The 11 burning questions for the 2011-12 NHL season

It seems like every off-season takes forever to pass before a new NHL campaign begins. But from the moment the Boston Bruins won their first Stanley Cup in 39 years on June 15 to the final night before 2011-12 NHL season begins, time has certainly flown by.

Of course, the hockey summer was sullied with the deaths of Derek Boogaard(notes), Rick Rypien(notes), Wade Belak(notes) and then the tragic plane crash in Russia with Yaroslav Lokomotiv last month.

But as a hockey family, we move on; and the memories of those lost will be on the minds of fans and players as the NHL begins its 95th season on Thursday night.

Coming up, 11 questions that will be answered once the Stanley Cup is raised again in June.

1. Which one of the four teams participating in NHL Premiere will win the Stanley Cup?

Since the 2008 NHL Premiere Series, one team that has gone overseas has wound up winning the Cup that season. The Pittsburgh Penguins (Sweden, 2008), Chicago Blackhawks (Finland, 2009) and Boston Bruins (Czech Republic, 2010) all began their seasons with a European adventure, and ended them skating around an opposing rink with the Cup held high above their heads.

Guess that means one of the Los Angeles Kings, Buffalo Sabres, New York Rangers or Anaheim Ducks will be this year’s champion. Congrats to that team in advance.

Then there’s the little fact that one team from the Winter Classic has gone on to win the Cup in the following season. That’s good juju for the Washington Capitals or the Pittsburgh Penguins right there.

2. How long will it take players to get used to the Brendan Shanahan(notes) Era?

The 11 burning questions for the 2011-12 NHL seasonAs we saw when Rule 48 was originally implemented, it took players a while before they changed the way they went about delivering hits. Over time, it worked, and some players even admitted that before attempting a hit they thought twice about their positioning — sometimes even pulling up before laying a guy out.

Now, with new rules tweaks and Rule 48 eliminating the words “blind side” and “lateral” from its definition, coupled with stiffer suspensions for certain hits, this cluster of Shanabans we’ve seen during preseason should slowly dissipate once the reality of these changes settled into players’ minds. We saw a number of these examples in the NHL’s “Clean Hard Hits and Good Decision Plays” video released on Wednesday. It’s only a matter of time before majority of the players understand the message fully.

3. Are we about to witness the swan songs for Martin Brodeur(notes) and Nicklas Lidstrom(notes)?

Between the seven Norris Trophies, four Vezinas and seven Stanley Cups, this could be the last ride for two of the NHL’s most decorated and celebrated veterans. At age 41, the topic of retirement has come up with Lidstrom the past few seasons, but he keeps coming back for one more year and continues to be a top-flight blueliner. Brodeur, 39, is entering the final year of his contract and isn’t giving thought to retirement just yet, but has acknowledged his time is running out.

4. Will the chemistry experiments in Buffalo and Florida work?

Before the salary cap became a part of the NHL, there were teams like the New York Rangers who would throw bags of money at players during free agency and overhaul a roster with blank checks. Of course, strategies like that never worked, as the players failed to gel as a team and chemistry was nowhere to be found, but the richer teams could afford to take on the salary.

The Sabres and Panthers spent tons of money over the summer for two very different reasons. Buffalo’s new owner, Terry Pegula, has deep pockets and wants a Cup ring ASAP. Florida was so far under the cap floor, GM Dale Tallon needed to overpay players and try to change the losing culture in the franchise. The question now becomes how long will it take Lindy Ruff and Kevin Dineen to find the right chemistry among their lines without falling too far behind in the Eastern Conference and their respective divisions.

And let’s not forget about the Philadelphia Flyers, with the additions of Jaromir Jagr(notes), Ilya Bryzgalov(notes) and Max Talbot(notes) as Jeff Carter(notes) and Mike Richards(notes) were sent west.

Were the Carter and Richards deals hockey decisions or made because a change was needed inside the room? Then you have Jagr entering the fray with his personality, known doggedness at times and the fact he’s been away from the NHL for three seasons and is 39 years old.

5. What can we expect from the Atlanta Thrashers now that they’re the Winnipeg Jets?

It’s been a long 15-year wait for hockey fans in Winnipeg. After the celebrations along Portage and Main after the announcement that True North Sports and Entertainment had purchased the Thrashers last spring, it was a busy summer for the Jets 2.0 brass trying to change over an entire franchise.

With a seating capacity of just over 15,000 for hockey — smallest in the NHL — the MTS Centre will be an incredible home-ice advantage for the Jets. Ticket sales have guaranteed packed houses for at least the next three-to-five seasons, but the grace period from the fans won’t last that long.

If the Jets stumble a bit this season, they can be excused after a busy summer. Next off-season will be the challenge for GM Kevin Cheveldayoff to further mold the Jets’ roster into a playoff contender once again. The core is there with Dustin Byfuglien(notes), Evander Kane(notes), Ondrej Pavelec(notes), Zach Bogosian(notes) and Tobias Enstrom(notes); and while the excitement level within the city is off the charts at the moment, it’s only a matter of time before the kid gloves come off and the weight of expectations is on the team to succeed.

6. Which rookies will go/stay after their 9-game tryouts?

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins(notes), Ryan Strome(notes), Brandon Saad(notes) and Sean Couturier(notes) are just four of the young players entering this season that could either find themselves on NHL rosters at the 10-game mark or be on their way back to their junior team. The Florida Panthers wasted no time in sending 2011 first round pick Jonathan Huberdeau(notes) back to Saint John of the QMJHL.

