So here we are ready to flip the calendar to 2012 and there is no escaping the feeling this is going to be one of the most influential and important years for the NHL in recent memory.
The biggest issue confronting the league is the concussion situation, which is nothing short of dire with Sidney Crosby, the poster boy for both the league and brain trauma, almost exactly where he was a year ago: out indefinitely, his season and, it's not too much of a stretch to say, his career up in the air.
The scary thing is, nobody seems to have any answers, though the dialogue will continue, about treatment, about the rules, about how to make the game safer. Just saying hockey is a dangerous game and concussions are always going to be a part of it isn't good enough.
The other developing story will be the talks for a new CBA, which are expected to get underway after the all-star game in Ottawa at the end of the month.
If I was going to bet at this point, I would say there will be another lockout.
As it was put to me the other day by one of the interested parties, there are some owners of American-based teams who wouldn't be heartbroken to see the league shut down until Christmas. The games from October until after the Super Bowl are the poorest attended in some markets.
Some owners would save a lot of dough by not playing those games and would put a bit of a hurt on the players as they would lose half their 2012-13 salaries.
That's what happened in the NBA, which has some owners who share similar views about their business as NHL owners.
Hopefully I'm wrong.
HEAR AND THERE: NBC will use 30 cameras for the Winter Classic Monday, more than double what they use for an indoor game. They will also have an Airplane Cam and the Cable Cam over the ice surface. The only one I'm interested in is the Torts Cam ... Speaking of the Winter Classic, nice touch by the Philadelphia Flyers alumni to wear a No. 10 patch for their game Saturday against Rangers alumni to honour former teammate Brad McCrimmon ... Rangers D Marc Staal has been cleared for contact after being sidelined by a concussion incurred last year on a hit by brother Eric of the Carolina Hurricanes. He apparently was unofficially approved for contact when he wrestled with brother Jordan of the Penguins in Eric's kitchen as the clan got together for Christmas at Eric's place.
THE BUZZ: Good line by New Jersey Devils D Henrik Tallinder after he got hit in the foot by a shot in practice: "It took my mind off my back." ... When the Columbus Blue Jackets won in Dallas Thursday night, it ended a stretch of 23 games dating back to last season since they had won away from home in regulation time ... Something to which we can look forward: the Chicago Blackhawks and the Detroit Red Wings play three times in the next 16 days, starting Friday night in Chicago ... Looks like it's going to be strike two for Matthew Hulsizer in his pursuit of an NHL team. Saturday is the deadline for him to get a deal done to buy the St. Louis Blues and it doesn't look like it's going to happen. He sniffed around the Coyotes, too.
JUST SAYING: There seems to be some misunderstanding out there about Bob Gainey's role with the Montreal Canadiens. Some are talking about him coming back to the team because he has been seen on the road at a couple of games (Winnipeg and Montreal). Fact is, he's never been away. Since giving up the GM title, he's still had tremendous influence on club decisions and regularly has conversations with players ... Say what you want about Mike Green as a defenceman, but the fact is the Washington Capitals are 8-0 with him in the lineup and 10-15-2 without him going into Friday's game ... Saying somebody is the best player on the Wings is saying something, so here's to you, Jimmy Howard.
JUST WONDERING: How crazy is this stat: Minnesota Wild goaltender Niklas Backstrom is 16-0 all-time at home against the Edmonton Oilers. Backstrom almost started a riot when he slashed Oilers F Ryan Smyth at the end of the game. "He slashed me four times before that," said Backstrom. "So I had a lot of things to catch up (for)."
THE LAST WORD: The best coaching change that has worked -- you could say the only one that has worked (pending how things go with Darryl Sutter in Los Angeles) -- is Ken Hitchcock in St. Louis. Hitchcock had a rep for being a miserable guy with which to work, but his time away from the game seems to have mellowed him a bit. He's counting to 10 these days before saying what's on his mind. He sat outside the rink in his car for a while the day after the Blues lost to the Wings. "I wasn't coming in until the coffee was over. Don't come in angry," he said. "If they're expecting me to go postal, forget it. Too old for that."
