SUN Hockey Pool

Beginning of a promising new ice age

RANDY SPORTAK -- Calgary Sun

, Last Updated: 10:47 AM ET

There was an extra kick to yesterday's Hockey Day in Canada celebration.

Not just because the party went from coast to coast.

For the first time since 1986, it's a very real -- if not likely -- possibility all of Canada's NHL squads are headed for the playoffs.

Calgary, Edmonton and Vancouver are in a terrific battle for top spot in the Northwest Division, while Ottawa is atop the Northeast, with Toronto firmly entrenched in a playoff position and Montreal holding the eighth spot in the East.

(By the way, the 1985-86 season actually saw seven Canadian squads reach the post-season, with Winnipeg and Quebec still in those locales and Ottawa not yet back in the loop.)

With the way it appeared a couple of years ago, teams were nearly packing their bags for cities south of the 49th Parallel. So it's an amazing turnaround under the new collective bargaining agreement.

Now, fans of the 'small-market' Canadian teams are not only able to enjoy the resurgence of the game but they can invest their hearts and money safely, knowing their beloved teams are secure in what have become filled buildings.

Here's how things have changed.

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VANCOUVER CANUCKS

WHERE THEY WERE: 2003-04 record at this time: 22-11-8 and unbeaten in four.

WHERE THEY'RE AT NOW: 22-14-5. Went into last night's game against Calgary on a 2-5-3 skid.

MAJOR CHANGES: Essentially the same team that won the Northwest Division in 2003-04, although with less depth on defence.

2003-04 PAYROLL: $42.1 million US

POSITIVE CBA IMPACT: A squad that had lost buckets of cash in the late 1990s and early part of the century, is making buckets of cash, with a very lucrative pay-per-view package among other endeavours.

NEGATIVE CBA IMPACT: Defencemen Brent Sopel and Marek Malik were let go to get the Canucks under the cap. The need for a No. 1 goaltender can't be easily addressed being so close to the ceiling.

THE FUTURE?: With Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi, Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Mattias Ohlund and Ed Jovanovski, the Canucks have the key ingredients for good teams for years to come. There are doubts Dan Cloutier can be a No. 1 goalie, and whether Alex Auld can be the replacement, and depth will be an issue with so many strong players earning big bucks. There are big expectations regarding the Canucks but if they aren't realized soon, there may be major moves.

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EDMONTON OILERS

WHERE THEY WERE: 2003-04 record at this time: 15-18-8, struggling badly since holding the Heritage Classic.

WHERE THEY'RE AT NOW: 23-15-4. With seven wins in 11 outings after losing to Toronto yesterday, the Oilers are within striking distance of first in the Northwest.

MAJOR CHANGES: It's easy to argue no team has benefited as much as the Oilers, both in the dressing room and on the ice.

2003-04 PAYROLL: $33.4 million US

POSITIVE CBA IMPACT: There's no way Chris Pronger, acquired from St. Louis via trade and signed to a long-term deal, would have been an Oiler before the lockout. The same thing goes for Michael Peca from the New York Islanders.

NEGATIVE CBA IMPACT: None have been found yet.

THE FUTURE?: A young, skilled and fast team is thriving with the more wide-open game. Not only has Shawn Horcoff blossomed with linemates Ryan Smyth and Ales Hemsky but Jarret Stoll and Raffi Torres make a dynamic second-line duo. Goaltending continues to be a question mark, with neither Jussi Markkanen or Ty Conklin proving to be ready for the No.-1 tag.

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CALGARY FLAMES

WHERE THEY WERE: 2003-04 record at this time: 22-13-6 and well on-pace for their first playoff date in eight years, which extended to the Stanley Cup final.

WHERE THEY'RE AT NOW: 25-12-4, having won six of seven before meeting the Canucks last night. They're in first place in the Northwest Division.

MAJOR CHANGES: For the first time in a generation, the Saddledome is sold out every game in a city where it's finally cool again to be a Flames fan.

2003-04 PAYROLL: $36.4 million US

POSITIVE CBA IMPACT: When Tony Amonte (Philadelphia) and Darren McCarty (Detroit) were bought out by their old clubs, they both quickly signed deals with Calgary, believing it meant a shot at winning a Stanley Cup.

