The NHL is Back

With the 2006-2007 season underway, it is safe to say that the NHL is thriving. Not only does the NHL still have its diehard fan base, but it will regain casual fans starting this year. This is the year hockey will shine again in the world of sports, and here are the reasons why:

No More Questions

The 2005-2006 NHL season was filled with adjustments to new rules, confusion as to who was playing for whom, and questions as to whether the sport would ever recover from its year of lockout. But now that the growing pains of the Collective Bargaining Agreement have worked themselves through, those doubts are over.

It's Anyone's Rink

Consider this: six games into the season, the Minnesota Wild were one of the two undefeated teams in the league (Buffalo is the other and remains undefeated). Also in the Northwest Division, the Calgary Flames, who finished at the top of the division last season, are in the basement. That's not to say that Minnesota doesn't deserve its squeaky-clean start or that Calgary is a bad team. But at the same time, the teams' rankings probably won't stay where they are.

Standings will become a game of "musical brackets," if you will, because the competition is so even between teams. No one team stands out as the team to beat.

Salary cap limitations have reduced the number of high-profile players on any given team, thus eliminating the possibility of an all-star team. Who wants an all-star team except at the All-Star Game, anyway? All-star teams don't really work in the long-run. Does Team Canada 2006 ring a bell? Or how about the New York Rangers in the years leading up to the lockout? Money didn't buy them a championship.

So no matter who it is, your team has a legitimate chance at winning the Stanley Cup. That's a huge change from years past. If you still don't believe it, think about the eighth-seeded Edmonton Oilers making it to the finals last season.

He Shoots, He Scores!

Goal counts are up since changing the width of the net (bigger) and the size of the goalies' pads (smaller). What's better than seeing more of the most exciting part of a hockey game? ... besides a good fight, that is. For most fans — especially the casual fan — a higher goal tally equates a more exciting game, and a more exciting game is more likely to be watched.

Tied Up

Has anyone noticed how many games have ended after regulation this season? Twenty-five percent. You read that right. Of the 104 games played from opening day until October 20, eight games were settled in overtime, while 18 games ended in a shootout.

Clearly, games have not been won easily this season. This shows that teams are more evenly matched and games are more competitive. Again, this raises the excitement factor. A 4-4 deadlock in the third period has much more suspense than an 8-1 blowout.

Rookies Rule

Last year, Washington's Alexander Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby became the superstars of their teams — and that was in their rookie season. This year, the same could happen for Wojtek Wolski of Colorado and Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh. Wolski's three goals and one assist have helped fill the void left by Alex Tanguay, who was shipped to Calgary in an offseason trade. Malkin scored a goal in his NHL debut on Oct. 18; a shoulder injury sidelined him until the seventh game of the season.

The Crosby/Malkin combo on the Pittsburgh offense is a reflection of a trend that's spreading across the NHL: younger players are expected to play harder and contribute more. For some teams, such as Colorado, this is due to budget issues that have sent several star players and their million-dollar contracts to other teams. For others, such as Pittsburgh, young talent is nearly all they have.

In any case, hockey is capitalizing on young talent more than any of the "big three" sports — football, baseball, and basketball — and that makes it stand out.

Shine on, NHL.


Here is a breakdown of NHL teams to watch for this season.

On the Rise

Vancouver Canucks — For those who have followed the news, this should be a no-brainer. For those that didn't, here's what happened: the Canucks signed Roberto Luongo in exchange for Todd Bertuzzi. For the clueless people who don't understand the impact of that trade, read this. Bertuzzi's new start in Florida is not only refreshing for him, but for the Canucks, as well.

St. Louis Blues — Offseason transactions should keep the Blues from having another embarrassing season. Manny Legace will vastly improve goaltending, and Dan Hinote will add some grit to the Blues' game. Doug Weight, back from a Stanley Cup win in Carolina, will provide the solid leadership this team needs.

Nashville Predators — Adding Paul Kariya last year was a smart move. Adding Jason Arnott this year is even better. Don't underestimate this team.

Standing Tall

Buffalo Sabres — Since Chris Drury became captain of the team, the Sabres have turned into a top contender in the Eastern Conference. Last year, Buffalo was defeated by Carolina in the Eastern Conference finals. This year, it could be Buffalo going for the Stanley Cup.

Calgary Flames — Since 2004, the Flames have been a brutal force on their opponents. That won't change this year. If anything, adding Alex Tanguay will create an even more dangerous roster.

Question Marks

Colorado Avalanche — If younger players such as Paul Stastny and Wojtek Wolski step up, the loss of key players such as Alex Tanguay and Rob Blake might not have a huge impact. Jose Theodore's goaltending must be top-notch if the team wants to stay atop the Northwest Division.

Atlanta Thrashers — Nearly making the playoffs last season was a positive step for the Thrashers, who have struggled since their beginning in 1999. Is this their year?

Los Angeles Kings — After three seasons of missing the playoffs, this club really cleaned house. Dean Lombardi left San Jose to take over as general manager. Marc Crawford and Dan Cloutier came from Vancouver to be head coach and goaltender, respectively. Rob Blake is back. Luc Robitalle and Jeremy Roenick are gone. Such dramatic changes may be too much too fast or exactly what the Kings need.

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