by Robert Ferringo - 09/06/2005
In the last 12 months the National Hockey League has undergone as massive of an overhaul as any sports league in the last half century. With revamped rules, a restructured salary system and a new television partner, professional hockey is the shell of the sport that locked its doors a year ago. The changes reflect the NHL's new mantra - more scoring, increased parity and cost certainty. So forget everything you know or think you know about the NHL, which begins preseason play on Sept. 16, as even the most faithful and ardent fan has to admit that they have no clue as to how the game will look in 2005-06.
First, hockey viewers will have to get used to watching their game on a new station. ESPN took a gamble and refused to pick up the network's option on the NHL's broadcasting rights. The idea was that ESPN would be able to opt out of their deal, and then repurchase the rights at a substantially reduced rate. Instead, the Outdoor Living Network, a subsidiary of Comcast Cable, swooped in with a very lucrative offer and purchased the rights to broadcast the NHL regular season and playoffs for $65 million this season, $70 million in 2006-2007, and $72.5 million in 2007-2008. Not to worry though - Barry Melrose and his man mullet have signed on with OLN.
However, OLN only reaches an estimated 65 million homes throughout the United States and Canada. That's a substantial reduction from the 90 million subscribers that ESPN boasts, and the 89 million viewers that ESPN2 can reach. Also, since ESPN doesn't own the rights, the league shouldn't expect too much coverage from those Bristol bastards. The new deal - while a relative windfall for a sport with flailing TV ratings - definitely relegates the NHL to Niche Sport status. Well, that and a 309-day lockout will turn off any fan base. Right now hockey's popularity lies somewhere around the WNBA and extreme dodgeball.
Next, besides the ideological alterations that the league has experienced, there have been considerable changes to the practical aspects of the game. A competition committee revisited several issues that were pinpointed as problem areas during the pre-lockout days. The highlights of their adopted rule changes are:
1) No more ties. Instead of records that read like Lotto picks, the league has gone back to good ol' fashioned wins and losses. At the end of overtime a six-player shootout will ensue, followed by a sudden death shootout if necessary.
2) Goalies will no longer be allowed to be built like Optimus Prime. Their allotted padding has been reduced 11 percent. The rule is backed by $25,000 fines and suspensions.
3) Goaltenders can no longer "freeze" the puck, and a trapezoidal area has been set up behind the goal line. The goalies are only allowed to handle the puck within that area when behind the goal line.
4) The offensive zone will be larger. The bluelines were each moved two feet closer to one another, shrinking the neutral zone. Also, the goal-lines have been moved two feet further from the boards, leaving more room behind the net.
5) The red line is gone, and two-line passes are now legal.
6) Other minor changes have occurred. There's no flopping, a point of emphasis on clutching and grabbing, anyone who instigates a fight in the last five minutes gets suspended, no flipping the puck into the stands in your defensive zone, and no public complaints about the league.
The idea is that all of these rule modifications will open up scoring and increase the speed of the game. They're hoping that the new NHL will be similar to the hockey played in the Olympics, which features more scoring and skill rather than neutral zone traps and the grind-it-out garbage that had permeated the NHL over the last decade.
Finally, a whirlwind of player movement has completely reconfigured the balance of talent throughout the league. Trying to figure out who is going where has proven more tiresome than trying to keep up with which pitcher Alyssa Milano is banging now. In fact, when opening night comes (the Rangers open against the Flyers on Oct. 5) most fans will feel like Guy Pierce's short-term-memory depraved character in Memento. They'll vaguely recognize where they are but have no idea how they got there.
I saw a post on another sports site that I felt best sums up the player movement that's taken place since the league went back in business: "Don't you feel like the new NHL is the equivalent of someone stealing your NHL '95 game for Sega, randomizing the rosters, and then giving it back to you?"
Laying a bet on NHL futures trying to predict who will hoist the Cup next summer could be a great opportunity to fleece some unsuspecting oddsmakers. But, as always, wager at your own risk. Here's a quick overview on some teams that will be worth watching and could be worth the gamble.
2005 NHL predictions
Detroit Red Wings (17/2) - The favorites for the upcoming season reside in Hockeytown. It's a terrible bet, and don't bite. Yes the Red Wings were the best team in the 2003-04 regular season with 109 overall points, but perhaps no team was hurt more by the year off. Steve Yzerman is now 40, Chris Chelios is 43 and Brendan Shanahan is turning 37. The window may have closed for the Wings and their AARP roster. Also, Detroit has only about $7 million to resign Pavel Datsyuk (who's said he's not even close to a deal) and/or Henrik Zetterberg. This team has holes, and now they can't plug it with money.
