New NHL landscape uncertain

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:55 AM ET

Four goaltenders in old-style equipment cavorted on the sidewalk outside Joe Louis Arena last night signalling either the repressed nuttiness of hockey fans long bereft of their fix or an omen that more than one goaltender per net will be needed to stem an onslaught of scoring in the new National Hockey League.

The game resumed 521 days after the Detroit Red WIngs' last meaningful game was played here and, like every other front in the full-tilt NHL opening night, the jury remains out after the Red Wings' 5-1 domination of the St. Louis Blues.

When everyone's stick was thrown in a heap, so to speak, and the league's general managers picked the players they felt would help them prosper under sweeping rules changes, it became a new game for sure. Especially for the goaltenders.

"It took a while to get used to the narrower pads," Detroit goalie Manny Legace said afterward. "One inch (per pad) is a big difference."

The changed landscape was obvious when Legace skated out for his first home opener. Like St. Louis Blues goalie Patrick Lalime at the other end, he resembled a grizzly coming out of hibernation in the skinnier pads and scaled-down equipment.

This is the same Legace who was backup the past five years to Chris Osgood then Dominik Hasek, then Curtis Joseph.

But here he was, with injured Osgood (groin) on the sidelines.

That they are the Wings goaltenders says as much about the economics of the game as the players.

Lalime was pulled after conceding four goals on 24 shots halfway through the game. He probably will blame three of them on the Skinny Police, who took two inches off the goalie pads and 11 per cent off the bulk of the rest of their equipment.

The goal that brought the hook out was a rather innocuous shot by the Wings' Brett Lebda (who?). Lalime, who came from Ottawa hoping to reignite his career, tried to trap the puck in his right arm but looked like a bagpiper squeezing too late. In came Reinhard Divis (who?), an eighth-round pick (2000) with a 10-10-4 record last season with EC Villacher of the Austrian league.

Austerity has definitely hit the NHL.

It is anyone's guess what Wings fans will be getting from a lineup that is $30 million cheaper and a few name players lighter than when they last played. What was obvious in the season-opener is that the stock of guys such as London's Jason Williams and veteran speedster Kris Draper has risen along with that of most other players with good wheels around the league.

"Speed and skill has taken over the NHL," Wings forward Brendan Shanahan said, "but the physical game is still there -- my face indicates that," he said, touching a cut he took during a fight with Jamal Mayer. "The closest I've come to a confrontation in a long time was sending my son to bed."

New Wings coach Mike Babcock "used a lot of guys in a lot of situations" and felt puck control has never been more important.

"When we managed the puck, they were in trouble," he said. "Things were just zooming out there."

If you can't skate in the readjusted NHL game, you'd better have a terrific package of other skills. That's both at forward and defence.

Defenders, who can no longer impede a quick guy with stick or grab, must have range, not only for the fast guys but for the big ones, too.

"You don't get hooked and held when you're sneaking in as a defenceman," the Wings' Mathieu Schneider said. "I like the neutral zone being more wide open."

The players will adapt to the changes, of course. Better sooner than later for the goalies.


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