Ten things to watch for this NHL season

The 2008-09 regular season is almost upon us. It’s going to feel like a two-pronged start. The first portion occurs this weekend abroad where the league will try to maximize its sponsorship and licensing deals by having the New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning, Ottawa Senators and Pittsburgh Penguins play two games apiece in Prague and Stockholm.

North America will get into the swing on Thursday, and by Sunday everyone will have started their individual 82-game schedules that will feature at least one game against every other team in the league.

Here are 10 things to watch this season:

1. Red Wings, Penguins beware: Blame it on a Stanley Cup hangover, blame it on a short offseason, blame it on parity. But there’s no denying the fact it’s difficult to reach the Stanley Cup Finals in successive seasons.

That’s the challenge facing Pittsburgh and Detroit as the season starts four months after the Red Wings beat the Penguins in six games to win the franchise’s 11th Cup.

Detroit is the last team to win back-to-back Cups (1997 and ’98). New Jersey is the last team to reach the Finals in consecutive seasons as the Devils lost to Colorado in 2001 after beating Dallas in 2000. There have been the maximum possible eight different finalists in the last four years.

The Red Wings and Penguins should be contenders in their respective conferences. Detroit got stronger by signing top-line winger Marian Hossa while losing only Dominik Hasek and Dallas Drake to retirement. The Pens underwent more change, but that was expected considering the salary cap challenges general manager Ray Shero faces. Pittsburgh did not lose any of its young stars, who (with the exception of Jordan Staal) are basically all signed to long-term deals, which should bode well for now and later.

Just the same, none of the past 10 finalists have advanced past the first round of the playoffs the following postseason.

2. Young stars: The recent trend of young players stepping into the league and making an immediate impact could continue. Already Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Dion Phaneuf and Carey Price have become household names.

This season it’s Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos leading the way for another potentially outstanding freshman class. The No. 1 pick in June debuts with a Lightning team that finished dead last in the overall standings, but who have undergone a roster overhaul. Stamkos should be reasonably insulated from shouldering the burden of leading the franchise. Tampa Bay will still look toward Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis to do the heavy lifting. And there’s new head coach Barry Melrose, whose only other coaching job in the NHL was in Los Angeles when superstar Wayne Gretzky was a King.

It’s up for debate how well Melrose will fare with a 14-year gap between coaching jobs, but he should help take pressure off Stamkos, too.

Other potential Calder Trophy candidates include Dallas’ Fabian Brunnstrom, Phoenix’s Kyle Turris, Columbus’ Derick Brassard and Nikita Filatov, Kyle Okposo of the Islanders, St. Louis’ Patrik Berglund and T.J. Oshie and Drew Doughty.

3. Marty’s year: This is the year Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devil rewrites some of the major all-time records held by NHL goalies.

Brodeur will become the all-time win leader in either late November or early December. He needs 14 to pass Patrick Roy, who is No. 1 with 551. Brodeur could become No. 1 in shutouts with eight; he has 96 and is chasing Terry Sawchuk’s 103. Brodeur is chasing both as the all-time games played leader at the position. Roy is tops with 1,029, Sawchuk is next with 971 and Brodeur is 61 off the lead with 968.

How far will Brodeur raise the bar? He’s only 36 and is signed for three more seasons after this one. He could average at least 40 wins and 70 games over that period. Do the math, he’s going to put some records potentially out of reach.

4. Centennial celebration: You’ll hear plenty about this, but not nearly as much as the people in Montreal as their beloved and tradition-rich Canadiens embark on their 100th season of hockey. It’s asking a lot for a 25th Stanley Cup during their 100th season, but the Canadiens will be living under those expectations all season long. Then again, the spotlight rarely dims on this franchise.

The party starts Oct. 15 when, before Montreal’s home opener, the franchise unveils a ring of honor to celebrate the 44 Canadien players and 10 builders enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Patrick Roy will have his number retired in late November. And Montreal will host both the NHL All-Star game and entry draft next June.

5. Whatcha got?: Almost one-third of the teams in the league – nine total – have new coaches, and four have never coached at the NHL level. As a rapid departure from the recent past, teams didn’t hire just retreads. Instead, they looked for new energy, bright prospects and men who had success coaching younger players on the minor-league level.

John Anderson in Atlanta, Peter DeBoer in Florida, Scott Gordon with the Islanders and Todd McLellan in San Jose will all be making their NHL head coaching debuts. All have been patient working their way through many years in the minors or up through the ranks.

Expectations for three teams are not high, but for McLellan it’s a different story. The Sharks have been a solid regular-season team for seven of the last eight seasons, and especially during each of the last four campaigns. However, second-round losses in the playoffs each of the last three springs cost Ron Wilson his job. McLellan hopes to bring a few secrets from Detroit where he was an assistant to Mike Babcock the last three years in addition to a system that is more offensively-geared than Wilson’s.

