On Thin Ice

Yeah, yeah, yeah, we know, there might not even be any hockey this year. The National Hockey League’s stars have scattered to faraway leagues to stay fresh in the hopes that the league and its players association can make an agreement that will save the 2012-13 season. Even the NHL has to realize that it’s on thin ice with this lockout.

It does, doesn’t it?

The NFL and the NBA have survived work stoppages, but the NHL is neither of those. The diehard puckheads long for their game, but a high unemployment rate, cloudy economy and general indifference from America compared to other mainstream sports, isn’t a good blend for league commissioner Gary Bettman.

It’s a crucial time for hockey. Pro hoops, the NHL’s main competitor for headlines, has never been bigger—LeBron, Kobe, Melo, Durant, even their abbreviated names are known in most households. That said, the NHL has reason to be optimistic. Its own stars were exciting yet polarizing, and strong seasons were put in by pillar squads. The first three rounds of the playoffs last season were the highest rated in 15 years, so even if the Kings-Devils Stanley Cup Finals didn’t compare with Bruins-Canucks from the year before, the lockout that wiped out the entire 2004-05 campaign was but a distant memory.

And now this, yet another impasse between the NHL and NHL Players’ Association that claimed the preseason and early part of the regular season schedule. What’s at the root of the stoppage? No surprise: Money. There’s an estimated $3 billion of hockey-related revenue to split between owners and players. In the prior collective bargaining agreement, which expired September 15, players received 57 percent of that pot. Owners want them to accept taking at least 10 percent less in the new deal.

However, we here at Pulse are optimistic that this thing is going to get settled. And soon. The NHL mustn’t squander the momentum of recent years, and the same can be said for the two New York squads. The Rangers are coming off their first Eastern Conference Finals berth since 1997, and even though the Islanders finished below .500 in 2011-12, their attendance figures were up 16 percent from the previous year.

A deal will get done. It has to.

How will things shape up for the two hometown squads when a deal is struck? We’ve got the answers here.

The Two to Turn To
With the Islanders, it seems as though their players are always budding and never reach full bloom. Matt Moulson and John Tavares have been quite a tandem, each topping 30-plus goals last year. Moulson ranked ninth in the league with his 36 goals, while Tavares tied for ninth in assists (50). Right now they don’t have the roster depth to compete for the Atlantic Division’s top spot—not with four of the conference’s five 100-point teams in the division—but they have star power to build around, which hasn’t always been a given of late on Hempstead Turnpike.

The Big Ticket
When the Rangers brought in Marian Gaborik in 2009, they got a sniper they hadn’t had since Jaromir Jagr left following the 2005-06 season—Gaborik topped the 40-goal plateau twice in three years. What they have in Rick Nash, for whom they traded in July for a packaged headlined by Brandon Dubinsky, is another big-time goal scorer, only in a physical presence not seen on Broadway in some time. With Columbus, Nash netted 30 or more goals in five straight seasons and seven of his nine career seasons. He and Gaborik together now form the league’s most formidable scoring duo outside of Pittsburgh.

The Captain
The young goal scorers will make the headlines, but Islanders defenseman Mark Streit has been key to the success they’ve had on both ends of the ice. Streit has averaged 50-plus points in each of his three seasons with the Isles, quarterbacking their power play while providing the backbone for their defense in front the net. His leadership can’t be overlooked either, particularly with the young group, and that he recruited Tavares to play with him for SC Bern in his native Switzerland will be an advantage for the Islanders when play resumes.

The Anchor
The only knock on Henrik Lundqvist is he hasn’t led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Finals in seven seasons between the pipes. Last year they bowed out in the Eastern Conference Finals, but Lundqvist put forth the best effort in his career. He’s a top five goaltender and part of the solution, not any kind of problem for the Rangers.

The Goons
So fighting is down in hockey—down 32 percent from a decade ago. But even the NHL players would agree that there’s a place for it in the game. Team need a jolt? Star player getting roughed up? That’s where the Rangers’ Stu Bickel and the Islanders’ Matt Martin come in. Bickel had 20 fighting majors between the NHL and AHL last year, while Martin led the Islanders with 15. The two locked horns twice in 2011-12 and would likely drop the gloves again if the puck ever drops on the 2012-13 season. Another one apt to enter the fray? Islander-turned Ranger Arron Asham, who has 90 career fights to his credit.

The Head-to-Head Matchup
Islanders fans have waited and waited for their team to arrive, but the truth is they haven’t won a playoff series since Al Arbour led them to the Eastern Conference Finals in 1993. They’ve had twelve head coaches since then. They lost part of their nucleus up front when P.A. Parenteau signed with Colorado, but Tavares, Moulson and Kyle Okposo are pieces to build around. Still, they’re in hockey’s toughest division—ten teams scored 100 points in 2011-12, four, including the Rangers, were in their division—so it’s an uphill climb. On the other hand, the Blueshirts, who won four of six meetings with their archrivals last year, are coming off their own conference finals appearance. They’ve only gotten better since John Tortorella took over as head coach in the middle of the 2008-09 campaign, so perhaps that trend will continue. The addition of Nash addressed the Rangers’ goal-scoring woes in the playoffs, and they won’t need many to compete for the Cup with Lundqvist in goal.

brett mauser

Brett Mauser has been a monthly contributor for Long Island Pulse since June 2006. In addition to freelancing for a variety of regional and national publications, he is the executive director of Hamptons Collegiate Baseball.