- Scott Burnside, NHL
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It is often said a player doesn't fully come into his own until his third season. If that's the case, then who knows what new mountains will be climbed by Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Dion Phaneuf and Henrik Lundqvist as the National Hockey League readies for another campaign.
In these stars' respective markets, hopes for success are certainly higher than in recent years. Except for a handful of markets, most teams can at least make a case for a run to the playoffs and 10 teams can rationalize deep playoff runs next spring, or even a Stanley Cup parade.
But let's look at the bigger picture. This is the third post-lockout NHL season. Would it not be logical to expect the league itself to turn some kind of corner, to make some sort of statement about its future, its health?
Here are some story lines that might answer some of those questions.
What about Wayne?
Wayne Gretzky didn't expect to waltz in and lead his ragtag Phoenix Coyotes to the Stanley Cup, but he sure didn't expect things to go as badly as they have the first two seasons in Phoenix. Entering his third season as an NHL bench boss, Gretzky has a blend of raw talent and castoffs from other teams and almost nothing in the way of goaltending. Perhaps Gretzky will embrace this new build-from-the-ground-up philosophy and be around for years. It's hard to imagine, though.
Let's assume the Coyotes are half as bad as people think they'll be, which still makes them awful. What does Gretzky do next if he gets tired of the coaching gig? As bad as it's been in Phoenix, Gretzky's involvement in hockey is still absolutely crucial to the game. He remains a tremendous ambassador and one of those rare hockey figures whose mere mention transcends all sports throughout America. Here's hoping if the coaching bug wears off, Gretzky finds a place from which he can still weave his magic.
The outdoor game
Anyone who watched the Heritage Classic in Edmonton in 2003, a game pitting the Montreal Canadiens and the Edmonton Oilers on specially designed outdoor rink at Commonwealth Stadium, understands the appeal of such games. More than 57,000 fans turned up to see the historic game played on a chilly November evening. The sight of Montreal netminder Jose Theodore, his toque pulled tight over his head under his mask and his breath hanging in the air, was a moment for the ages. The NHL will ring in 2008 with an even more ambitious offering -- an outdoor game at Buffalo's Ralph Wilson Stadium where 72,000 strong are expected to take in Sidney Crosby, Ryan Miller and the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins and Buffalo Sabres. Some 42,000 tickets were purchased in 30 minutes after the game was announced amid howls of complaints from Sabres fans who said they didn't get a fair chance to get the ducats.
Fair or not, the dispute shows the NHL has a winner in terms of marketing. Buffalo was a terrific choice given its proximity to hockey markets in Southern Ontario, New York state and Pennsylvania. NBC will provide national coverage on a boffo television day, giving viewers a way to tune out the Viagara Bowl or whatever meaningless football game is cluttering up the airwaves at that point in the afternoon. This will also be a chance to erase the ugly smear of NBC's playoff coverage that included cutting away from overtime in the Eastern Conference finals.
The challenge for the NHL, of course, will be in not wanting to overdo these kinds of events. A two-year gap, or even three or four, between such enterprises keeps the idea fresh and drives up interest as opposed to having one every year. As for those who suggest the ice conditions, which may be less than ideal, jeopardizes the integrity of the game, we ask if anyone has seen ice conditions in South Florida or Toronto or at Madison Square Garden, which hosted a circus hours before a crucial end-of-season tilt between the Rangers and Canadiens.
By Christmas, the NHL should finally have done away with one of the most embarrassing post-lockout issues confronting the league -- the schedule. Bullied by some Eastern Conference teams, the league adopted a schedule that was heavily weighted to divisional play (eight games against each divisional opponent). But the format dramatically reduced the amount of interconference play, creating situations like this season, when the Toronto Maple Leafs don't play any of the Western Canadian teams. Perhaps even more embarrassing for the league was, after acknowledging it might be a good idea for Sidney Crosby to travel to Anaheim and San Jose and Alexander Ovechkin to get out to St. Louis and Chicago occasionally, the team's owners could not come to a conclusion on how to fix the problem. They still don't know, exactly; but, by Christmas, there'll be a new schedule ready for next season featuring teams playing every other NHL team at least once a season. And not a moment too soon.
