Let’s get one thing out of the way: I’m going to be enjoying the return of the NHL post-lockout. I’m a forgiving guy who never took it personally, my job is in hockey, and I don’t think that me giving up on the NHL is going to make one lick of difference to them, so don’t rain on my parade today. It’s over, we’re hockey people, hockey’s back = yay!
The best thing to come from this right now is that like the Eye of Sauron, we can firmly fix our gaze on actual hockey instead of the little Hobbits that’ve been dragging us through the Dead Marshes of boring legalese (nerd!).
So let’s turn our focus to hockey! In sorting out my thoughts on the 2013 season this weekend, it occurred to me just how many exciting storylines there are to play out, not to mention how many things I’d just plum forgot about. So let’s look at the big ones, and refresh our memories a little bit:
10. Rick Nash is a New York Ranger
Hey guys, remember last summer when the Columbus Blue Jackets traded the face of their franchise, Rick Nash, to the New York Rangers for Brandon Dubinsky and some other players (Artem Anisimov and Tim Erixon, to be specific)? That’s a thing that actually happened, and we’re about to get to watch it all play out.
Man…I just can’t picture Nash in Blue, white and red.
Whatever you think of the deal in the long-term for the Rangers, it made them undeniably better in the short term. Look how loaded up this team is:
You’ve got forwards like Ryan Callahan, Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, and Carl Hagelin playing in front of Michael Del Zotto, Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and more, and oh yeah, they’re all playing in front of the league’s best goalie, Henrik Lundqvist.
As an Isles fan, let me be the first to say “fak.”
9. Staals in Raleigh
Another thing you may recall from last summer: Jordan Staal, the Penguins powerhouse of a third-line center (only “third line” because he was behind Crosby and Malkin) turned down a 10-year, $60 million offer with the team he won a Cup with to get traded to Carolina to play with his brother Eric. HOW DO YOU LIKE THEM APPLES? Crazy.
The Penguins picked up Brandon Sutter in return, a more affordable, more legitimate “third line” guy. With the salary cap rollback, getting a good player and saving money wasn’t the worst thing the Pens could’ve done. That Ray Shero guy is pretty sharp.
Carolina didn’t stop there though: they also signed enigmatic (!) Russian sniper Alex Semin to a one year deal. I know, right? I almost forgot about that too. For a Carolina team that finished with a .500 record last year, those are some nice additions. The Southeast Division could be an interesting.
8. Goalies, goalies, goalies
Things you may have forgot:
Tim Thomas is taking a voluntary year off to live (hole up) in Colorado (the wilderness, maybe) and spend time with his loving family (hoard rations for the zombie apocalypse), meaning the Boston Bruins are relying on a new #1 guy this season, the very capable Tukka Rask. Still, starting every night isn’t the same as filling in when you’re feeling fresh and fine, so his progress will be something to keep an eye on. As for other goalie situations…
* Sergei Bobrovsky is gonna be the starting goalie for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
* Long-time NHL starter Tomas Vokoun is backing up Marc-Andre Fleury in Pittsburgh. Both have some question marks beside them at this point, especially considering just how terrible Fleury was in playoffs against Philly.
* Ilya Bryzgalov. That is all.
* Holtby or Neuvirth (remember playoffs last year, that whole thing?)? Clemmenson or Theodore? Giguere or Varlamov? Duos, starters…what the deal?
* Can Halak and Elliot combine to be the World’s Greatest Tandem again?
* Who’s the starting goalie for the Tampa Bay Lightning, go. QUICK, GUESS! ……..(It’s Ander Lindback, formerly of the Nashville Predators)
* Cory Schneider, all you have to do is win the Cup to live up to expectations, good luck.
* Do the Kings move Jonathan Bernier? He’s got starter potential and he’s stuck behind a Conn Smythe winner.
* And there’s one other goalie we’ll get to in a bit here. But first…
7. The Leafs, man. The Leafs.
The Toronto Maple Leafs are generally the most widely discussed and dissected team in the NHL, yet they hold a distinct-but-not-so-prestigious honour: they’re the only team who managed to not make the playoffs once between NHL lockouts. That includes the Atlanta Thrashers, Columbus Blue Jackets, New York Islanders etc, etc.
