With all the 2011 retrospectives now mercifully out of the way, it’s time to move on to previewing the hockey world for 2012. There is no shortage of hot-button issues that will need to be resolved over the next 12 months. Here are five of them:
1.The collective bargaining agreement.
As much as most fans loathe it, much of 2012 will be dominated by a battle between millionaires and billionaires over the roughly $3 billion in revenue the NHL now creates. Surely both sides couldn’t be reckless enough to allow that all to fall by the wayside for the second time in less than a decade, could they?
The league has maintained the current system only needs to be “tweaked,” but you can be sure its definition of a tweak will be much more dramatic than what the players have in mind, or at least it should be. What the system actually requires, if the CBA is to meet its stated objectives from the owners’ standpoint, is a complete overhaul and that’s not likely to happen if the league wants to keep playing.
The reality of the situation is the current CBA has not improved the lot of the small-market franchises one iota and has done absolutely nothing to encourage parity on the ice. The salary cap, more specifically the floor and not the ceiling, has created far more problems than it has solved. And the owners and GMs will once again have to be saved from themselves by tightening up the system to a) limit the lengths of contracts; b) prevent teams from front-loading deals; or c) both.
PREDICTION: The dark horse prediction is neither side will file to terminate the CBA 120 days prior to Sept. 15, which would allow it to roll over for another year. The more likely one is the two sides will somehow come to an agreement at the last hour, which will include a significant rollback with players getting less than 50 percent of revenue, but continued Olympic participation. However, even though the owners will talk tough, this agreement will still not fully satisfy their needs and the bellyaching will continue.
The biggest on-ice story of 2011 will continue to dominate the landscape in 2012. With greater awareness and more sensitivity to concussions, the numbers will continue to climb, but there is still a long way to go, as evidenced by Colby Armstrong of the Toronto Maple Leafs attempting to hide his concussion-like symptoms and the HBO 24/7 segment when Philadelphia Flyers coach Peter Laviolette appeared to be pressuring Claude Giroux to return from his concussion.
PREDICTION: Unless and until the NHL institutes a stiff penalty for all head shots regardless of intent, the injury lists will continue to be filled with players who have concussions, upper body injuries, head injuries or concussion-like symptoms. And the league has no appetite to do that.
3. Whither the Coyotes?
The NHL has already publicly stated it will no longer prop up a money-losing proposition and the City of Glendale has made it clear it will no longer stroke checks to cut the Coyotes losses. The only option that would favor the Coyotes would be to find an owner willing to absorb the massive losses it requires for the team to stay in Phoenix. Not happening.
PREDICTION: Like the Atlanta Thrashers last year, the Coyotes are gone. Where they’re headed, nobody knows. Another darkhorse prediction: Toronto finally gets the second NHL team it deserves and it will be placed in the suburb of Markham, where a 20,000-seat rink is in the planning stages. The team will play out of Hamilton for the two years it takes to build the rink.
4. Play great, win, repeat.
For the first time since the lockout, we’ve reached the halfway point of the schedule with the defending Stanley Cup champion playing like a Stanley Cup champion. After a terrible start, the Boston Bruins have been the best team in the NHL and look poised to take a run at becoming the first team to repeat since the 1997 and ’98 Detroit Red Wings.
PREDICTION: The Bruins will win the Eastern Conference, but will lose in the Stanley Cup final to either the Chicago Blackhawks or Vancouver Canucks.
5. Who has Hart?
There have been few seasons when the race for the Hart Trophy has been this wide open this late in the season. And the race for the other individual awards should be just as interesting.
PREDICTION(S): Don’t discount a second-half run by Alex Ovechkin, who looks like he’s starting to heat up, but it likely won’t be enough to usurp Henrik and Daniel Sedin, who will become the first brother combination in league history to finish 1-2 in NHL scoring. Lord knows how voters will decide which one wins the Hart. The one thing preventing one of them from winning would be that voters split the vote, letting someone else sneak through.
The Lady Byng Trophy will be won by a defenseman for the first time since Red Kelly in 1953-54 when Jared Spurgeon of the Minnesota Wild takes the trophy for most gentlemanly player.
The Rocket Richard will go to Steven Stamkos, who will be the only 50-goal scorer in the NHL this season.
The Vezina will go to Tim Thomas of the Bruins, who will continue to defy time and the limitations of advanced age.
Erik Karlsson of the Ottawa Senators will continue to put up his impressive offensive numbers to win his first Norris Trophy.
Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN’s other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.