Buccigross: Enthusiasm plus uncertainty in July

Updated: August 3, 2005, 9:08 AM ET
By John Buccigross | Special to ESPN.com

The hockey world is not used to this much activity in late July.

The season is a long one -- workouts start in August, training camps begin in September and the Cup is raised in mid-June. That leaves July as the only true month for relaxation. It's the time of year when overweight NHL players begin to shed pounds by switching from beer to vodka.

That all changed this summer with the most hectic July in NHL history. This means we are in for the loooongest year in NHL history. Hockey folks and fans who normally are recharging their batteries are at it full bore, energy that is coupled with so much uncertainty and newness.

Buccigross
It's been a long summer, and John just wants to see the Cup again.

Any first grader, high schooler or college freshman will tell you: New environments only exacerbate the mental strain and toll. Still, after a year off from the game, the childlike enthusiasm fans and media are displaying is understandable.

NHL teams are dealing with all of this uncertainty with hesitation. General managers are confused: Whom do I qualify? How much should one player make? How much should Tom Poti be paid in the "New" NHL? The GM who is aggressive and smart can build a Stanley Cup champion this year.

Understanding the current 600-plus-page NHL CBA "rule book" and the new on-ice rule changes makes for a confusing mind-set. This revolutionary time makes it difficult to gauge what is a good decision today and what will be a good decision tomorrow. In the meantime, we rely on past experiences, gut instinct and luck to rate, grade and forecast.

Enthusiasm plus uncertainty equals lots of e-mails. This is a good time to answer e-mails and talk hockey in tape-delayed blog style. So, grab a cold one, snuggle up and let's talk hockey. Here we go.

The Mailbag

Hey John,
Is it true that the NHL won't be on ESPN/ESPN2 this season? Who is showing NHL on national TV?

A die-hard Flyers fan,
Eric DiSanto
Baton Rouge, La.

As I write this, the NHL has yet to announce its other television partner. NBC will televise seven regular-season games starting in January and six playoff games in regular Saturday afternoon time slots. In addition, NBC will broadcast Games 3-7 of the Stanley Cup finals. ESPN is one of the possible carriers, and since both would benefit with each other, I'd be surprised if they didn't make a deal. But there are other networks out there that see the NHL as a possible positive part of their network. Don't forget there will be an NHL Center Ice Package once again.

John,
Just wondering if you were going to write another NHL preview this year with a song for each team?

Mike,
Alexandria, Va.

You bet, Mike. It's my favorite column of the year. You can almost book it that the Penguins' lyric will center on Sidney Crosby and Guster. "On your way to the best years of your life." -- Homecoming King.

John,
While the college vibe is good (rowdy fans and all), the pep band is ultimately a bad idea. I went to Clarkson University (home of Erik Cole) and every home game I was there with friends and every game we wanted to strangle the pep band. Every stoppage in play they are playing so damn loud, you can't talk to the guy next to you. One game the University handed out fliers on every seat, and every single last piece of paper was crumpled up and thrown at the pep band by the end of the game.
JD
Long Island

We'll put the pep band in its own special place then. We'll build, like, an orchestra pit in front of one of the upper deck overhangs, with a college section behind the net. By the way, the NHL has no outdoor games on the agenda this year, but will in future years. Michigan's band at a Red Wings-Maple Leafs outdoor game in Ann Arbor would be a beautiful thing.

John,

Once again you have proved that you know nothing about hockey. There are only 6 teams. Where do you get 30?

And I'll take that $500 myself.

Sincerely yours,
Bill Wirtz
(Rick Uecker)

John,
So now that the new CBA has been reached when will we be hearing Brass Bonanza played in Hartford again? I think the league needs to go back to its roots. A team in Hartford would have low travel costs and could take advantage of the high disposable income of Nutmeggers. Also, it would make it easier when retiring the numbers of Kevin Dineen and Ronnie Franchise.
Bring back the Whale!!!
Steve Gibelli
Portland, Conn.

