If anyone thought the lockout would hurt interest in the NHL north of the border, think again.
In talking with television executives, ratings are way up and according to turnstile tallies, attendance is through the roof. Check out the volume and passion of posts on websites like NHL.com when the topic is anything Canuck and it is obvious that Canadian fans everywhere embrace the notion of long-term competitiveness due to the cap structure -- unburdened by the previous threat of an American-based team buying a contender from year to year or at the trade deadline.
Throughout the protracted negotiations, NHL Commissioner Bettman repeatedly stated that any deal would have to make sense for "our Canadian teams." And while the wait was frustrating and difficult for fans all across North America, any angst felt last year has likely dissipated with the heady starts of all six Canadian teams.
In the Eastern Conference, the Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs are ranked first, fourth and sixth respectively. Out West, the Vancouver Canucks, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers sit third, sixth and ninth.
Could this be the season that all six make the playoffs for the first time ever? It is a serious possibility when you look at the starts and the strengths of the Canadian contingency. An all-inclusive showing would mark the first such occurrence since 1986 when all seven Canadian clubs (the Quebec Nordiques and Winnipeg Jets were members and the Ottawa Senators didn't re-enter the league until 1992) of the then-21 team NHL made it to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
|The Flames are one of the hottest teams in the League right now after getting off to a shaky start.|
But back to the present. After a wobbly start, the Flames have turned things around and are battling the Canucks atop the Northwest Division. Those teams should fight for the top spot all season. Same thing in the Northeast Division, where the Senators have a one-point lead on the Canadiens. All four of these teams should be there in April, especially if the Canadiens continue to prevail in tight games.
The plight of the Maple Leafs and the Oilers is a bit less clear. The Leafs still haven't, according to coach Pat Quinn, "figured out what kind of team we want to be." Identity crisis aside, the Leafs are getting the job done thus far with a League-leading power play and some timely saves -- necessary attributes in today's NHL.
And for all of their experience, the Leafs are getting quality play from three rookies in Alexander Steen, Kyle Wellwood and goaltender Mikael Tellqvist. And as usual, the Maple Leafs are making it difficult on visitors to secure points, going 8-3-1 on home ice.
The Oilers, meanwhile, have survived the early going despite playing only right home games. Questions remain whether or not Jussi Markkanen can carry a team all season as a No. 1 goaltender, but the continued development of Shawn Horcoff and Jarret Stoll as dependable play-making pivots gives Markkanen and the Oilers more offensive promise than in the recent past.
The biggest hurdle for making postseason history is the divisional setup and increased emphasis this season on divisional play. There is an even split of six Canadian teams between Conferences and three teams reside in the same division within the East and West. That means they end up playing one another nearly 20 percent of the time, which is a great element for regular-season rivalries. Historically, though, those Canadian rivalries haven't translated in tact to playoff progress. The Oilers came close in 2003-04, failing to qualify despite garnering 89 points.
It should be that close again this year. Until then, enjoy the divisional rivalries.
Moves for the Ages
I've seen the future and not surprisingly, channeling the vision were the amazing offensive youngsters Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Comparison and debate over their exploits is inevitable, but what I witnessed recently from the pair was astounding: Both won games in shootouts using exactly the same move.
Before we get to the move, consider the form of offensive creativity throughout the ages. The power wingers had their day in the 1950s with Rocket Richard rollicking end-to-end, daring defenders to step into his path. Boom Boom Geoffrion took that model and added the booming slap shot as the payoff for goaltenders.
Combining both Richard's flair and Geoffrion's shot in the Sixties was "The Golden Jet", Bobby Hull. His mad dashes down the left side culminating in a wicked slap shot excited hockey fans for two decades. In the 1970s, Guy Lafleur carried the mantle, streaking down the ice with his trademark locks flowing behind in the breeze.
The 1970s also saw the advent of the puck-carrying defenseman, courtesy of Bobby Orr. Never before had a defenseman engaged in rink-long rushes and become a primary scorer before Orr. He would often times head full-steam down the ice, only to circle back majestically to either take time off the clock when killing a penalty, or to reset the offense for yet another offensive foray.
Paul Coffey took over Orr's backline bravado in the 1980s, oftentimes leading the rush deep into the offensive zone and, like Orr, having the skating capacity to retreat all the way back to his own zone before the opponent could trap him up ice.
|Exciting young rookies such as the Caps' Alexander Ovechkin have displayed offensive scoring moves that are simply incredible.|
At the same time as Orr's otherworldly impact on the game, Canadiens defensemen Serge Savard and Guy Lapointe employed the dazzling "spinorama" move to elude on-coming forwards. Savard and Lapointe used the move in their own zone, as well as brazenly spinning inside the offensive blue line to lose the checker and create a shooting lane from the point.
In the 1980s Denis Savard took the "spinorama" and made it his own as a center. His full flight 360s were awe-inspiring and left flat-footed defenseman pawing at air. Steve Yzerman also used speed from the center position to patent the drive and stop-up move. He'd use his speed to back off the defender only to pull up smoothly and quickly at the top of the left faceoff circle where he'd either improve his angle for a shot or pass to a teammate driving to the net.