The 9-game tryout is a great way for GMs to evaluate what they potentially have for the future and depending on production and the availability of roster spots, plane tickets back to junior may not be necessary. But in every case, the question every GM must answer is what will benefit the player more: Sticking with the NHL club and, depending on the situation, figuring out if they’ll be able to get sufficient ice time; or moving them back to their junior club for another year of domination to help grow confidence and development?

It’s different in every case. The Oilers aren’t Cup contenders this season, but a knock on Nugent-Hopkins has been his strength. Would a year back in Red Deer of the WHL benefit him more than spending the season playing with the likes of Taylor Hall(notes), Jordan Eberle(notes), Magnus Paajarvi(notes) and Linus Omark(notes), teammates he’ll be developing with at the NHL together for years to come?

7. What kind of impact will Sidney Crosby(notes) and David Perron(notes) have on their teams if/when they return?

Crosby and Perron are in two different places in their recovery from concussions. Crosby, while not yet cleared for contact, has been skating and taking part in practices with the Pittsburgh Penguins since the spring. Perron on the other hand, passed a baseline test last week to rejoin the St. Louis Blues and will begin practicing. He hasn’t been in action since Nov. 4 after taking a hit from San Jose Sharks captain Joe Thornton(notes).

While Crosby appears to be much closer than Perron to a return, there’s no telling if they’ll come back the same players they were before the concussions. Crosby was on a record-setting scoring pace before being felled twice in less than a week. Perron was in the beginning of his fourth season as a budding star with the Blues.

Both missed significant time and, in this era of the spotlight shining brightly on player safety, will they initially come back as the same players or will the physicality on the ice make them timid about engaging contact?

The 11 burning questions for the 2011-12 NHL season

8. How much more will we love HBO’s 24/7 this year?

During four Wednesday nights last winter, we were all tuned to HBO to get a real inside look at the life of two hockey teams; two teams, at the time, that were heading in very different directions. The series was so good, it didn’t matter that it was the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals — we would have still been riveted regardless of who was involved.

From the pre-game strategies to seeing the away-from-the-rink lives of the players and coaches to Ben Lovejoy’s(notes) swollen face, it was everything a hockey fan was looking for in a reality show. To steal a phrase from the great Jackie Chiles of Seinfeld, it was real and it was spectacular.

Now this season with the potential entertainment from Ilya Bryzgalov (have you read his Twitter lately?), Chris Pronger(notes) (better known as Captain Warmth in Philly), Max Talbot’s Christmas sweater, and the loveable duo of John Tortorella and Larry Brooks, the 4-episode series could even be better than the last.

Although we’ll very much miss the Sean Avery/Wayne Simmonds reunion.

9. Is this the year the San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals finally get over the playoff hump?

The Sharks and the Capitals haven’t had to worry about the regular season for some time now. We all knew they would finish up near the top of the their respective conferences, it was what they accomplished during the playoffs that would matter. So far, the Capitals haven’t gotten past the the second round and the Sharks have come up short on back-to-back Conference Final appearances.

Like any well-run franchise, both teams’ GMs went out and improved the squad over the summer. George McPhee brought in Troy Brouwer(notes), Jeff Halpern(notes), Roman Hamrlik(notes), Joel Ward(notes) and the steal of the summer, Tomas Vokoun(notes), while Doug Wilson dealt away Devin Setoguchi(notes), Dany Heatley(notes) in exchange for Martin Havlat(notes) and Brent Burns(notes), while also signing Michal Handzus(notes) and Colin White(notes).

The rosters are once again stacked and the heavy burden of expectation is once again there. With all of the failures in recent years by both teams, how many heads roll if they both come up short yet again?

10. Can NBC continue getting favorable Stanley Cup TV ratings in the U.S.?

Let’s face it, since the Anaheim Ducks/Ottawa Senators Final in 2007, the NHL and NBC have been extremely fortunate getting very attractive Cup matchups that have drawn very big ratings. From Detroit/Pittsburgh two years in a row to Chicago/Philadelphia to even Vancouver/Boston last season, the series have been compelling and dramatic enough for even the casual viewer to tune in.

Despite getting a Canadian team involved last season, ratings were still strong on NBC, boosted by the fact that the New England market helped push the needle. But you just know during one of the next 10 seasons under this new NHL/NBC television deal, things won’t be as attractive.

Sure, NHL ratings seem to be growing annually, but that’s bolstered by the involvement of big markets (see: NHL on NBC regular season / Winter Classic scheduling). But it’s just a matter of time before another Anaheim/Ottawa-like series winds up being the Cup Final and the hockey interest of the casual fan will be tested.


The 11 burning questions for the 2011-12 NHL season

11. Can the Boston Bruins become the first repeat champs since the Detroit Red Wings?

Playing 100-plus games and winning a Stanley Cup is no easy feat, but to ask a team to do it all again is even harder, as proven by the track record of defending champions.

Since the Red Wings repeated in 1997 and 1998, only four teams (New Jersey, Dallas, Detroit, and Pittsburgh) have played in consecutive finals. And after a long season, and a summer of celebrating their title, the Bruins enter the 2011-12 season with a great, big target on their backs.

What’s positive for the Bruins that has affected previous teams is their roster saw very little change to it in the off-season. GM Peter Chiarelli did a good job of retaining the championship squad and the plan for this season is to give Tuukka Rask(notes) more time in net thereby allowing all-world goalie Tim Thomas(notes) to be fresher heading into the playoffs.

But with the number of other strong Cup contenders this season, the climb to the top of the NHL this season will be even more challenging than last.

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