SPORTS

NHL PREVIEW: With lockout, Olympics in rear-view mirror, league is back to normal

10/02/2014 02:01 EDT | Updated 12/02/2014 05:59 EST
A year ago, the NHL was in the middle of a whirlwind. The lockout-shortened season had barely ended and the Sochi Olympics and six outdoor games were on the horizon.

"Last year was a season like no other," commissioner Gary Bettman said.

When Alec Martinez scored in overtime to win the Stanley Cup for the Los Angeles Kings and the league faded into summer, the ice chips settled. Now well into an era of labour peace and two years away from the likely return of the World Cup of Hockey, there's nothing interrupting each team playing 82 from Oct. 8 through April 11.

"The last couple years have been crazy," Boston Bruins goaltender Tuukka Rask said. "Playing that shortened season, shorter off-season and really compact season with the Olympics. It was kind of a long year and a half and now a really long off-season and a regular season. Things are back to normal, I guess."

This is, indeed, a regular season in the strictest definition of the phrase. There are no glaring problems facing a business with $4 billion in revenues, and things are going so well that the rampant expansion rumours won't go away even as Bettman insists the NHL isn't ready to look in that direction just yet.

A new Canadian television-rights deal should result in the salary cap rising next summer, and the health of the league is perhaps as good as it has ever been.

"The game on the ice has never been better," Bettman said. "It's never been more competitive, more entertaining, more exciting, more unpredictable, and everything we do starts with that. We have a system that gives us stability and gives all teams an opportunity to compete, which is why we see such competitive balance."

Calm waters all around mean there's not a crisis, but it doesn't mean the landscape is boring. In the Western Conference, the Kings and Chicago Blackhawks each have two championships over the past five years and haven't shown any signs of going away.

In the process of those duelling dynasties developing, the West is in the midst of an arms race to keep up. The Dallas Stars went out and got Jason Spezza and Ales Hemsky, the Anaheim Ducks got Ryan Kesler and the St. Louis Blues got Paul Stastny.

The Stars had one of the busiest off-seasons and are a team to get excited about. But given the stiff competition are they even one of the best three or four teams in their conference?

"I think we get lost under the radar because there are some powerhouse teams in the West," Dallas centre Tyler Seguin said. "Teams are only getting better, and a lot of guys and top-end guys from the East are coming over and playing in the West. I think it's a lot of fun."

The fun in the East is that no one's untouchable and pre-season prognostications don't matter. Again the Boston Bruins are the favourites, even after losing Jarome Iginla in free agency, but the Montreal Canadiens, young-and-talented Tampa Bay Lightning and ever-changing Pittsburgh Penguins could just as easily go to the Cup final.

Of course last year the New York Rangers showed they could make a run, too.

"It's about getting hot at the right time," Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist said. "First thing you need to get in, but after that it's about peaking at the right time."

The 2013-14 season was a test of endurance, specifically for the likes of Lundqvist, Martin St. Louis and the Kings' Drew Doughty and Jeff Carter, who all went to the gold-medal game at the Olympics and then to the Cup final. The Rangers and Kings also each played hockey outdoors last year as part of the NHL's "Stadium Series."

In 2014-15, only two of the 1,230 regular-season games will be outdoors: the Winter Classic at Nationals Park in Washington on Jan. 1 between the Blackhawks and Capitals and one Stadium Series event Feb. 21 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., between the Kings and San Jose Sharks.

Cutting down from six outdoor games to two wasn't just a matter of preventing too much of a good thing, according to Bettman, who said there's still plenty of interest from cities to host in the future.

"Everybody wants one," Bettman said. "What happened, though, this year, when we were looking at doing games, the games have gotten so big our clubs that are interested want more lead time. There were teams that didn't want to go this year. They said, 'We'll take a game, but make it the following year because we want more lead time.'"

Future outdoor games could be coming to Toronto, Winnipeg and Minnesota. But the Maple Leafs, Jets and Wild will have to deal with 41 indoor home games this season.

Among those games, the lack of an Olympic break will allow for a more normal schedule without as many back-to-backs and stretches of three games in four nights.

"The biggest thing is the rest days, the time between games, the time between travel," former Canadiens captain and current Buffalo Sabres forward Brian Gionta said. "Everyone looks at it and they're like, 'It's a game a week difference,' but it makes a big difference in your travel, it makes a big difference in your practice time or your rest time."

After that 48-game condensed schedule after the end of the lockout in 2013 and 82 sandwiched around the Olympics last year, players hope a return to normalcy also means fewer injuries and better quality of play.

"It'll be nice to practise and work on things," New York Islanders winger Kyle Okposo said. "You can really get back to a normal schedule. That'll be big for everybody, hopefully enable us to stay more healthy than we have. We're excited for kind of a normal routine."

Normal, though, is relative and could be short-term. The league and the NHLPA could as soon as this month announce plans for the return of the World Cup of Hockey in 2016, and there's still hope that players go to Pyeongchang, South Korea, for the 2018 Olympics.

That's a concern for down the line, when prospective top picks in June's draft like Connor McDavid and Jack Eichel are blossoming NHL stars and not just prizes for the league's worst teams. The Sabres and Calgary Flames can dream of that, but Bettman is glad that playoff hopes are the new normal almost everywhere.

"What we have in competitive balance now is unprecedented in our history and maybe for any sport," he said at a recent Canadian Club luncheon. "It's more important that no matter what team you root for, you feel at this time of year, 'Boy my team's got a shot at the playoffs,' and as we've seen the last few years once you make the playoffs anything can happen."

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