Gary Bettman touts NHL parity as training camps open

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NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman is a happy man these days, leading a league that seems strong on the ice, in the stands and on TV.

"The entertainment value of the game has never been better," Bettman said recently in an interview with The Associated Press.

What makes the commissioner particularly satisfied is the parity he sees. That means fans of nearly every team can have the highest of hopes every season. The Los Angeles Kings didn't even make the playoffs last season after winning the Stanley Cup championship a year earlier.

"Our competitive balance is extraordinary," Bettman said. "Seven teams made the playoffs that didn't make it the year before. And, the entertainment value of the game has never been better."

Chicago's quest is to be the first team to repeat since the Detroit Red Wings did in 1998 would certainly add to the notion that the Blackhawks are a dynasty. Star Patrick Kane is part of a sexual-assault investigation near his hometown of Buffalo, New York, but he said Thursday he expects to be exonerated and play this season.

Here are some things to watch when the Blackhawks and everyone else hit the ice as training camps begin:

3-ON-3 OVERTIME: While ending tie games with shootouts may appeal to some fans, hockey purists hate that a skills competition gives teams an extra point. A possible solution is coming this season with 5-minute, sudden-death overtimes that will have three skaters, instead of four, plus goaltenders. To give players, coaches and officials a feel for the new format, 45 preseason games will end with the 3-on-3 situation after regulation, no matter what the score is, and there will be no shootout.

EYES IN THE SKY: The NHL plans to have trained concussion spotters at every game this season for the first time. Teams have had spotters in the past, but have sometimes found it difficult to line them up on the road. Bettman has said a lawsuit filed by former players against the league regarding head trauma is "without merit."

HI, MY NAME IS ... : The Pittsburgh Penguins, who have struggled to sustain success since winning the Cup in 2009, made a bold move by acquiring high-scoring winger Phil Kessel from Toronto in a trade on the first day of free agency back in July. St. Louis sent center T.J. Oshie to Washington. Team chemistry will be a priority as practices get under way.

YOUNG GUNS: A pair of 18-year-old players regarded as once-in-a-generation players, Edmonton's Connor McDavid and Buffalo's Jack Eichel, will get a chance to show to show what they can do. The Oilers drafted McDavid No. 1 overall this year and the Sabres selected Eichel one pick later.

NEW COACHES, NEW PLACES: The Toronto Maple Leafs made perhaps the biggest move of the offseason, luring coach Mike Babcock away from Detroit with a $50 million, eight-year deal in an attempt to restore luster to the franchise. The Red Wing replaced their Stanley Cup-winning coach by promoting Jeff Blashill from their AHL team. Buffalo is putting Dan Bylsma, a former Pittsburgh coach, back on the bench and ex-San Jose coach Todd McLellan landed in Edmonton.

IS THAT A CHALLENGE?: NHL coaches can now challenge goals they think were affected by goalie interference or by a player being offside.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS: The league will put three games in the elements this season. Boston will host Montreal at Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots, on New Year's Day. Minnesota will face Chicago on Feb. 21 at the University of Minnesota football stadium and less than a week later, Colorado will host Detroit at the home of the Rockies. "Any suggestion that it is overdone is from people who haven't been to the outdoor games," Bettman said.

HURRY UP AND WAIT: The NHL is moving ahead in its expansion process with Las Vegas and Quebec City. Bettman insisted the league isn't close to making "hard decisions" and won't anytime soon. "We're not feeling any timeline pressure," he said.

CASHING IN: Tampa Bay Lightning center Steven Stamkos, Kings center Anze Kopitar and Chicago defenseman Brent Seabrook are among potential free agents next summer, giving each of them an added incentive to perform and their teams another reason to worry about how to fit them in under the salary cap.

MORE MOTIVATION: The World Cup of Hockey will be played a year from now in Toronto and rosters for the eight-team tournament will begin to take shape publicly in March. While some players such as Sidney Crosby are a lock to participate, there are a lot of players on the bubble to represent their country - or continent in the case of the 23-and-under North American team and the squad representing various European countries.

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