The playoffs are about to begin, which means that most of what happened during the regular season will be forgotten in a few weeks. Even so, there are several stories that will be felt beyond 2006-07. Here's a look at 10.
|All in all, a great season for the Penguins and young star Sidney Crosby. (AP)|
2. Union boss unseated: Ted Saskin was hounded by dissidents from the day he took over as NHL players association leader and was finally forced out this year after some questionable internal union practices were alleged. Those charges are still being investigated, but Saskin is out and a replacement search has begun. What goes on behind closed doors at a millionaire players' club makes most hockey fans roll their eyes, but this situation is important to follow because the players association has a right to re-open the new CBA in two years. Saskin was very cozy with league officials, but a new leader is expected to be more adversarial.
3. Attention-grabbing violence: It happens every so often for the NHL, with incidents like the ones involving Todd Bertuzzi or Marty McSorley. This season, the general news-cycle "highlight" was Chris Simon's stick swing on Ryan Hollweg. Simon was dealt with harshly by the league, but during a fight a few days later, a clean punch from the Rangers' Colton Orr sent Philadelphia's Todd Fedoruk off on a stretcher and re-ignited the debate on violence in the game. NHL chief disciplinarian Colin Campbell weighed in afterward and said it was time to re-examine the issue of fighting. No one should expect much change, certainly not soon, but starting a real debate could be significant for the future.
4. Salary cap rises: It's obviously nice for the players and the teams that can spend more, but since the hike was based on raising prices rather than selling more tickets, you have to wonder when the bubble will burst. There's a lot of empty seats now and not much TV to create buzz, so making a product more expensive is questionable. Besides, without the controls, how long will it be before some teams overreach the way they did before the lockout?
5. Crosby grabs the crown: When Harry Howell won a Norris Trophy for the New York Rangers in 1967, he joked how lucky he was because Bobby Orr would own the award from then on. Orr won the next eight and Crosby could very well do the same with the scoring title he took with a six-point night in December and held the rest of the way. If he's not the very best player in the NHL right now, he's among them. And he's only 19. This is only the start of the Crosby era.
6. Lou's iron fist: No one argued with New Jersey GM Lou Lamoriello's right to run the team as he pleases, even if his methods raised more than a few eyebrows. The ultimate comment will come when the Devils' playoff run ends and their success is determined. Lamoriello is the boss and if he wants to fire a guy who picked up 102 points with three games left in the season, he can. But you can be sure that's going to make a lot of potential future coaches think twice about heading to New Jersey. Lamoriello said that doesn't concern him because he believes he'll attract candidates who want to win. Maybe. The Devils are a perennial powerhouse, but no coach wants to feel that dispensable.
7. End of the Bobby Clarke era: It came with a crashing thud in November and brought the curtain down on the quintessential Philadelphia Flyer. Clarke started there as a player in 1969, captained Philadelphia's only two Stanley Cup winners in the '70s and spent 18 years in two stints as GM. The Flyers were often title contenders and always a playoff team, but the league changed a lot after the lockout and Clarke fell behind. His team-building vision made him partial to big, physical players who were ill-suited to a faster game, something that was exposed early this season after Philadelphia camouflaged it last year by making the playoffs. The Flyers were done by Thanksgiving and the 57-year-old Clarke was part of the house-cleaning.
8. Nashville and Atlanta gamble: They both went for broke at the deadline, giving up lots of prospects for veterans who could take them to the next level right now. And that's critical for two struggling franchises. The Predators' package landed them Peter Forsberg and created some buzz in Nashville, but not enough for the elite team to raise its attendance figures all that much. The Predators' box office numbers were low enough to trigger a potential out clause from their lease next season, and if the team falters again in the playoffs, it's hard to see things improving there. Atlanta faces a similar situation, after paying a steep price to help its first playoff drive. The Thrashers got there by winning their division, but even GM Don Waddell admits that a quick exit will ruin the team's chance to make inroads with the fan base. And yes, Kansas City is offering free rent.
9. Blues collect a jackpot: St. Louis was in turnaround mode from the time Andy Murray took over as coach in December and was a playoff-quality team in the second half. That was too late to offset a bad start, but the Blues did a great job at the trade deadline, adding a good young scorer in Brad Boyes, signing defenseman Eric Brewer to a long-term deal and picking up a boatload of high draft picks for coveted veterans Bill Guerin and Keith Tkachuk. That's going to make an impact on this team's future, especially since last year's first overall draft pick Erik Johnson might be in St. Louis next season.
10. Edmonton trades Ryan Smyth: Location is everything in real estate, which means it isn't a big selling point in remote Edmonton. Chris Pronger, Michael Peca and Jaroslav Spacek made that clear on their way out last summer. The Oilers need some top free agents, but they'll have an even tougher time attracting them because of Smyth's treatment at the deadline. He was a local-born favorite son and to be sent away callously sends a bad message, one that only accentuates other negatives about going there. Not a good thing for a team that needs to rebuild.