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Coldhearted: Our Weekly Hockey Column Debuts

The NHL drops the puck on its regular season tonight. Here are 10 of the league's top storylines.

Steven Stamkos
In basic immigration theory two factors are often pinpointed: the push — the conditions that cause someone to leave — and the pull — the promises and opportunities that draw someone somewhere new. It’s the same way with the 2011-12 NHL season.

Barring some kind of eleventh-hour solution, there will most likely be no NBA basketball, at least not for a few months. That’s a push. (There will also be no postseason baseball, at least in the collective mind of the one fan base that fancies itself most important.) While I’d posit that the recent spate of NCAA-corruption chatter might also drive people away from obsessing over college sports — that would be another push — I’m pretty sure that college football fans don’t actually care about the hot tubs and jet skis and shady recruits.

But the push tells only one side of the story. There’s also the pull factor, the thing that draws people in. For those mopey baseball fans in Boston, the Bruins Stanley Cup is a definite pull. (Braves fans, on the other hand … I’m not sure what to say.) The NHL’s increased visibility, both from a macro perspective, as in “Boy, there sure are a lot more hockey games on TV than I remember!” and in a more literal sense — with HD TVs it’s soooo much easier than it ever was to see the puck — is a pull. Otherworldly players like Steven Stamkos, Pavel Datsyuk, or Henrik Lundqvist are pulls. And hopefully this column, “Coldhearted,” can be one as well.

We’ll be here every week to discuss the things that make hockey — the NHL in particular, although not always exclusively — the fast, fun, and freaking hilarious sport that it is. Just as football has grown into a sport for anyone to enjoy, even if you don’t have a clue what the nickel formation even means, my hope is that hockey can become that way, too.

Hockey fans, like any minority group wronged and belittled throughout the course of history (i.e., indie-music lovers), can be an angry, distrustful, circle-the-wagons kind of bunch. “Clearly you’ve never watched the sport,” they’re apt to spit, either in the comments sections of full-time professional hockey writers or, if you’re near a live one, in your actual face. It’s too bad, this exclusive screening process, this forced certification of bona fides, because hockey can be one of the most enjoyable sports out there even when — especially when — it’s not being taken so seriously.

Here, in this opening column, in no particular order, are some things to think about as the season kicks off tonight. Going forward, we’ll be here to go through the goings-on of the week — the goals and the goading and the GOATs, but also Milan Lucic’s girlfriend’s bonkers shoes. Seriously. I’m in awe.

Here we go, buds, let’s git ‘er done.

1. “As the video shows …”: The reluctant reign of Brendan Shanahan

It probably seems odd to kick off a hockey column by highlighting a man who retired from the game in 2009, but rest assured that Brendan Shanahan is currently one of the league’s most influential players. That’s because this season is Shanahan’s first as “senior VP of player safety,” the horribly thankless job previously held by noted hockey dad Colin Campbell that involves dishing out discipline for every unwelcome and illegal on-ice play.

With increased understanding and vigilance about the short- and long-term ramifications of concussions and brain trauma, even players, coaches, and media who only a few years ago would watch heads hitting glass and/or ice and cheerfully quip, “Hoo boy, he got his bell rung, eh?” are now sounding alarm bells of their own. Over the past few seasons, there has been a concerted effort to more strongly police blindside boarding plays and open-ice hits to the head. (This summer, the NHL’s board of governors approved a broadening of interpretation around what constituted an illegal hit.) Shanahan is the man who will translate it all.1

In a welcome change to his misunderstood predecessor’s M.O., Shanahan announced before this season that, to lessen the image of the league’s discipline office as a shadowy, inconsistent, Wheel of Justice-spinning operation, he would be releasing clear video explanations of not only illegal hits and situations but barely legal ones, too, in an effort to educate both players and fans.2

What he probably didn’t anticipate was just how much time he’d be spending in front of the camera. In the preseason alone, Shanahan suspended nine players for a total of 31 regular-season games, giving rise to various Twitter memes such as #shanabanned (self-explanatory), #shanahammer (same), and #shanabanarama (to indicate a festival of multiple suspensions in one day alone). Who knows, #shanabananarama may not be far behind: Shanny doing a cover of “Rough Justice” as bruising footage plays in the background. I would watch.

