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NHL back in business

PITTSBURGH | There were so many indelible images Wednesday night at Mellon Arena that trying to pick a defining one wasn't easy.

Maybe it was the stark contrast of emotions between Detroit Red Wings captain Nicklas Lidstrom hoisting the Stanley Cup and normally reserved Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby, who sat in his locker-room stall and held back tears while trying to answer questions from the media.

Maybe it was Henrik Zetterberg sitting next to the Conn Smythe Trophy. That, combined with Lidstrom accepting the Cup from commissioner Gary Bettman, symbolized one of the Finals' defining themes - it doesn't matter where a player's passport was issued.

Or maybe it was the guy sitting next to Crosby. While dozens of media members crowded Crosby, there was Ryan Malone with his mangled nose from being broken twice in the span of days. He sat in full gear staring at the floor, likely pondering how close his team had just come to the pinnacle and whether he had played his last game for the franchise he grew up cheering for.

Malone and the Penguins' possible plight signify the new economic landscape of the NHL. While Pittsburgh has an incredible core of young talent and the league's best future, general manager Ray Shero has plenty of work to do over the next two years to ensure both aspects.

In past eras, the team easily would have re-signed Malone and other key free agents like Marian Hossa and Brooks Orpik. Now it will be nearly impossible for the Penguins to retain all three while also locking up restricted free agent goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and still leaving enough money to fill out the roster for next season - and that's not even considering the huge extensions for Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal before the 2009-10 campaign.

"It's going to be a challenge for Ray this year to keep our team together," Penguins co-owner and chairman Mario Lemieux said. "With the salary cap here now, you have to make choices and make sure that you build your team according to the salary cap and make some tough decisions."

It is not crazy to think that the Red Wings, despite boasting a older roster, are in a better position to return to the finals over the next couple of seasons. General manager Ken Holland has been masterful with his cap management, and Detroit's entire core is under contract for next year.

Still, the defining theme from these Stanley Cup Finals and the 2007-08 season is progress. For the first time in many years, the NHL can boast about rising television ratings and interest in its product.

And why not? It was a season to remember for many reasons and provided a glimpse of a golden era of hockey that could be quickly approaching.

Three years ago the league returned from an unmitigated disaster and hitched its wagon to a couple of kids - Crosby and Alex Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals. Those two have exceeded expectations, and both will likely have division titles and league MVPs on their resumes when next season begins.

Crosby and Ovechkin are the leaders of a youth renaissance in this league, and they are primed to evolve from precocious stars to icons. Can Ovechkin score 75 goals next season? Can Crosby approach 150 points?

Those two have revitalized hockey in their respective cities, and the great thing for the NHL is that other important rebirths are in progress. Look no further than the "Original Six" cities.

The biggest development for the league came in Chicago. Led by Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the Blackhawks are the next "it" team, and fans came back in droves this year. Progress also was made in Boston, and it will always be good for the league to have Montreal back among the elite.

Any look toward next season has to begin where this campaign ended. No Cup champion has repeated in a decade, but the Red Wings appear primed to do it.

"We've proven that under the new system, where it's more of an even playing field, the team has really responded well," Lidstrom said. "People probably thought we were going to drop off a little bit going into that first season after the lockout, and the team didn't lose a beat. I thought we played well in the first year after that. And I think we've just been getting better and better under [coach] Mike Babcock."

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