By Stu Hackel

How do you describe a January-to-December year in hockey? Not very easily, because hockey's season just doesn't conform to the Gregorian calendar. 

So let's forgo a chronological review and look at the big stories.

The year-long excellence of the Blackhawks is a major item. So is NHL realignment. How about the league's new lucrative TV deal in Canada and its effect on league revenues and the salary cap? Can't ignore that. The decline in scoring, despite the shrinkage in goalie equipment? Sure. The continued excellence of Sidney Crosby, the revival of Alex Ovechkin, the pure offense of Steven Stamkos, the continued wizardry of Pavel Datsyuk, the inexhaustible defense of Ryan Suter? Big stories all. And going all the way back to January, we can't ignore the new collective bargaining agreement and the end of the lockout.

And what of non-NHL hockey? Yale winning the Frozen Four and the U.S. team winning the gold medal at the 2013 World Junior Championship -- can't overlook that.

But one story remains larger still, casting an ominous shadow upon all else.

It's the ongoing battle the NHL wages to reign in dangerous play, hits to the head, hits from behind and just plain stupid actions on the ice. It dominates hockey discourse. It's the subject of endless debate.

And, it is changing the way the game is played. This sort of hit used to be celebrated and encouraged…

…but not today:

Hardly a week goes by, it seems, when another incident doesn't grab the attention of this sport's community -- and sometimes, we see multiple incidents in a single day. Heated arguments ignite immediately: Was that a good hard play or an illegal one? Will the perpetrator be suspended? Is it worth a two-game ban, a five-game ban, a 15-game ban?

We've witnessed players being laid out and stretchered off the ice with astonishing regularity this year and others being suspended at what must be a record pace. Through Dec. 15, roughly 12 weeks into the schedule, there were 20 suspensions totaling 83 games. For the 28 weeks of the entire 2011-12 regular season, the last full NHL season, 34 players were suspended for 103 games.

The rise in injurious head shots and boarding are in part due to the game's enhanced speed since the 2004-05 lockout, combined with players being bigger and stronger. We can add that the league's parity makes coaches demand more physicality from their teams, believing the additional competitive edge will mean the difference between winning and losing. And there's all sorts of talk about players having a new disregard for their opponents.

But the suspensions and the laudable measures the NHL has taken, especially the videos coming from Brendan Shanahan and the Department of Player Safety which -- besides informing fans -- serve to educate the players about what is and is not acceptable, have just not curtailed the problem.

Would longer, harsher suspensions be more of a deterrent? Probably, but as many have pointed out, no one among the game's stakeholders seems to favor them, not the players, their union, their agents, their coaches, their general managers or their owners.

Will that change now that a group of retired players have filed a class action suit against the NHL, as NFL players did, leading to a recent out-of-court settlement? Tough to know for sure. The NHL only says it is confident it has done and continues to do everything possible to protect its players. Meanwhile, the hits just keep on coming.

* * *

The competition is more fun to discuss, of course, and it has unquestionably been the Year of the Blackhawks. In the current season, they remain on top of the pack and the pick of many to win the Stanley Cup again. That's what it might take for them to top their achievements from earlier this year.

Once the lockout-shortened 2013 season began in mid-January, they were unbeatable -- literally. The Hawks went the entire first half of the regular schedule -- 24 games -- without a loss in regulation or overtime, dropping only three contests after the hockey game had ended and the post-game skills competition took place. Their amazing run was the best ever by an NHL team from the start of a season. They showed no weaknesses, having the uncanny habit of finding ways to win, regardless of the run of play.

They continued finding ways to win up through the season's final game, although the streak itself ended on March 8 in Colorado, where the teetering Avalanche pulled off a shocking 6-2 win as their fans chanted, "End of streak! End of streak!" Avs fans didn't have much else to cheer about until the offseason. That's when they'd hire franchise heroes Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy to guide the organization (and Roy made a sizable splash this fall in his debut as an NHL coach).

A few of the Hawks' Western foes had strong showings, notably the Ducks and Blues. The defending champion Kings didn't break out of the gate especially well, but were able to right the ship. Still, none of them would catch Chicago, who were paced by a clutch goaltending tandem of Corey Crawford and Ray Emery, the excellent play of a deep defense corps anchored by Duncan Keith, an explosive offense led by the super-skilled Patrick Kane and the all-around greatness of captain Jonathan Toews, who was their catalyst for everything. 

The truncated 48-game season was played exclusively within each conference, increasing game-to-game intensity compared to the normal 82-contest inter-conference schedule. But the quality of play wasn't always consistent. "Everything is different, the schedule, the practicing," the Rangers Brad Richards said after his team's 10th game. "To be honest, there's still nights you don't feel you're in game shape. But, luckily, you play against teams you can tell they aren't either. Some nights you'll get a team where you'll think they're dead and the next night you think everything is good but then your team is flat. There's no rhyme or reason."

