NHL’s New Rules, New Players Promise for Exciting Season

The National Hockey League (NHL) returned to the ice Wednesday, October 5, much to the delight of deprived hockey fans around the country. After a 485-day drought, all 30 NHL teams were back in action to kick off what appears to be the most excitingseason in years.

An unprecedented number of players changed teams over the summer, thanks to the new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA). The new CBA requires all teams to have a salary cap, giving smaller market teams a chance to compete with the financial big boys for the rights to the league’s top players. The salary cap combined with the new rules which support a more wide-open, free-flowing, fast-paced style of play, should create a league that allows the superstars to shine and the fans to see an increase in goals as well as heightened competition each night from every team. And with a nearly two-year hiatus, the league will be flooded with some incredible new talent.

While the payroll regulations have leveled the financial playing field and the talent has become more dispersed throughout the league, only one team can hoist the Stanley Cup come June. Taking a look at the six, five-team divisons, certain teams still hold an edge, but not who you might expect.

Eastern Conference: Atlantic Division

The Atlantic Division has always had some of the fiercest rivalries in all of hockey. After a crazy summer, armed with their new acquisitions, the Philadelphia Flyers are one of the favorites to raise the cup come June. Over the summer, the Flyers acquired center Peter Forsberg, arguably the best player in the world, former Boston Bruin Mike Knuble, as well as some muscle on defense in Derian Hatcher and Mike Rathje. Robert Esche returns in net hoping to solidify his spot as one of the league’s premier goaltenders. Mix in two American Hockey League studs in Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, who both won the Calder Cup with the Philadelphia Phantoms last season (Carter also won the scoring race), and you have a strong team who will expect to win every night.

Not far behind the Flyers should be the New Jersey Devils and Pittsburgh Penguins. The Devils are backstopped by the league’s top goaltender, Martin Brodeur. With 11 shutouts in the 2003-2004 season, Brodeur will give the Devils a chance to compete every night. The Devils will need to rely on Brodeur more than in the past with the retirement of two of the Devil’s top defensemen, captain Scott Stevens and the departure of Norris Trophy winner as the NHL’s top defenseman, Scott Neidermeyer, to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. The Devils should have little trouble changing their style of play to take advantage of the new rules with no shortage of speed and scoring up front with a talented group of forwards led by Scott Gomez and Patrik Elias.

The Pittsburgh Penguins, who finished last in the league in the 2003-2004 season, are the most talked about and could be the most exciting team to watch this season. The Penguins won the coveted first overall pick in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft and selected 18-year-old phenom Sidney Crosby, who has been touted as “The Next Great One.” No stranger to attention, NHL scouts have been drooling over Crosby’s skills since he was 14. The Penguins will look to Crosby for an immediate impact, but unlike other first overall draft picks, Crosby will join a roster loaded with talent. Owner and player Mario Lemieux wasted no time bringing in a handful of all-star caliber players to help Crosby including Zigmund Palffy and Sergei Gonchar as well as John LeClair and Mark Recchi from the rival Flyers. The Penguins may have finished last in the league two years ago, but with a revamped team full of talent, anything short of making noise in the playoffs will be considered a disappointment.

The New York Rangers and New York Islanders will look to keep pace in arguably the strongest division in the league. The Rangers will need to rely on moody superstar Jaromir Jagr, who,when he feels like it, battles Forsberg for the title of best player in the world. Big and strong, Jagr should thrive with the new rules that crack down on unnecessary holding and obstruction, giving the more gifted players more freedom to use their skills. Jagr will be joined up front by veterans Michael Nylander and fellow Czech Martin Straka, but there’s no doubt that the Rangers will be as successful as their streaky superstar.

