The puck is finally down and the good times are rolling again in the NHL. With the ink still drying on the new collective bargaining agreement, here are 10 things to look for in this long-awaited 2012-13 season.
■ Unlike what emerged from the last lockout, we won’t be watching a New NHL. It’s the same game that was introduced for 2005-06, with the center ice red line deleted from the rule book and the overall emphasis on speed and hitting rather than playmaking and puck finesse. It’s that accent on the speed game that all but guarantees a mother lode of hamstring and groin injuries in the early going. Training camps lasted less than a week — not nearly enough to shake out the kinks.
■ The 3-4 extra months of rest should work heavily in Sidney Crosby’s favor, and that alone could make the Penguins the Stanley Cup favorites. Sid the Kid’s concussion issues limited him to 69 games (six in the playoffs) the last two years. With Evgeni Malkin fired up from his autumn primer in Russia (37 games/65 points with Magnitogorsk), the duo could finish 1-2 in the scoring race. Which, by the way, they’ve never done. The closest they came was 2008-09 when Malkin led with 113 points, followed by Alex Ovechkin (110), then Crosby (103).
■ All eyes will be on Zach Parise and Ryan Suter with the Wild, who paid them $98 million each (13 years per) to relocate to St. Paul. The cash infusion translated to an increase of some 4,000 season tickets. But the best player in the lineup remains the somewhat unsung Mikko Koivu, the playmaking center who turns 30 in March. This will be Saku Koivu’s older brother’s best chance to shine since coming aboard in 2005-06, back in the Jacques Lemaire Trappist Wonk era.
■ With all games intraconference, we won’t be treated to a Kings-Devils rematch of Cup finalists during the 48-game regular season. Odds are we won’t seem them both in the Final again, either. Pittsburgh and Detroit were repeat customers in 2008 and ’09, which is the only time that has happened since the Oilers and Islanders did the same in 1983 and ’84. Harder for anyone to repeat in the salary cap era.
■ Suter left Nashville, putting more of a load on franchise defenseman Shea Weber, who is still in Tune Town after the Predators matched the Flyers’ whopping RFA offer sheet (14 years/$110 million). We’ll know soon whether he really wants to be there, or if the offer alone gave him a Broad Street state of mind. If it’s the latter, he could ask to be dealt, but only after finishing the first year of the deal.
■ For the second time since the lockout, both Montreal and Toronto finished out of the playoffs last season. Who’s first to get back to bountiful? No clear favorite, but the Habs have the advantage of a top goalie in Carey Price, while the Leafs are still searching for an answer in net (for now it looks like a James Reimer reboot). It’s just a better Original 30 when both these teams are in the thick of the fight.
■ The Red Wings are without Nicklas Lidstrom on their back line for the first time since 1991-92, and there is no making up that void. Workhorse winger Tomas Holmstrom also has retired. The Winged Wheels have had 12 straight seasons of more than 100 points, a streak that will die in lockout infamy. Question is, can they keep that playoff streak alive that dates to their last DNQ in 1990?
■ He’ll hardly seem like a rookie, but Rangers forward Chris Kreider, ex- of Masconomet, Phillips Academy Andover, and Boston College, is the favorite for Rookie of the Year honors. He went directly from The Heights to the playoffs last spring and connected for 5-2—7 in 18 games. The addition of Rick Nash on Broadway will only make life easier for the blazing 6-3 Kreider. The last Eagle to win the Calder: Brian Leetch (1989), also with the Rangers. The better end of Commonwealth Avenue produced Chris Drury in 1999 with the Avalanche. The only Bay Stater ever to win it: Tom Barrasso (1984) with the Sabres.
■ Maybe, maybe, maybe the Oilers finally take off, qualify for the postseason for the first time since 2006. They’re loaded with young, talented kids, like Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, and Jordan Eberle. If they can keep play in the front end of the ice, maybe they’ll finally get over the hump. Either way, they’ll be great fun to watch.
■ The brothers Staal, Eric and Jordan, have been reunited in Carolina, where winning has stalled and sputtered the last three seasons (all DNQs). Jordan, ex- of Pittsburgh, got his wish, reunited with his older brother and most likely on the same line. They’re big, they’re skilled, and they’ll be backed by a pesky second trio (Jeff Skinner-Jussi Jokinen-Tuomu Ruutu) to sustain whatever momentum they can generate.
