The NHL is officially back. After a long struggle between the union and NHL players, the collective bargaining agreement was signed and ratified last week. Here are the top 10 story lines for this short NHL season. The NHL's 99-day, 48-game season starts on January 19.
#1 – Where Will Roberto Luongo Play?
Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo is still open to a trade. Rumors of one have circled the NHL since last season, and now that the lockout is over, these rumors are firing up again. The Toronto Maple Leafs are the favorites to land Luongo, especially since they fired their general manager Brian Burke. It is well known that Burke did not want to trade for Luongo.
#2 – The Toronto Maple Leafs are a Mess
The first point easily leads to the second point. Fans of the New York Jets think their organization is a mess, but they need to look at Toronto. The lockout put trades and signings on hold, but teams could still fire personnel. Instead, the Maples Leafs waited until the last minute to fire Burke, their general manager. The main question is: why now? Why not September? Teams are already pressed for time with only a week to train. The firing literally came out of nowhere, and Toronto quickly replaced him with his close friend and right-hand man Dave Nonis. The organization is a train wreck, and the owners want to win right now. Until the team realizes they have to build and will not win a Stanley Cup overnight, they will remain at the bottom and never win no matter how many personnel changes they make or star players they bring in.
#3 – Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers
Last season the Penguins finished 51-25-6 and the Rangers finished 51-24-7. It will be extremely close this year since between these two teams as Sidney Crosby will be back 100% healthy for the Penguins, and the Rangers traded for Rick Nash, the former Columbus Blue Jackets forward. The odds are in favor of these two teams meeting in the Eastern Conference finals, and the winner could easily win the Stanley Cup. When these teams play, the contests are fierce and extremely close.
#4 – Edmonton Oilers
Yes, a team that ended last season 32-40-10 is a team to watch. It should not come to a surprise if Oilers finish close to the top of the Western Conference. Sports Illustrated even has them at #4 in their power rankings. Their star players -- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle, and Justin Shultz -- played in the AHL during the lockout. More importantly, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle played together in Oklahoma City. In addition, the short season will help out the young team. If the Oilers get off to a fast start, they may never look back.
#5 – Will the Los Angeles Kings repeat as Stanley Cup Champions?
It is never easy to repeat as champions in any sport, and the Kings know this. That’s why owners gave general manager Dean Lombardi permission to do whatever is necessary to repeat. One of their goalies, Jonathan Bernier, asked for a trade last season and is their best asset. He will be more than likely be moved this season If the Kings can keep their roster and receive great assets for Bernier in return, they will again be strong contenders.
#6 – The fans
The NHL is already on thin ice (pun intended) with the few fans they do have. And many are very upset. They might not come back, which puts the NHL and owners in damage control. For instance, the Dallas Stars will offer free tickets to children 12 years of age or younger in the upper deck for all January and February games. The Pittsburgh Penguins will give ticket holders a coupon for three concession items, and their merchandise will be discounted by 50% for the first four games. There will be a week-long program of contests to win season tickets and a trip to New York to see the Rangers play.
#7 – No Niklas Lidstrom
For the first time in 20 years, #5 will not be on the ice for the Detroit Red Wings. Whether you’re a fan of Detroit, everyone respected Niklas Lidstrom, one of the best defensemen to play the game. Lidstrom was great on offense, especially on the Red Wings power play that he quarterbacked. Only Bobby Orr may be considered to have been a better defenseman in the history of the game than Lidstrom. He played all 20 seasons with the Red Wings in an age of rampant free agency and won four Stanley Cups, seven Norris Trophies (awarded to the NHL’s top defenseman), a Conn Smythe (awarded to the playoff MVP), and was voted into twelve NHL All-Star games. Detroit has to find a new top defenseman to take over for Lidstrom. Brendan Smith will be a huge help, but is there anyone who could really replace Lidstrom? Probably not. However, the Red Wings are poised to be a competitive team.
#8 – Zach Parise and Ryan Suter in Minnesota
At first I didn’t think much of this, but Nicholas Goss at Bleacher Report brought up very good points. Zach Parise and Ryan Suter were the top agents in the offseason and both chose Minnesota. Yet, this news has been largely ignored. Adding Parise, the former New Jersey Devils captain, and Suter, the former Nashville Predators defenseman, push the Wild up the ranks. Last year the Wild were 30th in goals scored, but as Goss points out, these two could easily turn that weakness into a strength. Look for the Wild to make a strong statement this year.
#9 – Opening Night Games
The lockout lasted for over 100 days and players are eager to hit the ice. A short season means every single game counts. Teams have to start out strong from the first time the puck drops at center ice on opening night. Pittsburgh opens at Philadelphia, and the Penguins are hungry to get revenge on the team that eliminated them in the playoffs last year. The Kings open at home against the Blackhawks, who could very well be a team that stops them from repeating as Stanley Cup champions.
#10 – No interconference Games
This could be a big deal when it comes to the Stanley Cup finals. Teams will not get a feel for how the others play, which could hurt. During the shortened 1994-95 season, the Detroit Red Wings dominated the season and were the favorites to win the Stanley Cup. No one expected the New Jersey Devils to even make it to the finals. They did and swept the Red Wings with their infamous neutral zone trap. It’s not a guarantee the Red Wings would have defeated the Devils had they faced them in the regular season, but it sure would have helped.
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