- Scott Burnside, NHL
- 0 Shares
As we reach the halfway point of the season, we look back at the 10 storylines we thought would have a major bearing on the NHL when the season began:
1. Pick a Finn, any Finn
Prediction: After deciding Evgeni Nabokov wasn't the guy to get them over the hump, the San Jose Sharks went with not one, but two Finnish netminders in the hopes of solving their Stanley Cup puzzle. Remember, the Sharks were the original home of Finnish goaltenders Miikka Kiprusoff and Vesa Toskala, who both went on to varying degrees of success elsewhere. Now, it's Antero Niittymaki and Cup-winning netminder Antti Niemi, who was set free by Chicago after they declined to agree with an arbitrator's salary ruling. It's an interesting decision that will certainly be followed by an interesting battle.
Update: As the NHL heads into the third quarter things are definitely a little upside-down in San Jose. We're used to the Sharks effortlessly piling up regular-season points before imploding when it really counts -- in the playoffs. But as of the halfway point in the regular season, the Sharks were in 11th place in the Western Conference and, as of writing this, losers of five straight. Goaltending isn't necessarily the sole cause of the Sharks' woes, but the picture in goal remains murky at best. Niemi has gotten the bulk of the starts but has managed to compile a pedestrian 9-13-2 record with an equally unimpressive .907 save percentage and .285 GAA. He has lost four in a row and five of seven. Niittymaki, on the other hand, is 12-5-3 but doesn't seem to have the confidence of the coaching staff and has been relegated to backup duty. There's no indication that GM Doug Wilson is looking to upgrade his goaltending, but the fact of the matter is, like the rest of the Sharks, the Finnish duo has been a little underwhelming and will have to be better for the Sharks to even make the playoffs, let alone going on the long playoff run many were expecting this season.
2. 'The Summer of Kovy' becomes "The Season of Kovy'
Prediction: There are many storylines in New Jersey after the adventure-filled summer that was the Ilya Kovalchuk contract mess. The Devils got their man, but at a king's ransom. After the assets originally paid out to Atlanta, New Jersey was then accountable for the 15-year, $100 million deal finally approved by the league and the penalties for trying to usurp the collective bargaining agreement, including a $3 million fine and forfeited draft picks.
There will be pressure to live up to all that. So, how does the big Russian play? Do he, Zach Parise and Travis Zajac become the NHL's hottest trio? Is there lingering resentment in the locker room after the cap issues Kovy's contract created (Dainius Zubrus was put on waivers Tuesday)? Those feelings will certainly be blunted if Kovalchuk can help the Devils get out of the first round for the first time in four seasons.
Update: The Summer of Kovy has evolved into the season from hell for Kovalchuk and the New Jersey Devils. On pace for one of the worst showings in franchise history, the Devils have established themselves as by far the worst team in the NHL through the first half of the season. It remains shocking to write those words, yet it is so by almost any measuring stick. The normally stingy Devils are a league-worst minus-55 in goal differential, they are dead last in goals per game, they are 27th in goals allowed per game and they are 27th on the power play. They fired rookie head coach John MacLean and brought in Jacques Lemaire for a third go-round as coach, and still the losing continues. They traded their captain, Jamie Langenbrunner, and are looking to unload other contracts. None of which changes the sobering reality that this team is broken and it's not going to be fixed anytime soon.
Kovalchuk's signing stands as one of the great faux pas in sports history. After giving up a bevy of valuable assets to first acquire Kovalchuk a year ago from Atlanta, the Devils have been fined $3 million for trying to circumvent the salary cap and lost two draft picks (one a first-rounder) as punishment. But the real punishment is having Kovalchuk under contract for the next 14½ years. The Russian sniper is on pace for a paltry 20 goals and 46 points, by far his lowest totals as an NHLer. He is also a mind-boggling minus-29. Worse, his 15-year, $100 million contract will make it next to impossible to sign star Parise -- out for the most of the season with a knee injury -- to a long-term deal.
