Don’t think you’ve seen the last of the 12-9 games just because the All-Star Game is in the rear-view mirror. After all, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Winnipeg Jets play two more times this season, including Tuesday night, and Ilya Bryzgalov is bound to start one of them.
But as the league enters the stretch run, here are some of the issues that will take up a good part of the on- and off-ice landscape over the next couple of months:
• Whether he returns to the lineup or ultimately gets shut down for the rest of the season, Sidney Crosby will not cease to be a story. It’s hard to imagine the Pittsburgh Penguins screwing this up worse than they have on almost all fronts. It seems preposterous the Penguins doctors could have missed a broken neck, but then again we don’t wear stethoscopes for a living.
How both sides deal with this will merit lots of attention. The Penguins have to decide after July 1 what to do about a player who is due to become an unrestricted free agent in 2013 – one who is acknowledged as the best player in the world, but also one whose long-term future is more cloudy than ever.
• In their last home game before the all-star break, the Phoenix Coyotes had an “announced” (a.k.a. “bogus”) attendance figure of 8,061 against the Ottawa Senators. This came amid a proclamation from NHL commissioner Gary Bettman there is a mysterious third party interested in buying the Coyotes and keeping them in Phoenix.
Oh, really. And Greg Jamieson and Jerry Reinsdorf, who have done nothing more than kicked the tires, are considered the first two? If Bettman can somehow convince any legitimate owner to buy the Coyotes and keep them in Phoenix, all the while absorbing millions of dollars in losses, he should immediately be named commissioner for life and receive instant induction into the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Bettman’s statements make it clear he’s going to wait until the last possible moment to pull the plug on Phoenix. The question now is where will they end up? Quebec City, Seattle or Toronto?
• The New Jersey Devils are also a financial mess and the league is strong-arming Ray Chambers into continuing to absorb losses, despite the fact he cut a deal with Devils owner Jeffrey Vanderbeek to have Vanderbeek take his 47 percent of the Devils in exchange for a $25 million payment. The Devils are being advanced money from the league against future payments and have reportedly set a mid-February deadline for the Devils to get their affairs in order. Whether Vanderbeek or Chambers or billionaire Nelson Peltz ends up owning the team won’t be as intriguing as whether the Devils deal pending UFA Zach Parise at the trade deadline.
• Without Crosby in the Penguins lineup, will this be the year Evgeni Malkin adds the Hart Trophy to his Art Ross and Conn Smythe baubles? Those who watch Malkin regularly say he is playing the best hockey of his career – and that’s saying something. He’s sure to get a spirited contest from the likes of Claude Giroux, Marian Hossa and Pavel Datsyuk, any of whom would also be a first time MVP.
• Malkin is the only player currently on pace to eclipse the 100-point mark this season – he’s on a 103-point pace – and Steven Stamkos is on a clip that will see him score 55 goals, which would make him the only 50-goal scorer this season. The league, meanwhile, is scoring goals at a rate of just 5.18 per game (not including shootout goals), which represents the lowest per-game average since the lockout.
• The annual trade deadline sweepstakes is sure to reach a fever pitch in the next 27 days, but with so many teams so close to making the playoffs, it will be interesting to see which ones will be sellers and which will be buyers as the deadline approaches. What the Nashville Predators do with defensemen Shea Weber (a pending restricted free agent) and Ryan Suter (who is due to become a UFA July 1) bears watching. Do they keep them both to fortify a team that has a legitimate chance to go deep in the playoffs?
• How will the New York Rangers do the rest of the way? With Original Six champions in the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins the past two seasons, karma might be on the Rangers side. But can they win with an inexperienced defense corps, a second-tier offense and a power play that is near the bottom of the league? Apparently “Safe is Death” is no longer John Tortorella’s mantra.
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.