Thursday, October 9, 2008
Story lines to watch: The rookies, the schedule, the coaches and more
Here are some story lines we'll be following this season:
• So, just what kind of effect will the outstanding 2008 draft class have this season? In 2007-08, Patrick Kane stepped out of the draft and into rookie of the year honors. Will one of the four big defensemen taken at the top of the 2008 draft -- Zach Bogosian in Atlanta, Drew Doughty in Los Angeles, Alex Pietrangelo in St. Louis and Luke Schenn in Toronto -- do the same this season? Will Steven Stamkos, the No. 1 overall pick, or Mikkel Boedker or Viktor Tikhonov (both of whom are on the opening-day roster in Phoenix) steal the hardware? Or will some of these players disappear before the 10-game mark as clubs seek to preserve a year on their entry-level contracts?
Regardless, all signs suggest youth is being served in the new NHL, and that's not going to change any time soon.
• Where will veteran players like Brendan Shanahan, Bryan Berard, Nikolai Khabibulin, Kyle McLaren, Rhett Warrener and Anders Eriksson, all of whom were either without contracts or waived by their teams (or, in the case of Khabibulin, with the Chicago Blackhawks and not particularly wanted, given his $6.75 million salary) end up? And, of course, the future of Mats Sundin remains equally cloudy. When will Sundin decide he's ready to rejoin the NHL, or will he hang up his skates for good? And what of Peter Forsberg? Is the other great Swede finally done?
• When will the first egregious act of violence mar the hockey landscape? Last season, the Flyers ruled the roost when it came to violent transgressions, with Jesse Boulerice, Steve Downie and Randy Jones all landing suspensions early in the going. More importantly, will we start to see some consistency from the NHL's lords of discipline? Will blows to the head and stick fouls actually draw serious responses from the league for a change?
• Which of the NHL's potential free-agent studs will be on the move first? Jay Bouwmeester in Florida? Marian Gaborik in Minnesota? What about the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, in Vancouver? What about any of the top-flight potential free agents out of Montreal (Mike Komisarek, Saku Koivu and Alexei Kovalev)?
• Which coach goes under the bus first? There is significant pressure on Peter Laviolette in Carolina, Mike Keenan in Calgary, Andy Murray in St. Louis and Alain Vigneault in Vancouver.
• Can the ghosts in the Bell Centre rafters in Montreal conjure up another championship for the bleu, blanc et rouge to commemorate the team's 100th anniversary?
• Can rain, sleet or snow stop the NHL's determination to take itself outdoors again this season, this time at Wrigley Field in Chicago for another New Year's Day spectacle? Will Mother Nature take her vengeance, or will she cooperate and give the league another red-letter day, as was the case last season in Buffalo?
• So, when does interim, or maybe not so interim, GM Cliff Fletcher finally give up the reins in Toronto? Does that handover happen at the exact second Anaheim GM Brian Burke's contract runs out with the Ducks? Or is there another plan afoot, perhaps one involving some combination of Steve Yzerman, Joe Nieuwendyk and Doug Gilmour?
• When does Martin Brodeur surpass one-time idol and sometimes nemesis Patrick Roy to become the greatest goalie of all time? Brodeur needs 13 wins to tie Roy's 551 regular-season victories and 14 to establish a new benchmark for goaltending greatness. Last season, the Devils netminder got off to a slow start and hit the 13-win mark Dec. 5, so look for Roy's record to fall somewhere around Thanksgiving. Brodeur also needs 61 appearances to tie Roy's mark, another one that seems destined to fall this season. Terry Sawchuk's career shutout record is in jeopardy as well.
• With the Montreal Canadiens celebrating their 100th anniversary, the New York Rangers retooled for a run at a championship, the Blackhawks riding an unprecedented wave of support in Chicago and the Boston Bruins trying to build on their surprising run to the playoffs, does this represent a return to an era of prominence for the NHL's Original Six? And how long before the Maple Leafs join the club?
• Whether it is new faces getting their first shot at NHL coaching, like Pete DeBoer in Florida and Todd McLellan in San Jose, or old faces getting their first shot, like John Anderson in Atlanta, or familiar faces in new places, like Ron Wilson in Toronto and Craig Hartsburg in Ottawa, there are plenty of newcomers to the coaching ranks this season -- nine in all. It says here no more than two (McLellan in San Jose and Barry Melrose in Tampa) will coach their teams into the postseason.
• The new schedule. After several years of moaning about a schedule that was heavily weighted to divisional play, the NHL has given fans what they want -- a broader taste of the NHL. Will it result in better attendance? We'll see.