SUN Hockey Pool

What to look for in '06-07

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:55 AM ET

Unless you're a Carolina Hurricane nursing a massive Stanley Cup hangover, summer couldn't end fast enough.

National Hockey League teams head back to work this week (the Maple Leafs convene Thursday), with exhibition games beginning Sept. 17 and the regular season on Oct. 4.

The big story last year was the rebirth of the NHL and in Year 2 of the rebirth, it's on to proper parenting techniques. Here are some major questions heading into the 2006-07 season:

1. HOW HAS THE SALARY CAP CHANGED THE WAY TEAMS OPERATE?

- The goal of letting small-market and frugal spenders compete on a level field was achieved to a degree when the final four included Carolina, the Buffalo Sabres, Edmonton Oilers and Anaheim Ducks.

But this year will be more challenging with the cap rising to $44 million US, tricky salary arbitration and a lower bar for unrestricted free agency that will impact a team's highest-paid player down to its first-round draft pick.

"A lot of teams are still learning the document," said Craig Button, a former general manager, TV analyst and now a pro scout with the Leafs. "With better players available, the fans want the top guys on their team, but in a cap world, it's finite. It's how you work within the parameters. You balance what the team needs against fan expectations."

Unlike the 1995 collective bargaining agreement, which ended up favouring the players, this CBA has thus far been hard to manipulate for either side.

"Not all interpretations of the CBA are black and white," Button said. "But I think (NHL commissioner) Gary Bettman did a good job. There isn't a loophole you can fly a 747 through."

Though many teams paid heavily in arbitration decisions this summer, a couple of clubs exercised their walkaway rights. And lowered free agency should turn teams into more responsible drafters, better able to see the big picture.

"Unless your name is Sidney Crosby, teams are taking a long-term approach with their first-round picks," Button said. "It's seven years to free agency and the clock is running right away. So I don't think you'll see as many wet-behind-the-ears players move up too soon."

2. WHICH TEAM WILL BE THE MOST IMPROVED?

- Recent history would favour the Atlanta Thrashers, now the only Southeast Division team not to have either won the Cup or made the final in the past 10 years. They were on the cusp last year even without healthy goaltending, and only two other Eastern Conference teams had more goals.

Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk are in a race to make their first playoff appearance, but their teams --the Penguins, Capitals and Thrashers respectively --lack defence and goaltending. Boston will be slightly improved, while things are simply too bizarre in the boardrooms in Florida and Long Island to expect improvement.

In the West, Roberto Luongo will get the Canucks back in the playoffs, with the Los Angeles Kings not far behind. St. Louis and Chicago are in long-term rebuilding mode, while Columbus can take the next step pending Nikolai Zherdev's contract.

3. HAVE THE OTTAWA SENATORS BLOWN THEIR BEST CHANCE TO WIN THE CUP?

- Yes, for three main reasons. Last year's popular pick has lost its one-man, 30-minute blue-line battalion in Zdeno Chara, the team is weak on the left side and, newsflash, there are questions in goal. Martin Gerber watched Cam Ward win the Cup from the Canes' bench.

4. WHO ARE THE ROOKIES TO WATCH IN CAMP IN 2006-07?

- Russia's enigmatic Evgeni Malkin will get the most attention now that he's out of hiding in Mario Lemieux's broom closet. But Gilbert Brule of Columbus leads a group that's been under the Malkin radar.

Wojtek Wolski of Brampton was third in OHL scoring and had six points in nine regular-season games for the Colorado Avalanche. Late-bloomer Anthony Stewart made a good impression in 10 games with Florida.

Centre Phil Kessel, out of the University of Minnesota, has fans drooling in Boston, while defenceman Jack Johnson will shine in either Carolina or Pittsburgh, where it's rumoured he'll be traded to reunite Eric and Jordan Staal with the Canes.

5. WHICH NEW COACH WILL MAKE THE BIGGEST IMPACT?

- There are eight new men behind the bench, four of those with Canadian teams, including Paul Maurice in Toronto.

The biggest spotlight is on two former Jack Adams winners. Marc Crawford is in L.A. having grown stale in Vancouver, but ready to fire up the rivalry with old boss Brian Burke in Anaheim. Ted Nolan is on Long Island, a long nine-year wait for work since a falling-out in Buffalo buried him in obscurity.

