NHL prepares to drop pucks as lockout ends

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OK, so NHL hockey is back.

It will be, anyway, as soon as the formality of both sides ratifying the collective bargaining agreement that was forged early Sunday morning is addressed.

And while there are a few things that can be assumed -- like how abbreviated training camps likely will lead to more groin and hamstring problems than usual -- others cannot.

Such as how playing a compressed schedule, with roughly a game every other night, will affect what happens on the ice.

"Your guess is as good as mine," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said Sunday. "We should ask the guys that played in '94."

That would be firsthand insight, because the first of the NHL's three lockouts in less than two decades limited the 1994-95 season to 48 games.

The league has yet to decide whether there will be 48 or 50 regular-season games -- that number will determine whether play starts Jan. 15 or Jan. 19 -- or even when training camps will be allowed to open.

Still, those details are irrelevant when predicting some things about a shortened schedule. Such as how the importance of every game escalates when there are fewer of them.

"You have to make sure you start well and you don't ... get into a funk and drop too many [games] in a row," center Sidney Crosby said.

Indeed, what might be a minor skid most winters could be a season-wrecking slump now.

"It's going to be fast and furious, great for fans," defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "Each game has that much more meaning. Players will be more fatigued probably, but everyone will adjust."

Having training camp last only a week should cause less of a problem for the Penguins than it does for some other clubs, because they had little roster turnover -- Jordan Staal, Zbynek Michalek and Brent Johnson are gone, Brandon Sutter, Tanner Glass and Tomas Vokoun are new -- and most players are familiar with coach Dan Bylsma's system.

That stability is why general manager Ray Shero said Sunday he expects to have only "24 to 26" players in camp, regardless of when it opens, and why he doesn't anticipate having any junior players take part.

Defensemen Derrick Pouliot, Olli Maatta and Scott Harrington are among the most highly regarded prospects in the organization, but the Penguins defensive depth means they would have no realistic chance of cracking the NHL roster.

Shero has no fewer than eight waivers-eligible defensemen on his depth chart, with the likes of Brian Strait and Robert Bortuzzo added to that group this season. The blue line is even more crowded because Simon Despres, who doesn't need waivers, is a strong candidate to claim a job.

That means it's almost inevitable that there either will be a trade or two, unless the Penguins decide to risk trying to sneak a few of their defensemen through waivers to get them to their minor league team in Wilkes-Barre.

Shero did not rule out starting the season with eight defensemen on his 23-man roster, although he acknowledged "that is not the ideal thing." He also declined to say how he might ease the overcrowding on defense.

"We'll just have to wait and see what the week [of training camp] brings us," he said.

Unlike some teams, the Penguins had only a handful of players compete overseas during the lockout, and only two remain there.

They are center Evgeni Malkin, who has been dominant for Metallurg Magnitogorsk in the Kontinental Hockey League, and defenseman Kris Letang, who never actually played a game for SKA St. Petersburg of the KHL after signing there late last week.

Both are expected to be back here within a couple of days.

Glass, forward Dustin Jeffrey and defenseman Deryk Engelland returned to North America before the CBA deal was reached.

Malkin, the defending NHL scoring champion and MVP, put up 23 goals and 42 assists in 37 KHL games to rank second in the KHL points race.

He seems poised to make a run at another Art Ross Trophy, with Crosby possibly providing his most serious competition.

Crosby is healthier than he has been in two years, and has been aching to get into games that matter.

"I'm pretty excited," he said. "It's probably been difficult and frustrating for everyone. For players, for the owners and for fans.

"In my case, with all injuries and that stuff, it seemed like even a longer wait. I'm excited to get back in the swing of things."

As are so many others, in so many cities across of North America.

Peter Diana/Post-Gazette

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Shelly Anderson contributed to this report. Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter: @MolinariPG. First Published January 7, 2013 5:00 AM


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