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Olympics loom large as another NHL regular season gets going

The biggest impact on this NHL season won't be made by a breakout player or an upstart team. It's going to come from the Olympic tournament in Vancouver.

The 2010 Winter Games will not only halt the schedule for 14 days in February, they will have a huge bearing other portions of the season as well.

Players around the league will be auditioning for Olympic spots from the time the puck is dropped Thursday night until the final rosters are selected in December. As a result, the Games promise to be a dominant storyline.

"It's the opportunity of a lifetime," said Team Canada boss Steve Yzerman, and he wasn't just speaking for Canadians.

There isn't a Finn or Swede or American or Russian who won't want to take part in the last Olympic tournament guaranteed to involve NHL players. While several prominent Russians including Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin say they'll also play the Games in their homeland in 2014, it remains to be seen whether the NHL will consent to having its schedule interrupted again for that event.

By the time this season's Olympic break arrives on Feb. 15, it should be a little clearer if the Pittsburgh Penguins have what it takes to challenge for another championship. The baby-faced Penguins proved last spring that kids grow up fast as Malkin, Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury all had a chance to lift the Stanley Cup.

People around the NHL certainly took notice of that.

"It's really scary for the rest of us in the league, to see that many young players that know what it takes to win," said Columbus Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock. "It's dangerous for the rest of us. I hope they're really tired when they start, but I have a feeling they won't be."

The only thing tougher than winning one Stanley Cup is following it up with another one. Just ask the Detroit Red Wings, who won the championship in 2008 but were unable to finish off the Penguins a year later despite holding a 3-2 series lead.

Red Wings coach Mike Babcock felt his team struggled with a championship hangover and figures a similar malady could infect Penguins this season. He believes there's a price to be paid for a summer spent with the Stanley Cup.

"It's just a party magnet," said Babcock. "You want to celebrate it with everybody, and you want to share it with everyone. And it's been the greatest ride of your life. I don't doubt Pittsburgh did that. They can tell you anything they want. I did it last year.

"I told my players we were not tired - I told them all year, yet I knew we were exhausted. My point being is the emotional well is only so deep. You've got to recharge that."

Another regular season will start without some familiar faces, many of whom simply didn't have enough left physically to keep playing the game at its highest level.

That was certainly the case with Joe Sakic, who spent all 20 of his NHL seasons with the Colorado/Quebec franchise and walks away as the league's eighth all-time scoring leader. He desperately wanted to keep going and had an eye on representing Canada at the Olympics in his home province, but ultimately decided to call it quits.

"I didn't think I could be the player I wanted to be," said Sakic, a stoic competitor on the ice who broke down in tears while making the announcement.

Jeremy Roenick, Claude Lemieux (again), Olaf Kolzig, Theoren Fleury, Patrice Brisebois, Mike Sillinger and Jason Smith also decided to hang up their skates. Chris Chelios and Mats Sundin remain without contracts and have yet to announce their intentions.

Meantime, the list of former NHLers making the move to Russia's Kontinental Hockey League continues to grow. While some guys like Sergei Zubov and Sergei Fedorov are approaching the end of their careers, younger players like Nikolai Zherdev, Jiri Hudler and Anton Babchuk also made the move.

They're far from alone. Martin Gerber, Mikael Tellqvist, Ossi Vaananen, Viktor Kozlov, Dmitri Kalinin and many others are also now earning Russian rubles.

The NHL will try to reinforce its presence in Europe once again by playing regular season games on the continent for the third straight year. Chicago and Florida play a pair of games in Helsinki while Detroit and St. Louis square off for two in Stockholm.

Unlike in previous years, those matchups won't kick off the schedule. That task falls to four games on Thursday night - Montreal-Toronto, Vancouver-Calgary, Washington-Boston and San Jose-Colorado (where Sakic's No. 19 will be retired by the Avalanche).

There should be several highlights before the season wraps up on April 11: Toronto and Detroit play the annual Hockey Hall of Fame game on Nov. 7, two days before Yzerman, Brian Leetch, Luc Robitaille, Brett Hull and Lou Lamoriello are inducted; Philadelphia visits Boston's Fenway Park for the outdoor Winter Classic on Jan. 1; and Detroit-Pittsburgh play a Stanley Cup rematch at Joe Louis Arena on March 22.

Another wrinkle brought on by the Olympics is a slightly more compressed schedule. Teams will be sure to monitor the energy of their players even more closely than usual - especially the guys who will be representing their country at the Olympic tournament.

"Depth is going to be key," said Babcock. "I can't be playing (Henrik) Zetterberg and (Pavel) Datsyuk 22 minutes a night. I'm going to have to play them 18 minutes a night. ...

"There's got to be a four-line rotation. If we put them all in one group, I think we're going to be in trouble, because injuries just have to rack up. You can't continue to play that amount of hockey and ask your guys to play as hard with this kind of schedule."

For all the good news generated during an entertaining playoffs last year, it was a tumultuous off-season.

The NHL Players' Association ousted executive director Paul Kelly in the wee hours of the morning - a decision that was unpopular with some players, including Crosby. Ian Penny is currently in charge of the union on an interim basis.

And the Phoenix Coyotes bankruptcy case generated headlines in Canada all summer long.

Judge Redfield T. Baum has yet to make a ruling on who owns the team, but it appears the Coyotes will spend at least one more season in the desert no matter what. Even with all the distractions brought on by the court proceedings and coach Wayne Gretzky's pre-season departure, the team still has aspirations of competing in the Western Conference.

"I legitimately think we have an opportunity to get to the playoffs," said Coyotes GM Don Maloney. "I know where we're going to be picked in the pre-season - it's just inevitable given the unrest out there. Everybody's going to think we're going to be a terrible hockey team and I don't buy it for a minute.

"I think we're going to be a good one. I firmly believe it."

There is hope and optimism to be found in all 30 dressing rooms at this time of year.

Conference finalists Chicago, Detroit, Carolina and Pittsburgh all hope to be among the top in the league and expect to be joined by the likes of San Jose, Calgary, Philadelphia, Washington and Boston. Any of those teams - and perhaps a few others - could emerge as the one to beat.

"It was unbelievably close (last season) and I'm going to say this year's going to be just like it," said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville. "It's great for the league - the parity at the top end is right there.

"But I don't think anybody is clearly better than anybody this year."


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