Sidney Crosby came back for eight games before going down again. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/NHLI via Getty Images)
The NHL season is nearly at its halfway point, meaning the intrigue will ramp up exponentially over the course of the next six months. What storylines should hockey fans be paying attention to? That’s the focus of this week’s THN.com Top 10.
The Phoenix Coyotes are at best a 50/50 proposition to find a new owner and remain in Arizona next season. The St. Louis Blues sale just fell through, leaving them on the market. Depending on whom you talk to, other NHL teams are looking for significant ownership investment, if not an outright sale of their franchise. With a new collective bargaining agreement negotiation looming, you might not see any new buyers step up until a labor deal is done – and that may inhibit those teams from improving their on-ice fortunes.
As of Wednesday, the L.A. Kings were leading the Pacific Division with 45 points. The second-place San Jose Sharks had 44. Right behind them are the Dallas Stars with 43 points, and the Coyotes have 42. No division has a smaller margin for error than this one, which should make the playoff race as thrilling as any.
The first half of the Canadiens’ season was little more than an outright disaster, with language issues and oddly timed firings taking the attention away from a team that doesn’t have enough top-line talent to shake off a sluggish start. Will GM Pierre Gauthier be allowed by ownership to make any moves? And if so, will they be additions to try and push for a playoff spot, or will the Habs look to build for the future?
Barring some sort of miracle turnaround, the Blue Jackets, Islanders, Hurricanes, Ducks and Oilers aren’t likely to make the post-season. Soon enough, you may be able to add the Canadiens and Lightning to that group. That potentially frees up a number of talents on the trade market and it will be intriguing to see how the architects of those teams settle on setting their teams up for success as soon as possible. Expect highly touted, financially controllable youngsters to go to those squads in any swap.
As I said prior to the season, Buffalo’s slew of veteran off-season additions didn’t necessarily mean a rocket ride to the top of the East. The possibility of the team not gelling has become a reality, in part due to injuries, but something beyond that doesn’t seem right with this group. GM Darcy Regier now has the ownership wherewithal to re-jig his roster. Let’s see how much pressure he’s under to do so.
Speaking of pressure, the Capitals remain under a ton of it, given their pre-season status as elite Stanley Cup contenders and their inability to look like one early in the year. They’ve been better of late, but it will be interesting to see how GM George McPhee deals with his lineup between now and the Feb. 27 trade deadline.
With superstar forwards and superb young defensemen, Chicago appears to have it all. Well, almost. The goaltending duo of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery has been good enough to get them top spot in the West, but can they go into the post-season with that tandem and expect to go further than the first round, where they lost last spring? There are doubts in that regard. GM Stan Bowman has the salary cap room to make a significant addition. Don’t be surprised if that addition is a veteran netminder.
As noted earlier, the current CBA is set to expire in September. As such, speculation over negotiations – and the biggest obstacles to getting a timely agreement done – will skyrocket in the coming weeks. Many still believe there won’t be a protracted labor war, but nothing is guaranteed.
Another team that appears to have the weight of the world on its shoulders, the Canucks are where they’re expected to be – leading their division and near the top of the Western Conference. Yet there’s no doubt they’ll face even more pressure as the season ages. And seeing as nothing less than a Cup can be an improvement for them on last year, that pressure will be there every second of the way. Can they cope, or will they crack?
Like it or not, the continuing saga of Sidney Crosby’s recovery from a serious head injury will continue to cast a cloud over the sport. If hockey’s best player can return to action this season, he’ll be the main focus of media and fans, many of whom will be watching closely to see if he can stay in the lineup for the rest of the year; if he is forced to stop playing for the rest of the season, macabre speculation over his future will rise to unheard of levels. Either way, when the torchbearer for the game deals with this kind of drama, the hockey world has little choice but to keep its eyes focused on him.
The THN.com Top 10 appears Wednesdays only on TheHockeyNews.com.
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