Issues will carry over into next season

As the regular season draws to a close, several notable stories that have arisen will remain factors heading into next season:

Player protection

This issue had been simmering for years but it was Pittsburgh forward Matt Cooke’s unpunished blindside head shot on Boston Bruins center Marc Savard and the subsequent public outcry that forced the league at last to act.

The league and the NHL Players Association agreed to a rule penalizing such hits starting next season, and for suspensions for any such hits during the remainder of this season, including the playoffs.

It remains to be seen if this rule change will have any impact on reducing these kinds of cheap shots and the resulting concussion injuries which can prove season-ending and career-threatening to the victims.

Still, for the first time the NHL has finally, albeit belatedly, taken very important steps in the right
direction toward addressing the safety of its players.

Phoenix rising

Throughout last summer the Phoenix Coyotes made headlines due to the league’s very public battle to prevent Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie from purchasing the team and moving it to Hamilton, Ontario.

Entering the season, the bankrupt Coyotes weren’t expected to be a playoff contender, yet a combination of a new head coach in Dave Tippett, strong goaltending from Ilya Bryzgalov and the players’ determination not to allow the uncertainty over the future to be a distraction saw the Coyotes finish among the top teams in the Western Conference.

While the Coyotes will finish the season at the bottom of the league in attendance, their improved play drew more fans in the second half of the season.

Should they continue playing well next season it could go a long way toward rebuilding interest in hockey in the Phoenix area but they must first get new ownership in place willing to keep the franchise there.

Bruins collapse

Last season at this time the Boston Bruins were the top team in the Eastern Conference. Tim Thomas would win the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie, Zdeno Chara the Norris Trophy as the top defenseman and Claude Julien the Jack Adams trophy as the best coach. Despite bowing out of the second round of the 2009 playoffs, many predicted the Bruins would be a Stanley Cup contender in 2010.

Instead, a combination of injuries, lack of scoring and shaky play from Thomas left the Bruins struggling for one of the final playoff berths in the last week of the ’09-’10 campaign. Chara has played his best but was unable to cover for the club’s problems, while some fans and pundits were calling on management to fire Julien.

The injuries weren’t Julien’s fault, particularly those to top playmaker Marc Savard and promising power forward Milan Lucic. Trading Phil Kessel to Toronto last September didn’t help matters while the offensive production of forwards Michael Ryder, David Krejci and Blake Wheeler dropped significantly this season.

With a healthier roster it’s possible the Bruins could bounce back next season. And with Tuukka Rask outplaying Thomas, there’s talk of convincing the latter to waive his “no-trade” clause to add more offensive depth.

Blackhawks and Flyers goalie woes

The Chicago Blackhawks and Philadelphia Flyers were also considered potential Cup contenders entering this season but as the playoffs approach there are justifiable concerns over the status of their goaltending.

Cap constraints last summer forced the Flyers into signing Ray Emery, bringing back Brian Boucher and plucking Michael Leighton off waivers. With Emery and Leighton now out for the playoffs with injuries, it’s fallen to Boucher to hold the fort, and no one believes he can deliver the goaltending required to carry this team deep into the playoffs. The goalie woes are part of the reason the Flyers find themselves barely clinging to a playoff berth.

The Blackhawks have a very expensive backup in Cristobal Huet, whom they signed two years ago to a four-year, $5.625 million per season contract. He’s stumbled badly throughout this season and was replaced by promising but inexperienced Antti Niemi, who’s been steady but doesn’t appear ready to carry the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup.

Both clubs are pressed for salary cap space for next season but will have to make some serious decisions to address this significant problem area.

Ownership woes

The Phoenix Coyotes weren’t the only team facing some ownership issues this season.

The Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers were sold. The Atlanta Thrashers continue to flounder under the indifferent ownership of Atlanta Spirit.

Nashville Predators senior owner Paul Freeman was forced to resign over tax issues. The New York Islanders’ future remains in doubt as owner Charles Wang hinted he might move the team if the long-discussed Lighthouse Project – the plan with the town of Hempstead to build a new arena – isn’t resolved soon.

Even the once-mighty Dallas Stars were rumored to be for sale as the financial woes of owner Tom Hicks resulted in the reduction of player payroll.

While the Lightning and Panthers situations appear stabilized and the Coyotes could soon be under new ownership willing to keep them in Phoenix, it’s clear several NHL teams could remain the subject of considerable speculation next season.