3. Heads up
Prediction: Will there be a reduction in the kinds of sickening blows to the head we saw last season, when Mike Richards essentially destroyed David Booth's season and Matt Cooke took out Marc Savard with a blindside hit that continues to haunt Savard and the Bruins? When the NHL rushed through its new blindside rule late last season, there were no more events of this nature. Coincidence? We'll find out whether the new laws prohibiting these kinds of predatory hits actually make players think twice. If we aren't discussing the issue at the end of this season, it will be a good thing.
Update: Sadly, the issue of blows to the head remains a hot-button topic for the NHL -- specifically, how the league plans on eliminating them. Apparently, having a rule on the books (Rule 48.1, to be exact) hasn't helped clarify the situation or reduce the number of players missing in action from said hits. A week doesn't pass that there isn't some debate on at least one play involving a player being clocked in the head. Nothing illustrates the conundrum more than the hit by Washington forward David Steckel on Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby during the Winter Classic. There's nothing to suggest any intent on Steckel's part in clipping Crosby in the noggin. But he did. And Crosby wasn't looking and now he's been out for more than a week and the return of the game's best player remains uncertain. No fine, no suspension, nothing. Maybe at some point this ongoing discussion will yield clarity on the issue of how the league can keep its most important assets safe. Maybe. It certainly isn't any clearer now, much to the league's shame.
4. Cup hangover or Cup rejuvenation?
Prediction: Once again, the Chicago Blackhawks are going to be one of the top stories in the NHL regardless of how things go. If they struggle with a lineup remade thanks to serious salary-cap woes, GM Stan Bowman will receive some criticism on how he played the difficult hand dealt him. If, as we believe, there will be almost no dropoff in the team's level of play, Bowman should come in for some heady praise. The battle for the top spots in the Western Conference should be interesting, with Detroit, San Jose and Vancouver all primed for a run at the roses. (For what it's worth, we have them returning to the Cup finals for the second straight season.)
Update: It's taken a while, but the defending Cup champs are looking more and more champ-like with each passing day. As of this writing, they had won eight of their past 12 and were on the north side of the playoff Mendoza Line, which hasn't always been the case through an up-and-down first half. Injuries to Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Marian Hossa, among others, have stunted the Hawks' ability to redefine themselves after making wholesale changes in the weeks after winning the Cup. Netminder Corey Crawford is looking very Niemi-like as he's pushed aside veteran Marty Turco to become the team's go-to guy in net (he is 15-8-1). More positive signs include the play of rookie Bryan Bickell (tied for third among all first-year players with 24 points, plus-10), Dave Bolland, who was also injured, and defending Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, who has put behind him a rocky start to the season. They may not yet have the swagger of the team that marched to its first Cup win since 1961, but I can't imagine many teams in the Western Conference will be relishing tangling with these Hawks come April.
5. Kids in the house
Prediction: Can Taylor Hall save the Oilers from themselves? Maybe not by himself, but with an exciting young supporting cast that includes fellow rookies Jordan Eberle and Magnus Paajarvi, Hall is expected to usher in a new era for the hard-luck Oilers. They can sure use it after yet another ugly offseason that followed yet another ugly regular season. At some point their starting goaltender, Nikolai Khabibulin, could go to jail after being convicted of drunk driving. The Oil also asked their highest-paid defenseman, Sheldon Souray, to stay away from training camp so they can try to get rid of him (good luck with that). In short, the Oilers could use some good news for a change, and Hall et al, may be just the ones to deliver it.
Update: Whenever a team preaches patience, it usually means it stinks. And with all due respect to the distinct promise of a bright future, the Edmonton Oilers are right back where they were a year ago, and that's at the bottom of the Western Conference standings. The kids have, without exception, shown flashes of great promise. How many highlight-reel goals has Eberle delivered himself? But the Oilers are what they are, a team with a handful of blue-chip assets and too many passengers with contracts that can't be moved. Does a season of getting pounded -- the Oil had won once in their past 10 games as we penned this -- add up to positive experience come next season? Maybe. Or maybe it just adds up to more losing.
