SUN Hockey Pool

Here is what the new NHL may offer up

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:30 AM ET

Welcome to a year of uncertainty in the National Hockey League.

With new rules, a new officiating approach, massive player movement, and the uncertainty that comes from a one-year hiatus, no one really knows what to expect.

This is the year that your hockey pool could be won by your dog, your 4-year-old, or even Gary Bettman.

But keeping in mind that what follows is speculation, not prediction, let's hypothesize about some of the developments that might be seen in the 2005-06 NHL:

-- Increase in injuries -- We're already starting to see it, most notably with the Philadelphia Flyers, but also with the Phoenix Coyotes losing goaltender Brian Boucher to a groin pull suffered during a shootout. Most players kept themselves in condition during the lockout, but not necessarily in hockey condition.

-- Cap controversy -- At the moment, the New Jersey Devils are well over the $39-million US limit and are trying to move Jeff Friesen to ease that problem.

But what if they don't? As near as anyone can tell, nothing can be done about it. During the regular season, the league office won't approve a contract or a trade if it puts a team over the limit. But in the off-season, payrolls are unlimited.

It seems that although the matter of punishing excessive payrolls was on the to-do list, it never got addressed.

-- More boarding calls -- With the crackdown on interference and the restriction on goalie movement, there will be more races for pucks in the corners.

A defenceman going back is liable to be plastered into the glass by an unhindered forechecker unless the referees make it clear that such free shots will not be tolerated. They'll need to impose a higher standard than was the case in the past.

-- Mid-season retirements -- Some veterans may find that the new game is too demanding for them and decide to retire.

Or they may, as in the case of someone such as Dominik Hasek, simply discover that they can't play at a high level any more and be retired by management. Either way, some familiar faces will head off into the sunset.

-- Shootout specialists --Many a team has a third-line European who rarely gets a chance to show his stuff. But some of these guys have remarkably fancy moves that they can exhibit when there are no defencemen around to discourage them.

It's likely that one or two players you've never heard of will rise to prominence purely because of their success in shootouts.

-- Less trapping -- The new off-side rules and the smaller neutral zone don't make the trap impossible, but they do make it less effective.

You can drop back if you want, but then you'll be standing still while the opposition comes at you with speed. And you can't use your stick to restrain them. Not an attractive prospect.

-- Decrease in parity -- Some general managers handled the post-lockout feeding frenzy well. Others didn't. The teams that loaded up on talent should be able to make the best use of those players because, in theory, they are going to be allowed to exhibit their skills.

As a result, the top teams should be able to win more games than was the case in recent years. Conversely, the weaker teams are going to pay the price. The gap between top and bottom could be cavernous.

-- Forget the fourth line -- For one thing, fourth-liners tend to be defensive specialists. In other words, their primary asset has been the ability to interfere without being penalized. In a league that plans zero tolerance for interference, these guys have limited value. Furthermore, there is an expectation that the league will place a premium on offence.

Today's players are in such good shape that a coach who uses only three lines does not place an unmanageable burden on his team.


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