By Lyle Richardson
After four months lost to a labour dispute, the NHL is finally returning to action on Jan. 19 with a 48-game season.
As a result, several important league events for this season have been cancelled or changed.
The Winter Classic between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Detroit Red Wings — originally slated for this past New Year’s Day — was cancelled back in November, as was the NHL All-Star Game, slated for Columbus. It’s believed the Maple Leafs and Red Wings will tangle in the University of Michigan’s 100,000-plus seat “Big House” stadium on New Year’s Day 2014. Columbus will have to wait until perhaps 2016 to host the All-Star Game.
The NHL trade deadline, usually held in late-February or early-March, will this year be on April 3. The Stanley Cup playoffs are expected to begin on April 30 and end by no later than June 28. The Entry Draft, originally slated for June 28 and 29, will now be held in its entirety on June 30. Apart from the sudden ending of the lockout on Jan. 6, the biggest hockey news came out of Toronto where, on Jan. 9, the Maple Leafs fired general manager Brian Burke, replacing him full time with assistant GM Dave Nonis.
The hockey media continues to investigate the reasons behind Burke’s sudden dismissal. It’s believed a combination of the new ownership’s disdain for his bellicose personality, the club’s inability to become a playoff contender during his tenure, and rumoured foot-dragging on a possible trade for Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo were the chief factors in his downfall. Nonis is a former Canucks GM who engineered the trade in 2006 which brought Luongo to Vancouver from Florida. The two share a mutual respect, and some pundits suggest Nonis might try to bring him to Toronto.
If Nonis wants Luongo, however, he could face some competition for his services. The Philadelphia Flyers, Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers and even Luongo’s former club, the Florida Panthers, are rumored to have interest in the 33-year-old goaltender.
Of the 30 NHL teams, the Edmonton Oilers could be the one which benefits most from the shortened season. Young stars Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins spent the lockout playing for the Oilers AHL farm team in Oklahoma City. Eberle was the league’s leading scorer leading up to the end of the lockout, while Hall and Nugent-Hopkins also played well there.
Promising defence prospect Justin Schultz joined the talented trio and excelled, considered to be the leading candidate for AHL rookie of the year before the lockout ended. His performance has drawn comparisons to a young Paul Coffey, and he’s expected to crack the Oilers lineup this season. Add in 2012 first overall pick Nail Yakupov, who spent much of the lockout playing in Russia’s KHL, and the Oilers are in good shape heading into this shortened season.
The Calgary Flames are a club worth watching this season. Pressure is mounting upon management to rebuild its aging roster, and team captain Jarome Iginla is in the final year of his current contract. He’s eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer, and it remains to be seen if he still has a future with the Flames. Iginla isn’t their only tradeable asset. Veteran goalie Miikka Kiprusoff has one year remaining on his current contract after this season, and if the Flames fail to make the playoffs again, it’s possible “Kipper” could be on the block this summer. Thanks to the NHL lockout, last summer’s significant trades and free agent signings have been all but forgotten. Here’s a quick recap to refresh your memory.
On July 23, the New York Rangers made the biggest trade of the summer, acquiring right-wing Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets. It’s expected he could team with Murray Harbour native Brad Richards on the Blueshirts first line.
The Minnesota Wild celebrated American Independence Day by signing left-wing Zach Parise and defenceman Ryan Suter to identical 13-year, $98 million contracts. The moves prompted criticism of Wild owner Craig Leipold, who in April claimed the NHL needed to crack down on heavily front-loaded, big-money contracts.
Though the Oilers selected Yakupov first overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, it was the Pittsburgh Penguins shipping centre Jordan Staal to the Carolina Hurricanes which dominated the headlines that weekend. The deal reunited Jordan with older brother Eric, and was a bold move by the usually cautious Hurricanes, who later in the summer also signed former Washington Capitals winger Alexander Semin.
Not to be outdone, the Toronto Maple Leafs also made headlines that weekend, shipping defenceman Luke Schenn to the Philadelphia Flyers for left wing James van Riemsdyk, in what would become Brian Burke’s last trade as Leafs GM.
Lyle Richardson is a freelance writer with The Hockey News and runs the website Spector’s Hockey. His column will appear in The Guardian throughout the NHL hockey season.