6. Winnipeg Whiteout returns?
Prediction: Will Winnipeg ring in the New Year with a new NHL franchise, or will the Phoenix Coyotes' ownership situation/new lease agreement finally be settled with the plodding City of Glendale? As ESPN.com first reported, Chicago businessman Matt Hulsizer appears to be the last best shot for hockey in the desert, but as with everything connected to Glendale, progress has been measured in glacier-like increments. But the clock ticks toward a tipping point. The NHL can make plans to move the team if no owner is in place by Dec. 31. It will be an absolute shock if the league does not quickly exercise that option and announce the return of NHL hockey to Winnipeg with the structure of a deal already in place with Canadian billionaire David Thomson.
Update: Although the final details have yet to be worked out -- sources tell ESPN.com those details should be finalized by the end of the month -- it looks as though hockey will remain in Phoenix for the foreseeable future thanks to the emergence of the deep-pocketed Hulsizer. He managed to work out a new lease agreement with the City of Glendale, and he has agreed on a purchase price with the NHL to take over the beleaguered franchise and keep it in the desert. As for the never-say-die fans in Winnipeg, they have set their sights on Atlanta or Florida as a team that could be portable in the coming months.
7. Outdoors once again
Prediction: For the fourth season in row, the NHL will take the game outdoors -- first for a highly anticipated tilt between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin on New Year's Day in Pittsburgh, and then in February with a game between the Flames and Canadiens at McMahon Stadium in Calgary. The Winter Classic has become a great spectacle, a must-see event on the NHL calendar. This season's event at Heinz Field should be another compelling tilt. It will be interesting to see if the Canadian event becomes the same kind of draw north of the border in a market already saturated by hockey. We're guessing it will do good, but not great, business. Does doubling these events double the potential for chaos and tumult? Is this the year Mother Nature bites back?
Update: This year's Winter Classic turned out to be trial by rain for the NHL as unseasonably warm temperatures and relentless rain on Jan. 1 forced the league to push back the start time from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. ET on New Year's Day. Once again, the game -- this one featuring Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins playing host to Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals at Heinz Field -- did boffo ratings in spite of sloppy conditions that plagued the game. The overall positive outcome of the game, aided by the groundbreaking presence of HBO cameras leading up to the event, has opened the debate about whether the Classic should always be in prime time. Already there is much debate on where the 2012 Winter Classic will be held, although sources told ESPN.com that Philadelphia might have the inside track. If so, look for the New York Rangers to be the visitors.
Turning our attention northward, there has already been some grumbling that the NHL hasn't promoted the revamped Heritage Classic set for Feb. 20 in Calgary between the Flames and Montreal Canadiens in a similar fashion. Well, why should they? The idea of a second outdoor game in Canada still rankles as being simply knuckling under to pressure from the CBC, and it's difficult to see it remaining a permanent fixture on the NHL calendar the way the Winter Classic has become.
8. Flame out
Prediction: Speaking of the Flames, is this it for the venerable Darryl Sutter (and presumably his brother the coach, Brent) if they suffer through another desultory season? Sutter rebuilt his roster in the middle of last season, trading blue-chip defenseman Dion Phaneuf to Toronto and center Olli Jokinen to New York for a bunch of spare parts. The results were predictable: Calgary sputtered through the second half of the season and failed to make the playoffs for the first time since 2003. Sutter then inexplicably brought back Jokinen and Alex Tanguay in the offseason.
Sure, both were cheap, but so is a sweater at the Salvation Army. The bottom line is, the once-contending Flames have not won a playoff round since advancing to the 2004 Stanley Cup finals and look to be life and death to simply make the playoffs this season. Another non-playoff finish and you have to imagine it'll be time for a new man at the tiller.
