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Themes for an unpredictable season

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Anze Kopitar

What a pain: the short schedule will magnify the time lost to injury by key players such as Kings center Anze Kopitar. (Ric Tapia/Icon SMI)

By Stu Hackel

About the only thing one can say with certainty about the upcoming NHL season is that nothing is certain.

Each of the 30 NHL teams has specific concerns heading into the truncated 48-game schedule, but there are some questions every one of the will face. In our Friday post on training camps, we noted that NBC’s and SI’s Pierre McGuire has studied shortened seasons and it’s worth repeating the five things he believes teams need in order to be competitive: 1) very good goaltending; 2) a four-line attack; 3) a coach with an understanding of work-to-rest ratio so players don’t break down and risk injury; 4) avoiding prolonged losing streaks of five games or more; and 5) creative coaching.

That said, here are some of the major themes that could potentially color the competition in the mad dash to the Stanley Cup playoffs.

1. The Schedule — Only once before in the post-World War II era has the league played a 48-game slate — in 1995 due to that season’s lockout. Of all the wild cards in what could be a wild season, this is the biggest. Every aspect of the game will be impacted by the shorter, compressed schedule. Instead of 82 games in 183 days, or one game every 2.23 days, we’ll get 48 in 98 days, or one every 2.04 days. With play restricted to each team’s own conference, each contest means more since they are all essentially four-point games.

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  • Published On Jan 15, 2013
  • Lockout over, short camp and schedule will challenge NHL coaches

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    Ken Hitchcock

    Blues coach Ken Hitchcock says he’ll have to keep things simple and tweak some routines. (David E. Klutho/SI)

    By Stu Hackel

    UPDATE (Sat 10:22 PM): Chris Johnson of Canadian Press tweets the Memorandum of Understanding has been signed which official ends the lockout. The league issued a press release shortly afterward. Schedules are set to be released immediately (the full NHL schedule is here) and teams can begin conducting transactions two hours after the signing, probably around midnight Eastern Time. Training camps will open Sunday. The NHL is, after 119 days back in business. Eric Duhatschek of The Globe and Mail tweeted, “Originally, NHL scheduled to play 82 games in 183 days, or 1 game every 2.23 days. Now, 48 games in 98 days, or 1 game every 2.04 days.”

     The NHLPA ratified the new CBA Saturday and, pending the completion of the Memorandum of Understanding between the owners and the players on the new CBA, the NHL’s 30 clubs will open training camp on Sunday. Six days later, we start the abridged 48-game season, what most are calling a sprint to the postseason — quite a change from the way the regular season is viewed in a normal year: as a marathon.

    UPDATE (Sat. 5:40 PM): The NHLPA has announced its members voted to ratify the CBA, but said that the agreement cannot become official until the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) is finalized. Jesse Spector of The Sporting News tweeted that 667 players voted to accept and 12 voted “No.” There were reportedly  84 abstentions.  More on the delay in the previous update.

    UPDATE (Sat. 4 PM): Somewhat unexpectedly — or perhaps not, considering the erratic nature of this entire process — the announcement of the PA’s ratification of the CBA has been delayed. This is because the Memorandum of Understanding between the league and players is still being drafted by the lawyers for both sides. The MOU summarizes the agreement reached in the negotiations and functions as the legal document of owner-player relations until the complete CBA is drafted, which is a much longer process. The NHLPA tweeted on Saturday morning, “Per agreement with the NHL, we will announce results of player vote later today. Discussions to finalize the MOU continue this morning.” Sports law analyst Eric Macramalla, whose thoughts explaining various legal moves during the negotiations, tweeted about the MOU earlier Saturday afternoon, “Drafting NHL Memorandum is massive legal undertaking; complicated issues, Canada/US laws – takes time; will be done today; NHL sked follows.” Teams and the league have refrained from releasing their schedules until the MOU is done and the NHLPA announces the results of its ratification vote, which concluded Saturday mooring. It is widely expected that the players approved the deal and training camps will open on Sunday. Teams also cannot make any roster moves, including contract signings and trades, until the MOU is completed and, while players have resumed skating at team facilities, coaches cannot join them as long as the lockout has not been officially concluded.

