By Stu Hackel
The Hockey Gods must have been very amused to hear a league executive raise the possibility of a rain delay during an NHL game. They responded by making a team take a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty and, while killing it, take a second too-many-men penalty. For good measure in another game, the gods made a team’s player shoot a puck off the crossbar and into the stands where it hit his wife.
And with that, the calendar year comes to a close tonight.
For many, it is time to reflect on the year gone by. That’s true as well in hockey circles, as lots of folks think about what has transpired in the past 12 months. The problem is that the Gregorian calendar bisects the story arc of the hockey calendar, so the results of any yearly summation can be forced and sometimes fruitless. The lessons of a year in hockey make much more sense at the end of the season, not December.
Still, there are a few hockey stories that transcend the schedule. When asked today to sum up 2010 in hockey on Montreal radio’s Team 990 “Morning Show”, TSN’s Bob McKenzie came up with a trio of plotlines that actually make sense within the confines of the preceding 365 days.
First is the head shots story, the debate reaching a crescendo just prior to the GMs meeting last March with Matt Cooke’s hit on Marc Savard:
That led to a proposal by the GMs to ban blindside and lateral hits to the head. It was tweaked by the Competition Committee and culminated in passage during the offseason by the NHL Board of Governors as Rule 48. This was followed by implementation of the rule in the first few months of the 2010-11 season, and while players, officials and league execs have grappled with their interpretation of it, McKenzie said the aim of getting such hits out of the game makes the process of identifying them worth the occasional uncertainty.
Part of that problem lies in the fact that Rule 48 is a half-measure, so identifying these newly illegal hits can be a cloudy proposition. And yet, as we’ve seen in the zero-tolerance world of the IIHF at the current World Junior Championships, with Canada’s Zack Kassian receiving a two-game suspension for a head check on Czech defenseman Petr Senkerik (video) that some found questionable, tougher rules don’t eliminate controversy. The head-checking issue will likely be with us next year, too.
The second story is the fate of two Russian superstars: Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk. McKenzie believes that since the Olympics, specifically dating from the game in which Canada routed the Russians, it almost seems as if that massive February disappointment tore the heart from this pair of prolific goal-scorers and their play has been below what we’ve come to expect of them. Both have experienced unprecedented slumps and, especially in the case of Kovalchuk…
…their teams have not played near expectations because of it.
(My SI.com colleague Michael Farber has more on Ovie’s struggles here, and he agrees with McKenzie on the impact of the Olympic defeat as at least a contributing factor.)
The third story is the continuing emergence of young talent in the NHL, in which players enter the league and in a short time are playing at an elite level. McKenzie pointed to Steven Stamkos (who actually has had a great calendar year, with 61 goals since last January) as a prime example, and he mentioned that Taylor Hall seems to be improving with each shift.
When you see Stamkos’s penalty shot goal on Thursday night (in the same game where the Canadiens took that pair of too-many-men penalties)…
…you get to thinking that the young feller is kinda special.
I suppose one could add the salary cap as a fourth theme for the year, as it continued to be a major story. Five-plus years into its adoption, some teams are still struggling with managing the cap as well as the consequences of its mismanagement. The Blackhawks, forced to move important players off their Stanley Cup-winning roster, are the most obvious example, but right after those trades, the Devils signed Kovalchuk to his monster contract and now seem to have spent themselves into a cap corner.
No fewer than 11 teams have less than $1 million in cap space available as of this writing, and some are struggling franchises that are not going to have much flexibility to improve their rosters going forward.
A fifth story might be the unification of a once-fractured NHLPA, personified by the selection of Donald Fehr as its new executive director. The wrangling within the union assumed biblical proportions, with smiting, sacrificing, intrigue and vengeance galore. But the Hockey Gods had enough and a savior was brought forth to usher in a new era.
Wait, that was last week’s holiday.
Happy New Year. See you on the other side.