Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Hard Hits NHL Preview

After a long year off, the NHL finally returns. Every team will be in action to kick off the new season. This includes the much anticipated NHL debuts of the last two first overall picks, Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, who will play at home against Columbus while Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby starts on the road at New Jersey.

In a new cap era, more teams should be competitive and many rosters will reflect that after a flurry of activity in August. Most notably several NHL stars signed with new teams including Peter Forsberg and Derian Hatcher to Philadelphia, Scott Niedermayer to Anaheim, Nikolai Khabibulin and Adrian Aucoin to Chicago, Paul Kariya to Nashville, Jason Allison and Eric Lindros to Toronto, Ziggy Palffy and Sergei Gonchar to Pittsburgh, Brian Leetch to Boston, Adam Foote to Columbus, Miroslav Satan to the Islanders and Alexander Mogilny back to New Jersey. While this doesn't cover everyone, it gives fans an idea of how wild the free agency period was.

Some big names were also moved to free up cap space. Jeremy Roenick was traded to Los Angeles for almost nothing. Chris Pronger was dealt to Edmonton for Eric Brewer and prospects Jeff Woywitka and Doug Lynch. Michael Peca was shipped to Edmonton for Mike York and a conditional pick. Jeff Friesen, a cap casuality in New Jersey was dealt to the Capitals for a pick. The biggest trade was a blockbuster between Ottawa and Atlanta which sent Marian Hossa and Greg de Vries to the Thrashers in exchange for Dany Heatley.

The year off also impacted decisions for older stars. While Steve Yzerman and Dave Andreychuk returned to their teams, others decided to call it a career. Gone are future Hall of Famers Mark Messier, Scott Stevens, Al MacInnis and Ron Francis but none of them will ever be forgotten for their impact on the game. Vincent Damphousse also called it a career.

With a new league starting up, several rule changes should be evident to increase the flow of games and entertain fans.In an attempt to increase offense, nets will be moved back two feet closer to the boards. The feeling here is that great players will be able to get more wraparound chances, creating more havoc for goalies. They also will be forced to adjust to new rules including goalie restrictions on equipment and emphasis on where they can play pucks, allowing them to between designated areas behind the net or anything in front. If a netminder violates these rules, a Delay of Game penalty shall be enforced.

Tag-up offsides returns after a decade. Pucks played in the neutral zone can be fired back in even if players are still in the zone. All they must do is touch-up at the blueline to get on-side. Two-line passes are allowed, which could lead to more odd-man rushes and breakaways but also more icings if they don't connect. There will be stricter enforcement of obstruction. Will it work or fade away like the past?

Another new rule includes a Delay of Game penalty when a player intentionally shoots the puck out of play. In the past, only goalies were penalized. It will force players to conform and could lead to more mistakes which might increase scoring chances. Also, if a team intentionally ices the puck, they will be prohibited from making a line change while the other team gets a fresh set of players. This will penalize opponents for stopping play and lead to tired players.

The instigator rule won't allow players to fight with less than five minutes left in regulation. If they do, it's an automatic game misconduct and one-game suspension. This rule was a panic move by the league due to past incidents at the end of games. Penalizing fighters who stick up for teammates makes no sense. Unfortunately, team enforcers, coaches and fans will have to deal with this unpopular decision.

One radical change is shootouts. If games are tied after five minutes of four-on-four in OT, a three player shootout per team will take place to decide which team earns the extra point. The points system is: 2 points for a win in regulation, OT or shootout, 1 point for an OT or shootout loss and no points rewarded for regulation defeats.

With basically everything covered, it's time to look at which teams improved enough to challenge the defending Cup champion Lightning and which teams could be in for long seasons.

Eastern Conference: On paper the Flyers, Lightning and Senators are the favorites. But the Bruins, Devils and Islanders should be right behind. Any of those six could wind up coming out of the East. The Canadiens should make the playoffs and might be a team top seeds want to avoid.

Predicted Order of Finish:

*1.Flyers
*2.Lightning
*3.Senators
4.Bruins
5.Devils
6.Islanders
7.Canadiens
8.Thrashers
9.Sabres
10.Maple Leafs
11.Penguins
12.Panthers
13.Hurricanes
14.Rangers
15.Capitals

Playoffs

First Round: Flyers over Thrashers in 5, Lightning over Canadiens in 6, Islanders over Senators in 6, Bruins over Devils in 7

Conference Semis: Flyers over Islanders in 6, Bruins over Lightning in 6

Conference Champion: Bruins over Flyers in 7

Western Conference: The Sharks, Canucks and Flames look to be the class of the West. The Wings will have to contend with an improved Nashville squad to win the Central Division. The Avs and Stars should be good enough to make the playoffs but not go very far. The Predators are the dark horse who could make some noise.

Predicted Order of Finish:

*1.Sharks
*2.Canucks
*3.Red Wings
4.Flames
5.Avalanche
6.Predators
7.Stars
8.Oilers
9.Ducks
10.Kings
11.Blues
12.Blue Jackets
13.Blackhawks
14.Coyotes
15.Wild

Playoffs

First Round: Sharks over Oilers in 5, Canucks over Stars in 6, Predators over Wings in 6, Flames over Avs in 6

Conference Semis: Sharks over Predators in 6, Flames over Canucks in 7

Conference Champion: Sharks over Flames in 7

Stanley Cup Winner: Sharks over Bruins in 6

Conn Smythe: Evgeni Nabokov, Sharks

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