Posted: Thursday October 7, 2010 6:57AM ; Updated: Thursday October 7, 2010 10:54AM
Michael Farber
Michael Farber>INSIDE THE NHL

10 storylines to watch this season

Story Highlights

Ilya Kovalchuk and Carey Price are under great pressure to prove themselves

A crop of talented kids and the unsung goalie trend will make things interesting

Thanks to HBO and the Winter Classic, Crosby and Ovechkin will take center stage

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Ilya Kovalchuk is a curious new cornerstone for a franchise that has traditionally been defense-minded.
AP

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1. Ilya Kovalchuk

He's the gift that just keeps on taking. What appeared to be a simple rental transaction with Atlanta last spring that cost the Devils defenseman Johnny Oduya, forward Niclas Bergfors, prospect Patrice Cormier and a first-round draft choice has turned into The Thing That Ate Newark.

Belatedly the Devils signed the free agent to a 17-year, $102 million deal, a contract that was rejected by the NHL because it claimed the deal circumvented the salary cap. (After an NHLPA grievance, an arbitrator upheld the NHL's decision to void the contract.) The Devils and Kovalchuk then completed a do-over of 15 years at $100 million, which received the grudging imprimatur from the league as part of an agreement with the NHLPA that clarified the ground rules for future long-term contracts. The NHL then piled on, fining the Devils $3 million and taking away a first-round and a third-round draft choice.

The unhappy recap: a $6.67 million annual cap hit and colossal commitment of salary and term for a winger who has played in four career playoff games, with the loss of two first-rounders, two useful players, a third-rounder, a hefty fine and the need to shed roster players in order to get down to the $59.4 million cap. Ouch.

Kovalchuk is a set-in-stone 40-plus goal man, but he is a curious cornerstone for this most conservative of franchises. Merely getting 45 or even 55 goals will not be enough. With goalie Martin Brodeur nearing his dotage, Kovalchuk must lead New Jersey into at least late May. Indeed, unless the Devils can capture a Stanley Cup or three because of Kovalchuk, they simply can't be winners with this deal.

2. Chicago Blackhawks

There hasn't been this must shuffling since the last World Series of Poker.

In a dizzying offseason, GM Stan Bowman lost nine players who contributed to the 2010 Stanley Cup champions -- Antti Niemi, Cristobal Huet, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Adam Burish, Colin Fraser, Ben Eager, Andrew Ladd, Brent Sopel and John Madden -- because of a horrendous salary-cap bind that made winning last June an imperative. This was not a salary dump, like the Florida Marlins after their pair of World Series wins. Unlike the Marlins, the Blackhawks did not shed salary. They will still operate at the cap. And they managed to hang on to most core players, depending on how you view Niemi, Big Buff and Versteeg.

Our feeling: the Hawks will suffer less from the loss of those worthy players than from a short summer and Stanley Cup hangover, which in a couple of cases might be literal as much as figurative. Even veteran teams such as Detroit have had trouble dealing with the inevitable letdown after winning a championship. Chicago is much more callow than the Red Wings. This is an elite team that has to shift its focus from the recent past to the near future, which is not as simple as it sounds.

3. Goalies

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Given the heavy firepower in front of him, the largely untested Semyon Varlamov is not a bad bet to hoist the StanleyCup next June.
Mark Goldman/Icon SMI

The most sacred of hockey axioms -- you need a playoff goalie to succeed -- has been twisted into knots during the past several seasons, unless you consider a rookie (Carolina's Cam Ward in 2006) whose primary concern was what baseball cap he should wear on the bench at the start of the playoffs, and a fellow (Niemi) who, not too many years before, had been driving a Zamboni in Finland to get extra ice, as classic playoff goalies.

Philadelphia's Michael Leighton, the journeyman's journeyman, nearly won the Cup last spring, for goodness sake. Resources must be apportioned wisely in Cap World, and big-ticket marquee goalies are apparently not cost effective. (See: San Jose GM Doug Wilson's decision to let free agent Evgeni Nabokov walk.) We'll again learn if pedigree matters in the spring, but don't be surprised if Semyon Varlamov or Michal Neuvirth in Washington, Jimmy Howard in Detroit or Antero Niittymaki in San Jose continue the trend of the (relatively) unknown goalie.

ELIOT: Rating all 30 teams' goaltending

4. Youth

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The rapid emergence of defenseman Drew Doughty has given the Kings hope of a deep playoff run this season.
AP

Since the lockout -- and the advent of rule interpretations that favor speed and skating -- the NHL has skewed young. Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin heralded a new era of superb forwards, but now defensemen barely old enough to shave have joined them. Kings coach Terry Murray says maybe the NHL just skipped a generation when it came to developing young defenseman. (True enough, although Chicago's Duncan Keith, 27, the Norris Trophy winner, is an exception.) Drew Doughty in Los Angeles, Tyler Myers in Buffalo and several others who are making the toughest position on the ice look like child's play have nicely filled the void. You don't have to be 30 to have sorted out the nuances of NHL defense.

5. NHLPA

Maybe Donald Fehr running the NHL Players Association is not a sexy story, just an important one with the collective bargaining agreement set to expire after the 2011-12 season. Fehr, awaiting membership approval, already has more than enough time to have insinuated himself into the "hockey culture." And his work with the MLBPA is basically transferable; CEO's jump from one kind of widget company to another all the time. And given his salary and ancillary requests from the PA, you know that Fehr hasn't forgotten how to drive a hard bargain.

Of course, Bob Goodenow knew how to do that, too. But in 2005, the players just didn't have the stomach for an even more protracted lockout, so they caved, took a 24-per-cent haircut, and wound up with a salary cap linked to revenues. The PA seemed to get back on its feet with the hiring of Paul Kelly, but the Chicago putsch that sandbagged him dragged the group back to the beginning. Given the dysfunction (and occasional malfeasance) that has racked the association spasmodically throughout its history, Fehr has to find the way to get the players to coalesce, especially with CBA negotiations on the horizon.

 
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