By Matt Romig, Yahoo Sports
October 5, 2005
That's how simply Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock put it as his team was preparing for its first season under the NHL's new rules and enforcement system.
Power plays were up in the preseason – up to 17 per game from an average of 11 per game the last time preseason games were played. Power-play efficiency was up too as teams converted on 21 percent of their chances.
The message is clear. Abide by the rules or go a man down. And though we've heard this before, the league mandate is to make the players adjust to the officials, not the other way around. We all know what happened the last time the league and players squared off.
So who wins? The teams that have the least adjusting to do. Teams that weren't forced to jettison talent to survive under new salary constraints and teams with the speed and skill to thrive in the open ice are best positioned.
1. Ottawa Senators – The training wheels are off for Jason Spezza, who is poised to become an elite NHL forward under new coach Bryan Murray. He and newcomer Dany Heatley may be the league's most exciting young line pairing. Everyone wants to talk about Dominik Hasek's age, but it's a luxury when your biggest question mark is a gold medalist, Stanley Cup champion and two-time Hart Trophy winner.
2. Philadelphia Flyers – Did the Bullies get too big? Mike Rathje and Derian Hatcher join Chris Therien to form a blue line that looks like it could pass protect for Donovan McNabb. Bulking up is a gamble if speed does indeed rule in the new NHL, but if it pays off few teams can match the depth here on defense.
3. San Jose Sharks – The Sharks had the league's only perfect preseason, which is notable only when you factor in their league-low total of 84 penalty minutes against. San Jose is built around speed and puck movement, a style that plays perfectly under the new rules package. Marco Sturm and promising winger Milan Michalek return from injury to offset the lack of free agent activity.
4. Boston Bruins – It's a familiar formula in 2005 – a sky's-the-limit phenom joining a future Hall of Famer for a franchise banking on a return to past glory. In Boston, that pairing is 20-year-old Patrice Bergeron – a teammate of Sidney Crosby at the World Junior Championship – and 36-year-old Brian Leetch. Joe Thornton may well be the NHL MVP this year.
5. Vancouver Canucks – There was an average of 17 power plays per game in the preseason. If special teams rule in October and November as many predict, few teams are as well positioned to benefit as the Canucks. You don't want to go a man down with Todd Bertuzzi setting up camp in front of the net.
6. Calgary Flames – Everything came together for the Flames in the spring of 2004. That kind of synergy – talent, chemistry, the sheer will of the Red Mile – is difficult to replicate, let alone sustain for an entire season. Few teams are better defensively, but don't forget that Calgary snuck into the playoffs in their 80th game in 2003-04. Another postseason run like that is too much to ask.
7. Tampa Bay Lightning – Between John Grahame and Sean Burke, the Lightning need to find a No. 1 goalie who can replace Cup winner Nikolai Khabibulin. You have to love the speed Martin St. Louis and Co. bring to the ice every night, but without solid play in goal it won't matter.
8. Detroit Red Wings – Darren McCarty's toughness will be missed, but there is no shortage of grit and leadership in the Detroit locker room. This needs to be the year that Jason Williams develops into a legitimate top-line forward.
9. Anaheim Mighty Ducks – One of the quietest yet most effective offseason overhauls occurred in Anaheim, where prized defenseman Scott Niedermayer and sniper Teemu Selanne came aboard. Concern: Jean-Sebastien Giguere's 3.60 goals-against average in the preseason lends some credibility to the notion that his success was the product of juiced-up goalie pads.
10. New Jersey Devils – Martin Brodeur is back, but look what he woke up to. His two top defensemen are gone, his top scoring threat is recovering for hepatitis A and his coach is fighting cancer. Oh, and the NHL passed rules to limit goalie puck handling – one of his strengths. He can carry this team to – but not through – the playoffs.
11. Nashville Predators – Ten months ago they were part of the problem – poster children for the case against commissioner Gary Bettman's (over)expansion plans. Today they are Western Conference darlings and a chic pick to make a deep playoff run. Amazing what a $39 million salary cap and the signing of Paul Kariya can do for a franchise's image.