The Islanders on the other hand will need to rely on a crop of young talent starting with goaltender Rick DiPietro. The Islanders have a group of talented forwards led by veterans Alexei Yashin and Miroslav Satan. Yashin and Satan will need help from young speedsters Jason Blake and Mark Parrish along with the newly acquired Mike York. Unfortunately the Islanders took a hit on the blueline losing Roman Hamrlik and one of the league’s premier defensemen in Adrian Aucoin, which has the Islanders at least a few years or a few acquisitions away from competing in this powerhouse division.

Eastern Conference: Northeast Division

The Ottawa Senators took the opposite approach of the Penguins over the summer and chose to keep their team virtually intact while adding goaltender Dominik Hasek. The Senators, who had become notorious with underachieving in the post-season,mainly due to inexperience and goaltending issues, appear to have addressed both concerns with the 40-year-old Hasek, who has been to the finals twice and won a Stanley Cup with Detroit. The Senators did acquire some size up front by sending forward Marian Hossa to the Atlanta Thrashers in exchange for forward Dany Heatley. Heatley, who had been struggling in Atlanta ever since crashing his Ferrari and killing passenger and teammate Dan Snyder, should resume being one of the premier players in the league on a team that has all the potential of being one of the last standing in June.

The Boston Bruins might just have the right combination of speed versus strength and youth versus age to succeed in a highly competitive Eastern Conference. The Bruins questions in goal seem to have been answered by 2003-2004 Calder Trophy winner Andrew Raycroft. Up front there’s no shortage of threats for other teams to worry about: Joe Thornton, Glen Murray, Sergei Samsonov as well as 20-year-old Patrice Bergeron. The Bruins also acquired future Hall-of-Fame defenseman, Brian Leetch to solidify an already solid blue line. As long as Raycroft plays to his abilities and didn’t acquire any rust during his time off, the Bruins will give the Senators all they can handle for the top of the division.

The Toronto Maple Leafs appear to have all the pieces to the puzzle, on paper. Goaltender Ed Belfour is a guaranteed Hall-of-Famer, and with the new emphasis on solid goaltending, the Leafs have one of the best. However, Belfour, 40, isn’t getting any younger and has had a history of back problems. But Belfour has always been a warrior and the Leafs will need him if they want to compete with the top teams in the conference. The Leafs are solid top to bottom, but the new rule changes and fast-paced style of play doesn’t exactly cater to Toronto’s style of play. But talented players, which the Leafs are full of, find ways to get it done; and don’t expect head coach Pat Quinn, one of the best minds in the NHL, to be satisfied with anything less than the best from his high-caliber players.

Unlike the Maple Leafs, the other two teams in the Northeast Division should benefit from the new style of play. Montreal Canadien forwards like Richard Zednik, Alexei Kovalev, Michael Ryder and Mike Ribeiro should bring some excitement to Canadien fans. But the Canadiens will need goaltender Jose Theodore to be on top of his game if they expect to hold the offensive powers in the league.

The Buffalo Sabres on the other hand, who have finished last in the division the last three seasons, went into the preseason with a goaltending controversy. But after an undefeated preseason, Ryan Miller appears to have an edge on the starting job over Martin Biron. The Sabres have some good, young talent up front including a stellar rookie prospect in Thomas Vanek, Daniel Briere and J.P. Dumont, who will benefit from the new rules, but it could still be a few years before the Sabres are able to consistently play with the big boys; though that’s not too bad for a team that was bankrupt and appeared destined for contraction a few years ago.

Eastern Conference: Southeast Division

There is no reason to believe the reigning Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning aren’t capable of hanging another championship banner at the end of the season. Aside from losing goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, the Lightning return all their main components from their 2004 champion squad including Hart Trophy winner Martin St. Louis, Conn Smythe winner Brad Richards, and one of the league’s top centers in Vincent Lecavalier. The Lightning have plenty of character to go with their superstars with essential championship players like Fredrik Modin, Vaclav Prospel and Captain Dave Andreychuk, all back to defend their crown. The talent doesn’t stop at the forwards as the Lightning managed to hold together their strong blue line group led by Dan Boyle and Pavel Kubina. The only question will be whether Sean Burke or John Grahame can step up to fill the void Khabibulin left in net.

