Face it, except for that pesky matter of trying to sort out the Phoenix Coyotes' ownership situation, and a few too many blindside hits to the head, the NHL had a pretty good year last year. TV ratings soared, the Olympics were great, the Montreal Canadiens made a stirring and unexpected playoff dash, and an ultracompetitive postseason ended with one of the league's most storied franchises, the Chicago Blackhawks, in the winner's circle.
Of course, the only problem with that sort of success is trying to figure out the encore.
More is better seems to be the NHL's philosophy heading into 2010-11. This year, there'll be two outdoor games instead of one. Six teams, not four, will open the season in Europe. The all-star game will return after a one-year Olympic hiatus, to be played in that hockey hotbed of Raleigh, N.C. There are hints of labour strife on the horizon, as the NHL Players' Association sorts out its hierarchy.
Mostly, though, the action is focused on the ice, where it belongs, with burning issues in virtually every NHL precinct as training camps open next week. Here are 10 issues to chew over while pondering that age-old question: Are the Toronto Maple Leafs a playoff contender? We think yes.
1. Whither Ovie? Sadly for the NHL, the Canadiens' miraculous trip to the Stanley Cup semi-finals came at the expense of the league's regular-season champions, the Washington Capitals, and its most dynamic player, Alex Ovechkin, who went all lone-wolf again in trying to pop a few goals against the impenetrable Jaroslav Halak wall. Ovechkin had another exceptional statistical regular season (50 goals, 109 points in only 72 games). To cement his reputation, he needs to spill that success over into the playoffs, and soon.
2. Niemi or Niittymaki? See above. Chicago's primary challengers in the West, the San Jose Sharks, also turned over both jobs in goal, signing ex-Hawk Antti Niemi and ex-Lightning Antero Niittymaki to replace KHL-bound Evgeni Nabokov. Chicago's success with a two-headed goalie monster - and Philadelphia's with a rotating cast of three netminders - convinced other cash-strapped teams to follow suit. It might even work out.
3. Gaga for Left Coast Among the six Canadian teams, Vancouver is a sexy preseason choice for Cup honours, based on the additions of Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard on the blueline, without sacrificing much of consequence out of the core group. Maybe this is the year the Canucks can avoid a collision with the still potent Blackhawks on the playoff path.
4. Phoenix rising? Hard to imagine after a mind-boggling 107-point regular season that the Coyotes can duplicate last year's success, with budgets still tight and their ownership situation unresolved. Coach Dave Tippett was honoured for his miraculous work with last year's Jack Adams trophy, but 50 wins again? Seems as likely as Jim Balsillie landing the team for Hamilton.
5. Lightning strikes? Tampa, on the other hand, appears poised for another quick turnaround after winning the Cup in 2004 and slipping to the bottom of the NHL barrel in 2008. Rookie GM Steve Yzerman made all the right moves this off-season, from re-signing mainstay forward Martin St. Louis to tweaking the NHL's worst supporting cast.
6. A Malkin resurgence After winning playoff MVP honours in 2009, Ovechkin's comrade in arms, Russia's Evgeni Malkin, had an ordinary, injury-filled season for the Pittsburgh Penguins, slumping to just 77 points in 67 games. Even if he has to switch to the wing to balance the Penguins' top-heavy attack, Malkin is just too good a player to let that happen two years in a row … right?
7. Turco on hot seat Smart and sassy, Marty Turco will be the new man in goal as the Blackhawks try to become the first team in more than a decade to defend the Stanley Cup after turning over a third of their roster, including both goalies, for salary-cap reasons. Turco has exceptional regular-season stats, and this will be his opportunity, at 35, to finally boost his own postseason résumé.
8. Ilya's impact The New Jersey Devils and Ilya Kovalchuk entertained us all summer with their salary-cap dance. Oh joy. Now that the contract is signed, sealed and delivered, however, the larger question remains: How good a fit will Kovalchuk and his creative offensive spirit be with the Devils' traditional close-to-the-vest playing style?
9. Dale Tallon to rescue The ex-Blackhawk GM took over the train wreck in Florida, where the Panthers' struggles for respectability dwarf even Toronto's. It is 10 years and counting since Florida made the playoffs, and while Tallon has set in motion the necessary moves to change the team's culture, it could be years before that makes a tangible difference in the results.
10. House Burke built Okay, the Maple Leafs remain a work in progress, but GM Brian Burke's fingerprints are all over the current edition of the team, with virtually every player who'll make an impact this year coming in during his relatively short watch. That sort of turnover is hard to manage in a salary-cap world. But at least Burke makes it interesting, and it is a lesson that is catching on league-wide with every passing year.