A turbulent year of controversy and major change in the NHL produced plenty of ongoing drama and surprises. Here are our top 13 sagas of 2013.
13. The visor issue
When Manny Malhotra of the Canucks was struck in the eye by a shot in 2011, his agony and jeopardized career should have been enough to make all NHL players realize that they needed to wear visors for the sake of their safety. Instead, it took two more years and the horrifying eye injury suffered in March by Rangers defenseman Marc Staal, with super slow-mo recording the puck’s full impact, to finally bring change to the league. And so, in June, the NHLPA voted to make visors mandatory for all new players coming into the league, effective at the start of the 2013-14 season. Those who had played 25 or more games in the league could choose to take the ice without such protection. But as the players who are grandfathered into this rule exception leave the league in the coming years, eyewear will no longer be optional. So it was for helmets when Brad Marsh and Craig MacTavish stayed in the league bareheaded until the bitter end.
12. Waiting for the Oilers
How many years will it take before the promise-laden Oilers finally begin to look like the franchise’s old dynasty? Maybe quite a few based on what we’ve seen this season. Through Christmas, Edmonton was 12-24-3 and dead last in the Western Conference despite an astounding run of high draft picks (three straight overall No. 1’s; six top 10s since 2007). Forwards Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins have proved that they can play in the league, but Nail Yakupov, 2012′s overall No. 1, was supposed to be right up there with them and destined to lead the Oilers back to glory at some point soon. Yakupov showed some flashes last season while amassing 31 points in 48 games, but this season he has been a bust, putting up just 14 in 37 games and scoring only twice at even strength while posting a league-worse rating of -25. There were rumors that he’d head back to Russia and he has complained about the way coach Dallas Eakins has asked him to do more without the puck. Considering how little he has done with it so far, the 20-year old ranks as one of the season’s biggest disappointments.
11. The Roberto Luongo soap opera
Is there a more enigmatic player than Roberto Luongo in the game? Who else can backstop a team to an Olympic gold medal in his home city and then nearly be run out of it only a few years later? Who else can be on a possible path to the Hall of Fame, but be remembered more for the odd goofy goals he lets in than for his 364 career wins and 65 shutouts by age 34? Who else can tack a bull’s-eye on his own back by demanding to leave, then saying “My contract sucks” and still be the starting goalie on one of the hottest teams in the league? That’s Luongo, the goalie the Canucks were unable to trade because no other team in the salary cap strapped league wanted to be stuck with his $35 million tab that won’t expire until 2022, when he’ll have let in who knows how many soft goals from odd angles.
10. Ilya Kovalchuk and the KHL
As the Soviet Union dissolved, Russian hockey began years of decline from its former status as an international powerhouse. In 2008, the Kontinental Hockey League was formed as an outgrowth of the Russian Superleague. Clearly a second-tier circuit, it endured the tragic loss of the Yaroslavl team that went down in a plane crash in 2011. Since then, though, the KHL has expanded, gaining teams based in seven other European countries, in a stated bid to challenge the NHL for supremacy in the world of pro hockey. More than 40 NHL players signed on with the KHL during the 2012-13 NHL lockout, and some, such as Alex Ovechkin, threatened to stay there if their salaries were cut in the new collective bargaining agreement. In July, the KHL made its biggest splash when superstar sniper Ilya Kovalchuk announced that he would “retire” in order to skip out on the 12 years and $77 million left on his contract with New Jersey in order to play for the KHL’s SKA St. Petersburg team. (He received a four-year deal rumored to be worth about $15 million per season.) It seems unlikely that there will be more marquee defections, but 56 Canadians are playing in the KHL this season and it has made NHL teams wary about drafting Russians, who know have the option to stay home and earn a pretty decent paycheck.
9. The quest for offense
The NHL used the aftermath of the 2004-05 lockout to tweak its rules in order to reduce obstruction and enable more scoring in an effort to make the game more attractive and exciting. This year, after another lockout, the league adjusted the rules yet again, mandating smaller goalie pads and shallower nets that create extra room for skilled forwards to be more creative in an area that Wayne Gretzky famously utilized to unleash his vast array of passing trickery. However, these latest changes have not been as effective as the previous ones. In 2005-06, the first season after the parameters of holding and obstruction were toughened, goal scoring rose from 5.13 per game to 6.17, but this year, scoring has actually dropped from 5.44 per game to 5.43, the lowest total since the season before the ’04-’05 work stoppage. Looks like we’re back to Square A.
