SUN Hockey Pool

Speed demons

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 10:50 AM ET

In the old NHL, there wasn't always a need for speed. In the new NHL, speed kills.

"You've got to be able to have speed and scoring, but speed is a big factor right now," said Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock. "Speed has always been essential in this game, but you've got to be able to use it as well."

After a one-year hiatus, which allowed time to put together a new collective bargaining agreement and several rule changes, the NHL's new era is allowing top players a chance to skate and showcase their skills -- something blueliners are having a tough time defending against.

"I think there's been a big adjustment period for the defencemen with the new rules. They just aren't quite sure what they can do, so there are times where they just don't touch the guy because they are afraid of taking a penalty and that's allowed scoring chances," said Hitchcock. "A lot of players in this league have had to make adjustments to their game because of the new rules."

The days of teams like the New Jersey Devils clutching and grabbing their way to the Stanley Cup are gone. The teams who utilize their speed are likely to be the ones to earn championship rings.

"Speed is going make you successful," said John Ferguson Sr., special assistant to the GM of the San Jose Sharks. "Geez, I watch some of these games at night and teams are just flying. It's great.

"Everybody is moving around and players are getting a chance to show their skills. There's a lot of good, close games and it's great to see the guys being able to move."

That's what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and VP of hockey operations Colin Campbell had in mind when they formed a committee consisting of GMs, coaches and players to decide what changes had to be made to the game.

SKILLED PLAYERS HELD BACK

The consensus was the skilled players weren't being allowed to use their speed. Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk is an exciting young player, but he's not much fun to watch if he's got three guys hanging off his back every time he touches the puck.

"I believe you really notice the difference when you go to the net," said Senators winger Martin Havlat. "The games have been great because everybody has been able to use their speed.

"You look at the reaction of the fans and I think they love it. There's more room to skate out there, which means there's more scoring chances. What you're also seeing is more goals. What we've seen is a big difference in the way the game is played

"I know there's been a lot of penalties called, and you have a lot of special teams, but there's even more chances 5-on-5 because teams are being careful. They're trying to adjust to the way the game is being called. It's a different game, that's for sure. But I think if you ask anybody they're going to tell you it's a better game."

Part of the reason teams like the Senators, Tampa Bay Lightning, Buffalo Sabres, Carolina Hurricanes and Minnesota Wild have thrived with the new rules is that they're young and built around speed.

GET TO THE NET

To be successful in the NHL, players have to be able to get to the net. Speed isn't everything, but getting to the front is a big part of the game -- especially if you're going to be around to fish out rebounds.

"I love the way the hockey is being played right now and I know everybody hates hearing me talk about the past, but it does remind me of the 1980s," said Ottawa GM John Muckler, who was on the coaching staff of the Edmonton Oilers during their dynasty in the 1980s.

"I always say the best hockey was played in 1980s with guys like Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Glenn Anderson and Paul Coffey were allowed to skate and use their skills. That's why I love what is happening today. The games are being called tight and the players are able to use their skills.

"That's what you want to see. You want to see the scoring opportunities and you want to see teams being able to use the forecheck to create turnovers. When you have turnovers, you have mistakes and that means you can create scoring chances. That's great for the fans. That's what they want to see. That's what we're trying to do here. We're trying to give the fan who pays a lot of money some bang for their buck and I've been really pleased with the way it has gone so far."

The players certainly are enjoying it.

"I love watching the games on the nights we're not playing. I'm not sure it's so much about speed as it is about how quickly guys are able to make the transition once the they do get the puck," said Senators centre Jason Spezza.

But, will it stay that way?

"I believe it will because everybody is on board this time," said Muckler. "The league, the owners, the management and the players and everybody knew it had to change to make the game better."

PAUL KARIYA, Nashville:

He didn't get a whole lot of notice after struggling in Colorado during the 2003-04 season, but he can still skate. Unlike his buddy Teeme Selanne (aka The Finnish Flash), who certainly isn't as fast as he once was, the new NHL is allowing Kariya to take the Predators to new levels. Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky is taking notice.

ILYA KOVALCHUK, Atlanta:

Missing the first couple of weeks of the NHL season while waiting for a contract certainly hasn't hurt his ability to skate. Not only that, Kovalchuk has a tremendous shot.

SERGEI FEDOROV, Anaheim:

His exposure has been limited since he left Steve Yzerman's shadow in Detroit and signed as a free agent with the Ducks in 2003-04, but he his speed is still well respected around the league. Has been troubled by groin injuries this season, but if he's healthy he can be dangerous.

MARIAN HOSSA, Atlanta:

Doesn't have breakaway speed, but when he gets going, he's a power forward. Can move the puck and get around the zone swiftly. Nobody can get around a D-man the way he does when he gets the chance.

MARTIN HAVLAT, Ottawa:

This guy can fly. He struggled to put the puck in the net at the start of the season, but after serving a five-game suspension, he quashed his thirst for goals with four in his return against Buffalo. When he kicks it into a high gear, he can be unstoppable. Has been a big factor in killing penalties.

SIMON GAGNE, Philadelphia:

People often wonder why the staff of Team Canada keeps getting Gagne to play in international competitions. The Answer: Because he can skate and this year he's showing he can score. He'll get a chance to play at the Winter Olympics in Turin this February.

SCOTT NIEDERMAYER, Anaheim:

This one might be a bit of a surprise, but the 2003-04 Norris Trophy winner did earn finish tops in fastest skater competition at the NHL all-star game and that's no accident. Being a defenceman, he doesn't always a chance to use his speed, but he can skate with the best of them.

ALEXANDER OVECHKIN, Washington:

Unless you've seen Washington games on the satellite, you may not be familiar with Ovechkin's speed. According to those who have been watching him for awhile, he can move. His ability to skate and move the puck has made his rookie year a success to date. He may even speed race to the rookie-of-the-year honours.

MARTIN ST. LOUIS, Tampa Bay:

He's small and he's quick. The undrafted St. Louis won the MVP in 2003-04 after leading the NHL in scoring. His inconsistency, however, has caused coach John Tortorella to make St. Louis earn his ice time.

MARIAN GABORIK, Minnesota:

It doesn't take much to get Gaborik going. He takes two strides and he's gone. Is regarded as one of the fastest skaters in the league and has shown that in the all-star skills competition. Troubled by injuries this year, but he's a young player who is only going to improve.

bruce.garrioch @ott.sunpub.com


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