The Cold War
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
Alot has changed for the National Hockey League in a very short period of time. From 1995 to 2003, three teams combined for eight of nine possible Stanley Cup wins. In the Eastern Conference, the New Jersey Devils were the ruling class, while the Detroit Red Wings and Colorado Avalanche were the powerhouses of the West. In the 18 years that preceded the New York Rangers’ stirring 1994 victory, only five teams captured the Cup: the Montreal Canadiens (6), the Edmonton Oilers (5), the New York Islanders (4), the Calgary Flames (2) and the Pittsburgh Penguins (2).
But today, with a salary cap putting a drag on team payrolls and forcing a dramatic diversification of talent, nearly every club has aspirations of being this year’s Carolina Hurricanes (the 2006 champions). All but a handful of them actually have a legitimate shot to hoist Lord Stanley’s cherished chalice next June.
Division by division, it’s nearly impossible to separate the contenders from the pretenders, and that’s precisely what the NHL was hoping for when it held out for a salary cap.The positive, of course, is that fans in every NHL city have legitimate reason to hope. As we’ve seen with the NFL, parity — and the sense of hope it creates — is a good recipe for success in today’s cluttered entertainment atmosphere.
But there are negatives, as well. The window opens and shuts very quickly, leaving a team precious little time to win a Cup before it must go back to the drawing board and initiate a rebuilding effort. Whereas the Buffalo Sabres were the model for success last season under the new CBA — young, fast, and cheap —they now find themselves perilously close to the salary cap.
So how to build a winner in today’s NHL?
Conventional wisdom states that defense wins championships, and the Anaheim Ducks followed that mantra by pairing Chris Pronger with Scott Niedermayer on their blue line. With a talented crop of young forwards ready to break out, and with the very capable tandem of Jean-Sebastien Giguere and Ilya Bryzgalov tending the pipes, the Ducks’ time to win is now.
A select few teams are able to rely on consistently excellent goaltending, and the market for this has become incredibly volatile. For every Martin Brodeur, there are dozens of flashes-in-the-pan who, well, don’t pan out.
Back in 2003–04, Andrew Raycroft won the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year, but he fizzled out in his sophomore season with the Bruins, and now he’s tending goal for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Another former Calder-winning goalie, the Sharks’ Evgeni Nabokov, also endured a rough season, losing his starting job to Vesa Toskala.
This trend is very likely to continue. The Montreal Canadiens were thrilled with Cristobal Huet’s effort in the second half of last season, but don’t be surprised if their newly anointed starter is relegated to the scrap heap before this season reaches its conclusion. The career journeyman is more likely to fizzle out than to emerge as a perennial Vezina Trophy candidate.
However, all this talk of defense-winning championships flies in the face of one statistic that really shouldn’t be ignored. After years of watching the Cup go to stifling defenses, the Carolina Hurricanes won the Cup despite having the league’s 20th-best goals-against average. So should we prepare instead for a return to the firewagon hockey of the late 1980s and early 1990s?
If offense will in fact be the deciding factor in winning championships in the modern NHL, then perhaps no team is better suited for battle than the Sharks. Boasting an unparalleled 1-2 punch at center (Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau) and a deep complement of talented wingers and defensemen, the Sharks’ offensive attack will have plenty of bite.
More likely, it’ll be the most balanced teams that succeed, and there might not be a more balanced team in the NHL than the New York Rangers. Following an off-season during which they added some much-needed grit and goal scoring ability, the Rangers are poised for a return to glory. But if they’re to make good on their enormous potential, they’ll need for goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to prove that he’s no flash in the pan. And as Nabokov and Raycroft have already learned, that’s no easy task.
Mr. Greenstein is the editor in chief of InsideHockey.com.
1. New York Rangers Though it’s easy to point to stars like Jaromir Jagr and newcomer Brendan Shanahan as the keys to the Rangers’ success, their fate actually lies in the hands of the youngsters like goalie Henrik Lundqvist and defenseman Fedor Tyutin. Tending net behind an upgraded blue line corps, look for Lundqvist to have a huge season. And if he makes the club, look for Nigel Dawes to showcase his considerable finishing ability.
Cap Commitments: $40.6 million
2. New Jersey Devils A Houdini-like escape from the onerous contract of unofficially retired defenseman Vladimir Malakhov enabled Lou Lamoriello to keep the Devils under the salary cap while still retaining every key player from last season’s first place team. While every visible sign points to an inevitable Devils decline, in a league where parity reigns supreme, Martin Brodeur is poised to be the ultimate difference-maker.
Cap Commitments: $44.0 million
3. Philadelphia Flyers Injuries will once again play a huge role in determining the Flyers’ fortunes. Goaltender Antero Niittymaki is battling through a torn labrum (hip), captain Keith Primeau was forced to retire during the off-season (concussion), and tough but fragile superstar Peter Forsberg is a regular in the trainer’s room. Defenseman Joni Pitkanen and forward Jeff Carter will need to have huge seasons if the Flyers are to emerge as Cup contenders.
