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NHL Lockout: 10 Hockey Stories We'd Be Following Now Were the Season Going on

Ryan SzporerContributor IIIOctober 7, 2016

NHL Lockout: 10 Hockey Stories We'd Be Following Now Were the Season Going on

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    So, despite all the hopes that had gotten up earlier this week when National Hockey League Players’ Union executive director Donald Fehr proudly but prematurely proclaimed that there may yet be a resolution to the labor impasse, the lockout is still with us.

    The lockout now actually seems to have the staying power of M*A*S*H, minus the hijinks of Trapper John and Hawkeye, that is, but presumably with all the same casualties of war:

    1) Fan interest? At least to some degree.

    2) The careers of dozens, if not hundreds, of NHL players as well as those of countless league and team employees? One has to think.

    3) The careers of Fehr and/or league commissioner Gary Bettman in hockey? One has to hope.

    4) The long-term potential of a once-great sport? Potentially irreparably damaged to the point of hockey eventually resembling AfterMASH, meaning largely forgotten.

    And that’s including tired plotlines and characters that came to annoy more than entertain. It’s all enough to make one look back nostalgically to the time before this latest lockout and to the stories fans were actually looking forward to seeing play out, namely the following:

Crosby’s Post-Concussion Quality of Play

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    Pittsburgh Penguin superstar Sidney Crosby played just 14 games last season after returning for the second time from his concussion/soft-tissue damage/broken neck. During those games, he compiled an impressive six goals and 19 assists.

    However, the question remains: Is he just another hit away from another year on the shelf or worse?

    Fans have been told time and again the horrors of this still largely mysterious medical condition, that every person is different with regard to recovery time and that, most notably, after the first concussion, the second is sustained that much more easily.

    It’s all enough to make Pittsburgh Penguins fans subconsciously hopeful that this lockout drags on as long as possible in order for them to get that extra assurance he’s really at 100 percent.

    It may not be the most logical baser instinct, but it would be understandable, assuming that instinct manifests itself in the form of dropping a flaming bag of dog excrement on Gary Bettman’s porch with a note signed from Fehr just to throw an extra wrench in negotiations (not that one is needed).

    The absolute worst case? Bettman finds a flaming bag of dog excrement on his porch.

Ovechkin’s Return to Form or Continued Fall from Grace

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    From one superstar to another, indeed, there was a time when no conversation involving Crosby was complete without at least a mention of Washington Capital Alexander Ovechkin.

    Now, the latter’s play has dropped off so much to the point that analysts have given up and have already begun to focus on the next generation of Russian and Nova Scotian superstars to be taken first overall in consecutive years.

    Ovechkin just isn’t the same player he was two seasons ago. In fact, since he scored his career-high 112 points in 2008-09, his production has dropped off a little bit more each year. Last season, he scored just 65 points.

    Playing in for Moscow Dynamo in the Kontinental Hockey League this year, he’s doing okay with 13 goals and 17 assists in 24 games, but that’s still far off league leader Sergei Mozyakin’s 48 points and 20 goals. Would you want a guy on your team who trails Sergei Mozyakin by 18 points???

    Of course, Mozyakin was drafted in 2002, but by the Columbus Blue Jackets, which may have something to do with him preemptively staying in Russia and remaining relatively unknown to North American hockey fans.

    The point remains, though, Ovechkin may not be the same-caliber star NHL fans have grown to both revere and not understand in interviews.

The Battle in the Southeast…No, Really, the Southeast

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    With Ovechkin and company graced with a few new teammates in Mike Ribeiro and Wojtek Wolski, a new starting goalie in Braden Holtby and a new head coach in Hockey Hall-of-Famer Adam Oates, the Capitals would no doubt be making a serious play to come out on top of the Southeast Division, but not without the Florida Panthers having anything to say about it.

    Add in Ovechkin’s former linemate Alexander Semin being signed to a one-year deal by the Carolina Hurricanes, the Tampa Bay Lightning signing Matt Carle to shore up its world-class defense that now comprises Matt Carle, and the Winnipeg Jets’ uncanny ability to stick around in more ways than one, and it all would have made for an exciting down-to-the-wire race, but, obviously, that is no longer the case.

    Few people remember that the union’s refusal to provide consent to the league’s divisional realignment plan and have the Jets play against teams whose idea of winter involves more than just putting on a sweater by the pool was seen as the opening salvo of this latest lockout way back in January.

    And why would they? The union's refusing a plan that would have made life easier on a group of its members made about as much sense…oh, now I see. This whole collective bargaining agreement negotiation process actually has been quite consistent from a strategic perspective.

The Attendance Drought in Phoenix and the Eventual Exodus of the Coyotes

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    No NHL season would be complete without a story concerning the Phoenix Coyotes, especially not one in which other teams below the Sun Belt out east are primed for the spotlight. So, what does the future have in store for the Desert Dogs?