2. Sidney who? The Pittsburgh Penguins’ other superstar

While the head-injury fears and subsequent crackdown on discipline preceded Sidney Crosby being out with a concussion, The Kid’s almost-year-long absence has intensified the issue. But frequently lost among all the discussion of the state of Crosby’s head is the fact that another of Pittsburgh’s prized young stars, Evgeni Malkin, is now back on the ice after his own early exit last year as a result of a torn ACL/MCL combo. This season Malkin will likely be a reminder of just how deep Pittsburgh’s pool of talent is.

A refreshed and refocused Malkin has played like a ninja this preseason after devoting himself fully to a training-intensive3 offseason (Pittsburgh strength and conditioning coach Mike Kadar traveled to Geno’s native Russia for nearly three weeks this summer to personally work with him, Pai Mei steez) and tiptoeing back onto the ice only to dish out holy-shit death blows with impossible grace. His return to a Pittsburgh team that managed to survive the loss of both him and Sid for the last 29 games of last season — earning CILFy Dan Bylsma a Jack Adams Award for coach of the year — is at once a really big deal and terrifyingly overlooked. In a recent list of hockey’s top 50 players, Malkin came in at 22, and Bodog’s preseason prop lines initially had him at 30/1 for the Hart Trophy, awarded to the league’s MVP. The line has since moved to the more sensible 14/1.4 Crosby’s absence is obviously huge, but so is Malkin’s presence. Even scarier, the man’s barely 25 years old.

Tyler Seguin
3. Close the curtains! The Stanley Cup hangover

The Stanley Cup Champions5 hangover is a well-documented phenomenon; no team has won back-to-back Cups since Detroit in ’97-98, and last season’s reigning champs, the Chicago Blackhawks, barely made the postseason just a year after winning the sport’s most intoxicating prize. Unlike the Blackhawks, though, who for salary-cap reasons had to unload some of the important pieces of their Cup-winning roster, the Boston Bruins’ squad remains mostly and impressively intact, with its biggest losses being the retired Mark Recchi, defensemen Tomas Kaberle, and left wing Michael Ryder. Two of Boston’s unknowns this season exist on opposite ends of the age spectrum: Will Tim Thomas, the affable netminder who stood on his head to come away with the Conn Smythe and the Vezina trophies, be able to replicate such a badass performance as he turns 38? And will young Tyler Seguin, who came alive in the playoffs at just 19 years old, hit a sophomore slump, or will he show continued progress?

Of the two teams, the Vancouver Canucks could be the ones to wake up groggier. They may not have had the whirlwind and tiresome Stanley Cup-touring schedule that the Bruins did, but what they lack in fatigue they may make up for in morning-after shame. (It’s really not unlike a night out — those worst hangovers sometimes come after the angry/sad drinking, not the fun parties, you know?) Ryan Kesler, one of the team’s crucial players last season, was bruised and battered in the playoffs and likely will miss several weeks of play this fall as he recovers from hip surgery (and poses naked for ESPN The Magazine). Goalie Roberto Luongo will have to pump his own tires to get over the crushing Game 7 loss and to preserve the form that made him the William M. Jennings Trophy recipient for lowest team goals against average.

Still, the Canucks play in one of NHL’s weakest divisions, and they have a roster to drool for. And who knows: They may actually be better off not leading the league in quite the same way they did last year — after all, more often than not in the NHL, the President’s Trophy ends up being but a consolation prize.6

4. “I know where my neck is right now”: The Philadelphia Flyers’ risky chemistry experiment

In a relatively robust offseason, transaction-wise, one team stuck out as the boldest, altering its alchemy in a way that will either cure what ails it or blow up in its face. We’ll be discussing this much more this season I’m sure, but the Philadelphia Flyers, just one year removed from a run to the 2010 Stanley Cup finals, made a series of big moves that left general manager Paul Holmgren admitting that his head could be on the chopping block if things don’t work out.

