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301 Days of Dispute Leads to a Better NHL

301 Days of Dispute Leads to a Better NHL

By Zachary Shevich

            301 days. 301 days of an NHL lockout. I, like millions of other NHL fans, many of whom are Canadian, can finally exhale as October 5th ended our hockey withdrawal period. What became the longest lockout in U.S. sports history, and the first to involve canceling an entire sports season, the 301-day lockout has forever changed the game. The NHL’s lockout of its players on September 16th, 2004, was caused by the combined losses of $224 million by the owners of the 30 NHL teams, alarming for a business formerly worth $2.1 billion. The owners put pressure on the NHLPA (National Hockey League Player’s Association) to agree on a salary cap with decreased salaries for the players. After almost a year of debate, players now only get 54% of a team’s revenue, rather than 75%, and no one player can take up more than 20% of a team’s payroll. This all is in affect under a $39 million salary cap with a minimum of $21.5 million to guarantee that all teams remain competitive. By instating a salary cap, all teams have equal opportunities to be competitors and owners won’t be forced to spend amounts that will leave them with losses, which is very helpful for small market teams as well as Canadian teams who had trouble competing with the Americans’ higher currency.

            One of the big issues during the renegotiation process was the desire for new rules. Depending on what your love for the sport was will depend on whether you’re going to want to come back to the NHL and its new silver and black logo or not. The league is ditching its rough ‘em up image after incidents like Marty McSorley’s slash of his stick to the head of Donald Brashear, causing a concussion and some memory loss, and the March 2004 incident where Todd Bertuzzi drove Steve Moore head first to the ice, fracturing Moore’s neck. In their effort to do so, the NHL is giving harsher penalties to the players who initiate a fight, especially late in the game. In addition, referees will be stricter on calling hooking, holding, and interferences, mainly when the obstruction is committed to a player not handling the puck.

Instead, the NHL will look to faster, higher scoring games as a way to bring back the fans to a sport which has suffered from declining attendance and ratings. Ten years ago, Mario Lemieux led the league in goals scored 69 goals, down from an 87 Wayne Gretzky scored eleven seasons before that. Last season’s lead was a three-way tie with 41 goals. In response to this dramatic decline in scoring, the new rules are made in hopes of teams scoring more goals. In efforts to create quicker attacks, the NHL is eliminating the restriction of passing across two lines, letting teams work the puck up the ice with longer, faster passes. In addition, if a player is offside, play is not stopped unless he makes a move to the puck. This gives that player a chance to get back and, as the NHL has put it, “tag-up” to let his teammates take over the attack, keeping the flow of the game up. Also, goalies have been restricted to where they can handle the puck, leaving it to the skaters to do more. The skaters will also have some more room to do so, as the offensive zone as been increased. However, the only rule change to directly affect the chances of scoring is the shrinking of a goaltender’s pads from 12 inches to 11. But to many, the most exciting rule change is the end of tied games and the inclusion of a shootout. Provided that a game is tied after a 60-minute, three period regulation time, and a 5 minute, four-on-four overtime, teams will select three players to shoot in a one-on-one match up against the goalie in which the player will take the puck from the center of the ice and skate it up to goal trying to score. No more ties, no more boring games, there’s always something to look forward to whether it be at the beginning or the end of the game.

What has generated the most interest has been the free agency moves created by the new salary cap and the spread out talent level. Teams who were over the salary cap had to renegotiate with players and make deals in order to get under $39 million dollars, which greatly decreased their talent levels and limited their ability to make productive off-season moves. However, the small market teams who had room to make some moves, now can put up money knowing they can’t be outbid by the big market teams. Overnight, it seems that the league’s worst, like Nashville, Columbus, and Atlanta, have been turned into contenders by signing players like Paul Kariya, Adam Foote, and Bobby Holik while big market teams like Detroit and Colorado, were bogged down by their high payrolls forcing the loss of players like Bret Hull and Peter Forsberg. In fact, the overhaul was so massive that out of the 1019 players who saw action in the ’03-’04 season, 256 are now on different teams.

So what will come of this new NHL season? What will end up to our local Devils, Rangers, and Islanders? The easiest answer is that no one knows. With so much change, and so much movement, every team cannot help but be optimistic. With an average of 8 new players per team, anything can happen this season. If one has to decide on something, things don’t look great for any of the local teams.

The Devils normal defensive style of play will be hurt by the departure of Scott Niedermayer and the retirement of captain Scott Stevens. However, with a solid core that has been successful in the past, the Devils should continue to be a threat under head coach Larry Robinson, who guided the Devils to Lord Stanley’s Cup in 2000.

The Islanders don’t return with many of their key members, including their three best defensemen, Adrian Aucoin, Roman Hamrlik, and Kenny Jonsson, and high-scorers Mariusz Czerkawski and captain Michael Peca. But through trades, the Isles acquired big names Miroslav Satan, Mike York, Alexi Zhitnik, Brad Lukowich, and Brent Sopel. It will be a tough road, but backed by future star Rick DiPietro between the pipes and Alexi Yashin commanding the attack, the Islanders have a legitimate shot.

However, the team that looks the worst of the three is the New York Rangers. They decided to not bring back last season’s leader in goals and assists, Bobby Holik, and the captain, Mark Messier, has retired. Another retiree, is 22-year-old goalie Dan Blackburn, who would have been the starter had it not been for permanent nerve damage. With eleven new players replacing an under-achieving talented core, it’s hard to tell how the Broadway Blueshirts will mesh. The star will be the league’s highest paid player, the $8.4 million man, Jaromir Jagr. The Czech native will have two more men from the Republic in Martin Straka, Jagr’s teammate from his days as a Penguin, and Marek Mallik. The Rangers will be relying on these players and a few others to avoid ending up in last.

            Our three local teams, there are two more teams that share a place in the Atlantic Division. Those two are the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Philadelphia Flyers, and both teams look very exciting. The Pittsburgh Penguins, who drafted “The Next Gretzky” in Sidney Crosby, and brought in Ziggy Palffy, John Leclair, Mark Recchi, Sergei Gonchar, and Jocelyn Thibault to help him out, not to mention the most legendary player still playing, Mario Lemiuex, look fit to make a run. The Philadelphia Flyers who are a young fast team with guys like Peter Forsberg, Derian Hatcher, and Eric Desjardins to hold the fort.

            Another exciting team in the Eastern Conference of the N.H.L. is the defending Stanley Cup champs, the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have returned with the same core minus a few, are many people’s favorites to make a run.

The Lightning’s Finals counter parts, the Calgary Flames, seem like the hot pick to come out of the West and go to the Finals again. The Flames had a great off-season adding the likes of Tony Amonte, Stephan Yelle, and Roman Harlik to an already great team lead by one of the league’s best players, Jarome Iginla. Another team that many are excited about is the Phoenix Coyotes. They Coyotes are now being coached by “The Great One,” Wayne Gretzky, himself, and hope to have his greatness on the ice translate to being behind the bench.

            No matter how this season turns out to be, it’ll be interesting to see something unique to all the other sports, the rebirth of something that was already exciting. Assuming you’ve made it this far through the article, I believe you’re with me in saying, welcome back hockey, welcome back.

Brought to you by The Fro Man Shevs