By Richard McAdam aka RGM81

With the 2011-12 season having concluded in the coronation of the Los Angeles Kings as Stanley Cup Champions, hockey fans can now turn their attention to the bustling activities of the off-season as they prepare for what will hopefully be a full 2012-13 campaign. This past year had numerous interesting storylines, twists, turns, and swerves, ranging from the calamity in Montreal to Tim Thomas standing up Barack Obama to the return and rapid fall from grace for Alexander Radulov. It will be a year that some fans try to forget while others look to cherish it for months to come. With 2011-12 in the rearview mirror, what do we have to look forward to this summer to set the stage for next season?

Break Up The Kings? Fat Chance!

This Champion isn't going anywhere.One relatively common occurrence after a team wins the Stanley Cup is that said team is usually dismantled in some form or fashion due to free agency, retirements, and such. Players go to free agency with a Cup win under their belt and parlay that into premium signings on the open market with other teams, and the champs usually have to do a quick overhaul. That will not be the case with the Los Angeles Kings this summer. The only major roster player that contributed to the team’s Cup victory currently slated to be a UFA is Dustin Penner, and the team has already had talks with him about a new contract. The core of the team is locked up for the long term, with the exception of Conn Smythe Trophy winner Jonathan Quick, who stands to become a UFA in 2013 (highly unlikely that he will ever reach that situation). That said, don’t expect to see a major overhaul of the Kings. The team is actually in a tremendous cap situation, and will have an estimated $16M (based on the $70M preliminary cap announced by the NHL) of space available. If anything, the Kings are in a position to lure in other top talents and further bolster their championship roster. While calls for a Kings dynasty are premature (as they are on an annual basis with these types of proclamations from sports writers) they are definitely poised to become a perennial contender for the next few years. Who knows, maybe some of the bandwagon celebrity fans will become permanent fixtures at the games…as long as they don’t show Matthew Perry or let him speak.

How Will Boston Adjust Without Tim Thomas?

The ongoing saga of Tim Thomas provided ample amusement and fodder for journalists and fans last year. We all know that NHL goalies are a different bunch, but it wasn’t until Thomas snubbed the Bruins’ day at the White House that we learned just how different Thomas really is. His political views aside, his actions during the remainder of the year were a distraction to the team, and many outside spectators were questioning his motivation in all of this. He still had a couple years left on his deal and had spoken of wanting to play in the 2014 Olympics. So when he announced his intention to take off 2012-13 to focus on “friends, family, and faith” it certainly brought forward the prospect that Thomas had played his last game in a Bruins uniform. Don’t expect Boston to be in too deep a fret, however. Tuukka Rask is ready to step up as the #1 goalie in Beantown, and he will have a suitable backup in Anton Khudobin (and somewhere in the future, Malcolm Subban will be on the scene to add a further wrinkle to the Bruins’ rivalry with Montreal). It will be a different, hopefully more normal, year ahead for the reigning Northeast Division champs, and if they should be able to trade Thomas’ contract to a team struggling to meet the cap floor, it will be a benefit of $5M to their situation and allow them to pick up a marquee player on the free agent market.

How Drastic Will the Change Be in Montreal?

Alex Galchenyuk - the Pride of the 2012 DraftThe 2011-12 season was an unmitigated disaster for hockey’s most storied franchise. Coach firings on game days, a trade in the middle of a game, injuries, a language imbroglio, and ultimately a 15th place finish were the standout features of this past year in Montreal. The negatives grossly outweighed the positives, and thus it was no surprise that Pierre Gauthier was jettisoned this past spring. Now, with a new general manager, a new (old) head coach, and a spectacular weekend at the NHL Entry Draft, the Habs are looking forward to a major bounce back campaign. There will be significant roster moves, to be sure. It is likely that Scott Gomez has played his last game with the Habs. Tomas Kaberle may also be moved out of Montreal. If those two moves do transpire, it will free up $11M of cap space for the Canadiens to make a splash or two on the market come July 1st. Scoring will be a top priority, as the team again finished in the bottom ten in the League in offence. Carey Price is a legitimate superstar goalie, but it is far too much to ask him to hold down the fort behind an occasionally-porous defence on a team that can only score one goal per night. Habs fans have a lot of reason for optimism, but it yet remains to be seen just how different the new regime will look from the one that landed in the Eastern Conference basement last season.

 

 

How Will Detroit “Replace” Nicklas Lidstrom?

First of all, right off the top, you do not replace Nicklas Lidstrom. You can only hope to bring in someone that can do an admirable job of attempting to fill the void he left when he retired. The Red Wings have likely been dreading this day for a couple years now, and it has finally come to pass. Fortunately for them, they have a ton of cap space and will be able to pursue any notable free agents or take on any large-salaried blue liners in a trade. The class organization that is the embodiment of Hockeytown will have no problem finding a worthy Suter…er, suitor. Lidstrom’s talent, poise, and skill will likely never be matched, but the Wings have consistently been able to find ways to replace their veterans with more than capable fresh talent, and this year should be no exception.

Will the Predators Lose Ryan Suter?

See above. It isn’t that simple, of course, and there does remain a strong possibility that Suter will ultimately re-sign with Nashville. The cornerstones of the team are Pekka Rinne, Shea Weber, and Suter. Rinne is under contract long-term. Weber’s future hangs in the balance, as he is 26 and may want to test the UFA waters himself next summer. What Suter decides will no doubt affect what Weber decides he wants for himself. Should the Predators lose Suter this summer, they may very well find themselves searching for a totally new identity over the next two years. For a team that has maintained a strong sense of continuity at the organizational level throughout its existence, an on-ice shake-up could be a daunting challenge. Regardless of where Suter ends up signing, he may very well become the NHL’s highest paid defenceman on July 1st.

