SUN Hockey Pool

Uncharted waters

PAUL FRIESEN -- Winnipeg Sun

, Last Updated: 8:45 AM ET

Feeling overwhelmed by your office hockey pool? Got your socks in a knot over what the new NHL is going to look like, and which players and teams are going to adapt best?

You're not alone, hockey fans.

In fact, you're in the same boat as the people who live and breathe the game.

We checked in with three of our Manitoba-born NHL coaches, and all three say the same thing: good luck predicting this season.

"There's a lot of unknown territory we're getting into," Los Angeles Kings head coach Andy Murray was saying from L.A. yesterday. "Because you don't really know what to expect from other teams and, most importantly, from your team. You're not totally sure how they're going to play with the new structure and all the new players."

Predictions out window

As Murray says, teams normally change three or four players from year to year. But the lockout produced a restrictive salary cap that's forced teams to dump and acquire players like school kids swap trading cards.

Compounding the problem are the new rules, causing coaches to rethink the type of player it'll take to win.

Put it all together, and you've got the greatest re-distribution of talent in NHL history.

As for who came out the winners and losers, you may as well ask Abbott or Costello who's on first.

"Somebody asked me yesterday... 'Where do you think we'll finish this year?'" Dauphin's Barry Trotz, head coach of the Nashville Predators, began. "And I said, 'I have no idea.' I really don't."

Over in Philadelphia, former Winnipegger Wayne Fleming, who was born in Snow Lake, is the assistant coach for a team many observers predict will be a Stanley Cup favourite.

But don't ask him to rank the best and worst of the rest.

"It's really difficult to pick who are the top five teams in the league and who are the bottom five," Fleming said. "It's very exciting, because there's a real unknown. Is anybody going to jump out here and take off? Are teams going to struggle? Or is there going to be parity throughout the league?"

All of this raises one more question: if these guys don't know, who the hell does? I mean, they make their living in the game.

How's a poolie from Winnipeg, who's barely seen any exhibition games, supposed to figure it out?

Maybe we can find a hint or two in here, somewhere.

Trotz, for example, says he's noticed players who took a year off haven't been as sharp as those who played in the AHL or Europe last season. Not even a whole training camp has closed the gap, completely.

"For the guys that didn't play, there's a big difference," Trotz said. "My own guys haven't hit stride, yet. And I saw that on the teams we played, from every team."

So maybe the newest star in Nashville, forward Paul Kariya, will get off to a slow start. Maybe.

Here's another observation Trotz made in the pre-season that might help, this one to do with the crackdown on hooking and holding.

"If you can't skate, it's difficult to play," he said. "The smarter you are, the better player you'll be. Tired or lazy players are ineffective in the new game. It's a working, skating game."

All three of our coaches say based on the pre-season, there's more parity in the league, that the talent is better distributed.

"You have a feeling there are certain teams that have maybe come back to the pack a little bit," Murray said.

And which ones might those be?

"I'd rather not say," Murray said. "Because that would be putting down the guys they have, and we don't need to give them any bulletin board information."

There's something we can count on -- coaches being coaches.

Some things never change.


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