a·cu·men [ak-yuh-muhn] noun: keen insight; shrewdness

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Monday, 16 May 2011

05/16/11 23.0 Changing of the Guard

It's no revelation that the winds of change have been blowing in the NHL since the lockout. The salary cap has changed a great many things in this hockey world of ours. It's that much harder to build a dynasty team and to keep it together, and it's arguable whether there will ever be another team like the Oilers and Islanders of the seventies and eighties. Not that there won't be teams that dominate, but there may never be one that dominates so consistently for so long. But the salary cap has forced some other changes as well. One of the more prominent ones is the fact that the value of a draft pick is increased because young, cheap talent is so necessary to build a champion. The older, better teams are still always going to fade away to the young up-and-comers, but the cap has made the change more noticeable.

In the Western Conference, the Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche, and Calgary Flames are all either in decline or in the midst of massive overhauls in the case of Colorado. These are all teams that have - to a certain degree - become synonymous with winning in the West. Oiler fans remember all too well how good Colorado and Dallas were in the 90's and early 2000's. Detroit's resume still speaks for itself. Calgary never really reached the heights of those others, but they were a perennial second-tier contender for the better part of the last decade.*

The Dallas Stars were able to trade James Neal to Pittsburgh because they still boast some decent depth on the wings in Loui Eriksson, Brenden Morrow and Jamie Benn. But if Brad Richards leaves Dallas, it will make Mike Ribeiro their number one center without much behind him besides Steve Ott. Their defense is questionable (though Goligoski will help), and it's headlined by 34 year old Stephane Robidas. Robidas is solid, but time is beginning to catch up to him. All-in-all this is not the team that Oiler fans hated and feared in the 90's.

In Detroit: Holmstrom is 38, Lidstrom is 40, as is Mike Modano. Draper is 39, Bertuzzi is 36, Rafalski is 37, Salei is 36... Well, you get the idea. That's a list of the core of the Red Wings outside of Dastuk, Zetterberg and Franzen (no spring chickens either at 32, 30 and 31 respectively) and they are all old. It's only a matter of time before all the hockey Detroit plays takes its toll, and coupled with retirements it will mean a very different Red Wings team than we are used to. And let's face it: Detroit is not a particularly hospitable city. If that team was not as good as it is, it would be on par with Edmonton to potential free agents.

And what can you say about Calgary? They are a team that is already spending too much on an aging, average roster that hasn't been good enough to make the playoffs for the past two years. Worse, they are fraught with no-trade and no-move clauses which will limit management's ability to fix the problem. Worse still, GM Jay Feaster has shown no willingness to make the necessary steps to fix the problem. By signing Curtis Glencross and giving him a no-move clause, he's shown that he's willing and able to stick with a status-quo that is already failing. The fact that he's stated that he will not trade Jarome Iginla - which is the logical first step in a looming rebuild - means that the Flames will be spinning their wheels for years to come before falling down the inevitable black hole of suck.

In the Eastern Conference, New Jersey, Ottawa, and the Rangers are all beginning to show cracks. All of these teams still have good players on them, but there are plenty of good players that are wasted on bad teams.**

When Martin Brodeur retires, there will be no one in New Jersey to fill that void in goal - at least not to the extent of Brodeur. Patrik Elias is 35, Brian Rolston is 38, and Brodeur is 39. Two wingers - Parise and Kovalchuk - are the new centerpieces of that team, which is not unlike the do-nothing Atlanta Thrashers who boasted Hossa and Kovalchuk. Their number one center will likely be Travis Zajac, who is a good player but not a number one. Other than Anton Volchenkov, the defense is made up of guys whose names you probably don't recognize. The early part of the 2010-2011 season was no mirage. This is a team in decline.

Ottawa needs help at forward in a bad way. In particular, center is a weakness for them and they will certainly attempt to address that with the 6th overall pick this year. Continually selling off pieces of the Senators team that was so dominant has left them a shell of their former selves, and the age of Daniel Alfredsson and Sergei Gonchar won't help their plight. Those players are good enough to bounce back next year, but how much longer do they have? Most importantly, will the development of another young core (Karlsson, Butler, possibly Couturier) peak at a point when the aging veterans will still be difference-makers?

The problem with the Rangers is not so much age as it is money (although Prospal is 36, and Fedotenko is 32). There are things to like about the Rangers, like Gaborik and Lundqvist and Staal. Aside from them however, the team is good but not great, and some poor spending decisions have left the team with little to no cap space to improve. The Rangers will compete, but they will probably continue to be passed by better managed teams.

What this all means is that there's a changing of the guard in the NHL. The older teams are declining and the younger ones are improving. There are still only 16 playoff spots available, but the decline of some of the old stalwarts means that there are going to be some spots opening up. It takes a long look ahead to see what teams are likely to fall off, but it's not really that hard to predict.

Teams like St. Louis and Edmonton in the West are salivating over the prospect and so too are the Islanders, Panthers and Leafs in the East. With 30 teams scrambling for 16 seats, it will be the young ones with plenty of cap space that get them when the music stops.

It's great news for the Oilers and their fans. Not only have the Oilers begun to amass part of the new wave of NHL stars, but they have the benefit of watching some of the past failures of other teams who fought with the cap and lost. Chicago will serve as a lesson to any up-and-comers now, and the Oilers are central among them. Far from wandering into the great unknown, Steve Tambellini and the rest of his management team will have some ability to detect the landmines and pitfalls before they break the new Oilers apart.

Ironically, the NHL has come full circle. It's impossible to tell if there will ever be dynasty teams again like there were in the 80's, but the Oilers and Islanders can at least be counted among the candidates.

* - It's only because of Calgary's inevitable decline that I even admit that they were a contender... *manical laughter*

** - See: The Oilers 1993-94 season - present

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