First, a disclaimer.
I don't care how popular the NHL is. My affection for hockey is not determined by the number of people who call the sport a friend.
I have listened to the CD "Keep It Together" by Guster 48 out of the last 51 days. I wonder how many copies the album has sold -- 25,000, 50,000, 100,000 records? The fact that an extremely small number of people enjoy Guster doesn't matter to me. The sound lifts me. Just like a certain sport.
The NHL is clearly a better game than the NFL, which is slow and plodding, with very little action. It is a once-a-week culture based on large consumptions of food, alcohol and gambling. Add the fact that it televises well, that it's comprised of players who are mostly American, and that people are inclined to gravitate toward what is popular, and you have a prosperous industry.
The only benefit to having your sport in the mainstream is it becomes an accidental companion to the media. Talk radio, sports pages, SportsCenter and the Internet keep the rhythm of a season constant. A connection is felt with others. And while we can find happiness in isolation, a connection is always more meaningful -- it's better to be a hockey fan in Canada and it's better to be a football fan in the United States.
So while I don't need the NHL to be popular to validate my interest, I do understand that growth will only make the game more vibrant and alive.
So what should the NHL do?
It is my belief that sports need to be marketed from the inside out. If fans see something is fun or more important, if they see people having fun, they will want to be a part of it. You don't win fans by dumbing down your product with mascots and on-ice freak shows. You cultivate and fertilize your core.
The NHL needs to advocate rules that will help players have fun and also appeal to the core audience: the season-ticket holder. Hard hits are fun. Long passes are fun. Slap-shot goals are fun. Shootouts are fun.
The NHL and its owners have to step up and increase the league's advertising budget. Every year, I write here that the NHL should create a 30-second commercial to run during the Super Bowl, showcasing the ideals of the game and how it compares to the NFL in terms of hitting and, gulp, scoring! An NHL network, or even better, a hockey network is a must in the U.S. to further educate U.S. hockey fans. Not enough hard-core NHL fans know Phil Kessel (he will be a freshman at Minnesota and will likely be the No. 1 overall pick in next June's NHL draft).
What would help? A hockey network, showing Minnesota high school hockey, the Beanpot in Boston and a nightly Hockey Tonight show that serves as a television companion for the hockey fan. A campaign, from a network to Super Bowl commercials to newspaper advertisements to billboards to local rink/grassroots efforts. Supply USA Hockey with ample funds to continue its phenomenal job of training and marketing the game in the U.S.
The lockout was positive from the standpoint that it brought humility and a much-needed customer-service refresher course to individual franchises. Hopefully, another positive will be the understanding that a long-term, lucrative, league-wide marketing budget is a smart investment.
Plant the tree now.
Oh, I remember I owe you some Western Conference grades
Detroit Red Wings: The Wings are good. They have three very good defensemen in Nicklas Lidstrom, Mathieu Schneider and Jiri Fischer. Pavel Datsyuk and Robert Lang are a good 1-2 center pair. They'll find a grind line mate for beautiful skater Kris Draper and the relentless Kirk Maltby. Henrik Zetterberg will score 30 this year, but after that, you wonder how dynamic the Wings' attack will be. What made the Wings special was pumping in 250 goals a year. I don't see them doing that this year. But they are good enough up front to make it pretty easy to play goal. They will battle the Predators for the division title.
St. Louis Blues: My goodness, how fast this team has fallen. They have some nice young pieces on the blue line, but the Blues are down to a 70-80 point team because they are neither offensively nor defensively stellar. The Blues will not make the playoffs for the first time since 1979.
Nashville Predators: The Predators are the second-best team in the Central, and they could win it if the Wings are hit with injuries. Paul Kariya will initially raise the self-esteem of every player and employee in Nashville. That could quickly change if Kariya can't produce, but I think he will. There is no reason why someone as committed and talented as Kariya should not be a star in the NHL. At worst, he should be back to his point-a-game status or close to it.
Chicago Blackhawks: One-third of their team salary pays for Nikolai Khabibulin, Adrian Aucoin and Martin Lapointe. That doesn't scream playoffs. Or season-ticket sales. The wild card for the Blackhawks is which young players will improve and how big that improvement will be. Mark Bell, Kyle Calder, Tuomo Ruutu and Tyler Arnason have shown flashes of being top-four forwards. If the kids flop, this could be another disaster. At this point, I don't think the Hawks will be good enough defensively to make the playoffs.
Columbus Blue Jackets: The Blue Jackets are still not a playoff team. Rostislav Klesla has to develop into a top-three defenseman if Columbus wants to even think playoffs. The Blue Jackets overpaid for Adam Foote. Still, they have been such a pathetic road team, Doug MacLean had to get a guy with courage and presence to try to give the Blue Jackets a chance on the road. Bryan Berard is a good upgrade on defense. He is a special athlete. I think it will take 90 points to make the playoffs in the West, and I see Columbus' max at about 79-83.
Vancouver Canucks: Markus Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi, Ed Jovanovski and Dan Cloutier are a good start for a team. Cloutier's save percentage has gotten better each year for the Canucks. He is entering the prime of his career. This is a good team, and it will be another fun winter in Vancouver.
