Well here’s something I didn’t think I was going to get to write this year—a list of the biggest storylines for the upcoming NHL season. Just three weeks ago I had pretty much given up all hope that the groundless and maddening NHL lockout would ever end. Now here I am, very pleasantly surprised to be thinking about what this shortened 2013 NHL season has in store for us.
Now, the list that follows is not a series of predictions. With all the unknowns of a shortened and condensed season—one preceded by a bizarre offseason and minimalist training camps—there are more questions heading into battle than normal. And this list is an attempt to find the biggest and most interesting questions.
So, are you ready to get started?
Great. Right this way…
Rumor has it that the new CBA includes a so-called "amnesty buyout" clause. Basically, teams will get two chances—one this season, and one next season—to wipe terrible contracts off the books. Of course, they'll have to pay 2/3 of the players' salaries, spread out over several years. But those payments won't count against the salary cap.
Now, this really doesn't matter to low-budget teams and/or well-run teams like Nashville, St. Louis, Phoenix, and Ottawa. However, it obviously matters a lot to the free-spending idiot owners whose lack of self-control and unwillingness to support "non-traditional hockey markets" brought about the lockout in the first place.
Some of the obvious candidates for amnesty buyouts over the next two season? How about:
Ilya Bryzgalova, Flyers (year 2 of a 9-year, $51M deal)
Tim Thomas, Bruins ($5M cap hit for a guy "on sabatical"?)
Marian Hossa, Blackhawks (current contract has a $5.275M cap hit through 2021)
Rick DiPietro, Islanders ($4.5M cap hit through 2012 for most breakable man in hockey)
Of course, there's another guy whose team could use the amnesty buyout to dispose of if they can't find some team to take on his monster contract. And that is...
11. What contracts will get bought out?
Roberto Luongo had been mostly stellar for the Canucks. However, he had a few shaky games on the road to Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011 and a few bad games to start off the 2012 Stanely Cup Playoffs. So Vancouver decided it was time to give the top job to backup Corey Schneider. Now Luongo is on the trading block.
The only problem is that Luongo is signed to one of those monster deals that this lockout was all about—a 12-year, $64M albatross with a $5.33M cap hit that pays Bobby Lou until he's...gulp...43 years old. With that kind of contract, the Canucks won't get much in return for Luongo. So they need a trade partner with a lot of dough and enough cap space and a need for a new #1 goalie.
Basically, the Canucks need the Toronto Maple Leafs. Or maybe the Florida Panthers. (That's where Luongo got his start, and it's been rumored he wouldn't object to going back there...especially now that they are a playoff team.) However, if the Canucks can't work out a deal, don't be surprised if they use their 2013 amnesty buyout on their former #1 goalie.
10. Where will Luongo play?
Sidney Crosby is the best hockey player in the world. Probably. And if he's not #1, he's #2. That's why the NHL basically put all of their marketing eggs in his basket. The league and the sport needs him to be healthy—especially coming off another disastrous lockout.
Plus, it's just fun to watch this guy play. The NHL isn't the same without him.
So let's all hope that Crosby's concussion problems are a thing of the past.
9. Will we get a full season from Sidney Crosby?
Speaking of guys without whom the NHL is not the same, here's another big question: can Alex Ovechkin go back to the way he was? You know, the guy who scores 60 goals and flattens opponents with reckless (but enthusiastic) hits at center ice?
The last two years have been the worst of his career. Maybe it was because the yin to his yang was missing (Sidney Crosby), or maybe it was because he started playing tentative when the NHL started fining him for his knee-on-knee hits, or maybe he just needed to find true love. But surely this guy's skills can't be in decline at the age of 27.
Like Sid the Kid, the NHL is a better, more exciting league with the Great 8 at his best. So will he be? At his best, that is?
8. Can Ovechkin regain his form as a top 3 player?
On the one hand, teams will play fewer games. That could help keep veterans (or maybe you call them old farts) fresh for a longer period of time, which would benefit older teams.
On the other hand, those fewer games will be condensed into a shorter time. Thus, everything will be magnified: short losing streaks will be long losing streaks, short slumps will be long slumps, minor injuries will be major injuries, and bad luck will be catastrophic luck. Also, players that typically require more breathers—like the afore-mentioned old farts, as well as goalies—will become even more significant.
What does all this mean? Well, basically it means that while the teams with depth are always the better teams, this season this will more true than ever. Injuries that cost s player 3 games last season might cost them 5 or 6 this season, so the teams with more capable replacements will do better.
And interestingly, the teams with the best backup goaltenders—like the Blues, or maybe the Ottawa Senators—should also have a slight advantage.
7. What will be the effect of a shortened season?
The NHL owners' biggest demand heading into the lockout was this: someone, anyone—make us stop giving out insanely long, lucrative contracts. Please!
Well, someone made them stop. Contracts will now be limited to 7 years, or 8 if a player resigns with his own team. But right before the lockout, some pretty wacko deals were made.
