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Storylines: More great rookies, Ovie-Sidney, surprises

by | Staff Writer

It's not only about the numbers in the NHL. Here are some storylines to follow this season:

The Phoenix Coyotes: Too bad it's not about what's happening on the ice with this team because that's where things are actually working out quite nicely. The low-budget Coyotes' roster looks good enough to make a second consecutive playoffs appearance, but by the time the postseason rolls around, the team might have one foot out the door. Last year's bankruptcy and ownership mess hasn't been resolved despite several potential buyers popping into the picture, although it faded into the background this summer. Meanwhile the NHL still has control of the team, but has set a year-end deadline to get rid of it. If the league can't find a buyer, there is a group from Winnipeg waiting to move the franchise back to its original location.

2010-11 Season Preview

Kovy's impact: One reason the Coyotes situation got little offseason attention was because of the drama surrounding New Jersey's signing of Ilya Kovalchuk. He was the big prize this summer and the contract worked out for him by the Devils reflected that, but the team had to jump through hoops to get the nine-figure deal approved by the league. And it left them in a salary cap bind as well, maybe even beyond this season because Zach Parise among others become free agents when it ends. In the meantime, Kovalchuk has to convince people he can fit in to the Devils rigid style smoothly and still be the kind of game breaker he is supposed to be.

Act II in Chicago: Usually the biggest question about Stanley Cup champions heading into a new season is how the hangover will affect them. In the Blackhawks case, it's about what all the changes will mean. Chicago went through a well-publicized salary purge after winning the Cup, moving out seven players who were on the ice at the time, and 11 in total. The Blackhawks brought in much cheaper players to replace them, including veteran goalie Marty Turco who could be rejuvenated after escaping the situation in Dallas. Chicago kept its seven top forwards and four top defensemen. It's not a bad core, but whether it's enough to repeat remains to be seen.

New-look Lightning: The return to much-needed credibility for the organization began when Steve Yzerman was hired as general manager last May, and now it's about translating that onto the ice. But the pieces are certainly in place thanks to a major overhaul of hockey operations orchestrated by Yzerman in the last few months. Tampa Bay now has two scoring lines to match any in the league, upgraded defense and goaltending and a fiery young rookie coach who has been a winner at every previous level. This team could surprise a lot of people.

Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin: It's always about these two in some way at the start of every season, but this time may be a little more unique because the Winter Classic and HBO's 24/7 series will be thrown into the mix. It's actually a coup for the NHL to have its two biggest names highlighted for the weeks leading up to their meeting in the outdoor game on NBC, and should go a long way towards determining which player really has the best Q score. But it's still more fun to watch what they do on the ice because they'll likely be battling each to the wire for the scoring title and maybe to get their teams to a Stanley Cup.

The rookie class: It seems to get better every year and this one should be no exception with the top three picks in the draft set to be in their team's lineup. That's Taylor Hall in Edmonton; Tyler Seguin in Boston and Erik Gudbranson in Florida, in case you forgot. But keep an eye on goalie Jonathan Bernier in Los Angeles; Alex Pietrangelo in St. Louis, John Carlson in Washington and P.K. Subban in Montreal as well. The league gets younger and younger every year and the players coming in get better and better.

Pressure on Price: Carey Price will get a chance to make everyone love because, well, there's really no choice in Montreal this season. Price was effectively given the No. 1 goalie job he lost last season when Montreal traded away Jaroslav Halak in June. Halak was the people's choice after a remarkable playoff run, but the organization saw Price as the better bet for the future and made its move, critics be damned. Thing is there are a lot of critics in Montreal and they don't shy away from letting players know it. Price will win them over if he plays well, but if he struggles, he's in for a long season. So are the Canadiens.

Fehr factor: Donald Fehr will be confirmed as the new NHLPA leader in the next few weeks and could start to make his presence felt pretty quickly. Certainly he'll impact the running of the organization right away, which in itself would be a boon to the union. But the bigger issue is the collective bargaining agreement that expires after next season and suggests that negotiations should begin sooner or later. Fehr's history in baseball makes some believe another labor stoppage is possible for hockey, something he has denied. But the signals he sends as he settles into the job will be more telling.

The surprises: There are always a couple of teams that seem to play over their heads, and last season Phoenix, the Kings and Avalanche fell into that category. This year they'll be considered disappointing unless they go further, and one or any of them might. But chances are there will be a few other teams that will surprise, if only because they stayed under the radar last season by missing the playoffs. Among them could be the St. Louis Blues, Atlanta Thrashers, Tampa Bay Lightning and maybe even the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Head shots: It's always a hot topic for the NHL more so since last season when Florida's David Booth and Boston's Marc Savard were carried off on stretchers after being blind-sided. The penalties are tougher now for those kinds of hits, the vigilance of on-ice officials has increased, and there is a greater awareness about the dangers of those kinds of hits among the players. But there is still a culture in hockey that finds a way to forgive and accept them. That's what has to change before anything else does.


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