By Sean Hartnett
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A marathon 16-hour bargaining session stretching into Sunday morning produced the framework of the NHL's new collective bargaining agreement. After 113 torturous days, hockey fans received the news they were hoping for -- the lockout was finally ending.
It seems the 2013 regular season will be 48 games in length. It is yet to be announced when the new schedule will get under way, but January 19 appears the most logical and likely start date.
Players are flying back from Europe to join their teammates who are holding informal workouts. Following the ratification of the new CBA, official training camps will begin on Sunday. Once NHL play resumes, there will be a highly-charged, packed schedule of games in the months leading up to the playoffs.
Buckle up, because it's going to be a wild ride...
1. A Frenzied Sprint To The Playoffs
The 48-game schedule will be largely made up of divisional play. Rivalries will become nastier and competition for playoff spaces will be fierce.
Every game will mean more because of the shortened schedule. Games will be played with desperation and playoff-like intensity every night. Teams you wouldn't expect might find their way into the playoff race by winning these tightly-contested divisional games.
It's going to be an all-out fight for the eight playoff spots in each conference.
2. Will The Kings Avoid A Stanley Cup Hangover?
Their Stanley Cup roster is mostly intact and full of players in their prime years. Reigning Conn Smythe-winning goaltender Jonathan Quick signed a ten-year extension and top defenseman Drew Doughty won't become a free agent until 2019. Mike Richards is on the Kings' payroll through the 2019-20 season and Jeff Carter is signed until 2022. Anze Kopitar won't hit free agency until 2016 and captain Dustin Brown isn't going anywhere.
Los Angeles boasts a deep, talent-rich roster from top-to-bottom. The additions of Carter and Richards paid off tremendously as it addressed the Kings' scoring woes and solidified their forward depth. Quick recorded a 1.95 goals against average last season in front of an unyielding group of blueliners.
The Kings are prepared for their Stanley Cup defense, but it's tremendously difficult to repeat in the modern NHL.
Since the Salary Cap Era began, hockey dynasties appear to be a thing of the past. Six different teams have raised the Stanley Cup after the hard salary cap system was introduced before the 2005-06 season.
Last season, the defending champion Boston Bruins were eliminated in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Kings will be looking to buck this trend and become the first team to repeat as champions since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings.
3. Rick Nash Is Ready To Light Up Broadway
When Rick Nash was traded to the New York Rangers this summer, he went from the team with lowest point total in the league in 2011-12 to a win-now Rangers team that led the Eastern Conference regular season standings.
In New York, Nash will not have to carry the burden of being the face of the franchise as was the case during his nine years in Columbus. Since being drafted No. 1 overall in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Nash was the unquestioned face of the Blue Jackets. The pressure was entirely on him to spark a stuttering franchise.
As a Ranger, Nash is surrounded by talent for the first time in his career. He can simply let his game do the talking. Nash is a consistent 30-goal scorer and has eclipsed the 30-goal mark in each of his five most recent seasons. The Rangers brought in Nash to boost their goals per game and breathe life into an ordinary powerplay and that's exactly what he'll do with his big body and instincts in front of net.
Expectations will be high for Nash to deliver immediately New York, but the spotlight won't be focused entirely on Nash. There are a lot of experienced pros in the Rangers' tight-knit locker room who collectively share the pressures of playing in New York.
Nash won't score 30 goals in the abbreviated 48-game season, but he'll light the lamp with regularity and brighten the chances of a Stanley Cup Final returning to Madison Square Garden for the first time since 1994.
4. Superstar Sidney Crosby Is Finally Healthy
Sidney Crosby spent the past two years battling concussions. That being said, a start-stop 2011-12 season didn't hurt Crosby's offensive production. Crosby recorded an outstanding 37 points in 22 games played last season.
Now, he's finally 100% healthy and itching to get back on the ice after missing 101 combined regular season games over the past two seasons. Crosby went as far as playing goalie in a Pittsburgh ball hockey rec league to satisfy his competitive juices.
Whether or not you like Crosby, it will be hard to suppress your excitement when a healthy Crosby is working his magic on the ice.
Despite his lofty list of accomplishments, it's easy to forget that Crosby is still just 25 years old. His work ethic is the stuff of legend and his desire to improve never ceases. Perhaps, his best hockey is yet to come.
5. Final Season For Legends Brodeur And Selanne?
It would have been crushing to see NHL legends Martin Brodeur and Teemu Selanne forced into retirement because of an entirely locked-out season. Thankfully, that's not the case and both are returning for what could be one last season.
Some wondered whether Brodeur would come back had the entire 2012-13 season been lost. Brodeur told reporters Tuesday that he actually would have returned in 2013-14 had that been the case. It's entirely possible that the legendary Brodeur sticks around for the remaining two years he's under contract.
Selanne and Brodeur have remained two of the most respected players in the game. Their longevity is evidenced by the fact they each made their NHL debut in 1992. Both Brodeur and Selanne continue to amaze fans with their remarkable levels of play despite being old enough to be fathers of their rookie teammates.
At the point of Brodeur's career when most were questioning how much he had left in the tank, he unexpectedly brought the Devils to the 2012 Stanley Cup Final. Making a repeat visit to the finals will be a lot tough now that former Devils' captain Zach Parise calls Minnesota home. If Brodeur's career has taught us one thing, it's that you can never underestimate his ability to catch fire and carry his team during the playoffs.