First, the team caught even hockey insiders off guard when they traded away, within hours of each other, two of their biggest and most visible performers — captain Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, both of whom had committed to long-term contracts collectively spanning more than two decades — to the L.A. Kings and the Columbus Blue Jackets, respectively. (The franchise swore it was for on-ice reasons, though rumors flew that it had something to do with locker room and extracurricular goings-on.)7

Those moves, combined with the acquisition of once-mulleted wonder Jaromir Jagr, and the expensive but highly necessary signing of goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov (see below), make the Flyers an unpredictable and intriguing collection of players — not unlike another of the city’s teams, come to think of it.

5. Don’t adjust your TV: All that hockey is supposed to be on there

This past April the league announced a 10-year broadcast partnership with NBC Sports Group that may well turn out to be one of Gary Bettman’s most important moves.8 The deal, under which NBC will pay the league $200 million per year in upfront network and cable rights fees, is an enormous step forward from the rock-bottom post-lockout TV situation.9 If pulled off correctly, the partnership could be a marketing and synergistic success: When Comcast acquired NBC Universal earlier this year, it combined both of the league’s TV partners, NBC and Versus, under one umbrella.

Furthermore, Versus (nee the Outdoor Life Network) will be rebranded on January 2 as the far more recognizable NBC Sports Network. Expect a new cross-promotional push across all of NBC Universal’s properties — it’s too bad Project Runway is no longer on Bravo, because dressing Alexander Ovechkin and Martin St. Louis would make a sick challenge — and more importantly, expect to see a lot more games: 100 of them between the two networks, up from the mid-50s last season. (Also, every single playoff game will be televised nationally on one of NBC Universal’s channels.) Can John Tesh write a hockey version of “Roundball Rock”?

Alex Ovechkin
6. OvechkCup? A skate around the Eastern Conference

  • The Washington Capitals are all the rage: The Hockey News and ESPN The Magazine both see Ovi & Co winning it all, while the recently released Bodog over/unders gave Washington the highest number of projected points in the regular season. The team certainly made some really smart summer moves, adding gritty and grinding postseason-ready players such as Troy Brouwer, who won a Cup with the Blackhawks, Roman Hamrlik, and Joel Ward. They re-signed their best two-way forward, Brooks Laich. They grabbed goalie Tomas Vokoun for a song and somehow convinced the Phoenix Coyotes Colorado Avalanche to give up two bound-to-be-high-draft-picks for backup goalie Semyon Varlamov — two of the offseason’s biggest steals. The hope is that these transactions can help them get past — way past — another early-round exit.
  • The Eastern Conference is home to some of the league’s finest goalies, including the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist, Buffalo’s Ryan Miller, and Montreal’s ascendant Carey Price. The Philadelphia Flyers’ recent acquisition, though, Ilya Bryzgalov, is notable because it finally addressed the team’s perennial weakness in net. More important, it wins the award for hands-down best hockey Twitter account, which is even more wonderful if you read it out loud in his famous “Why you heff to be mad?” falsetto.
  • It would be so very New York Islanders to have a series of unexpectedly good seasons, warm the hearts of local fans, and then bolt town once their handcuffing Nassau Coliseum lease is up in 2015. The team’s Nino Niederreiter is one front-runner for this year’s Calder Memorial Trophy for best rookie, while his young teammate John Tavares just committed to the franchise for six more seasons, wherever they may be at the end of that term. (When I read this great story of an Isles prospect playing roller hockey with fans, I realized anew that the heartbreak is just waiting to happen.)
  • Once again the New York Rangers threw money at the biggest-ticket free agent out there, but they swear it will all work out different this time. In other news, if you want to know why my fantasy team is named the John Terrorellas, here’s part of your answer. Cannot WAIT for that man to be featured on HBO’s 24/7 this year.
  • Speaking of throwing money around, the Buffalo Sabres, given the green light by wealthy and carefree new billionaire owner Terry Pegula, dove headfirst Scrooge McDuck-style into a room full of gold coins and emerged clutching, among other things, 12.5 million dollars in cap space worth of a new center (Ville Leino) and two D-men (Christian Ehrhoff and Robyn Regehr). There’s no way this can end badly. (Just kidding, Buffalo fans! Please don’t hurt me.)
  • The Tampa Bay Lightning, who came within a game of appearing in the Stanley Cup finals in place of Boston, are hoping their goaltender, Dwayne Roloson, who turns 42 next week, will hold on just a little bit longer. He’s got plenty of offensive weapons to help loosen the pressure — Martin St. Louis isn’t slowing down just yet, and Steven Stamkos once again worked out with crazy NHL fitness guru Gary Roberts all offseason, and hopes to repeat his incredible early-season scoring streak from 2010 (while avoiding the late-season slump).
  • The poor Ottawa Senators. That’s all you need to know.

