I don't know about you, but I'm starting to feel a little bit like a kid on Christmas Eve. All the waiting, all the patience, all the buying into the bullshit, all the daydreaming about cool new toys — some of which are sure to break just minutes after they've been unwrapped, others that will last for what feels like a lifetime — all the silly, manufactured, frantic hope. And here we are, almost there, all of us ready and waiting for Santa to stop by, whether we believe in him or not anymore. (Santa, meanwhile, has been busy tweet-ranting about the invasion of artificial Christmas trees — when he's not busy staring at his pet goldfish, that is.)
On Saturday, the NHL season will finally kick off at 3 p.m. Eastern on NBC as the Los Angeles Kings raise their championship banner before playing the Chicago Blackhawks and the Philadelphia Flyers resume their Hunger Games–style fight to the death against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Eleven other games will take place that day, all of them the sort of intradivisional rivalry matchups we'll be seeing a whole lot of during a condensed and conference-only schedule this season. By the time it's all over, we'll be stuffed and exhausted, our presents unwrapped, most of them requiring batteries we don't have. We'll be sated, but we may also be incredibly cranky. Ah, yes, the NHL will be back.
The best thing about this upcoming 48-game season is that it will be utterly unpredictable; of course, this is also the worst thing about it when it comes to writing a column that is ostensibly filled with predictions. Still, here are some stories to watch and some names to freshen up in your memory as you settle into your sofa with glad tidings and cheer (if you're more the bah humbug sort, that's OK too).
This season may feel like a sprint, but it's more of a marathon
Rangers head coach John Tortorella went on Mike Francesa's radio show on Wednesday and talked about the decisions that head coaches have to make as they look at their squished-up schedules this season. "Some guys you can see are in really good shape, other guys are trying to find their way, and other guys — there's a lot of work to do," he said. "We will not get them in the shape that we are after in six days."
Tortorella said his personal choice is to err on the side of more "off days" for the team than less, and that in the course of the three-and-a-half-month season he has penciled in 23 off days. New rules in the CBA stipulate minimums for time off, but the Rangers have the benefit of having the fewest number of back-to-backs in the league with six, two of which come in the first six days. Not all teams will be so lucky: The Blackhawks and Red Wings have double that.
On the Forecheck's annual summary of the logistics of the NHL schedule crunches the number of miles each team has to fly. It shows that while Atlantic franchises like the Rangers and Devils travel only around 12,000 miles in a season, geographically central teams who play in far-western divisions (the Dallas Stars in the Pacific and the Minnesota Wild in the Northwest) log more like 30,000 miles — and, what's worse, have to constantly move through different time zones. And, for at least one more season, the Winnipeg Jets are stuck in the inconvenient Southeast Division.
The most obvious sign of player fatigue, though, will rear its head in the form of groin pulls and lazy high sticks, either of which could be equally damaging: Several players have already been felled by pulled muscles (Vancouver's beast-slaying David Booth has been one high-profile casualty), while league disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan has been adamant that the condensed schedule will not cause him to levy shorter penalties for dangerous play.
Trust no one, and believe nothing you see in the standings
It seems obvious that there will be some wacky teams wending their way into the playoffs thanks to a shortened 48-game season, and please-oh-please let that be the case. (I may or may not have made a perhaps ill-advised bet this summer — signed on a bar napkin and everything — that the Columbus Blue Jackets would reach the postseason.) If you look at the NHL standings after about 48 games last year, however, you'll see that by and large the teams who were in a playoff position at that point were the same ones who ultimately got in.
But this year will have a few key differences: a more compressed schedule, no preseason, and only the faintest glimmer of a training camp. The first few weeks will be a hotter mess than that Esquire profile on Megan Fox.1 The result is that there are sure to be individual players and entire teams whose performance may not have enough time (or time off) to properly and predictably regress (or rise) to the mean by the end of the season.
Expect to see what old-timers call "puck luck" and young wizards call "PDO" get all out of whack. We'll have teams with good records built like shaky sand castles atop tidepools of questionable goal differential (like last year's Minnesota Wild) and players whose shot percentages drift far below their career averages (Ryan Getzlaf nods sadly). Of course, both these examples show that statistical anomalies happen even in 82-game seasons — but there's a good shot that this year they'll be both more widespread and more pronounced. (Add that together with the "loser point" that teams get for overtime or shootout losses, and the standings could look like a car pileup. I, for one, won't be able to look away.)
