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NHL storylines to follow in 2008-09

Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor

Dan Di Sciullo Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Every NHL season begins with a certain amount of speculation about which players, teams and trends will be the ones to watch.

The 2008-09 campaign will be no different, except for the fact that an off-ice issue seems to be the most pressing coming into this season.

1. NHL VS. KHL

It's a bit ironic that the 2008-09 season will begin this weekend in Europe, since the biggest story coming into this year is how the NHL will deal with the burgeoning Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. The 24-team league was formed by combining the best professional franchises from Russia, Belarus, Latvia and Kazakhstan, and will begin its first season of competition in 2008-09.

The KHL has made its intentions clear. The league plans on competing with the NHL and is willing to throw around serious money in order to lure talented players to play professionally in Russia.

Jaromir Jagr's decision to play in the KHL was big news because of the superstar's stature, but NHL commissioner Gary Bettman shouldn't be too concerned about it. At 36 years old, Jagr's best hockey is behind him, and opting to sign a deal with Avangard Omsk was simply a way for the Czech Republic native to finish his playing career closer to home. He was also a free agent, as were the rest of the former NHL players who decided to jump ship for the KHL.

Opting to sign with Avangard Omsk was simply a way for Jaromir Jagr to finish his playing career closer to home.
Bettman should be, and is, duly concerned with the situation of Alexander Radulov, who signed a three-year deal with Salavat Yulaev Ufa of the KHL despite having one year left on his entry-level contract with the Nashville Predators. Radulov is just 22 years old and was the 15th overall pick by the Predators in the 2004 draft.

Since signing the controversial deal on July 11, the NHL and KHL have been locked in a tug-of-war for the Russian's services, and his fate will ultimately be decided through a binding arbitration hearing.

What scares the NHL about Radulov's departure has a great deal to do with the future of the league. There are scores of European youngsters that are currently the property of NHL organizations, and those clubs should be frightened that their players will follow Radulov's lead if success in North America doesn't go according to plan.

Radulov has been suspended indefinitely by the Predators, but he could conceivably be ordered to honor the final year of his deal in the NHL. It's unknown where or when the arbitration case will be held, but it should happen at some time during this season.

In the long run, the two leagues must agree on ground rules in order to ensure that teams in both organizations have a concrete understanding of what a contract with their players is really worth.

2. WILL NIEDERMAYER AND SELANNE'S RETURN GET THE DUCKS BACK ON TOP?

The Anaheim Ducks had their hopes of repeating as Stanley Cup champions ended last spring when they fell to the Dallas Stars in the opening round of the playoffs.

The Ducks' disappointing campaign had a great deal to do with the fact that two of its top players from the 2006-07 campaign, defenseman Scott Niedermayer and winger Teemu Selanne, didn't join the club until the season was well underway.

Both players spent the offseason following the Cup victory by mulling over retirement plans instead of preparing for a title defense. In the end, Anaheim was done in by the waffling as Niedermayer - the Conn Smythe winner from the Cup run - and Selanne, the Ducks' leading scorer in 2006-07, were gone too long to regain the swagger of the previous year.

Niedermayer was the first to decide to return for the 2008-09 season, making his announcement in late June. Selanne had to wait longer to make it official, as Anaheim GM Brian Burke needed to make some moves to free up cap space for the "Finnish Flash".

With both players back on the ice, the Ducks feel that they're ready to challenge for a second Stanley Cup, but there is one problem with that plan. While Anaheim struggled through the regular season and the first round of the playoffs, the Detroit Red Wings, who the Ducks defeated to reach the Cup finals in 2007, were busy jelling as a team and went on to win it all in 2008.

Detroit has since added superstar sniper Marian Hossa to a lineup that looks almost identical to the team that won both the Presidents' Trophy and the Stanley Cup a year ago. With that type of talent looming in the Western Conference, the Ducks could be left out in the cold once again.

3. CAN OVECHKIN AND THE CAPS KEEP HEADING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION?

It was a tale of two seasons for the Washington Capitals in 2007-08.

The club began the year with a 6-14-1 mark, and that was enough to get head coach Glen Hanlon fired. Bruce Boudreau then stepped in for Hanlon and led the team to a 37-17-7 record the rest of the way as well as a late-season charge to the Southeast Division crown.

The Caps' superstar winger, Alexander Ovechkin, proved that he could not only put up serious points but also do so when his team needed it most. Ovechkin set a record for left wingers with 65 goals, including 17 tallies in the final 17 regular season tests, and ran away with the Hart Trophy as league MVP.

Boudreau was also awarded coach of the year status for righting the ship and helping the Caps make the postseason for the first time in the Ovechkin era. However, Washington was bounced out in a seven-game series by Philadelphia in the opening round to give a storybook season an abrupt ending.

The Capitals brought back Sergei Fedorov for another go-round and replaced goaltender Cristobal Huet, who, like Fedorov, came to the nation's capital at last season's trade deadline, with former Avalanche netminder Jose Theodore.

Expectation for Ovechkin and the Capitals will be very high heading into the 2008-09 season, but the team simply needs to play the way it did for the final three-quarters of last year to win another division crown. This season, however, a first-round exit from the postseason won't be enough.

ALSO...

Not that it's an afterthought, but Detroit will try to win back-to-back Stanley Cup titles to become the first team to do so since the Steve Yzerman- led Wings pulled off the feat in 1998 and '99...On the other hand, Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins will attempt to get back to the Cup finals, but will have to do it without Hossa, who jumped ship for Detroit after joining the Pens at least year's trade deadline.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Dan Di Sciullo at ddisciullo@sportsnetwork.com.
Dan Di Sciullo


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