Logan Couture
7. Sink or swim with the Sharks: A skate around the Western Conference

  • The San Jose Sharks, who have made the playoffs every year since 2003-04 and appeared in the Western Conference finals in both of the past two seasons, have no hardware to show for it. (The Blackhawks swept them 4-0 in 2010, while Vancouver dispatched them last season four games to one, much to the delight of this lucky fan.) The team hopes that a series of trades with the Minnesota Wild this offseason,10 combined with the projected performance of youngster Logan Couture, will give them the right mix to get over the hump.
  • The Edmonton Oilers, fresh off two straight years of no. 1 lottery picks, could potentially be icing, at least initially, a Kid Line Part Deux. Watch out, Adam Graves!
  • The Detroit Red Wings’ Nicklas Lidstrom will turn 42 in April, while the Anaheim Ducks’ Teemu Selanne’s 42nd is in July. Are you getting glowing-puck era flashbacks yet?
  • The Nashville Predators botched the offer-sheet process11 and potentially alienated their best player, Shea Weber, by taking him to arbitration. Nicely done!
  • In one of the most fun stories of the preseason, 18-year-old Brandon Saad, who was projected to be a first-round draft pick this summer before falling to no. 43 overall in the second round, not only managed to make the Chicago Blackhawks’ opening-night roster — he’ll be on the team’s very first line, playing alongside stars Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp. Not bad, kid. Not bad.
  • A man reportedly interested in purchasing the St. Louis Blues turned out to be an International Man of Mystery.12
  • Perhaps the luckiest team on the other side of the Flyers’ complete reimagining is the L.A. Kings, who, like the Sharks, have yet to hoist a Cup. (We can agree to blame Marty McSorley for that.) The team gained former Philly captain Mike Richards and then picked up his former teammate Simon Gagne to flank him for old times’ sake. They will make a fearsome second line behind a first line anchored by center Anze Kopitar, whose talent-to-name-recognition ratio might be the league’s highest. The team took care of its biggest question mark when it finally re-signed defenseman Drew Doughty following a training camp holdout.13 But the jury remains out on the disappointing Dustin Penner, about whom GM Dean Lombardi said last year: “Dustin is at the crossroads of his career. He can choose to use his athletic ability to either become a dominant power forward in the National Hockey League or be a dominant no. 4 hitter for the El Cid Lounge in a men’s softball league — the choice is his.” What a highly specific burn!

8. You can go home again: The circuitous return of the Winnipeg Jets

It’s a toss-up over what made the people of Winnipeg happiest: the news that the Atlanta Thrashers would be uprooting and moving to Winnipeg, a city that had been NHL-less since the Jets 1.0 left town in 1996, or the later news that True North, the group buying the Thrashers, had opted to revive the former franchise’s name.14 While the Jets might be slow to really take off, talent-wise, the move has revved up the whole province and made Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques fans pretty jealous.

But the Jets’ impact will be felt far outside Manitoba regardless of the team’s 2011-12 record. For the time being Winnipeg will remain in the Atlanta Thrashers’ old slot in the Southeast Division, which is made up of the league’s two Florida-based teams, the Carolina Hurricanes, and the Washington Capitals, meaning the Jets will spend about as much time on planes this season as they will wearing them. Next year the NHL will have no choice but to realign, and there’s any number of ways that process could shake out, ranging from the relatively straightforward (swapping with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the easternmost Western Conference team desperate to play in a friendlier time zone) to the dramatic (a full-scale overhaul of the entire league’s current six-division structure). If I may register a humble vote, I say bring back the old, badass divisional names. It’d pair nicely with the league’s love of retro jerseys, no?

