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Why the NHL maybe doesn’t need Sidney Crosby to start the season…

August 14, 2011

…and why even if Alex Ovechkin is not back to his A-game, it’s okay.

Post-lockout hockey has been about the stars. And Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin have been the most prominent of stars, ones the NHL didn’t waste any time promoting and using to further the game of hockey. Say what you will about either player or team, but they’ve been hugely important in the drive to grow the NHL the last six years.

But entering the 2011-2012, there is a great degree of uncertainty as to the condition each player will be arriving in, but for vastly different reasons.

Sidney Crosby suffered two concussions, one in the Winter Classic, and another against Tampa a week later. They combined to shut him down for the remainder of the season. This tweet from earlier this morning sparked this post, but it is something I’d been thinking about earlier. It seems it could be pure speculation at this stage, and speculate away the media did during Crosby’s absence, with constant reports on what workouts he was performing and how the state of his post-concussion syndrome symptoms was progressing. As a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold winner, he is vital to the sport. While his Penguins coped fairly well without him, he will be needed. Malkin looks to be making a return already with his intense workouts in Moscow splashed all over the internet. They are as important a duo as any. And together they’ve nurtured one another and propelled the NHL ever high. Simply, Crosby is the definition of great hockey: a smooth skating, passing and sniping leader.

On the other hand, there’s Alex Ovechkin, who is “stumbling” back from a 32 goal season and an unimpressive sweep at the hand of divisional rival Tampa. He changed his training regiment, and is training with his old trainer, instead of alone. He is also returning from injuries that he played through this season. Couple that with the switch to Bruce Boudreau’s new defensive program and Ovechkin’s inability to score on the power-play, and it makes for a mediocre Ovechkin season (and a great one for nearly any other player). But with free agency additions and a healthy and prepared Ovechkin, there’s no telling how far the Capitals could go. It may take multiple stabs here. Most teams don’t push through to running the Stanley Cup around the ice on their first attempt, after all. Penguins didn’t, Blackhawks didn’t, Bruins didn’t. Time.

But back to the stars. It’s difficult to force the NHL to revamp its marketing scheme in the face of uncertain injuries like this. But I think it offers other teams and players an excellent opportunity to shine. We saw just how Stamkos (though he wasn’t much of a factor himself) and Tampa’s drive in the playoffs showed that new teams can dazzle. Sean Bergenheim, anyone? But that’s the beauty of the playoffs: anyone steps up, and often it’s an unlikely hero. But for the regular season, there’s one area that I think could really be used: goaltending. Nearly every team in the league (maybe save for the Oilers, Senators, Leafs or Islanders) has a well-known and great goaltender in net. Celebrating the spectacular goal-stopping we’ve seen post-lockout from Lundqvist, Miller, Vokoun, Bryzgalov and others would be an excellent starting point. I think the Luongo v. Thomas rivalry in the playoffs was great for exposing the position for what it is: arguably the most important on the ice.

Beyond this, while the NHL shies away from promoting smaller markets, it’s definitely worth boasting of Buffalo’s changes this summer, and really taking a harder look at what Rinne, Suter and Weber (even if short-lived) are doing in Nashville. There are a lot more stars and story-lines to work on. How about the Blues’ youth movement (one that should be healthy this year), and how they’ll come through with the additions of Langenbrunner and Arnott? Or how about the Panthers’ wild free agency-o-rama team? Miami is a big enough market. They should get some spotlight. Of course, there are the natural powerhouses, like the Flyers (?), Bruins, Canucks, Blackhawks and Red Wings, that should continue to shine.

The league isn’t defined by Ovechkin or Crosby for the average fan. They are tremendous ambassadors and assets. But to think the NHL without either of them is an NHL that is somehow so much lesser is unfair–and it directly contradicts all the parity Bettman so often boasts of and the extraordinary talent that swells throughout the league at this point.

I want to see them both healthy and on the ice come October. But there are far more story-lines than meets the eye across the league. Given how injuries and ebbs and flows come, it’s best the NHL start working on them.

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