This is the second installment of Last Word on Hockey’s five-part series breaking down the top 50 personalities in the hockey world during 2016. They were picked based on skill, accomplishments, notoriety, or compelling narratives.
Last Word on Hockey’s Top 50 Personalities of 2016: 40-31
40. Johnny Gaudreau
After winning the Hobey Baker Award in 2014 and a scintillating 2015 which saw Johnny Gaudreau finish as a Calder Trophy finalist, the undersized winger from Salem, New Jersey hit the stratosphere in 2016, emerging as a legitimate star in just his second NHL season.
Gaudreau finished the 2015-16 campaign with 30 goals and 78 points, increases on both of his rookie totals, to finish tied for sixth in NHL scoring with Joe Pavelski.
In January, Gaudreau made his second straight NHL All-Star Game appearance, scoring three points during the mini three-on-three tournament, however losing out the MVP award to John Scott.
Gaudreau served as a leader for the young Team North America at the revived World Cup of Hockey, scoring two goals and two assists in three games during the September tournament.
In October, Gaudreau narrowly avoided missing time due to a contract dispute, as the Calgary Flames signed the 23-year-old winger to a six-year, $40.5 million deal, cementing his place as the franchise’s next great winger.
39. Wayne Gretzky
The Great One hasn’t spent much time in the limelight since leaving the NHL in 2009 after an unsuccessful stint coaching the (then) Phoenix Coyotes, but he returned with a bang in 2016.
Wayne Gretzky made a triumphant return to the ice for an NHL event for the first time since 2003, when he suited up in his familiar Edmonton Oilers #99 jersey to face-off against the Winnipeg Jets alumni in the 2016 Heritage Classic Alumni Game. While the results on the ice weren’t memorable (Gretzky famously appraised his performance by saying “I stink”), hockey fans were overjoyed to see “99” back on the ice. Gretzky is also slated to suit up for the St. Louis Blues alumni in the NHL Winter Classic Alumni Game.
Perhaps most significant for Oilers fans however was his return to the organization in an official capacity in October as partner and vice-chairman of the Oilers Entertainment Group.
Topping it off, Gretzky finished the year by making a brief cameo on a Christmas episode of The Simpsons.
38. Jim Benning
Perhaps no executive in the NHL has been as beleaguered as Vancouver Canucks General Manager Jim Benning during the past year.
The Canucks plummeted down the standings in 2015-16 after reaching the playoffs the year before, posting one of the worst seasons in franchise history and finishing 28th in the NHL.
Then in June, after losing big-time in the NHL Draft Lottery and falling from third overall to fifth, Benning was fined $50,000 by the league for “tampering” after making comments about Montreal Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban and Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos at the 2016 NHL Entry Draft.
More egregious has been Benning’s constant refrain that the Canucks would continue to operate with the mindset of competing to make the playoffs. As 2016 nears its end, the Canucks again sit 28th, and calls for Benning’s job grow ever louder.
37. Carey Price
There’s no doubt that 2015 was a banner year for Montreal Canadiens netminder Price, who won the Ted Lindsay, Jennings, Vezina and Hart trophies after a campaign in which he lead the league in wins, goals against average and save percentage.
Price began 2015-16 posting similar numbers, but was sidelined after just 12 games with an MCL sprain that would keep him out of action for the rest of the year. Though not on the ice, his presence (or lack thereof) was felt acutely in Montreal, as the Canadiens went from Eastern Conference contender and Atlantic Division champions to 6th in the division and outside of the playoffs. Any doubters left about Price’s value to his team were silenced.
Price would make a dominating return for the 2016 World Cup of Hockey, leading the tournament in wins (five), goals against average (1.40) and save percentage (.957) while allowing just seven goals in five games to lead Team Canada to the title.
Price continued his domination to start the 2016-17 season, becoming the first goaltender to win each of his first 10 games. As the calendar flips over to 2017, Price is again back in his accustomed position, as one of the best goaltenders in the world, and perhaps of his generation.
36. Steven Stamkos
The past year was unkind to the best goalscorer in the NHL not named Alex Ovechkin, as Stamkos has been beset with a number of injury problems, leaving some to wonder about his legacy.
In April, after another season in which Stamkos continued to climb the franchise scoring ranks and was in shooting distance of his fifth 40-goal campaign, the club announced their franchise player had been diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome and would require surgery. By May, Stamkos was back in the lineup for Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it was too little, too late for the Lightning. Stamkos had five shot attempts, but Tampa Bay was eliminated.
