- Craig Custance
The lockout extended long enough that there was plenty of time to theorize which teams would have the early advantage once the season started, which players would be able to capitalize early in the season and just how the game might look upon its return.
Turns out some of those theories haven't panned out, and there has been just enough time to evaluate them. In a typical season, training camp opens around Sept. 16 and the first preseason games are just a few days later. By the time the season starts, teams have typically been together for 25 days or so. Plenty of time to work out the kinks.
This year, teams opened camp Jan. 13, which means Wednesday marks 25 days since camp opened -- the regular timeline for players to get ready for the season. Not surprisingly, this week coaches and players have noticed on-ice play shaping into form.
"I think you're starting to see the game with a little better execution, a little better knowledge of what's expected from teams system-wise," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma. "There's a little more structure to the game, there's not free flowing, there's not turnovers that cause wild swings in the game."
One NHL scout identified the 25-day point as the time early-season advantages or disadvantages start to dissipate. So what stood out in that span? NHL players, coaches and GMs break it down:
• Penalties are up considerably because of a combination of factors. New interpretations on interference, holding, hooking and slashing have raised the number of power plays. Players are also getting used to new rules that don't allow them to cover the puck with their glove or use their hand to bat the puck while trying to win a faceoff.
"It's a bit of a learning curve," said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby. "That's just something we have to get used to as players. That's something you don't have a lot of time to get used to."
It shouldn't take much longer for players to get rid of some long-formed habits, if they haven't already.
"Some guys, that's how they would win the faceoff every time -- tie up the stick and get it with your hand," said Penguins forward Matt Cooke. "Eventually you won't see that."
The heightened awareness of interference and some of the other penalties typically eases up as the postseason closes in, but Canucks GM Mike Gillis said he's optimistic the current standard will last.
"We're hopeful it will," he said. "It creates more scoring opportunities and more flow to the game."
The other factor is human error. The officials didn't have much time to prepare either and are slowly working themselves into regular-season form. They need to be better and will be.
• Teams that play a well-structured team game were generally at a disadvantage early in the season with the play more wide open than normal. That meant franchises featuring high-end offensive talent who could ad-lib with their creativity could take advantage of a more open game filled with mistakes. Teams with elite offensive talent like the Anaheim Ducks, Tampa Bay Lightning, San Jose Sharks and Chicago Blackhawks were able to take advantage. A few teams with strong defensive systems like the Nashville Predators, Los Angeles Kings, Phoenix Coyotes and New York Rangers started slowly. Things are turning, but the tight schedule may mean erratic play plagues even the most disciplined teams since there isn't much time to refine things.
"Every team is playing every second day," said Maple Leafs coach Randy Carlyle. "It just seems that with our specific schedule, we have four games one week and the next week we have three. There's not a lot of practice time, not a lot of quality practice time. We have to be wise in trying to pick some other things we can do other than just practice, practice, practice."
• There was a strong belief that players who played during the lockout would have an early advantage over those who did not because they could jump right in and keep playing while others worked on timing. That hasn't necessarily played out.
"The thing that seems to stand out is some of the players that came back in fabulous shape, some of the top players have really lit it up," said Capitals GM George McPhee. "[Steven] Stamkos, [Martin] St. Louis, [Patrick] Marleau and those guys -- the guys in Chicago -- everything I'm hearing is they were just in phenomenal shape. It shows."
Stamkos, St. Louis, Marleau, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa -- all those players trained during the lockout instead of playing overseas. Players, like the young talent on the Edmonton Oilers, who saw time in the AHL have transitioned as well as expected. Justin Schultz has been great for the Oilers after chasing records in Oklahoma City and should challenge for the Calder Trophy.
And it's not just the Oilers. Toronto is receiving contributions from those who played with the Marlies, and the Leafs are currently in a playoff spot. Matt Frattin rattled off a bunch of names who have already contributed: Nazem Kadri, Mike Kostka, Korbinian Holzer, Mark Fraser, Ben Scrivens.
"Yeah, we had a really good team down there during the lockout," he said. "We're kind of building as a group."
But those who played in Europe and the KHL? That early advantage was overstated. Some of those players are still working out bad habits and getting up to the NHL speed.
"That's the real sort of counterintuitive thought that people have, that if you're playing you're prepared to go," McPhee said. "That's not necessarily so."
Capitals forward Alex Ovechkin admitted he was surprised that some of the KHL's stars weren't able to return to immediate success in the NHL.
"Yeah, to be honest with you, yeah," he said before playing the Penguins on Sunday. "Maybe [it's] just like different hockey. Maybe it's just different size of ice. It's kind of surprising. Out there you can see lots of guys have lots of point and lots of goals. Now we're here, I'm standing here I have only three points. It's kind of embarrassed me, but it is what it is."
During the lockout there was speculation that disciplined, defense-first teams and players competing in Europe would have an advantage when play resumed. That has not been the case so far.