9. Not again! The chilling specter of collective bargaining

Realignment isn’t the only thing looming on the horizon: The NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, which the league forfeited the entire 2004 season to negotiate, expires after this season. In 2004, the main issue was the implementation of a salary cap to prevent the league’s richest teams from letting payrolls spin out of control — cough, cough, New York Rangers — but these days a bigger problem is actually contract inflation on the low end.

Under the current system both the salary cap and the salary floor are pegged to league-wide revenues, and as those have fortuitously increased (thanks in part to the aforementioned TV contract, as well as the strength of the Canadian dollar), so, too, has the mandated cap range. Whereas the salary cap following the lockout in 2005 was $39 million, these days the minimum salary floor is $48.3 million — meaning that even the league’s poorest teams have to pony up to get to that number. (The current cap for this season is $64.3 million.) The result was a flurry of overinflated free-agent contracts this summer offered by teams like the basement-dwelling Florida Panthers, who were trying to reach the ground floor.15 This escalating process, combined with some other cap-circumvention shenanigans (like the one described here) and the fact that numerous teams (Dallas, the New York Islanders, the Phoenix Coyotes) are in or emerging from financial shambles, make a painful CBA renegotiation seem like a possibility — one that the league really cannot afford.

Anaheim Ducks
10. “Hockey is a brotherhood”: The most loving line in the league

But let’s not end with something as grim as labor strife; there’s enough of that going on in the NBA. Here’s a much better story about contract negotiations: When Anaheim’s left winger, Bobby Ryan,16 reached a contract-negotiation impasse with the Anaheim Ducks around this time a year ago, he turned to his linemates, right winger Corey Perry and center Ryan Getzlaf, the team captain, to feel out their long-term commitment to Anaheim. When the two gave him their word that they planned to stick around for the long haul, Ryan went behind the back of his hard-liner agent, Don Meehan, to independently negotiate a five-year, $25.5 million contract directly with the team. “What you ultimately play for is the guys in the room,” he said at the time. “The fans and the coaches and all that, they’re separate.”

His trust paid off. The trio had a big year for the Ducks last season, recording 103 goals — close to half of the team’s total scoring production — including a 50-goal, 98-point season from Perry, who earned both the NHL’s Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy (for most goals) and the Hart Memorial Trophy (for league MVP) at June’s NHL Awards. During the ceremony, Ryan and Getzlaf starred in a sequel to a video sketch from the 2010 Awards that had poked fun at the fact that Getzlaf’s Canadian hockey team defeated Ryan’s American squad for the Olympic gold medal in Vancouver in 2010. (In the championship, Getzlaf would feed Perry for Team Canada’s second goal of the game.) Both videos were painfully cheesy, of course — this is the NHL Awards we’re talking about — and yet they were also delightful, showcasing the legit linemate love (and Ryan’s lisp).

While Perry will be hard-pressed to match his totals from last season — he had never scored more than 32 goals before then — the Ryan-Perry-Getzlaf line still ought to again be one of the league’s most lethal. (It’d better be: Despite Selanne’s return, Anaheim isn’t exactly stacked in the depth department, and goaltender Jonas Hiller only recently recovered from a scary case of vertigo.) While they may fly largely under the radar of the East Coast-centric hockey media, they always — say it with me now — fly together.

Katie Baker is a staff writer for Grantland.

Previously from Katie Baker:
Wedded Blitz!: A sabermetric analysis of the September New York Times wedding announcements
The Timetable: Sidney Crosby’s Lost Year
Mike Modano Says Goodbye
Bake Shop: Advice for Dads With Daughters
Hockey’s Hopefuls
Wedded Blitz!

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Katie Baker is a staff writer at Grantland.

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