Cap Commitments: $41.0 million
4. New York Islanders Naysayers got a huge belly laugh out of the Islanders’ controversial summer, highlighted by the 15-year contract given to one netminder (Rick DiPietro) and the promotion of the other goalie (Garth Snow) to GM. But this Isles team will be extremely hard working with Ted Nolan running the bench, and they could be one of the NHL’s biggest surprises in 2006–07.
Cap Commitments: $42.0 million
5. Pittsburgh Penguins The sporadic preseason play of goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and a shoulder injury to Russian phenom Evgeni Malkin has the Penguins reeling as they approach the season opener. But the one thing the Pens are not worried about is the possibility of a sophomore jinx for Sidney Crosby. Scary as it sounds, the 19-year-old Crosby will probably be even better in 2006–07.
Cap Commitments: $27.1 million
1. Boston Bruins Without question, the Bruins are the Eastern Conference’s most improved team. The addition of Zdeno Chara not only provides the Killer B’s with a devastating blue line presence, but he has also emerged as a locker room leader. Surrounding Chara is a lineup chock full of speedy skill players; the Bruins’ blazing-fast top line of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Boyes, and Phil Kessel will be very exciting to watch.
Cap Commitments: $40.5 million
2. Ottawa Senators The losses of Chara, talented winger Martin Havlat, and dependable center Bryan Smolinski will hurt, but the departure of enigmatic goaltender Dominik Hasek is actually an addition by subtraction. New arrival Martin Gerber will be a stabilizing influence between the pipes for the Sens, while Wade Redden and Andrej Meszaros will step up in Chara’s absence.
Cap Commitments: $42.9 million
3. Toronto Maple Leafs Expectations in Toronto are the lowest they’ve been in quite some time, but this year’s Leafs should actually be much improved. If goaltender Andrew Raycroft can rebound to his Calder Trophy-winning form, and if captain Mats Sundin can perform as he did in last season’s second half (37 points in 25 games), the Leafs will be very dangerous indeed.
Cap Commitments: $41.8 million
4. Buffalo Sabres The Sabres used to be the NHL’s model for economic efficiency, but with a dozen players filing for salary arbitration, they suddenly find themselves perilously close to the cap. Second-year goaltender Ryan Miller is a future superstar, and winger Thomas Vanek has elite-level finishing skills. The Sabres overachieved last season, and a slip backward seems inevitable.
Cap Commitments: $40.5 million
5. Montreal Canadiens The Habs’ biggest off-season addition was underachieving winger Sergei Samsonov, and that’s not going to be enough. Goaltender Cristobal Huet was stellar in the season’s second half, but a huge setback is likely. The biggest bright spot is underrated Andrei Markov, one of the NHL’s most complete blueliners.
Cap Commitments: $42.9 million
1. Atlanta Thrashers The Thrashers might be a bit weak at center ice — the trio of Bobby Holik, Niko Kapanen, and Steve Rucchin isn’t exactly fear inspiring — but the rest of their lineup is quite impressive. They boast two of the NHL’s most dangerous snipers in Ilya Kovalchuk and Marian Hossa, and Kari Lehtonen (their young Finnish netminder) is going to be one of the NHL’s finest backstops for the next decade.
Cap Commitments: $41.3 million
2. Carolina Hurricanes It is quite possible the defending Cup champs will miss the playoffs. The departures of five key players (Doug Weight, Matt Cullen, Mark Recchi, Aaron Ward, and Martin Gerber) will hurt immensely, perhaps none more so than Gerber’s. The Canes will rely heavily on Conn Smythe Trophy-winning goaltender Cam Ward, but if he falters, new arrival John Grahame is absolutely not the answer.
Cap Commitments: $40.2 million
3. Florida Panthers While they aren’t going to be Cup contenders with the tandem of 41-year-old Ed Belfour and Alex Auld between the pipes, the Panthers are actually one of the NHL’s most-improved teams. Look for defenseman Jay Bouwmeester to emerge as a legitimate Norris Trophy candidate.
Cap Commitments: $39.8 million
4. Tampa Bay Lightning GM Jay Feaster made a huge tactical error in devoting half the team’s cap room to three forwards: Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards, and Martin St. Louis. Though each of the trio should score 80–90 points, the lineup surrounding them will not be enough to compete for the Cup.
Cap Commitments: $41.8 million
5. Washington Capitals Alexander Ovechkin is the sole reason to watch the Caps this season, and he’s actually reason enough. “Alexander the Great” scored 52 goals in his rookie season while posting an impressive +2 rating for an atrocious Capitals team. But until they surround him with some talent, the playoffs are out of the question.
Cap Commitments: $29.6 million
1. Nashville Predators In newcomer Jason Arnott, the Preds, for the first time in franchise history, have a bona fide first line center and their blue line, featuring talented Europeans Kimmo Timonen and Marek Zidlicky along with the emerging Shea Weber, is one of the NHL’s finest. But the Predators’ biggest strength is goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who should win the Vezina Trophy in 2006–07.
