Get ready for NHL's sloppy, explosive season
Now that the initial euphoria of the labor settlement has subsided, it's worth considering what exactly the NHL and its players are going to offer us on Opening Day and beyond.
It'll be hockey, all right, and thank you for that...but what kind of hockey?
The one certainty is that the rush to start the season by Jan. 19 and cram in as many games as possible will come at a price.
Training camps will be compressed from three-plus weeks to just six days. There'll be no exhibition games. No time to get a long look at roster hopefuls or gear up gradually to the accelerated pace of regular-season action. Just say hello, get dressed and get out there...and try not to get hurt.
In theory, it shouldn't be that hard. Guys are in better shape than ever and they're coming back to a game they've played all their lives.
But as Vezina-winner Henrik Lundqvist pointed out on Twitter, "It takes time to remind your brain and body how to play this game the right way."
So what does that mean for the quality of play when the NHL returns? Going by history, it ain't gonna be pretty. But that's exactly why it should be a lot of fun to watch.
There's a rough parallel to be drawn with what happened with the NBA's lockout-shortened 2011-12 season. Fans saw clear effects when the league shaved just 16 games off the schedule, despite not starting until Christmas. The quality of play suffered from lack of preparation time, increased injury rates and fatigue from jamming too many games into too few nights.
At times, it was ugly. Still, the condensation of the schedule lent a heightened sense of importance to every contest, and with more games being played on a given night, it seemed as though the highlight reels were jam-packed with moments of individual brilliance. No reason to think it'll be different on ice.
"It's going to be 48 games of intense hockey," Dallas Stars coach Glen Gulutzan said. "It'll be desperate...every team is going to be in the same spot."
Here's what to expect.
Games only a fan could love
Hockey is a game that suffers from the extremely high caliber of coaching at the top levels. It's evolved into a defense-first clash where systems are so deeply ingrained that the mistakes that could lead to goals, or at least to high-end scoring chances, have been strangled nearly out of existence. On too many nights, it's a game only a coach could love.
But that level of execution requires discipline, repetition and understanding. The discipline won't be a problem, but the other elements will be a struggle, particularly in the early weeks -- a direct result of the truncated training camps.
So the games are likely to be scrambly, and even sloppy. Coverages will be blown. Mistakes will be made. But that will allow individual skill a greater chance to shine through...and that should make these games a whole lot of fun to watch.
Lots of penalties
The lockout-shortened 1995 season was the beginning of hockey's dark time, the clutch-and-grab era. A good part of that descent into on-ice anarchy was due to a recent influx of lesser-talented players who had arrived through the course of expansion. But it was also a coaching technique that took advantage of lax rules to compensate for the lack of conditioning that was the direct result of limited camp time that season.
Part of the payoff of the last lockout was a commitment to calling the rules more stringently, and it worked for a couple of years. Last season, season-and-a-half, though? It doesn't take a seasoned observer to recognize that standards had been relaxed.
We should see that trend continue early on, if only to avoid a conveyor belt to the box, but we'll still see plenty of calls. Most will be for the lazy penalties, the kind that happen when an out-of-game-shape player is caught flat-footed or is a step out of position: hooking, tripping, interference.
But those penalties will mean more power plays, which should mean more scoring opportunities. And that's exactly what fans want to see.
Scores of locked-out players found work in leagues around the world, from high-profile gigs in Russia and Switzerland to keep-the-legs-moving stints in the CHL and ECHL closer to home. But they weren't just stealing jobs and checking out the scenery when they headed overseas. They were setting up themselves, and their teams, for a quick start.
It all comes down to game readiness. Almost everyone got in in a hard skate a few times a week, but the guys who played in a competitive league will have a definite advantage early on, according Edmonton Oilers GM Steve Tambellini.
"Most keep their bodies up to elite level of conditioning," he told Edmonton radio station CHED on Monday. "But even if you skate two or three times a week, the pace of NHL practice, let alone games, is completely different."
As my esteemed colleague Adrian Dater correctly noted yesterday, Tambellini's Oilers should be as ready to go as any team. Four key players -- Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall, Jordan Eberle and rookie Justin Schultz -- have been tearing it up with AHL Oklahoma City, playing an NHL-style game with compressed scheduling. Six others, including Sam Gagner, Ales Hemsky and 2012 first-overall pick Nail Yakupov, were successful in various European circuits. They're not just fit, they're confident. Their timing is down. And they are primed to hit the ground running.