Wilson is one of five veteran coaches getting another chance in a new location. He’ll have the challenge of rebuilding the Toronto Maple Leafs. The others include Craig Hartsburg in Ottawa, Terry Murray in Los Angeles, Tony Granato in Colorado and Melrose in Tampa Bay.

6. Expect the unexpected: Pittsburgh, Montreal, Washington, Detroit, Minnesota and San Jose were division winners last season. All six teams appear to be strong again, most might be better. But if recent history repeats itself, no more than one or two teams will repeat.

Last year only the Red Wings successfully defended their Central crown. The year before it was only Detroit and New Jersey who managed to repeat. Going back further, 15 teams have won division titles the last three seasons. That’s just three fewer than the maximum possible 18.

OK, let’s throw out last year’s winners and predict a new set of six. Here goes: Philadelphia, Ottawa, Carolina, Chicago, Edmonton and Anaheim. But we all know Detroit will really make it eight Central Division titles in a row.

7. Balance of power: For the last two seasons the Western Conference has had it all over the East, whether it be the regular season or playoffs. The main reasons are better goaltending in the West and more dominant defensemen. While there has been fair competitive balance in the East, the best teams in the league go about 3-4 deep in the West.

Will that change this season as a result of offseason moves?

Potential impact veterans who moved from East to West include Dan Boyle, R.J. Umberger, Sean Avery, Marian Hossa, Olli Jokinen, Erik Cole, Cristobal Huet, Andrew Raycroft and Darcy Tucker. Potentially impact veterans who moved from West to East include Markus Naslund, Nikolai Zherdev, Mathieu Schneider, Ron Hainsey, Doug Weight, Brian Rolston, Keith Ballard, Nick Boynton, Alex Tanguay, Jose Theodore, Craig Rivet, Patrick Lalime, Matt Carle and Radim Vrbata.

That’s 14 in the East and nine in the West. In terms of numbers, the East gains an edge. Whether that will close the gap in talent remains to be seen.

8. Cool stuff: It’s special recognition that can help break up the monotony of a long regular season. And there is no shortage of cool ceremonies planned around the league this season.

Uniform numbers will be retired in pre-game ceremonies for Pierre Pilote and Keith Magnuson in Chicago; for Trevor Linden in Vancouver; for Glenn Anderson in Edmonton; for Mike Gartner in Washington; for Adam Graves at Madison Square Garden in New York; for Glen Wesley in Carolina, and for Roy in Montreal. In addition, night of honors are planned for Alex Delvecchio and Ted Lindsay in Detroit; for Wendel Clark in Toronto; for Dave Andreychuk in Buffalo; for Andy Bathgate and Harry Howell in New York; for Glenn Hall in Chicago, and for the late Luc Bourdon in Vancouver.

The Hockey Hall of Fame will induct Igor Larionov, Ed Chynoweth, Anderson, Ray Scapinello, Neil Stevens and Mike Emrick on Nov. 10. USA Hockey will do likewise for Brett Hull, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter and Cammi Granato in Oct. 10. And the Lester Patrick Award will be presented to Brian Burke, Phil Housley, Bob Naegele and Lindsay on Oct. 22.

9. An instant classic: The Outdoor Game has become an overnight hit in the NHL. While people looked on with intrigue when Montreal played outdoors in Edmonton several years ago on a day that was way too cold for anything outdoors, the event captured the imagination of even the casual followers last Jan. 1 when Pittsburgh beat host Buffalo 2-1 in a shootout on a rink built in just a week’s time in the middle of a football field.

This time the league will pit two of its oldest rivals – the Red Wings and Blackhawks – in the outfield of venerable Wrigley Field in Chicago on Jan. 1, 2009. It will be the all-time 701st meeting between the two teams that figure to be the best in the Central Division.

10. Predictions: The Tampa Bay Lightning will be the surprise team in the league. Minnesota will take the greatest fall. Vancouver’s Alain Vigneault will be the first coach fired. Alexander Ovechkin will score 80 goals and win the scoring title. Anaheim’s Ryan Getzlaf will be the league MVP (yes, we’re serious). San Jose’s Evgeni Nabokov will win the Vezina Trophy. Fabian Brunnstrom will be the top rookie. Zdeno Chara will win the Norris Trophy. Detroit will win the Presidents’ Trophy but lose in the second round of the playoffs. Dallas and Washington will meet for the Cup.

And that’s all you get for now.

Ross McKeon is an NHL editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Ross a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Oct 2, 2008