“The parity is amazing,” says veteran centre Jeremy Roenick of the Phoenix Coyotes. “You can’t count anybody out in hockey anymore. There’s no clear contender for the Cup.”
That’s new territory for a league built on dynasties. The 1970s were dominated by Philadelphia, Boston and Montreal, the 1980s saw the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers rule the day, the early 1990s brought glory to Pittsburgh, and from 1995 through 2003 New Jersey, Detroit and Colorado won eight of the nine Stanley Cups up for grabs.
The NHL’s salary-cap era will continue to spread talent throughout the league, the shrinking gap between payrolls providing the smaller markets the same chance to win as the big boys.
Last season, as NHL commissioner Gary Bettman points out, 22 clubs either made the playoffs or were within 11 points of making the playoffs.
“That is phenomenal competitive balance,” said Bettman. “Because I think what a sports league owes its fans, no matter what team they root for, is the hope, the optimism, the excitement, that their team has a shot.”
Star defenceman Scott Niedermayer remembers the days when his former team, the Devils, could bank on a win against certain teams.
“With the cap, with teams being reshuffled a bit every year, there aren’t going to be many easy nights, if any,” says the Ducks captain. “Whereas before, especially with expansion going on, there were some teams that really weren’t competitive with the other teams in the league. Those nights were definitely easier.
“But now every team is competitive and it’s tough every night. Given that reality, when pre-season picks are made, it just makes it that much more difficult to believe in them because it’s so close. It’s hard to pick anybody ultimately.”
The post-lockout NHL returned last season with eighth-seeded Edmonton in the West coming one game from winning the Cup, losing to first-time champion Carolina. That scenario, rightly or wrongly, has every team in the league believing it can include them next spring.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if what happened last year happens again, teams just making the playoffs having long runs,” says Ottawa Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson. “The difference between the 16th team and the top three is not that big.”
Lots of hockey has to be played before the playoffs begin next April 11. The NHL’s all-star game returns after being skipped last year for the Olympic break, a midweek gala Jan. 24 in Dallas that perhaps might feature star Russian rookie Evgeni Malkin of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Other rookies to watch this season include Phil Kessel in Boston, Dustin Penner in Anaheim, Gilbert Brule in Columbus, Patrick O’Sullivan in Los Angeles, Wojtek Wolski in Colorado, Jiri Hudler in Detroit and Matt Carle in San Jose.
They’ve got big skates to fill. Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby, Calgary’s Dion Phaneuf and Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist highlighted the best rookie class in history last season with Ovechkin deservedly taking the Calder with his 52-goal season.
While rookies find their place around the league, established players adjust to new surroundings. Rosters got major face lifts around the league: Zdeno Chara leaving Ottawa for Boston; Ed Jovanovski saying goodbye to Vancouver and signing with Phoenix; Chris Pronger forcing a trade out of Edmonton and joining powerhouse Anaheim; Roberto Luongo leaving Miami for Vancouver; Rob Blake returning to Los Angeles after leaving salary-cap troubled Colorado, which also dealt star winger Alex Tanguay to Calgary to beef up the Flames’ offence.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
“Actually, we caught ourselves (before a pre-season game) saying: ‘I didn’t know this guy was playing here,”‘ said Hart Trophy winner Joe Thornton of the San Jose Sharks. “But it’s kind of exciting. Fans get to see different players. You definitely have to read up on your favourite team now. I’m not sure you’re going to see the same guy stay with the same team for 20 years like Stevie Yzerman.”
The NHL won’t have Yzerman in uniform for the first time in 23 years, the 41-year-old calling it quits after a legendary career in Hockeytown. Also saying goodbye were Luc Robitaille, Keith Primeau, Eric Desjardins, Tie Domi, Brian Savage, Eric Weinrich, Bob Boughner and Garth Snow, who traded in his goalie pads for a suit and tie as the surprise GM on Long Island.
The new GMs on the block also include Peter Chiarelli in Boston, Dean Lombardi in Los Angeles, Ray Shero in Pittsburgh, Francois Giguere in Colorado and Jacques Martin in Florida.
