Sunday, January 6, 2013

2012-2013 NHL Season: What We're All Missing, Part 11: In the Hour of the Wolf, NHL Lockout Ends with but a Whisper

By Pete Dombrosky

During this 113-day NHL Lockout, has taken part in parrying the void with a number of posts and columns. Amidst such favorites as "NHL Fire in Lieu of the Lockout" with Danny and Jason Klau, one of our favorites was perennial hockey bro Pete Dombrosky's "What We're All Missing" which explained what each NHL team fan base was being robbed of watching during this lockout. Pete originally sent me the entire league in one 17-page Word .doc, and to properly allocate post presence during the unpredictable length of this lockout, I fell to posting one team at a time. It made sense, but with the lockout dragging on for what seemed like forever (even though the NHL lockout was almost 50 days shorter than the NBA Lockout (160) and over 20 days shorter than the NFL Lockout (136)), it looked inevitable that we were going to miss the entire 2012-2013 NHL season, so after posting about half of Pete's WWAM posts, I pulled back, thinking I would need to save posts for the entire year. Most interestingly, I received a post-holiday email from Pete asking whether I had decided to stop posting his awesome stuff - and just when I was thinking to post Part 11, we wake up to a bright Sunday morning of NHL Lockout end.

Lo and behold, this morning's news of the impending end of the NHL Lockout has all of us here at gay and merry; for now no NHL fan base will be missing their hockey heroes anymore! Having said that, I thought a great way to end the reign of's NHL Lockout posts and columns would be to display all of Pete's 11 remaining WWAM posts here in one huge NHL Lockout punch.

Here's to a great season!

"I hope the Rangers win the Stanley Cup" --Jason Klau

What We're All Missing, Part 1, Avalanche, Blackhawks, Blue Jackets
What We're All Missing, Part 2, Blues, Bruins, Canadiens, Canucks
What We're All Missing, Part 3, Capitals, Coyotes, Devils

What We're All Missing, Part 4, Ducks, Flames

What We're All Missing, Part 5, The Flyers
What We're All Missing, Part 6, The Islanders

What We're All Missing, Part 7, The Jets

Edmonton Oilers
(32-40-10) 74 points
Playoffs: Failed to qualify

The Edmonton Oilers used to have the biggest reason to look forward to the next hockey season, and for a few years the Los Angeles had that same reason. And even though the days of Gretzky will never be duplicated in Oil Country, Edmonton fans have plenty of reasons to see the lockout end. Most notably, some youngsters named Hall, Nugent-Hopkins and Eberle.

At the ages of 20, 19 and 22, respectively, these players represent the youngest line in the NHL (with an average age of 20.3). But what they lack in age and experience they make up for in talent and hockey sense. These kids are good. Their numbers last season showed it.

Hall- 61 games, 27 goals, 26 assists, 53 points.
Nugent-Hopkins- 62 games, 18 goals, 34 assists, 52 points.
Eberle- 78 games, 34 goals, 42 assists, 76 points.

Both Hall and Nugent-Hopkins missed significant time because of injuries. If they had both played a full season, their totals would undoubtedly be higher. The sky is the limit for these three players and every minute fans miss seeing them is a minute these three miss the opportunity to for game experience. Sure, the Oilers have suspect goaltending and they need to get much better as a defensive unit, but this core of dynamic young players should get the ball rolling in the right direction, plus they’re a fun trio to watch, as well.

And most people agree that a fourth vibrant young man will be joining this group quite soon. That would be the one they call Nail. Nail Yakupov was the first overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft. Across the board, he was considered the best player in the draft and overwhelmingly the best offensive player. He is currently playing in the KHL in Russia, but when/if the lockout ends, it’s likely we’ll see him with the Oilers at some point this season. He’s a special player and his presence alone should excite Edmonton fans for the 2012-13 season.

Florida Panthers
(38-26-18) 94 points
Playoffs: Lost Conference Quarter-Finals (4-3) versus New Jersey Devils

“NHL Southeast Division Champion Florida Panthers are Now Powered By Fuse(TM).” Yes, this was an actual headline in the Wall Street Journal’s online edition in late August. And if you think the “are Now Powered By Fuse (TM)” is the surprising part, you’re missing the point completely.