Philadelphia Flyers (9/1) - The Flyers waived goodbye to its nucleus of Jeremy Roenick, John LeClair and Mark Recchi. Their absence will open up the ice for young speedsters Jeff Carter and Mike Richards. Also, they managed to pilfer Peter Forsberg and Derian Hatcher, adding two of the top free agent talents to an already strong team. The Flyers should have a slight edge over New Jersey in their quest to defend their Atlantic Division championship.
Ottawa Senators (11/1) - The Sens were the top scoring team in the Eastern Conference in 2003-04 (262 goals), and they added the dynamic Dany Heatley in a blockbuster deal that included Marian Hossa. As long as no one asks Heatley to be the designated driver, he should add some more pop to Ottawa's offense. Daniel Alfredsson led the team with 48 assists in 03-04, and will be setting the table for Heatley. This squad is deep and strong, and will be relying on Ray Emery and Dominick Hasek in the net.
Calgary Flames (13/1) - The runners-up to the 2004 champion Tampa Bay Lightning (man, that still sounds strange) will be even better this season. The key move they made was retaining superstar Jerome Iginla. Iginla was tied for the NHL lead with 41 goals in 03-04. The Flames upgraded the offense by bringing in Tony Amonte and Darren McCarty. Also, Roman Hamrlik was acquired to shore up an already stout defense.
New Jersey Devils (14/1) - This is a very interesting team going into the preseason. As Detroit and Colorado will be most affected by the salary cap, New Jersey will be most affected by the rule changes. Many blame the Devils for pioneering the neutral zone trap and the clutch-and-grab style that took over the league in the last decade. Offensively, they still have Scott Gomez (team leader in assists) and Patrick Elias (leader in goals and points) and I expect big numbers from both. They've won at least 41 games in each of the past three seasons, and with Martin Brodeur in goal they always have a shot.
Colorado Avalance (14/1) - The Avs still have Joe Sakic and Pierre Turgeon in the center, Brad May and Alex Tanguay on the left and Milan Hejduk on the right. So in other words, they still have a chance. Colorado has put up an average of 42 wins per year the last three seasons, and its core remains intact. Rob Blake is back to anchor the defense and David Aebischer is the man in the cage. I expect them to figure prominently in the Western Conference, but I don't think they have enough depth to hoist the Cup.
Boston Bruins (15/1) - The Bruins were one of the teams that benefited the most from the outlandish free agency. They were able to lock up captain Joe Thornton for three years, and keep Glen Murray on the club. Also, they were able to add seasoned vets Shawn McEachern and Brian Leetch, as well as Alexi Zhamnov and Dave Scatchard. That talent infusion improves a team that was already pretty tough (defending Northeast Division champions). The pressure will be on Andrew Raycroft, the only goalie on the roster.
Pittsburgh Penguins (15/1) - The March of the Penguins back to hockey's elite may start this season. Besides being a fiscal farce off the ice, they've been one of the worst teams on it for the past several years, managing just 78 wins in the last three seasons. They put up only 2.3 goals a game while winning 23 games in 03-04. But the Steel City won the Sidney Crosby Sweepstakes, and the "next Gretzky" gives them instant credibility. They resigned leading scorer Dick Tarnstrom and acquired Lyle Odelein, and that young talent may be ready to take the next step.
Tampa Bay Lightning (15/1) - Winning the Stanley Cup a few weeks before the lockout must've been kind of like winning the lottery and then finding out we're going back to the barter system. Tampa Bay caught lightning in a bottle in the summer of 2004, and the defending Stanley Cup champions have brought back the principals involved in that run. Dave Andreychuk, Martin St. Louis, and Vincent Lecavalier are all back and ready to go. They roster reeks of old age, but they're still the champs and should be shown the proper respect.
Anaheim Mighty Ducks (30/1) - Team Teemu returns as the head of the Flying V. Sergie Federov is looking to salvage a burnt out career, and Scott Niedermeyer should flourish in Anaheim's wide-open attack. Also, the Ducks have a huge advantage with J-S Giguere minding the net. That's one guy who won't need the extra padding to dominate. A drawback is that they traded captain Steve Rucchin to the Rangers.
Atlanta Thrashers (33/1) - I like this pick for the value. The Hossa-Heatley trade was pretty much a push, but getting a solid veteran defenseman like Greg deVries in the deal may shift the advantage in the Thrashers favor. They already posses a young core led by the very talented Ilya Kovalchuk (team leader in goals and assists) and Hossa's playmaking style (36 goals and 82 points) will fit right in. They signed Mike Dunham to mentor talented youngster Kari Lehtonen, and brought in Bobby Holik to add even more firepower. They might be a year away, but it may be worth it to take a $10 or $20 flier on them.
Questions or comments for Robert? e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
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