The most notable, of course, were the mathcing 13-year, $98M deals (with $7.54 cap hits) the Minnesota Wild handed out to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter. Will these signings actually make the Wild a contender? And will they force them to use one of their amnesty buyouts on, say, Dany Heatley and his $7.5M cap hit?
Another huge free agent signing was that of Shea Weber. When the ridiculous Philadelphia Flyers (the team that signed the wacky, up-and-down Ilya Bryzgalov to a 9-year deal after dumping Mike Richards and Jeff Carter) offered Weber another insane deal, they forced Nashville to either remain sane or lose their franchise player and lone superstar. So the Preds signed Weber to a 14-year, $110M deal with a $7.86M cap hit. The question there will thus be, can the low-budget team put enough competitive players around Weber to maintain their status an elite NHL squad?
Oh, and what about the offseason's biggest trade (so far): Rick Nash to the Rangers. New York was already one of the league's best teams last year. Does the addition of an offensive genius like Nash make them Cup favorites? And what about Columbus—will anyone go to their games this year?
6. How will the big offseason transactions play out?
Obviously, any coach working for a big-spending team with high-expectations will stand to lose his job should his team bomb, but some coaches come into the year already on the hot seat.
One example? Joel Quenneville in Chicago. Yeah, he brought the city it's first Stanley Cup in like 200 years back in 2010. But since then the team has struggled to play consistent hockey and has not even sniffed a return to the Cup Finals. So if the Hawks struggle out of the gate this year, I think the team will drop the axe pretty quick.
Other coaches already on the hot seat? Well, there's Lindy Ruff in Buffalo. He's the longest tenured coach in the NHL and his team did not live up to its big-spending expectations last year. If they struggle again I think he's a goner.
There's also Mike Yeo in Minnesota. This will be only his second year behind an NHL bench, but with the new price tag on his team I doubt owner Craig Leipold will wait too long to hand the reins to a more experience coach—especially if guys like Quenneville or Ruff become available early.
5. Who will be the first coach fired?
The Oilers decided the pull the plug a few years back and go into full-on rebuild mode. Now they have the most exciting crop of youngsters the NHL. Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have a combined age of just 62. Eberle is the oldest at just 22. So will this be the year that it all starts to come together?
And what about the Islanders and John Tavares? No, really. Sure, the Islanders are a horrible organization, but Tavares is the kind of guy you build around. Maybe they'll surprise this year.
Or maybe Carolina or Colorado with their young talent? Who will be this year's St. Louis Blues?
And which teams of the old guard will finally fall this year? I'd say San Jose's time might be up. Chicago's goaltending is still iffy. And who knows what could happen in a shorter season to teams like Detroit or Vancouver or Philadelphia if they lost key players to injury.
The point is this: the shortened season could yield some wacky results. So stay tuned.
4. Who will be the surprise team?
Why should anyone outside Toronto care if the Maple Leafs make the playoffs? Because they are the NHL's most valuable franchise (valued by Forbes at over $1 billion) and they haven't played in the postseason since before the last lockout.
Imagine if the New York Yankees didn't make the playoffs for almost a decade, and if they made crazy personnel decisions (like firing their GM 10 days before the start of a season).
That's what the Leafs are like. They are an embarrassment to the league and a symptom of everything that's wrong with it.
3. Will the Leafs make the playoffs?
Will this finally be the year that the young guys who have been hyped for a few years finally take their games (and their teams) to the next level? Of course I'm thinking of guys like Tyler Seguin in Boston, Taylor Hall in Edmonton, John Tavares in Long Island, or Jeff Skinner in Carolina. They've already been good, but will they become genuine superstars?
Last year Erik Karlsson was the year's biggest breakout player. Who's next?
2. What players will have breakout seasons?
There's no question that the die-hards will come back. They cannot stay away; hockey is in their blood.
The real question is whether the casual NHL fans will come back. And not just this year, but ever.
Sure, teams can do their best to woo them back. Pittsburgh was the first team to announce official "please forgive us" gimmicks yesterday—they'll have free concessions and half-price merchandise for the first game of the season. And surely other teams will follow suit.
However, nothing any single team does can erase the image the league has cultivated for itself. To casual observers, the NHL looks like the stupidest pro sports league on the planet.
They insist on keeping teams where they don't work, and yet the richest teams will only do the bare minimum to ensure that those teams survive. (FYI, $200M in revenue sharing aint gonna cut it). As a group the teams make somewhere in the neighborhood of $600M in profits, and yet they make the players sacrifice more of their salaries so the poor teams can stay afloat. And of course they give huge, untenable contracts to players, and then insist the players agree to make them stop going that.
Oh, and they think it won't matter if they just don't play a season.
I mean, could you imagine a corporation like Sony just being like, "Um, hey everybody, we're not going to make any TVs this year. Sorry. Please consider buying our TVs next year!" It's insane.
So yeah, that's the biggest question: can the will non-hardcore fans ever care about the NHL again?
If so, it will take a wholesale transformation of the league's image. And you know what that means, right Gary Bettman?
1. Will the fans come back?
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