Over the summer, Stamkos, an unrestricted free agent, was at the top of the rumor mill as people speculated over what he would do. As it turned out, the drama was all for naught, as the Lightning locked him up to an eight-year, $68 million deal, making him one of the highest paid players in the league.
After helping Canada to a 2016 World Cup victory in the offseason, Stamkos started strong in 2016-17, posting nine goals and 20 points through his first 17 games before falling to another injury. This time it was his knee, and Stamkos was expected to miss the majority of the season, as he’s not expected to return until March.
35. Gerard Gallant
Could a coach have a more up-and-down year than Gerard Gallant? After finishing sixth in the Atlantic Division and missing the playoffs after his first season behind the bench for the Florida Panthers, Gallant led the team to its best season ever in 2015-16.
The club set franchise records for wins (47) and points (103) en route to just its second division title and first playoff appearance in three years (though they would lose in the opening round to the New York Islanders).
For his efforts Gallant was nominated for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL’s top coach, and it looked as though the Panthers had become a contender under his watch.
However the Panthers came out flat to start 2016-17, winning just five of their first 21 games in regulation (11-10-1 overall) and Gallant became the first coaching casualty of the new season. Gallant was seen leaving the arena in a taxi after his firing, as hockey fans wondered how the Panthers and Gallant had fallen so far, so quickly.
34. Pavel Datsyuk
There was speculation by some prior to the end of the 2015-16 campaign that Detroit Red Wings superstar forward Pavel Datsyuk might opt for Russia over staying in Detroit to finish off his contract.
On June 18 those speculations came to pass, as Datsyuk announced he was leaving the Red Wings to return to his homeland after a 14-year Hall of Fame career in the NHL during which he won two Stanley Cups and four Lady Byng trophies.
However the dynamic winger’s departure put the Wings in a tough salary cap bind, and Detroit General Manager Ken Holland was forced to ship his contract to the Arizona Coyotes along with the 16th overall pick in exchange for two lower picks and Joe Vitale.
On July 8, the 37-year-old signed a two-year contract with SKA Saint Petersburg to play alongside former NHLers and fellow Russian great Ilya Kovalchuk.
33. Matt Pfeffer
The summer trade which sent Subban to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Shea Weber sent shockwaves across the NHL, and standing in the middle of the aftermath was Pfeffer.
The 21-year-old was hired as an analytics consultant by the Canadiens in 2015, but it was his statements after the Subban-Weber swap which made headlines. Reportedly, Pfeffer had made an impassioned case against the trade to the Canadiens brass, arguing the data supported keeping Subban in the fold. Obviously his report fell on deaf ears, as Subban was dealt anyways.
Pfeffer quickly became the poster boy for the “old school vs. new school” analytics debate, as he commented on “pushback” from people in the league about new ways of interpreting data, though he defended the Canadiens after he was let go by the team.
32. Dani Rylan
Heading in 2016, Dani Rylan, the commissioner of the new National Women’s Hockey League, had a lot of work to do. The new women’s professional league had opened in 2015 with much hype, but a series of public relations disasters soon followed.
In March, a series of allegedly leaked emails went public, claiming unpaid depts, gross mismanagement and a lack of investors. Ultimately the entire situation devolved into a series of lawsuits against various parties, with Rylan in the middle of the chaos.
While the league continues to struggle through its infancy, recently slashing salaries and introducing a new revenue sharing arrangement, the NWHL was however able to take a huge step forward for gender rights in October, as Harrison Browne, who played as Hailey Browne during the league’s inaugural season, came out publicly as a transgender man. Rylan called it a “unique opportunity” to “accelerate social progress.”
31. Gordie Howe
The debate is as old as the league itself: Who is the greatest player in NHL history? Generally it comes down to four players, including Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, and Bobby Orr. However, if it were up to both Gretzky and Orr, there would be no debate; nobody compared to Gordie.
On June 10 the hockey world lost perhaps its most beloved figure, as Gordie Howe, known to generations as simply “Mr. Hockey,” succumbed to declining health and died at the age of 88.
The hockey world instantly went into mourning and the outpouring of emotional tributes hadn’t been seen since Maurice Richard died 16 years earlier. A public visitation of Howe lasted for hours, as thousands poured in to pay tribute and say a last goodbye to one of hockey’s greatest legends. Said Gretzky, “The world isn’t as good a place as it was when he was here.”
Watch for part three in our series of hockey’s top personalities of 2016 coming soon.