    When last we left the Coyotes, they had about as much trouble attracting positive attention as Lindsay Lohan after, shall we say, an evening out? Or just going out, period, these days.

    In any case, the Coyotes compiled an impressive 42-27-13 record, eliminated the heavily favored Chicago Blackhawks and Nashville Predators from Stanley Cup contention and reached the Western Conference Finals all to the delight of about as many fans at, well, a Lindsay Lohan concert.

    Indeed, the Coyotes averaged the league’s lowest attendance during the regular season with just 12,420 fans, yet the most recent news item pertaining to the team is in regard to Glendale’s city council voting in favor of a 20-year, $324 million arena management deal with prospective owner Greg Jamison, because apparently the fine people in Arizona like continuing to pay for a team no one watches (via the Toronto Star).

    Maybe someone should introduce them to the Charlestown Chiefs in hopes of resurrecting a film franchise that has gotten so bad they had Stephen Baldwin star in a sequel.

    On the “positive” side, depending on your point of view, of course, the arena deal comes with a stipulation that the purchase of the team must be completed by January 21, 2013 (via the Toronto Star). Looks like there just might be more pressing concerns on the league’s agenda right now.

Minnesota as a Wild Card with Parise and Suter

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    While the Minnesota Wild is kind of in the same boat as the Phoenix Coyotes, losing money and all, this sinking ship is taking down a whole lot more passengers with it.

    The Wild averaged over 5,000 more fans than the Coyotes last year and is operating at 98.4 percent capacity for its home games (via the Montreal Gazette). Still, the Wild lost $3.5 million last season and is worth just $218 million compared to the $1 billion Toronto Maple Leafs (via Forbes).

    The solution? Apparently? Defy all laws of space and time and get even more fans to come to the games by dishing out insane 13-year, $98 million contracts to native son Zach Parise and defenseman Ryan Suter.

    Of course, there’s little denying that owner Craig Leipold had to do something. In the midst of a four-season slump without playoff action and a declining season-ticket base, he’s trying to build a winner, and that’s both admirable and good news for the team’s faithful.

    However, the Wild still has a ways to go before being a legitimate contender. 

    Goaltending is now a question mark with Niklas Backstrom slated to become an unrestricted free agent, Josh Harding being tragically diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and Matt Hackett remaining largely unproven.

    Meanwhile, the defense, even with the addition of Suter, leaves a lot to be desired, namely five other NHL-caliber defenseman.

    In all seriousness, while Tom Gilbert is a top-four guy, the same can’t be said for Clayton Stoner, Justin Falk and even Jared Spurgeon, who was forced into action as a power-play quarterback for lack of any other alternatives.

    It’s like Minnesota has been flipped on its head, with the team trying to reinvent itself as an offensive powerhouse. Needless to say, it has all the potential to be as entertaining as George Clooney’s attempt to reinvent himself as a comic in Batman & Robin. A disaster, yes, but a fun-to-watch disaster.

    I would assume Parise is Batman here and tag-along Suter should be thought of as Robin. Dany Heatley can be Batgirl.

How the Red Wings Would Be Faring Without St. Nick

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    No, the Detroit Red Wings did not secure the services of Ryan Suter, but maybe it’s for the best, because they already have a number-two defenseman by the name of Niklas Kronwall. And he's pretty good too.

    Sure, Kronwall is no St. Nick…if anything, he’s more sinner than saint, Jack Frost to Nicklas Lidstrom’s Santa Claus, if you will, but he’s nonetheless proven himself just as capable of putting the puck in the net as crushing unsuspecting opponents with shattering body checks.

    Truth be told, general manager Ken Holland needn’t worry so much. Kyle Quincey is a top-four guy at worst, ditto for Ian White. Meanwhile Brendan Smith and Jakub Kindl are primed for more responsibility and have major upside. And what can be said about Carlo Colaiacovo that hasn’t been said before? "He’s actually not that bad?"

    So, all things remaining equal, Detroit won’t have a number-one defenseman when hockey resumes, but it could be worse. Just look at the Montreal Canadiens, who survived, kind of, without Andrei Markov last year.

    Yeah, they finished last in the Eastern Conference, but they only allowed 226 goals in the process. I call that a success…but, admittedly I am kind of bad with definitions. What’s “success” again? I am also from Montreal, so you’ll excuse the lack of familiarity with the term.

Who the Hell Is Damien Brunner?

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    I feel someone should warn Red Wings management that the child in The Omen was named Damien as well, and, well, he turned out to be the Antichrist.

    A few months into this season, it appears as though Holland, who signed Brunner to a one-year deal in July, made some kind of deal with the devil, because all Brunner is doing in the Swiss National League A is dominating alongside eventual NHL linemate Henrik Zetterberg.