Colorado Avalanche: This team will have a very good power play, but I would be concerned 5-on-5. The defense is a major concern and it's not the greatest skating team in the world. They are very well-coached, and they will have to be. For the first time in 10 years, Avalanche and Stanley Cup will not be used in the same sentence when forecasting an NHL season.
Edmonton Oilers: This is a dynamic team with a Rage Against The Machine blue line duo of Chris Pronger and Jason Smith. They have lots of heart, skating ability and enough to be a low 90-plus-point playoff team. The Calgary Flames' success two springs ago obviously made GM Kevin Lowe sick, and he responded with two bold moves. But will the Oilers have enough goaltending?
Calgary Flames: My goodness, the ferocity of Calgary-Edmonton games will be a beautiful thing to watch. The Flames have the NHL's most powerful leader, bar none. Jarome Iginla has an old-school will that inspires everyone. He can go medieval in a matter of seconds. I still don't see a lot of goals being scored in Calgary, so the Flames will have to be very good defensively, get good goaltending and give maximum effort all the time. This will not be a fun team to play against.
Minnesota Wild: The Wild missed the playoffs last year because they just couldn't generate any offense. They will need Marian Gaborik to be their star, and they will need goals from Brian Rolston. This team makes huge money and had plenty to spend to upgrade the team, but they chose to stay with their no-one-is-bigger-than-the-team philosophy, and as a result, others have passed them by. They will still be fun to watch, but the playoffs are a long shot.
San Jose Sharks: The Sharks had 104 points two years ago and won the Pacific. They are trying to mold a core of young players into leaders. It makes sense to me not to do too much via free agency. The only thing I would have done was to go for a home run like Scott Niedermayer, and reportedly they tried. But to play with the chemistry of the team by signing a powerful personality would have been risky. I like this team's makeup and direction. But it looks like they are one really good player away.
Dallas Stars: The Stars had 97 points last season. Matching that will be difficult, and as a result Dallas will probably be fighting for a playoff spot. But I like a lot of the players on this team and expect them to be in the postseason.
Mighty Ducks of Anaheim: Anaheim scored only 184 goals last season. That will change now that GM Brian Burke is in town. The Ducks need an MVP year out of Sergei Fedorov, and I think that's possible. Petr Sykora needs to score 35. I'm sure Burke has called teams about trading Fedorov since Anaheim is all capped out. They will have to stay healthy and will need young players to really step up to make the playoffs.
Los Angeles Kings: I love the Kings. They will be entertaining. A must-watch, late-night NHL Center Ice team. They have one of the best television-production teams and one of the most entertaining players to boot (Jeremy Roenick). But do they have goaltending? Mathieu Garon has never played more than 19 games. Jason Labarbera has good size and was very good for the Hartford Wolf Pack. Is it too late to get Curtis Joseph signed here?
Phoenix Coyotes: Shane Doan has a lot of Iginla qualities. Both were drafted in 1995 -- Doan seventh overall and Iginla 11th. Obviously, Iginla has played at a level higher thus far. For the Coyotes to make a move, they need Doan to keep making his move up the NHL ladder. They need him in that 35-goal range. It's hard to get a good feel on how good the Dogs can be. Stay tuned.
I usually love reading your stuff; however, your recap of the Islanders ("At this point, I find them small, soft and generally uninteresting") is not only irresponsible but also abhorrent to Islander fans everywhere. You have lost a loyal reader.
One down, three to go.
Just read your article where you call my Islanders "small, soft and generally uninteresting."
I couldn't agree with you more.
Fresh Meadows, N.Y.
Your brief assessment of the Isles spoke volumes, and although most Isles fans are psyched about [GM Mike] Milbury's pact with Satan [i.e., Miroslav Satan] and some of the other new faces, we still feel we need two additions: some toughness and defense up front and a physical top-four D-man. Any recommendations?
Ninety-nine percent of NHL players are tough, but they are not all fearless and/or nasty. The Islanders do not have enough nastiness in front of Rick DiPietro. He will see second and third shots. Fortunately, for the Islanders, Rick has the quickness and talent to stop two or three shots in a row. I would buy a season ticket just to watch him play net. He will have some of the best-looking shutouts in the NHL this year. Satan is a soft floater who is basically a power-play performer. Here are Alexei Yashin's point totals the last five seasons: 94-88-75-65-34. There are two reasons for his downfall: 1) He is not a good skater and fails to create time and space to use his powerful shot. Almost everyone skates well in the NHL these days; 2) I just don't think he loves hockey anymore. Money, models and $1,200 winter jackets all interest him more. The defensive plan against Yashin is simple. Punch him in the face and he will run and hide. When your highest-paid player ($7.6 million!) is that kind of player, it's a monstrous hurdle to climb. This team will go as far as DiPietro will take them. He'll be 24 when the season starts and in the early stages of becoming a big star. If the Islanders make the playoffs, it will be on the back of DiPietro.
If you drop the bigger net campaign, I will run to Costco and buy you a gross of Starburst Fruit Chews. And Ken can have all the beer and doughnuts he can eat in one sitting.