Richards was one star who wasn't in shape and he struggled. But not Crosby. He got off to a torrid start -- 44 points in his first 26 games -- and had people contemplating him becoming the first player since Mario Lemieux in 1995-96 to finish with an average above two points a game. But he tailed off somewhat toward the end of the season, then caught a puck in the jaw in late March, taking him out of action until the playoffs. Still, his Penguins paced the East.

Unlike Crosby, Ovechkin had an uncertain start to the campaign after many expected he'd enjoy a resurgence under new coach Adam Oates. It caused some (like me) to wonder if Ovie might actually be washed up. But he was far from finished and soon began soaring again, scoring 22 goals in the last 21 games (and he's continued in the current season with 26 goals in his first 30 games). Ovechkin was, somewhat controversially, awarded the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP at season's end. 

No one expected Montreal's rise to the league's upper echelons, sparked by young stars like defenseman P.K. Subban and rookie forwards Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk. It was a bit of an illusion as injuries toward the season's end revealed they lacked some depth and size. Other clubs -- like the Devils (a Cup finalist the previous season) and Oilers (who continue to fail despite years of high draft picks) -- disappointed last season, but three were unexpected playoff qualifiers. The Blue Jackets nearly made it in the West for only the second time in franchise history, largely thanks to their acrobatic goalie, Sergei Bobrovsky.

They fell short, but the goalie known since his Flyers days as "Bob" was awarded the Vezina as the league's top goalie, which likely pleased at least one sportscaster.

Officer Bobrovsky hasn't played as well this season but his place on the force should be secure.

* * *

The Islanders came to the party in the East, led by their young captain and top player John Tavares, whose chemistry with linemate Matt Moulson sparked the Isles' offense. It was the club's first playoff appearance since 2007 and they gave the Penguins a scare in the first round before falling in six games. One of the more shocking developments of this current season came in late October when Moulson was shipped to Buffalo along with some high draft picks for Tomas Vanek. Since then, the Isles have gained only 12 of a possible 46 points in the standings.  

And, after a good start gave way to inconsistency, the Maple Leafs finally staggered into the playoffs last spring after eight futile seasons, thrilling their ever-hopeful fans in the self-proclaimed Center of the Hockey Universe.

When the playoffs began, the first round featured a record 17 overtime games, at least one in every series, comebacks galore and upsets by four lower seeded clubs. It also had some of the nasty play that recalled the brutal chaos of the opening round of 2012. Both the Canadiens and the Kings lost a key center iceman to illegal head shots. But there was no better entertainment than the first round meeting between Original Six rivals Toronto and Boston, The Leafs seemed set to pull off a massive Game 7 upset, leading 4-1 with around ten minutes remaining in regulation. What followed was perhaps the biggest collapse in Stanley Cup playoff history…

...producing a full complement of internet putdowns.

The Blackhawks needed a comeback of their own in the second round against the Red Wings, who made the playoffs for the 22nd consecutive season, the longest active streak in all of North American major professional sports. Falling behind 3-1 in games, the Hawks rallied to take three straight elimination contests, including Game 4 in overtime and then won Game 7 in gripping fashion, surviving a controversial disallowed late third period goal by Niklas Hjalmarsson...

…to win in overtime on a good goal by Brent Seabrook.

The Bruins and Hawks would collide for the Cup in June after Boston swept the Penguins in a contentious Eastern Conference Championship. Crosby and Pittsburgh fell victim for the second year in a row to a team who turned the series into a street fight and threw Pittsburgh off its game. The Bruins merely copied the Flyers' tactic from '12.

After Chicago won the opener in the third OT period, Boston went up 2-1 in games. Chicago won Game 4 again in OT and then Game 5 to send the series back to Boston, where many expected the B's would even things and set up another Game 7. But with the Bruins leading 2-1 and the clock ticking down in the third period, the Hawks' magic materialized yet again:

Two goals within 17 seconds of the game's last 1:16 gave Chicago their second Cup in four seasons.

* * *

For every winner, there are multiple losers -- and only one team can win the Cup. Besides changes in Colorado, a few other coaches and general managers paid the price for their team's stumbles.

The Leafs fired their highly quotable GM and president Brian Burke in January, even before the first puck dropped after the lockout, replacing him with his assistant, Dave Nonis. The gruff Burke eventually landed in Calgary as president of hockey operations where he has just fired GM Jay Feaster and is searching for a replacement.

In February, the dilapidated Sabres fired Lindy Ruff after 16 seasons in charge. He was the longest tenured bench boss in the league; only the Islanders Al Arbour had coached more games for one team in NHL history. Even though fans wanted a change, his dismissal still shocked the city of Buffalo and the whole league. The Sabres fared no better without him, canning his replacement, Ron Rolston, this fall along with long-time GM Darcy Regier. Team owner Terry Pegula, who loves former Sabres, brought back Pat Lafontaine as president of hockey operations and Ted Nolan as coach, a man Regier had fired in 1997. So far, the Sabres are on track for one of the worst seasons in NHL history.