Sid the What? How about God?
As some have duly and appropriately noted, it just doesn't seem right to call Sidney Crosby "Sid the Kid" anymore. When you have accomplished as much as Crosby has in his first two NHL seasons, it might be more appropriate to merely genuflect at the mere mention of his name and throw rose petals in his path. People will wonder what is next for the first teenage scoring champ and the fate of his Pittsburgh Penguins will be closely monitored this season as they're now expected to compete for a Stanley Cup just two seasons after finishing 29th in the league with a miserable 58 points.
But Crosby is slowly transcending the sport like Gretzky and, to a lesser degree, Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier did. He is becoming known simply as Sidney and his profile, along with the profile of the NHL, is ascending as each day passes. The interesting thing is Crosby seems nonplussed by it all. He signed a contract extension this summer that leaves room for Penguins GM Ray Shero to bring in other top players. The only nod to his otherworldly status was making the per-year payments work out to $8.7 million (he wears jersey No. 87 don't you know?) as opposed to the $10 million or so he could have held out for.
Beyond that, he seems to simply understand that part of his job is to be larger than life. Even in the space of time between the end of the Penguins' first-round playoff exit and the Stanley Cup finals, when Crosby showed up at an awards ceremony in Ottawa, he seemed to have grown wiser and more comfortable discussing issues surrounding the game. What next? Who knows, but it's sure going to be fun finding out.
Wither Peter Forsberg?
This has the potential to be one of the most interesting, meandering stories of the coming season. While there was great hype about where Forsberg was going to end up at last season's trade deadline, there were really only a handful of teams in the mix. Now, with Forsberg an unrestricted free agent, he has his pick of 30 teams. Let's assume at some point his oft-injured ankle heals to a point where he will once again be a difference-maker, Forsberg will be the subject of great courting. Every team that has a Swedish player with a cell phone will be trying to lure and cajole Forsberg into its backyard.
Detroit might be attractive because of its Swede-laden roster; Forsberg might like to play with Mats Sundin in Toronto or Daniel Alfredsson in Ottawa or Markus Naslund in Vancouver. Some of it , or none of it, may be true. He could return to Philadelphia, where he certainly has unfinished business, or just go back to Colorado, where he has friends. Or he could get a call from Brian Burke and decide Anaheim's the best place for him to capture another Stanley Cup to top off a Hall of Fame career. Or he could just call it quits. See what fun this is going to be?
It's coming. Whether expansion to 32 teams turns out to be a case of short-term gain for owners and long-term pain for fans who will have to put up with two more watered-down squads clamoring for attention on a crowded sports landscape, it doesn't matter much. Owners love expansion because it's free money, so it's going to happen.
Look for movie and television impresario Jerry Bruckheimer and his investors to put up somewhere in the neighborhood of $350 million for the opportunity to put a team in the heart of the Las Vegas strip. In August, casino giant Harrah's Entertainment Inc., along with AEG, announced they would be building an arena that could host an NHL or NBA team. Quelle surprise. AEG is owned by the same folks who own the Los Angeles Kings and the Sprint Center in Kansas City, another popular potential expansion site.
Would NHL hockey work in Las Vegas? Critics suggest the city would have trouble getting enough fans in the stands to make it work. Proponents point to an almost limitless amount of corporate support that would ensure seats and luxury boxes were sold out, not to mention a wealth of advertising revenue in Sin City. The city is also one of the fastest growing metropolitan areas in North America.
