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NHL questions for the 2012 season

While the NHL and the NHLPA battle to create a new collective bargaining agreement (and they will get it done without having to sacrifice another season), the 2012 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings are primed to be the league’s first back-to-back title-winners since the Detroit Red Wings turned the trick in 1997 and ’98. We say they beat Sidney Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins in a fun final. For now, here are three key questions we’re pondering as we wait for the puck to drop.

If you have any doubt about Crosby’s ability to move right back to the head of his class, consider this number: 1.403. That’s Crosby’s career points per game average (609 points in 434 regular-season games). He ranks fourth on the all-time list behind legends Wayne Gretzky (1.921), Mario Lemieux (1.883) and Mike Bossy (1.497) and just ahead of Bruins icon Bobby Orr (1.393).

Despite being sidelined for long stretches during each of the past two seasons due to concussion problems, Crosby still managed to put up 40 goals and 103 points in his last 63 games. If he can stay healthy, there’s little doubt he’ll reclaim super-elite status. If he’s pushed by anyone, it’ll likely be by teammate Evgeni Malkin, the reigning MVP and scoring champ.

Crosby won’t be the only high-end star under the microscope. After signing matching 13-year, $98M free agent contracts in Minnesota, Zach Parise and Ryan Suter will be expected to lift the woeful Wild into the playoff race. In New York, Rangers fans are banking that newly acquired Rick Nash is the missing piece to a Cup puzzle. That’s a lot to ask of a guy who’s never won a Stanley Cup playoff game.

In 2005, the NHL cracked down on obstruction and interference in an effort to speed up the game. Mission accomplished. The game is faster (and more exciting) than ever. There has been, however, an unintended consequence: concussions.

During the 2011-12 regular season, according to a report from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, more than 80 players missed playing time due to head injuries or concussion-related symptoms. Among those on that star-studded injury list were league icon Sidney Crosby, 2011 Rookie of the Year Jeff Skinner and 2010 U.S. Olympic goaltending hero Ryan Miller.
While concussions are nothing new in hockey (the NHL has been proactive on the issue going back to 1997, and it was the first league to introduce baseline testing and return-to-play protocol), the increased speed results in more violent collisions and less time to react to an errant stick or puck. Late last season, players and coaches grumbled that more hooking and holding were creeping back into the game, perhaps in an effort to slow things down. One top exec admitted, “We’re always looking at that; when is it too fast?” The league will continue to be challenged by that question.

The short answer: absolutely! GM Dean Lombardi has constructed a young team that’s strong in all the right areas.

Up the middle, LA’s trio of top center Anze Kopitar (just 25), No. 2 man Mike Richards (27) and checking specialist Jarret Stoll (30) are perfectly slotted and difficult to match up against. The defense is led by mega-talented 22-year-old Drew Doughty, who already has a Cup and an Olympic gold medal on his résumé. In goal, they have 26-year-old Jonathan Quick. The athletic stopper earned playoff MVP honors with a silly-good .946 save percentage.

Conversely, the Red Wings’ run of dominance might be winding down. Defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom, the one on-ice constant in that time, hung up the skates, and the club couldn’t attract any elite free agents to replace him in Hockeytown.

If you’re looking for a long shot, keep an eye on Minnesota and Montreal. The Wild figure to be better with free agents Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, while the Habs will rebound from a last-place finish under new coach Michel Therrien.