8. The Coyotes and Devils messes
The NHL continually considers its options for expanding, but it does not want to relocate existing teams. So the sales of the Phoenix Coyotes and New Jersey Devils to owners who plan to keep them in their respective cities came as welcome news after years of uncertainty about their futures. The NHL had taken over ownership in Phoenix after previous owner Jerry Moyes sustained heavy financial losses with the franchise. The Wayne Gretzky era ended in Arizona with bad feelings and the unflattering matter of contract money owed to the Great One, who was not the Great Coach. After a bankruptcy court voided a sale that could have moved the Coyotes to Hamilton, Ont., Ice Arizona Acquisition Co. took the team for five years, after which it may yet be forced out of its home in Glendale if losses amount to $5 million or more. As for the Devils, In many respects the league viewed them as a model franchise for the way GM Lou Lamoriello continually kept the team competitive, but after moving to a new building in 2007, their financial losses mounted into a debt of $200 million. Owner Jeff Vanderbeek needed a $30 million loan just to meet payroll in 2013. In August, a group led by Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris purchased the club for $320 million, eliminating the debt and giving the franchise a fresh start.
7. Expansion chatter
Though several franchises remained in states of financial flux, expansion continued to be a hot topic, especially after a handful of cities expressed interest in having an NHL team. Not since 1993, when Tampa Bay and Ottawa joined the NHL, has the league expanded. Now at 30 teams, it would probably take an even number of additions for it to grow again. The candidates include a second franchise in the Toronto market – Markham, Ont. — which would be an instant cash cow for the league; Seattle, which lost the NBA’s SuperSonics six seasons ago and is ripe for a new major sports team; and the old WHA/NHL markets in Quebec and Hartford, which only recently become players again. Even Las Vegas, a city more associated with gambling than hockey, has drawn attention. The league would receive a $300 million fee for each new franchise. Combined with the recent $5.2 billion Canadian television deal the NHL signed with Rogers Communications, the league could, in its post-lockout iteration, eventually find itself flush with new money.
6. Olympic goalie surprises
Going into an Olympic season, the list of star goaltenders in contention for places on Sochi rosters was fairly well set. Consider the American group of Detroit’s Jimmy Howard, Ottawa’a Craig Anderson, Buffalo’s Ryan Miller and L.A.’s Jonathan Quick. Go from country to country and each one seemed to have at least one sure-fire stopper in its hopper (the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist for Sweden, Carey Price of the Canadiens for Canada; Sergei Bobrovsky of the Blue Jackets and Evgeni Nabokov of the Islanders for Russia). Yet many of them have been injured or struggling to find their A games. Instead, the league leaders in goals-against average, save percentage, and highlight-reel stops includes the likes of Minnesota’s Josh Harding, the Rangers’ Cam Talbot, L.A.’s Ben Scrivens, Tampa Bay’s Ben Bishop, Vancouver’s Eddie Lack, and Toronto’s Jonathan Bernier. It’s as if the goalie world has been turned upside-down, leading people to wonder how this might affect not just the Olympic selections and the outcome in Sochi, but also the playoffs next spring, when solid stoppers will be paramount.
5. The new look NHL
A new order was brought to the NHL for the 2013-14 season as six divisions became four under a plan to better equalize the demands of travel on teams by making more geographic sense. The results were still pretty funky with the Detroit Red Wings moving to the Eastern Conference and a new Atlantic Division that includes Original Six rivals Toronto, Boston and Montreal as well as Buffalo and Ottawa plus oddball additions Florida and Tampa Bay. The Blue Jackets also moved, creating a 16-team overload in the East (as opposed to 14 in the west), joining the new Metropolitan Division (a much maligned name). At least the Winnipeg Jets finally ended up out west, where they belong and can give thanks for having to endure fewer long plane rides in the new regular season schedule that emphasizes intra-division and intra-conference competition while ensuring that all teams will play each other at least twice. The playoff format was also tweaked with the introduction of wild cards. (You can get all the intricate details here.) Will it all work out for the best? That remains to be seen, of course, but with expansion or relocation very real possibilities, fans should not get too comfortable with their new hockey atlas just yet.
