The Return of the NHL: 10 Storylines to Watch

Good afternoon, hockey fans! And welcome to the rebirth of the Bar South blog in the form of GoFiveHole!

Now, I’m sure many of you are expecting me to go on some long rant fueled with lines like “screw the league, this lockout cost me my job, and I hope the Florida Panthers fold,” but I’m not going to. At least not right now.

Instead, as players rush to their cities of employment and hope to have time to tape sticks and sharpen their skates before their season openers, we fans must react just as quickly to catch up to this year’s most important storylines. I don’t know about you, but as a diehard Caps fan, I can’t even name you the full roster without a hint from at this point. Thus, let’s recall some of this summer’s events, along with the looming questions for the 2012-2013 season.

1. How do players and teams react to the shortened season?

Assuming the NHLPA ratifies the CBA today and the season begins on January 19th as anticipated, teams will be left with a luxurious 6 working days to prepare for opening night. That, ladies and gentleman, is not a lot of time.

Fans should not expect see quality play from their teams for the first couple weeks of the season, especially those with several new pieces or teams who did not have their players in other professional leagues during the lockout. Passes will miss, skaters will gasp for breath towards the end of games, goalies will let up soft goals, and play will not be fluid.

With a 48 game season, however, teams cannot afford to slack for long, as a bad couple of weeks could now put a team out of playoff contention immediately.

2. Does Roberto Luongo become a Toronto Maple Leaf, a Florida Panther, a Columbus Blue Jack, or (worse), stay in Vancouver?

After last spring’s benching of Vancouver’s “starting” goaltender, 33 year-old Roberto Luongo, aka the guy with the 12-year, $64 million contract, it was all but written in stone that Luongo would not be comfortable remaining in his western Canada home. Luongo is set to make a cool prorated $6,714,000 this season, and carries a cap hit of $5,333,333 for the next ten years. Needless to say, as much as Vancouver GM Mike Gilles would like to get fair market value for his once superstar, there will not be too many teams jumping out of their seats hoping to take a risk on that contract.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are reported to be heavy front-runners for the services of the Canadian goaltender, while the Florida Panthers look in from the outside. The Columbus Blue Jackets could use a consistent netminder, but Luongo would likely exercise his no-trade clause should Vancouver try to complete such a deal. Needless to say, this decision will likely be resolved by January 19th, or shortly thereafter.

3. Can Adam Oates resurrect the Real Alex Ovechkin?

When it was made public that Dale Hunter would not be returning as the head coach of the Washington Capitals, there was hope that George McPhee would find a way to pry away assistant coach and former Caps’ captain and Hall of Famer Adam Oates from New Jersey. Oates was known throughout his career for his amazing vision, off the chart hockey IQ, and ability to almost always be two-steps ahead of his opponents mentally.

Oates should be able to utilize his extensive hockey knowledge and offensive prowess to aid playmakers such as Nicklas Backstrom and newcomer Mike Ribeiro in creating more quality scoring opportunities for Ovechkin, especially on the power play. Don’t be surprised to see Ovechkin go for 25-30 goals in the shortened campaign, especially with his legs already under him from his stint in the KHL.

4. How do the new CBA rules work out going forward?

With the new CBA comes new rules, terms, and tough to understand explanations. For the most interesting rule, I’ll turn it over to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun:

This was Brian Burke’s baby, an idea he pushed for years at GM meetings. Under the old CBA, teams could not absorb any part of a salary from a player they were trading — unlike baseball for example.

But in this new agreement, teams will be able to do that.

Here are the main parameters of the rule: A club cannot absorb more than 50 percent of the players’ annual cap hit/salary in any trade. Any NHL club can only have up to three contracts on their payroll in which the contract was traded away under the retaining salary proviso. Also, only up to 15 percent of your upper limit cap amount can be used up by the money you have retained in trades.

For example, let’s say the Maple Leafs want to trade little-used blueliner Mike Komisarek and his $4.5-million cap hit ($3.5 million salary this year) to the New York Islanders (hypothetically). The Leafs could retain half the cap hit — $2.25 million — and half the salary — $1.75 million — in order to facilitate the deal. The Islanders would pay him the other half. This should facilitate more trades around the league, no question.

Anyone else find this potentially interesting? Well, you should. This change will provide a lot more flexibility for large and small market teams to strike deals with one another. I.e., the teams that play with figurative Monopoly Money (Toronto, Boston, New York, Philadelphia) will be able to more easily move their big money, big term deals to small market teams with a lot of cap space by absorbing some of the monetary commitment. One can only wonder if we see some of those “cheat deals” change hands in the coming years.

5. Do the Edmonton Oilers finally start to put it together?

Edmonton? Yes, Edmonton. The team that hasn’t made the playoffs in a few years, and thus has had a hell of a lot of first-overall draft picks (three in a row, to be exact). What’s the result?

Oh you know, just a causal top-nine forwards consisting of Jordan Eberle, Sam Gagner, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Magnus Paajarvi, Ryan Smyth, Ales Hemsky, Ryan Jones, and rookie Nail Yakupov. I know I’m not an NHL coach, but if I were, defending against that line-up would scare the living crap out of me. And it should scare 29 teams, well, 14, since this years’ regular season schedule is conference play only. With even decent defense and goaltending, the Oilers should be able to keep up with just about any team on paper this season.

