Wrapping Up The NHL Season

The NHL season officially came to an end last night as the league handed out its awards in Las Vegas. Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin won the Hart Trophy, symbolic of the league’s MVP and New York’s Henrik Lundqvist was named winner of the Vezina Award, which celebrates the league’s top goaltender. TheSportsNotebook believes Phoenix goalie Mike Smith should have won both awards (goalies are eligible for the Hart, as Lundqvist was a finalist), but that had been water under the bridge for some time, as the finalists have been made public for several weeks. Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson was named top defenseman and Ken Hitchcock of St. Louis brought him Coach of the Year. These individual winners—along with several honors—take their place with the Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings in the history books for the 2012 season.

As we go into the offseason the Los Angeles Kings are the big question mark. Is this a team that simply caught lightning in a bottle for a couple months, in becoming the first #8 seed to win the Cup? Or was this a case of a team truly finding itself and set to be a much better regular season team and a consistent contender for more championships in the future?

You can make an argument both ways—on the one hand, goalie Jonathan Quick got into a tremendous zone, but there are eight or nine other goalies around the league capable of similar hot streaks. This would be the classic “hot goalie” thesis where teams blaze and fade in the NHL. On the other hand, Quick did not simply get hot in the playoffs—while there might be eight or nine others just as capable as getting hot, there’s no one who is demonstrably better. Quick is young and therefore Los Angeles has the more important component to a championship in all of sports—even more so than an NFL quarterback, more so than a go-to player in the NBA—in place for years to come.

And when you look at the emergence of players like Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown and Dustin Penner in the playoffs, it’s hard to say “fluke.” You can certainly wonder where the hell this all was from October to April and why the Kings nearly played themselves out of the postseason entirely. But it’s not like the Kings were riding a hot goalie to a lot of 2-1 wins in games or series wins that extended six or seven. It’s not like they won games where they outshot and only Quick bailed them out. That description better applies to Phoenix and Smith, who made the Western Conference Finals. Los Angeles dominated all facets of play through a postseason run that saw them lose only four games in four rounds. It’s hard to call that a fluke.

We certainly won’t have to wait long to find out. The NHL, apparently convinced that the “offseason” is a dirty word, will be ready to start again in early October . This presumes one thing though, and that’s a new collective bargaining agreement. The word lockout is back in the NHL, and apparently the owners are in the same kind of crackdown mode the NFL felt last summer and the NBA last fall. I find it hard to imagine the league could be so dumb as to  risk any of the season. The NHL already lost an entire year to a lockout in 2005 and has still yet to recover. They’ve finally got a decent TV deal with NBC and its sports affiliate NBCSN, so there’s plenty of incentive for everyone to come together. I expect self-interest to prevail and for the season to start on time Although, like the NBA, I don’t think it would kill the league to wait until late November or mid-December, after the college football regular season is complete, to get rolling and move into an emptier sports calendar.

But that’s a topic for another day. For now TheSportsNotebook is presuming we’ll have a season that starts on time and sends the Kings and all the individual award winners into the offseason with congratulations and looks forward to September when it’s time to start writing team previews for another year.