLIT

    Relations became strained as Ozil shifted from eye-catching centrepiece to expensive luxury. The focus had switched from how much he produced on the ball to what he didn't do without it. The phasing-out process began during the Unai Emery reign, then led to him being completely ostracised by former team-mate Mikel Arteta.

    Yet it is easy to forget that he did start in the Spaniard's first game in charge, away at Bournemouth. "To be fair, his attitude in training since the day that I walked in the building has been incredible," Arteta told reporters after the 1-1 draw on Boxing Day in 2019.

    Still, six months later, when the Premier League returned following the coronavirus-enforced break, Arteta's tune had changed somewhat. After completely omitting Ozil from the squad to face Manchester City in June in the first game back, Arteta said: "I'm going to put him on the pitch when I think he can give his best.”

    There were two more fixtures when Ozil made the bench, only to be an unused substitute on both occasions. The 2019-20 season saw him play 18 times in the league and he managed a solitary goal and two assists. His final outing for the club came on March 3, 2020 – a 1-0 home victory over West Ham.

    Across his Arsenal career, Ozil provided 54 assists. Only Manchester City's Kevin De Bruyne (75) and David Silva (62), plus Tottenham's Christian Eriksen (62), contributed more assists for their teams since Ozil's arrival in England. When it comes to chances created, only Eriksen (571) beats Ozil's total of 558 – and the Dane played over 40 games more.

    And yet, as the divorce is confirmed, there is a sense of relief for all involved that it is all over. It was fun, for a while, but the time is right to move on.

  • Is Thiago Alcantara ill-suited to Liverpool's style of play? Is Thiago Alcantara ill-suited to Liverpool's style of play?

    Thiago Alcantara is a rather unique breed of footballer, the type of player who will be almost universally enjoyed such are his breath-taking technical attributes.

    It's like he rolls the passing talents of Juan Roman Riquelme and first touch of Ronaldinho into a single player and saunters around the pitch ensuring the game is played at a pace dictated by him.

    His Liverpool career feels a lot shorter than it actually has been because of his absence through injury, and he'll be hoping his recent return is the catalyst to kick-starting what is resembling a fairly meek title defence.

    But while Thiago has shown flashes of his immense ability in his fledgling Liverpool career, it appears not all are entirely convinced.

    Former Reds midfielder Dietmar Hamann expressed his reservations in an interview with talkSPORT on Tuesday, suggesting Thiago is detrimental to a key part of Liverpool's play; utilising a quick tempo with hard-working midfielders who look to get the ball forward to the front three as soon as possible.

    Hamann urged Liverpool to be cautious about how much influence they let Thiago have, questioning his effectiveness when not in possession and suitability to the Reds' system, concerns that won't have been eased by Thursday's shock defeat to Burnley.

    But does this give a fair reflection of Thiago?

    An unnecessary luxury?

    First of all, there are only so many conclusions you can make regarding Thiago and his time at Liverpool because he has not featured particularly often, as previously highlighted.

    But the fact is, Liverpool's record in Premier League games he has featured in is quite poor, with only one of those six ending in a victory.

    That win came in his Premier League debut, a 2-0 victory at Chelsea back in September – that's right, it was the game where he completed 75 passes despite only coming on at half-time, a record since Opta began recording such data in 2003-04 among players to play a maximum of 45 minutes.

    The hype after that match was stratospheric – the champions had seemingly added the final string to their bow and they were seemingly set to overwhelm everyone, but it's worth bearing in mind that was a Chelsea side reduced to 10 men before Thiago had even come on.

    Liverpool average just one point per game with Thiago, that more than doubles to 2.2 when he hasn't played – additionally, their win percentage rockets from 16.7 to 61.5 in games the Spaniard hasn't featured in.

    Of course, it's a relatively small sample size, so perhaps take the facts with a pinch of salt – but there are metrics that can shine more light on Thiago's influence.

    One of Hamann's major reservations related to Thiago's desire to dictate play and how he might, in the long run, negatively impact Liverpool's effectiveness off the ball.

    "Liverpool were always good when they weren't in possession, won it and played quickly forward. He's not that type of player, so it will be very interesting when he does play more often now how it's going to change the dynamics of the team," Hamann said.

    It's true, Liverpool do have more of the ball (65.7 per cent compared to 64.7) with Thiago in the side, but the difference is negligible and certainly cannot be pointed to as a cause for worry.

    The supply line

    Then there's the concerns relating to Thiago's style of play potentially impacting supply to the frontline. Well, the Reds average 18.7 shots per game when he plays (up from 14.9 without him).

    There is also no damning evidence to suggest Thiago isn't looking to feed the forwards either, after all, he passed to Mohamed Salah 11 times (a joint high) against Manchester United last weekend.

    He has picked out Salah 36 times in their 365 minutes on the pitch together – so, once every 10.1 minutes. Although that's less frequent than he passes to Trent Alexander-Arnold (once per every 8.2 minutes) and Andy Robertson (8.8 minutes), it shows he is supplying the Reds' most-threatening forward regularly.

    And while the two full-backs had off days against Burnley, can you really blame Thiago for passing to them often? Since the start of last season, they are Liverpool's leading providers of shooting opportunities.

    Additionally, his 14.9 passes into final third of the pitch per 90 minutes is second only to Jordan Henderson (16.2) among Liverpool players this term – Thiago beats him, and every other Red, in terms of successful passes in the attacking third every game, however (25.8, compared to Henderson's 20.5).

