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NHL - Hockey: The Best Value

By Lee Manchur
Wednesday, July 24th, 2002

Now that we're into the middle of the NHL offseason, league activity has quieted down -- at least for a little while before the waiver draft and some restricted free agents like Jarome Iginla begin to sign offer sheets.

This offseason has seen player salaries escalate greatly, with players such as Bobby Holik (who barely scores 20 goals a season) signing $9 million contracts. It was only last year that Alexei Yashin signed the largest ever hockey contract, worth upwards of $80 million, and just weeks later, Jaromir Jagr signed one valued at nearly $90 million.

Despite the escalating salaries, Gary Bettman and the rest of the NHL executives must pat themselves on the back. Whether American TV viewers want to admit it or not, the National Hockey League is the best product game on television and has the best competition of any of the four major professional North American team sports.

With the exception of Florida Panthers, the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim, and the Columbus Blue Jackets, there is no reason why any of the 30 NHL hockey clubs cannot make the postseason, or are at least very close to it. Many of the "grey area" teams such as the Tampa Bay Lightning, Nashville Predators, and Minnesota Wild are only missing one or two pieces of the puzzle to be NHL contenders.

The Lightning only need to beef up their defense a bit to give some teams in the East a run for their money. As long as they can find that one piece and players like Fredrik Modin and Vincent Lecavalier are healthy all season long, Nikolai Khabibulin will do this thing in net and the 'Bolts will contend.

The Minnesota Wild are a very respectable expansion team. Even if they finished near last in the league last year, many "experts" predicted their first few seasons to be a lot worse than they turned out to be, and if the Predators weren't in the Western Conference where even 92 points won't make the playoffs, they would be contending for a postseason berth should they get a stable goaltender.

Forget the bottom of the standings -- what about the top? With two weeks left in the regular season, just 9 points separated second from 12th in the Western Conference, and the situation was similar in the Eastern Conference.

Money doesn't buy the Stanley Cup. The New York Rangers haven't made the playoffs in ages despite having a Yankee-type payroll. Colorado pays a lot of money for their stars, but have been stopped at the Semifinals or Conference Finals five of the past six years.

Meanwhile, we see teams like the Montreal Canadiens nearly limping their way to the Eastern Finals. And although the Hurricanes weren't even the most talented team with the highest payroll in the conference, the Carolina franchise represented the Eastern Conference in last month's Stanley Cup Finals.

Hockey combines the grace and finesse of baseball, the hard-nosed attitude of football, the speed of auto racing, the enthusiasm of NCAA sports, and the skill required to play the game is unlike any other. Anyone can lace up a pair of shoes and play basketball; anyone can pick up a wooden bat and trigger a ball for a homerun, but only a select few can skate 500 feet in under 15 seconds and stay on their feet while getting smashed into a glass wall on a near frictionless surface.

Whether you're watching the struggling Panthers or the surging and re-fueled Detroit Red Wings, the NHL game the only game to watch. Period.

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