The NHL finally drops the puck this Saturday. Hardcore hockey fans (myself included) are already frothing at the mouth at the return of the NHL. What about the casual hockey fans? What could help bring them back? Here are five story lines that could help bring back and fire up more casual NHL fans.
1. A healthy, dominant Sidney Crosby
For two years, Sidney Crosby – the face of the NHL – has been sidelined by injuries. When he is healthy, Crosby is the best player on the planet. The league needs the excitement of a healthy, dominant year by Sid the kid. Could you imagine the fan interest in every city the Penguins visited if Crosby was aiming for 50 goals in 48 games?
2. A Canadian team in the Stanley Cup finals
It has been 20 years since a Canadian team won Lord Stanley’s Cup. While hockey is an international sport, it is still – at its core – a Canadian game. After Canada came up short in the World Junior Championships in Ufa, Russia, nothing would galvanize hockey’s Canadian base like a Canadian team in the Stanley Cup finals.
The Vancouver Canucks are the most likely Canadian team with a Cup run in it. But the young Edmonton Oilers are also poised for success in this short season (see more about the Oiler below).
3. A Breakout Season by a Young Prospect
We need the next Gretzky, the next Lemieux, the next Crosby to emerge in 2013. Imagine if a young prospect had the kind of rookie season like Teemu Selanne had for Winnipeg back in 1992?
There are prospects that are capable of having huge breakout seasons. The Oilers Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and rookie Nail Yakupov, the Islanders John Tavares (who is already coming off a big year), the Canadiens Alex Galchenyuk, and the Panthers Jonathan Huberdeau are all players capable of big years in this shortened season.
4. A Dark Horse Team Makes a Deep Run
Like Disney, sports fans and sports journalists like a Cinderella story. The long-suffering franchise comes out of nowhere to make a deep run in the playoffs. The most obvious candidate for Cinderella’s slipper this year is the Edmonton Oilers. The Oilers are a storied franchise, the team of Gretzky and Messier, a dynasty in the 1980s. In the last decade, the Oilers have fallen on hard times. Things got so bad that Oilers ownership made visits to Seattle raising the possibility that team might abandon the city.
This Oilers team could turn the page on this sad recent history. The Oilers are stocked with incredibly talented young studs: Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Nail Yakupov, Justin Schultz, Jordan Eberle and Sam Gagne. The league better look out for the Oilers in a shortened, compacted season.
5. A Return to Respectability in Toronto and Montreal
This is admittedly the least likely thing on this list to actually occur. Indeed, all of the above occurring at the same time may be more likely than this happening.
The greatest two franchises in the history of the NHL – the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens – have struggled to be relevant in the last few years. The Leafs have missed the playoff seven straight years and last year the Canadiens finished dead last in the Eastern Conference – even behind the lowly New York Islanders.
Toronto and Montreal are ground zero for hockey – with 36 Stanley Cup victories between them (23 for the Canadiens and 13 for the Leafs). They have large, rabid fan bases that are hungry for a return to competitive hockey. A return to respectability by one or both of these franchises would help fire up the oldest, largest and most storied fan bases in the NHL.
Unfortunately, neither of these franchises is likely to be relevant this year. The Leafs bizarrely canned their GM Brian Burke just days after the agreement was reached to end the lockout and are missing a top line scoring threat and a goalie. The Canadiens have yet to come to a deal with their young defenseman star PK Subban and their biggest news recently was the announcement that they were going to pay Scott Gomez $7.5 million not to play.