Downtown Hartford is going through a revitalization period. They have a new convention center, new hotels, new housing and new restaurants. An NHL team would be the finishing touch. Hartford should monitor Pittsburgh and let Penguins owners know that if Pennsylvania drags its feet, the Penguins would be welcomed. Mario would love all of the great Donald Ross golf courses, and 87 would be even closer to home.

Hi John,
As a die-hard hockey fan for as long as I can remember I must say I am relieved that the NHL will be back on the ice this year but I can't help but wonder if Goodenow, Bettman and colleagues have bypassed another obvious problem with the game, namely the league's rapid expansion into markets with questionable hockey interest.

I suppose there must be a legal reason why the league cannot contract or maybe I'm missing some obvious reason why there should be so many teams in the Deep South. Thoughts?

Tristan
Fort Collins, Colo.

Twenty-four U.S. teams is not too many with the number of countries that produce hockey players. Eight U.S.-born players were selected in the first round of the draft Saturday in Ottawa, surpassing the previous record of seven Americans selected in the first round in 1986 and matched in 2003. That will be the norm as USA Hockey continues to do a stellar job of producing NHL players. The U.S. will slowly become the best producer of hockey talent in the world. The size of the population, wealth of the country and the continued diligence of USA Hockey will make that a reality this century. The reason the NHL expanded in the South and West is because that is where the population of the country is going. The growing number of USA-born stars, and the fact that players from all countries are playing better and longer, will soon give the NHL an argument to expand to Hartford and Winnipeg.

Hi John,
I just wanted to let you know that not all of the teams in the NHL are putting it to the fans. The Coyotes have offered 2 different plans to the people who paid deposits for last year's season. If you pay the same price as '03-04, you get a free season ticket for every season ticket you have. The other option is that they have lowered the season ticket prices for all seats, except row 1 & 2, and you can pay that new price.

Shawn Tait
Scottsdale, Ariz.

The Coyotes are a smart organization that will one day look and feel like the Colorado Avalanche. Coyotes television fans will be glad to know they will get to listen to Darren Pang on their television sets this upcoming season as an analyst.

John,
I know that you think the Bruins should re-sign Joe Thornton, but who do you think the Bruins should sign to give him some help?
Regards,
Brad

The Bruins reportedly offered Joe Thornton a five-year deal for about $25 million. A pretty solid first offer for a 26-year-old who, in 35 career playoff games, has six goals, 12 assists and 41 penalty minutes and is a minus-10.

Gary Bettman

Five years for $30 million is probably the deal. Upon further review, $7 million a year for Thornton has not been earned yet and probably shouldn't be offered. Thornton's leverage is that he should be entering the best five-year stretch of his career. It's a tough call for the Bruins. Thornton hasn't performed like a franchise player. He has never played with consistent hunger because he has been wealthy since he was 18 and has played for 48 head coaches in Boston. Instead of retaliating with a thunderous body check, like Cam Neely did, Thornton's anger release is in the form of dirty stick work that gets him ejected and then suspended. Off the ice, Thornton and his brother were charged with assaulting police and obstructing justice in May 2003. That is not leadership. But Thornton is such a likable person and a massive talent, odds are he will have huge years ahead. What the Bruins probably should do is sign No. 19 to a one-year deal and let Thornton play for a contract. See how hungry he is for that unrestricted free agency. I bet we see a different Thornton. I like Joe Thornton and believe he is a positive asset who potentially can make lots of money for the Bruins. If the Bruins don't like what they see by midseason, trade him to Florida for Jay Bouwmeester and Nathan Horton at the deadline, when Mike Keenan will be at his most emotionally vulnerable. Otherwise, I'd try to put together this team in Boston for $39 million:

Thornton-Murray-Kariya -- ($10 million; combined salaries)
Bergeron-Samsonov-Lapointe -- ($6 million)
Holik-Fitzgerald-Axelsson -- ($5 million)
Boyes-Hilbert-Orr -- ($2 million)

