Rather than slogging through a lengthy season that usually sees teams like the Columbus Blue Jackets, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Winnipeg Jets sent to the non-playoff cornfield by Mid-January, this 48-game sprint to the playoffs is anyone's game. Sure, their Stanley Cup will come with a huge glaring footnote, but a ring's a ring, right?
9. THE KHL (DIS)ADVANTAGE
Once the lockout was announced, a bunch of players hopped to Russia to sign up for the NHL's rival league, the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League). Sure, this is the league that had an entire team die because they were shuttled back and forth to games in WWI-era biplanes, and that treats players who suffer neck injuries by rolling them in tarps and carrying them off the ice like dead prostitutes, but hey - $10 million contracts! Players that survive without injury or Hep C will, however, come back in much better shape than guys who've been sitting at the bargaining table...so prepare for a wildly out of balance fitness spectrum among players.
Thanks to that crazy fitness spectrum ("I've been tearing up the Swiss Elite League" vs. "Pass that second helping of poutine, merci") and an incredibly tight schedule (fewer days off between games), players will be dropping left and right. Watching a dude who's been playing 30 games in the ass-end of Bratislava collide with a guy who's been golfing in SoCal is going to look like that scene in RoboCop when the OCP cruiser hits the toxic avenger. This will give teams loaded with teenagers (Hello, Edmonton) a distinct advantage over creaky veteran squads, which will further unbalance all that you think you know.
7. "IT'S NOT A MARATHON, IT'S A SPRINT...BUT ALSO A MARATHON"
Ready to still be watching hockey on the fourth of July? It could almost happen. But rough estimates – if every playoff series goes the full seven games – the Stanley Cup playoffs might not end until the last few days of June. The guys who go in for playoff beards are going to look like artisanal brine makers from Brooklyn by the time the Cup is handed out. But it will be worth it just to see Commissioner Gary Bettman (who has just completed his lockout hat trick as commish) take his annual walk of shame to center ice amid boos, hisses, and hurled Tim Horton's cups filled with pee.
6. CONTRACT KILLINGS
One of the most interesting aspects of the newly-minted Collective Bargaining Agreement is that teams stupid enough to sign bad players to ridiculous contracts can now safely wipe those contracts off their books (each team gets two such "amnesty buyouts') to clear cap space to sign other bad players to ridiculous contracts. So teams with horrible albatrosses (Rangers + Wade Redden, Canadiens + Scott Gomez, Flyers+ Ilya Bryzgalov, Islanders+ injury wunderkind Rick DiPietro) can finally be semi-free. GMs are going to be hunting down and killing bad contracts like Liam Neeson. But on the bright side, your local men's league is going to be flush with new talent!
5. LAME "THANK YOU, FANS" INITIATIVES
Remember the season after the last lockout? When the NHL stenciled "Thank You, Fans" on the ice and then....well, that's pretty much it? This time around, don't expect much more. Owners just spent the last four months arguing over every nickel, dime, and whatever Canadian money is called (food tokens?), so if you're expecting discounted hot dogs and beer you can forget it. Maybe Bettman can send every fan a T-shirt: "I survived three lockouts and all I got was the Phoenix Coyotes."
4. EVERYTHING WILL BE ANTI-CLIMACTIC
The Los Angeles Kings, who have labored in obscurity in Southern California since the 1960s, finally broke through and won their first ever Stanley Cup last year (something not even Wayne Gretzky could accomplish)...only to see their fans' newly-minted bandwagons put in dry dock, their banner unraised, and the city's focus once again fall upon their true favorite team: Kobe Bryant and the Kobe Bryant Five. The Detroit Red Wings have to postpone the number-retiring ceremony honoring their legendary captain Nicklas Lidstrom until next season, and several aging greats (Anaheim's Teemu Selanne, Ottawa's Daniel Alfredsson, and New Jersey's Martin Brodeur) may go out with a half-season whimper.
3. DESPERATION TRADES
Usually, at this time of year, the league divides into "buyers" and "sellers." The buyers are teams headed to the playoffs that want to beef up their roster. Sellers are basement dwellers looking to sell off assets and plan for next year. This time? Everyone is in buyer mode because, who knows? The playoffs could be in anyone's future. It's going to be the wild west (and east, and, um, wherever the hell Winnipeg is). So get ready for the biggest, loudest, and dumbest transaction period you've ever seen. Roberto Luongo to the Leafs for Joffrey Lupul, Nazem Kadri and a bucket of Phil Kessel's tears! Jarome Iginla to Philadelphia for both Schenn brothers, Ilya Bryzgalov's sexy-ass husky, and a signed Oggie Oglethorpe jersey!
2. DRAFT DAY CONSPIRACIES
With the entire hockey world flipped on its axis, determining the order for the 2013 Entry Draft is going to be tricky. The league has hinted that it will be broadening the scope of its lottery system, so like everything else this will become a crapshoot. It'll be safe to assume, though, that if Edmonton gets its fourth or fifth consecutive #1 overall pick, the fix is probably in. Our only hope for a "fair" draft will be location: This year's selection is being held in the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, and if anyone can ensure things go smoothly, it's the local Jersey, um, "business community," capiche? Yeah, so Devils GM Lou "Big Lou" Lamoriello was given the top pick. You got something to say about that, tough guy? Thought so...
1. EVERYONE WILL COME BACK
You've heard all the whining, all the increasingly moronic boycott plans ("Buy a ticket, go to the game, but DON'T CHEER!"), and all the players' threats to remain overseas (which we understand in the case of Lubomir Visnovsky. We'd rather play for a club team in Slovakia than report to the Islanders, too) – but in the end, everyone will come back. The fans will learn that being forced to live without hockey is different from choosing to live without it, and the players will realize that this is the only league that matters. By the start of the 2013-2014, no one will even realize the league was ever closed (especially ESPN). So...Game on, eh?