The new look N.H.L. has successfully…changed
its look. Some may argue that it is for the better or worse but without a doubt this is a different league. With stricter
calls on penalties, and harsher penalties for fighting, many fans who have stuck through the lockout, as well as some people
involved in the sport, are complaining that there isn’t enough physicality anymore. This physicality, which led to a
few infamous interactions like Todd Bertuzzi’s cheap shot on Steve Moore breaking Moore’s neck, has been replaced
by faster game play and more scoring. However, with the amount of penalties increased, some may argue that the pace of the
games hasn’t sped up at all, because every time the players begin to get into a groove, a penalty is called and play
has to stop. As it was expected, with every rule change there is a learning curve, but in the mean time there are patterns
forming and certain things can be weeded out of the games that have been played.
Passing the Torch
A very noticeable difference between the pre-lockout N.H.L. and post-lockout N.H.L. is the dramatic shift between past
stars and new stars. In the time that hockey has been away, big names like Ron Francis, Pavel Bure, Scott Stevens, and Mark
Messier have retired and only a couple weeks into this season Bret Hull retired, too. Long time Detroit
greats Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman are no longer the leaders of their teams, as they are being bested by young guns
Jason Williams and Pavel Datsyuk. With rookie phenoms Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin leading their teams in goals, and
second year player Eric Staal one of the league leaders in goals and points, more and more young players are finally taking
over in the absence of the older guys who commanded respect. Even guys like Rick Nash and Marian Gaborik can watch their teams
struggle to find a go-to-guy without them, while players like Keith Tkachuk and Michael Peca are having their roles reduced
as they do not play like they used to. Goalies are getting into the action to with Henrik Lundqvist and Roberto Lungo are
essential to their teams, and older goalies like Ed Belfour and Jocelyn Thibault are performing poorly. True, some 30+ like
Peter Forsberg, Jaromir Jagr, and Pavol Demitra are still leading their teams in points, and 40 year old Dominik Hasek could
still be the best goaltender in the league, but with it harder to sign players with the new salary cap, teams are going to
their rookies who would normally be in the minor leagues to fill the gaps. It could be that it is just harder to teach an
old dog new tricks, and it could be that the young players like Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuck are just coming into their
true forms, but the point is that there are less stars of the past leading and more stars of the future.
Rebounds: Are they
the new pass?
Do you remember when you were a little kid and your sports coach told you to follow through when you take a shot? Well,
many professional coaches are likely learning from those pee wee coaches and advising their players to crash the net. With
the goalie’s pads smaller than they used to be, a goaltender has more trouble holding on to every shot that is thrown
at them. This results in a lot more rebounds, and since most goaltenders don’t have the acrobatics and spider-senses
of Spider-Man, rebounds give forwards the ability to tap a loose puck into the net before the net minder knows what’s
Rebounds aren’t the only side affect of smaller pads. Smaller pads are another side affect of smaller pads. While
you scratch your head in confusion over that last sentence, realize that now the goalies are no longer quite as monstrous
and do not cover as much of the goal. With an expanded offensive zone, players have more room to work crafty plays to shoot
around the new holes created. Crafty plays such as a give-and-go within a few feet of the goalie, which is a favorite of the
Philadelphia Flyers. The smaller pads have attributed greatly to the increased scoring.
No Monkey Business!
The biggest complaint that people seem to have about the new N.H.L. is the increase of penalties and resulting decrease
in physical play. Hooking, holding, elbowing, boarding, spearing, slashing, delay of game, unsportsmanlike conduct, tripping,
roughing, roping (fans of D2: The Mighty Ducks will get that), you do it, the referees
are making sure to call it. This doesn’t mean players are less afraid of trying to get away from it. Just as much as
ever, the players are getting thrown in the box for their obstructions, and it is also leading to an increase in power play
goals. About 50% more power play goals to be exact. With the N.H.L. ready and waiting to severely punish those who choose
to fight, fighting, unlike PPGs, is down. In affect, the claim that hockey is nothing but “boxing figure skaters with
sticks” is out of date, they’re now “heavily penalized figure skaters with sticks.” Oh well, the fights
were never the real action, just a fun side-plot.
Red Hot Red Teams
Can it just be confidence that the best
in the West, Detroit Red Wings, and the best in the East, Ottawa Senators, are both teams that have red, a color often used
to describe a player or team doing well, as one of their team colors? Well…yeah probably, but that doesn’t take
anything away from the surging Senators and Red Wings who have convincingly taken a hold of the lead in their conferences.
Both teams have rosters have players doing well far into their depths, and their stars, specifically Ottawa’s, are among the league leaders in many categories.
It’s No Fun to Be Blue
Just as odd as the coincidence of red teams being red hot, the two N.H.L. teams that use the word “blue,”
a color often used for a player or team playing poorly, in their name are the only teams that are convincingly the worst teams
in the league. Those two teams being the St. Louis Blues and Columbus Blue Jackets, both of which play in the Central division
of the Western Conference. The people who are thought to be each team’s best player (Nash for Columbus,
Tkachuck for St. Louis) have battled injuries all year long
but trailing contention by as much as they do cannot be blamed on the absence of one player. They need to improve or just
live with being embarrassed.
Your Local Teams,
Brought To You Locally By a Local
The three teams in the local area all play in the Atlantic division but things are not as expected. The New Jersey
Devils, who were expected to have success from season past carry over are having some trouble getting out of the gate and
right now, out of the playoff picture. The New York Islanders, who looked to be average and getting better, could miss their
first playoffs in years. And the New York Rangers, who were supposed to finish poorly due to large salaries that they needed
to unload, have proven themselves among the league’s best.
The New Jersey Devils are sitting in the middle of a competitive Atlantic division in the Eastern Conference of the
N.H.L. The loss of team captain Scott Stevens (retirement) and Scott Niedermayer (to Anaheim) has left the Devils with a lack
talent and veteran leadership in the back, as well as leaving the Devils without a captain. Sean Brown has stepped up this
year but more players will have to prove their worth and soon. Patrick Elias, who may become the next captain, has not played
all year due to Hepatitis A, will be a big part of the Devils’ campaign to move from being just outside the playoff
picture to being a big factor in it.
The New York Islanders, just like the Devils, are in the middle of the Atlantic division, above .500, and just out
of the playoffs right now. The story with them is that…well, they just above average. While they have a good amount
of skaters doing well, they don’t really have any standouts. They are about average in goals scored, but are one of
the worse teams in goals against. Goaltender Rick Dipietro is neither bad nor good in both GAA and Save %. However, it is evident that if they want to be a factor, guys like Yashin, Blake, and DiPietro will need
to play outstanding and truly guide their team to the playoffs.
The New York Rangers have had one word dictate how their season has gone: Jagr. Jaromir Jagr to be more specific is
among the league leaders in goals and points when he isn’t at the top of the list and since so much of the Rangers plays
go through him, and so many plays he creates, the rest of the team is playing much better. Perhaps some of the Rangers’
lack of success last season is due to the fact Jagr only played 31 games, but now with Jagr playing and playing successfully,
the Rangers have been very successful.
What to expect
After 82 regular season games, some N.H.L. teams will begin to figure out and work in and around the new rules while
some teams will dwell in their strategies from the past and try and use them in the “new” league. Teams who stick
to the prior will be those who rise to the top while the latter will sink to the bottom. It’s too early to make this
distinction but it will become apparent come March and April. Those who figure out the ways and means in this league will
undoubtedly be fun to watch as the ’05-’06 season progresses.