By Stu Hackel
The new season is almost upon us and there will be stories to be told in the league's 30 locales. But there are also overarching tales that will affect them all, or at least many of them. It's the big picture that concerns us today, so here are some of the main themes -- listed in no particular order of importance -- that will likely provide texture beyond the wins, losses and matches decided by the postgame skills competition.
1. Chemistry Experiments -- During the 2007 offseason, after missing the playoffs, the Flyers cleared out copious amounts of cap space and remade their roster by acquiring Danny Briere, Kimmo Timonen and Scott Hartnell. Two years later, the Canadiens did the same on a larger scale. This past offseason, what seems like an unprecedented number of teams made dramatic changes to their rosters in an effort to change their fortunes.
For Florida, that meant a radical overhaul -- 10 NHL veterans joined the Panthers this offseason. Other teams were less adventurous, but still made significant moves designed to alter their club's chemistry. Most notably, the Flyers signed Ilya Bryzgalov and Jaromir Jagr and dispatched a pair of key contributors, Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. The clubs they traded with, the Blue Jackets and Kings, considered those acquisitions to be major upgrades to their cores. Sabres owner Terry Pegula opened his wallet to allow GM Darcy Regier to significantly bolster Buffalo's defense corps with Robin Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff (not to mention adding Ville Leino up front).
The Wild and Sharks ended up acquiring stars from each other through trades and free agent signings. The Capitals and Blackhawks each added multiple players to build depth and team toughness. The Rangers added only one major piece, Brad Richards, but his task is merely to juice up their entire offense. The team that lost Richards, the Stars, augmented their depth by adding Michael Ryder, Vernon Fiddler, Radek Dvorak, Jake Dowell, Eric Godard, Adam Pardy and rescuing Sheldon Souray from exile.
In addition, after the Canadiens lost half of their defense corps, they rebuilt it with newcomers. The Predators parted ways with a number of aging veterans and will largely replace them with players they've been developing in their well-stocked farm system. Both the Avalanche and the Coyotes totally remade their goaltending depth charts.
All of these moves will be scrutinized, and perhaps criticized. Many of these teams could rise or fall based on their moves. Whether this becomes a lasting trend -- so many teams making so many changes -- remains to be seen. But suffice to say there are a lot of old faces in new places this season.
2. Parity -- One big reason why so many NHL clubs overhauled their rosters is because of how evenly matched teams are. Last season's Western Conference standings, if you recall, went through a phase in February in which every team other than the Oilers had a legitimate chance to make the playoffs. At one point, 13 sardine-packed teams were separated by only 10 points. Although no one can know for sure, it's certainly conceivable that things won't be much different this season in both the East and West. So every game will be hotly contested, every shift will have meaning. It makes for excellent competition. It also makes for a rise in potentially dangerous play. Because coaches demand so much, their players give their all, and in a sport as passionate and fast as pro hockey, players will inevitably cross the line in their desire to win. And that leads us to...
3. The strengthened rules on checks to the head and boarding-- We've been monitoring the evolution of these rules all along, right up to the first push-back this preseason by those who would like to repeal the new standard. The historic change in the rules last season -- for the first time putting the onus on the checker instead of the puck carrier on blindside and lateral hits to the head -- proved to be a good half-measure to help cut down on concussion-causing plays. It clearly wasn't enough, however. In a sports landscape where the consequences of concussions are now better known and player safety has moved to the forefront, NHL executives and players recognized the need to be even more vigilant on plays in which players are vulnerable. That meant not just addressing headshots but also boarding, which also needed to be more tightly policed.
The on-ice in-game penalties may not be as tough as last season (a minor for headchecking will now be assessed, although the referee may also call a match penalty for intent to injure, which effectively takes the place of the major and game misconduct), but supplemental discipline could be more firm than ever. Players have been suspended for double-digit games this preseason, something long advocated by those who believed the league was not serious about ridding the game of dangerous play.
As evidenced by the glut of suspensions during preseason play, most of which will extend into the regular season, the players are still adjusting to these new standards. So is everyone else -- coaches, referees, fans, the media and even those responsible for enforcing the new standard. Brendan Shanahan admitted that he and his group struggled over this hit by the Lightning's Ryan Malone on the Canadiens' Chris Campoli Saturday night:
They determined that Campoli put himself in a vulnerable position and made his head the principal point of contact by leaning forward when he lost the puck after Malone had committed himself to, presumably, check Campoli's body. Malone was not to be suspended, Shanahan ruled, calling it "the most challenging one so far in this preseason for the Department of Player Safety to evaluate....There are elements about the hit that we don't like – specifically, the principal point of contact being the head and that it was not a full bodycheck. But the overriding factor in our judgment was that Campoli's loss of the puck and subsequent bending forward for it just prior contributed significantly, if not entirely, to those elements."