Bruins will feel a cap squeeze
The new CBA will see the salary cap fall some 8 percent next season to $64.3 million. Headed into the last week of negotiations, NHL owners sought a $60 million cap for 2013-14, which would have virtually guaranteed that the Bruins move one of their pricier players.
Even with the $64.3 million figure, things will be tight for the Spoked Bucks. As currently structured, Boston has 10 roster forwards returning next season, for a collective cap hit of $36.75 million, ranging from Shawn Thornton’s $1.1 million to Tyler Seguin’s $5.75 million. Nathan Horton is on course for unrestricted free agency July 5, and is working with a current cap hit of $4 million. A good year for the right winger is certain to increase his wage to $5.5 million or better.
On the back line, the Bruins will have five of their roster defensemen returning for a total tab of $16.595 million, with Zdeno Chara’s $6.917 million at the top and Doug Hamilton’s $1.494 million at the bottom. Andrew Ference ($2.25 million) could be asked back at around that same price, but given the tight squeeze on the cap, it’s more likely, at age 34, he’ll have to be replaced by cheaper help.
In goal, neither Tuukka Rask ($3.5 million) nor Anton Khudobin ($875,000) has a contract beyond this season. If Rask performs to his No. 1 billing, he’ll be expecting a boost to at least $4.5 million.
All in all, the Bruins have $53.345 million (figures from nhlnumbers.com) committed to 15 players for 2013-14, leaving them $11 million to fill five roster spots (two forwards, one defenseman, two goalies) and the three reserve spots that make up a 23-man roster.
Impossible, no. But extremely tight, considering that a Horton-Rask combination alone could add $10 million, leaving $1 million to be allocated to six job openings. With a $550,000 minimum salary next season, it appears someone will have to go if Horton and Rask are to return.
Subban a man with no team
The Canadiens, whom the Bruins will visit Feb. 6, still don’t have P.K. Subban under contract. No surprise, it’s all about the bucks, the Habs thus far unwilling to pony up the $5 million (or more) per year to appease the emerging superstar (albeit with only 160 regular-season games on his résumé and but a 3-9—12 line in playoff action). Meanwhile, Tyler Seguin (155 regular-season games and 5-5—10 in the playoffs) signed a new deal last summer that bumps his cap figure this October to $5.75 million. Here in the Hub, Subban would have been wrapped into a new long-term deal (five years/$28 million?) well ahead of the lockout. Cannot envision the Habs making a deal, but it’s intriguing to ponder what kind of package Boston general manager Peter Chiarelli could offer. The keys would be David Krejci and/or Brad Marchand, who next year will have a combined cap hit of $9.75 million. The net impact would be adding Subban and opening up $3 million-$4 million in cap space.
ON THE BACK BURNER
Iginla contract is not a topic
Flames boss Jay Feaster, hoping to eliminate a potential monster distraction, says he won’t talk about Jarome Iginla’s expiring contract for the duration of the season. Makes sense. But if the Flames set a course for a fourth straight playoff DNQ, it would seem prudent to move the 35-year-old captain/icon prior to the April 3 trade deadline. The three-time Olympian still only has 54 playoff games and one trip to the finals (2004) on his résumé after 15 seasons in southern Alberta. A strong contender would gladly give up the usual player/prospect/pick package for his kind of leadership, which in turn might only enhance his desire to re-sign with Calgary as a free agent come July 5. Looks like a long short season for the Flames, unless the acquisition of ex-Bruin Dennis Wideman (five years/$26.3 million) conjures more magic than most think.
KHL chief sounds off
“Greed has strangled them.’’ So says KHL president Alexander Medvedev, assessing the NHL ownership group at large, specifically because Alex Ovechkin (Washington) and Evgeni Malkin (Pittsburgh) weren’t allowed to hang around Mother Russia to play in the KHL All-Star Game once the lockout was settled. Ilya Kovalchuk (New Jersey) and Pavel Datsyuk (Detroit) weren’t as impinged and reported late to their NHL camps last week. As good pal Pierre LeBrun at TSN points out, the NHL has yet to decide whether to fold up shop next season for the two-plus weeks it would take to stock the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia. One might think Medvedev would tone it down, unless he really wants Olympus rosters full of the kind of tomato cans that routinely fell to the CCCP until the upstart Yanks stunned ’em at Lake Placid in 1980. Not all NHL bosses, said Medvedev, govern the game with a “hockey heart,” but often “from another material, and it has money signs stuck to it.’’ The bet here: The NHL agrees to go to Sochi, in large part to help soothe the fevered brow of NBC after disrupting the broadcast schedule (specifically the Winter Classic) during the lockout.
