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What to watch in the upcoming NHL season

By Greg Beacham
AP Sports Writer / October 4, 2011

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Just a few months after Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara raised the Stanley Cup, the NHL's biggest trophy is back in play when a new season begins this week.

It's a welcome relief after a somber summer that began with Game 7 riots in Vancouver and closed with a horrific plane crash in Russia. All 30 teams entertain hopes of playoff berths and that rule changes and equipment improvements can lead to a safer sport.

So let new NHL discipline czar Brendan Shanahan parse the difference between a legal hit and a suspension-worthy illegal check. Allow NHLPA head Donald Fehr and Commissioner Gary Bettman to worry about those gathering clouds of labor strife already forecast for next summer.

Enjoy another winter of the fastest game in any town -- even Winnipeg. Don't miss these coming attractions:

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PARTY ON THE PRAIRIE: A huge portrait of Queen Elizabeth no longer hangs in Winnipeg's NHL rink, but the Jets are royalty in a hockey-mad city rejoining the NHL this fall after a 15-year absence.

MTS Centre is sold out for at least the next three years, and it was packed to the rafters for a handful of raucous preseason games. The Jets will take the ice in their new jerseys Oct. 9 against Montreal for an official opener that's sure to stir the hearts of anybody who loves Canada's game.

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YOUNG MONEY: The league is loaded with youngsters set to move into major roles. This quintet will get plenty of attention in October and beyond:

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Edmonton: The slick center and No. 1 overall pick has a chance to stay with the Oilers for a full season, joining 2010 top pick Taylor Hall. Nugent-Hopkins has met every expectation to date, and the Oil can use all the help it can get.

Brayden Schenn, Philadelphia: To get Mike Richards, the Los Angeles Kings gave up the goal-scoring speedster considered hockey's top prospect in many corners last year. Only a nagging left shoulder injury seems able to derail his first full NHL season.

Mark Scheifele, Winnipeg: His immediate future is a topic of heated debate, but the Jets might have a poster boy for their NHL return in this big-bodied forward with remarkable hands. After less than a year of major junior experience, the always-smiling 18-year-old is expected to win a full-time roster spot.

Gabriel Landeskog, Colorado: The Swedish left wing is a near-lock to make the rebuilding Avalanche's roster after a strong training camp. The teenager is looking forward to playing against Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom because the 41-year-old defenseman is a major role model -- for Landeskog's father, Tony, a former Swedish Elite League blueliner.

Adam Larsson, New Jersey: The fourth overall pick in this year's draft had a dynamite training camp after spending the two previous years playing against men in the Swedish Elite League. Even GM Lou Lamoriello had to admit the offense-minded defenseman has earned the chance to join the Devils' average defensive corps.

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TAKE A NUMBER: You might notice something unusual about your favorite player's head this season: Uniform numbers will be painted on the front crown of every helmet, not just the back. It's supposed to help officials and fans with identification. Unlike visors, it isn't optional.

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ONE AND DONE?: Bruising Nashville defenseman Shea Weber and smooth New Jersey forward Zach Parise have almost nothing in common except their tenuous employment status. Two big stars are headed into the season on one-year contracts after failing to get big-money deals, making them tantalizing trade targets for every contender.

Weber is among the NHL's top defensemen after scoring 48 points and playing in every game last season. He's a two-time All-Star and an Olympic gold medalist, but the Predators accepted a $7.5 million arbitration award instead of meeting his long-term salary demands -- and if they can't sign him, they can't risk losing him for nothing.

Parise played just 13 games last season with a knee injury, but he's a proven NHL scorer with 146 goals in the previous four years. Playing on a $6 million deal, he could be a major midseason rental for the right club, even if the Devils get back in the playoff picture after their first absence since 1996.

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MARK THE CALENDAR: Whether you like your revenge cold or your reunions warm, catch these matchups:

Kings at Flyers, Oct. 15: Flyers captain Mike Richards is still smarting from his unceremonious dumping just two years after leading Philly to the Cup finals, even though he landed with a contender in L.A. Rookie Schenn also might get to show the Kings what they sacrificed to get Richards.

Panthers at Capitals, Oct. 18: Matt Bradley was a popular guy during six seasons in Washington, but he torched his bridges on the way to Florida as a free agent, ripping into star forward Alexander Semin in a radio interview while criticizing the Capitals' mental toughness and playoff preparation.

Wild at Sharks, Nov. 10: Struggling Minnesota and Cup-contending San Jose swapped four major players in the offseason. High-scoring forwards Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi moved from Silicon Valley to the Twin Cities for Martin Havlat and Brent Burns, who get their own homecoming Jan. 10 in St. Paul.

Flyers at Rangers, Nov. 26 and Flyers at Penguins, Dec. 29: Jaromir Jagr stunned the league when he came in from the KHL cold with the Flyers, of all teams. The NHL's leading active scorer visits his two old haunts -- both bitter rivals of his new squad -- before the new year.

Ducks at Jets, Dec. 17: No active player is more beloved in Winnipeg than Teemu Selanne, who scored a mind-blowing 76 goals as a rookie with the 1992-93 Jets. His return with Anaheim will be a celebration of the Finnish Flash -- and hopefully Manitoba hasn't forgotten Ducks coach Randy Carlyle, who logged 10 seasons as a Jets defenseman.

Canucks at Bruins, Jan. 7: Don't forget, before Tim Thomas' heroics during Boston's stirring comeback against Vancouver last June, the Stanley Cup finals were an uncommonly ugly affair featuring fights, poor sportsmanship and off-ice shenanigans. Alex Burrows bit Patrice Bergeron's finger in the opener, and Bruins playoff hero Nathan Horton's season ended on a big hit from Vancouver's Aaron Rome in Game 3. Cup or no Cup, these infrequent opponents dislike each other, and fireworks could fly in the conference champions' only regular-season meeting.

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TOP TWEETS: Maybe you already follow acerbic Coyotes enforcer Paul Bissonnette (BizNasty2point0), the pound-for-pound champion of 140-character NHL comedy, or maybe you prefer the Capitals owner who ran AOL (TedLeonsis). Make sure these tweeters also are on your radar:

NHLShanahan: The longtime power forward is announcing his disciplinary decisions on this account, complete with video explanations, and he's already been awfully busy. Sooner or later, you'll disagree with Shanny's sentiments.

coachrw63: Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson just joined Twitter on Sept. 29, but the outspoken American bench boss and inveterate technophile is certain to stir up discussion on everything from iPads to icing, along with plenty of talk about his favorite TV shows ("Dexter," for instance) and his cute granddaughters.

ovi8: Whether he's on the ice or on his Blackberry, Alex Ovechkin can disappear for days at a time with no explanation -- but when the Washington superstar is on his game, nobody blows more minds. Ovi's unique interpretation of English is even more entertaining than his shout-outs to DJ Tiesto or his curious habit of transcribing his laughs ("hahahaahah").

PanthersYormark: Florida Panthers President Michael Yormark has much more to say than the average executive. He documents his travels and personally answers fans' questions by the dozens.

JLupul: Few players are more consistently thoughtful tweeters than Leafs forward Joffrey Lupul, who weighs in on everything from baseball to Lil Wayne to Toronto freeway traffic with panache and wicked humor.

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