13 Biggest NHL Storylines to Follow Now That the Lockout Has Ended

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistJanuary 6, 2013

13 Biggest NHL Storylines to Follow Now That the Lockout Has Ended

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    The end of the lockout, as reported by TSN.ca, means that hockey fans will be able to follow the sport they love and get back to the things that matter most.

    Things like wins, losses, goal scoring, shutouts and hard hitting.

    Shortly after the puck drops, the 30 NHL teams will find themselves in a sprint instead of a marathon to earn a spot in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

    Most of the top storylines will involve the best teams, the best players and the race for the Stanley Cup. However, a lockout that started Sept. 15 has resulted in a lot of anger and there is sure to be some residual impact once the games begin.

    Here are the top 10 stories we will be watching when the 48- to 50-game regular season begins.

1. Gary Bettman's Power Base

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    Fans don't like him. Players don't like him. Some owners may not like him.

    But what happens to Gary Bettman's power base now that the lockout is over?

    Fans and players are certainly not going to forget, but the hate factor will almost certainly dissipate on a nightly basis as NHL games are played.

    However, a lot of damage has been done to the league. Will Bettman be able to maintain his power base, or was the lockout his last stand?

    If his power base has eroded significantly, his tenure as commissioner may be in jeopardy.

    Stay tuned.

2. Fan Anger

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    Hockey fans are more than a little angry.

    While all sports have had labor difficulties, only hockey lost a full season in 2004-05 as well as partial seasons in 1994-95 and this year.

    How will fan anger manifest itself?

    Will fans protest? Will they stay away from regular-season games? Will they turn off their televisions and ignore the sport they love?

    All of those actions may be effective protests, and there may be additional actions that come further down the road.

3. The Schedule

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    The NHL will play a regular-season schedule of 48-to-50 games.

    That means every game will mean even more than it does in a standard season. A medium-length slump may prove to be disastrous for any team that has playoff aspirations.

    Teams will start to run out of games quickly if they get off to a slow start. They must be able to get out of the gate quickly.

4. Salary Cap

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    The salary cap and the player's share of revenue was a huge issue during the lockout.

    However, it should not be a big issue during this truncated 2012-13 season.

    While the salary cap will dip to $64.3 million in 2013-14, it will be at $70.2 million (prorated) for the current season (source: nbcsports.com).

    Even teams like the Boston Bruins and the Minnesota Wild that are at the top of the salary charts are under that figure (source: CapGeek.com).

    Teams will still be able to make trades and player moves prior to the trade deadline in order to put themselves in a position to compete for the Stanley Cup.

5. Conditioning

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    This may be the most important issue for teams coming out of the lockout.

    Players who have competed overseas in the KHL would appear to have the biggest advantage because that is the best and most competitive league.

    Players who have played in Sweden, Finland and Germany should be able to hold their own once they return to the NHL.

    However, players who have not competed overseas may be at a disadvantage.

    Teams will have a short training camp to go over the season plan and re-establish routines, but players who are not in shape will have a difficult time competing and staying healthy.

6. Healthy Sidney Crosby

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    Sidney Crosby is the most talented and highest-profile athlete in the game.

    He has been limited by concussion-related issues the last two seasons.

    Those issues appear to be behind him and he is healthy for what is left of the 2012-13 season. It will be thrilling for many fans to see Crosby healthy again and to see if he can dominate the league's scoring race as he often has done in the past.

7. NHL Payback to Fans

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    Gary Bettman and the NHL owners seemed to be all about themselves and their own bottom line during the lockout.

    But now that it is over, the league's management and team ownership are going to have to address the fans.

    Whatever gestures are made will not take away all the anger, but the league must show it knows it is at fault in the eyes of the fans and do something for them.

    One of the gestures could be making the Center Ice package that allows fans to watch out-of-town hockey games available to the general public.

    While this is a revenue generator for the league, it would show fans that the league is at least thinking about the fans in a small way.

8. NBC Promotion

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    The NBC Sports Group signed a 10-year, $2 billion deal to broadcast hockey on NBC and the NBC Sports Network.

    The 2011-12 season was the first year of that partnership and the NHL locked out its players in Year 2.

    How will NBC react to that for the short term and the long term?

    The NBC Sports Network began broadcasting Jan. 1, 2012, and to have a valuable piece of its programming pulled by labor issues is not good for the broadcasting organization.

    The NHL has never had a solid TV agreement with any of the major networks prior to this deal, and the league has not helped itself by hamstringing its partner.

9. New York Rangers

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    Once players report back to their teams, the focus will be on winning games, making the Stanley Cup playoffs and winning a championship.

    As the season starts, the New York Rangers are considered the favorites to raise the Stanley Cup in June.

    The Rangers were the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference last year, but they lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to the New Jersey Devils.

    The Rangers did not have enough goal scoring a year ago, but they addressed that need in the offseason by acquiring Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets.

    Now the Rangers have to turn potential into production and live up to the preseason prognostications.

    The pressure will be turned up on all teams, but it may be greater on head coach John Tortorella and the Rangers since expectations will be so high.

10. Maple Leaf Saga

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs have not made the NHL playoffs since the 2003-04 season.

    No other team has had that kind of dry spell—not even the Columbus Blue Jackets. (Columbus earned a playoff berth in 2008-09.)

    Will the dry spell end this year? Will the Maple Leafs improve their goaltending? Will they acquire Roberto Luongo from the Vancouver Canucks? Will Phil Kessel smile or sulk?

    These and other stories will be answered on "As the Maple Leafs Turn."

11. Vancouver Fallout

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    Just how much do the Vancouver Canucks have left in the emotional tank?

    They have been one of the best teams in the NHL for years, but they have never won a Stanley Cup.

    They have been beaten by the eventual Stanley Cup winners in each of the last three years.

    Are the Canucks ready to try to climb the mountain again, or has their will to win been eroded by the agony of defeat?

12. Kings Attempt to Defend Their Crown

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    The Los Angeles Kings became the first No. 8 seed to win the Stanley Cup in NHL history last year.

    They got off to a poor start in the regular season, fired head coach Terry Murray and then brought in disciplinarian Darryl Sutter to turn the team around.

    General manager Dean Lombardi admired and respected Sutter, but he could not have anticipated the turnaround.

    It was not immediate, but the Kings got steadily better and earned a playoff spot in the season's final week.

    Then they rolled through the postseason thanks to the excellent goaltending of Jonathan Quick, strong defense and the opportunistic scoring of Anze Kopitar, Drew Doughty, Mike Richards and Dustin Brown.

    The Kings appear to have a complete team as they get ready to defend their championship.

    Are they ready to bring a second Stanley Cup home, or will they fall down as they become the hunted?

13. Where's Timmy?

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    Tim Thomas was the Boston Bruins' anchor and most valuable player when he backstopped the Bruins to the 2011 Stanley Cup.

    Thomas had a strange year in 2011-12, as he failed to accompany his teammates to the White House when they were invited by President Barack Obama and then announced that he was taking a year off from hockey after his team was eliminated from the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs.

    The Bruins believe that backup Tuukka Rask is ready to take over as the team's No. 1 goalie.

    While Rask has had success and the support of his teammates and coaches, can he be as strong as Thomas in the biggest games of the season?

    He must prove that he can give the Bruins the kind of goaltending that will allow them to remain a Stanley Cup contender.