Oct 6, 2005 (published on www.tvnz.co.nz)
By Fred Lunjevich
Rule changes, a $39 million salary cap and a busy free agent market has changed the face of the NHL.
What this means to the Western Conference is fewer cats holding on to marquee players.
The NHL’s premier teams in the last decade have largely come from the Western Conference, as Colorado, Detroit and Dallas went on cup winning sprees between themselves.
Only New Jersey in the Eastern Conference has dominated to the same degree.
How will the West fare under the new-look league? In a word – closer.
It could well be an NRL style of competition with the traditionally weak teams sneaking up on the bigger teams.
The Colorado Avalanche was probably the biggest loser in the free-agent market, losing several top players. Arguably the world’s best player, Peter Forsberg decided to move from the franchise that he had been with almost his entire career while Adam Foote was let go to free up salary cap space. The core of the team will comprise probably the league’s best centre in Joe Sakic and defenseman Rob Blake. The remainder of the team is a mix of veteran players at the twilight of their careers and a bunch of kids in their first or second seasons. How they go is anyone’s guess but don’t rule them out as being leaders in the west.
The Detroit Red Wings keep most of their core players including future hall of famers Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan. The biggest development for the Red Wings was signing its young players – Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. The latter almost escaped to play in Russia. Still the team to beat in the west.
Dallas doesn’t lose much but don’t gain much either. Veterans Mike Modano, Bill Guerin and Jason Arnott provide plenty of offense and leadership but there is a question over where the rest of the scoring will come from. Young Finnish forwards Niko Kapanen and Jussi Jokinen may well be the answer. Marty Turco is an all-star goalie that has a lot to prove after Colorado knocked Dallas out of the playoff’s last time around.
San Jose avoided the temptation of throwing wads of cash around on the burgeoning free-agent market relying instead on promoting talent from within. Their young, no-name line-up was huge in the 2003-04 playoffs and there is every reason to suspect they will be genuine contenders this season. Young players such as Jonathan Cheechoo, Marcel Goc and Niko Dimitrakos have already made their mark in the NHL and are well supported by star center Patrick Marleau and Russian goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. San Jose may well emerge from the west as top dog come playoff time.
The three Canadian teams will be tough prospects, particularly the reigning Conference champion Calgary Flames. Adding solid forwards Tony Amonte and Daymond Langkow certainly helps the Flames, while the defense is still largely unchanged from last season. The inspirational Jarome Iginla – an all-star forward of the highest class, leads the Flames while Mikka Kiprusoff will tend goal. Calgary will be tough to beat.
Edmonton has strengthened their lineup but is still in a rebuilding phase. The new rules will suit the Oilers’ fast transition game, but with a young American goalie in Ty Conklin, it is unclear how far Edmonton will go.
Vancouver’s lineup hasn’t changed all that much, with only a few defensemen moving on. The Canucks’ top forward line of Todd Bertuzzi, Brendan Morrison and Markus Naslund is one of the finest in the game. Vancouvers real weakness is in goal which drastically affects their title chances.
St Louis lost before the season started when top defenseman Al McInnis retired and Chris Pronger packed his bags for Edmonton. A mixture of journeyman, St Louis may well be the biggest disappointment in the west.
The Anaheim Mighty Ducks pulled off a stunning trade by luring top New Jersey Defenseman Scott Niedermayer over to the Pacific coast. He joins his brother Rob and three of the most potent forwards in the game: the Finnish flash Teemu Selanne, Sergei Federov and Petr Sykora. Another team that could be good but you wouldn’t bet your life insurance on it.
The rest of the west will jostle for the bottom rungs of the ladder. There may be some surprises though; the Phoenix Coyotes, Nashville Predators and the Chicago Blackhawks boast a lot of young players but are a bit of a lottery. Phoenix may benefit from having the best hockey player ever – Wayne Gretzky – as their coach but there is a difference between being a top player and being a top coach.
Columbus, Los Angeles and Minnesota will struggle but at least the latter two will have fans coming to watch them lose.
On paper the cup should stay in the east this season, but there are a handful of teams in the west that may have something to say about that.