There were sweeping changes behind the bench as well. Ted Nolan’s return to the NHL with the Islanders after a nine-year absence highlights the eight new coaches this season, joined by Alain Vigneault in Vancouver, Dave Lewis in Boston, Marc Crawford in Los Angeles, Claude Julien in New Jersey, Jim Playfair in Calgary, Guy Carbonneau in Montreal and Paul Maurice in Toronto.
The 39-year-old Maurice, who was born three months and two days before Toronto’s last Stanley Cup, raised eyebrows early in training camp when he suggested his team would be in a “dog fight” to make the playoffs. He didn’t back down when asked about it a few weeks later.
“No, it wasn’t out of context, I absolutely said that,” Maurice said. “That’s not a statement of how good we are. It’s how the league works now. If we don’t get to a place mentally where you accept the fight, you’re going to feel like you’re underachieving every time you take a hit, every time you find adversity, every time you lose two or three games in a row.
“Atlanta beat Carolina 9-0 at one point last year. You have to be able to get off the mat on those because it is a dog fight.”
Canada’s best shot at a Cup resides in Calgary, where the Flames added some offensive punch in Tanguay and promise to embrace the new NHL this season instead of resisting it.
The Senators finished first in the East last season but lost some star power when Chara bolted to Boston and winger Martin Havlat was dealt to Chicago.
“I think we’ll be a good team,” insists Alfredsson. “It’s too early to say how we’ll end up. Last year we started off really hot and I think it’s really important to try and do that to give yourself some leeway and not have to start pressing right away. We expect ourselves to challenge for the top spot in our division but it’s pretty wide-open.”
That’s the sense in the East, that it’s anyone’s conference to take. But in the West the hype has Anaheim, Calgary, Nashville and San Jose as clear favourites.
“With a strong finish last year and then adding a player like Chris, I guess that has some people jumping on the bandwagon,” Niedermayer said of his Ducks adding Pronger.
GMs around the league would pawn off their first born for a chance to ice two Norris Trophy winners like Niedermayer and Pronger – a staggering 1-2 punch on the blue-line.
“They’re definitely two of the best defencemen in the league and guys who log a lot of ice time, too,” said star Predators winger Paul Kariya. “They’re not 20-minute guys, they’re 30-minute guys. When you’re going up against Anaheim you’re going to see one of them on the ice the whole game. So it’s going to be a tough challenge for sure.”
But will anyone notice in Anaheim? The game returned with record attendance last season but also scary low TV ratings in the U.S.
More has to be done to sell the game south of the border.
“I really think they need to bring more of what’s happening in the game to TV,” suggests Roenick, an American who is one of the game’s unabashed ambassadors. “Conversations on the bench, between players, coaches, they need to bring the cameras in the dressing rooms and even into the training rooms when guys are getting stitched up. Show what’s going on.
“People don’t know what we go through, they don’t know our personalities. It’s one thing not to understand the game, but let’s at least try to bring real life into it.”
Whether Americans are watching or not, some of the game’s greats will reach milestones worth noting, Brendan Shanahan (598), Jaromir Jagr (591) and Joe Sakic (574) all closing in on 600 goals – an elite club that includes only 14 other players in the game’s entire history.
Superstar goalie Martin Brodeur also continues his quest to surpass the all-time wins total, 551, of Patrick Roy. The Devils netminder, with 446 career wins, needs only two more to surpass Terry Sawchuk for third all-time. Ed Belfour, now in Florida, is second at 457 but may very well yield that spot to Brodeur before the end of the season given his new part-time role with the Panthers.
The hockey world will focus on Roy come Nov. 13 when the former Montreal and Colorado goalie goes into the Hockey Hall of Fame in his very first year of eligibility.
“Patrick was an incredible athlete and one of the best goaltenders to ever put on the pads,” said Kariya. “I remember being pretty fortunate at a couple of all-star games to drive to the rink with him and pick his brain. I think he was one of the most intelligent and knowledgeable players I’ve ever spoken to about hockey. He knew everything about where I looked to shoot, what stick I used, he could probably dissect every guy in the league and their tendencies.
“He was a real student of the game and just a tremendous competitor, too. He wanted the game on his shoulders, he thrived in those pressure situations. Deserving is probably an understatement when it comes to him and the Hall of Fame.”