12. Pittsburgh Penguins – The instructional video narrated by new ref chief Stephen Walkom is titled, "The New Standard of Rule Enforcement 2005-06." Add it to the Netflix queue, boys. Pittsburgh was the league's most penalized team in the preseason, a trend that will test a thin corps of defensemen if it continues when the games count.
13. Toronto Maple Leafs – The Leafs are old and banged up, even before the puck drops. Veterans Eric Lindros and Jason Allison have arrived, but both checked substantial injury baggage on the flight. On defense, injuries to Ken Klee, Wade Belak and Aki Berg have the team scrambling for pairings already.
14. Colorado Avalanche – More than any other team, the Avs enter 2005-06 with a this-thing-could-go-either-way outlook. Milan Hejduk will miss a month, they aren't particularly deep up front and goalie David Aebischer is a huge question mark. Still, the nucleus is strong with Joe Sakic and Rob Blake, and Joel Quenneville is a respected coach.
15. Atlanta Thrashers – In Marian Hossa, the Thrashers got a fair return for Dany Heatley in a deal they were forced to make. However, if the club goes with insurance policy Peter Bondra while allowing Ilya Kovalchuk to bolt to Russia, it will be a long season in Atlanta. Too bad, because goalie prospect Kari Lehtonen could be something special.
16. Edmonton Oilers – Ales Hemsky says he's ready to shoot more this year, and the winger delivered on that promise with three goals in four preseason games. Still, who will be this team's go-to scorer? While we're at it: Is Ty Conklin ready to become a No. 1 goalie? Chris Pronger is a welcome addition to the blue line.
17. Florida Panthers – This team will go as far as goalie Roberto Luongo can carry it. Florida won't score a ton of goals, but it won't matter when Luongo is stopping 94 percent of the shots he faces. Special teams will matter early, and the Panthers added Chris Gratton to improve what was the league's second-best penalty killing unit in 2003-04.
18. Chicago Blackhawks – Gross mismanagement turned a lot of Chicago hockey fans into supporters of the AHL's Wolves, but the Blackhawks are moving in the right direction again. They opened the checkbook to bring Nikolai Khabibulin on board, and new addition Adrian Aucoin can eat minutes with the best of em.
19. Montreal Canadiens – They converted nearly 25 percent of their power-play chances in eight preseason games, bolstering the assertion that this speedy team can flourish if the obstruction crackdown takes hold.
20. Dallas Stars – Dallas finished 4-4 in the preseason, scoring 29 goals and allowing 29. Welcome to the new era of mediocrity in the Lone Star State.
22. Los Angeles Kings – Quick – name Los Angeles' starting goalie. If you named Mathieu Garon, you're probably right. Nobody seems to know for sure, and that includes coach Andy Murray. Not a good sign. If you guessed Jason LaBarbera, you probably live in L.A.
25. Phoenix Coyotes – Brett Hull says some of his teammates are intimidated by coach Wayne Gretzky, so much so that it affects their play. Such is the danger of placing a legend behind the bench, but if they are indeed star-struck, it's more a statement of a lack of talent than evidence that the Great One can't be effective.
26. Carolina Hurricanes – The Canes are counting on youngsters Josef Vasicek and Eric Staal to invigorate an attack that has ranked last in the NHL in goals in each of the last two seasons. Rookie Cam Ward may eventually take over in goal.
29. Minnesota Wild – Marian Gaborik is the team's only proven goal scorer, and he's been slow to recover from a groin injury. Coach Jacques Lemaire named rookie Mikko Koivu his No. 1 center, then promptly learned his prospect would miss four weeks with a knee injury. Where will the goals come from?
30. Washington Capitals – Attention-starved winger Alexander Ovechkin may well play Johnny Drama to Sidney Crosby's Vincent Chase in this year's rookie entourage, but the kid can flat-out play. The rest of the cast? Not so good.
Matt Romig is a senior editor for Yahoo! Sports. Send Matt a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Wednesday, Oct 5, 2005 8:57 pm, EDT