2009 a year of stars, Penguins

As 2009 draws to a close here’s a look back at the 10 most notable NHL stories of the year.

1. Penguins win the Stanley Cup. Sitting outside the playoff picture in February 2009, Penguins management changed coaches, acquired forwards Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz and battled their way into the playoffs. From there, led by goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and superstars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, the Pens marched to a return engagement with the defending champion Detroit Red Wings in the Stanley Cup Final and won in seven games — defeating Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in a tough seven-game Eastern Conference semifinal along the way. In the first half of this season, the defending champs show little sign of a Cup hangover and appear in good shape to defend their title in 2010.

2. Alexander the Great. For the second consecutive season, Washington Capitals superstar Alexander Ovechkin proved himself the NHL’s best player by winning the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP, the Pearson Trophy as the players’ MVP choice and the Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal-scorer. The charismatic Ovechkin also proved himself a strong playoff performer with 11 goals and 21 points in 14 playoff games. Despite being sidelined by injury and suspension in the first half of 2009-10, Ovechkin was tied for the league lead in goals and only two points out of the league lead in points, showing no sign of slowing down.

3. Mighty Malkin.
Prior to last season, Penguins star forward Evgeni Malkin was overshadowed by the exploits of teammate Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin. But in 2008-09, he emerged as their NHL equal, winning the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s regular season scoring leader and the Conn Smythe Trophy as the 2009 playoff MVP, leading all players in postseason scoring and stepping up in the Stanley Cup Final. He also ended a supposed feud with countryman Ovechkin at the 2009 All-Star Game by helping the latter prepare for his trick-shooting antics in the skills competition. Malkin served notice this year that he takes a back seat to no one.

4. Brodeur the best. Throughout his long career, New Jersey Devils goalie Martin Brodeur performed in the shadow of Hall-of-Fame netminder Patrick Roy. But in 2009, Brodeur proved himself the greatest goaltender of the modern era. In March, he broke Roy’s record for most regular season victories by a goalie with 552. In October, he broke Roy’s record for most career minutes played. And in December, he broke a record Roy never came close to, that of Terry Sawchuk’s 39-year record for most career shutouts (103), earning his 104th in a 4-0 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 21. No current active goaltender even comes close to Brodeur’s records.

5. Head injuries.
The rise in concussions among NHL players has caused an increase in concern over players deliberately targeting opponents’ heads with their sticks, shoulders and elbows. For the most part, the NHL paid lip service to these concerns, handing out minimal suspensions for repeat offenders. The concerns and criticisms reached a crescendo early in the 2009-10 season when Philadelphia Flyers captain Mike Richards deliberately laid out Florida Panthers forward David Booth with a blindside head shot, casting a harsh light upon the league’s handling of the issue. Some leading pundits even suggest the legal system could eventually step in if the league doesn’t become more proactive. As long as the NHL continues to dither on the issue, the more likely a player could be crippled — or worse — by a head shot.

6. Coyote Ugly. Canadian billionaire Jim Balsillie, thwarted in two previous attempts to buy an NHL franchise and move it to Hamilton, Ont., tried again by making a $212 million bid for the bankrupt Phoenix Coyotes. The move started an offseason legal battle between Balsillie and league commissioner Gary Bettman, who was determined to stop the Blackberry Billionaire. Ultimately Balsillie’s attempt proved unsuccessful and the league took over the Coyotes, which might have new ownership soon. The Coyotes this season appear to be a playoff contender but uncertainty over the club’s future continues to take a punishing toll on their attendance numbers.

7. Islanders select Tavares. For most of this decade, the New York Islanders have been a floundering franchise, lacking a true franchise player around which to rebuild into a potential Cup contender. However, that may have changed at the June draft, as the Islanders used the first overall pick to select John Tavares, who so far this season hasn’t disappointed and leads all rookies in goals and points so far. While the 19-year-old Tavares has struggled at times this season, there’s little question he’s played up to expectations for the rebuilding Islanders and should become the bedrock upon which this club could finally rise into playoff contention in the near future.

8. Recession bites. Since the NHL returned from a season-killing lockout in 2005, its revenues have gone up, resulting in a steady rise in the salary cap from $39.5 million in 2005-06 to $56.7 million in 2008-09. The global recession, however, took its toll upon league revenues — especially among the U.S.-based franchises — by the summer of 2009 as the salary cap essentially flat-lined for 2009-10. That in turn impacted the unrestricted free market, limiting the number of clubs willing to spend on free agent talent. If not for the NHL’s popularity in Canada (the six Canadian teams account for more than 30 percent of league revenues) and that country’s strong dollar, league revenues for this season would’ve declined. Commissioner Gary Bettman claims the cap for next season won’t drop, but it likely won’t rise by much, which could take an even bigger toll upon summer’s free agent market.

9. Canadiens Centennial. The Montreal Canadiens overdid it with the year-long celebrations leading up to the centennial of their founding (commemorative games, vintage jerseys, retirement of numbers, issue of coins, DVDs, games and other merchandise). But when it came to the centennial game on Dec. 4, the Habs did it right. First came a warm-up skate featuring many greats from their past, including Patrick Roy, Guy Lafleur, Larry Robinson and Yvan Cournoyer suiting up and taking a turn. That was followed by a large on-ice group photo involving those greats with the players of the current team, and ending with the latter handing longtime rival Boston Bruins a 5-1 drubbing by the current roster to close the book on their first 100 years.

10. Lightning crashes. 2008 was a bad year for the once-mighty Tampa Bay Lightning and things didn’t get much better for the franchise this year. Team captain Vincent Lecavalier was dogged for months by trade rumors. Co-owners Oren Koules and Len Barrie wound up feuding over the team’s management leading to speculation the former could buy out the latter amid reports the team is hemorrhaging money. Starting goaltender Mike Smith was sidelined midway through February by a concussion from which he’s only now made a full recovery. The Lightning in 2009-10 are thus far playing better than they were last season, but that improvement hasn’t translated yet into significantly improved ticket sales. Heading into 2010, the future of this franchise remains cloudy.