Pittsburgh Penguins coach Ed Olczyk is out of excuses. Following an offseason marked by wholesale changes, the Penguins bear little resemblance to the woeful product that exited the 2003-04 season with a league-worst 58 points.
Aside from draft pick Sidney Crosby, tabbed as the next league phenom, the Penguins also have added defenseman Sergei Gonchar, wingers John LeClair, Zigmund Palffy and Mark Recchi, and goalie Jocelyn Thibault.
“I guess if we struggle now it'll be the coach's fault," Olczyk said.
Welcome to the new NHL, where hope and pressure thrive in outposts once relegated to draft day prominence.
The 310-day lockout may have produced a salary cap — a more sensible arrangement for the league's financial future — but a glut of player movements and rules changes has left the race for the Stanley Cup a muddled mess in the eyes of even the savviest or most opinionated of NHL analysts.
“With the exception of Philadelphia and perhaps Ottawa, I have no idea who you would put up there as a contender," Los Angeles Kings forward Jeremy Roenick said. “You look at Dallas and Detroit and Colorado, those teams have talent and they will be good teams, but you can't just mark them down like in the past. It's wide open, and I know as a team we're (the Kings) looking at it that way.''
Roenick personifies why so many teams are thinking June hockey this season. With a salary cap of $39 million now in place, the old reliables such as Detroit, Colorado and Dallas can no longer spend two to three times what other clubs spend in an effort to field a championship team.
As a result, more than 100 players changed hands this offseason — the largest offseason exodus in the history of the league — and many of them were big names.
Roenick left Philadelphia for L.A.; Scott Niedermayer left New Jersey for Anaheim; Peter Forsberg left Colorado for Philadelphia; Paul Kariya left Colorado for Nashville; Chris Pronger left St. Louis for Edmonton; and Nikolai Khabibulin left Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay for Chicago.
“I don't think it's ever been like this," said Coyotes forward Brett Hull, who signed a two-year deal with Phoenix two summers ago. “When I was with Detroit, we had a fourth line of (Igor) Larionov, (Luc) Robitaille and (Tomas) Holmstrom that was making almost $7 million. Those days are long gone so teams will have to figure out another way to do it."
Aside from the mad shuffling of players this offseason, two other key factors are influencing the outlook for the 2005-06 season, which opens today for every team.
“Nobody knows how the lockout is going to affect players because we've never had something like this before,' said longtime NHL analyst Darren Pang, a former NHL goalie who will work in the Coyotes’ broadcast booth this season.
“Guys who were injured had a full year off to rehab their injuries so they might come back as strong as ever. On the other hand, guys who were in their mid or late 30s could end up being past their prime." If time hasn't done in some players, Pang cautioned, the new rules could.
With an emphasis on speed and offense replacing the clutching and grabbing that dragged scoring down year after year, skilled players are expected to thrive while slower players who thrived under the old system could suffer.
“I think the new rules will drive up the standard of how this game is played," said San Jose general manager Doug Wilson, whose club is built for the new league with quick forwards, a big, mobile defense and the superlative goaltending of Evgeni Nabokov. “With these new rules, you reward excellence, not mediocrity."
Eighty-two games will settle which teams managed to build the best product for the new system, Wilson said. But as hockey takes the ice again, there is a renewed sense of purpose for most players that didn't always exist before.
“In the past, I was smart enough to realize if our team was good enough or not just by looking around the locker room," Hull said. “You look at the situation the league is in right now, when you look around, a lot of teams are thinking they have as good a chance as anyone."
Coyotes general manager Mike Barnett said the shift toward more skilled play and the emergence of smaller-market teams actually started a couple of years ago. The 2003-04 Stanley Cup finals were a prime example when small-market teams Calgary and Tampa Bay advanced to the final round while large payroll teams like Detroit, Colorado and the New York Rangers flamed out, or didn't even make the playoffs.
The institution of a cap and rules changes served simply to speed up the league's transformation, Barnett said.
“The absolute intention of the new CBA (collective bargaining agreement) was to give optimism to every market, much like the NFL has succeeded in doing," Barnett added. “I think what you're seeing now is a true sense of parity. In the end, this is going to be good for everyone, the fans, the players and the game itself."