It was 77 days ago, on a hot June night in Boston, that the Chicago Blackhawks won their second Stanley Cup championship in four years, creating a veritable dynasty by the standards of the modern-day NHL.
The Blackhawks’ victory was thoroughly aberrational in an era where nine different teams had previously taken a turn in the Stanley Cup winners’ circle.
But the 2012-13 NHL season was like that across the board: different, and chaotically interesting.
It began with a bitter, four-month player lockout, followed by an unpredictable 48-game regular-season that shifted some of the league’s traditional balances of power. The playoffs were even better – crazy momentum swings characterized many series, with both of the eventual finalists, Chicago and the Boston Bruins, lucky to get off the ropes before advancing to the championship round.
The off-season is gone in what seems like the blink of an eye, with training camps for 2013-14 scheduled to open Wednesday.
It was a summer in which the Calgary Flames were flooded out of their home, the Scotiabank Saddledome, requiring a feverish rebuild to get ready for their first exhibition game, Saturday, against the Edmonton Oilers. The hope is the paint is dry when customers come spilling through the entrance.
The Flames brought in a new president of hockey operations, Brian Burke, last week, but the Oilers made even greater front-office changes, installing Craig MacTavish as general manager and handing former Toronto Marlies head coach Dallas Eakins his first NHL assignment.
There will also be a new face behind the Vancouver Canucks bench, with sound-bite king John Tortorella replacing Alain Vigneault. On the ice, the Canucks resolved their lengthy goaltending soap opera by shipping Cory Schneider to the New Jersey Devils and reinstalling Roberto Luongo as their No. 1 man.
In the first significant NHL realignment in decades, the Winnipeg Jets shifted to the Western Conference and a more geographically sensible home, the Central Division, which also includes the defending champion Blackhawks.
Chicago traded forward Michael Frolik to the Jets in the off-season, part of a plan to get their salary cap picture in order. Dave Bolland, who scored the game-winning goal in the deciding game of the Stanley Cup final, was similarly shuffled off to the Toronto Maple Leafs so the Blackhawks could re-up Bryan Bickell, Niklas Hjalmarsson and goaltender Corey Crawford.
These are the ways of the salary cap world. One minute, you’re sipping champagne from the Stanley Cup; the next, you’re shaking hands with the GM and being thanked for your contributions on your way out the door.
It was that way for the runners-up from Boston, too. Andrew Ference didn’t have long to ponder how close the Bruins came before he was on his way to Edmonton, joining the Oilers as a free agent, just as his old friend and former Flames teammate Jarome Iginla was signing on with the Bruins.
Just as Iginla was the long-time face of the Calgary franchise, Daniel Alfredsson – the Ottawa Senators captain since 1999 – jumped ship and joined the Detroit Red Wings, who are now rivals in the newly revamped Atlantic Division. The Senators acquired Bobby Ryan, a perennial 30-goal scorer, from the Anaheim Ducks to replace Alfredsson’s scoring, but his absence left a large hole in the dressing room and in the community.
The salary cap is back to where it was two years ago, and the drop – to $64.3-million (U.S.) – was largely responsible for a series of compliance buyouts permitted under the collective agreement. One of which was the Tampa Bay Lightning cutting ties with long-time captain Vincent Lecavalier, who later landed with the Philadelphia Flyers, where he will replace Daniel Brière.
Brière, in turn, will take his talents to Montreal, where the Canadiens face the daunting task of solidifying their year-over-year improvement. Montreal went from 15th to second in the Eastern Conference, and now must prove such strides are for real and not just a byproduct of the shortened season.
It was like that in Toronto, too. The Maple Leafs jumped from 13th to fifth and were achingly close to eliminating Boston in the first round, before faltering in the third period of the seventh game.
With the Columbus Blue Jackets now joining Detroit in the East and only Winnipeg shifting West, the NHL created a geographic imbalance in the conference alignment, with 14 teams in the West pursuing one of eight playoff spots compared to 16 teams in the East.
There was some thought the Phoenix Coyotes might eventually move east, but that thought was quashed when a new ownership group, led by Calgary oil financier George Gosbee, bought the team and plans to run it indefinitely in Arizona.
Ultimately, expansion will bring the NHL’s franchise count up to 32 and square the imbalance, but that won’t happen for years, or until the league gets its financial house in order. There was some fear of a major fan backlash after commissioner Gary Bettman presided over the third player lockout of his 20-year tenure, but the business of hockey roared back with stunning speed.
The teams played to full houses; television ratings were exceptionally good. The belief is the presence of six outdoor games on the 2013-14 schedule, plus the rights fees that will be negotiated for new Canadian television contracts, will help revenues soar once again.
The players’ share of the overall pie is down to 50 per cent from 56 per cent, but if this summer’s spending decisions are any indication, NHL GMs clearly think the salary cap is going way, way up in the years to come.
The NHL competition committee approved mandatory visors for players entering the league in 2013-14, and new limits on goalie pads were also introduced.
After Terry Gregson retired as the NHL’s director of officiating, Steve Walkom took over the job he’d held previously. Walkom’s staff will test the merits of “hybrid” icing in the exhibition season to see if the league and players’ association want to adopt it for the start of regular-season play in October.
As the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Blackhawks will wear a figurative target on their backs all season. Three years ago, they faltered badly the year after they won the Stanley Cup.
Chicago is the target, but according to Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman, forewarned is forearmed.
“When you’ve been through something before, in every walk of life, the second time around, you know what to expect,” said Bowman, who then offered a word of warning not only to his own team, but to every team enjoying the cautiously optimistic early days of the preseason.
“Nothing is easy in the NHL these days. I don’t take anything for granted. We’ve got to go out there and earn it, starting on Oct. 1, when the season begins. Nobody’s going to be handing us victories.”
No, they won’t. Summer is a time of change. September is a time of hope. Reality sets in roughly a month or two from now.