Update: As it turned out, the roosters came home to roost earlier than some had predicted for Darryl Sutter and the sad-sack Flames. Calgary continued its aimless play through most of the first half of the season, and Sutter was asked by management to step down in late December, a rare midseason management shuffle that illustrates just how far the franchise has fallen. At the midpoint of the season, the Flames were in 14th place in the Western Conference, nine points out of the final playoff spot. Worse for new GM Jay Feaster is what has been left, which isn't much. Feaster insists he will not ask captain Jarome Iginla to waive his no-movement clause even though the classy Iginla would fetch an attractive package of assets/draft picks if he was on the market before the Feb. 28 trade deadline. Watch for Feaster to try to move some of his veteran players, although too many are saddled with no-trade or no-movement clauses that might make cleaning house difficult. Watch, also, for Feaster to closely assess whether Brent Sutter is the right man behind the bench after this season. If the answer is no, look for Feaster to explore a reunion with longtime friend Bob Hartley, with whom he worked in the AHL in Hershey.
9. Price is right?
Prediction: Having been handed the No. 1 netminding job in Montreal based on something other than level of play, Carey Price spent some of his offseason doing rodeo work. Does that sound like a good idea? Does that sound like someone who has the right mental focus to be a No. 1 netminder in one of the toughest hockey markets in the game? Uh, no. And having watched him mope about during the playoffs last spring, firing pucks in anger at Washington Capitals players and generally looking ill-equipped to get the job done, this season looms as a great litmus test for the fifth overall pick from the 2005 draft.
What's worse for Habs fans, who were aghast when GM Pierre Gauthier dealt playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis, is Plan B appears to be Alex Auld, who has never been anything other than a Grade B backup. Yikes. Price may seize the moment and silence the legion of doubters in the media and throughout Hab Nation, but we doubt it.
Update: Early in the season when Halak was stopping everything in sight, this looked like a lopsided deal in favor of the Blues. But as the weeks have passed, Price appears to have justified management's faith in him, turning in an exemplary first half. As of this writing, Price was third in the NHL with 21 wins and had been tabbed to take part in the All-Star Game in Raleigh. The Canadiens were also in the hunt for the Northeast Division crown thanks in large part to Price's efforts. Now, can he keep it up in the second half for a team that looks to continue to struggle offensively? Well, that'll be the true test, no?
10. The Yzerman effect
Prediction: How does the Steve Yzerman project work out in Tampa Bay? Buzz around the team is as fervent as it's been since the Bolts won the Cup in 2004, and with good reason. Yzerman's presence has delivered instant credibility to a team that saw credibility go up in smoke over the past couple of seasons amid ownership squabbles and management gaffes. The new GM brought in the most sought-after coach outside the NHL in Guy Boucher, has managed the salary cap with alacrity, building for what should be a playoff berth. There are still a lot of question marks for this team, including whether captain Vincent Lecavalier can get back on track, the competency of the blue-line corps and whether they've got playoff-worthy goaltending. But the headlines in Tampa Bay should all be on-ice-related, which is a nice change.
Update: The Hall of Famer is the odds-on favorite to win the GM of the year award in his first go-round as an NHL GM. And with good reason. Yzerman's decision to go with innovative rookie head coach Guy Boucher has turned out to be a stroke of genius. Boucher has invigorated the locker room, and the Lightning are one of the most dynamic teams in the NHL. Yzerman has also managed the salary cap adroitly, adding veteran netminder Dwayne Roloson to stabilize the team's greatest weakness. As of this writing, the Bolts were the surprise leaders in the Southeast Division and have a legitimate shot at the top seed in the conference. Offseason acquisitions center Dominic Moore and defenseman Brett Clark have played well, and even the additions that haven't worked out as hoped, like Simon Gagne, won't hurt the team contract-wise going forward. Yzerman still has to come up with a new contract for leading scorer and franchise player Steven Stamkos, who is coming to the end of his entry-level contract, but overall things couldn't have gone better for Yzerman or the Lightning through the first half of the season.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
From Carey Price in Montreal to the Sutter brothers in Calgary, Scott Burnside looks back at our preseason picks for the top storylines to watch this season in the NHL.