The lockout that lasted 119 days has ended, the new collective bargaining agreement is in place and the NHL is finally about to play games again after hastily arranged weeklong training camps around the league. Here are 10 questions and answers about the upcoming season:
1. What's the potential downside to teams playing 48 games in 99 days?
Injuries! The NHL is a physical game, with separated shoulders and pulled groins as prevalent as power plays and glove saves, not to mention concussions. Less time to rest will put the players at greater risk of getting hurt.
2. Has this kind of condensed schedule been used before?
Yes. The 1994-95 season was delayed by a lockout, too. After 48 games, New Jersey surged through the playoffs and won the Stanley Cup with a four-game sweep of Detroit in the finals, riding a young goalie named Martin Brodeur, a deep group of forwards and a creative coach in Jacques Lemaire. The teams that can minimize injuries, keep all four lines cohesive and fresh, and get consistent play in the net will fare best in this whirlwind season.
3. What might be more interesting than usual, with this shortened season?
The playoff races. Since the NHL started giving out standings points for losses in shootouts and overtimes, the competition for those eight spots in each conference sure hasn't fallen off. With fewer games, there's simply less time for struggling teams to drop out of the chase. Shootouts in particular will play an even more pivotal role in the season.
4. Can Los Angeles repeat as Stanley Cup champion?
Why not? The Kings are deep. They're confident. They have an exceptional goalie in Jonathan Quick. Staying healthy will be key. Leading scorer Anze Kopitar slightly injured his knee last week in Sweden and could miss a couple of games.
5. Is this the year a Canadian team will end that title-less streak north of the border?
Vancouver again has the best chance, though the Canucks have made a habit of following strong regular seasons with letdowns in May or June. They led the NHL with 111 points last year, but got bounced in the first round by the eventual champion Kings.
Toronto is a rebuilding after firing general manager Brian Burke last week. The Maple Leafs last made the playoffs in 2004, the longest current streak without an appearance in the league. Montreal, the last Canadian club to win a Stanley Cup, in 1993, posted the worst record in the Eastern Conference last season. Edmonton has a lot of emerging young stars but little depth. Winnipeg has trouble scoring. Ottawa is thin on defence. Jarome Iginla isn't getting any younger in Calgary.
6. Which team wanted the lockout to end more than any?
No one enjoyed watching all those games get cancelled, but Minnesota generated the most buzz last summer by signing free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to mega contracts. Then the Wild and their eager fans had to wait for perhaps the best team in the franchise's 13-year history to be unveiled. Now they get the chance to see what Parise and Suter can do, and capable complementary players like Mikko Koivu, Matt Cullen, Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard are poised to help the Wild make the playoffs for the first time in five years.
7. How is Sidney Crosby's head after a long layoff?
The headaches are gone for Sid the Kid, whose post-concussion symptoms have nagged one of the game's greatest stars for the last two years. Crosby, 25, is ready to help Pittsburgh return to prominence.
8. Who are the best rookies to watch?
Detroit's Damien Brunner, Edmonton's Justin Schultz and Minnesota's Mikael Granlund, to name a few. Brunner is expected to get plenty of scoring chances, as he did playing in Switzerland with teammate Henrik Zetterberg. Granlund, a Finnish sensation who has paparazzi and fans following him all over his home country, will be on the second line for the Wild.
9. Which will be the next franchise to relocate?
The New York Islanders are leaving Long Island for the fancy new arena in Brooklyn beginning in 2015. The Coyotes continue to face an uncertain future in Phoenix, and the NHL would love to add another team in Canada.
10. Speaking of moving, whatever happened to that realignment plan?
That still must be ironed out. The NHL decided about a year ago to move from six divisions to four conferences. Carolina, both New York teams, New Jersey, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Washington would be in one group; Boston, Buffalo, Montreal and Toronto, Florida and Tampa Bay would be another; Chicago, Columbus, Dallas, Detroit, Minnesota, Nashville, St. Louis and Winnipeg would be a third; and Anaheim, Los Angeles, San Jose, Phoenix, Calgary, Colorado, Edmonton and Vancouver would be the last.
The NHL Players Association stalled the implementation, citing concerns about increased travel and competitive imbalance, with two conferences of eight teams each and two others with seven apiece. The issue was not part of the CBA talks, though, so that's the next item for the two sides to work on. When the Atlanta franchise moved to Winnipeg in 2011, the Jets remained in the Southeast Division. So some kind of shift will have to be made.
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