    "He's not that type of player"

    It's fair to say Thiago probably isn't best known for what he brings to teams off the ball, but despite some seemingly questioning him in this department, he appears to be at least pulling his weight.

    In fact, he's averaging marginally more tackles per 90 minutes than Henderson (1.5 over 1.4), while no one in the Liverpool team is intercepting opposition passes as frequently as the Barcelona product (2.8 per 90 mins).

    On top of that, he's ranked third in the squad for duel involvements (14.7 per 90 mins) – while not necessarily an indicator of excellence on its own, that should at the very least dispel any questions regarding his work rate.

    On an individual level when you look at the data, Thiago doesn't appear to be out of place stylistically. While he may occasionally spend more time on the ball than some of his midfield contemporaries, he possesses the kind of technical wizardry that arguably no other Liverpool player has and that is surely a positive rather than a negative.

    He's also clearly a hard-working player who offers plenty off the ball. So, while the Reds are going through a tricky patch at the moment, Thiago's abilities should be embraced rather than looked upon with suspicion.

  • NFL Talking Point: Who will emerge from the final four to win Super Bowl LV? NFL Talking Point: Who will emerge from the final four to win Super Bowl LV?

    The matchup for Super Bowl LV will be known by the end of this weekend as the two Conference Championships are decided.

    Probably the strangest season in NFL history has delivered a semi-final line-up to savour.

    There is a matchup between two future Hall of Famers in Green Bay, where Aaron Rodgers and the Packers face Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC Championship Game.

    The AFC Championship Game features two signal-callers well on their way to securing Hall of Fame status, with Patrick Mahomes recovering from a concussion to lead the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs against Josh Allen and the Buffalo Bills.

    Mahomes being available means the Chiefs remain the favourites to retain the trophy, but here Stats Perform's team of NFL writers make their picks as to who will emerge from the final four and prevail at Super Bowl LV in Tampa.

    Ben Spratt - CHIEFS TO CONQUER ALL ONCE MORE

    With Mahomes, the best quarterback in football, fit to play, it seems foolish to back against the Chiefs.

    The fourth-year superstar has the best career passer rating in playoff history (106.6), with his only two postseason interceptions coming in last year's Super Bowl when he subsequently led Kansas City to victory in a record-equalling 21-point fourth quarter.

    And yet this team is not just about Mahomes, as their QB has the luxury of targeting tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Tyreek Hill, who ranked second and eighth for receiving yards this season.

    Even when Mahomes was out against the Cleveland Browns, the Chiefs had a coach in Andy Reid ready to make the big calls to guide them through.

    Chris Myson - SEVENTH HEAVEN FOR BRADY

    The meeting of the minds between Bruce Arians and Brady was never going to be plain sailing in their first season, as two demoralising regular-season division losses to the New Orleans Saints showed.

    But the Buccaneers have gradually worked through their problems and are now riding a five-game winning streak, having seen off the Washington Football Team by eight points and the Saints by 10 in the postseason.

    At 43, Brady exceeded expectations in his first year in Arians' system, with 40 passing touchdowns being the second-best tally of his storied career, only the record-breaking 50 he got in 2007 topping that.

    It has historically proven wise not to bet against Brady in the playoffs, a case strengthened with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski and many more weapons representing the best supporting cast he has had in years.

    Rob Lancaster - WE BILL-IEVE!

    The Bills believe again. A franchise that has suffered more than their fair share of Super Bowl heartache in the past, losing four straight in the early 1990s, has high hopes that this could finally be their year.

    Allen holds the key for Buffalo; he finished in the top five for quarterbacks in terms of passing yards, touchdowns thrown and yards per attempt in the regular season.

    With his team rather abandoning the run in the playoffs – they posted a season-low 32 yards on the ground in the Divisional Round triumph over the Baltimore Ravens – the 24-year-old has the chance to excel against elite competition and, by lifting the Vince Lombardi Trophy, write his name into Buffalo folklore.

    Nicholas McGee - BACK THE PACK

    In last year's NFC Championship game, the Green Bay Packers were crushed by a San Francisco 49ers team that ran them over on offense and used their defense to swarm Aaron Rodgers and condemn him to another chastening playoff loss. 

    The Packers were seen as a regression candidate in 2020, but those who expected them to take a step back perhaps underestimated how much of an achievement it was for them to reach this stage last season in Rodgers' first year in Matt LaFleur's offense.

    His second year in the scheme, built around the same principles that form the basis of Kyle Shanahan's 49ers attack, has seen Rodgers take an offense widely regarded as the most creative in the game to new heights.

    A near-lock for the MVP award, Rodgers completed 70.7 per cent of his passes in the regular season for 4,299 yards, an incredible 48 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Behind only Deshaun Watson and Allen with a completion percentage over expectation of 4.4, according to NextGen Stats, Rodgers led the league in adjusted net yards per attempt, his average of 8.89 well clear of Mahomes (8.33) in second. 

    Possessing a near-telepathic connection with Davante Adams, Rodgers is playing at a level where he can outduel Brady, Allen or Mahomes, while the Packers defense is rounding into the kind of form where Green Bay can do what San Francisco couldn't last year, and make enough plays to stop the Chiefs from lifting the Lombardi Trophy.

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