As for Kansas City -- been there, done that, didn't work. But that won't stop the NHL from looking closely at the area (did we mention AEG has a rink there with no anchor tenant?). Winnipeg (not a chance), Portland, Houston and Seattle will all get a look-see. One wrinkle might be the reappearance of Canadian technology mogul Jim Balsillie, who ticked people off but has enough money that all might be forgiven if he was willing to take over an expansion team. One thing is for sure, with cost certainty built into the equation, the NHL is as popular a place for rich folks to spend their millions as it's ever been.
The Union vs. The Owners
Some time between now and the end of the regular season, the NHL Players' Association will emerge from its long winter of decay with a new executive director. Who that person is, where he or she will come from and what his or her plans for the union will be are all unknown. But one thing is certain -- the new executive director will bring about a marked change in tone and tenor in the relationship between the owners and the players.
Coming out of the lockout, both sides were eager to trumpet the new "partnership" between players and owners. That was most obvious in the close relationship between Bill Daly, the NHL's deputy commissioner, and Ted Saskin, NHLPA's executive director, the two men most often credited with ending the lockout. Now that players' salaries are inexorably tied to hockey-related revenues, it behooves both sides to work in unison in promoting the game on a variety of levels. But the players often jokingly refer to their role in the partnership as being little more than a "suggestion box," that they are rarely consulted on issues of import to the league.
Then, there was the small problem of Saskin and the manner in which he assumed control of the union, which led to his ouster last season by a group of players led by Chris Chelios and Eric Lindros, among others. Rest assured, the new director's first order of business will be in reinforcing balance to that relationship. How that might be affected without ultimately harming the game itself will be a balancing act, but it will bear watching in the coming months.
(As a way of digression, one of the reasons expansion plans can be expected sooner than later is the players fought hard during the last contract negotiations to get a piece of any expansion fees. After all, it's a partnership, right? The owners held out, but they know that it will once again be a main bargaining issue in the next round of talks and will want to secure any expansion fees deeply into their collective pockets long before that happens.)
Music City mayhem
This promises to be a make-or-break season for the Nashville Predators on a number of fronts. Craig Leipold, who claims to have lost $70 million since buying the team, seems to have found a group of local investors who think they can do what Leipold could not -- entice both paying customers and corporate sponsorship.
But, as the group is trying to pry more concessions out of an already sweetheart deal with the city of Nashville on the team's arena lease, that new ownership bid is on rocky ground. Maybe they will end up owning the team, maybe not. If not, look for minority owner William "Boots" Del Biaggio III to make use of what is believed to be a right of first refusal on taking over the team and then moving the whole kit and caboodle to Kansas City.
If the team falters in the standings and fans stay away, the situation will continue to be a black mark for Bettman, whose meddling in the negotiations between Leipold and Balsillie soured a deal that would have seen Leipold receive $238 million rather than the $193 million that's currently on the table. Of course, the Preds could overachieve and become one of the surprise stories of the season. Fans could turn out in droves, making the new owners look like geniuses and protecting Bettman's integrity. Or not.
We must admit, we get tired of the moaning and griping about the drop in scoring. Yes, in the first season after the lockout, it was exciting to see the goals pouring into the net; the average number of goals per game jumped from 5.1 in 2003-04 to 6.2 under the new rules. But how long did it take before people were complaining about too many power plays ruining the game? Exactly. Then, when the scoring went down last season (in large part because the number of power plays went down), people complained about the goal total. You can't have it both ways.
A closer look at the numbers suggests offense really hasn't eroded at all. On average, there were two fewer power-play opportunities per game last season than in 2005-06. While power-play efficiency remained essentially the same in both seasons, the number of power-play goals dropped by 446 last season from 2005-06. But isn't that a good thing? Players are getting the new rules and staying out of the box, creating fewer stoppages in play and faster, more up-tempo games.
Perhaps the most telling fact is that there were 154 more even-strength goals last season than there were in 2005-06, although that's a stat that hardly gets thrown out by the moaners and complainers. Does it mean the competition committee should stop looking at ways to create more offense? No. But creating offense, coming up with ideas to create more scoring chances, shouldn't always be confused with more goals being scored. Even though it almost always is.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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