Five storylines for the second half
1. Who's next to get sidelined? How many more major stars and/or starting netminders will be lost to injury, thus dramatically changing the playoff landscape? Martin Brodeur's absence has cost the New Jersey Devils mightily, the Carolina Hurricanes' hold on first in the Southeast will be tested with the long-term absence of Cam Ward, and the Ottawa Senators have been forced to make do without MVP/Vezina candidate Craig Anderson, to say nothing of the losses of Erik Karlsson and Jason Spezza. Is there a team in the NHL that hasn't had to make do without a crucial piece of its lineup? Whether it's the compressed schedule, the lack of a training camp or just plain bad luck, the injury bug seems to have bitten harder and more often in this lockout-shortened season. No reason to suspect it will take time off as the schedule enters the second half. The other side of the injury coin that will bear watching in the second half is which returning players will make the biggest difference to their teams. Spezza looks like he is a couple of weeks away from returning. Miikka Kiprusoff won his first game back from knee injury to keep the Calgary Flames' playoff hopes burning. Brad Richards just returned to a New York Rangers team just starting to get into a groove. Often the return of an injured player provides the same kind of boost a trade at the deadline delivers.
2. What will become of Roberto Luongo? Remember how many believed Luongo would be gone by the start of the season and then early in the season? Now the Canucks seem perfectly content to hang on to the former Vezina Trophy nominee through the end of the season as both he and Cory Schneider have played well even as the team has suffered through periods of inconsistency. Will dynamics change elsewhere that would allow the Canucks to make a deal before the April 3 deadline? Is it possible an injury to another team changes the demand for Luongo, a demand that is at this stage pretty much nonexistent? Does the long-term absence of Ryan Kesler make GM Mike Gillis rethink his strategy of dealing Luongo, especially as Vancouver hit a soft spot at the midpoint? Rest assured, this storyline isn't going away and won't go away even if the Canucks decide once again to enter the playoffs with a Luongo-Schneider tandem working the nets.
3. Which titans will fall? Which established NHL team is going to fall out of a playoff spot when the dust clears on April 27? As of Friday afternoon, four points separated the fifth-place and 12th-place teams in the Western Conference. The defending Stanley Cup champs, the Los Angeles Kings, were in that group, as were perennial playoff participants the San Jose Sharks and last year's Central Division champs, the St. Louis Blues. It seems inevitable there won't be room for all of them. In the Eastern Conference, the Philadelphia Flyers continue to struggle and were below the playoff demarcation line, as were the Washington Capitals, who have qualified for the postseason five years in a row. Even the Rangers, many folks' preseason pick to win a Stanley Cup, weren't locked into a playoff spot. Bottom line, some teams with high preseason expectations are going to have an unexpectedly short season.
4. To Russia with love or not? With realignment now more or less put to bed (it needs board of governors' approval, but that should be a formality), the league will turn its attention to a couple of different areas of concern. The players and owners can now work together to try to establish new parameters for participation in the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, next year with the IOC and IIHF. The sooner that gets done -- and all indications are that it will get done -- the sooner summer orientation camps will be scheduled and, in the case of the U.S., management teams named. The league must also come to grips with what is happening with the Phoenix Coyotes. It would seem absurd to think that after all of the realignment haggling that the Coyotes could still end up being relocated, which would provide the potential for redrawing the realignment map. We are fast approaching the fourth anniversary of the league's ownership of the team. How is that possible?
5. Who will be traded? What moves will be made before the April 3 trade deadline? The 48-game schedule, the heavy number of injuries and the looming drop in the salary cap to $64.3 million next season, down from a prorated $70.2 million this season, will make life even more difficult for GMs this trade deadline season. Throw in the fact that this June's draft is extremely top-heavy -- many scouts believe it is rich in talent throughout -- and that means GMs will be even more loath to part with draft picks. And then there's the confusing issue of who is actually a seller, given the tightness of the standings. There will be some separation in the next three weeks, but it seems inevitable there will be more teams looking to add pieces than teams willing to give them up. One might expect that would create a scenario where GMs overpay for additions, but our sense is that this season will see a lot more conservative action than in the past. Of course, trade deadline time always provides surprises, and April 3 will be no exception.
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