In the 18-year history of the Florida Panthers franchise, the team has reached the playoffs four times. They’ve won only three playoff series (all in 1996). They’ve championed their division once (last season). The last sentence notes the Panthers’ most important achievement.  That’s because a division win proved that Florida can be annual playoff contenders without having to barely squeak into the postseason on a fluke.

The team had more points in 2011-12 than they did in 1995-96, when they reached the finals. Sure, the difference was only two, but it was an achievement this team never accomplished before. The fact that they did it once with both a pedestrian offense and defense means that they can probably do it again, without much improvement.

More importantly, this team has improved its personnel since last season. It added defensemen Filip Kuba, forward Peter Mueller and tough guy George Parros. They aren’t franchise altering players, but they’re enhancements that add defensive depth, offensive ability and grittiness, respectively.

This team still has its core scoring line of Thomas Fleischmann, Stephen Weiss and Kris Versteeg, along with a pair of solid goaltenders in Jose Theodore (22-16-0 in 2011-12) and Scott Clemmensen (14-6-6 in 2011-12). Yes, the Southeast Division will likely get better this season, but the Cats appear ready to take it on and possibly take it down. That’s what Florida fans could be missing.

Pittsburgh Penguins
(51-25-6) 108 points
Playoffs:  Lost Conference Quarter-Finals (4-2) versus Philadelphia Flyers

Pittsburgh fans might have more reasons to want a 2012-13 season than any other fans in the NHL. Their lasting memories of last season? An abysmal first-round playoff exit to their hated intrastate rivals the Philadelphia Flyers, in which their (formally) star goalie Marc-Andre Fluery allowed 26 goals in six games. The only mint strong enough to mask that sour taste will be another shot at Philly in the postseason, which is a likely scenario moving forward.

Pens fans are also eagerly awaiting a full season from the face of their team, Sidney Crosby. Crosby is 25 and in the midst of his prime. He is finally healthy again and according to local media reports, is in the best shape of his life and more motivated than ever to win the Cup.

Not to be overlooked is the Penguins’ other superstar center, Evgeni Malkin. Since Crosby began having injury troubles, Malkin assumed the label of “the best player in the world” and solidified that last season by winning the Hart Memorial Trophy (league MVP), Ted Lindsay Award (most outstanding player), and Art Ross Trophy (regular season scoring leader). Malkin also became the second NHL player in history to ever to lead both the NHL and the IIHF World Championships in scoring in the same season. The first player to do so was some guy nicknamed the “Great One.”

Pittsburgh fans aren’t alone in their feeling that Crosby and company have a good shot at raising the Cup at the end of this season if/when the lockout ends. Vegas picked the Penguins as the 2012-13 preseason favorite to hoist Lord Stanley’s hardware at season’s end. If Crosby stays healthy enough to do stuff like this…

…Vegas might have those odds right on the money.

Nashville Predators
(48-26-8) 104 points
Playoffs: Lost Conference Semi-Finals (4-1) versus Phoenix Coyotes, Won Conference Quarter-Finals (4-1) versus Detroit Red Wings

If the Predators were a fantasy hockey team last season, gaining points and wins through statistics alone, they’d probably be about successful as the real-world Calgary Flames, i.e. not bad but not great. Nashville was in the middle of the pack in nearly every NHL statistical category last season, but they were leaders in a handful of interesting categories: least penalty minutes per game (8.4), fewest second-period goals allowed (55), tied for the most empty-net goals (14), most two-goal-game wins (16), most games won while being outshot (32), best home power-play percentage (22.9 percent), highest overall power-play percentage (21.6 percent), and fewest times shorthanded at home (104).
This, as it turns out, is a perfect recipe for how to succeed quietly without much superstar presence.

Their success certainly had plenty to do with Pekka Rinne, a Vezina candidate and winner of more games (43) than any other netminder in the league. But the overarching theme of Nashville’s success was careful play and consistency. Only twice did they lose more than two games in a row. They rarely committed penalties and had a score-by-committee mentality. No player had 40 or more points and only two players scored more than 19 goals (Patric Hornqvist had 27 and Mike Fisher had 24). But the team still managed 2.83 goals per game (No. 8 in the NHL).