4. Busy man that Brendan Shanahan
With curbing head trauma a growing priority, NHL player safety director Brendan Shanahan meted out 48 suspensions for dangerous hits between Jan. 23 and Dec. 18. The Boston-Pittsburgh game on Dec. 7 provided him with the most significant challenge of the 2013-14 season. First, Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik delivered a barely clean, but crushing check on Bruins forward Loui Eriksson, who was knocked from the game. Then Pittsburgh’s Chris Neal kneed Boston’s Brad Marchand in the head after the noted pest had been knocked to his knees. When Orpik declined an invitation to scrap from Bruins bruiser Shawn Thornton, the Boston forward kicked the skates out from under him and knocked him out with a pair of sucker-punches while Orpik was sprawled on the ice. Orpik avoided supplementary discipline for his hot on Eriksson, but Shanahan suspended Neal for five games and Thornton for 15 — the longest ban he has handed down during his tenure. Thornton appealed, as Buffalo’s Patrick Kaleta did with his 10-game suspension in October, only to have Commissioner Gary Bettman uphold the sentence.
3. The great coach swap
It wasn’t a trade in the traditional sense of the word, but it was certainly intriguing. In effect, the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks swapped coaches before the 2013-14 season, providing a new look for each franchise. After five seasons, the Rangers had tired of the fiery Tortorella’s demanding — some would say autocratic – ways. His players hit, fought and blocked shots as their coach required, but the Rangers never had a roster to fit the style that Tortorella wanted. When New York dropped its second-round playoff series to Boston last spring, it was clear that key players were in revolt, so the gentler touch of Vigneault, who is more apt to pat younger players on the back, was a welcome switch. Out in Vancouver, the Canucks still didn’t have a Stanley Cup to show for their two Presidents’ Trophies, and there was a sense that the team was too soft for the playoff wars, a posture that Tortorella was unlikely to permit. If any coach was steeled in the ways of tough love, Tortorella was the man for Vancouver. By the end of December, the Canucks were on a roll while the Rangers were out of playoff position and still struggling with a roster that that doesn’t seem to fit the style that Vigneault wants.
2. The great (or is it grate?) outdoors
How much of a good thing is too much? While there is no denying the popularity of outdoor hockey — the 2014 Winter Classic on New Year’s Day in 109,901-seat Michigan Stadium is the most grandiose edition of the game yet — the league decided to roll the dice and add four more al fresco dates to a menu that also consists of Canada’s Heritage Classic on March 2 in Vancouver’s B.C. Place. The additional contests will be held at iconic locations for baseball and football: Dodger Stadium (Jan. 25), Yankee Stadium (Jan. 26 and 29), and Soldier Field (March 1). Given the track record of the league’s seven outdoor games thus far, the idea seems like a no-brainer. But is the NHL going too far? Will players, fans and sponsors tire of them because the novelty wears down – the Rangers are playing in two of the 2014 games within the same week – or will enthusiasm continue to grow as the revenue for ads, tickets, programs and unique jersey sales increases? Sluggish ticket sales for the game in the L.A. may be cause for concern.
1. The fighting debate
The ongoing discussion — OK, argument — about fighting’s place in the game intensified this season after several noteworthy incidents. The stage was set by a preseason donnybrook between the Maple Leafs and Sabres (above) that resulted in two suspensions and a fine for then-Buffalo coach Ron Rolston. Then, on Opening Night, Montreal enforcer George Parros was knocked unconscious after slamming his head chin-first on the ice when he fell during a tussle with Toronto’s Colton Orr. On Nov.1, while the Capitals were crushing the Flyers, 7-0 in Philadelphia, the guys in orange took out their frustrations on the victors by resembling the old Broad Street Bullies. In particular, Flyers goaltender Ray Emery took off down the ice to stage an all-out assault of his counterpart Braden Holtby, who had no intention of dropping the gloves. Add Shawn Thornton’s sucker-punch of Brooks Orpik, and the issue of what to do about fighting has continued to fester. What is different this time around is that a handful of GMs (Carolina’s Jim Rutherford, Tampa Bay’s Steve Yzerman, and Pittsburgh’s Ray Shero) are now calling for tougher penalties, if not an outright ban. Tougher sanctions may not come quickly, but the seem to be inevitable.