SUN Hockey Pool

Get ready for rush hour

BRUCE GARRIOCH -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 9:09 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," Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said. "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 a new collective bargaining agreement and several rule changes to come to fruition, the NHL's new era is allowing top players a chance to skate and showcase their skills -- something defencemen are having a tough time dealing with.

"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," Hitchcock said. "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 which utilize 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 general manager 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 vice-president 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.

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.

"You really notice the difference when you go to the net," Senators winger Martin Havlat said. "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 has been a lot of penalties called, and you have a lot of special teams, but there's more chances five-on-five because teams are trying to adjust to the way the game is being called. It's a different game, but I think if you ask anybody they're going to tell you it's a better game."

Part of the reason teams such as 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.

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 bang in 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 (when) guys such as 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 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," Senators centre Jason Spezza said.

But, will it stay that way?

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

---

TOP 10 BURNERS IN THE LEAGUE

Everybody is talking about speed in the NHL these days. If you've got it, flaunt it. If you don't, look out because you could get run over. Your odds of winning increase by leaps and bounds if you have one of these quick players on your team.

Ottawa Sun hockey writer Bruce Garrioch has spent the last couple of weeks taking a poll around the league of who are the NHL's top 10 speed demons. He spoke with NHL GMs, coaches, managers, scouts and broadcasters to come up with this list:

MARTIN HAVLAT

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. When he kicks it into a high gear, he can be unstoppable.

MARIAN HOSSA

Doesn't have breakaway speed, but when he gets going, he's a power forward. He can move the puck and get around the zone pretty swiftly. Nobody can get around a defenceman the way Hossa does when he gets the chance.

PAUL KARIYA

Kariya struggled in Colorado during the 2003-04 season, but the new NHL is allowing him to take the Predators to new levels. Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky is even taking notice.

ALEXANDER OVECHKIN

After watching Ovechkin for the past two games against the Maple Leafs it is obvious he can fly and move the puck. Those two things might even allow him to speed race to the rookie-of-the-year honours.

SERGEI FEDOROV

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

SIMON GAGNE

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 in Turin this February.

ILYA KOVALCHUK

Missing the first couple of weeks of the NHL season while waiting for a contract hasn't hurt his ability to skate and shoot the puck. Coach Bob Hartley just needs to get Kovalchuk to skate at both ends of the rink.

MARIAN GABORIK

Although he has been troubled by injuries this year, it doesn't take much to get Gaborik going. He takes two strides and he's gone. The Wild forward is regarded as one of the fastest skaters in the league.

SCOTT NIEDERMAYER

He didn't win the fastest skater event at the NHL all-star game by accident. Being a defenceman, he doesn't always get a chance to use his speed, but his skills helped him win the Norris Trophy in the 2003-04 season.

MARTIN ST. LOUIS

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.


Videos

Photos