Inside the NHL

As we end the current decade awaiting the October 2021 launch of Seattle’s incoming NHL expansion team, it seemed a good time to take a part-serious, part tongue-in-cheek look ahead 10 years at what a December 31, 2029 recap of the best local hockey moment of the 2020s might look like.

Picking the best Seattle hockey moment of the 2020s wasn’t all that difficult thanks to the magical spring enjoyed just 18 months ago.

Watching coach Peter DeBoer lead our Seattle Sockeyes to the Stanley Cup title after seven seasons of existence has no parallels. And that dramatic victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs almost never happened: The Houston Aeros nearly toppling the “Reds” in the opening round before Seattle rallied to silence the boo-birds calling for the coach’s head.

Sure, the locals were spoiled by five prior playoff appearances under DeBoer. Losing the 2026 Cup final to Detroit — despite the emotional scene of octogenarian Sockeyes co-owner Jerry Bruckheimer ceremonially dropping the puck ahead of Game 3 at Amazon Arena against his favorite boyhood club — had created a hunger only a championship would satiate.

Then, the devastating second-round loss in 2027 to the eventual champion Vegas Golden Knights had many wondering whether DeBoer and general manager Ron Francis would even survive the 2027-28 season.

They’d been adjoined ever since Francis snapped up DeBoer nearly a year ahead of schedule the summer of 2020.

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Missing the playoffs the 2021-22 expansion season was surprising, though the Sockeyes secured a top-10 draft pick amid all the howling about ticket prices. And using that to land undersized center Matthew Savoie, whose draft stock had tumbled over durability concerns, certainly helped Francis re-establish some bona fides.

Savoie demonstrated he truly was a generational talent, scoring 30 goals as a rookie and leading the Sockeyes to the playoffs. Paired on a line with converted winger Dylan Gambrell of Bonney Lake, the duo combined for 52 goals and 175 points.

And despite an emotion-charged first-round playoff exit against Vancouver, Francis erased the sting with a blockbuster July 2024 trade with the New York Islanders for onetime Seattle Thunderbirds standout Mathew Barzal.

The Islanders were reluctant to part with a center they’d signed to a seven-year, $58 million deal only a few seasons before. But they were rebuilding and needed all the prospects Francis wrangled from the Dallas Stars, Minnesota Wild and Ottawa Senators in pre-expansion-draft deals.

Adding Barzal and veteran winger Anatoly Golyshev from the Kontinental Hockey League as an Isles’ trade throw-in gave the Sockeyes two top scoring lines, bumping expansion pick Tyler Johnson of Spokane down to the No. 3 centerman role. It also took enough pressure off Savoie that he scored 42 goals his sophomore campaign to lead Seattle to a Pacific Division crown. Backstopped by former Everett Silvertips goalie Carter Hart — left unprotected by Philadelphia in a shocking expansion draft move — the Sockeyes easily dispatched Calgary, then Vancouver in a bitterly-fought 2024 conference semifinal before getting eliminated by Dave Tippett and his Edmonton Oilers.

The Oilers going on to win the Cup would become a recurring theme. Four straight years, the Sockeyes were eliminated by the eventual Cup winner, sparking discussion about whether Francis-DeBoer could take the next step.

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Francis by spring 2027 had already shrugged off some free agent misses, including the prior year’s ill-advised signing of T.J. Oshie for a Seattle farewell tour at age 39.

But arguably his best signing would come that summer of 2027, taking on center Jack Hughes after the elimination by the Knights. Savoie had gotten hurt early in that series and Francis wanted greater depth beyond a slowing Barzal.

Though Hughes never became the superstar envisioned after New Jersey drafted him No. 1 overall, his underlying advanced metrics in Dallas and San Jose were enough for Francis to offer a three-year deal. After popping 30 goals by the January 2028 All-Star break, Hughes had the Sockeyes stacked three lines deep and pegged as consensus Cup favorites.

They certainly had the defense, with Hart playing like a borderline Hall of Famer in front of primary blue-liners Noah Hanifin and Maxim Strbak.

You’ll remember the especially-tight arena security as fans came in droves via Monorail, Light Rail and Drone Taxi to see the Sockeyes in the 2028 final against the Leafs. NHL commissioner John Davidson wanted no championship round repeat of two years prior, when octopus and salmon carcasses littered the ice any time the Red Wings or Sockeyes scored at home.

This time, 97-year-old Totems legend Guyle Fielder dropped the puck ahead of Game 1, with Bruckheimer’s Hollywood pals, Pearl Jam and members of the recently-revived NBA Sonics watching alongside other VIPs.

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The Leafs were in the final after a 61-year absence and quickly made up for lost time by taking a Game 1 stunner in overtime — prompting the usual local jokes about the Mariners winning a World Series before the Sockeyes went all the way.

But Seattle rebounded in Game 2 and split the contests in Toronto before capturing Game 5. The Leafs rallied to win Game 6 in Toronto to force a seventh contest in Seattle that was scoreless before Hughes scored in the third period to ignite the crowd.

Eventual Conn Smythe Trophy winner Hart stopped everything as the 1-0 game ticked into the dying seconds. With the Leafs’ net empty for an extra attacker, Savoie won a critical own-zone faceoff back to Slovakian defender Strbak, who fed it up the right wing boards for recent trade deadline acquisition Kailer Yamamoto to fire home the empty netter. At that point, the smuggled-in salmon flew unfettered, prompting a 15-minute delay and extended Cup celebration by the red-towel-waving Sockeyes faithful.

Runner up for the decade’s top local story was, naturally, Snohomish native Lexi Bender coaching the Seattle Kraken to the Women’s National Hockey League crown just last spring.

But let’s face it: No hockey story this decade topped Lord Stanley’s mug being recaptured on Seattle soil 111 years after the last such feat. Not even the subsequent victory parade up a newly-widened Mercer Superhighway that had longtime locals wondering exactly when they’d awaken from this wildest of dreams.