Ruff, meanwhile, surfaced in Dallas during the offseason where he's done a good job returning the Stars to respectability

In March, Tampa Bay let go of their young, bright coach, Guy Boucher, after only two-plus seasons on the job. Boucher had guided the Lightning to a deep playoff run in 2011, their only postseason berth since 2008, but was axed when he couldn't pull them out of a tailspin. Ruff was thought to be a candidate to replace him, but Jon Cooper, who had coached the Lightning's AHL farm team in Norfolk to a pro hockey record 28-game winning streak and league championship the season before, got the job. Tampa Bay is among the surprise teams of the early 2013-14 season, although they've been forced to play the last month without their sniper Stamkos, who is out with a broken leg.

The current season was only three days old when the Flyers said goodbye to their coach Peter Laviolette, who had taken them to the Cup Final in 2010. Craig Berube, one of the more notorious frequent fighters in the NHL during his playing career, took over and surprised many by showing he could do the job after having apprenticed as an assistant coach and minor pro head coach for the last 10 years.

But the strangest moves of all occurred during the offseason when the Rangers and Canucks essentially traded coaches. Both clubs had slid from their recent peaks two seasons earlier. The openly volatile John Tortorella, whose legendary combativeness with both the media and his players…

…helped wear out his welcome on Broadway, ended up with the Canucks while their coach, the more publicly laid back Alain Vigneault, was hired by the Rangers. Vigneault had taken the Canucks to the Final in 2011 but it was perceived the club needed a different approach to get them to the next level. While Torts has improved his relationships with local media, as of this writing, the Canucks sit in a wild card spot while the Rangers are not in a playoff position, so it's unclear if either team has really benefitted.

Playoff qualification has become slightly trickier to figure out under the new NHL alignment and playoff format. Could be we'll have to play a while under the changes -- 16 clubs in the East (with Detroit and Columbus migrating from the other side), 14 in the West and two wildcards in each conference -- before we get comfortable with them. A main notion behind the set up is to enhance rivalries, and everyone wants that. But rivalries are born and nurtured in the playoffs and we may need to go through a few springs to raise the temperature in some of these matchups.

One thing is very clear about the new Conferences thus far: The West is much stronger than the East, holding a 122-53-20 advantage at the moment. Nine of the top dozen best records in the league belong to Western teams.

* * *

 We saved the bottom line stuff for the bottom.

The NHL's owners and players settled their economic differences in early January, ending a fairly bitter 119-day lockout. Among the major items in the new agreement were that ownership gained a reduction in the per team salary cap for the 2013-14 season to $64.3 million from $70.1 (which was prorated during the lockout season), a 50-50 split of hockey-related revenues for the length of the new CBA (which runs 10 years) and more favorable contracting rights. In exchange, the players received, among other things, a new pension plan, plus improved working and safety conditions for the players.

The drop in the cap is only temporary; the new landmark Canadian TV deal (worth $5.2 million Canadian; $4.7 billion US) which gives all the rights to Rogers Communications, will swell revenues and is projected to boost next season's salary cap back up to $71 million, which would be an all-time high.

That's good news for everyone except two Canadian TV networks and their fans, not just in Canada but also many hockey viewers in the US who have been able to watch them in recent years thanks to the Center Ice package on TV and on digital devices that access Game Center Live.

First is the CBC, which has produced the venerable Hockey Night in Canada telecasts since 1952. Hockey Night had been the home of the game's greatest voices, Hall of Fame announcers Foster Hewitt, Danny Gallivan and Dick Irvin, not to mention its loudest voice, Don Cherry, and remains a cherished institution. Saturday night network hockey north of the border will still be shown on CBC, but the People's Network will no longer control the content; that will be up to Rogers and how much of the HNIC crew comes along for the ride is unknown.

The other loser is TSN. Canada's all-sports cable network produces the smartest, most knowledgeable, highest quality hockey telecasts anyone has ever seen, featuring a legion of talented announcers, plugged-in journalists and articulate former players. Although they've lost the rights to show games nationally, they've pledged to continue breaking the news and interpreting events, something they've done equally well. They set a high standard for the Rogers group to meet. We'll get to see how well Rogers responds this time next year.

Also ahead are the Sochi Olympics, an unprecedented slate of outdoor games and a chance for the Blackhawks to do what no club has accomplished in 15 years - win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. Whether the NHL can get a more firm handle on its player safety issues, however, will be the most critical question of all.

* * *

Former NHL director of broadcasting, publishing and video, Stu Hackel has written about hockey for The New York Times, Sports Illustrated, SI.com, The Hockey News, The (Montreal) Gazette, Goal magazine and The Village Voice. He wrote his first hockey stories nearly 50 years ago when he published a newsletter for the Gump Worsley Fan Club. You can follow him on Twitter @stuhackel.