The most popular guys in town will still be the backup goalies
It will be particularly interesting to see how the league's goaltenders react to this strange new world. "Back-to-backs aren't usually the toughest situation for a starting goalie," explained Coyotes goalie coach Sean Burke. "It's more about the stretches of three games in four nights or four games in six nights." And so with this compressed schedule we may be seeing a few more tandems in net beyond the usual suspects — you know, like last season's winning St. Louis pair of Brian Elliott and Jaroslav Halak.2
Many suspect — particularly after his performance in the playoffs last season — that the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury will share a good deal of time with Pittsburgh's new netminder pickup Tomas Vokoun, who didn't have the season in Washington he hoped for but who will make an excellent option to shore up the Penguins' last line of defense. The Detroit Red Wings' Jimmy Howard has a new backup in Jonas Gustavsson, who has climbed out of the goalie-eating swamp that is Toronto, while the Tim Thomas–less Boston Bruins feature Tuukka Rask and Anton Khudobin, and they should make for a compelling team.
Other intriguing situations: The Colorado Avalanche are hoping that Semyon Varlamov can continue the sparkling play he exhibited while playing in the KHL this fall — he amassed a league-leading .946 save percentage with three shutouts and a GAA of 1.74 — while the Tampa Bay Lightning made an offseason bet on the former Predators backup Anders Lindback, a highly touted 24-year-old who stands at 6-foot-6 but was still stuck in the 6-foot-5 shadow of Pekka Rinne in Nashville.
And then there's our old pal Roberto Luongo, who has been publicly on the trading block since it became clear this summer that the Canucks planned to transition Cory Schneider into a fully fledged starting role. (You know things are getting ridiculous when Lululemon puts in its two cents.) For months now, Luongo — who not-so-secretly-anymore maintains one of the all-time best athlete Twitter accounts — has been the subject of one rumor after another. He was spotted in Florida! He flew through Toronto! He tweeted, "Guys I've just been dealt ……… POCKET ACES! #latenightpoker" But for the time being, it appears that Vancouver is in no particular rush to ship him away. GM Mike Gillis has held firm in asking a high price for the highly skilled goalie, and is content to wait until the trade deadline or, more likely, the summer. Vaya con Dios, darling Luuuu.
2011-12's four conference finalists are already well on their way down wildly divergent paths
You may be familiar with "The Up Series," which began with a film named Seven Up! that followed the lives of 14 different British 7-year-olds in 1964. Every seven years, they check in with the group, and the result is a fascinating longitudinal study of the direction of people's lives. The most recent, 56 Up, came out a few weeks ago; in its honor, it's interesting to think about the four teams who found themselves in last season's conference finals, and where they are now — all of them having taken independent tacks since. We'll call it "Seven Months." (Hey, the life cycle works a lot faster in sports.)
The Los Angeles Kings, for example, are returning nearly their entire Stanley Cup–winning roster and, what's more, they've had plenty of time to self-medicate so as to avoid the dreaded championship hangover. (Which reminds me: Goaltender Jonathan Quick had surgery in the offseason, though he's now back in shape.) There's little to say about the Kings, really, other than that they've proven themselves to be a well-oiled machine that clicked when it mattered and quite frankly steamrolled past some of the NHL's top talent all throughout the playoffs.
On the flip side, their Cup opponents, the New Jersey Devils, lost last year's 69-point scoring captain when Zach Parise opted to sign with the Minnesota Wild. And they also said good-bye to two slightly lower-profile yet vital contributors when assistant coaches Larry Robinson and Adam Oates departed to San Jose and Washington, respectively. With few top forwards inked beyond this season, the Devils wrote the first big-time contract of the new CBA on Wednesday, signing center Travis Zajac to a max contract extension of eight years at a cap hit of $5.75 million per. This puts him in the ballpark of players like Mike Richards, John Tavares, and Phil Kessel — a bold move, but one that the Devils likely did in part to signal the financial commitment they're willing to make to their core players now that Parise is gone.
As for other big contracts: A year after signing the offseason's marquee free agent in Brad Richards, the Rangers again opted to make a splashy move this summer, trading Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, and young prospect Tim Erixon for the potential scoring of Rick Nash and the burdens of both his big contract and the escalating Stanley Cup expectations that come along with these types of transactions. Compared with some of the rumored packages the Blue Jackets were asking for, the trade was a relief to many Rangers fans — and yet you have to wonder, especially in a sure-to-be-bonkers season, whether they'll end up missing the depth they gave up.
