Crosby’s return headlines start of stretch run

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo! Sports

Now comes the good part. The dog days are over, the all-star break is behind us, and the stretch run of the NHL regular season begins Tuesday night.

The standings are tight as teams compete for playoff spots, especially in the Western Conference, where only six points separate the fourth-place Nashville Predators from the 12th-place Calgary Flames.

As we head toward the best part – the Stanley Cup playoffs – here are 10 things to watch:

1. The return of Sidney Crosby(notes): Even though Crosby has been cleared to resume light exercise, there remains no timetable for the return of the league's best player and captain of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Crosby – who has won a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal and a Hart Trophy as the league's most valuable player – was having the best season of his career before he left the lineup with a concussion in January. He was on pace for 64 goals and 132 points.

Now? He is undergoing what coach Dan Bylsma described to reporters as "functional rehab" – riding a stationary bike, skating in a track suit.

I doubt the Penguins were reckless when they allowed Crosby to play Jan. 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning – four days after he collided with the Washington Capitals' David Steckel in the Winter Classic – only to watch him take a hit from Victor Hedman(notes).

But especially considering that, you know they can't be careful enough with Crosby this time. They not only need their best asset back, they need him healthy and strong for the stretch run and beyond.

2. The scoring race: Crosby had a dominating lead in the scoring race when he was injured. But his competitors have caught up in his absence.

The Lightning's Steven Stamkos(notes) leads the league with 38 goals, six more than Crosby, and 67 points, one more than Crosby. The Vancouver Canucks' Daniel and Henrik Sedin(notes) are right behind. Daniel has 64 points, Henrik 61.

Crosby seemed like a shoo-in for the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL's scoring champion and the Hart Trophy as the league's most-valuable player. But the longer he stays out, the wider the door opens for everyone else.

Question: Henrik won the Hart last year, separating himself from his twin brother because Daniel missed 19 games with a broken foot. What happens if the Sedins make a strong push together? Will they split the vote? Will that help give the Hart to Stamkos?

3. The comeback of Peter Forsberg: The Colorado Avalanche is a young, fast team. What would the Avs want with an old guy who has been bothered by foot injuries for years and hasn't played in the NHL since the 2007-08 season?

That old guy is Forsberg, once the best player in the world. He's not that old, only 37. His foot feels good enough that he has been skating with the Avs to see if he's ready to take another shot, and he did play at the highest level as recently as last season, skating for Sweden at the Vancouver Olympics.

This is a guy who missed the 2001-02 regular season and still put up 27 points in 20 playoff games as the Avs went to Game 7 of the Western Conference final. Even if he isn't what he once was at even strength, he can contribute on the power play and provide a veteran presence for the Avs, who are ninth in the West, fighting a tough battle for a playoff spot and needing all the help they can get.

"You get him [into] a game, he still does things nobody else can do," said Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, who once coached Forsberg in Colorado. "He's amazing to watch. I'm sure everybody there must be excited."

4. The Heritage Classic: Why should Americans get to have all the fun?

The NHL has staged four Winter Classics in the United States, using the folklore of outdoor hockey to create a spectacle in football and baseball stadiums, a TV event on New Year's Day and a marketing vehicle to reach casual sports fans. It reached a new high this year with Crosby and the Washington Capitals' Alex Ovechkin(notes) clashing in the rain at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh.

But the NHL's first attempt at this was the 2003 Heritage Classic between the Montreal Canadiens and the Oilers in Edmonton, and now the Habs are scheduled to face the Flames at McMahon Stadium in Calgary on Feb. 20. It takes nothing away from the Winter Classic – Americans won't be watching this one – and gives Canadians their fair share. It could be an important game with both teams in the playoff picture, now that the Flames have roared back to relevance.

Let's pray for snow, eh?

5. The trade deadline: There are going to be moves before 3 p.m. ET on Feb. 28. But how many? And how big?

The salary cap has taken some heat out of the hot stove. If they aren't already limited by their budgets, teams are limited by their cap situations. They're more reluctant to part with picks and prospects. And thanks to parity, there are far more buyers than sellers.

Coming out of the break, only four teams in the East seem out of it – the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, New York Islanders and New Jersey Devils – and the Islanders and Devils already have unloaded some assets. Only one team in the West has no hope – the Edmonton Oilers. That doesn't make for much of a market.

For now, here are some names to watch: the Leafs' Kris Versteeg(notes), Tomas Kaberle(notes), Francois Beauchemin(notes) and Jean-Sebastien Giguere(notes); the Senators' Alexei Kovalev, Jarkko Ruutu(notes) and Chris Phillips(notes); the Devils' Jason Arnott(notes); and the Oilers' Dustin Penner(notes).