Can Columbus and Rick Nash Mend Fences?

By the time you read this article, this question may already have been answered in the negative. Nash has been the face of the Blue Jackets franchise since they drafted him 1st overall back in 2002. He is their only legitimate star. At the same time, he may also be their biggest obstacle in terms of the badly-needed overhaul and re-modelling that the franchise needs. Columbus has languished at the bottom of the NHL for nearly every year of their existence, and with yet another top-five draft selection they have a real opportunity to change in a big way. Nash has six years remaining on a contract that sees him with a cap hit of $7.8M, so the potential list of suitors (plus you must factor in his NTC that must be waived to finalize any deal) is relatively small. Every team in the NHL would love to have a Rick Nash on their roster, but dollars and sense play a key factor. GM Scott Howson, who threw Nash under the bus and flat-out told the media that Nash wanted out of Columbus, wants a king’s ransom that is said to include two top-six roster players, a top prospect, and a 1st round pick – and that may be a price too high for some teams. There is probably too much water under the bridge to get Nash and the organization reconciled, which may force Howson to lower his demands to make a deal.

Is Roberto Luongo on the Way Out of Vancouver?

Waving goodbye?Much like the Nash in Columbus situation, there is a lot of water under the bridge between Vancouver and Roberto Luongo. That said, the bridge isn’t the same bridge—while the Canucks organization has consistently stood by Luongo during his occasional struggles, the fan appetite to see Luongo moved out of town and give the starting goalie job to Cory Schneider is bordering on the insatiable. When the team went to Schneider for the final games of this year’s playoffs, it seemed that the die had been cast. Shortly after the Canucks were eliminated, when asked his thoughts Luongo said that he would be open to a trade—and he did not have an awkward long pause to ponder the question, either. Mike Gillis has confirmed that he is actively talking trades with teams, and it seems only a matter of time until a deal is made. To further complicate the situation, Schneider is a restricted free agent on July 1st and as yet has not come to terms with the Canucks. The coming days and weeks will be very exciting if trying times for the fans and the players involved.

Zach Parise’s UFA Status and Martin Brodeur’s Future – Changes in New Jersey?

To this point Martin Brodeur has been enthusiastic in stating that he intends to return for at least one more season in the NHL. The 40-year old future first-ballot Hall of Famer isn’t yet ready to hang up the skates, and this past spring demonstrated that Brodeur still has some gas left in the tank. He may not always be as spectacular as he was in his prime, but even a 40-year old Marty Brodeur is still better than probably half the other starting goalies in the NHL. I don’t believe that his fate will strongly affect that of Zach Parise, who is at a much different point in his career and has the chance to really make a huge free agent splash in a summer where the high-end talent pool is rather limited. It would be a strange scene for the Devils to lose both their captain and their #1 goaltender, and they would be forced to scramble quickly. If Brodeur fully commits to returning and in turn the Devils commit to him, it is one less possible venue for Robert Luongo. It is hard for a team to lose its captain, and I suspect that Lou Lamoreillo will go hard after re-signing Parise before July 1st, but if Parise decides he wants to test the market he will easily be the biggest attraction at the forward position this summer.

Which Teams Will Be Movers and Shakers in Free Agency?

With so much labour uncertainty going into the summer, it is unknown at this time exactly how much cap space NHL general managers are going to have available to them. The salary cap has temporarily been set at $70.4M for 2012-13, but that figure is based on the current CBA configuration in which the players get 57% of overall League revenues. If that figure drops substantially, the cap could drop to a number much closer to the $64.3M available to teams this past season. That being said, there is not a lot of high-end talent on the market come July 1st. Many “big names” are still restricted free agents, and they are unlikely to be allowed to walk by their current teams unless the offer sheet tendered is absurdly high. But how much interest will there be in the likes of Alex Semin, Shane Doan, Dustin Penner, and others? A cursory glance through Capgeek.com’s free agent list doesn’t show many top-level names. However, there are several depth players that may be targeted to bolster a lineup in need of some extra punch: Matt Carle, Bryan Allen, and Jordin Tootoo are three players that may fetch considerable interest (if not huge dollars) around the League. With an inflated cap on July 1st, teams may be scrambling once we get closer to the season to get back under the spending limit if and when a new CBA is concluded.

Will the NHL and the Players Association Formalize a New CBA?

Does another lockout loom?Which brings us to the biggest story of 2012 – will the NHL and the NHLPA be able to make a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement to prevent another lockout? There are preliminary talks happening this week, but of course there are going to be some contentious issues to resolve before a new accord is struck. The NHL currently has the highest revenue split in the players’ favour of any major sport, and it appears that the owners would like to claw that back to some degree. The NBA lost nearly half a season over the issue, finally settling on a 50-50 revenue agreement. Will Donald Fehr allow this to happen? Other issues that need to be worked out include a possible term cap on contracts to avoid more Kovalchuk-like fiascos, increased player safety protocols, and possible realignment. It would be incredibly short-sighted of both parties to lose more hockey over labour issues. The game is strong and healthy, and has moved well past the original starting point it was at shortly after the last lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season. In just a few years, the salary cap has nearly doubled as revenues have soared. The game is highly marketable across Canada and is definitely making inroads in new areas in the United States. One can only hope that both parties come to an agreement as soon as possible that is mutually acceptable.