Guy Carbonneau, one of seven Quebec-born head coaches in the league, will continue down the path Bob Gainey trod. Two ex-Montreal coaches return, Alain Vigneault in Vancouver and Claude Julien in New Jersey.

In Calgary, GM Darryl Sutter kicked himself upstairs and handed the reins to rookie Jim Playfair, while Dave Lewis will find it much easier to follow Mike Sullivan as Boston coach than the legendary Scotty Bowman in Detroit.

6. WILL THERE BE CHANGES IN THE WAY GAMES ARE OFFICIATED THIS YEAR?

- Director of officiating Stephen Walkom didn't hurt a back muscle trying to pat himself after so many positive reviews for free-flow hockey last year. But 70 referees and linesmen went to training camp in Fort Erie last week with a tough act to follow.

"We have to remember how hard we worked last year, focusing on a standard and sticking to it until it became habitual," Walkom said of the obstruction crackdown. "By the end of last year, we'd found our comfort zone. Our guys were getting better at spotting things and reacting to them where historically, we'd been picking and choosing. Now, there will be more work on optimum performance as a four-man team.

HEIGHTENED AWARENESS

"I think you'll see a heightened awareness this year on embellishment (diving). If all participants in the game work on it, then it won't be a problem."

Two new refs will be introduced this year -- Justin St. Pierre and Gord Dwyer. But Walkom says the goal remains for fans to leave the building raving about a big save or a playmaking highlight, not even noticing who wore the striped shirts.

7. HAVE THE NHL AND THE PA RESOLVED THEIR MAJOR DIFFERENCES?

- As the Sun's Al Strachan pointed out last week, the players could lose big-time cash if league revenues do not keep pace with increased spending, leading to escrow payments being deducted from player salaries. Last year, the league met its target and the 12% escrow was refunded to players.

Despite a rash of serious eye injuries, there is still reluctance by a majority of players to legislate visors. The players also continue to push for an end to the instigator rule, which they see as a hindrance to internal policing of games. The league views the rule as a vital component to cleaning up its image for new fans.

8. WITH TURNOVER CAUSED BY THE CAP, WILL THERE EVER BE A REPEAT CHAMPION?

- Seven seasons have now elapsed since the Red Wings won back-to-back Cups, the longest string of one-hit wonders in league history.

"I'm sure we'll see a repeat winner," Button predicted. "If you look back from six-team expansion and discount the 1995 lockout year, no team that finished below seventh in regular season ever won a Cup. That increases the chances of a team in that top group coming back.

"There will always be playoff upsets, but you see frequent repeat champions in football. It's a definite possibility in our game."

9. DOES EXHIBITION GAME SUCCESS TRANSLATE TO CUP SUCCESS?

- The past five Cup winners all had .500 or better records in exhibition:

YEAR CUP CHAMP EX. W-L-T

'05-06 Carolina 5-2-1

'03-04 Tampa Bay 4-3-1-0

'02-03 New Jersey 3-3-2-0

'01-02 Detroit 4-3-1-1

'00-01 Colorado 5-2-1-0

10. WHAT PLAYERS HAVE THE MOST TO PROVE?

- Aside from Alexei Yashin, who can never live up to his $90-million contract, start here with Bryan McCabe. The defenceman will have to justify his new $28.75 million deal after a flat second half last year.

Todd Bertuzzi has traded the West Coast for the Sunshine State, but can he escape his Vancouver past? Can Dominik Hasek groin and bear it? Then there are all the ex-Leafs lining up to rub it in John Ferguson's face, from Ed Belfour (Florida) to Eric Lindros (Dallas) to Owen Nolan (Phoenix).

11. WILL THE MAPLE LEAFS WIN THE STANLEY CUP?

- Laugh if you will, says Maurice, but he points out that few would ever have punched in a Carolina-Edmonton Cup final at the start of last year. Maurice has at least coached in a final in this century and two of the past three full-time Leafs coaches took the team to the conference final their first year.

But if you're on Bay Street next June you are still more likely to get hit by a bridal bouquet or a bike messenger than be run over in a Cup parade.


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