Cap Commitments: $36.7 million
2. Chicago Blackhawks Yes, you heard it here first. The Blackhawks will finish ahead of the Red Wings in the standings for the first time since Jeremy Roenick, Chris Chelios, and Ed Belfour headlined in Chicago. They’ll do it on the strength of a resurgent Nikolai Khabibulin, who is poised for a return to elite-level status.
Cap Commitments: $37.7 million
3. Columbus Blue Jackets Much has been made about the departure of Marc Denis (.900 SV%), but new starter Pascal Leclaire (.911 SV% was actually playing far better behind the same defense. Newcomers Fredrik Modin and Anson Carter complement a talented offensive core that also includes Rick Nash, Nikolai Zherdev, and Calder Trophy-candidate Gilbert Brule. A franchise-first playoff spot is a distinct possibility.
Cap Commitments: $38.5 million
4. Detroit Red Wings The exit of captain Steve Yzerman marks the end of an era, but the Wings Achilles heel is in goal. Gone is the dependable Manny Legace, and in his place are 41-year-old Dominik Hasek and the inconsistent Chris Osgood. Both will fail, and the Wings will become deadline sellers; by the end of the season, prospect Jimmie Howard will be their starting netminder.
Cap Commitments: $40.5 million
5. St. Louis Blues Former Rangers color commentator John Davidson is now the Blues’ team president and it didn’t take long for him to make wholesale roster changes. Shot-blocking maven Jay McKee was brought in to anchor the defense and the offense was upgraded considerably with the additions of Bill Guerin, Doug Weight, and Martin Rucinsky.
Cap Commitments: $36.6 million
1. Calgary Flames With Vezina Trophy winner Miikka Kiprusoff between the pipes and defensemen Robyn Regehr and Dion Phaneuf on the blue line, keeping the puck out of the net was no problem for the Flames. With dynamic Alex Tanguay joining a leaner and meaner Jarome Iginla up front, Calgary’s offense should be much improved The Flames will be one of the NHL’s top teams all season long.
Cap Commitments: $41.6 million
2. Minnesota Wild For the first time in franchise history, the Wild were buyers in the summer free agent market and now enter 2006–07 a legitimate playoff contender. Pavol Demitra was brought aboard to complement fellow Slovak Marian Gaborik, while new defensemen Kim Johnsson and Petteri Nummelin are tailor-made for the modern NHL.
Cap Commitments: $40.4 million
3. Colorado Avalanche Question marks surround the Avs this season, who can no longer be considered an NHL powerhouse. Joe Sakic is still there, but at 36 years old cannot have too many more elitelevel seasons ahead. In goal, former Hart Trophy winner José Théodore has been at times both spectacular and pedestrian.
Cap Commitments: $43.5 million
4. Edmonton Oilers The Oilers were one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2006 playoffs, getting all the way to the Cup Finals as the eighth seed. But the departure of Chris Pronger to Anaheim leaves a chasm on the blue line that rookie Ladislav Smid cannot possibly cover. The Oilers will be hard-pressed to reach the playoffs.
Cap Commitments: $37.4 million
5. Vancouver Canucks The team Roberto Luongo joins in Vancouver is no better than the Panthers team he left, and could actually be worse The exits of Todd Bertuzzi and Anson Carter leave big holes to fill on each of the top two lines, and Ed Jovanovski’s departure will hurt as well. The Canucks will miss the playoffs again.
Cap Commitments: $42.7 million
1. Anaheim Ducks With Chris Pronger joining Scott Niedermayer on the Ducks’ star-studded blue line, Anaheim will have no trouble keeping the puck out of the net. And with the emerging Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry helping Andy McDonald, and Teemu Selanne up front, goal scoring shouldn’t be a problem, either.
Cap Commitments: $38.1 million
2. San Jose Sharks The arrival of Joe Thornton marked a turning point for Jonathan Cheechoo and the Sharks; the Hart Trophy winner’s deft passing turned Cheechoo into a goal-scoring machine Playing alongside Patrick Marleau on the second line, look for Milan Michalek to break out and for the Sharks to finish a very close second to the Ducks
Cap Commitments: $42.2 million
3. Phoenix Coyotes For his second season behind the bench, Wayne Gretzky gets to work with a vastly improved Coyotes squad. Ed Jovanovski is a huge new presence on the blue line, and veterans Owen Nolan and Jeremy Roenick have something to prove. But can 39-year-old Curtis Joseph still capably tend the goal?
Cap Commitments: $41.7 million
4. Dallas Stars The Stars suffered a couple of big losses down the middle with the departures of Jason Arnott and Niko Kapanen, and it’s a stretch to expect Mike Ribeiro and Patrik Stefan to replace them. Mike Modano, perhaps miffed at losing the captaincy to Brenden Morrow, could be in for a tough season.
Cap Commitments: $41.4 million
5. Los Angeles Kings New GM Dean Lombardi has gotten the Kings’ rebuilding effort off to a great start landing center Patrick O’Sullivan and defenseman Jack Johnson. O’Sullivan will join Alexander Frolov, Mike Cammalleri, and Dustin Brown on a talented young offense, while Johnson will go back to college for more seasoning.
Cap Commitments: $39.9 million