Finally, hockey hell is just about over. Let the madness of NHL 2013 begin.
The four-month lockout is expected to become a footnote later this week when the owners and players officially ratify the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. A microwaved season, expected to be 48 games, will start at some point in the next two weeks (early favorite: Jan. 19). It's going to be a mad scramble for players, coaches, ownership . . . and fantasy owners.
Today's goal is to tackle some general Q and A themes as we get ready for the first puck drop, whenever that is. Shuffle Up rankings by position will follow in the days to come. There's no time to lose, so let's jump right into the rush.
So Yahoo! has a fantasy hockey game for 2013, right?
We'll start with a shot into an unguarded cage. Yes, we're back with hockey. Yes, we're ready for you. Yes, you're allowed to play Yahoo! Fantasy Hockey no matter how much you loathe Gary Bettman. Lace em' up, hop the boards with us.
All of those overseas KHL stars are coming back to the NHL, yes?
It's just about a certainty, yes. The KHL has an agreement with the NHL that it will not employ players who are under NHL contracts. This wasn't an issue when the NHL was in lockout mode, but when the 2013 season is finally confirmed in ink, the talent starts heading back. Alex Ovechkin and Pavel Datsyuk are already back in North America; Ovechkin practiced with some Capitals teammates Tuesday.
There have been rumors buzzing that New Jersey's Ilya Kovalchuk might want to stay in Russia even after the lockout thaws, but it's hard to imagine him keeping that stance. We're talking about someone who signed a $100 million contract with New Jersey back in September of 2010. Kovalchuk apparently doesn't want to make a move until the CBA is put to bed, but I'd be flabbergasted if he decided to make a bigger issue of this. Look for him back in Jersey.
Things might be trickier with veteran defenseman Lubomir Visnovsky, who was traded from the Ducks to the Islanders back in June. Visnovsky tried to get the trade voided over the summer - the poor Islanders, this stuff always happens to them - and he's also talking about staying in the KHL all season, no matter that the NHL is just about back in business. Is Visnovsky willing to fight this in court? What quality of play would he give the Islanders if he's forced to report to them? This is one player I won't draft unless the price and context line up perfectly.
Who's been tearing things up in the KHL?
Evgeni Malkin, to no one's surprise, is the leading scorer on a points-per-game basis (24-42-65 in 37 starts). Kovalchuk is the fourth-highest scorer in the league, with 18-23-41 through 35 games. Colorado goalie Semyon Varlamov raised his stock, despite a month-long problem with a knee injury. He's posted a 1.74 goals-against average and .946 save percentage over 16 games, along with three shutouts.
What NHL teams could benefit most from the chaotic structure of the new season?
That's the $64,000 question and it's pretty much impossible to answer definitively, but I'd be on the lookout for teams that are stocked with continuity and youth. High-turnover clubs might need extra time for the players to jell, and veteran-driven teams could be a shaky bet as well.
The Edmonton Oilers look like a group ready to hit the ground running, in part because a handful of their young stars have been playing together for Oklahoma City in the American Hockey League. Forward Jordan Eberle (25-26-51) and rookie defenseman Justin Schultz (18-30-48) are running away with the scoring race, with Taylor Hall standing sixth (14-20-34, in eight less games). Ryan Nugent-Hopkins has also been productive (20 points in 19 games), bookending his time along with the World Junior Tournament.
Let's check those ages. Eberle and Schultz are 22, Hall is 21, and Nugent-Hopkins is 19. And big things are expected from Nail Yakupov, 19, the top pick from the summer draft. This is a club on the rise.
“I think we have an advantage for sure,” Eberle told the Edmonton Sun. “We’ve been playing a North American style game, we’re in mid-season form right now. Our core guys have been playing North American style hockey, setting up power plays and all that, so I think we’ll be ready to go.
“I don’t see a lot of other guys who’ve been playing lately, so it’s going to be a good opportunity for us. I feel comfortable and pretty optimistic that we’re going to get the opportunity to get a lot of minutes, try and secure a playoff spot.”
Carolina and St. Louis are two other teams who might benefit from the current lay of the land. The Hurricanes had a presence in the AHL as well, while the Blues will probably appreciate the packed nature of the 2013 schedule. Goaltending depth should be more important than usual this year, and the Blues have two superb netminders in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott.
What's the latest on Sidney Crosby? Good to go? Safe to draft?
Although Crosby hasn't been playing in a league anywhere, he's been free of concussion symptoms for several months and it looks like the problems are likely behind him for good. He's been working out with a host of Pittsburgh teammates over the last few months, getting together for informal practices and scrimmages. He's expected to center a line with Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz. I'd have no problem using a first-round pick on Crosby this year.
We've got a lot to sort through and figure out, gamer. This is just the first shift. Welcome back, and keep your head up.
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