Of course no one defined offense in the Eighties like Wayne Gretzky. He turned defenses around by using the net as a shield and finding the open man in front with his unparalleled passing skill. He was also a master at the stop up move inside the blue line, usually passing across the zone from right-to-left to winger Jari Kurri, or to Coffey entering the zone as the fourth attacker.
Other signature moves that come to mind include Phil Esposito's big frame and quick stick flipping centering passes past goalies from the top of the crease -- seemingly at will. Then there was Mario Lemieux merging Espo's touch with Gretzky's dexterity into an unstoppable package of grace and goal scoring. Bobby Hull's son Brett took the slap shot to a new art form with his pulverizing off-wing, one-time slapper -- now a power-play staple league wide.
Which brings us back to the modern advent of the shootout -- a showcase for offensive players. First I saw Ovechkin -- a right-handed shot -- streak in and pump his left leg as if he were kick-starting a motorcycle. The goalie flinched, reading shot, only to have Ovechkin deke deftly to his backhand -- leaving the goaltender unprepared to recover in time to move laterally.
Not five days later, I watched in amazement as Crosby thrilled the hometown fans in Pittsburgh by using the motorcycle kick ploy to fake out Jose Theodore. A left-handed shot, Crosby sped in, pumped the right leg and feinted that way instead of shooting.
Those shootout-winning goals defined the moment for Ovechkin, Crosby and their respective teams. But the move may be one for the ages.
AHL equals ahead in hockey learning
It isn't a coincidence that the top two teams in the East were able to plug in more guys who competed last season in the AHL than any other teams. The Philadelphia Flyers have no fewer than eight members of last spring's Calder Cup winning Philadelphia Phantoms on their current roster and the Ottawa Senators have five players in their midst who played in Binghamton last season.
OHL grads Mike Richards and Jeff Carter proved invaluable additions to the Phantoms in their title run. The two have picked up right where they left off -- immediately producing at the NHL level. Goaltender Antero Niittymaki was the MVP of the AHL playoffs, proving he is ready for prime time. Defensemen Joni Pitkanen and Dennis Seidenberg -- already with some NHL time on their resumes -- both benefited from the extra seasoning. Same thing for forward Patrick Sharp -- who had 44 games with the Flyers -- after scoring twenty-three goals in the regular season and following that up with a 21-point performance for the Phantoms in the playoffs.
Then there is the case of free agent R.J. Umberger -- after sitting out a year in a contract dispute with the Vancouver Canucks and then failing to sign with the New York Rangers -- proved his first-round selection valid by leading the Phantoms in scoring as a rookie. Now with Keith Primeau out, Umberger is seeing time with the Flyers.
But the most interesting free-agent story has to be Jon Sim. A journeyman with eighteen goals in 158 NHL games over six seasons, Sim found his way to the Phantoms via a loan agreement with the Utah Grizzlies. Once in Philly, Sim found his scoring touch, netting 35 for the Phantoms, leading to a free-agent contract with the Flyers. Sim set his sights higher than the AHL and a month into the season he is scoring like never before at this level -- six goals in 11 games -- and has become a primary threat on the Flyers' power play with three markers with the man advantage.
|Jason Spezza, the AHL's leading scorer last season, is one of several Senators that honed their game in Binghamton.|
Similarly, the Senators are off to a flying start attributable in large part to the portion of their roster that toiled in Binghamton of the AHL last season. Jason Spezza led the AHL in scoring with 117 points and has continued his maturation as a dominant offensive player in the NHL. Goaltender Ray Emery seized the extra year to prove ready as Dominik Hasek's understudy this season in Ottawa. Defensemen Anton Volchenkov and Brian Pothier refined their respective games and earned the trust of the organization and now are solidly entrenched in the Sens' starting six on the blue line.
And while the Flyers and Senators provide the best team examples of how the AHL benefited players of every ilk heading into this season, the gains made by budding young stars abound. Eric Staal -- the NHL's Offensive Player of the Month in October -- grew his game immensely last year while in Lowell, as did goaltender Cam Ward. Their elevated play in October has the Carolina Hurricanes atop the Southeast division.
Other top picks who weren't rushed and had the chance to play an unfettered season in the AHL in Zach Parise in Albany, Ryan Suter for the Admirals and goaltender Ryan Miller in Rochester. All had solid showing to begin this season, with Miller leading the Sabres to their best start in 30 years before he broke his thumb.
Not to be overlooked, though, are guys like Chris Campoli of the Islanders; Dominic Moore and Jed Ortmeyer of the Rangers, or Tomas Plekanec of the Canadiens. All parlayed AHL seasons into strong showings in training camp and then jobs with the big club to start this season.
Finally, consider the odyssey of goaltender Jason Labarbera. His fine effort last year for the Hartford Wolf Pack didn't go unnoticed -- even if it meant signing 3,000 miles away with the Los Angeles Kings. The Rangers didn't re-sign Labarbera because they were set in goal. No matter, Labarbera paid immediate dividends for the Kings, going 7-2 with a 2.21 goals against and a .922 save percentage in the first month of the season.
All of which goes to show that time spent in the AHL is not of minor consequence, especially as it applies to the NHL this season.