Scouring the League for This Year’s Carolina Hurricanes
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When the NHL shut its doors for an entire season two years ago, there was good reason to believe that it would take the floundering league some time to recover. Ten years earlier, Major League Baseball shut its doors and cancelled the 1994 World Series, and the fans didn’t return in earnest until 1998, when a steroid-infused home run derby shattered the record books.
But instead, the NHL’s new and improved product won back the fans’ support much more quickly than expected; hockey-starved fans filed through the turnstiles at a record pace, and revenues outstripped the league’s admittedly conservative estimates by a wide margin. And the league’s new salary cap set the teams upon a more level playing surface, particularly where free agent courting was concerned.
On the ice, the league promised to vigilantly enforce the rules prohibiting obstruction and interference. The result was a much-improved product that delivered offensive fireworks reminiscent of the early to mid-1990s. The league’s finest skaters were free to roam the ice at top speed, and the quicksand-like play that dragged the league down in prior seasons became but a distant memory.
There was also a growing concern that there would not be a new generation of stars to whom Mario Lemieux, Mark Messier, and Steve Yzerman could pass the proverbial torch. But a pair of elite-level rookies — Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby — cracked the 100-point barrier and fronted what might well go down as the greatest freshman class in NHL history.
Needless to say, these dramatic changes resulted in some pretty hefty surprises in the standings. Predicted to finish last overall by Sports Illustrated, the New York Rangers were at or near the top of the Eastern Conference standings for much of the season. And the Carolina Hurricanes — one of the league’s worst teams in the two seasons prior to the lockout — bounced back with a stirring Stanley Cup victory.
Now, after another wild and wooly off-season that saw hundreds of players change teams, some interesting patterns have emerged. For one, it’s become readily apparent that this season’s model for fiscal restraint is next season’s cap casualty, making the window of opportunity for winning much smaller. Gone are the days when a dynasty could be assembled and kept together for the better part of a decade. With the league’s aggressive movement towards overall parity, maintaining a great team for more than three or four consecutive seasons is a feat only the finest GM will be able to accomplish.
So which teams are most likely to enjoy breakout seasons in 2006-07?
One team on the rise is the Minnesota Wild, who have quietly and cautiously put together the foundation for what could be one of the league’s finest teams in the next few campaigns. For the first time in franchise history, the Wild were aggressive buyers, acquiring Pavol Demitra from the Kings and signing free agents Mark Parrish and Kim Johnsson to help boost the team’s anemic power play. The moves spurred star winger Marian Gaborik to sign a long-term deal to stay in Minnesota, and with talented netminder Manny Fernandez between the pipes, the Wild are poised for a huge leap forward.
Though they shouldn’t be expected to receive much positive billing as the season approaches, the lowly Chicago Blackhawks have also made great strides forward. Talented forwards Martin Havlat and Michal Handzus were imported from Ottawa and Philadelphia, respectively, and should give the offense a significant boost. But the key for the Blackhawks is goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, a 2005 free agent acquisition who turned out to be — by a wide margin — last season’s biggest bust. If the “Bulin’ Wall” gets back on track, the Blackhawks could once again be a playoff contender.
As intended, the imposition of the salary cap makes it extremely difficult for good teams to get better, but the Western Conference finalist Anaheim Ducks did just that this off-season. Their blue line already boasted perennial Norris Trophy candidate Scott Niedermayer, and now Chris Pronger will join him.Together, Pronger and Niedermayer can be expected to chew up 50% of the total time allocated for defensemen, giving the Ducks the most potent one-two punch on the blue line since Rob Blake and Raymond Bourque teamed up for the Colorado Avalanche’s Cup-winning team in 2001.
Looking east, the busy Boston Bruins added 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara to their defense and 97-point scorer Marc Savard as their new second line center. Another new addition — first round draft pick Phil Kessel — was hyped as the “American Sidney Crosby” for most of last season, but a substandard performance at the World Junior Championships lowered his stock and caused him to slip to fifth overall. First-line center Patrice Bergeron inked a long-term deal of his own yesterday, further solidifying what should be the Eastern Conference’s most improved team.
For all the effort these teams made to improve, however, there is the distinct possibility that any or all of them could turn out to be this year’s version of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Last year, the Pens supplemented rookie Sidney Crosby with a talented but aged lineup of perennial All-Stars, including Sergei Gonchar, John LeClair, and Mark Recchi. The results were abysmal, however, and the Pens’ 58 standings points were second worst in the entire NHL.
While parity might make things extremely difficult for prognosticators, however, it makes for some very compelling possibilities on the ice. With few exceptions, virtually every team has at least some chance of becoming this year’s Hurricanes. And as for this year’s breakout rookie, look no further than Nashville Predators winger Alexander Radulov. He dominated the QMJHL from start to finish, tallying a Crosby-like 152 points in 62 games while toiling in relative anonymity for Patrick Roy’s Memorial Cup champions, the Quebec Remparts.
Mr. Greenstein is the editor in chief of InsideHockey.com.