Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Top Five NHL Storylines of 2011-12

By Mike Chen

Hockey in Winnipeg! Brain scans in Pittsburgh! More of the same in Washington!

Welcome back, folks. The 2011-12 NHL season is upon us, leaving behind one of sports' most difficult offseasons. Much has been written about the tragedies that occurred off the ice, and with all due respect to those, it's time to begin the healing process and that starts with looking at what's happening on the ice. Here are your top five storylines for the new NHL season.

5. Florida's Spending Spree

What happens when you get a bold new GM with $31 million in cap space to spend? You get Dale Tallon, the Florida Panthers, and a host of overpaid free agents. Tallon's spending spree — which was to get to the cap floor, not ceiling — put extra money into the pockets of guys who were over the hill (Ed Jovanovski) or only showed flashes of potential (Sean Bergenheim). Will any of it work?

The best-case scenario is that guys like Bergenheim and Tomas Fleischmann bring consistency to their previous moments of brilliance while Jovanovski and Brian Campbell lead by example. The worst-case scenario is, well, a mediocre team staying at the bottom of the standings. With much more depth (though no top-line depth) this season, there's no doubt the Panthers have a better roster on paper. How much better? That's the grand chemistry experiment.

4. Washington/San Jose Go For it ... Again

Despite totally different coaching styles, roster philosophies, and team histories, the San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals are linked together as underachievers. The Sharks shed some of the underachiever image with back-to-back conference final appearances, while the Caps still retain the identity of playoff choker. Regardless, these two teams are among the best in the regular season, and some level of extreme makeover means that nothing less than the Cup equals success. Washington finally has a No. 1 goalie in Tomas Vokoun, while San Jose gets speedier and more defensive with its cap dollars. Will it work? The only way to judge these teams is to look at who's skating in June.

3. Winnipeg's Return

It's almost funny how swiftly the return of the Winnipeg Jets came to be after the will-they/won't-they drama involved with Nashville Predators and Phoenix Coyotes ownership. Instead of public blustering or grand proclamations, True North simply came in with a lot of money, little baggage, and an ample opportunity — the troubles in Atlanta were different from other teams, as no local group stepped up and the ongoing legal battles of the Atlanta Spirit group gave everyone, including the league, a headache. This story won't necessarily have a happy ending, though — the Jets overhauled everything but the roster, so the question really comes down to how long the goodwill will last if and when the team losses.

2. Sidney Crosby's Brain

It feels like Sidney Crosby's return is imminent — the former league MVP and Stanley Cup champion is pushing himself hard in practice and he's not avoiding the media at all. Still, the consequences of an injury lasting 9+ months is that the question of concussions will follow Crosby pretty much his entire career.

Concussions are fickle things, and he could even theoretically have a recurring symptom following the morning skate of his comeback game. With such a high-profile player battling the NHL's biggest injury foe, all eyes will be on Crosby. That may seem like status quo, but things like whiplash, memory, and headaches will replace goals, assists, and face-offs, at least for the time being.

1. Shanny's Suspensions

New discipline sheriff Brendan Shanahan hasn't been shy about handing out suspensions in the preseason, and there's no reason to think he'll let up when the games count. Shanahan has publicly stated that he hopes his explanation videos not only appease the curious eye, they act as a teaching tool for what is and what isn't acceptable.

For years, many critics have pointed the fingers at the players for not showing self-discipline with head hits and/or dangerous hits. With stiffer punishments and one of their own in charge, this early wave of disciplinary action will hopefully change the culture of the league. With the overriding theme of education and transparency, Shanahan's approach is right — it's up to the players to decide if this will be effective.

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