Well you cannot for a second doubt how ridiculous the NHL lockout was to any and all hockey fans. And, you cannot for a New York minute, accept the smug grins of Jeremy Jacobs and Gary Bettman as they apologised to us all, as anything sincere.
The fact that Jacobs said that he’s happy to have the game back “that we all love”, is hilarious. The only thing that man loves is money and power.
That being said, the game that fans love is indeed back. All that’s needed is the dotting of the I’s and crossing of the T’s…and of course the official schedule. A schedule that will kick off a rapid and tumultuous 48-game dash for the Stanley Cup. So many story-lines, so little time!
Here’s a few things I’ll be keeping a close eye on when the puck finally drops on January 19th:
1) Loose Leafs
The three-ring circus that is the Toronto Maple Leafs knows no bounds! Without a playoff appearance since 2004, without a Stanley Cup since 1967, and with zero credibility heading into this shortened campaign, the situation at the Air Canada Centre is one to watch. Brian Burke – he of the bombastic attitude, and brash predictions is gone. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment deemed the prickly Burke as bad news for the brand.
But, what MLSE should really be worried about is how bad this team really is. A team that boasts plenty of revenue, sellouts, and a rich and deep bank account, really needs to get back to the playoffs. Is Randy Carlyle the right coach for this patchwork lineup (he was Burke’s guy brought in late last season), is Dion Phaneuf the right Captain for this apparently directionless team, and is James Reimer the starting goalie to get them in the playoffs?? All these questions will play out in high drama on Bay Street – in the heart of hockey country. Perhaps the biggest question is whether or not new GM Dave Nonis will pull the trigger, and bring in his old buddy Roberto Luongo to try and squeak the Buds into the post-season. Buckle-up, this situation will provide plenty of fodder!
2) Positive Penguins
Will Sidney Crosby stay concussion free? Can Marc-Andre Fleury rebound from an absolutely atrocious playoff series against the Flyers last year (Fleury was awful in the post-season with a .834 Save %, and a 4.63 GAA)? And, can Evgeni Malkin translate his incredibly dominant form in the KHL to NHL ice (Geno had 65 points in 37 games in Russia)? We all know the Crosby saga. I’m not a doctor, and I’m sure we’re all tired of talking concussions. All reports I’ve had are that Sid is in good shape, rearing to go and get into a real hockey game. Had the NHL cancelled the season, the Pens Captain was rumored to be heading to Switzerland to play as he felt game ready, so fans should be excited to get #87 back on the ice at the igloo. Fleury will rebound – he will forget the nightmare that was Claude Giroux last spring – he has to. He’s still a number one goalie in this league, and a Stanley Cup Champion. Goalies are usually able to forget bad games, and I think the ‘Flower’ will be fine.
Malkin was racking up some serious stats for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the NHL’s absence – I called a few KHL games for ESPN that he featured in – and let me tell you that he looked like the best player on planet earth. I don’t think there’s any reason that he cannot keep looking that way in a Penguins jersey. Scary thought for the rest of the NHL!
3) Bruins Dozen
The Boston Bruins have had some serious drama in the past 12 months. They had a difficult season last year as they tried to defend their 2011 Stanley Cup Championship. Concussions to a key player (Nathan Horton), and the ever present sense of the dreaded ‘Cup Hangover’ abounded. The Black and Gold never seemed to get on track, and they were ousted in the first round of the playoffs by the Capitals. The complexity of the Tim Thomas sabbatical – and his ever present political and social views also made the summer surreal for Bostonians. Well, that’s all in the past. Thomas is in Colorado with his family, and has no interest in playing for the Bruins or any other team. Horton is back, and healthy.
The big factor for the club getting back to the promised land is that 12 of their roster regulars played important games, and minutes in Europe during the lockout. Some teams may struggle to get their top guys into game shape this season, but this won’t be a problem at the TD Garden. With a dozen players game ready, the Bruins should be a handful for opponents straight out of the gate – a very big and physical handful.
Not long now folks. That’s just a few interesting story-lines to keep filed away in your hockey brain as we count down to January 19th. I have been vocal about the lockout. I have been vocal about the greed and pressure of the owners, and the lack of credibility for the NHL with three work stoppages in 20 years. I have made no bones about how ridiculous this has all been. But now, I am happy that we can all get back to talking about results, player performances, and THE GAME. No more Bettman pieces, no more lawyer-speak, just the ‘Good Old Hockey Game’.
You can follow Murph on Twitter @MurphOnIce