NHL Burning Questions

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo! Sports

The NHL has plenty of great traditions. The Stanley Cup. The post-playoff series handshake. The bench-clearing brawl.

But how about each spring when the league hauls out those two guys in tuxedos and white gloves for the presentation of Lord Stanley's Cup?

With gentle movements and proper etiquette, the two well-groomed men place a polished, gleaming and spotless Cup on an ornate stand. Then Gary Bettman presents it to a sweaty, bearded hockey player who will soon slap a grimy kiss on it, fill it with champagne and chug.

Not to mention other unspeakable acts.

Well, it's still a long way until those guys get dolled up again. The NHL season is long. The playoffs are long. It will be warm again before we crown the 2004 Stanley Cup champion.

But the season begins soon and the anticipation is growing. Here are five burning questions as we ponder a sixth: What do those tuxedo guys do the rest of the year?

Can the Devils repeat?
How much players care about being deemed "the team of the era" is debatable. But the New Jersey Devils have a real chance to cement their claim this season by grabbing what would be a fourth Stanley Cup in the last 10 years. That would put them one up on the Red Wings.

There is no reason to think it isn't possible either. Back are super goalie Martin Brodeur and heart-and-soul defenseman Scott Stevens. Scott Niedermayer, Brian Rafalski and speedy wing Jamie Langenbrunner all return.

So a second consecutive Cup isn't out of the question for a team that believes last year was anything but a last hurrah.

"Nobody talks about a dynasty until the dynasty is over," Brodeur told The Hockey News. "Until we're finished winning, there is no use talking about this team's legacy."

Once again New Jersey will be incredibly sound on defense, where Brodeur is capable of shutting out any team in the league. And the Devils will perhaps be even faster up front, where they made great strides a year ago.

The last two teams to win four Cups in a span of 10 years or less are considered two of the greatest ever, the Islanders of 1980-83 and the Oilers of 1984-90. The Devils may not be as great, but if they win another, they at least belong in the argument.

Can Jean-Sebastien Giguere keep Anaheim rolling?
Devils fans may have booed when the Anaheim Mighty Ducks' goalie won the Conn Smythe Trophy, but there is little doubt that no player had as a great of an impact on the playoffs as Giguere. He butterfly-stopped the Ducks to the finals with a run reminiscent of his boyhood idol, Patrick Roy.

But can the Ducks become a night-in, night-out power?

Anaheim made a bold move in that direction in the offseason, luring Sergei Fedorov out of Detroit with a four-year, $40 million deal. That helps offset the loss of Paul Kariya and should help an ailing power play. The Ducks also grabbed winger Vaclav Prospal from Tampa, allowing the formation of what should be a potent first line of Petr Sykora, Fedorov and Prospal.

While the Ducks were a seventh seed last season, they did win 40 games in the stacked West. This team was better than anyone gave it credit for. With some improved offense and newfound confidence, it can be a contender again.

Besides, with Giguere in net, how much offense does Anaheim need?

Is the crease big enough for two in Detroit?
When Dominik Hasek retired after leading the Detroit Red Wings to the 2002 Stanley Cup, free-spending owner Mike Ilitch immediately went out and sought a replacement that would assure a chance to repeat.

He signed Curtis Joseph to a deal worth $8 million per year. But Giguere and Anaheim bounced the Wings in four first-round games. CuJo caught some heat from the fans. Then the Dominator decided to return to the NHL.

Fearing that if he didn't re-sign Hasek he'd lose him to archrival Colorado (which was looking to replace the retired Roy), Ilitch signed Hasek to an $8-million-per-year deal, too. And then tried to trade Joseph. But with the collective bargaining agreement about to expire, this is an era of fiscal constraint. There has yet to be a taker.

So Detroit has two No. 1 goalies and is spending $307,000 a week to employ them both.

How coach Dave Lewis handles this is worth watching. Hasek is clearly the No. 1, but he is coming off a season of retirement. And CuJo isn't exactly some fresh-faced back up from Guleph.

For many teams this would be a chemistry killer. But the Wings can probably survive due to the presence many veteran stars and high-quality leadership guys. Still, the potential for trouble is there.

Can a Canadian team win the Cup again?
You've heard the obstacles. Small markets (except Toronto). An exchange rate that hamstrings payroll. Cold weather. Poor owners. And so on and so on. Even once-mighty Montreal has struggled of late.

If there is one prime example of what's wrong with the NHL, it is the lack of postseason success Canadian franchises have experienced the last 10 years. No one from the Great White North has even reached the finals since Vancouver in 1994. No one has won it since Montreal in 1993.

Quebec could never get much going until it moved to Colorado and immediately won it all twice.

Don't look now, but here come the Ottawa Senators, the small-market, Canadian aberration.

The Senators were one Game 7 goal from defeating the Devils in the Eastern Conference finals a year ago. This is a steady, balanced team that won the President's Cup a season ago. They have a great goaltender in Patrick Lalime (2.16 GAA). There are wingers Marian Hossa and Daniel Alfredsson. A tight defense anchored by Wade Redden.

And there is plenty of experience (no major changes), chemistry and hunger to make that next step. Ten years is long enough for a Canadian drought. The sport could use an old-school finalist.

Is this the beginning of the end?
The NHL's collective bargaining agreement expires on Sept. 15, 2004, a fact that will hang over this entire season. Almost everyone in hockey expects a work stoppage at least as long as the 1994 one that cut the regular season to just 48 games. Many are predicting the loss of the entire 2004-05 season, which means you had better enjoy this year while you can.

Owners seem committed to establishing some kind of salary cap and/or revenue sharing system. The union, of course, opposes both items.

The battle lines are clearly drawn. The players have seen a 600 percent increase in their salary over the past 12 years, plus the creation of scores of new jobs as Gary Bettman relentlessly expanded across the American South. Meanwhile revenue is stagnant, and U.S. TV numbers are terrible. To make matters worse, the league's deal with ABC ends after this season.

Not that the owners are innocent. They agreed to all those salaries and all those new franchises that aren't pulling their weight but are dividing the revenue pie.

Something clearly has to give. It doesn't seem possible the NHL can continue to operate in the current have-and-have-not manner. Which is why a long, tough fight looms.

But first, some games. At last.

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