Top storylines to watch in 2010-11
Here are 10 storylines that we think will have a major bearing on the coming NHL season:
1. Pick a Finn, any FinnAfter 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.
2. "The Summer of Kovy' becomes "The Season of Kovy'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.
3. Heads upWill 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.
4. Cup hangover or Cup rejuvenation?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 handled the difficult hand dealt to him. If, as we believe, there will be almost no drop-off 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.)
5. Kids in the houseCan 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.
6. Winnipeg Whiteout returns?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.
7. Outdoors once againFor 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?
8. Flame outSpeaking 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.
9. Price is right?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 Hab 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.
10. The Yzerman effectHow 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.
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
2010-11 NHL SEASON PREVIEW
TEAM PREVIEWS: WESTERN CONFERENCE
• Watch: Hradek & Barnaby's Central preview
• Watch: Hradek & Melrose's Northwest preview
• Watch: Hradek & Barnaby's Pacific preview
TEAM PREVIEWS: EASTERN CONFERENCE
• Watch: Hradek & Barnaby's Atlantic preview
• Watch: Hradek & Barnaby's Northeast preview
• Watch: Hradek & Melrose's Southeast preview
Northeast Division: Coming Friday
Atlantic Division: Coming Monday