    Brunner has 47 points in 26 games, with 22 goals and 25 assists, and it’s not just during this season that he’s been this successful. Last year, he had 60 points in 45 games. In all, he’s scored 237 points in 194 games with EV Zug.

    Granted, this is not the NHL, Linus Omark is second in league scoring in Switzerland and Brunner’s offensive prowess may not translate all that well in North America, but it’s definitely scary to think of how dangerous Detroit may be with him in the lineup.

    Of course, this has the makings of a Faustian deal in more ways than one, seeing as Brunner will be an unrestricted free agent at season’s end and may theoretically opt to play elsewhere in 2013-14. Sign him only to not be able to see him in a Red Wings jersey?

    It kind of makes one consider what would happen if Holland were to ask his hypothetical horned friend for a quick end to the lockout? Hell on earth, perhaps? It is still 2012, after all.

Rick Nash as a Ranger…Is He Actually as Good as All the Analysts Say?

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    Few people may have heard of Brunner, but few have been living in a cave deep enough to escape chatter of Rick Nash being traded to the New York Rangers.

    It all works out perfectly enough: Brad Richards is a center. Marian Gaborik plays right wing. Nash? You got it.

    The mere thought of a Norman Rockwell Museum line (you try thinking one up) is making Ranger fans, and we’re talking non-cannibalistic ones, salivate at the mouth as we speak. Just think, Richards’ play-making prowess, Gaborik’s goal-scoring ability, and Nash’s…hmmm.

    Charisma? No, that’s definitely not it. Pitcher Eric Gagne’s face complete with an incredibly ugly goatee? I guess they do look kind of similar.

    Wait…I’ve got it: Potential, because all that fans, all two of them in Columbus, have seen is an overrated winger that has yet to score 80 points in a single season.

    But how can this be? Everyone always says Rick Nash is an elite NHL player. He does make an average of $7.8 million per season, after all. Now, that’s former Ranger Scott Gomez money right there.

    In all seriousness, Nash has lethal goal-scoring ability, like Gaborik, but he’s no superstar. Superstars make their linemates better. All Nash did in Columbus was make his linemates invisible. I mean does anyone outside of Tom and Jack in Columbus know with whom he played?

    So, if he’s ever going to take it to that next level, this season would have been the time, because there are no more excuses.

    The talent in New York is there to more than adequately insulate the guy, even if he doesn’t end up playing on the same line as Richards and Gaborik, and this was the trade that made the Rangers Stanley Cup favorites, meaning if they don’t win it all in 2013, we all know whom to blame.

    No pressure, Rick. Just work your magic, get this CBA signed and we’ll start from there.

Halak vs. Elliott, Round 2

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    Discussing a former Blue Jacket now with the Blueshirts is enough to make one feel like turning one's attention to Saint Louis, for whatever reason.

    On the topic of the Blues, goaltender Brian Elliott was the talk of the league last year, posting a league-low goals-against average of 1.56 and a league-high save percentage of .940.

    Still, teammate Jaroslav Halak, who admittedly wasn’t far off with a 1.97 goals-against average and .926 save percentage, got most of the ice time with 46 games played to Elliott’s 38.

    Adding to the intrigue, assuming 2012-13 is lost, next season will be a contract year for both, undeniably leading to a goaltending controversy for the ages. Call it a hunch, but Halak, who spent a few seasons in Montreal, may just be able to draw from past experience and eke this one out.

    What’s interesting is that not since before the last lockout have the Blues had a legitimate starting goalie, and that was Chris Osgood. Needless to say, the Blues are in unfamiliar territory, being unbelievably set at that one position and consequently in a great position period once play starts up again.

The Toronto Maple Leafs’ Search for That Ever-Elusive Playoff Berth

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    Speaking of goaltending, or, more accurately, a lack thereof, once play resumes, the Toronto Maple Leafs will be looking to make the playoffs for the first time since the last lockout. Think positive, though. Clean slate.

    Kinda hard, though, when both the Columbus Blue Jackets and Atlanta Thrashers, two teams so god-awful that neither has any playoff victories to its name, compared to Toronto’s 13 Stanley Cups, still made 'em once over the past seven seasons.

    In any case, assuming the much-talked-about deal with the Vancouver Canucks for Roberto Luongo happens and the lockout ends, this could be it. Toronto would have a legitimate starting goalie, a decent defense corps (and Mike Komisarek) and arguably nine top-six forwards, at least under contract for this season.

    We’d know all this, because it’s all the Toronto media would be talking about. Even if the Leafs sucked, it’s all the media would be talking about, and, trust me, we have sufficient sample data from which to derive that conclusion.

    So, yes, good on general manager Brian Burke and the Leafs for positioning themselves in such a way that they have the ability to make a run at a playoff spot, finally. Your timing could not be worse, but, hey, chin up. You’re still the most valuable hockey team on the planet, for whatever that’s worth…even if no actual hockey is being played.

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