Not only did the whole team pitch in for goals, they made the most of their power play chances. That’s what winning teams do; they take advantage of opponents’ mistakes. And finally, you might think that most empty-net goals in the league is an irrelevant stat, but it means one important thing: When the Predators had a gaping cage at the other end of the ice, they planted the dagger and finished off the other team more times than any other. Again, they took advantage of the opportunity and made their opponent pay.

Nashville might not play the most exciting brand of hockey, but they win a lot and that’s what their fans miss more than anything else.

New York Rangers
(51-24-7) 109 points
Playoffs: Lost Conference Finals (4-2) versus New Jersey Devils, Won Conference Semi-Finals (4-3) versus Washington Capitals, Won Conference Quarter-Finals (4-3) versus Ottawa Senators

What don’t Rangers fans miss about seeing their team play? All they did last season was win. The Blueshirts finished the regular season tied for second in the NHL for the most points. They didn’t sit atop the Atlantic Division until Christmas Eve, but once they did, they didn’t relinquish it for the rest of the season. For 107 straight days, they were the best team in one of the best divisions in hockey, and their efforts earned the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. All signs pointed to a Stanley Cup Finals berth under the tutelage of the always outspoken bench boss John Tortorella (whose post-game press conferences always amuse Rangers fans and aggravate reporters).

New York had the Vezina-winning goalie in Henrik Lundqvist, who finished third in wins (39), fourth in goals against average (1.97), tied for third in save percentage (.930) and tied for third in shutouts (8). Not only does he stop just about everything shot his way, he does it in breathtaking fashion.

Providing King Henrik with support is one of the best and toughest defenses in the NHL. They relentlessly attack puck carriers and make it supremely difficult to skate the biscuit into the offensive zone. If you try it, keep your head up. The Rangers led the NHL in hits last season with a whopping 2419 of em. So maybe you decide to pull up just past the blue line and take a shot. Chances are, it won’t even reach the net. The New York back end is led by fearless shot blockers like Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh – they combined for 367 blocks last year. You’ll get bruises just watching these two block shots. But more than just feel their pain, fans feel unwavering respect for their self-sacrifice.

However, the thing that all fans love most is offense and of course the Rangers have that too. Guys like Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Ryan Callahan all have their own methods, but each usually finishes with the puck in the net. And as an added offensive bonus, New York fans are waiting to welcome Rick Nash to the Big Apple this season. It’ll be interesting to see how he handles coming from the bottom-of-the-barrel Blue Jackets to the beast-of-the-east Rangers. If he can play half as well in Madison Square Garden as he did in Nationwide Arena, the Eastern Conference may not be capable of stopping the freight train that is the New York Rangers.

Detroit Red Wings
(48-28-6) 102 points
Playoffs: Lost Conference Quarter-Finals (4-1) versus Nashville Predators

This is an easy one. Why should Red Wings fans miss hockey this season? Because, as it is neatly written at center ice in Joe Louis Arena, Detroit is “Hockey Town.”

There is a championship winning tradition when it comes to hockey in Detroit, second to only the Montreal Canadiens. The famous (or infamous, depending how you view it) winged wheel has leant itself to a Stanley Cup-winning club 11 times and the Red Wings haven’t missed the playoffs in 22 seasons, the longest such streak in the NHL.

Although it seemed that the Red Wings’ age started to catch up to them last season, they will remain a contender until they aren’t (when that is is anyone’s guess). They have an excellent goaltender in Jimmy Howard (who finished last season 37-17-4 with a .920 SV% and a 2.12 GAA), premiere forwards in Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and Johan Franzen and a solid blue line anchored by Niklas Kronwall and Ian White.

The Red Wings finished third in the Central Division last season but you won’t meet a Wings fan who believes their team is third-best in anything. This is a town with a lot of pride and a lot of confidence in its hockey team. Sure, the Tigers are heading to the World Series and even the Lions have turned a corner from their previous woes, but the Red Wings are the life blood of the Motor City and people there won’t truly be happy until the puck drops at the Joe.

