2011 NHL preview

Around the league

Crosby's health

When might Sidney Crosby return to the Pittsburgh Penguins' lineup? How will so many months off impact the 24-year-old superstar's play? Since January the hockey world has followed Crosby's recovery from a concussion, and now that the Pittsburgh captain is practicing — albeit without contact — there is reason to believe he'll be back soon. As Crosby continues making progress, the league has taken steps to punish those who hit the head as the principal point of contact, handing out numerous multiple-game suspensions in the preseason.

Realignment/the 'Peg

With the return of a team to Winnipeg, the NHL has a geographic imbalance it will have to rectify with some rearranging. One option would be to just move the Jets out of their temporary spot in the Southeast and move another team (Nashville or Detroit, perhaps) into the Eastern Conference next season. There's also the possibility for greater change, like transforming the league into four conferences. A new setup is expected to be on the table for the Board of Governors meeting in December.

CBA

Six years ago, the NHL lost an entire season due to a lockout when its previous collective bargaining agreement expired. On Sept. 15, 2012, the CBA that was established to bring hockey back will run out, leading to another set of negotiations between the NHL and the players' association. The differing priorities of small versus large-market teams will likely be highlighted once again, as many teams have struggled to reach the salary cap floor in recent summers. Have the two sides learned from the lost season?

'24/7'

Last season's experiment of putting the rival Capitals and Penguins under the spotlight of HBO cameras was viewed as a triumphant success all around, so they're doing it again with this year's Winter Classic teams, the Rangers and Flyers. There certainly won't be a shortage of personalities, given the presence of notoriously hot-tempered New York Coach John Tortorella along with Philadelphia's Ilya Bryzgalov and Chris Pronger. The Winter Classic has proved a success for the NHL in the previous four seasons, and now the documentary that captures the lead-up to the outdoor showcase is just as much of a draw.

Enforcers

After the deaths of Derek Boogaard, Wade Belak and Rick Rypien this offseason, the debate about the role of designated fighters in hockey has taken on a more serious tone. While it's unclear if the three enforcers' deaths were all directly linked to their on-ice duties, their nature — Boogaard's an accidental drug overdose and the other two believed to be suicides — raises questions about whether the NHL is doing enough to protect and support players who fill that role. The league will review fighting as part of its examination of hits to the head in the game, and while removing fisticuffs from hockey is a very hot-button issue for some, player safety should not be.

By Katie Carrera - The Washington Post. Published Oct. 6, 2011.