Back on Broad Street
Rhode Island’s Brian Boucher, 36, is back for yet a third tour with the Flyers organization after playing only 10 games last season with the Hurricanes as Cam Ward’s backup. The Raleigh relief job this season will fall to Dan Ellis or Justin Peters, which had the Hurricanes eager to dump Boucher’s $1 million salary, so much so that they included University of Minnesota defenseman Mark Alt (second-round pick, 2010) to sweeten the deal. Alt is 6-3, 200 pounds, and last year showed some touch (5 goals/22 points) on the Golden Gophers’ back line. His dad, John Alt, was a two-time Pro Bowl left tackle with the Kansas City Chiefs. Boucher will likely spend the year in the AHL (Adirondack), unless Ilya Bryzgalov truly is toast and Flyers GM Paul Holmgren opts to entrust net duties to Michael Leighton and Boucher.
New Capitals coach Adam Oates was still tinkering with his No. 1 line as he headed into the season opener Saturday night in Tampa. Ovechkin, the franchise centerpiece, spent much of his practice time flipping between left and right wings, teaming with Marcus Johansson and Nicklas Backstrom. No telling how it plays out over 48 or more games. The off wing (left) in theory allows Ovechkin more room to operate, something that played greatly to Rick Middleton’s benefit for years here in the Hub. Hard to find a line with more skill than those three, so they’ll figure it out. Few guys with more offensive skill than Oates ever have been named bench boss. Wayne Gretzky (Phoenix) leads the list, followed by Phil Esposito (Rangers), and Bryan Trottier (Rangers). All three had limited success. Oates probably has a better chance of succeeding. High hockey IQ and, most important, a roster with more talent than the other three had.
Despite months of rumors, the season opened with Roberto Luongo still in Vancouver, albeit with his status changed from franchise goalie to Cory Schneider’s backup. Not a good look, and not one likely to remain long, given his $5.33 million cap hit. The most logical landing spots for Bobby Lu are Toronto or Florida (where he formerly wore his Apollo 13-sized pads). One source claims Brian Burke, recently pushed aside as Leafs GM, worked out a deal for Luongo with Canucks GM Mike Gillis over the summer, one that would have delivered the goalie to Toronto when the lockout ended. Ex-Canucks exec Dave Nonis, now the Leafs GM, made the deal in 2006 that brought Luongo to Vancouver and also signed him to his monster contract. Toronto remains the front-runner for Luongo, but that could change rapidly, if a club with shaky goaltending (Chicago?) stumbles out of the gate.
Five fun ones to circle on the 48-game schedule: the handful of Bruins-Sabres matchups (Jan. 31; Feb. 10, 15; March 31, April 17). Boston’s bullying last year sent the Sabres shopping for toughness in the offseason, leading to the acquisitions of 6-8 strongman John Scott and the cantankerous Steve Ott. The PIM over/under for those five games: 400. With a side bet that Ott won’t get whistled for more than three minors . . . The Rangers tidied up their leftover summer signings, inking defenseman Micheal Del Zotto to a two-year deal worth a total $5.1 million, and the same day brought back ex-BU star Matt Gilroy for one year at $650,000. Gilroy originally joined the Blueshirts as a pricey free agent (two years/$3.5 million) off Comm. Ave. in April 2009, but quickly fizzled out prior to playing last year with Tampa and Ottawa. . . . The Flyers opened their season against the Penguins Saturday with their most recent first-round pick, ScottLaughton, on the roster. The Oshawa center is only 18, and might be around for only a brief look while Danny Briere ($6.5 million cap hit) heals from a hairline wrist fracture he suffered while playing lockout hockey in Germany . . . I know the book says twins Daniel and Henrik Sedin will be 33 in September, but they don’t look that old, nor do their games. However, it does underscore that Vancouver’s window of opportunity to win a Cup with these guys still near prime is closing.