MAKE 'EM SMALLER!!! MMMMMM. Beer.
When you look at it, not much has changed since the halcyon days of the '80s. It's still hockey -- we don't need to reinvent it. Sure, goalies are better now than they were, but so are the skaters. Making the nets bigger might result in more goals, but it won't make for better hockey.
With that in mind, I offer the final word on rule changes: WE DON'T NEED ANY!
Better hockey is attacking hockey. The reason for bigger nets is, yes, to get more goals. But, the bigger reason is get more "attack" in the game. A two-goal lead should be easily erased. Less obstruction, a faster game and more goals equal more fun and more hope.
Lou Lamoriello has proven to be one of the best ever at recognizing talent and has shown that he can replace just about anybody. On defense, Jersey will send out Brian Rafalski, Paul Martin, Richard Matvichuk, Vladimir Malakhov, Colin White and Dan McGillis. I think that is a darn good top six (without even mentioning a possible Scott Stevens return). The offense will feature Patrik Elias, one of the league's most talented forwards, along with guys like Scott Gomez, Jeff Friesen, Brian Gionta, Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Brylin. Martin Brodeur is the best goalie in the league and has shown absolutely no signs of slowing down. Lamoriello and Dave Conte have drafted well over the last few years, with guys like Zach Parise, Alexander Suglobov, David Hale and Ari Ahonen in the system. Niedermayer's departure hurts, but this team will survive. Lou and the team will not let the Flyers win the division by 25 points, and who cares if they do win it, when they'll choke in the playoffs anyway?
Losing Scott Niedermayer is mammoth; I don't think even Devils fans realize it. He affects EVERYTHING on the ice. The power play, the penalty kill, the breakout, the transition game and the pace. It will be a whole new ball game. I LOVE Marty Brodeur, but he's always had Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, two Hall of Famers, in front of him. That's a fuzzy, warm blanket that is now gone. Who led the Devils in power-play points? Niedermayer. Who led them in ice time? Niedermayer. The Devils are still good, but they are not a 100-point team anymore. They should still make the playoffs, but their margin for error is smaller and can't afford injury or sub-par efforts from Elias, Gomez or Madden.
My wife is due on Oct. 25, and we're having trouble coming up with a name. She knows the baby's sex, but I want it to be a surprise, so I haven't found out yet. Hence, we need suggestions for a boy's and girl's name. Extra bonus points for you if you can make the initials come out to be AVS.
Anthony Vincent Singleton. Don't call him Tony. Three-syllable first names with a three-syllable last name are cool. Abigail Valencia Singleton.
As a fellow South Windsor native, I was wondering what you thought about Chris Clark's move to the Caps? Considering how crowded things were getting on the wings in Calgary, it should be good for his playing time, but as you said in your column, Washington is the worst team in the NHL. Just thought I would try to keep up with the only NHL player from my hometown.
Chestnut Hill, Mass.
Chris is going from Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals to the worst team in the NHL. But it is good for his career. Chris is a great skater and an all-out player on every shift. He should be able to latch on to the Capitals and grow with them as they grow. He'll reach a career high in goals this year and he's closer to home. It's a good situation for Chris.
When are you media guys gonna stop questioning the Flyers' goaltending? Do you not recall Robert Esche playing great in the playoffs? Plus, we have a great young prospect in Antero Niittymaki. No other team gets the goaltending scrutiny we get. It's ridiculous.
Larry, the goaltending scrutiny is not ridiculous. It's warranted. The Flyers have done a wonderful job drafting and signing free agents in forming excellent teams. But the one glaring weakness has been managing the goaltending position. It's why the Flyers haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1975. Do the Flyers have the goaltending to win a Stanley Cup? Maybe. Is it wrong to question it? Hardly.
Don't like Radek Bonk? Not Gloria Estefan either? Maybe it's the Miami Sound Machine you have issues with. Can you tell me a group with machine in the name or named after a machine that you like?
1. Rage Against the Machine.
4. The Cars
It was shaping up to be a great season and then this -- the NHL decides to let Todd Bertuzzi back in. Sorry, that's it for me -- I just can't support a league that allows "players" to act like that and get away almost unpunished. Bertuzzi missed a couple of months, and with the money he was making at the time of his suspension, his bank account can hardly have noticed the difference. For my sports fix I'll follow the NL Nats and cheer on Kimi Raikkonen for the F1 Driver's Championship.
I though he should have received 20 more games.
Big Pens fan here, and I'm looking for a new Pens jersey as a celebration of hockey's return. I'm thinking of going somewhat old school by getting a No. 35 Barrasso jersey. I love goaltending and he was, in my humble opinion, only behind Patrick Roy as a goaltender in the 1990s. Yea or nay?
The goaltender of the 1990s was Dominik Hasek. Five Vezina Trophies. Two MVPs.
With the signing of Ziggy Palffy, do the Pens have the manpower to win the Cup this season?
Jason C. Lyskava
No. Great power play, and they will score goals, but this is not a great defensive team and depth is questionable. There will be a lot of 5-4 games in Pittsburgh this year.
John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is firstname.lastname@example.org.