|ESPN.com: NHL Preview 2012||[Print without images]|
|The players will come back to play, but will the game's passionate fans come back to watch?|
The Donald will stick around for the time being, but there was never any sense he was hired to be anything more than a one-shot, hired gun brought in to wage war against the evil tyranny of commissioner Gary Bettman. Does his brother, Steve, an integral part of the deal being made to save the season, stick around long term? That's probably more likely than Donald being a long-term fixture with the NHLPA.
Ha, ha. If anyone thinks there was a winner in this mess, they're sadly mistaken. Everyone's reputations -- from owners to players to some agents -- took a mighty hit during this entirely avoidable situation. Will the fans come back? Probably. Will the sponsors? Sure, if the fans come back. But the game and its brand, enjoying an unprecedented upswing in the past five years, has been treated with such reckless disregard by its own caretakers that it will take a long while before the acid taste of this lockout leaves entirely. The fact that there has been very little chest-thumping or media awarding of victory or defeat suggests both sides understand this was indeed a conflict without victors, only losers.
Sources continue to tell ESPN.com that a new owner will be in place by the end of January or the first week of February, but as with all things Glendale and the Coyotes, seeing is believing. Still, it's too big a market and too much has been invested by the NHL for it to fall apart at this point. Right? Right?
Sexy picks for the truncated 48-game schedule include the defending Stanley Cup champs from Los Angeles, who will essentially return the same lineup to the ice that held the Cup aloft after Game 6 of the finals last June. St. Louis, a surprise winner of the Central Division a year ago, is getting a lot of attention, as well it should. In the Eastern Conference, the New York Rangers are the odds-on favorites with the addition of Rick Nash and return to form of defending Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist. But don't dismiss the powerful Pittsburgh Penguins, with Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby both raring to go, as they will likely battle the Rangers for the Atlantic Division crown and the right to represent the Eastern Conference for the Cup. And let's not forget the 2011 Cup winners in Boston, who are deep and physical with or without Tim Thomas in net.
Oh, there'll be myriad storylines, given the short season, but the overriding storyline will be how does hockey return after another self-inflicted hit to its profile? How do fans and, by extension, sponsors, respond in places such as Florida, where the Panthers are coming off their first playoff berth since 2000? How about in St. Louis, where the Blues have built a contender but will have to crawl out from the wreckage of the lockout to regain relevance in the marketplace? Or even in Los Angeles, which won its first-ever championship and then had to wait four months to properly celebrate it? What, if any, are the long-term effects of the lockout there? In Canada, hockey is king. But how hockey returns to far-flung markets in the United States will define the league's ability to move beyond this senseless interruption and return to the optimism -- not to mention profitability -- that had marked the previous five years.
The shorter schedule means a ton of pressure on GMs and coaches to make personnel decisions in an almost impossibly short timeline. Training camp began Sunday. Opening day is Saturday. The drama will be intense, every weeklong slump magnified, every three-game scoring streak trumpeted. Most teams are braced for many injuries, especially early on as hundreds of players go from informal workouts to NHL action in a matter of days. Ultimately, the short schedule will mean teams that would otherwise fall by the wayside in a regular 82-game slate will be in the playoff hunt to the end, and will likely dislodge a handful of better teams that are hit by the injury bug or can't shake free of inconsistency.
Maybe none will. But we'll be interested in places such as Anaheim, which needs success to reinforce its place in the marketplace galvanized most recently by the 2007 Cup win. Dallas needs a strong start and a playoff berth to help new owner Tom Gaglardi realize his dream of restoring the Stars to elite status after the team has missed the playoffs for the past four years. Carolina generated lots of offseason buzz by adding Jordan Staal and Alex Semin, then had to wait months to see if that buzz translated into more fans in seats, etc. Florida and Phoenix will again be interesting to watch.
We're curious to see whether all of the buzz surrounding Vladimir Tarasenko is justified. The 16th overall pick in the 2010 draft will be brought along slowly by the St. Louis Blues and defending coach of the year Ken Hitchcock, but if Tarasenko can make a contribution playing top-nine forward minutes and chipping in on the power play, he'll enhance the Blues' chances for another successful season. Another worth watching is Justin Schultz, who shocked many by signing as a free agent with the Oilers and then tore it up in the AHL during the lockout. Schultz looks ready to handle the huge pressure.
Folks have been predicting the decline of the Detroit Red Wings since the last lockout and all they've done is make the playoffs every season, win a Cup and go to another final over that period. That said, last spring's disappointing first-round loss to Nashville, coupled with the retirement of captain Nicklas Lidstrom and four-time Cup winner Tomas Holmstrom, and the defection of defenseman Brad Stuart to San Jose, suggests that this 48-game sprint will be very tough on the Red Wings. Tough enough that they miss the playoffs for the first time since 1990? Quite possibly. But if there's any solace, the Red Wings won't be the only playoff regular to feel the sting this spring.
In theory, players recovering from injury, such as Marian Gaborik of the New York Rangers (shoulder surgery), Jonathan Quick of Los Angeles (back surgery) and new Dallas Star Derek Roy (shoulder surgery), should benefit from the delay to the start of the season. In general, one imagines that the Kings' entire squad will be in a better position to avoid the usual Stanley Cup hangover.
Ownership in Anaheim is not too pleased at all with the CBA because the salary cap wasn't set low enough for the Ducks' liking. This will put more pressure on the organization as it tries to re-sign core stars Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf -- both of whom are slated to become unrestricted free agents in July.Pierre LeBrun contributed to this story.