The 42-year-old Selanne's popularity stretches from coast-to-coast among hockey diehards. Selanne is seven assists away from reaching the 750-assist career landmark. He still has the moves that make you shake your head in disbelief and he does it with a smile on his face.
As much as we'd all like to see these two go on playing forever, this could be the last year we'll see them playing in the NHL. For Selanne, this is probably the end and only a devastating injury would force Brodeur not to honor his two-year contract. Fans everywhere will be keeping a close eye on these two greats over the course of the 2013 season.
6. Teams Looking To Make A Flurry Of Deals
Roberto Luongo's name has constantly been mentioned in trade rumors and the Vancouver Canucks are looking to move the man once considered their franchise goaltender.
The younger, cheaper 26-year-old Cory Schneider has eclipsed Luongo as the Canucks' number one and Vancouver is looking to get Luongo's long-term contract off their books. Luongo is signed through the 2021-22 season.
A number of GMs will be trying to pry Luongo from the Canucks. The Toronto Maple Leafs, Florida Panthers, Chicago Blackhawks and Edmonton Oilers all have an obvious weakness between the pipes. Should Luongo end up in Toronto, it would give the struggling Maple Leafs the franchise cornerstone they've lacked since Mats Sundin left town in 2008.
Speaking of franchise players, captain Jarome Iginla is entering the final year of his contract with the Calgary Flames. While it would be hard to imagine Iginla in another uniform, it wouldn't be surprising to see the Flames dump Iginla before the rumored April 5 trade deadline rather than lose him for nothing.
7. Top Players Remain Unsigned RFAs, Useful UFAs Still Available
Unsigned restricted free agents include defenseman Michael Del Zotto of the Rangers, Montreal Canadiens' defenseman P.K. Subban, Winger Jamie Benn of the Stars, center Ryan O'Reilly of the Avalanche, Maple Leafs' defenseman Cody Franson and defenseman Dmitri Kulikov of the Panthers.
GMs around the NHL need to figure out to fit these players into a shrinking salary cap that will drop to $64.3 million in 2013-14. This isn't a straightforward process for a team like the Rangers, who need to give Del Zotto a raise now and have Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Carl Hagelin and Michael Sauer as upcoming RFAs next offseason.
Jason Arnott, Chris Campoli, Petr Sykora, Daymond Langkow and Dominic Moore lead the list of unrestricted free agents still available. There's quite a few bargains out there for teams looking to fill out their rosters.
For those wondering why I've left Tomas Holmstrom off the list, it's because he informed the Red Wings he's retiring.
8. How Will The Red Wings Look Without Lidstrom?
For 20 seasons, legendary defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom was the rock upon the Detroit Red Wings' powerhouse teams were built. The Red Wings' iconic captain retired following the 2011-12 season and it will be strange for fans not see Lidstrom leading the Red Wings onto the ice at Joe Louis Arena in 2013.
His calm leadership and elite level play is impossible for one man to replace. Henrik Zetterberg is the favorite to take over the Red Wings' captaincy, but the loss of Lidstrom is something the entire locker room must absorb.
In addition to Lidstrom's retirement, Detroit further weakened their blueline by trading Brad Stuart to the San Jose Sharks. They desperately attempted to sign Ryan Suter, but missed out on the package deal to sign Suter and top free agent Zach Parise as both agreed to join the Minnesota Wild.
The Red Wings will head into 2013 trying to form a new identity in a highly-competitive Central Division.
9. Tim Thomas Watch
When we last heard from outspoken goalie Tim Thomas, he was announcing to fans his intention to take time off from the game after a number of highly-publicized feuds with the Bruins.
Thomas seems perfectly happy enjoying life with his family in Colorado, but the Bruins aren't pleased with his decision as his $5 million contract is still counting against Boston's salary cap.
The former Conn Smythe winner was in the headlines for the wrong reasons during the 2011-12 season. He refused to visit the White House with the rest of the Bruins to celebrate their Stanley Cup Championship because of political reasons, angering the organization and causing a rift with teammates.
He went to great lengths to express his views against marriage equality and promoted his religious beliefs through his official Facebook page.
Meanwhile, the Bruins are fuming over his decision to not officially retire and thus, hamstring their salary cap space. Perhaps a trade to the Avalanche could be worked out should Thomas suddenly get the itch to play.
10. The Amazing Mr. Yakupov And The Talented, Young Oilers
To no one's surprise, the Edmonton Oilers selected Nail Yakupov first overall in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft. Yakupov immediately joins a group of talented youngsters in Edmonton consisting of Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Taylor Hall and Justin Schultz.
Yakupov's stick-handling skills, scoring touch and skating ability are a joy to watch. I hope you had the opportunity to watch him dangle and dash during the recent World Juniors played in Ufa, Russia.
Edmonton's young guns made a huge impact at the 2013 Under-20 World Junior Championships. Nugent-Hopkins led the World Juniors with 15 points in 6 games and Yapukov recorded 8 points in 7 games.
The future is so bright in Edmonton, Oilers fans might need to invest in new pairs of sunglasses. It's just a matter of time before this promising group comes together and follows the model of teams like the Kings and Penguins who built Stanley Cup winners around their core of successful draft selections.
Comparisons to the Gretzky-Messier Oilers dynasty of 1980's were premature, but it would surprising not to see this group eventually develop into a Western Conference force.
There are probably 1,000 more reasons why I'm looking forward to the 2013 NHL season. Let me know what you're most interested in seeing when the new season dawns.
Give me a shout on Twitter -- @HartnettWFAN and leave your comments below...
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