Hockey’s Back! 4 Storylines to Watch After the NHL Lockout Ends

The players might not be on top of their game and it's only be a shortened season but there are still reasons to get excited about hockey

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The soul-crushing NHL lockout ended in the wee hours of Sunday morning, bringing to a close 113 days of misery and disillusionment for hockey fans. Washington’s suits managed to stave off the fiscal cliff crisis faster than NHL owners and the players’ union could figure out how to divide the league’s spoils. It was an ordeal with few good guys — that’s what happens when rich people squabble with other rich people about further ways to make themselves rich — and punished a fanbase the NHL can ill-afford to lose. Indeed, the absence of nearly half a season has cost the league an estimated one billion dollars.

But, as the NHL and its teams finalize the details of the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and thrash out a calendar for a truncated 2013 season, the pessimism is already fading. Hockey’s back and there are real reasons to get excited. Though it’s yet to be officially announced, most expect the first puck to be dropped on Jan. 19. Teams will play in a 48-game regular season, made all the more intense after it was revealed that there’ll be no inter-conference play this year. As a result, every game will have direct playoff ramifications, making for make entertaining, albeit bruising, spectacle. And it’s not as though fans aren’t used to a shortened season or worse: 82 games were reduced to 48 for the 1994-95 campaign after a 103-day lockout while the 301-day lockout in 2004-05 resulted in the NHL becoming the first major North American professional sports league to lose an entire season.

(MORE: NHL Lockout Is Over! Guess Who’s Happier Than Fans or Players?)

In 2013, the league’s 30 teams will plunge into the sporting calendar with no pre-season games. Many players journeyed across the pond to wile out the many weeks of the lockout in European leagues; the lengthy hiatus means NHL coaches have their work cut out for them in shaping cohesive, well-conditioned squads. In the shortened season, after all, a rusty start by a team tipped for the Stanley Cup could see it slip out of the playoff race before its stars get a chance to find their skating legs. Despite the unpredictability of the months ahead, here are four storylines to follow as the NHL finally gets back on the ice.

Broadway’s Moment: More than the defending champion Los Angeles Kings or the Pittsburgh Penguins — led by the absurd one-two superstar punch of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin — the burden of expectation lies on the New York Rangers. The Madison Square Garden side overachieved last year, topping the East before crashing out in the conference finals. Led from the back by the dapper, Vezina Trophy-winning goalie Henrik Lundqvist and an excellent young core of stud defensemen, the Rangers’ tough, grinding style of play took its toll by June. This year, with a lot more rest, they’re perhaps the team to beat in the quest for the Stanley Cup.

That’s because in the off-season, GM Glen Sather snapped up perennial All-Star sniper Rick Nash from the basement-dwelling Columbus Blue Jackets without surrendering his most coveted top young talent. Nash’s goal-scoring will address what was considered the Rangers’ greatest weakness: a lack of offensive firepower. If Nash slots in well alongside classy pivot Brad Richards and if the now healthy Marian Gaborik, the team’s top point-getter in 2011-2012, keeps up his scoring form, the Rangers may just have enough to finish the job they began last season.

(MORE: Hockey’s Wealth Redistribution Problem: What’s Really Behind The NHL Lockout)

A Wild Time: The biggest movers in the off-season were the Minnesota Wild: They signed two free agent franchise players — Zach Parise, now the ex-captain of the New Jersey Devils, and Ryan Suter of the Nashville Predators — both to 13-year deals worth almost $100 million each. The arrival of Suter and Parise, a native Minnesotan, transforms what was a middling team into one inching toward elite status. It’s what the U.S.’s most passionate hockey state deserves. Much of the Wild’s success will hinge on their two star signings earning their lucrative contracts, but keep an eye on Finnish rookie hotshot Mikael Granlund.

The Rise of the South: For a while, the Eastern conference’s Southeast division has been the laughing stock of the league. At a certain point last season, had it not been for league rules that seed division winners, no Southeast team was in line to make the playoffs. This year, most of them look stronger. Florida’s squad, young and talented, is one year wiser after surprising many last season; Carolina made a huge step toward returning to the playoffs by acquiring Jordan Staal from Pittsburgh; Tampa, led by 22-year-old scoring phenom Steve Stamkos, has upgraded its defense; Washington, maybe the division’s best team on paper, now has a coach suited to its slick, quick-passing style in the shape of club legend Adam Oates. Only the Winnipeg Jets (formerly the Atlanta Thrashers) look lousy. Maybe it’s their karma for having left the American South.

The Oil’s Boon or Curse? At some point, the Edmonton Oilers will become a ridiculously good team. But not yet. Consecutive years of haplessness have yielded a roster stacked with blue-chip No. 1 or No. 2 overall first round draft picks. Most teams would be content with just one of Jordan Eberle, Taylor Hall, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Neil Yakupov — All-Star caliber youngsters, the lot of them — let all alone all four. Edmonton is the home of the sport’s greatest dynasty, with Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and co. breaking records and dominating the NHL during the mid-to-late 1980s. Will this current crop of talent be able to return the Oilers to their glory days?

MORE: TIME’s Fearless Sports Predictions for 2013

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