We'll see if anyone else drops out of the race and becomes a seller over the next month. The Florida Panthers could rent out pending unrestricted free agents Cory Stillman(notes), Tomas Vokoun(notes) and Bryan McCabe(notes). The Buffalo Sabres have pending unrestricted free agents Tim Connolly(notes), Mike Grier(notes), Steve Montador(notes), Rob Niedermayer(notes) and Craig Rivet(notes).

6. The TV contract: Is the NHL about to cash in with a lucrative U.S. television deal?

The league has leverage, with an improved product on the ice, the success of the Winter Classic as a TV vehicle and the threat of non-participation in the 2014 Sochi Olympics.

Its current deals with NBC and Versus expire after the season. Negotiations on a new deal were delayed by Comcast's takeover of NBC Universal – Comcast also owns Versus – but that has now been approved and completed.

"We will very shortly be in discussions and negotiations with our current partners," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said.

The Boston Globe reported that chief operating officer John Collins sounded confident a new deal could be in place by March 31.

7. The California crises: Entering the season, the San Jose Sharks were expected to contend for the Stanley Cup. The Los Angeles Kings were a hot pick to join the league's elite teams.

But coming out of the break, the Sharks are eighth in the West, the Kings 11th. The Sharks miss the retired Rob Blake(notes) and have a hole on defense. The Kings need help up front.

"The last two years that I've been here, all the talk has been about, ‘What are you guys going to do in the playoffs? What are you guys going to do in the playoffs?' " Sharks defenseman Dan Boyle(notes) said. "And this year, not so much."

You can't worry about what you're going to do in the playoffs until you make it.

8. The Southeast: One of the best stories of the first half was the rise of the Atlanta Thrashers: general manager Rick Dudley raiding the cap-strapped Cup champions and bringing in all those former Blackhawks, Dustin Byfuglien(notes) going from power forward to candidate for the Norris Trophy as the league's best defenseman, coach Craig Ramsay putting the team in position to make the playoffs for the second time ever.

But the Thrashers went through a 1-4-3 stretch in January, and now they're clinging to the final playoff spot in the East, one point ahead of the surging Carolina Hurricanes. Can the Thrashers stay in playoff position? Can the drama excite Atlanta enough to draw fans and quiet the talk of moving the franchise?

Meanwhile, the Lightning leads the division over the Capitals, who have 2 ½ months to put their game together. Have the Caps struggled because they have gone through a transition to a more defensive style that will pay off in the playoffs? Or have they just struggled, headed for more disappointment?

9. The cavalry's coming: Injuries have decimated several teams this season, but some stars are starting to trickle back.

The Detroit Red Wings have stayed atop the Central despite a rash of injuries, with stars Nicklas Lidstrom(notes) and Henrik Zetterberg(notes) carrying the load and minor-league call-ups contributing offensively. Now Pavel Datsyuk(notes) (hand), Dan Cleary (ankle) and Tomas Holmstrom(notes) (hand) are on the verge of returning, and Brad Stuart(notes) (jaw) and Mike Modano(notes) (wrist) could be back as early as late February.

Ryan Callahan(notes) (hand), Brandon Dubinsky(notes) (leg), Dan Girardi(notes) (ribs) and Vinny Prospal(notes) (knee) all should return this week for the New York Rangers, who hope Erik Christensen(notes) (knee) and Ruslan Fedotenko(notes) (shoulder) will follow relatively soon.

Ryan Getzlaf(notes) (head) is targeting a Feb. 9 return to the Anaheim Ducks. Then there are the Penguins, who need Evgeni Malkin(notes) (knee, sinuses) and Crosby back.

10. The concussion issue: Crosby is only the highest-profile player who has suffered a concussion this season. The Boston Bruins have talked about shutting down Marc Savard(notes) for the reason of the season, after he suffered another concussion Jan. 22 at Colorado.

Bettman said concussions have risen across the NHL this season. But he declined to give numbers, and he said preliminary data suggest that the increase has been because of inadvertent contact, not blows to the head.

It remains to be seen whether the league's general managers will strengthen the rule they instituted last March. Rule 48 bans lateral hits in which the head is targeted or the principle point of contact. In the wake of Crosby's concussion, calls have increased for a total ban on hits to the head, but others are cautious about altering the game too much.

"The general managers will decide in the March meeting how much more teeth to put into Rule 48," Hurricanes owner Peter Karmanos said during all-star weekend.

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