How'd we do? An NHL season review
At the beginning of the season, ESPN.com outlined the top stories and issues that were expected to dominate the NHL's first season back from the lockout that wiped out the 2004-05 season.
How did it all come to pass? Let's take a look ...
Hey, they did remember. In spite of dire predictions to the contrary, fans appeared not to be all that angry the game disappeared for a year. In fact, fans returned in record numbers to NHL arenas.
The NHL is anticipating that attendance, in terms of bodies in seats, will surpass the record season (2001-02) and will top 2003-04 by "several hundred thousand," an almost unthinkable achievement given the state of the game as recently as last spring. Buoyed by a faster, more up-tempo game, significant increases in attendance were noted in so-called soft markets such as Atlanta, Carolina and South Florida.
Not that there aren't franchises still in trouble in terms of fans support. St. Louis took a huge hit in attendance, and fans stayed away in droves in Washington and on Long Island. Then there's Chicago, which might be the worst-run franchise, with crowds reflecting the team's ineptitude. Still, with many bracing for a backlash similar to the one after baseball's work stoppage in 1994, the fans' reaction to the new game far exceeded all expectations.
It seems like a long time since the NHL resurfaced with the dramatic "Crosby Lottery" last summer in New York. The Penguins won the lottery, pretty much the only thing the franchise did right all season. That said, Crosby has proved to be an exceptional young player performing under exceptional circumstances.
While many of his veteran teammates loafed their way through the first part of the season, Crosby, just 18, revealed that he is worthy of all the attention. His 97 points in the Penguins' first 80 games make him the youngest player to hit the 90-point plateau. If he manages to hit the 100-point mark by the end of the regular season, he'll tie for second all-time for points accumulated in a player's draft year with Mario Lemieux (both behind Dale Hawerchuk's 103).
Not that there weren't rough spots. Former captain and part-owner Lemieux retired because of health reasons. There were accusations from opposing players and coaches that Crosby was a whiner and a diver. There was criticism from Canadian hockey mandarin Don Cherry, a snub by Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky when it came to the Canadian Olympic team, not to mention Alexander Ovechkin's runaway, soon-to-be win in the much-heralded rookie race. But Crosby's future? Bright. Bright. Bright.
From many perspectives, the Torino Games were an unmitigated disaster. The Americans met many predictions and failed to win a medal, winning only one game, against Kazakhstan. Defending champion Canada spit the bit in the quarterfinals, shut out in 11 of its last 12 periods. The schedule, combined with the overseas travel for NHLers, was brutal, with the gold-medal game teams (Sweden and Finland) playing eight games in 12 days. But that's a function of squabbling between the NHL and the IIHF and will be markedly different in 2010 in Vancouver.
Still, the rash of injuries during the Olympics and the rash of defections of players -- many in good health -- before the games, will give owners enough ammunition to ensure the Vancouver tournament likely will be the last in which NHL players take part. That said, there were plenty of compelling stories, including the plucky Finns, led by longtime friends and linemates Teemu Selanne, Saku Koivu and Jere Lehtinen. The trio came within a hair of tying the gold-medal game in the waning seconds, but ended up with a well-deserved silver. And of course, there were the Swedes, emphatically erasing their label as international choke artists with their second gold medal. Did they tank against the Slovaks in the round robin to earn a better quarterfinal matchup with surprising Switzerland? Maybe. Still, they won when they had to (and lost when they had to, too, as it turned out.)
After years of being hammered by the hockey media and disrespected by fans everywhere, NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has had a pretty darned good year. He took the NHL down a path that might well have destroyed the game but instead led it into a brighter future than most had expected.
He reacted swiftly in naming former federal prosecutor Bob Cleary to handle the league's independent investigation into the Rick Tocchet gambling scandal. In a related matter, he (with the help of deputy commissioner Bill Daly) stopped the Coyotes from having Tocchet behind the bench the night after the allegations first surfaced.
There will always be issues -- the schedule, playoff format, black holes like Chicago and the New York Islanders, the Olympics, television coverage. But under Bettman's watch, the game has moved from the abyss into a place of comfort few imagined could be found.
