Playoff Surprises Confirm NHL’s New Winning System

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.

The New York Sun

The changes the NHL made to its rules before this season generated a fair amount of controversy. But because the league has remained vigilant about the enforcement of those rules – which prohibit obstruction and interference – during the ongoing playoffs, a new, more entertaining paradigm has emerged. No longer can a team win with one, or even two, top-notch scoring lines. Now, teams must be able to reap meaningful production from their third and fourth forward lines if they’re to have any hope of advancing.

Put simply, the “new” NHL is a much faster game, one that requires players to work harder on each shift. Teams that expend full effort shift after shift wind up drawing more penalties because their opponents tire of chasing them around the ice and resort to the hooking and holding that characterized the pre-lockout NHL. They also put more pressure on the opposition, generating more scoring chances and odd-man rushes.

There are numerous reasons why the New Jersey Devils fell to the Carolina Hurricanes, but the loss was primarily due to the fact that the Devils were, for all intents and purposes, a one-line team. By the end of the series, when Lou Lamoriello re-assembled the “EGG” line (Patrik Elias, Scott Gomez, and Brian Gionta) in a last-ditch effort to come back in the decisive Game 5, it was clear that the team’s architect realized the problem. The Devils were completely outworked bythe Hurricanes, whose superior depth was too much to handle.

Carolina, in contrast, featured three dangerous scoring lines – centered, respectively, by Eric Staal, Doug Weight, and Rod Brind’Amour – and a hardworking corps of talented wingers (Justin Williams, Cory Stillman, Ray Whitney, and Mark Recchi to name just four) complemented them perfectly. Carolina won nearly every race to the puck and had New Jersey’s patchwork defense playing on its heels throughout the series.

The same story has played itself out across the league in this year’s playoffs. The Anaheim Mighty Ducks decimated the Colorado Avalanche, whose top line of Joe Sakic, Milan Hejduk, and Alex Tanguay was ill-equipped to match the Ducks’ talented, young, and extremely fast forwards. The Ducks exploited Colorado’s defense throughout the four-game sweep – in particular, an overwhelmed Patrice Brisebois – and the outcome of that series was never in doubt.

The San Jose Sharks boast two of the NHL’s finest centers in Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, but they’re having plenty of trouble of their own against the Edmonton Oilers. Oilers blueliner Chris Pronger has effectively neutralized Thornton, while Edmonton’s speedy ensemble of forwards has worn the Sharks’ defense to a frazzle. Tonight, the teams meet in Game 6 in Edmonton, where the Oilers have a chance to secure their first Western Conference Finals berth since 1991 – Mark Messier’s final season with the team.

And of course, a little team from upstate New York pulled off the biggest upset of all. The Buffalo Sabres took down the mighty Ottawa Senators in five games, showcasing what might be the fastest team in NHL history. From top to bottom, the Sabres’ lineup features undersized, speedy skaters, recalling Herb Brooks’s mid-1980s Rangers team, nicknamed the “Smurfs.” Back then, Brooks’s Rangers were frequently overpowered by bigger, stronger opponents; but today, the NHL’s revamped rulebook rewards speed over all other attributes.

Back in 1997, when New Jersey ruled the league, former Rangers head coach (and current NHL head of discipline) Colin Campbell sardonically referred to the Devils’ forwards as “interchangeable.” If the Devils are to regain their status as an elite-level NHL team, they will need to get back to the formula that worked to perfection in the late 1990s. But it may also require them to give up their finest skater and receive nothing in return.

This summer, Elias becomes an unrestricted free agent, and the bidding for his services will likely exceed $7 million a season. Without question, Elias was the Devils’ best player this season. His return to the lineup in January was the catalyst for the team’s rise to the top of the Atlantic Division standings, and he makes the players around him better.

But committing $7 million to Elias would be a foolhardy move. Combined with goaltender Martin Brodeur ($5.2 million) and defenseman Brian Rafalski ($4.2 million), the three players would account for $16.4 million, more than one third of the salary cap. Given the poor performance of the Devils’ AHL club (25-48-4-3 this season), it’s clear that help isn’t on the way, at least not yet. Signing Elias would ensure that the Devils are good enough to make the playoffs again next season, but it would also mean that they wouldn’t have enough offensive depth to make a run at the Cup.

Assuming the Oilers hold their lead and win their series with the reeling Sharks, all four conference finalists will be of essentially the same mold. And though two of them boast high profile defensemen earning large salaries (the Ducks’ Scott Niedermayer and the Oilers’ Pronger), only one forward still participating in the playoffs earns more than $4 million (Weight, at $5.7 million, a late season “rental” acquisition who is due to become a UFA). For teams looking to make a big splash in the free-agent market this summer, that’s a fact – not a coincidence – that can’t be overlooked.

Mr. Greenstein is the editor in chief of

The New York Sun

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