All things being equal ...

TERRY JONES -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 5:54 AM ET

One of the best things about the 'New NHL' is that the term 'small market' has been eliminated from the language.

Places such as Edmonton will lose that label and return to seeing themselves as big-league cities like they were from 1979 to 1990.

Chequebooks can no longer cover up incompetence and make a dummy look like a genius. General managers and coaches of the former franchises with big budgets will all of a sudden have to do it without bucks.

There's no lack of interesting angles as the NHL comes back with a new collective bargaining agreement, a new level playing surface and new rules. But one of the most fascinating things is that we now find out about the pretenders. Now the good coaches, general managers and organizations rise to the top. To me, that's a lot more interesting than the new rules.

Nervous?

This year the NHL is no place for a nervous person. How smart is John Ferguson Jr. in Toronto? Can Pierre Lacroix, here with his Avalanche for the opener tonight, keep his team competitive under $39 million US?

On the other end, who are the good general managers and coaches who have yet to surround themselves in any glory, who have been held back by budget, who will suddenly turn into success stories? Will Kevin Lowe be one of them? Craig MacTavish?

Lowe and MacTavish are saying, 'Bring it on.' They can't wait for it to begin tonight.

"I haven't looked forward to a season like this for a long time,'' said Lowe.

Lowe says that for starters, he's looking forward to the 'New NHL' - not so much so he can prove he's a good general manager - but just to be able to be a general manager.

"You're going to be able to make a deal,'' he said.

"You're going to be able to trade a $3-million player for a $3-million player or a $2-million player for a $2-million player. You're going to be able to find players from other teams who can help you in ballpark price ranges.

"I'm anxious to see it all unfold. I don't think everything is going to be obvious overnight. But it is sure going to unfold in the next couple of years.

"It's not just the general managers, it's the organizations. It should really show a lot of things that maybe weren't so visible before. One thing, you shouldn't have to have a five-year plan anywhere. You should be able to re-boot quickly.''

Lowe says the standings are probably going to change dramatically this year.

And the lineups, too. Not just from the 2003-04 season to now, but from now through to the start of next season.

"To me this looks a lot like 1979, the first year of the NHL after the WHA merger. There were a lot of 40-year-olds in the league then and a lot of talented players coming in. I think the average NHL experience went from nine years to five years over that span.''

Until now, a small-market general manager and coach worked with a forgiveness level that isn't going to exist anymore.

Miss the playoffs and your job is immediately on the line.

"That's OK,'' said Lowe. "You gotta have success. I'm sure a lot of people around the league are a little apprehensive about that. But others are looking forward to it.

He can't wait

"I can't wait to watch MacT coach when he doesn't have one hand tied behind his back.''

MacTavish says he and his boss are unlike maybe a few other people in the game going into the lid-lifters tonight.

"For us, it's just welcoming the expectations,'' he says.

"You learn very early in this game that there are certain pressures that go with expectations. But you also learn that without expectations, there's not a whole lot of likelihood that you're going to have any success.''

MacTavish says to remember one thing here. This isn't all something that happened in July when Gary Bettman announced the new collective bargaining agreement.

"Kevin and I have spent a long time here trying to put ourselves in a favourable position when the labour situation was settled. As an entire organization, I think we've done that. Now it's time to deliver. And we're excited about that.

"We've added a league MVP and a couple of Selke Trophies, for sure. But just a big part of it is what we think we've done as an organization developing our players.

Be realistic

"As a coach you have to be realistic in terms of what your expectations and capabilities happen to be. In the past few seasons we've felt capable of winning any game - but in a lot of those games, we knew a number of things had to be right.

"Now we think we're going to be capable of overcoming some things that go against us, and still win. Good teams overcome goaltending either end of the rink, a bad goal on your team or a high-level performance at the other end.''

MacTavish says he, for one - and he expects it to be true for his players as well - is looking forward to the game being more fun than it has been for a long time around here.

"I'm planning on it being more fun. It hasn't been a lot of fun the last few years. It's been live or die with the same result. I'm planning on more fun and more success.''

Kevin Lowe and Craig MacTavish had a lot of fun as players. They were winners. When you win, going to the rink every day is a ton of fun.

Now they're ready to experience it as a general manager and coach.


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