Commentary

The first-half story lines we can't forget

Updated: January 22, 2009, 5:52 PM ET
By Damien Cox | Special to ESPN.com

Think of an NHL season as a rolled-up national flag you've never seen before.

Slowly it unfurls, and gradually you come to see the colors and the design, and by the end you decide whether it's to your liking or not.

Well, the NHL campaign is a partially unfurled work as we head into All-Star Weekend, and people are still deciding whether they like what they see.

There's been a remarkable diversity of story lines and plot changes, both based on individual and team play. The larger story of deteriorating economic conditions is the cloud that hangs over it all, although it should be noted the game was able to survive having a vice-presidential candidate/hockey mom become the league's unofficial ceremonial puck-dropper.

Competitively, the fight for the Cup promises to be a fierce one, with defending champion Detroit having all but withdrawn its players from All-Star Game consideration as it prepares its title defense against a horde of tough challengers.

With much left to be unfurled, these have been the attention-grabbing story lines so far:

The Sean Avery "You Can't Say That!" scandal

Oh yeah, he did say it. But when Dallas Stars winger Sean Avery gathered the media on the morning of a game in early December to slag his ex-girlfriend, he finally went too far. Or maybe it was just the excuse the Stars and NHL, both sick of his act, were looking for. His six-game suspension ended long ago, but not a peep has been heard from Mr. Potty Mouth since the Stars told him not to bother reporting back for duty. Everybody loves a comeback, but going from pariah to re-employed NHLer is going to take some time.

Mats Sundin finds a new home

Took the big Swede awhile. Too long for the tastes of many, and picking the Vancouver Canucks was a lot simpler, it seems, than helping them win. Sundin will collect about $5 million this season after skipping training camp and the first three months of the season, and then -- because he signed only a one-year deal -- the entire soap opera can start all over again this summer.

The resiliency, or lack thereof, of hockey heads

When Toronto winger Ryan Hollweg clocked St. Louis rookie defenseman Alex Pietrangelo with an illegal head shot in the Maple Leafs' first game of the season in October and was suspended for it, the move ignited the simmering debate over hits to the head in hockey. From that, it's just a short skip and a jump to arguing over whether fighting should be allowed in the game, and both issues are expected to be scrutinized closely when the NHL general managers next meet in March.

The game's hottest new rivalry

It's the Sharks and the Red Wings, a new rivalry made more intriguing by the fact former Detroit assistant coach Todd McLellan has crossed over to the San Jose side and made the Sharks the Western Conference's best team so far. The Sharks have won two of three meetings, including a terrific 6-5 home-ice triumph last Saturday in San Jose. The two clubs meet next Feb. 25 at The Joe.

The Coyotes looking more than a little mangy

Not the team itself, which has played very well most of the season. It's the franchise that's in big, big trouble, with Wayne Gretzky saying recently he can guarantee only that the club will finish the season in the desert. The NHL is scouring Arizona for potential owners, and current owner Jerry Moyes has little option but to go along with it if he hopes to recoup some of the millions he has lost on the former Winnipeg Jets. If the Coyotes are in trouble because of the downturn in the North American economy, meanwhile, many are wondering how many other franchises may be on fumes.

Go east, Brian Burke

Rather than California, the former Anaheim GM saw Canada as the land of opportunity and bolted from the Anaheim Ducks in the fall. As everyone expected he would, he resurfaced shortly thereafter with the Maple Leafs, a terrible, talentless club that will require all of Burke's considerable managerial skills to make the Stanley Cup playoffs during the Obama presidency, even if it's a two-termer.

Rebirth of two Original Six powers

The Boston Bruins have been the best team in the Eastern Conference this season, while the Chicago Blackhawks boast one of the game's most exciting young lineups and hosted a successful Winter Classic at Wrigley Field. Having Boston and Chicago be something other than embarrassing has been the best gift NHL commissioner Gary Bettman could have received.

The reclusive Mr. Gaborik

The season began with the Minnesota Wild trying to convince star winger Marian Gaborik to stay, then it turned into an explosion of speculation as to where he might be headed when it seemed clear he wouldn't sign, and ended in total frustration when injury problems sidelined the Slovak forward for the season. Hard to see how the Wild get value for their erstwhile franchise player now.

Those crazy dudes in Tampa

It's become hockey's most unpredictable franchise, and the fact the Lightning canned Barry Melrose as coach 16 games into the season may not even turn out to be the strangest episode. Prized rookie Steven Stamkos isn't Alexandre Daigle just yet, but the growing pains have been tough. Vincent Lecavalier trade rumors are everywhere, and there's lots of talk Tampa owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie may not be owners for long.

Plunge of the Penguins

The defending East champions are 10th in the conference heading into the All-Star break despite getting lots of points from Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, and despite signing Jordan Staal to a lucrative new deal. Coach Michel Therrien's head appears likely to be on the chopping block for the rest of the season, and goalie Marc-Andre Fleury hasn't been able to recapture his form of last season. Now Crosby is hurt, and the possibility of Pittsburgh missing the postseason isn't out of the question.

All that's missing is a debate over hanging chads

The computerized voting for the All-Star Game was a sham, leaving the hometown Canadiens with four starters, while Detroit won't even have a player in the game. Making the process interactive is one thing and, yes, the game is for the fans, but much of the remaining integrity the All-Star concept had left vanished with this year's silliness.

[+] EnlargeRoberto Luongo
Jeff Vinnick/NHLI/Getty ImagesCanucks goalie Roberto Luongo missed 24 games this season with a groin injury.

The curious cases of Brendan Shanahan and Claude Lemieux

Could the lives of these two aged stars be in reverse? Shanahan has gone back to the team that drafted him 22 years ago (New Jersey), while the 43-year-old Lemieux played seven minutes this week in a game for the Sharks after launching his improbable comeback. Both men have outstanding playoff résumés, which is presumably why the Devils and Sharks were interested. That Chris Chelios calls both "kid" remains a curiosity in a league apparently experiencing the "Cocoon" effect.

Ah, but for the wonky groin

Vancouver fans are convinced that if Roberto Luongo were consistently healthy, they'd have a contender on their hands. Unfortunately, that hasn't been the case, and when Luongo has been able to play, he hasn't been great. Add to that the injured status of New Jersey's Martin Brodeur and poor old Canada is left to wonder who will be in between the pipes when it seeks to win an Olympic medal in men's hockey on its home soil in 13 months.

Patience paying off

The Anaheim Ducks were considering trade offers for Bobby Ryan earlier this season, but they're sure glad they never got past that stage. Watching Crosby, the No. 1 pick of the star-studded 2005 NHL draft, set the league afire while Ryan, the No. 2 pick, tried to figure out how to become a professional hasn't been easy for the Ducks or Ryan. But now he appears ready to stay in the NHL, and may make a late push for the Calder Trophy as top rookie.

Young blood everywhere

It's not just Crosby and Malkin and Alex Ovechkin. There's Patrick Kane and Ryan Getzlaf and Zach Parise and Jeff Carter, as well. The fireworks in the NHL are increasingly being supplied by athletes well short of their 30th birthday, great news for a league that counted on Gretzky and Mario Lemieux for so long to carry the burden of superstars and ambassadors for the game.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."

Damien Cox, a columnist for the Toronto Star, is a regular hockey contributor to ESPN.com. In this role, he writes numerous columns on the NHL.