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Apology aside, NHL season to open with no clear gauge of favorites

The Kings won't have the usual 'Stanley Cup hangover,' but it is uncertain which teams will cope best with the reduced schedule.

January 19, 2013|By Helene Elliott
  • SYLVAN LAKE, ALBERTA, CANADA, WEDNESDAY, JULY 18, 2012 - Kings center Colin Fraser and his son Calder, 18 mos., hold up Stanley Cups in Alberta, Canada.
SYLVAN LAKE, ALBERTA, CANADA, WEDNESDAY, JULY 18, 2012 - Kings center Colin… (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles…)

In full-page advertisements this week in newspapers across North America — including this one — the National Hockey League told fans it wanted to "apologize to you for the time we've missed," its quaint spin on the lockout it imposed and the labor dispute that delayed the season's opening.

There now, don't you feel better?

The ad was signed "The National Hockey League," not "Commissioner Gary Bettman," maybe on the premise fans are more likely to welcome back the league itself than the commissioner who has presided over a lost season and two lockout-shortened versions.

In any case, "the time we've missed" is nearly over.

A little more than seven months after the Kings won the Stanley Cup in one of the most dominant playoff performances in league history, they will raise their banner and get their bling Saturday at Staples Center before a nationally televised game against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Bettman will be in the house but won't participate in the ceremony, and an NHL spokesman said the commissioner always attends these occasions but never goes on the ice. Bettman couldn't save us from a labor war, but he will at least spare us the distraction of hearing him mercilessly booed.

What will happen after the Cup banner goes up and the curtain is raised on this curtailed NHL season is difficult to predict.

One theory holds that teams whose players skated with European or minor league clubs will have an advantage because they won't need time to regain their form. If that's the case, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Edmonton, Montreal, Ottawa, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Washington could thrive.

Another theory suggests teams that made few roster moves will be in good shape because they won't have to learn new players' tendencies. That includes the Kings, who have brought back every player from last season except little-used enforcer Kevin Westgarth, and the Chicago Blackhawks, who have made few changes.

Who will have an advantage?

"It's a great question, but let's be perfectly clear: This is uncharted territory for the entire league," said Ed Olczyk, a former King who will be an analyst on NBC's telecast Saturday.

"Back in the lockout of '94-95, we had a 31/2 -week training camp and played eight or nine exhibition games and then we got locked out and didn't come back until January to play the 48-game schedule. So at least you had an idea and a feel and a sense of system and lines and all those types of things. I think this is really wide open."

Kings Coach Darryl Sutter, the only current NHL coach who coached during the previous lockout-shortened season, said his experience leading the 1994-95 Blackhawks probably won't be of much value now.

"The game, it's changed so much. That's a long time ago," he said. "And it's changed so much the way these guys train. I thought timing would be a big thing watching these guys, and all that. It's not an issue at all. They're spot-on, on all that stuff.

"It's just the sequence of not playing the game, so you're trying to ramp the competition up in drills. It's so hard to gauge it right. I asked the guys, 'When's enough for you?' It's hard.

"Two things I gauge are the schedule and injuries. They could impact everybody. Simple. Too short a season not to."

The absence of a core player could be magnified in a short season, and several teams will start without key players.

A knee injury is expected to keep leading scorer Anze Kopitar out of the Kings' lineup for the first few games, and defenseman Willie Mitchell is out indefinitely after knee surgery. A wrist injury will prevent Flyers forward Daniel Briere from playing this weekend, and San Jose will be without core defenseman Brent Burns, who has a lower-body injury.

In addition, a contract stalemate is likely to keep dynamic defenseman P.K. Subban out of the Montreal Canadiens' opening lineup, and Dallas hasn't reached agreement with standout forward Jamie Benn.

Kopitar said the Kings' depth and familiarity will be even greater assets now.

"If it's a long season, not that the start is not important, but you can get away with a slow start," he said. "The difference with 48 games is if you lose three or four in a row you can be in a big hole already."

Olczyk agreed that a fast start will be essential. "I don't think you can make the playoffs in the first 14 games, but I think you can miss the playoffs in the first 14 games because it's going to be that close over the course of 48 games," he said.

Olczyk, who won the Cup with the New York Rangers in 1994, said the extended break between the end of last season and Saturday's opener could work in the Kings' favor. They won't have any remnants of the "Stanley Cup hangover" that often affects teams when trying to repeat as champions. He also said he expects them to gain confidence from their playoff success and contend for a second straight title.

"I think that they're sitting on another big-time year, and I think they'll be better for it in the regular season and not have to get in by the skin of their teeth," he said.

He predicted the Blues, Sharks and Blackhawks will join the Kings in the final four in the West. In the East, he said the Rangers should be strong, especially if they get another defenseman, and said the Penguins face a moment of truth after three straight early playoff exits but will benefit from a healthy Sidney Crosby.

"I think it's going to be a crazy stretch of 48 games," he said.

No apologies needed for that.

helene.elliott@latimes.com

twitter.com/helenenothelen

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