The Coyotes, meanwhile, have spent the prolonged offseason in the dark shadow of their ongoing ownership situation; eight months since commissioner Gary Bettman announced that an owner had been found, they remain the property of the league. While an awaited sale to Greg Jamison and his consortium of investors3 is supposedly set to take place soon, we've been hearing that line for so long that it's hard to believe it's real unless an announcement's been made. What remains compelling about Phoenix is how well they've assembled a team while remaining under a strict budget; the result is a largely low-profile mix of players, many of whom — Radim Vrbata, Zbynek Michalek, Derek Morris, and Wednesday's acquisition of Matthew Lombardi — have returned after playing for the Coyotes earlier in their careers. Combine that with one of the league's more stocked defensive depth charts and last season's breakout play of goaltender Mike Smith, and they could again be a team that surprises. Also, Shane Doan basically solved the lockout.
It's crazy to think about where these four teams will be in another seven months; there's almost no chance that all four of them will be back in the conference finals, it's just not how these things go. Who will be panicking? Who will still be angry over a bad call in a pivotal Game 7? Who will be threatening to issue an amnesty buyout on whom? Which brings us to …
I wanna see you out that door, baby, bye bye bye
One item in the new CBA allowed for each team to take up to two "compliance buyouts" of player contracts in order to get some of their more … regrettable contracts out from under their salary cap. These buyouts were originally set to take place this coming summer and next — until early this week, when the NHL and the NHLPA announced that they had reached an agreement for the buyouts to be made before the season opener this weekend.
The reason? As it turned out, the de facto definition of "regrettable contracts" is "those offered by Glen Sather between the years of 2007 and 2008," and two of the players still around from that dark era,4 the Rangers' Wade Redden and the Canadiens' Scott Gomez, found themselves in an odd circumstance. Both New York and Montreal intended to buy them out as soon as possible this summer. But since you can't buy out an injured player in the NHL, the two teams basically ordered the two players to sit at home for the remainder of the season lest they get injured. It was like putting Humpty Dumpty in an egg carton.
Obviously, no one really weeps at the idea of a guy getting paid multimillions to veg. But that's a lifestyle that probably sounds a lot better to most fans than it does to professional athletes. And its enforcement might have opened up the league to a grievance claim — hence the expedited agreement. (The teams will shoulder the full cap hits for the two players for the rest of this season.)
Even beyond these two, compliance buyouts are something we're sure to be hearing about all season — with every bad goal allowed by Ilya Bryzgalov, or any injury to Vinny Lecavalier, or any further slide down the depth chart by Shawn Horcoff, the knee-jerkers who usually can be counted on for a "trade him!" refrain can now holler something else. (If we don't hear a few disgruntled "BUY! HIM! OUT!" cheers in various NHL stadiums this season, I'll be a little bit disappointed.) The trouble here is that every problem is going to be magnified and every short slump will feel longer. And then next season, we get to do it all over again.
The 2010 NHL draft is already ripening into an excellent vintage
In 2010 the Edmonton Oilers (with the first of what would be three straight first overall picks) selected Taylor Hall, and the Boston Bruins picked Tyler Seguin second. Since then, the two players have been on a tear, with Seguin winning a Stanley Cup his rookie season and leading the Bruins in scoring last year while Hall has been a bright spot on a young Oilers team (as well as the kind of player about whom people say, with straight faces, "Kid's a horse").
Seguin and Hall will be two of the top young players to watch out for this season. Seguin's play in Switzerland earned him the truly badass honor of wearing a helmet and jersey adorned by flames, which designates the team's leading scorer. (We really need to bring this NBA Jam–inspired couture to the NHL, although I guess it might be a wee bit of a target for hard-of-sight enforcers.) He's almost literally coming in hot. Hall, meanwhile, has suffered a few injuries since last year, including shoulder surgery this offseason, but has bounced back nicely: In his first game back playing for the AHL's Oklahoma City Barons, he scored 38 seconds into his first shift; by the end of his 26 games with the team, he had racked up 34 points.
While these days the Boston Bruins can always be expected to be legitimate contenders out of the East, the Oilers are more of a question mark — but, like, the tantalizing kind, in a "What's behind door no. 3?" way. Their blue line could use a clear leader, sure, and it's hard to know whether you can rely on their goaltending, but the team will surely not be lacking for scoring — not with young guns like Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle on their team (to say nothing of Nail Yakupov, the charming rookie who will probably remain with the team). And in the wide-open Northwest Division, anything's possible. It won't happen this year, but maybe somewhere down the road we'll get a head-to-head look at the pride of the 2010 draft class in a seven-game series. Until then, we'll just have to enjoy both players on their own.