    Because hockey players and coaches thrive best in familiar situations, the unusual nature of this season will require major adjustments in the way they prepare for and approach the opening puck drop. The shortened season will be thrilling, but nerve-wracking for everyone, with little time for experimentation or room for error.

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  • Published On Jan 11, 2013
  • Can the Kings become an NHL power?

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    Kings cornerstones Jonathan Quick (left) and Drew Doughty are just entering the prime of their careers. (Mark J. Terrill/AP Photos)

    By Stu Hackel

    The Kings are making the rounds with the Stanley Cup – The Tonight Show, the Jimmy Kimmel Show (here, here and here, Off the Record, etc.), Wednesday night’s Angels-Dodgers  game – and will show it off to their fans as they ride on double-decker buses in a parade through downtown Los Angeles on Thursday. (“Fans are encouraged to celebrate responsibly and be prepared for warm weather by drinking water and wearing sunscreen,” cautions The Los Angles Daily News.) After the parade, there’ll be a rally at the Staples Center. Tickets for the rally are free, distributed to season ticket holders, team sponsors and the like, although KCBS-TV reports some are ending up on eBay and Craigslist for over $200 each.

    “In the days when the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup almost every spring,” writes The Los Angeles Times’ Helene Elliott, “the city’s mayor would succinctly announce the details of the championship celebration. ‘The parade will follow the usual route,’ was all he needed to say, and everyone knew what that meant. There is no usual route for the Kings, who Monday won the first Cup title of their 45-year existence….They actually took an unusual route to get here, but if a few things go right, their parade could become a familiar ritual.”

    “We built this for a long run. It’s a good young team with the core tied up, and we have the resources to keep our key guys and look to add,” Tim Leiweke, the Kings’ governor and chief executive of parent company AEG, told Elliott. “We want to compete for a long time now.”

    Can they? Do the Kings have the makings of an NHL powerhouse?

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  • Published On Jun 13, 2012
  • Devils’ adjustments push Stanley Cup Final to Game 6

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    Adding Henrik Tallinder (7), who has fresh legs, has made a huge difference for the Devils’ defense. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

    By Stu Hackel

    The Stanley Cup Final moves to an unlikely Game 6 on Monday night as the Kings get a second chance to close out the Devils at home and win the hallowed chalice. Usually if you blow a chance to wrap up a series on home ice, it can be fatal and if L.A. coughs up a second opportunity and we get Game 7 on Wednesday night in New Jersey, anything is possible.

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  • Published On Jun 11, 2012
  • Can Kings of the road grab Game 5?

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    Their team in New Jersey, Kings fans in L.A. anxiously await a Cup coronation. (Chris Williams/Icon SMI)

    By Stu Hackel

    Maybe it ends on Saturday night and maybe not. The Kings, who were juuuust good enough to win two overtime games and then ride their home crowd to a more decisive Game 3 victory, dropped Game 4 to the Devils on Wednesday night in another close outing and now must build on their incredible undefeated road record to win the Stanley Cup this weekend.

    The Devils, meanwhile, look to extend their season. Twenty-six teams have lost the first three games of a Cup final. New Jersey is just the sixth to reach Game 5. Only two have pushed the series to a Game 6; both, in fact, went to Game 7. The Maple Leafs came all the way back to win in 1942 against the Red Wings, Detroit nearly returned the favor in 1945, losing to Toronto 2-1 on home ice.

    Although it seems the hockey gods changed allegiances on Wednesday, bestowing a larger share of good luck on New Jersey than they did in the first three contests, the Devils also benefited from better execution. They finally took their own advice and exploited the flaw they detected in Kings goalie Jonathan Quick — shooting high. L.A. meanwhile, played tentatively at times and missed the Devils’ net entirely with their shots on over 20 occasions, the nervous prospect of winning the Cup at home perhaps in their minds. All that should make Game 5 rather interesting.

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  • Published On Jun 08, 2012
  • Devils forced into a must-win Game 3

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    Zach Parise and New Jersey’s other big guns have been misfiring or silent, a major reason why the Devils find themselves in such a dangerous 0-2 hole on the road. (Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images)

    By Stu Hackel

    The fat lady in this 10 month-long hockey opera hasn’t started to sing yet, but she’s put on her makeup and is warming up in the wings.