Buffalo Sabres
(39-32-11) 89 points
Playoffs: Failed to qualify

When billionaire natural gas-tycoon Terry Pegula bought the Sabres in February 2011, he said that the reason for the team’s existence from that point forward was to win a Stanley Cup. Before the start of the 2011-12 season, Pegula spent nearly $140 million on new salaries to make the Sabres’ existence a reality. They picked up defenseman Robyn Regehr from Calgary, Christian Ehrhoff from Vancouver and Ville Leino from Philadelphia. Expectations were high, especially after the acquisitions. It mades sense to think that the more money a team spends, the better chances it will have at success, it’s the old New York Yankees principle.

That’s why last year’s season was such a disappointment.

Although Buffalo fluctuated in and out of playoff position throughout the season, they fell by the wayside late. They won 15 of their final 24 games, but despite the surge, finished four points out of playoff contention. To get so close without making the postseason had to devastate fans.
This season could offer a chance for redemption. Led by former Vezina-winning goaltender Ryan Miller, the Sabres should have a shot at being a solid club this season. Although Boston and Ottawa are the teams most likely to win the Northeast Division, the Sabres could realistically squeak into the postseason if they can accumulate 90 or so points.

Once you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen. And in a town like Buffalo, where the winters are bleak and frozen and the nightlife is less than electric, nothing boosts morale more than a winning hockey team.

Ottawa Senators
(41-31-10) 92 points
Playoffs: Lost Conference Quarter-Finals (4-3) versus New York Rangers

Everyone knows how seriously our friends north of the border take hockey. It’s their national sport and they even have it on their currency. Each Canadian city with a hockey team shows undying support to their club and the man with the “C” on his sweater might as well be the mayor of that city.

Well, Daniel Alfredsson is the mayor of Ottawa.
His constituency had the pleasure of watching him captain the all-star team last year in their home city and if you saw the game or the skills competition, you know how much Senators fans adore him.

So how upset do you think they’d be if they found out Alfredsson had already played his last NHL game? I’m guessing the city would look like Vancouver after the 2011 Finals.

Right now, that remains a possibility. The 13-year captain told Metro Ottawa in early October that he may hang up his skates if the lockout cancels the season. It would be a shame for the 39 year old to quietly fade into the scenery without a proper goodbye, or without one more chance to win a Cup. That’s about the only thing he hasn’t done during his entire NHL career in Bytown.
He’s led the Senators to the postseason 13 times, 10 of them as captain. He holds the franchise records for most regular season games played, goals, assists and points, highest plus-minus in a season, most points in a regular season game and most playoff goals, assists, points and games played.

It’d also be a major let down if Alfreddson couldn’t play this season because his supporting cast is pretty good too. The Sens are a high-scoring team, averaging 2.96 goals per game last season. In addition to Alfie’s 27 goals, Milan Michalek scored 35, Jason Spezza scored 34 and defenseman Erik Karlsson netted 19.

And if you’re looking for the future of the Senators, it’s Karlsson. The third-year player is a two-time all-star and last year he was awarded the James Norris Memorial Trophy, which is given to the NHL’s top defense player who “demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-round ability in the position.” The 22 year old was the youngest Norris Trophy winner since Hall of Famer Bobby Orr won the first of eight straight Norris Trophies at age 20 in 1968.

With so much on the line for the Ottawa faithful, the NHL needs to end the lockout immediately.

San Jose Sharks
(43-29-10) 96 points
Playoffs: Lost Conference Quarter-Finals (4-1) versus St. Louis Blues

Each NHL team has different pregame traditions that really fire up its fans. They swing the Octopus in Detroit. They sound the hurricane warning siren in Carolina. The Coyotes have all the fans move down a few rows to make the arena look more crowded on television (just kidding).

But there’s one ritual in San Jose that I think beats 'em all. It’s just so damn entertaining (in a Vegas magic show/heavy metal rock concert kind of way) to see them lower to the ice that giant blue shark’s head with the giant red eyes and giant white teeth and watch the normal sized hockey players (except for Joe Thornton) skate out through a giant cloud of smoke to Metallica’s “Seek and Destroy” in front of 17,562 maniacal fans who love it so much because they have only a single professional sports franchise in their city (and no, MLS doesn’t count).