While the other divisions in the conference have more history, there is no shortage of excitement in the southeast. The Lightning will be pushed every night by teams like the Atlanta Thrashers and new-look Florida Panthers. The Thrashers potentially have one of the most potent offenses in the league now that they’ve re-signed Russian superstar Ilya Kovalchuk. As one of the most exciting players in the game, Kovalchuk has proved over the last two years how talented he is by himself, so the acquisition of all-star forwards Marian Hossa, Peter Bondra and Bobby Holik only add to the firepower. The Thrashers also have a gem in between the pipes with rookie Kari Lehtonen. If Lehtonen picks up where he left off – winning his first four NHL starts including one shutout – he could end up posing next to the Calder Trophy as the league’s top rookie at the end of the year.

The Florida Panthers were one of the busiest teams in the off season acquiring proven veterans like Joe Nieuwendyk, Josef Stumpel and Gary Roberts to go with talented, youngsters Nathan Horton and Jay Bouwmeester. Over the last several years, goaltender Roberto Luongo has proven himself as arguably the best goaltender in the league, racking up impressive stats without too much help. The Panthers are going to need all their players to play to their potential and even then Head Coach Mike Keenan will need a little bit of help if they’re going to make any noise this season.

Both the Washington Capitals and the Carolina Hurricanes are going to have their work cut out for them this season. Washington enters the season with Alexander Ovechkin, who many believe will win the Calder Trophy as the top rookie. Ovechkin is the latest prodigy out of Russia and has had an extra year to prepare for his NHL debut. Ovechkin will begin the season on a line with Dainius Zubrus and Jeff Halpern, but the Capitals won’t go much deeper than their exciting starters. Washington did bring back Olaf Kolzig to fill their hole in goal, but with a shallow group of defensemen, Kolzig isn’t going to get much help.

The Hurricanes have a good crop of young players, but could suffer due to inexperience in the nets. Rookie Cam Ward will battle Martin Gerber, who spent his first two seasons in Anaheim as the backup for Jean-Sebastian Giguere, for the starting position in net. The Hurricanes do have some good young forwards with Eric Staal and Eric Cole as well as dependable, hardworking Rod Brind’Amour, but in a league where goaltending will be the deciding factor, unless Ward or Gerber shock the league, the Hurricanes don’t have enough to compensate for their questions in net.

Western Conference: Central Division

No team was hit harder by the salary cap than the Detroit Red Wings. When the cap was implemented, the Wings immediately alleviated some financial baggage and released defensemen Derian Hatcher and forward Ray Whitney to give the team room to sign some of its more essential players. The Red Wing front office had some decisions to make and ultimately was able to resign most of its core including forwards Steve Yzerman, Brenden Shanahan, and Robert Lang as well as crucial defensemen Nicklas Lidstrom and Mathieu Schneider. Detroit also managed to work out deals to hold onto what appears to be the future of the Red Wings in speedy forwards Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. Detroit’s depth and talent should compensate for the any questions surrounding starting goaltender Manny Legace. With a good mix of youth and experience as well as offense and defense, the Red Wings are team capable of playing with anybody.

On the opposite end of the salary-cap-affects spectrum is the Nashville Predators. As a small market team, the Predators were able to benefit from the new restrictions and picked up star winger Paul Kariya. Plauged by injuries and underachieving over the past several seasons, the new rules fit perfectly for a small, speedy player like Kariya. Kariya is joined up front by some solid young players like Martin Erat, Steve Sullivan and Scott Hartnell, all of which could have career years thanks to the new rules. If the Predators play to expectations, they should be a playoff team thanks to world class goaltender Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun, like Luongo, hasn’t gotten a whole lot of help since taking over the starting role with the Predators in 2002, and still has managed to post quality numbers leading his team to the playoffs in 2004 and earning a spot at the All Star Game in the process. Watch for the Predators to turn some heads this season.

