Tuesday, January 15, 2013
NHL Storylines Heading Into the 48-Game Season
After months of uncertainty, the NHL is ready to get back where it belongs — out of the boardroom and back on the ice. Based on early reports from fan-attended practices, enthusiasm is high and at least the majority of diehards seem to have forgiven the teams they love. While there will be questions about any lingering damage from the lockout over the next several months, let's focus on the burning questions facing the teams and players as they rush through training camp and prepare to sprint through 48 games.
Is Rick Nash the missing piece in New York?
The 2011-12 season wasn't exactly a boon for goal-scoring in the NHL, but the New York Rangers proved to be on the lower side of things. Built from the net out, there aren't too many questions about the Blueshirts' goaltending or defense. Scoring, though, was an issue last season. Enter power forward Rick Nash, a player who's entering into his prime years after missing out on team success with the Columbus Blue Jackets. On paper, everything fits into place. In reality, though, the Rangers gave up a good amount of depth to get Nash. While none of the departing players can equal Nash in terms of singular talent, it remains to be seen if getting a top-flight forward is off-set by losing character two-way players.
Will Adam Oates succeed in Washington?
After swinging wildly between Bruce Boudreau's run-and-gun system and Dale Hunter's defense-first philosophy, Adam Oates has come to the Washington Capitals with the goal of straddling the line between the two. During exit interviews last season, many Caps players noted that Hunter's obsessive approach to systematic defense may had been extreme in execution, but the point was proven about commitment and sacrifice.
It's up to Oates to harness the raw talent and instincts across the Caps lineup while keeping the discipline learned under Hunter. Considered a bright assistant coach, Oates has his work cut out for him as a rookie head coach — it's a high-risk, high-reward assignment; if Oates can loosen the reins on the Caps without giving up much defensively, you've got a dark-horse candidate for the Jack Adams Award.
Can Edmonton's young guns continue 2012's momentum?
For the past few years, we've been hearing about how all of those high Edmonton Oilers draft picks would create a renaissance for the franchise — think of a re-cast Wayne Gretzky/Jari Kurri/Mark Messier minus the mullets. It hasn't lived up to the hype and it most likely will never approach the dizzying heights of the 1980s Oilers squads. However, while the rest of the NHL was in a lockout, the Oilers key players were lighting up the AHL with the Oklahoma City Barons. Also, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins was awarded as the top forward in the 2013 World Junior Championships despite Canada's fourth-place finish.
There are still questions in Edmonton regarding the defense and the goaltending, and it remains to be seen if this surge of youthful success can carry over into the NHL. But if you're going to hit the ground running in a shortened season, there are few better ways to prepare than collectively dominating minor and junior competition.
Did the lockout cure Los Angeles' Stanley Cup hangover?
Fall tends to be a difficult time for defending Stanley Cup champions, as it takes a good month or two to shake off the cobwebs from a summer shortened by a championship and the accompanying injuries and/or partying. However, the Los Angeles Kings don't have to worry about championship fatigue, as the lockout has given their players plenty of time to physically recuperate (minus the current injury to Anze Kopitar).
The question now lies in whether the Kings are still feeling like they're taking an emotional victory lap or if ready to sprint given the shortened season. On paper, they look as strong as ever, especially if Kopitar comes back soon and Jonathan Quick's offseason surgery doesn't hold him back. One thing's for sure — Dean Lombardi better hope there's not even a short hangover, as the compressed schedule means there's very little room for error.
What will February produce?
My usual philosophy is that any team hanging around the .500 mark around January 1st still has a chance at the playoffs. Now, what if you give every team the same record in the middle of January? That's the kind of fire we're playing with here, and the results can be anything. A stumble out of the gate means a hole with very little wiggle room for playing catch-up. Injuries, slumps, and team chemistry can all factor into what will be a chaotic first few weeks to the NHL season.
In some respects, February may produce some of the most frantic and energetic regular season hockey we've ever seen. At that time, teams will have two weeks to get their conditioning and timing together, and no team will have fallen off the map yet. With an emphasis on division rivalries and 30 days seeking 16 playoff spots with only 40 or so games to go, February gives everyone a ray of hope and enough time for teams to come together. It should be brilliantly chaotic.