TOP 5 NHL STORIES FOR 2012
1. Sidney Crosby. As the calendar turns, we find ourselves -- so disappointingly so -- almost right where we were at the beginning of 2011: wondering what the future holds for the game's best player, out again with a recurrence of concussion symptoms. When, or if, Crosby returns will be the big story for the first few months of 2012. The implications are far-reaching for the NHL and the Penguins.
2. The CBA. Talks on a new deal -- the current agreement is set to expire in September -- are set to begin sometime after the all-star game at the end of the month. This is going to be another case of the owners wanting more takebacks and the players having to take a haircut again. How much is too much?
3. Boston Bruins. After shaking off their Stanley Cup hangover, the champs have been ripping it up. Something to consider: their power play is up to ninth in the league this season after performing so horribly in the Cup run last spring. You can bet GM Peter Chiarelli will do something to bolster the roster, too.
4. The Phoenix Coyotes. It's been relatively quiet on the rumour front, which is usually a good sign. The NHL remains committed to keeping the Coyotes in Glendale, but after Saturday they are free to entertain offers from potential owners interested in moving the team for next season. Expect talk about a move to Quebec City to heat up if nothing has happened by April.
5. Rules. With the recent spike in concussions, there will be more talk about adjusting the rules to try and reduce circumstances where players are vulnerable. The talk will be about putting the red line back in for two-line offsides and getting rid of the trapezoid to allow goaltenders to move the puck.
THE GROCERY STICK
Who is, literally or figuratively, heading for or in that comfortable spot on the bench that separates the forwards and the defencemen?
Buffalo Sabres forward Drew Stafford is coming off a 31-goal season which saw him rewarded with a four-year, $16-million contract. So far this season? He has six goals and 19 points going into Friday's game, which has led to Stafford being one of the Sabres who could use a change of scenery. "I'm coming close," said Stafford. "It all starts with speed. The next part is putting it in. Hopefully, the next one's going in."
Power-play situations: 124
It's not good news for the rest of the league that the defending Stanley Cup champs look like they are improving the weakest part of their game. The B's power play was 20th in the league in the regular season last year and 14th among the 16 teams that made the playoffs last spring. They won the Cup despite their power play. But it is better this year by more than three percentage points (19.4% vs. 16.2%) and has moved up to eighth in the league's regular-season standings. Interesting to note the Bruins power play is the only unit not to have given up a short-handed goal this season.
Injuries that are having, or could have, a big impact.
Columbus Blue Jackets
I know. The Blue Jackets. Who cares? But the Jackets' signing of free-agent defenceman James Wisniewski to a six-year, $33 million deal is a bit of a cautionary tale and represents how off the rails the season has been in Columbus. After missing the first eight games of the season with a suspension, Wisniewski now could be out indefinitely after suffering a suspected broken ankle taking a shot off the stick of Dallas Stars forward Mike Ribeiro. It's almost like the Wisniewski signing -- frankly, the Jackets overpaid -- was bad karma. He's had 17 points in 29 games and, at minus-18, is tied for the second-worst plus/minus rating in the league. What a brutal season for Wisniewski and the Jackets.
The Boston Bruins goal differential -- on the positive side -- going into Friday night's games. In 17 of the 24 games they have played since Nov. 1, the Bruins have surrendered two goals or less. As impressive as that is, they won't come close to the record for goal differential in a season: the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens were an incredible 216.
The number of teams, since the lockout, that have made the playoffs with a negative goal differential. The Ottawa Senators hold the record, having made the playoffs in 2009-10 despite being outscored by 13 goals. Interesting to note the Senators are fighting for a playoff spot this season despite sitting in ninth place in the Eastern Conference at -15 going into Friday's games.
The number of team in the Western Conference that have made the playoffs with a negative goal differential since the lockout. That would be the 2008-09 Columbus Blue Jackets, who finished seventh despite being -4 on the season. The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Montreal Canadiens have each made the playoffs twice in the East with a negative goal differential.
The number of teams since the lockout that led the league in goal differential and went on to win the Stanley Cup that season -- the Detroit Red Wings in 2007-08. They were 73. The lowest-ranked team in goal differential to win the Cup since the lockout was the Pittsburgh Penguins, who were ninth (25) in 2009. The last two Cup winners were ranked second.