Hockey predictions for 2012
A looming battle over slices of the NHL's revenue pie portends another lockout
Players won't get slower or smaller, so the NHL's concussion woes will remain
Patrick Roy, Roberto Luongo and Jarome Iginla will be on the move or in the news
Predicting what will happen in the NHL during a given calendar year is very easy.
A player will say, "We'll take the two points and move on" after a victory.
A coach will say, "We've got to put more pucks on net" during a scoring drought, thereby again discouraging the theory that goals can be scored without a puck actually being directed toward the net.
A team owner, coach, GM, player or fan will express outrage at a booming hit on one of their players and say, "The league needs to do something about it."
A Canadian team will lose two games in a row in October, and a media member in that team's city will say a big trade needs to happen or the coach must be fired, probably both.
Someone watching Don Cherry for the first time will say, "What is that guy wearing?"
As for the more difficult, deeper forecasts, here's my fearless crack:
1. There will be a work stoppage. I know, I know. How can this happen again? Is everybody in the NHL insane? After what happened in 2004-05, how can there even be the most remote possibility that another lockout/strike will occur at the start of next season?
It could, and according to more than a few wired-in hockey people I've talked to in recent days, it likely will happen again in 2012. "Better than a 51-percent chance," is how one high-profile agent described it to me. NHL Players Association boss Donald Fehr met with agents last week, and the mood coming out of the meeting, at least to some who were there, was pessimism that a shutdown can be avoided after the current collective bargaining agreement with the NHL expires on Sept. 15.
Why? It would take a lot more time and space to get into here, but it probably has something to do with NBA owners getting their players to agree to a 50-50 split of revenue. Currently, NHL players are getting 57 percent, so it's not hard to imagine why there could be trouble at hockey's bargaining table. The top two issues for NHL owners in 2004 were getting a salary cap and getting rid of NHLPA boss Bob Goodenow. They succeeded at both. Next time it will be purely a fight over slices of the revenue pie. (Guilty admission: A tiny part of me is highly intrigued by what a showdown between Fehr and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman would look like.) The good news: Nobody I've talked to believes the full 2012-13 season will be lost. "Think December or so for a settlement," is how another top agent put it.
2. Scoring will remain flat. The average number of goals scored per game this season is around 5.6 -- the exact average for all of last season. The three seasons before that: 5.7, 5.8 and 5.6. So, despite all the radical rules changes and the crackdown on obstruction since the 2004-05 lockout, scoring remains a tough thing to do. That doesn't mean the game isn't more fun to watch and doesn't have better flow. It does. It just means that coaches have devised new schemes under the new rules (think of the "trap" coming at the defending blue line now, instead of in the neutral zone), goalies and their equipment are better than ever, and defensemen can all skate as well or better than all but a handful of forwards. Another reason why scoring will be tougher: Advancements in the cement-hard outer protection on skates is making players less afraid to block shots.
3. A solution to the concussion problem will remain elusive. Granted, the NHL has taken smart, proactive steps to cut down on concussions, and depending on whose numbers you believe, it is succeeding. But all you have to do is scan the headlines to see another NHL player listed as out with a head injury. Sidney Crosby is the most prominent, of course, but there were more than 20 others sidelined as 2011 came to a close. Yes, rules to eliminate headshots help, but only by the small fraction that occurred due to such hits in the first place. Rules won't eliminate accidental collisions. The real issue -- the ever-increasing size and speed of the players -- isn't going away.
4. The enforcer will continue to disappear. Fighting will not be eliminated from the NHL anytime soon. It's considered an integral part of the game by too many of its caring participants. But the days of the guy who is good for only one thing -- using his fists -- are going the way of ink on paper. Today's game is just too fast for the hulking enforcer of yesteryear to keep up. Coaches rely on their fourth lines much more, and the goon who can't skate will simply be evolved out of the game for good.
5. Phoenix/Glendale, Ariz., will no longer be an NHL city. Along with my work stoppage prediction, I hope to be wrong on this one, but there are just too many signs that the NHL is prepared to give up on hockey in the desert. The move to Glendale in 2003 was done with all good intentions by the Coyotes' former owners. Glendale is a booming suburb with a big football stadium nearby and lots of new construction. Then the U.S. economy started going bust, the team started to stink, and fans in the area fell into steadily increasing indifference. Another big problem: There is virtually no media coverage of the Coyotes in Arizona. Many times, the only way you can find stories about them is via the team's website. It's a case of out-of-sight, out-of-fan's minds when a team gets little local coverage.
6. Patrick Roy will be coaching an NHL team by next season. Depending on how poorly Montreal or Colorado finishes the current season -- perhaps sooner -- either of the two teams that the Hall of Fame goalie played for and still maintains contact with will be the one that hires him.
7. Lindy Ruff or Darcy Regier, maybe both, will no longer be working in Buffalo by next season. The Sabres' new owner, Terry Pegula, is already showing signs of impatience at what many believe is a stale coach/GM regime.
8. Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo will be playing for a new team by next season. My guess is that he goes back to Florida -- either to his old team, the Panthers, or to Tampa Bay, which has a need for a No. 1 netminder.
9. Calgary's Jarome Iginla will waive his no-trade clause at the deadline (Feb. 27). Iggy will try to be some team's missing piece of its Stanley Cup puzzle. If I had to bet on which team it will be, I'd say Los Angeles. Or maybe Vancouver. Or maybe...
10. Wayne Gretzky will get back into the league. It just isn't right that the Great One does not have an official role with some NHL entity. No, Gretzky wasn't a great coach with Phoenix. Yes, the fact that he's still owed millions of dollars on his old contract with the league-owned Coyotes may have something to do with him still being on the sidelines. But when the Coyotes' situation is resolved (hopefully) after this season, it will be high time for the most recognized man in hockey to get back in the game.