Here we are at last. There were times it seemed as though it would never happen. There were times it felt like hockey would never be back. And yet after months of negotiations, squabbling, posturing and general nastiness, after a marathon negotiating session that went well into the wee hours of the morning... the NHL and NHLPA have (tentatively) agreed to the framework of a new CBA.
Nothing has been finalized yet; as both sides have said, there are 'i's to be dotted and 't's to be crossed and the whole thing needs to be formally accepted - but it seems as though we're finally on the eve of the
So what does that mean, exactly?
Here's a look at a few things to keep an eye on - from both the Caps and the NHL in general - as they get back down to business:
- Sprint to the Finish - Thanks to this little "break", the NHL will now try to squeeze in as many games as possible without having the Finals extend into next year's training camp. That means playing a compressed season of 48 games over the next four months... in other words, unlike most years this will be a sprint, not a marathon. Start your carbo-loading now.
- Welcome Home - Compared to the usual toils of an 82-game season, 48 doesn't sound so bad; that is, unless you've already played 30-40 games in another league in the meantime. It's going to be interesting to see how those who went to the KHL or one of the European leagues hold up over the course of the season, to say nothing of the playoffs.
- Feel the Burn - On the flip side, there are many players who stayed home or in their respective cities to skate and work out on their own. They might be fresher come playoff time, but how quickly will they be able to ramp up to game shape compared to those who have already played 10, 20, 30 games at a higher competitive level? Will teams who saw fewer players travel overseas have an advantage or a disadvantage? Something to keep an eye on as the season plays out.
- Money, Money, Money - Because so many teams assumed the salary cap would go up and spent as if there were no tomorrow (which as it turns out there kind of wasn't), teams will be allowed to spend up to $70 million this year, prorated for the shortened season. Next year? Back down to $64.3 million, the same as last season's ceiling, with a floor of $44 million. Chump change, am I right?
- Meet the New Boss - Ever since he was named the new head coach back in June, we've been eagerly waiting to see what Adam Oates will bring to this team, as his hiring was easily the biggest move the Caps made over the offseason. What kind of systems will he put in play? Will he be able to coax superstar-like performances out of his superstars? How will new assistant coach Calle Johansson adjust to running the defense from behind the bench as opposed to in front of it? And with a shortened training camp and a truncated season, will there be time for the team to figure out a new system without falling behind? Questions abound, and now we'll finally get some answers.
- Is Backstrom Back? - Nicklas Backstrom missed the last few games of his time in the KHL with what was purportedly a neck injury, and there hasn't been much more info out there about the seriousness of it or whether it's healed. The center didn't seem to be concerned with it in an interview with Aftonbladet (or at least made no mention of it) so conceivably it's all better... but still something to keep an eye on, particularly with his recent concussion.
- From Mud-Slinging to Bear-Hugging - Remember those fun times when Roman Hamrlik and Michal Neuvirth spoke out against the NHLPA's negotiating process, causing Troy Brouwer to fire back and question whether he could back them up on the ice? Remember all the times Alex Ovechkin mentioned he might just not come back to the NHL? Good times, good times. Here's hoping all those little tiffs and moments of frustration remain relegated to the media world and out of the locker room.
- Stay Just a Little Bit Longer - Even with the compressed schedule, it sounds as if some aspects of the season will be pushed back a bit. One of the biggest changes will likely be to the trade deadline, which is reportedly moving all the way to April 5 (pending approval by the NHLPA). The Stanley Cup Finals also get shoved back a bit, with the Cup now being handed out at the end of June.
- New Kids on the Block - Last summer was an interesting one for the Caps, and we've been waiting a long time to see how some new faces will do in the District. Mike Ribeiro will be set to make his debut as the team's 1/2C, while newcomers Wojtek Wolski and Joey Crabb get a shot at putting the "high reward" in "low risk, high reward".
- Bye Bye Bye - On the flip side, we also bid farewell to a few familiar faces over the summer, with Alexander Semin and Mike Knuble hitting the free agent market. At least one of them will be back to visit fairly soon, though, as Semin is now a member of the Carolina Hurricanes (in case you forgot). The lucky boy, he gets to be teammates with Joe Corvo all over again.
- A Momentary Reprieve - The most important thing about this pending agreement, the best and most exciting part, is that it's set to go through at least 2019-20. That means we have eight, maybe ten years to go before we have to sit through this horrific exercise all over again. Celebrate good times.
This season won't be like any we've seen in recent memory. The battles will be tougher, the wins more exciting and the losses more devastating. Teams will have three and a half months to establish lines and chemistry, figure out a system that works and clinch a playoff spot - and then the real fun begins. Every aspect will be questioned. Every record, to say nothing of the Cup winner, will come with an asterisk. It will be fast and furious and perhaps tainted by the months of bickering that preceded it. But ultimately none of that will change the fact that the NHL is coming back - and that's really all that matters.