|Hockey returns with gimmicks, new duds, and no turmoil|
|Written by Admin|
|Thursday, 27 September 2007 11:17|
No talk of lockouts, steroids, rogue referees or police blotters in the world of hockey during the few short months following the Anaheim Ducks' landmark championship for California.
The league that usually gets noticed when things go wrong, was glad to let baseball, football and basketball own the scandal-focused spotlight. Hockey escaped embarrassment and turmoil, and now is readying its next attempt to matter in the U.S. sports landscape.
From new streamlined uniforms with funky colors and designs, to season-opening games played outside North America, to one played, well ... outside, the NHL is trying gimmicks and novelty to create buzz.
Having a star like just-turned-20 Sidney Crosby doesn't hurt, either.
It all begins this weekend in London where the champion Ducks begin defense of their Stanley Cup title against their closest neighbor and biggest rival, the Los Angeles Kings.
``Obviously the purpose in going to England is opening up a new building for the Kings' owner,'' Ducks defenseman Chris Pronger said, ``but at the same time it's a chance for us to go over there and show off our product and try to bring some fan following in England.''
Anaheim is already a team in transition as the Ducks take the ice without top defenseman Scott Niedermayer - last season's playoff MVP - and heart-and-soul, 48-goal scorer Teemu Selanne, both of whom are contemplating retirement.
``Certainly two big holes that we are not going to be able to fill,'' Pronger said.
And that's not all.
Top goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, checking forward Samuel Pahlsson and Niedermayer's replacement, Mathieu Schneider, will all miss the start of the season with injuries. As if repeating as champion wasn't hard enough. No team has raised the Cup in consecutive years since Detroit in 1997 and 1998.
at flow that we had going last year.''
The two-game set between Southern California's finest is the first highlight of the season that also features an outdoor spectacle on New Year's Day between reigning MVP Crosby and his Pittsburgh Penguins against the Sabres in Buffalo.
As cold as it will surely be at Ralph Wilson Stadium in January, that could be just the latest chill surrounding the Sabres. After reaching the Eastern Conference finals the past two seasons, the Sabres will be in rebuilding mode following the free-agent departures of top forwards Chris Drury (N.Y. Rangers) and Daniel Briere (Philadelphia).
``I don't doubt that we have a team to get back there,'' Sabres goalie Ryan Miller said. ``We lost two very talented players, but I don't think that they defined the team completely. I think that they did a lot for us, but we also did a lot for them.''
Of Buffalo's top three scorers from last season, only Thomas Vanek returned - and at a hefty price. The Edmonton Oilers broke unwritten rules and targeted the restricted free agent, forcing the Sabres to match a salary cap-busting $50 million, seven-year deal.
Undeterred, Oilers general manager Kevin Lowe angered the Ducks by plucking young forward Dustin Penner away from the champs with a five-year contract worth $21.25 million. That proved too rich for Anaheim GM Brian Burke to squeeze into the new $50.3 million salary cap for this season, an increase of $6.3 million.
The NHL will take that kind of controversy anytime.
Somehow the New York Rangers addressed their glaring need at center by signing two of the best available, doling out a total of nearly $87 million to Drury and former New Jersey Devils nemesis Scott Gomez just hours after the free agent spending frenzy began July 1.
But they had to, as Philadelphia moved quickly to erase memories of its NHL-worst 56 points of last season. The Flyers jumped back into playoff-contender status by adding Briere along with Scott Hartnell and Kimmo Timonen from the for-sale Nashville Predators and Edmonton's Jason Smith and Joffrey Lupul, a key piece of the deal that sent former Oilers defenseman Pronger to Anaheim.
All that does is ratchet up the competition in the usually tight Atlantic Division that also boasts the Penguins, who are loaded on offense with Crosby, rookie of the year Evgeni Malkin, second-year sensation Jordan Staal and veteran stalwarts Mark Recchi, Gary Roberts and Petr Sykora.
Not bad for a club that had 105 points last season, 47 more than 2005-06, and features former No. 1 pick Marc-Andre Fleury in goal after a 40-win campaign.
He, along with goalies throughout the league, benefited from a drop in scoring last season after the post-lockout spike. The rule changes from 2005 became more familiar and produced fewer power plays and goals.
As if Vancouver's Roberto Luongo and Devils goalie Martin Brodeur needed any help. They both matched the previous record of wins in a season with Brodeur setting a new mark with 48 - one more than Luongo.
If the NHL goes to bigger nets to increase scoring, you can say so long to Luongo.
``If that day comes, I don't think you guys will be seeing me in the NHL,'' he said. ``I have no intentions of playing with bigger nets.''
Fans in New Jersey won't get a chance to welcome back their Vezina Trophy-winning netminder until well into the season as the Devils won't play in their new home arena until the 10th game on the schedule when they face defending Eastern Conference champion Ottawa.
Out West, ``Captain Canada'' Ryan Smyth will be welcomed back to the Mountain time zone but now he'll be playing alongside Joe Sakic with the Colorado Avalanche. After a short stay in the East with the New York Islanders, following a stunning trade deadline deal from the Oilers, Smyth is back in more familiar territory.
His task: get the Avalanche back in the playoffs after they were kept out for the first time since 1994 - two years before the team relocated to Denver from Quebec.
And it shouldn't be long until Dallas' Mike Modano becomes the greatest U.S.-born scorer. He is six points behind Phil Housley (1,232) for the mark.
``I think it will be on my mind,'' said Modano, already the top American goal scorer with 507. ``Just wanting in general to get off to a good start ... trying to get that number and get it over with.''
Everyone can say goodbye to traditional sweaters, as sleek, lighter, and drier are in. Each team will only sport two this season - one at home and one on the road. Third jerseys are a thing of the past, at least for this season. One club after another unveiled their new duds featuring new logos, altered designs, or little tweaks.
There are more new faces in new places behind the benches, too.
Claude Julien resurfaced in Boston after a late-season dismissal in New Jersey, and Mike Keenan is in Calgary with the Flames. Brent Sutter finally found an NHL job interesting enough to lure him from the junior ranks in Alberta, as he takes over in New Jersey, and John Paddock is the new coach with Ottawa.