Why else do Sharks fans need hockey to return this season? Because there’s a sense of urgency in San Jose. In 20 seasons, the Sharks have missed the playoffs only five times, but they’ve never been to a Stanley Cup Final. And this group of players might need to do it now because they might not all be around much longer. Three defensemen and four of the top-six forwards are going to be older than 30 at the end of the season. Fourteen contracts expire in the next 21 months, and only three go beyond the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs. If San Jose decides to pass on any of their vets when their contracts expire, they will need three more first and second line forwards and two players who began last season as the top defensive pair.

It’s a lot to think about, so just think about this: The Sharks can contend now, don’t mind the future until it gets here. Logan Couture is a young star and it looks like he’ll be a Shark for a long time anyway. San Jose has a Stanley Cup-winning goalie and plenty of talented skaters who have a collective wealth of playoff experience. The time is now, just as long as the NHL comes to the same conclusion.

Dallas Stars
(42-35-5) 89 points
Playoffs: Failed to qualify

There are plenty of outstanding players in the NHL right now (technically, locked out of the NHL right now); guys like Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk, Claude Giroux and Steven Stamkos come to mind. All of those guys look like they’ll end up in the Hall of Fame. But do any of them stack up with the likes of Gretzky, Lemieux, Howe and Richard? Perhaps someday, but there’s one player on a current NHL roster (and Czech Extraliga roster) who clearly belongs on the all-time-greats pedestal. His name is Jaromir Jagr and he plays for the Dallas Stars.

It’s not every day that a team can say it has a legend on the wing. Dallas can make this claim because Jagr has the best career scoring numbers of any active NHL player. He has the most goals (665), assists (988), points (1653), even-strength goals (465), shots (4766) and best plus-minus (280).

Jagr also holds 11 NHL records including the most consecutive 30-goal seasons (15, 1991–2007) and most consecutive 70-or-more point seasons (15). He won two Stanley Cups, the Hart Trophy (and was a finalist five times), the Art Ross Trophy five times, the Lester B. Pearson award three times and was a first-team all-star seven times. Jagr also won Olympic gold, two world championships and a European championship. The 40-year-old Czech has done it all and he’s not done yet.

Yes, 40 is old for a hockey player and Jagr certainly has slowed in his production. But the fact that he’s wearing a green star on his jersey should be more than enough to have Dallas fans excited for hockey this season – fans of the Penguins, Capitals, Rangers and Flyers can all attest to that.

And Jags isn’t the only draw for Stars fans. The youngster Jamie Benn is a lot of fun to watch and the acquisition of veteran forward Ray Whitney should draw some excitement to the team (they don’t call him The Wizard for nothing). Starting goalie Kari Lehtonen isn’t a pushover either, notching 34 and 32 wins in the past two seasons.

All of these factors should certainly have Big D buzzing about the start of a fresh season, even if the status of the season is up in the air.

Minnesota Wild
(35-36-11) 81 points
Playoffs: Failed to qualify

Picture the following in the animated tone of one Doc Emrick: “Backstrom waffleboards it away, picked up by Ryan Suter. Suter skates it up ice, connects on the pass to Heatley. Heatley enters the offensive zone, dumps the puck behind the net. Parise settles the puck deep in the zone, shuffles it back to Suter. Suter moonwalks the blue line and moves the puck to Koivu. Koivu fakes the shot, sends the puck cross-ice, Parise shoots, and he scores! Zach Parise scores his first goal as a member of the Minnesota Wild. Oh my goodness.”

How delightful is it, Wild fans, to hear all those names on one team? For the first time since 2008, Minnesota has the look and feel of a legitimate playoff contender. I know it’s saying a lot about a team coming off a 35-36-11 campaign, but this year’s club is very different. The addition of Parise and Suter will immensely improve both the offense and the defense.

One determining factor outside of the addition of Parise and Suter will be the health of Niklas Backstrom. He’s a quality netminder (not considered elite) but he’s had seasons with 26, 33 and 37 wins before. His major roadblock to consistent success is consistent health. Last year, he played only 46 games and won only 19. The lockout is actually helping Backstrom right now because he is currently rehabbing an ankle injury. If he can get back to 100 percent and stay there through the majority of a season, the Wild have a great shot at postseason play.

And I’m sure Doc Emrick would love that too.

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