How much fun is this? Atlanta Thrashers players took to wearing their helmets backward on their heads in rally-cap fashion during the shootout. Defenseman Marek Malik ended the longest shootout of the season with a virtuoso between-the-legs shot that beat Washington's Olaf Kolzig. There was the kid Jussi Jokinen, who was on the bubble to make the Dallas Stars this season and ended up scoring in 10 of 13 shootout attempts as the Stars emerged as the NHL's best team in the competition.
Gimmicky? Maybe. But did any fan get up and leave during any shootout this season? We doubt it. Next season, maybe those teams that didn't think it was that important -- Philadelphia and Toronto, for example -- will treat it more seriously as shootout points (or lack thereof) proved to be critical down the stretch. The only negative was the ill-planned midseason decision to measure all shooters' sticks before the shootout, thus disrupting the happy flow of the proceedings. By next season, that too should be moot if GMs come to their senses and eliminate the curvature rule altogether.
New look (the new rules)
Much was made of the new rules and their (potential) impact on the game. But outside of the shootout, the majority of the rule changes have had a moderate to negligible impact on the game in relation to the major change facilitated by the commitment to enforce the existing rules on obstruction. Ignoring the red line has been a boon to fast-skating teams and has forced slower teams to rethink their strategy (or simply take more penalties). Limiting the goaltenders' handling of the puck in the corners has helped improve the flow of the game, but the new interpretations on icing calls have likely had a bigger effect in allowing teams to establish the forecheck. Small changes, such as refusing to allow teams icing the puck to change personnel and penalizing skaters who fire the puck into the crowd from their own zone, have helped create more offense, as well.
It hasn't always been pretty, but hats off to the NHL's on-ice officials, especially the referees, who have had to learn an entirely new set of instincts with the first effective crackdown on obstruction after years of empty promises. It's still a work in progress (and the real litmus test will be in the playoffs), but the evidence thus far shows referees have helped seamlessly usher in an entirely new game in the post-lockout NHL. Kudos to head man Stephen Walkom and lord of discipline Colin Campbell for using the Olympic break to hold a mini-refresher course for officials to reinforce that there cannot be any backsliding in calling hooking, holding and interference that had threatened to suck the life out of the game. In a short time, everyone has come to react when a player's stick comes off the ice (they call that hooking) or one hand comes off the stick (they call that holding and/or interference). Hear, hear!
Battle of Alberta
The new unbalanced schedule that has teams playing division opponents eight times per season gave fans in Edmonton and Calgary all the home province action they could stand. While the Oilers collapsed down the stretch, the Flames got better and better, making what many believed would be a wire-to-wire race between the two Alberta teams a laugher. Still, the games were exciting as the Flames finished the series 5-3 with one game decided in a shootout and another in overtime. The series has whet fans' appetites for a playoff version of the Battle of Alberta.
The true story of Steve Yzerman's 23rd NHL season is incomplete as the regular season comes to a close. In spite of reports that early-season injuries would lead Yzerman to call it quits midstream a la Brett Hull, Lemieux and Dave Andreychuk, Yzerman has actually seen his level of play rise as the playoffs approached. He enjoyed an 11-game point streak down the stretch, the longest of any player on the team. The longest-serving captain in NHL history is not the force he once was, but he continues to be a leader on and off the ice for a Red Wings team that enters the playoffs as Presidents' Trophy winners and odds-on Cup favorites.
The dramatic fall from grace from Stanley Cup winner to overpaid bust is a cautionary tale for players around the league. No one can fault Khabibulin for chasing the money (four years, $27 million). The fact Chicago GM Dale Tallon thought it necessary to make Khabibulin the highest-paid goalie in the game speaks more to talent assessment than Khabibulin's talent itself. That said, you could see this one coming a mile away. Playing in front of a dedicated, talented team in Tampa made Khabibulin look better than he was. Playing in front of a laissez-faire, disorganized squad in Chicago magnified Khabibulin's shortcomings. Can he rebound? Maybe. But if he can't, the Hawks can expect to remain out of the playoff mix until they can find someone silly enough to take the big mess off their hands.