The Chicago Blackhawks are another team that used the new salary cap to their advantage over the summer, signing two big names. The Blackhawks snagged goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin away from Tampa Bay and defenseman Adrian Aucoin from the Islanders. Chicago will be relying on youth up front for scoring in the likes of guys like Tyler Arnason, Kyle Calder and Tuomo Ruutu. Khabibulin had a stellar year in 2004 backstopping the Lightning to a championship, but the Blackhawks will need to give Khabibulin support similar to the way the Lightning did if they expect the same results.

The Columbus Blue Jackets also used the free agent market to bolster their young team. The Blue Jackets added veteran defensemen Adam Foote and Bryan Berard to help goaltender Marc Denis. Columbus is another team loaded with young talent. Forward Rick Nash tied for the lead in goals in 2004 without much support. 2005 first round draftee Gilbert Brule and youngster Dan Fritsche should help Nash shoulder the load in Columbus. But Denis will have to have his best season for the Jackets to make the playoffs.

Rounding out the division are the St. Louis Blues. With the new rules, the Blues will have their work cut out for them this season. Veteran forwards Keith Tkachuk and Doug Weight will be expected to supply a lot of offense, which will be no small task as neither is getting younger. The Blues took a huge hit when they were forced to trade away Chris Pronger to the Edmonton Oilers to free up some cap room to sign other players. Patrick Lalime will start the season in the nets, but will need to have an outstanding season for the Blues to even have a chance.

Western Conference: Northwest Division

The Calgary Flames lead possibly the best division in the league. Last year the Flames came up a goal short against the Lightning in the Stanley Cup finals. This season the Flames return their core players starting with Captain Jarome Iginla and goaltender Mikka Kiprusoff. The Flames have a great balance of offense and defense, Robin Rehger, Jordan Leopold, Rhett Warrener and mix in rookie stand out Dion Phaneuf on the blue line and the Flames have a defense any team would envy. The Flames also picked up free agent forwards Tony Amonte, Damon Langkow and Darren McCarty to give Iginla some help up front. With this stacked line-up, many rightfully believe that Calgary is the team to beat this season.

The Flames will be tested all season by the Vancouver Canucks. Captain Marcus Naslund leads a talented group of forwards that includes linemates Todd Bertuzzi and Brendan Morrison, making the Canucks top line one of the most potent in the league. But the offense doesn’t stop after the first line, similar to the Flames, the Canucks are deep in talent offensively as well as on defense. Mattias Ohlund, Ed Jovanovski and Bryan Allen lead a strong blue line contingent in front of goaltender Dan Cloutier, who has proven himself as a number one goaltender. The Canucks have all the makings of a champion, but willhave plenty of tests along the way.

The competition doesn’t stop there as the other three teams in the division will give the Flames and Canucks all they can handle. The Colorado Avalanche are absolutely loaded up front with talented forwards. Joe Sakic, one of the league’s premier centers will have plenty of help from Alex Tanguay, Milan Hejduk and newcomer Andrew Brunette. The Avalanche have one of the league’s top defensemen in Rob Blake who is as tough as they come. Blake will have help from several underrated, but good defensemen including Karlis Skrastins and John-Michael Liles while defending in front of goaltender David Aebischer, who needs to have a career year to match the talent in front of him. It’s scary to think a team this loaded with talent will have their hands full in a division that will push them every night.

The Edmonton Oilers wasted no time taking advantage of the league-wide salary cap, bringing in two top-notch veterans: former league MVP Chris Pronger from the Blues and former Islanders Captain Michael Peca. Edmonton has one of the fastest rinks in the league every season, which the speedy Oiler forwards will need to use to their advantage. The only thing potentially holding the Oilers back is a clear cut number one goaltender. Ty Conklin and Jussi Markkanen come into the season vying for the title. If everything goes right in Edmonton and a goaltender steps up, the Oilers could find themselves near the top of the division.