6. Free Agency: What happens now?

With a newly ratified CBA (hopefully) kicking in today, teams are left with precious little time to fill the holes on their rosters. We have already seen some teams make early invitations for players to come to camp for a tryout, such as the Florida Panthers extending invitations to Alexei Kovalev and Andrei Kostitsyn, the former Montreal Canadians teammates and All-Stars. The Boston Bruins and Pittsburgh Penguins are both reportedly interested in the services of veteran winger Mike Knuble.

Expect to see a lot of tryout invitations handed out quickly among players seeking jobs. Similarly, restricted free agents will probably get bigger contracts than expected, simply in the interest of time. Yes, I’m looking at you, P.K Subban.

7. Can new coaches implement their systems in time with a shortened schedule?

Four men have taken new positions as head coaches, including Adam Oates (Washington), Ralph Krueger (Edmonton), Bob Hartley (Calgary), and Michel Therrien (Montreal). These men will have a full length training camp six pre-season games to teach their players an array of intricate, complex systems on both sides of the puck. Oh, wait! No, they won’t! They have six days! Kruger may have the advantage here, having been an assistant bench boss in Edmonton since 2010. However, Hartley and Therrien will be taking over new clubs, while Oates will be getting his first bit of head coaching experience. With only 48 games on the schedule, there obviously isn’t much room for slow starts if these coaches want to impress.

8. “Here they are, the New York Rangers!”

Ah, yes! One of the most refreshing arena announcements in sports. But seriously, about those Rangers …

Las Vegas has the Rangers as 17/2 odds favorites to win the Cup, and they might honestly even deserve better than that. With the acquisition of Rick Nash this summer, the Rangers now have one of the scariest offenses in the league. Couple that with what was already an incredibly solid blue-line, and the world’s best goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist, and you’ve got yourself a Stanley Cup favorite team.

If the shortened schedule is going to help one team in the league, it’s the Rangers. Having Lundqvist healthy and energized going into the playoffs could very well be the tiebreaker for the Rangers in any series, and the deal breaker for all others. Fourteen Eastern Conference teams might be hoping for a tweaked hamstring or some other physical discomfort to the Rangers’ goalkeeper come playoff time.

9. What comes of the KHL?

When a new CBA was agreed upon, there were immediate rumblings that the KHL would attempt to keep several of the NHL’s biggest stars overseas, including Alex Ovechkin (Washington), Ilya Kovalchuk (New Jersey), Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh), and Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit). Some media outlets have reported that both Kovalchuk and Datsyuk were offered up to $20 million to remain in the KHL for the season, but have both declared that they’ll be returning to the United States after playing in the KHL All-Star game Sunday.

This summer, the New York Islanders made a trade with Anaheim to acquire Lubomir Visnovsky, only to have him now announce his intentions to remain in the KHL for the rest of the season. In fairness to the KHL, Visnovsky also tried to block the trade on a legal technicality, to try and avoid becoming an Islander.

KHL president Alexander Medvedev tried to convince players that the NHL having a new CBA could be grounds for legally terminating their contracts with the NHL. Gary Bettman and Bill Daily disagree. If the KHL chooses to try to keep players with NHL contracts, you can bet the Cold War of hockey will be starting up again. Remember, the NHL and KHL signed an agreement to honor one another’s contracts with players in July of 2011. Things could get sticky..

10. Just how severe will the damage to the game be? A.k.a., how do the fans react?

We have now witnessed the third NHL labor stoppage in nineteen years. When the 2004-2005 season was lost, fans understood the need for the league to do what was necessary in order to implement a salary cap system, even when it meant depriving us of the game we love for an entire year. Now, with a record $3.2 billion in revenues last season, the NHL and the players felt the need to miss 34 games over 113 days, all to decide who deserved the biggest piece of the pie.

Many fans have expressed their disgust, anger and resentment for both sides in the past few months. Season tickets have been canceled, petitions have been signed, and promises to boycott games, concessions, and merchandise have been made. Now the focus is squarely on how the league can (try to) win fans back.

Nashville, a blossoming organization in a non-traditional hockey market, has offered fans a free ticket to home game 2 with the purchase of a ticket for the home opener. Not content with stopping there, the offer also comes with $1 hot dogs and 50% off team merchandise. The Pittsburgh Penguins are offering free concession items at games, 50% off merchandise, and free access to training camp at the Consol Energy Center. Tampa Bay is offering 200 season ticket packages at $200 each.

These teams get it. They realize that this lockout has done real, substantial, and possibly even permanent damage to the NHL. They know that many fans resent missing games while “the greedy owners and players” divided up their money.

Meanwhile, many teams continue to remain content basking in their silence, while other owners seem to believe that a simple blog post will suffice after their fans found out about their willingness to miss the entire season to get their deal. It should be interesting to check the attendance figures both this season and next against last season’s figures.

In any event, welcome back, NHL. Now go make things right.

Check back soon for new posts.

Thoughts? Questions? Comments? Have a topic you’d like to see covered?

Follow GoFiveHole on Twitter at @GoFiveHole.


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