There will be some fun competition for the Calder Trophy
One of the benefits of this shortened season is that we may not have to hear the words "rookie wall." (I realize that writing that is like mentioning a shutout mid-game.) And while it's not clear which teams will opt to burn a year of their relatively inexpensive entry-level contracts with rookie players for a 48-game season,5 there will be plenty of new faces who will get a shot. Most young prospects have been invited to camp while in the swing of their seasons, whether they've been playing in the CHL, AHL, or overseas.
It's widely expected that Jonathan Huberdeau of the Florida Panthers will make the club's roster; in one of those "re-evaluate how old you are" pieces of news, he's been skating on a practice line with the elderly Alexei Kovalev! (Obligatory AK27 troll doll video here!) Tyler Seguin had good advice for defensive prospect Dougie Hamilton: "I'd tell him to delete his Twitter for 1st little bit and not even look at it." The St. Louis Blues have been looking forward to Russian Vladimir Tarasenko joining them since they drafted him in 2010. Minnesota Wild supporters have been salivating about young Finn Mikael Granlund, though to him even the most rabid of NHL fans ain't no thang — he's used to being treated "a little bit like Lennon and McCartney walking in the streets" when he's in his native country, his agent Todd Diamond said in May.
The Edmonton Oilers' Justin Schultz, who failed to sign an entry-level deal with the Anaheim Ducks and was courted by numerous teams this summer, has been impressive in AHL play with 48 points in 34 games. The Buffalo Sabres are currently weighing whether to play Mikhail Grigorenko (after seeing him at the World Junior Championships, I think they should — he played like a man among boys, the silly but won't-go-away rumor being that maybe he is one.) The anticipation in Calgary for a kid named Sven Baertschi prompted one Calgary Herald writer to describe the local sentiment as such:
Some folks hereabouts fervently believe if you gave Sven Baertschi a turnip, a loaf of day-old bread and a head of lettuce he could whip up a repaste fit for a visiting foreign dignitary. Or hand him an easel, a palette and, voila!, a canvas worthy of a prominent nail in the Musee d'Orsay.
Not all of the new guys were born in the (deep breath) '90s. One older player — he's 26 — who's been garnering attention is the Detroit Red Wings' Damien Brunner, who made a name for himself by leading the Swiss league with 25 goals and 57 points in just 33 games this season. Even more enticing: He was playing alongside Henrik Zetterberg, the newly named Red Wings captain. Head coach Mike Babcock is considering pairing the two with Pavel Datsyuk. Not a bad welcome to the league.
The Eastern Conference: engagements, beach yoga, brothers reunited, and more!
- Could this season mark the return of the Alexander Ovechkin we all once knew and loved? (Well, those of us who weren't Penguins fans in the mid-aughts, that is.) These days Ovi is a newly announced Olympic torchbearer as well as a happily engaged man, having recently proposed to his tennis-star girlfriend, Maria Kirilenko. What's more, he may be more simpatico with new head coach Adam Oates than he was with Bruce Boudreau at the end of his tenure or with Dale Hunter after that. "I think Adam will find the key to Alex Ovechkin's soul," Oates's former college coach told the Washington Times. Ovechkin added: "I talk only one time to Dale all year. Right now I talk to Oatesy almost every day." All together now: awwwww.
- Fun bulletin board material from zany Ottawa Senators self-described "owner-fan" Eugene Melnyk: "We saw who won the Stanley Cup last year, and many of [our] players thought we were a much better team." Oh, it's so on.
- While their defensive corps remains questionable, the Carolina Hurricanes certainly added a lot of potential offensive firepower this offseason with their draft-day trade for Jordan Staal (who learned the news during his own wedding and now joins his brother Eric on the team) and their one-year signing of Alexander Semin (a move I quite liked). Combined with the reliable play of goaltender Cam Ward and a cache of young talent that includes 2011 Calder winner Jeff Skinner and 20-year-old American defenseman Justin Faulk (who recorded 24 points in 31 games with the Charlotte Checkers of the AHL), the Hurricanes should battle for the Southeast Division.
- Playing (and training) in a "non-traditional market"? Turns out it's not bad. Not bad at all. That second link is like Tampa Bay hockey Stonehenge.
- It's expected that the Montreal Canadiens will find a way to come to a contractual agreement with brash and lovable defenseman P.K. Subban, but for how much? While Subban's agent feels his comparables include guys like Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Jeff Skinner, and Tyler Seguin — all of whom make somewhere in the neighborhood of $6 million over six or seven years — the Canadiens are offering somewhere more in the $4 million range. With the season just days away, we'll see who cracks first.
The Western Conference: egregious predictions, contract disputes, and more!