    A Game 3 win by the Kings tonight in Los Angeles will leave us within one game of the Stanley Cup championship. They’ve won the first two games and not really played their best hockey of the postseason — and that’s fine: You don’t get style points in the playoffs.

    Four times now, the Kings have put a team that had the supposed home ice advantage at a distinct disadvantage by forcing it to win twice at the Staples Center to draw even in a series. No one has done it yet, not Vancouver, St. Louis, or Phoenix. It’s a remarkable achievement.

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  • Published On Jun 04, 2012
  • Kings and Devils thrive in Game 2s

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    The Kings were able to keep Ilya Kovalchuk in check in Game One. (Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

    By Stu Hackel

    After an underwhelming opening night performance by both teams, the stakes have suddenly gotten quite high for Game 2 of the Stanley Cup Final. Two opposing trends will be on the line when the teams face off in Newark on Saturday evening.

    The Kings have taken a 2-0 series lead on the road in each of the three rounds they’ve played so far. Their Game 2s have been strong outings all spring.

    The Devils, conversely, have lost the first game in the last two series they’ve played and come back to win the second and the round. They say they are quite comfortable being down 0-1 and they’ve played well in their Game 2s.

    Both trends can’t continue. One will end on Saturday and that should have a lot to do with the course this series takes. A win by L.A. in this one will send the Kings back home for the fourth straight series with a chance to make this one a quick affair and hoist the Cup on home ice.. A win by New Jersey could at least mean that what many prognosticators expected, that we’re in for a six- or seven-game series, will indeed ensue.

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  • Published On Jun 01, 2012
  • Keys to the Stanley Cup Final

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    You can expect that Mike Richards’ Kings and Zach Parise’s Devils will go at each other fast and hard. (Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

    By Stu Hackel

    So here’s the Stanley Cup Final no one could have anticipated in early April. Kirk Penton of The Winnipeg Sun figured out that this is the “worst” match-up in 20 years: “New Jersey was ninth overall and the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference, while the Kings were 13th overall and eighth in the Western Conference,” he wrote. “Their regular-season placings total 22. The only higher sum was in 1991, when the No. 7 Pittsburgh Penguins beat the No. 16 Minnesota North Stars. In fact, not since the playoffs expanded to 16 teams in 1980 has the better seed among the finalists been as low as No. 9 overall.” But he was quick to say that this was just a technicality, insisting “New Jersey and Los Angeles should be solid entertainment.” True that.

    As low as their seeds may have been, the Devils and Kings belong in this series. The Kings were underachievers for most of the regular season, in part due to not having Mike Richards at full strength after he was concussed in December. The Devils were without their top center, Travis Zajac, for 67 games. And both teams had to adjust to new systems brought in by new coaches — one at the start of the season, one during it — that emphasized aggressive forechecking. The saying goes that “It’s not the best teams that get to play for the Cup  but the teams playing the best.” Now that they’re healthy and comfortable playing a style that fits their personnel, it’s hard to argue that these two currently aren’t the best teams in hockey.

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  • Published On May 29, 2012
  • Kings’ dominance has fans dreaming

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    All hail the Kings: Jeff Carter (77), Drew Doughty (8), Mike Richards (10), Rob Scuderi (7), Dustin Penner and company are winning with confidence and uncommon authority. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

    By Stu Hackel

    It’s still a good month before the captain of an NHL team hoists the Stanley Cup over his head and a lot can happen between now and then. But on the basis of the first three games in the Conference Championship round, there is no more impressive team at this moment than the Los Angeles Kings.

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  • Published On May 16, 2012
  • Keys to the Western Championship

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    The Coyotes must do a better job of protecting goaltender Mike Smith through all three periods as the games will be close and the Kings have the firepower to strike late. ( Norm Hall/NHLI via Getty Images)

    By Stu Hackel

    We move to the playoffs’ third round on Sunday, and anyone who tells you they predicted before the postseason began that the Coyotes and Kings would meet for a chance to advance to the Stanley Cup Final should not be trusted. But here they are, two unlikely foes that have both peaked at the right time, knocked off favored opponents, gotten timely scoring, and thrived on defense and stellar goaltending. Any team that combines those elements belongs in a conference championship series.

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  • Published On May 11, 2012


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