NHL: 2012 Year In Review

THE KINGS ARE CROWNED: 2012 turned out to be a year of firsts for the Kings but a year of repeated history for labour unrest in the NHL

BY JEFF ANGUS

2012 was a year of turmoil for the NHL, and in turn the sport of hockey as well. The Los Angeles Kings peaked at the right time, dominating their Western Conference foes from Vancouver, St. Louis, and Phoenix en route to capturing their first Stanley Cup in team history (a six game defeat of the New Jersey Devils). Sidney Crosby made his second triumphant return from a concussion, and his Pittsburgh teammate Evgeni Malkin once again showed why he is arguably the best hockey player on the planet.

Read on for more of the noteworthy stories from the world of hockey in 2012. Let’s hope reflecting on past moments in the NHL doesn’t have to go on much longer….

THE LOCKOUT
Where else to start but with the most ridiculous and unnecessary work stoppage in the history of professional sports? After numerous years of record revenues, the NHL decided to lock out its players, and the two sides have been fighting tooth and nail over the most miniscule of differences for the past several months. Both sides have showed a glaring lack of respect for the fans (people will say that professional sports is more of a business, and I agree, but hockey is different in terms of its niche following and extremely passionate supporters), and the distrust for one another still remains after countless hours negotiating and bargaining together.

The good news? It looks like a deal may be on the way. The bad news? It will probably come after a few more days of bickering through the media. The best thing to do – ignore all hockey talk and enjoy the other fantastic sports that are being played right now (college football, NFL playoffs, the best NBA season in a long while, World Junior hockey, and much more).

THE KINGS ARE CROWNED
After a very slow start to the season, the Kings made a few radical changes around the midseason mark. They acquired forward Jeff Carter from Columbus, and they brought in Darryl Sutter to coach the team. Those two moves seemed to galvanize a team that was already very strong on paper. The Kings started rolling down the stretch, and they carried their great team play into the playoffs. Backed by Jonathan Quick, their defensive game was air tight (and had been all season, but for the first few months of the season they couldn’t score any goals). Up front, the Kings relied on depth and size to overpower smaller and less skilled opponents. A great recipe for success, if you ask me. Team captain Dustin Brown enjoyed his coming out party as a legitimate NHL star, as well.

THE HOCKEY EXODUS TO EUROPE
One beneficiary of the lockout has been European hockey fans, who have seen several big name NHL players fly across the pond in search of quality hockey to play. Tyler Seguin, Joe Thornton, and Logan Couture had a great time in Switzerland. Ilya Kovalchuk and Evgeni Malkin returned home to dominate in the KHL. Erik Karlsson, a Swede, spent a few months in Finland. Jamie Benn packed up his bags for Hamburg, Germany for a few months, as well. Many of the NHL players who were skating in Europe have returned home with news that the lockout may be over in the near future. However, if the talks somehow break down over the next week or so, expect to see even more NHL players headed back over for the remainder of the regular season (Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang is currently weighing his Russian options, and another high-profile teammate may be doing the same too).

STANLEY CUP HANGOVERS
The Vancouver Canucks and Boston Bruins both had very successful regular seasons in 2011-12 statistically, but both clubs failed to make much noise in the postseason (the Canucks lost to the Kings, while the Bruins were upset by the Washington Capitals). The two teams faced off for a Stanley Cup Final rematch in early January, and the game lived up to the immense hype and anticipation. The Canucks emerged victorious, but neither team seemed to get back on track after it. It isn’t really a huge surprise as to why, and several players on either side have pointed to the fact that the Stanley Cup playoffs are so gruelling on the mind and body. With a lot of time to rest and recover, expect the two teams to return to the ice with the same passion and intensity that helped them both earn Stanley Cup Final appearances back in 2011.

NO CROSBY, NO PROBLEM
Crosby first returned from his head injury in November, but he suffered a setback only a few games later, and was forced out of the Pittsburgh lineup once again. Without him, the Penguins rode the dominant duo of Malkin and James Neal. Malkin captured the Art Ross Trophy as the top scorer in the league, while Neal cemented his reputation as one of the best young forwards in the game. The two forwards also finished first and second in shots on goal in the NHL, marking the first time that two teammates finished at the top of the list in close to 20 years (Brendan Shanahan and Brett Hull did the same in the early 1990s with the St. Louis Blues). With Crosby back, opposing teams are going to have a tough time trying to match lines with Pittsburgh’s dominant trio of forwards.

MINNESOTA GOES WILD IN FREE AGENCY
The Minnesota Wild made the biggest splash of the offseason, inking the top two free agents to long term deals. Zach Parise decided that a homecoming to Minnesota was in order, and he managed to convince his good friend Ryan Suter to join him. Parise and Suter make Minnesota a better team, but the Wild are not at cup contender status (yet). However, Minnesota boasts arguably the best collection of prospects in hockey – it won’t be long until they are considered one of the best teams in the league. The lockout has made a lot of people forget about the busy offseason, and that starts with Minnesota. It isn’t every day that a team is able to add a bona fide number one defenseman and a star forward at the same time.

THE JUSTIN SCHULTZ SAGA
The third most sought after free agent last summer was former Wisconsin defenseman Justin Schultz. Schultz had teams flying from all over North America with hopes of speaking with him – he ended up signing with the Edmonton Oilers, and it looks like he made the right move. The young nucleus of talent in Edmonton was craving a defenseman capable of moving the puck up the ice, and Schultz has done exactly that for the Oklahoma City Barons of the AHL. He currently sits second in AHL scoring with 45 points in 32 games, and for a while he was leading the entire league in scoring. Not bad for a rookie defenseman.