NEGATIVE CBA IMPACT: Like the Oilers, none can be found yet. Both the Alberta squads long lived within a budget and are thrilled all the other teams can't spend twice as much.

THE FUTURE?: Jarome Iginla, Robyn Regehr, Miikka Kiprusoff and Daymond Langkow all have two more years on their contracts after this season before becoming unrestricted free agents. Most of the depth players are in the midst of long-term deals, meaning the Flames should be a contender for a few years to come.

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TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS

WHERE THEY WERE: 2003-04 record at this time: 22-11-8 but they won only two of six after that.

WHERE THEY'RE AT NOW: Their six-game winning streak was snapped Friday night in Calgary but the Leafs were 24-15-3 after beating Edmonton yesterday.

MAJOR CHANGES: The $39-million salary cap meant plenty of gutting for a Leafs team filled with high-priced players. Credit GM John Ferguson Jr. for keeping the Leafs competitive and making them a better team than most expected.

2003-04 PAYROLL: $62.5 million US

POSITIVE CBA IMPACT: Being forced to integrate more youngsters such as Alex Steen and Kyle Wellwood will make Toronto a better team down the road. The provision that allows oft-injured players to sign incentive-laden deals has paid off with Jason Allison's addition.

NEGATIVE CBA IMPACT: A veteran team had to begrudgingly say good-bye to character players like Joe Nieuewendyk and Gary Roberts.

THE FUTURE?: Toronto will remain competitive with players like Mats Sundin, Allison, Eric Lindros, Bryan McCabe, Darcy Tucker and Tomas Kaberle. However, goalie Ed Belfour turns 40 this spring and doesn't have many more seasons left in him.

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OTTAWA SENATORS

WHERE THEY WERE: 2003-04 record at this time: 22-14-5 thanks to a six-game winning streak that had them headed for the playoffs and another series loss to Toronto.

WHERE THEY'RE AT NOW: 28-9-3 and sitting in top spot in the Northeast Division, although struggling somewhat.

MAJOR CHANGES: Just like the previous few NHL seasons, the Senators are looking forward to a playoff run they believe can mean a Cup victory. They are a tougher team than past seasons and have goalie Dominik Hasek, the two big knocks on past teams.

2003-04 PAYROLL: $39.6 million US

POSITIVE CBA IMPACT: With the salary cap squeezing mid-level players, holding together a very good squad may be possible in the nation's capital, which wasn't the case for Calgary and Edmonton more than a decade ago.

NEGATIVE CAP IMPACT:

Greg de Vries essentially had to be dealt away in the Dany Heatley-Marian Hossa deal. Depending on how high the cap goes, it may be impossible to keep all of the big three defencemen: Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara and Chris Phillips.

THE FUTURE?: Daniel Alfredsson, Dany Heatley, Jason Spezza, Martin Havlat are the keys to an incredible array of talent. Plus, the group also includes their aforementioned defencemen and the underrated Mike Fisher. The Sens will need to find a goalie when Hasek retires for good but have the makings of a strong team for plenty of years.

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MONTREAL CANADIENS

WHERE THEY WERE: 2003-04 record at this time: 19-15-7 and ready to lose only two of eight.

WHERE THEY'RE AT NOW: 19-15-6 having beat Ottawa yesterday but in a fight to hold that eighth spot in the East.

MAJOR CHANGES: The Canadiens are a younger team, having replaced vets such as Patrice Brisebois, Yanic Perrault, Donald Audette and Joe Juneau with the likes of Alexander Perezhogin, Chris Higgins and Tomas Plekanec.

2003-04 PAYROLL: $38.9 million US

POSITIVE CBA IMPACT: Not as small of a market as Edmonton and Calgary prior to the lockout, the Canadiens were at a great disadvantage before the new CBA, surrounded by many big spenders.

NEGATIVE CBA IMPACT: Sitting close to the cap, the Habs will have a tough time keeping all their crop of young, up-and-coming players together.

THE FUTURE?: Although they're not in a full-blown rebuilding phase, the Habs are retooling, with players such as Michael Ryder, Mike Ribeiro, Andrei Markov and the crew of rookies poised to become the next cornerstones on a team that will continue to have Kovalev, Saku Koivu and Jose Theodore as the lynchpins.

Now if only they could reduce the stifling tax bill they receive year after year.


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