SUN Hockey Pool

Big is back!

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 11:13 AM ET

When a new collective bargaining agreement forced free-spending big markets to gut their payrolls by as much as $30 million, poor cousins across the NHL could barely contain their glee.

A salary cap! Ya! In your face, Red Wings! Your chequebook can't save you now, Pizza Man.

Hey, Dallas, does Big D stand for Dismantle? Ha Ha Ha! By the time you're done chopping, all you'll have left is Modano, Guerin, two ushers, the perverted guy from Slapshot and a cardboard cut-out of Marty Turco. Hey Slats, no more reaching into the Ranger vault and buying your way to a winning ... never mind.

After running roughshod for a decade, reducing the rest of the NHL to little more than sparring partners, the big market bullies were about to come tumbling down.

Well, don't look now, but Dallas and Detroit are 1-2 in the West, Philly and Colorado are as good as anyone and the Rangers are better than they've been in years. Aside from St. Louis, the former big spenders are doing just fine.

"One of the misconceptions out there was that the teams you mentioned were only good because of money,'' said Dallas general manager Doug Armstrong. "Maybe it was an excuse used by other people why they weren't winning. But we're not looking to use the CBA as an excuse moving forward. Our job as management is to win, whether it's pre- or post-'05.''

And they're doing it. Despite having to cut their budget in half, the Stars are 36-15-2, five wins away from equalling their total for all of last season.

"This process started three or four summers ago,'' said Armstrong. "There was a feeling that there was going to be a system correction and we had to limit what we had moving forward. We didn't re-sign Darryl Sydor or Richard Matvichuk and we had to make a really hard decision on our captain, Derian Hatcher.

"But we felt comfortable that we'd be able to adapt to the system. Our scouts have always done a very good job for us.''

The Red Wings have survived a $30-million purge quite nicely. Draft picks Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk have matured into leaders and most of the veterans they've kept are having big years. But it hasn't been easy.

"The hardest part of the whole thing was letting the people go,'' said Detroit GM Ken Holland.

"Darren McCarty had been here for a long time. He and the Grind Line were a big part of our success. Derian Hatcher was a guy we were banking on to be here for five years. You're letting guys go who were important parts of your team and trying to replace them with guys who are cheap.''

The big markets are OK now, because they already had their star players. What happens in a few years when age and free agency start eating away at their core? "It's going a bit like Junior hockey where you get that player turnover every three or four years,'' said Holland, who'll have 11 unrestricted free agents this summer. "You're going to have a run and then guys are going to leave to get more money elsewhere.''

Edmonton can only imagine what that must be like.

"Teams are going to build themselves around two or three players and you'll see a lot of movement with everyone else,'' adds Armstrong. "You commit to your core guys and pray for help.

"But it does look like it's had the effect the NHL wanted; the gap between the top and bottom is smaller. Teams that have been good for a number of years but were maybe a player or two away are acquiring those players. Edmonton is one of those teams. Kevin (Lowe) has them positioned as well as anyone in the West. The Oilers getting a player like Chris Pronger is a good indication that the system is going to work well for all 30 teams.''

So is it harder to be the GM in Detroit or Dallas now?

"There's no doubt we had a tremendous advantage under the old CBA,'' admits Holland. "But there were also tremendous expectations to win a Stanley Cup every year. Every situation you're in you've got challenges.

"Now is just a different challenge for us than it was before. We're all on a level playing field and we're all trying to figure out how to be the New England Patriots.''

Which system does Holland like better?

"I liked having the advantages.''

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THEY SAID IT

- "I think we have to look at the fact that you cannot call an illegal stick in a shootout. So a guy can basically come in with a bazooka and there's nothing you can do.''

- Atlanta coach Bob Hartley.

- "It could have been a lot worse. The guy in New York broke his neck; Nichol was on a stretcher. I was lucky in my unluckiness.''

- Marc Chouinard, after getting rammed headfirst into the boards by Henrik Zetterberg.

- "If Sean Avery wants to deal with our hockey club, we have more than few players who will be willing to deal with him."

- Ducks coach Randy Carlyle, after Sean Avery tussled with prized rookie Corey Perry.

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T'S TOP FIVE

TOP FIVE REASONS, OTHER THAN CAROLINA'S RECORD, WHY HOCKEY IS STARTING TO CATCH ON IN THE DEEP SOUTH.

5 - Watching the Zambonis drive around in circles gives them NASCAR flashbacks.

4 - With those big, empty parking lots on game day, they can pull their houses right up to the arena door.

3 - It doesn't matter if you're sitting with your cousin when the Smooch Cam comes on.

2 - All those toothless hockey-player grins make them feel right at home.

1 - Jay Bouwmeester's buzz cut reminds them of the kid from Deliverance.

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T'S TEAM OF THE WEEK

C - ANDY MCDONALD (MIGHTY DUCKS): Riding a six-game point-scoring streak that's netted him 11 points.

LW - KYLE CALDER (BLACKHAWKS): Three assists in St. Louis caps six-point week.

RW - BRAD BOYES (BRUINS): Eight points and a plus-five rating in five games for resurgent Bs.

LD - PHILIPPE BOUCHER (STARS): A minus player once in the last 14 games. Plus 16 in the other 13.

RD - SCOTT NIEDERMAYER (MIGHTY DUCKS): Stupid hot, with eight points from the blueline in his last three games.

G - TIM THOMAS (BRUINS): One goal against in his last two games. A .940 save percentage since Jan 10.

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T'S QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"When you take over a team with a losing tradition ... you have to shovel out the stable before you start showering the horses.''

-- Ducks GM Brian Burke


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