The NHL Regular Season Is Back!

Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals

Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

Hey, do you remember the NHL regular season? It’s just like all that Olympic hockey you spent the last few weeks watching, except with smaller rinks. And more teams. And way fewer star players per team. And a lot less at stake. And … you know what, it’s really nothing like Olympic hockey.

But it’s all we’ve got for the next two months, and at least we don’t have to wake up early to watch it. So to help you get back in the groove for the return of the season tonight, here are 10 key story lines to pay attention to over the rest of the year.

Next Week’s Trade Deadline

In a league in which major trades are becoming increasingly rare, the deadline has gradually morphed from must-see TV into an annual disappointment. But there are at least some signs that this year’s deadline, which arrives next Wednesday, could be different. Some major names are expected to move, including Rangers captain Ryan Callahan, Islanders sniper Thomas Vanek, and Sabres goalie Ryan Miller.

And in recent days, a surprising new name has surfaced: Tampa Bay Lightning star Martin St. Louis. Last year’s Art Ross winner doesn’t fit the typical trade deadline pattern, since he’s not an expiring deal and he plays for a quasi contender. But there have been reports that he asked for a trade after Tampa GM Steve Yzerman originally left him off Team Canada (he was later named as an injury replacement), and he’s been linked to the Rangers in a possible Callahan swap.

That deal doesn’t seem to make much sense, but that St. Louis’s name is being thrown around at all offers some hope that this year’s deadline might be the first one in years that ends up being worth calling in sick for. Uh, not that any hockey fans do that.

What Did the Olympics Do to Washington?

Every NHL team sent players to Sochi, and you knew some would fare better than others. But it’s hard to imagine a team having less to cheer about than the Capitals.

Martin Erat was part of a disappointing Czech team. Marcus Johansson was a late fill-in for Sweden who was barely a factor. The U.S. used John Carlson sparingly.

And then there were the team’s two best players, both of whose Sochi experiences could fairly be described as disastrous. Nicklas Backstrom failed a drug test, which makes him either a victim of a flawed system or a fool who couldn’t be bothered to follow the rules that everyone else knew about. Either way, he seemed devastated at being pulled from the lineup just hours before what would have been the biggest game of his career.

Meanwhile, Alexander Ovechkin had spent years playing up the importance of winning gold on Russian home ice, then laid an egg once he was there. He recorded two points in the first four minutes of Russia’s opening win over Slovenia, then went scoreless the rest of the way, as the team failed to even make the medal round. His own coach threw him under the bus. And you just know this will reignite the whole “Ovechkin can’t get it done when it counts” narrative that seemed to have gone dormant.

Of course, it’s possible that all this leaves the Caps with a group of motivated players looking to get back out there and erase the bad taste of the past few weeks. They’d better hope so. As a team on the outside of the playoff picture right now, they can’t afford any kind of Sochi hangover.

The Red Wings’ Streak

The Red Wings limped into the Olympic break clinging to the East’s final playoff spot by a single point. Now they’ve lost captain Henrik Zetterberg to back surgery, likely for the rest of the regular season. Pavel Datsyuk is still banged up and will have to shake off Team Russia’s disastrous showing. And with almost half the roster having been in Sochi, the Wings are hardly well rested.

All of which points to Detroit fading from the playoff race. That would be major news, since the Red Wings haven’t missed the postseason since 1990, a stunning feat in a 30-team league. That 23-year stretch has included four Stanley Cups and established the Wings as the closest thing to a dynasty the league has seen in the Bettman era. But every streak ends eventually, and with an aging, beaten-up roster, this seems like the year it will happen.

Then again, we’ve been ready to write them off before, including just last year, when they didn’t clinch a spot until the season’s final weekend. That team went on to upset the 2-seed Ducks before pushing the eventual champion Blackhawks to overtime of Game 7. That should serve as a lesson in not counting them out. But from here, their odds don’t look promising.

Teemu Selanne’s Farewell Tour

If you thought watching Selanne’s final Olympic appearance was tough, wait until his NHL farewell tour kicks off. The 43-year-old has announced this will be his final season, which means we have only a few months left to enjoy one of the most universally liked players the league has ever seen.

The Ducks will be in the playoffs, so we don’t know exactly when Selanne’s NHL career will finish. If the hockey gods have a sense of drama, the end will come with a Stanley Cup win. Then again, they’ve been known to screw up this type of thing before.

The Rural Alberta Disasters

The Battle of Alberta is ready to heat up! Specifically, the battle for 29th overall.

While the Buffalo Sabres have all but wrapped up their hold on dead-last, the Flames and Oilers will be duking it out for last place in the West. That’s no big surprise for Calgary, a rebuilding team nobody ever expected to be good. It’ll be looking to sell at the trade deadline, and will apparently be doing so under interim GM Brian Burke, who has still yet to hire a replacement for Jay Feaster, despite firing him more than two months ago.

The Oilers’ situation isn’t so simple. Unlike the Flames, Edmonton was expected to be good this year, or at least significantly better than it’s been over the course of the most recent chapter of its perpetual rebuild. But despite a new coach and GM, this season has just been more of the same — if not even worse.

So what do the Oilers do? They could stay the course, finish near the bottom of the league again, and draft yet another top prospect. That wouldn’t be a bad idea, given that stud blueliner Aaron Ekblad figures to be available and would be a perfect fit for an organization that’s already loaded up with young forwards.