Hands up, those of you who believed the New York Rangers were ready to not only make the playoffs but win the tough-as-nails Atlantic Division? Pinocchio, hands down, please. Seriously, the Rangers' resurgence is one of the feel-good stories of the NHL season. Coach Tom Renney forged a strong work ethic early, and the Rangers defied their long-standing reputation as malingerers and malcontents and iced the league's hardest-working third and fourth lines.
They unearthed a gem in rookie netminder Henrik Lundqvist, whose play earned him undying adoration from the Rangers faithful and likely will earn him consideration for the Calder and Vezina trophies. Then there's Jaromir Jagr, leader of the Czech posse that drives the Rangers' offensive machine. Widely considered a coach killer, Jagr embraced Renney's systems and responded with an MVP performance that saw him battle San Jose's Joe Thornton to the wire for the league scoring title.
If it weren't for the fact Steve Moore's lawyers appear to file a new lawsuit every week, this story might actually go where it should, which is away. But Moore's lawyers have done their best to ensure this issue remains a burr under the NHL's saddle. In doing so, during the course of the season, a strange and entirely unpredictable dynamic emerged: Bertuzzi as sympathetic figure.
Even before the season began, Bertuzzi addressed his desire to apologize to Moore for his grotesque attack on the Colorado Avalanche player in March 2004, explaining that Moore had rebuffed all such advances. When Bertuzzi was named to the Canadian Olympic team, there was the kind of self-righteous bleating only Canadians seem capable of that he didn't belong. Yet, Bertuzzi was no better, no worse than any other member of the underachieving Canadian Olympic team, although he did take the crucial penalty setting up the Russians' winning goal in the quarterfinals. It was during the Olympics that Moore and his legal team opted to file one of several civil suits against Bertuzzi. They claimed the timing was coincidental, although it seems patently clear the suit was filed as much to embarrass Bertuzzi as anything else. Sadly, whatever Moore's legal strategies, it appears his NHL career is over as he battles to overcome the lingering physical and psychological effects of the attack.
On the ice, Bertuzzi struggled mightily with just 71 points and a minus-17 rating for an underachieving Canucks team that failed to make the playoffs. Look for Bertuzzi and his significant baggage to find a new home next fall.
Poor J.R. Snubbed by the U.S. Olympic team in spite of a strange, in some ways pathetic, campaign to be included, blasted by coach Andy Murray and again by Kings president and CEO Tim Leiweke after Murray's firing. As it turns out, Roenick's wonderful cabaret-style dance during the exhibition schedule in Las Vegas was the highlight of his season as he struggled through injuries to record just nine goals in his first season in L.A. Time to fit Roenick for the analyst's jacket he was born to wear.
Hockey Hall of Fame
The Class of 2005 was an interesting one in that it honored fallen Soviet great Valeri Kharlamov, prototypical power forward Cam Neely and builder Murray Costello. Next year, though, the star quotient will get ramped up with a potential class that includes shoo-in Patrick Roy, along with luminaries such as Pavel Bure, Mike Richter, Doug Gilmour, Adam Graves and Phil Housley. A maximum of four players can be inducted in any one year, so look for lots of debate when the class is announced June 28.
There was no outdoor NHL game, in part because the NHL schedule was a last-minute affair. There are a number of proposals floating around that suggest another outdoor affair might take place during the 2006-07 campaign, though.
On the bright side, the NHL did find a national cable carrier in the United States. On the dark side, that pretty much sums up OLN's production values, especially early in the season. As for finding the games, well, fans might have had better luck witching for water in their backyard. In defense of both the league and OLN, this was a package thrown together at the last minute after the new collective bargaining agreement was hammered out last summer. Next year will be the true test of the network's commitment to putting hockey back on the American television map. The fact the NHL has hired former "Hockey Night in Canada" master John Shannon to help upgrade television broadcasts around the league can only mean good things for broadcasts across the board, including OLN.
