Storylines to watch (cont.)
This is the best rivalry in the game although, as noted here before, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are more figurative partners in forging the direction of a league -- like the NBA's Magic Johnson and Larry Bird were in the 1980s -- than rivals in the old-time Gordie Howe-Rocket Richard sense.
So, start with Sid and Ovy, who are naturally disputatious because they play for competing NHL teams, represent rival hockey nations, and have diametrically opposed personalities. Add to the mix a Capitals-Penguins outdoor game on January 1, the day when sports fans who wouldn't think of watching an entire hockey match outside of the Olympics tune in (as long as the Outback Bowl or some such is a blowout). Then throw in some HBO 24/7 cameras and ... wow.
The presence of cameras distorts reality by modifying behavior -- there is nothing more unreal than reality TV -- but it should all be great fun even if Penguins coach Dan Bylsma doesn't work blue. Washington and Pittsburgh are the class of the Eastern Conference. With any luck, Crosby and Ovechkin can reprise their seven-game playoff series of 2009, this time in the conference final.
While the theri future will no longer be adjudicated by one of the grandest names in the history of American law -- whenever someone mentions Phoenix bankruptcy court judge Redfield T. Baum, I still flash to Groucho's J. Cheever Loophole -- the ongoing mess in Glendale is still unsettled. The NHL, which bought the team out of bankruptcy, has set December 31 as the deadline for finding local ownership, but deadlines can be ephemeral.
Winnipeg might be salivating about repatriating the Coyotes/Jets, but this matter could drag on as the NHL and the city fathers beat the bushes for someone willing to bleed red -- beyond Glendale, which is supposed to be covering $25 million in losses. The Coyotes have been an economic basket case ever since landing in Arizona. Not that we profess to know much about business, but if you have a McDonald's franchise, you probably want it in a location where people eat meat. Despite the Coyotes' delightfully unexpected 2009-10 season and hard-fought playoff series against Detroit, Phoenix and environs seem to have a lot of hockey vegans, you know?
While Winnipeg waits, Quebec is trying to build a $400 million arena that would house a Nordiques Deux and serve as the cornerstone of a future winter Olympics. (This is also a do-over. The IOC basically sniffed at the 2002 Quebec City bid.) Using public funds for stadia is an anathema in Canada, but the province thinks $175 million is a reasonable contribution and almost all Quebec MPs from the governing Conservative Party want the feds to ante up. For Prime Minister Stephan Harper, the issue needs some finessing.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Gary Bettman is in the catbird seat. He says Quebec City needs a new building if it wants to join his exclusive club. But like Wernher von Braun and the missile in the old Tom Lehrer musical parody, who actually pays for it is not Bettman's department. A spiffy new arena in another city always represents leverage for a league.
While the Capitals are the class of the NASCAR Division, three teams have changed general managers -- Atlanta, Florida and Tampa Bay. At least one should join Washington in the playoffs.
The Panthers' Dale Tallon has the heaviest lifting, but either Rick Dudley, who has turned Atlanta into the southernmost suburb of Chicago given the way he scooped up jettisoned Blackhawks, or Steve Yzerman in Tampa Bay might produce a playoff team in 2011. The guess is it will be the Lightning, assuming that new goalie Dan Ellis can play almost as well as he talked on the Nashville bench during those delightful third-period, on-air chats with Pete Weber and Terry Crisp that made the Predators must-see TV. The high-end offensive talent is formidable -- the indomitable Martin St. Louis, the elegant Vincent Lecavalier and the brilliant Steven Stamkos joined by short-timer Simon Gagné -- and the team has a promising new coach capable of changing the dynamic. Guy Boucher, who was the coach for Montreal's AHL team, has received early raves.
Of course, a coaching change in Atlanta might spur an even more impressive rebound there. With Craig Ramsay running the Thrashers bench, look for more accountability on the defensive side of the puck and a breakout year by Zach Bogosian, who had a white-hot start last season before injuring his hand. Says Toronto coach Ron Wilson, "Bogosian's a stud. Wait 'til he calms down a little."
In the most unpopular trade of the NHL summer, the Canadiens sent playoff hero Jaroslav Halak to St. Louis, thus anointing Price as the unchallenged No. 1 goalie in Montreal. This deal, for Lars Eller and Ian Schultz, will be the one that forever brands GM Pierre Gauthier's Montreal tenure -- for good or ill.
Price vowed to be a more mature player this season, but he will have to grow up before prying eyes. When he let in four goals on nine shots in Montreal's preseason opener, he was lustily jeered when he skated off midway through the game. He did not emerge to be interviewed post-game, obliging teammates to answer for him. When he resurfaced the next day, he urged fans to "Chill out," a reasonable if belated response.
The prevailing sentiment around the league is that fans "should have cut the kid some slack," as one ex-Canadiens player told me. Some kid. Price is 23. While goaltenders often do mature later, consider what some other junior-trained goalies with first-round pedigree were doing the year they turned 23: Martin Brodeur won his first Stanley Cup; Roberto Luongo had a .931 save percentage for the leaky Panthers; and although no first overall draft pick was mishandled as badly as Marc-André Fleury, he was goaltending in the Stanley Cup Final for the Penguins. Price, who signed a two-year deal, needs to remind Montreal fans why he was worthy of a fifth overall draft choice.
The NHL has thrown down the gauntlet on blindside hits to the head. The refs studiously prepped on the new rule at their training camp in Ontario early last month. The league even made public a snazzy video that gave graphic evidence of what the NHL wants to avoid. The pressure is on the league to wipe out, or severely punish, the kind of hit by Pittsburgh's Matt Cooke last March that is jeopardizing this season for the Bruins' Marc Savard, who still suffers from post-concussion symptoms.
Last hockey season was among the best in memory -- a spectacular Olympics; stunning playoff upsets that included Montreal rebounding from a 3-1 deficit to beat Washington, Philadelphia coming from 0-3 down to eliminate Boston; and Chicago winning a Cup for the first time since 1961 -- but the damning issue of head shots scribbled all over an otherwise pretty picture. Maybe rules that include a major penalty and the possibility of further supplementary discipline don't go far enough -- how about no head shots, period? -- but at least the NHL stuck out its neck a little for the heads of its players.