But patience is running low in Edmonton, and GM Craig MacTavish might decide the franchise has to start banking some wins. Rumors are swirling around core players like Sam Gagner and Jordan Eberle, and even the team’s first-round pick could be in play in the right deal. Remember, when MacTavish was hired, he talked about being “impatient” and making “bold” moves. That hasn’t happened yet. This week could be the week.

Which Way Do the Canucks Go?

No team needed the Olympic break more than Vancouver. It had lost seven straight, fallen out of a playoff spot, and John Tortorella’s fire-and-brimstone act seemed like it had already run its course. Canuck players probably couldn’t get away from the rink fast enough.

Or at least, the players who actually could get away from the rink. The Canucks sent seven players to the Olympics, and that doesn’t count Henrik Sedin, who was injured. (It remains to be seen whether he’s ready to play yet, but he seems optimistic.) Five Canucks were still going by the medal round, including four who dressed for Sunday’s gold-medal game, though Roberto Luongo didn’t play and Dan Hamhuis barely did. Fatigue could be an issue as they try to chase down teams like Dallas and Phoenix that weren’t as well represented in Sochi.

The Canucks haven’t missed the playoffs since 2008 and have finished first in their division every year since. The latter streak is going to end, and the former seems headed that way. But the Canucks’ season really could go either way — they’re just one point back of a playoff spot, but just three points up on 25th overall.

Given how old the core of this roster is — six key players are over 30 — the Canucks should be one of the more interesting teams to watch in the lead-up to the trade deadline. Do they try to reload for one last run? Or do they take a knee and regroup in the offseason?

Two More Outdoor Games

You forgot about these, didn’t you? That’s right, outdoor hockey is back yet again this weekend, with games between the Penguins and Blackhawks in Chicago and the Senators and Canucks in Vancouver.

Can you feel the excitement? Who’s pumped for even more outdoor hockey?

[Crickets chirp.]

Right. Let’s move on.

Is It Finally St. Louis’s Time?

The Blues come out of the break tied with the Blackhawks for first in the Central while holding three games in hand. They have a double-digit lead over Boston for the league’s best goals differential, and rank in the top three for both goals for and against per game. They’re good.

All of which is nice and all, but Blues fans will be looking for more than just a strong regular-season showing. They’ll want to see a lengthy playoff run, and that’s not exactly something this franchise has a history of. The Blues have historically been a consistently good team, and were in the playoffs every season from 1980 through 2004. But once they got past the three post-expansion years from 1968 to 1970, when they could beat up on the other expansion weaklings for the right to go to the final and get swept by an Original Six team, they’ve been out of the second round only twice in over four decades.

Even odder, the Blues have won a regular-season division title four times in the last 30 years. Total number of games won beyond the first round in those years: zero. That includes the 1999-00 season, in which the Blues won their only Presidents’ Trophy and then lost to the Sharks in the opening round.

They’ve got a shot at repeating that Presidents’ Trophy win this year, but it will be hard to call the season a success if they can’t make a serious run at the Stanley Cup. Hey, would now be a good time for one last “Ryan Miller to the Blues” push? Too late.

The Kings’ Scoring Woes

The break came just as the Kings were exploding offensively. In their final two games before Sochi, they combined for … five whole goals. That may not seem like much, but for a team that had scored just three in their previous six, it made them look like the mid-’80s Oilers.

So why can’t the Kings score? After watching Team Canada in the Olympics, we can scratch “talent” off this list. Jeff Carter and Drew Doughty were both on fire, combining for seven goals and 11 points to finish among the tournament leaders. If they can carry that sort of production back into the regular season, the Kings should be OK.

If not, well … the Kings should still be OK, because they’re so good defensively and in net that they can get away with the occasional scoring slump. They’re sitting in third in the Pacific, four points up on the Coyotes, so they’re not in any immediate danger of slipping out of a playoff spot. But they’ve also fallen well back of their two California rivals, as the Ducks and Sharks both hold double-digit point leads. Barring a major turnaround, the Kings will head into the playoffs as an underdog road team looking to pull off a series of upsets.

Which, history tells us, is a role that suits them just fine. Speaking of which …

Which Favorites Will Bomb in the Playoffs?

All four previous times the NHL has interrupted a season for the Olympics, a 1-seed has lost in the first round of the playoffs to a no. 8. In 2006 and 2010, that team was the Presidents’ Trophy winner. Coincidence, or an ominous warning about how disruptive the Olympics can be?

Probably the former, if we’re being honest, but it’s still a fun stat to scare Penguin and Ducks fans with. After all, the NHL won’t even have 8-seeds in this year’s new division-based playoff format. But there’s no question the intense pressure of the Olympics can wear on elite players, who tend to play for the league’s top teams. Both the Ducks and Penguins had seven players in Sochi; the Blues and Blackhawks had even more.

And in case you’re wondering if it would help a team to slip down to the second place in an Olympics year: nope. That’s even worse. Five of the eight Olympic-year 2-seeds wound up as victims of a first-round upset, too.

Filed Under: NHL, Hockey, St. Louis Blues, New York Rangers, Ryan Callahan, Ryan Miller, Washington Capitals, Alex Ovechkin, Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks, L.A. Kings

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Sean McIndoe ’s work can be found at his blog, Down Goes Brown. His first book, The Best of Down Goes Brown, was released last September.

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