Eric Lindros in Toronto
The Big E turned into the Big Ouch as he made his long-anticipated arrival in the blue and white of the Maple Leafs. Although he started well and was a big factor in the Leafs' early success as captain Mats Sundin was out with an eye injury, Lindros played in only 33 games before his season was cut short by ligament damage in his wrist. Lindros' father/agent, Carl, complained that the Leafs' doctors mishandled the case, but that's life around the Lindros clan. Still, don't count the big center out just yet. He won't be back in Toronto, but look for him to land with a proven team where he can contribute without having to shoulder the kind of load he's simply not equipped to handle anymore.
The streak is dead, long live the streak. After reaching the postseason for 25 straight seasons, the Blues finished in a desperate battle for last place in the league and the best shot at earning the team's first No. 1 overall pick. Chances are this will be St. Louis' highest pick since it took Perry Turnbull with the second pick in 1979, the year before the streak began. With new ownership apparently in place, thanks to former MSG head man Dave Checketts, the Blues will have an uphill battle in forming a playoff team and winning back the hearts of fans who abandoned the team in droves this season. Watch for GM Larry Pleau, president Mark Sauer and likely coach Mike Kitchen to be shown the door even though Kitchen earned the right to at least a second season behind the Blues bench.
The Ottawa Senators got a little bit of everything from the Dominator as he returned to NHL action after a layoff of almost two years. When he was healthy, the 41-year-old was dominant, turning back the hands of time as he posted a league-leading 2.09 goals-against average and a sparkling .925 save percentage through 43 games. But his season, and indeed the playoff hopes of the Senators, was cast into doubt when he went down with an adductor muscle injury midway through the first period of the Czech Republic's first game at the Olympics. Although Hasek vowed to return for the playoffs, he had yet to appear through the last weekend of the regular season and there will be concerns about his durability for the rugged postseason road. The coming weeks will tell the story of whether we have seen the last of Hasek and indeed whether the Senators can find another way to avoid what they believe is their destiny as Stanley Cup winners.
Gretzky as coach
This might well have been the season from hell for the game's greatest player. While facing the challenges of his first coaching assignment, Gretzky had to weather numerous personal tragedies, including the death of his mother. Then, there were the criminal charges against longtime friend and assistant coach Tocchet that linked Gretzky's wife to an alleged bookmaking operation the police said has ties to organized crime. Then, there was Canada's shocking performance at the Olympics. It was dispatched in the quarterfinals, opening Gretzky, the team's executive director, to criticism he had overlooked bright young stars such as Crosby and Eric Staal.
But after Gretzky hinted that he might pack it all in, Coyotes officials are expecting him to return for a second season. In terms of Gretzky's coaching acumen, players described him as being surprisingly tough. He, along with GM and longtime friend Mike Barnett, essentially remade the entire team during the season. As a result, the Coyotes are blessed with terrific young talent along the blue line next year. Expect Gretzky to return to the challenge of turning the Coyotes into a playoff-caliber team.
Here are some of the noteworthy happenings this season that we didn't predict:
• Who knew Calgary Flames defenseman Dion Phaneuf would not only excel as a rookie but also be the NHL's best defenseman on many nights? Late in the season, Phaneuf led all rookie defenders with 19 goals, 16 on the power play. He will get votes for the Norris and Calder trophies as a result.
• Who knew Thornton would be kicked out of Boston because he wasn't earning his keep as one of the top players in the game? Further, who knew that once ensconced in San Jose -- without a leadership letter attached to his jersey -- Thornton would put together one of the most remarkable displays of leadership in recent history as the Sharks raced from playoff pretender to a Cup favorite heading into the postseason? In many observers' eyes, Thornton, the scoring leader through the last weekend of the regular season, is the undisputed MVP of the league.
• Who knew Carolina GM Jim Rutherford would hit the chemistry jackpot by adding unheralded players such as Martin Gerber, Cory Stillman, Ray Whitney and Oleg Tverdovsky and come away with the best team in the Eastern Conference and a team that looks like a true Cup contender?
Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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