By Jim Kelley
July 29, 2010

One problem that comes after a great season is that just about everyone lines up and asks: How are you going to top it? It's a legitimate question for the NHL, but the answers aren't clear.

The 2009-10 campaign was arguably the NHL's best in decades. It had drama, individual exploits and closely contested scoring races. It featured the rise of new young stars, an intriguing outdoor game at Fenway Park that turned out to be a preview of the historic Boston-Philadelphia playoff series, an Olympic interlude that showcased NHL talent on a worldwide stage and brought new eyes to the game, an exceptionally good playoffs (with precious few video replay controversies), and a near-great Stanley Cup Final featuring the Blackhawks and the never-quit Flyers, two teams that captured attention across the U.S. and Canada. Chicago, the league's long-wasted major market, bounced back big time and paraded the Stanley Cup through a host of media venues (including famed Wrigley Field).

By every measurable method, the NHL came out looking large. TV ratings were up in the U.S. and Canada during the regular season and playoffs. Hockey created a buzz within its traditional markets and, more importantly, outside them. There was a spike in merchandise sales seemingly across the board. Even the financially-stricken Phoenix Coyotes recaptured some of their long-lost fans with an impressive drive to the playoffs and a more than respectable seven-game loss to the Detroit, the Cup finalists of just a season ago.

The league even planned for a well-focused summer, coming up with the idea of a research and development camp to experiment with new ideas for the game (slated for mid-August in Toronto) and agreeing to participate in the World Hockey Summit on August 23-26, also in Toronto. Yet with less than seven weeks before the opening of training camps, the buzz has quieted and, in some ways, been replaced by an unusually snarly offseason.

The Ilya Kovalchuk contract dispute shouldn't be a painful thing for the game in general, but it's not pretty and it has the chance to move from brush-fire to major burn. The arbitration could change the face of contract negotiations. If Kovalchuk wins, the gap between teams willing to spend to any cost and at any length and those that are not will surely widen, creating a considerable rift between markets. That will surely carry over to a fight between the NHL and the Players Association in the next collective bargaining agreement. If the NHL wins, it further cements its status as a dominant force that will always pit itself against the union. But the NHLPA may finally get its act together and take a stance that challenges the NHL in ways not seen since former Executive Director Bob Goodenow oversaw the players' interests. That can't be good for fiscal sanity or long-term labor peace.

Then there's the sudden rise in player movement and non-movement. This may seem like a contradiction, but there are two waves in this ocean. Because of salary cap restraints and, in part, "to infinity and beyond" contracts that eventually come due, the long-held tradition of building a team for the long haul is coming to an end. Chicago is only the most recent (albeit egregious) example. The Hawks will open their defense of the Cup with a hugely revamped lineup dictated largely by the need to move players out simply because there is no room under a Cap that will approach $60 million for the upcoming season.

This hardly inspires fan loyalty. What should have been a summer of celebration followed by breathless anticipation has become something akin to waiting for the tornado to pass before heading out to assess the damage. As of this writing, the Hawks have lost six players who made reasonable to significant contributions to last season's title. Fans are now waiting to see if the club will be able to keep goaltender Antti Niemi, who has taken his salary demands to arbitration. If the number comes in too high (say in the $4 million per season range), the Hawks may be forced to let him walk as an unrestricted free agent. It's a situation that the Montreal Canadiens had to deal with earlier this offseason. They traded playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis because they didn't feel they could afford to meet his salary demands and still have manageable cap space to improve the team or even hold the status quo.

This was not well received in Montreal and it's a growing trend in the NHL. Invest in a fan favorite and then cut him loose, sometimes at the height of his popularity and beginning of what should be his best seasons. It's not like it hasn't happened in other pro sports and, to be fair, those leagues and their fans (particularly the NFL) have adjusted, but it was difficult in the early stages. That's where the NHL is: in the early stages of a complex salary cap/free agency period, and there is every reason to believe that fans don't like it.