Last, but definitely not least in the division is the Minnesota Wild. The Wild didn’t use the off season to make any blockbuster deals, but founded in strong defense and coached by Jacques Lemaire, what the Wild lack in offensive power that the rest of the division has, they more than make up for in defense. As one of the top coaches in the league, Lemaire is notorious for stressing defense first to all of his players. The biggest obstacle for the Wild is going to be playing strong defense in a league that caters to offense. Forward Marion Gaborik will be heavily relied on to regain his 2003 numbers. The Wild have never needed to put up a large number of goals with two solid netminders in Dwayne Roloson and Manny Fernandez. With the depth and talent of the division, there is a chance that four or even all five teams could make the playoffs.

Western Conference: Pacific Division

Leading the way in the Pacific Division are the reigning division champion San Jose Sharks. Led by the solid goaltending of Evgeni Nabokov, the Sharks have quietly become one of the league’s top teams. In 2004, after charging through the first two rounds of the playoffs, the Sharks fell in the conference finals to the Calgary Flames. Captain Patrick Marleau heads a group of talented young forwards. With only one skater 30-years-old or older, the Sharks should benefit from the fast paced new NHL. The Sharks roster isn’t packed with marquee names, but these talented players still find ways to win.

There’s no doubt the Sharks need to stay on top of their game, should they begin to slip, the Dallas Stars and Los Angeles Kings will be ready and waiting. Dallas Stars Captain Mike Modano made a conscious decision this summer to stay with the only team he’s known in his 15-year NHL career, signing a five-year deal with the team. The Stars weren’t very active in the free agent market, but Modano will still have plenty of hard-nosed, veteran help with the likes of Jason Arnott and Bill Guerin. Dallas should be solid enough defensively starting with one of the league’s top goaltenders, Marty Turco to be a strong playoff contender. Turco will be defended by a strong, veteran defense led by Sergei Zubov and Philippe Boucher.

The Stars will need to be strong defensively to hold off the new look Los Angeles Kings. Unlike the Stars, the Kings were very active over the summer signing some big offensive names like Jeremy Roenick from the Flyers and Pavol Demitra from the St. Louis Blues. The Kings will have no shortage of fire power up front, but will be forced to look to untested goaltender Mathieu Garon in the nets. Garon spent the last two seasons in Montreal as the back-up goaltender to Jose Theodore and will be the Kings go-to-guy in goal. While the Kings might be exciting to watch with their offense-heavy roster, the strength of other teams in the conference could prove too much for the Kings over the long season.

The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim have been here before. With all the pressure on other teams, the Ducks came within one game of winning the Stanley Cup in 2003 before losing to the New Jersey Devils in seven games. The biggest reason for their playoff run was goaltender Jean-Sebastian Giguere, who was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy for his heroics, only the fifth player in history to win the award while playing for the losing side. Giguere’s numbers dwindled last season, but the Ducks were lucky enough to grab former New Jersey defenseman Scott Niedermeyer, one of the top free agents and arguably the best two-way defensemen to help out on both ends of the ice. The free agent market also brought the return of Teemu Selanne, who played in Anaheim from 1996 through 2001. Selanne joins Sergei Fedorov and fellow free agent forward Petr Sykora in trying to bring the Ducks back to the playoffs.

The Phoenix Coyotes are the only team in the league that has more star power behind the bench than on the ice. The Coyotes will be coached this season by owner and resident “Great One,” Wayne Gretzky. The Great One will have his work cut out for him as a first time head coach and several question marks. Phoenix will look to goaltenders Curtis Joseph and Brian Boucher for strong, consistant play in the nets. The Coyotes will also need players like Brett Hull, Petr Nedved and Captain Shane Doan to step up and provide leadership for a generally inexperienced roster. As it stands, Gretzky and the Coyotes could have a long year ahead of them.

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