Brian Burke’s tenure here has seen the team finish near the bottom of the league for four straight years, they’ve swapped coaches, they’re a constant mess in net, but they’re “getting there,” apparently. The thing is, they have some quality players at this point (they traded Luke Schenn for James Van Riemsdyk, if you recall), so if everything goes right – Reimer locks things down, their D-prospects prove to be high end and all the rest – could they finally crack the playoffs?
6. Born to be Wild
Last season two high-end free agents, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, both happen to be Minnesota born all-around nice guys and buddies who set their sights on ending up back home in Minny. Oh, they also got paid fuck-tons of money, which probably didn’t hurt.
With Dany Heatley and Mikko Koivu and Devin Setoguchi and good goaltending all under contract before those deals were made, things are starting to look interesting for the Wild. Most people figure that they still don’t have enough pieces to be a contender, but I don’t know about that. This is a team that’s been stuck in a perpetual loop of mediocrity with their old roster: I figure making these moves has them in a position to break that cycle.
5. Return of the King
Remember when the Los Angeles Kings, as 8-seeds, realized their true potential and absolutely steamrolled through the 1, 2 and 3 seeds in playoffs last year before disposing of the Devils and winning the Cup? Like, steamrolled?
The lost four games over the entirety of playoffs, and with good reason: their roster is nasty. Dustin Brown, Anze Kopitar, Simon Gagne, Justin Williams, Drew Doughty, Jeff Carter, Mike Richards, Jonathan Quick, I mean…why would anyone think they’re not the Cup favourites again this year? That team is as loaded as Quick was when he gave his thank you speech to Kings fans last summer.
4. Amnesty buyouts
I didn’t want to mention off-ice stuff too much, but holy shit, come on: amnesty buyouts? This is going to be amazing. After this short season, teams will be deciding if they want to axe guys entirely, which means that every high-paid player in the league is basically in a contract year: perform or be gone with you. Is there any chance Scott Gomez is suddenly an offensive stud this year? I’m going to be keeping my eye on guys like him, not to mention guys like Wade Redden (I’m secretly hoping he gets bought out, then there’s a bidding war for him, then he gets overpaid again).
3. Crosby’s head
It’s been a terribly rough ride for a guy who’s essentially been the face of the NHL throughout his entire career. If you look at the arc of offensive output for goal scorers in NHL history, Crosby has been drifting through his prime and not playing thanks to concussions, and now the lockout. He’s had a good long time to heal up though now, and heading into this shortened season, he’s finally going to be well and have the chance to compete on the same plane as everyone else in the league. No comeback where he hasn’t been able to train, no “rushed back into action,” just a guy still in his prime who can set the league on fire when he has it going. I really hope he takes the Art Ross this year. It hasn’t been easy for him, and he deserves it. Hell, hockey fans deserve to see him do what he does too.
2. Edmonton Oilers
It hurts to write about the Oil as an Islanders fan, but for some reason I’m just unceasingly intrigued by this team. I guess that happens when you’re so bad you get the number one overall pick 35 years in a row, or whatever it’s been. Anyway, come on: Nail Yakupov, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, a bunch of other “maybe” young guys, and oh yeah, Justin Schultz is an Oiler now too. There are many, many, MANY questions about their back-end and goaltending, which is even better. Every game is going to be a shootout, goals at both ends, rookie mistakes all over the ice, nasty skill that can rear it’s pretty head when you least see it coming. Fireworks, ahoy!
1. Roberto Luongo’s final destination
Let’s be honest, this is a big story. Roberto Luongo is a stud goalie, with a long (reasonable) contract and it’s public knowledge that he’s going to be playing in a new jersey sooner than later. Maybe the Canucks keep him for this season, maybe he goes to Florida, or maybe, just maybe, the Leafs patch their long-standing gaping hole in net once and for all.
The Canucks are a team that’s been on the verge of winning it all for awhile, so if Cory Schneider can provide comparable goaltending to Lu in Vancouver, and they can turn the team’s former starter into another valuable chip, Vancouver might finally have found a way to get themselves over the hump and get it done.
…It’s great to talk hockey again, isn’t it?
(S/t to John Buccigross whose tweet reminded me of some of these)