Compare that to Vancouver, which had just three role players --Mason Raymond, Dale Weise and Jannik Hansen -- overseas at the end of the lockout (though earlier Cory Schneider was in Europe for eight games).
As Sir Isaac Newton said, an object in motion tends to stay in motion, giving teams like the Oilers a clear edge in game readiness in the early going. How long it takes the Canucks and others to get up to speed will be critical in determining their success in the short season.
Familiarity breeds success
Lack of prep time will be a huge factor for everyone, but especially for teams that are introducing new coaches like Calgary (Bob Hartley), Edmonton (Ralph Krueger), Montreal (Michel Therrien), Washington (Adam Oates) and even Toronto, which brought in Randy Carlyle very late last season.
It's not just a matter of having enough time to install new systems, but just getting a sense of the guys, their on-ice chemistry and the way the room works. That feeling-out process can take time, which is the one luxury teams can't afford this year.
Roster consistency could be just as valuable. Teams with minimal turnover -- Pittsburgh, Boston, Los Angeles, for example -- should benefit from continuity and cohesion. Systems are in place and players are familiar with their roles and responsibilities. If a team like Vancouver is going to make up for its lack of early-season sea legs, this is how they'll make up ground.
Beware of troughs
Every team will talk about the importance of getting out of the gate fast. Makes sense. A quick start will allow a team to stockpile points that could make a difference in the end. Bur the real path to success will be paved with consistency. All teams hit a rough patch or two over the course of a season. The key in an abbreviated campaign will be preventing the inevitable stumbles from stretching out too long. Just five teams that rang up a skid of three or more games in the 48-game 1995 season went on to make the playoffs, proving that a long slide was lethal.
Things are different now, with loser points altering the way the standings play out. The ability to scratch out a few of those could help dull the pain if the losses start to mount.
Young legs will carry the day
There's an argument to be made that a shorter schedule is exactly what veteran stars like Jaromir Jagr, Teemu Selanne and Daniel Alfredsson need. There's not as much gas in the tank as there used to be, so 48 games is a distance much easier to travel.
But that 48-game trail won't be easy. The average team had something like 38 games left on the original schedule that was supposed to end on April 13. Even if the frame of the season is extended as expected, jamming in another 10 or 12 contests is a legitimate strain, with the increased game density sapping the rest and rehabilitation time that older legs need.
It also exacerbates the impact of the inevitable injuries. A two-week stay on IR in a normal season might have cost a player five games. Now it could be eight -- a sixth of the season.
As former NHLer Ben Clymer noted on Twitter, "Groins, hip flexors & backs injuries are going to be a concern with how tightly packed the games are. Gotta be healthy to win."
Injuries are going to happen, but a team relying on younger legs is likely to suffer fewer of them, and recover from them more quickly.
The East will be Beast
The schedule is always kinder to East Coast teams, but that will be exacerbated this year with conference-only play that will focus heavily on divisional games. Shorter trips -- only Winnipeg is out of the Eastern time zone -- mean less travel stress. Teams should be healthier and better rested, which should add up to more competitive hockey being played in the East -- especially as the regular season winds down- -- and create a potentially huge advantage heading into the playoffs.
Alright, that's probably a stretch, especially in those American markets that tend to be proceeded by the adjective "non-traditional." But hear me out. Early-season hockey tends to be an afterthought in those areas, overshadowed by other sports, football in particular. But now we're entering the sport's sweet spot. College football is finished, and it's only a matter of weeks before Super Bowl XLVII is in the record books. There's no baseball for months and basketball is, well, basketball.
This period right now is when the game traditionally starts gaining traction in the sporting consciousness.
Will sore feelings keep some fans from tuning in? Probably at the start, but not for long. There are no dog days this season as the marathon becomes a sprint. Fewer games lend a greater sense of urgency, of importance, to each one. Add that to the pent-up demand from the hard-core fans, and curiosity from channel surfers, and hockey should enjoy an explosive return.