Players have a growing grudge as well. A goodly number are seemingly locked out of anticipated riches and teams. They find themselves with lowball offers, no offers, or having to go to the minors or overseas, in part because some of their union brothers have been locked into long-term deals at outsized prices. Players are contesting for what little money remains and while the trickle hasn't become a flood, sending stars away (see: Jaromir Jagr, Evgeni Nabokov and quite possibly Kovalchuk if the arbitration doesn't go his way) is not a good thing for the NHL or its fans.

The league has made an effort to curtail the loss of players via injury by cracking down on blows to the head, but that still needs to be proved in the execution of the new rules. The NHL also needs to deal with the growing dislike of the shootout. General managers feel a disproportionate number of games are being played with a plan of just getting to the skills competition (thereby creating a three-point game). It's a decision that weakens competition in matches that should be decided in regulation or overtime.

The league has now added the new wrinkle of two outdoor games, one in Canada (Toronto at Calgary on Feb. 20) and one in the U.S. (Washington at Pittsburgh on Jan. 1), but it risks over-exposing the concept. Outdoor games are, at best, a gimmick. If that hand is overplayed, the novelty and popularity, especially on TV, could shrink.

None of these issues alone rises to the level of game-breaker, but history shows that the NHL hasn't always responded to success with more success. Labor issues seem to come up regularly and have an impact on momentum.

The obvious case is when the New York Rangers ended their long Cup quest in 1994. Their epic seven-game final with Vancouver seemed to raise hockey's prospects in both countries, but the following season started with a lengthy labor dispute that wiped away more than half the schedule and started the league toward another period of decline.

Technical issues also play a part. In the 1990s, the neutral zone trap and other defensive schemes brought about the so-called "dead puck era". The league's stance was to not make changes and let the coaches figure out countering tactics. It was a horrible decision. The majority of coaches needed to win to keep their jobs, so they simply sent their charges out to play hockey's version of "pong" (dump the puck in, dump it back out) and nearly brought the game to oblivion in terms of fan and TV interest. It wasn't until after the lockout of 2004-05 that the NHL brought the forth rule changes that opened the game up to more skating, passing and shooting (as well as some reckless hitting) and recovered to a pretty fair extent. But it took far too long and the game suffered.

Looking toward the future, one could argue that the league isn't at a make-or-break point right now, but forces are creating a coming storm. If the league is to build off 2009-10, it needs to at least address some of its current issues, and fast. Things change quickly in sport, and momentum is hard to get and harder to keep. The NHL is always challenged to do both. Addressing problems that are starting to grow before they become full-blown issues is a good way to start.

There's a whisper out of Los Angeles (by sources close to the team, according to the Los Angeles Times) that the Kings would be interested in revisiting a run at Kovalchuk should an arbitrator declare him a free agent again. It seems farfetched, but stranger things have happened in the NHL. Without an arbitrator in place, the Kovalchuk matter could take time. When a hearing officer is named, it could be very close to the opening of training camps before a decision is reached. If New Jersey has circumvented the CBA as the league is charging, then Kovalchuk could become a last-minute free agent. If the Devils can't make a new deal work under the cap, the Kings, along with reported offers from Russia's KHL, might be Kovalchuk's best option.

The Kings reportedly offered $80 million over 15 years, but structured the deal for a little less drop-off in the later seasons than did the Devils. It's all speculation now, but this is uncharted territory and all parties would have to be nimble to get a deal done. The Kings seem willing to be in that mix.

There are rumblings around the league that the Blackhawks might be interested in former Dallas Stars goalie Marty Turco (at a reasonable price point) should they have to walk away from an arbitrator's decision on Niemi. The theory is that the Hawks could handle something akin to $3 million per season for their Cup-winning netminder, but beyond that, the additional player cuts needed to fit him under the Cap would be too much.

If Turco were willing to step in at $2 million to $2.5 million, it's something the Hawks might consider. Turco may not be the answer and the Hawks will still have to bury Cristobal Huet and his $5 million-plus contract in the minors or overseas, but it could be an option they can live with.

Having both Kovalchuk and Niemi on the market this late in the offseason would have several teams scrambling to get bids in and their economics in line. They would likely have to do it under a structure that curtails some of the long-term deals the NHL is trying to rein in.

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