On this one, Ben Smith also changed the position of his body and the path in which he was skating, and that may have altered the way Brendan Smith made contact with him. If you have trouble figuring out the subtle differences between this hit and Malone-Campoli, well, you'll be joining a pretty big club. But Shanahan ruled that Ben Smith did not significantly change the positioning of his head and the onus remained on Brendan Smith to make full body contact and avoid Ben Smith's head.
And Marco Sturm on Lennart Petrell:
In these, Shanahan's group ruled that the head was not the principle point of contact and while both Canucks got minors for checks to the head, that was the end of it. Well, if you say so, Brendan. It begs the question whether the minors were even appropriate under the way the rule is written. As Gary Bettman told the Hockey Night in Canada satellite radio channel CBC, "We didn't pass a rule that said no head contact, we said no head hits."
These are the sort of shadings that will confront this new version of Rule 48 all season. We'd better get used to them. The debate over whether the new rule will be sufficient to curb concussion-causing hits is just beginning, as is the counter-argument that it will take hitting out of the game. We heard that one before the original Rule 48 was even passed, as a reason not to even propose it. We heard it after it became a rule and we're hearing it again now that it has been strengthened. And you just hope these three recent non-suspensions were not influenced by the grumbling from those who would like the rule rolled back.
Contrary to the belief that stronger rules on hits to the head will curb physical play, NHL stats show that hits have risen every season, including 2010-11, for the last six as the post-lockout rules on obstruction have contributed to making the game more physical as well as faster.
What is and what is not a penalty or a suspendable offense will probably be discussed and debated with more vigor than before, largely because the potential punishment is so much more severe.
4. Injuries -- The pace of the game, the size of players, the demands of travel and more all contribute to what appears to be a rise in the rate of injured players in the NHL. And many of those hurt are stars who are not easily replaced and whose absences will be profoundly felt as long as they are out of their respective lineups.
It's not just victims of concussion like Sidney Crosby, Marc Staal, David Perron and Marc Savard we're talking about here. It's guys with knee problems, like Andrei Markov's, back problems like Jarome Iginla's, hip problems like Ryan Kesler's, shoulder problems like John Erskine's and foot problems like Travis Zajac's. These players and many more are important to their clubs and they probably won't be playing when the season starts this week. Goalies are not immune either: Scott Clemmensen won't be in goal for the Panthers, and both Sharks netminders, Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki, have issues.
There are others and there will be more. We saw teams like the Blues, Red Wings, Canadiens and Islanders all get decimated with injuries at points during last season. It will happen again. Sometimes it even has nothing to do with hockey, like Patrick Sharp's appendix.
There have always been injuries in this physically demanding sport, but the demands grow each season. Where a few years back,a couple of injured players per team might constitute a bad run, now multiple players seem to be simultaneously scratched more frequently and on more teams. A few injuries to stars or a couple of role players or a starting goalie can sink a team's playoff hopes. There's lots of luck involved here, both good and bad.
5. Franchise instability -- This one is nothing new. The Thrashers disaster resolved itself in Winnipeg, but the Coyotes saga drags on, as do the Islanders' woes. The Devils, Stars and Blues hope to be on firmer financial footing soon as their sales proceed. The uncertainty in Columbus may be abating, but the Panthers' situation, after 10 years with no postseason appearance, always bears watching. In any of those cases, it's a challenge to the front office and the players to keep focus and take care of business. The hope is that some of the game's trouble spots become less troublesome and no new ones pop up.
The NHL always seems to have a have-not or two (or more) in its midst. This is a pretty strong league, but like any chain, it is only as strong as its weakest link. And there are some weak links that, especially in these poor economic times, continue to drain resources and get an undue amount of attention.
Never heard that version before. Now here's one I've always liked.
You probably never heard this: It's the original version Aretha cut in the studio that, I think, was edited and remixed into the hit. Not really great sound on the upload but well worth hearing.
And she never sounded stronger on this tune than on this live version.
Finally, there's this one from the '08 campaign trail.