Dan Di Sciullo, NHL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) -
Hockey experts are always talking about what it takes to win in the "new NHL", but what exactly does that mean?
The new NHL is a phrase that came into prominence after the lockout season of 2004-05, when the league applied various rules to make hockey quicker and higher-scoring.
Speed is what we were told was the ultimate key to success in the post-lockout game, but that theory was certainly tested last season when the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup primarily with grit and intimidation, rather than finesse or speed.
The new NHL also refers to the salary-cap put into place with the latest collective bargaining agreement. Filling out a roster on a budget has come easier to some franchises, while other clubs are still trying to figure out the cap.
The following is a sort of rough guide to the new NHL, and features some of the best and worst examples of how to run a team in the post-lockout era.
The Detroit Red Wings were a powerhouse for many years before the lockout, and have been able to keep that winning tradition alive. The Red Wings posted five straight 100-point seasons before the 2004-05 schedule was canceled and the club has hardly missed a beat since, posting 124 points (2005-06) and 113 points (06-07) in the last two campaigns. Detroit had been labeled as a playoff underachiever since last winning a Stanley Cup in 2002, but last spring the Wings made it to the Western Conference finals before being ousted by the eventual champion Ducks.
The Red Wings have been able to hold onto their pre-lockout success with a combination of aging-but-still-solid veterans (Nicklas Lidstrom, Dominik Hasek, Chris Chelios) and talented players in their prime (Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk). The team also has expertly managed the cap and even had enough room to sign prized defenseman Brian Rafalski as a free agent over the summer. At some point, the departure of the older players from Hockeytown will create a void on the roster, but the team is still one of the best in the NHL, new or old.
Daniel Alfredsson is a big reason for Ottawa's success.
The Ottawa Senators haven't been around nearly as long as the Red Wings, but were able to fashion themselves into an elite team before the lockout. The strength of the franchise has only increased with the advent of rule changes and the salary cap, and last year was the best season in the history of the Sens. Ottawa notched over 100 points for the fourth consecutive season in 2006-07, but really made its mark in the playoffs. The Senators made it to the Stanley Cup finals in '07, only to fall to the Ducks in five games. Still, the franchise had little success previously in the postseason, so last year's run really changed the perception of the Senators as underachievers.
Ottawa's plan for success in the new NHL has been fairly simple, as it has locked up all three players on its nearly unstoppable top-line of Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley. Stalwart defensemen Chris Phillips and Anton Volchenkov also signed multi-year deals to remain with the club. If the Sens choose to re-sign Wade Redden after this season instead of trading him at the deadline, then the team's future as an NHL-elite club should be even clearer.
NO LONGER ELITE, BUT NOT YET BEAT
Last year, the Colorado Avalanche missed the postseason for the first time since moving from Quebec City to Denver for the 1995-96 campaign, but that doesn't mean the curtain has been drawn on the club's successful run. The team that won two Stanley Cup titles (1996, 2001) and nine straight division crowns may be gone, but there is still a great deal left to be hopeful about.
The Avalanche's drop-off in recent years had a great deal to do with the retirement of Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy after the 2002-03 season. However, Colorado president Pierre Lacroix still runs a tight ship, and makes sure the Avalanche always get the most out of the draft. The Avs still have holdovers from the Cup-winning clubs in Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk and Scott Parker, but are now led by talented youngsters like Paul Stastny and Wojtek Wolski. The biggest problem for Colorado has been finding an heir between the pipes for Roy, and that could take a while longer.
HOLMGREN, THE QUICKER FIXER-UPPER
The Philadelphia Flyers' fall from an elite club to worst team in the NHL seemingly happened overnight and the franchise was about to become the ultimate cautionary tale of the post-lockout era. However, hiring Paul Holmgren as new general manager when Bob Clarke resigned early last season has made all the difference. Holmgren began to improve the team with trades during the 2006-07 campaign, and continued the overhaul with marquee free-agent signings during the summer (Daniel Briere, Kimmo Timonen, Scott Hartnell). The results have been astounding in the early stages of this season, as Philly is already halfway to its entire win total of 22 from a year ago.
Possibly the best decision Holmgren has made, outside of getting goaltender Martin Biron from Buffalo last year for a second-round pick, was holding onto young forwards Mike Richards and Jeff Carter. The duo were practically non-existent during last season's collapse, but have been two of best contributors for the Flyers this year. Richards has been especially impressive as his combination of skill, toughness and leadership have made him a fan favorite. He is already an assistant captain at age 22, and will without a doubt wear the "C" for the Orange & Black sometime in the near future.
THE LOST SOULS
We've seen some solid examples of making adjustments in the new NHL, but now it's time to take a closer look at hockey's floundering franchises.
1) TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS - Frustration levels in "Leafs Nation" are reaching an all-time high. It's been 40-plus years since Toronto celebrated its last Stanley Cup champion in 1967, which was also the last year the Leafs even made it to the Cup finals. The team has missed the playoffs in each season following the lockout, and in 2007-08 the Leafs could miss the postseason in three straight years for the first time in club history. Toronto's front office has only made matters worse by avoiding a rebuilding process that would be unsavory for fans, but also necessary to get the Leafs back to their rightful place among hockey's elite.
2) BOSTON BRUINS - The Bruins are primarily on this list for what they did on November 30, 2005, that is, trade centerman Joe Thornton to the San Jose Sharks for Wayne Primeau, Brad Stuart and Marco Sturm. Thornton went on to win the Hart Trophy as the NHL's MVP in that same season and is now the main reason San Jose is a legitimate Cup contender year in and year out. The trade directly led to general manager Mike O'Connell's firing later in the 2005-06 season, and new GM Peter Chiarelli is still trying to pick up the pieces from the deal. Only Sturm, a solid winger, remains with the Bruins, although his presence still serves an ever-present reminder of the catastrophic trade.
Chiarelli's signing of defenseman Zdeno Chara to a five-year, $37.5 million contract prior to last season has yet to pay dividends, but at least the current GM hasn't traded the Bruins' best player (Marc Savard) or any of the team's talented youngsters like Phil Kessel and Patrice Bergeron. The youth movement actually gives the Bruins a fighting chance to turn things around, but the ghost of the Thornton deal still lingers in Beantown.
3) TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING - The Lightning won the last Stanley Cup title before the lockout in 2004, and have made the playoffs in both years since the labor strife. So why are they on this list, you ask? The team has found a way to keep their top three forwards - Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and Brad Richards - on the team, but that leaves little cap room for any other significant decisions. It helps to have your offensive weapons signed to long- term deals, but not if you have to go into this season with Marc Denis and Johan Holmqvist as your top goaltending options.