- I mentioned my (probably foolish) Blue Jackets bet above, and here's why I'm bullish: There was no team that had worse luck over the last season than Columbus; everything that could have gone wrong most certainly did. From the eight-game suspension of James Wisniewski that opened last season to Jeff Carter's early injury (and late sulking); from the loss of the no. 1 overall pick when the Edmonton Oilers won the lottery to the subsequent injury to Ryan Murray, whom they picked second overall; from the Rick Nash sweepstakes drama to the cancellation of the planned All-Star Game in Columbus, it's been one damn thing after another. This can't possibly keep happening, can it?! (This is my own personal version of karma sabermetrics.) And the Blue Jackets have more than a few things going for them: a lunchpail group fronted by a hungry Brandon Dubinsky, who, after a mediocre year in New York, will undoubtedly have something to prove; the addition of John Davidson, who helped turn around the St. Louis Blues as the president of hockey operations; a serviceable new goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky; Ewing Theory potential; and the comfort of low expectations.
Think of it this way: If you're the St. Louis Blues and you play Detroit, Chicago, and then Columbus in the span of four nights, which game might you be overlooking? That might be the bleakest reason for optimism, but with this team we'll take whatever we can scrounge up.
- Speaking of the Blue Jackets, one of my favorite stories came from team beat writer Aaron Portzline, who asked a player, "What do you think life after 61 will be like?" The player responded: "Well, I don't think anybody can say. That's why we fought so hard for pensions during the CBA stuff. I mean, you want to … " Portzline interrupted him to say that he was referring to 61 as in the departed Rick Nash. Guess they're over him being gone!
- The Anaheim Ducks, a team that could be a lot of fun to watch under the freewheeling Bruce Boudreau, have a lot of big decisions to make. Both Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf are poised to enter unrestricted free agency at the end of this season; Bobby Ryan, meanwhile, has grown more and more publicly fed up with his status as everlasting trade bait.6 Getzlaf had a dismal 2011-12 season in which he netted only 11 goals, a career low. (Also at a low: his shooting percentage, which plummeted to 5.9 percent, roughly half of his career average and almost guaranteed to improve.) The surprisingly expensive signing of Travis Zajac by the Devils can only up the price for Perry and Getzlaf, leaving Anaheim GM Bob Murray with plenty to think about in a short period of time. (Murray said: "I love those guys. They're winners. I'm going to do anything in my power to sign them," and added that "this isn't rocket science." OK!)
- The Ducks aren't the only Western team with some lingering contractual situations. The Dallas Stars' prize child, Jamie Benn, remains unsigned as the season draws closer; Benn is a restricted free agent who would be up for free agency in four years, so the main question is whether he'll go for something longer-term that cuts into his UFA years. (As of Thursday morning, the team was hinting that a deal was close.) In other Dallas Stars news: They signed both Ray Whitney and Jaromir Jagr this summer. They're practically the Knicks! And the Colorado Avalanche's Ryan O'Reilly remains in Russia playing for the KHL as his contract situation gets sorted out. He's been offered two years at $7 million, the same deal his teammate Matt Duchene received, but is reportedly holding out for something closer to $5 million per. Meanwhile, the KHL is throwing money at him to stay, which would be a huge blow for the Avalanche: Next to the Swedeborg (and youngest captain in NHL history) Gabriel Landeskog, O'Reilly is one of Colorado's most vital players.7
- Here's a date to circle on the calendar: March 9, when the new-look Minnesota Wild travel to Nashville in big free-agent acquisition Ryan Suter's first trip back to his former home. (The two teams will play twice before then, both times in Minnesota.) It will be an interesting benchmark: By then, the season will be about halfway over, and we'll see whether Suter and Parise have been able to make an immediate impact on their new franchise as well as how Nashville is holding up without one of their two long-time star defensemen. (Nashville reminds me of Parise's former New Jersey Devils in many ways — they're both franchises that have historically withstood turnover very well, a credit to general managers David Poile and Lou Lamiorello.)
Hockey fans are the best fans, end of story
I know there are still many people out there who are angry and have vowed never to watch hockey again, and I truly salute these good soldiers and wish them the best. But the reaction to the NHL's return by fans has been, by and large, understanding and enthusiastic. People have packed open practice sessions and intra-squad scrimmages, they have made plans for watching parties on hockey's version of opening day, and in doing so they have taken control of what was a completely out-of-everyone's-hands situation for months and months on end. No longer will we have our emotions toyed with by Gary Bettman and Don Fehr! No, the NHL is dropping the puck on Saturday, which means that from this point forward the only group of people that can treat our hearts and souls like yo-yos are the teams we care for the most. And really, isn't that what love's all about?
This article has been updated to correct a reference to Pekka Rinne's height.