Boynton-Gonchar -- ($7 million)
Aucoin-Leetch -- ($5 million)
Gill-Girard -- ($2 million)

Andrew Raycroft -- ($1 million)
Hannu Toivonen -- ($1 million)
TOTAL -- $39 million

Hey John,
As a born and raised Floridian (St. Pete) I can't help but notice all the constant slandering of hockey teams in the Southern states. When are the Yankees up north going to realize that the Southeast [division] has been the best top to bottom for the last couple of years now? The Bolts won the Cup last year, the 'Canes were in the finals a few years ago, the Thrashers are right on the cusp.

Chris Trizis
Clearwater, Fla.

And the Southeast is only getting stronger. Alexander Ovechkin, Jack Johnson, Kari Lehtonen and Braydon Coburn will only add to amazing young hockey talent in the Southeast division. If I was asked to name what division will win the most Stanley Cups in the next 10 years, I would say the Southeast.

John,
Do you think the current state of the NHL right now, with so many free agents, and more players being cut or bought out every day, we could have the same, very dangerous situation we always had: with players all signing on one team?

Thanks.
Steve Gugliociello

As I put together and then thought about my proposed Bruins $39 million team above, two things dawned on me: 1) Being a GM is no longer fun; 2) There will be absolute parity in the NHL, and the Stanley Cup will begin a trip to trophy cases all around North America. I've been saying in this column for a few years now that the Atlanta Thrashers will win a Stanley Cup soon. In fact, if Don Waddell gets aggressive and had ownership approval to take his payroll to the max by adding Chris Pronger, selling Eric Lindros on why he should take an incentive contract to play in Atlanta and getting a couple of other needed veteran pieces, Atlanta would make loads of money with high attendance and multiple home playoff games and have a chance to win the East this year.

Bucci,
I was wondering why the Avs were playing an away game on opening night. Then I realized the answer as I read your column. Opening night I'll be at the Pepsi Center not to watch my beloved Avalanche, but to see Nine Inch Nails.

Jason Aoki

Hey John,
Shouldn't we wait until he actually plays in the NHL before we start claiming the greatness of Sidney Crosby? I keep hearing things like "the next Gretzky" and "the next Lemieux" when he could turn out to be "the next Alexandre Daigle." I'm not saying that Crosby will be a washout, but it seems like only yesterday that someone was saying that Vinny Lecavalier would be the next Gretzky and Joe Thornton the next Lemieux, and although both have turned into real superstars, both had to suffer through some tough development years and neither has come close to the prophecies that were bandied about when they were taken first overall.

Cheers,
Mark "Mad Dog" D'Arcy
Hornell, N.Y.

Sidney Crosby is in love with hockey. It's an insult to compare him with Alexandre Daigle. You've never heard the Gretzky or Lemieux comparison written in this space. They are three different players with different sizes and temperaments. As far as Thornton and Lecavalier, most knew they would be very good players, as they are. No one suggested they would be icons. Crosby may not be an icon, but he'll be more effective and productive than Thornton and Lecavalier. I believe No. 87 will dedicate himself to a greater degree, and will play hard every second of every game.

John,
I had a hard time digesting one of your comments from the last article. I don't care how talented Sidney Crosby is, or his "unlimited potential," but there is no way that a 17-year-old will come into the league and score 100 points. That would have led the league in 2003-2004. Do you really think he's that much better than Jarome Iginla, Ilya Kovalchuk, or Martin St. Louis? I've seen the highlights and agree that he will be a great player and marketable commodity for the NHL, but I can't see him being immediately better than every player in the NHL at his size, especially surrounded by the "talent" in Pittsburgh.

Take care,
Jimmy Neil

I stand by 38-63-101 as Crosby's final scoring numbers this season. He will get 15-20 power-play goals. By the way, this appeared in my column Dec. 13, 2004: "The first NHL game I ever saw in person was at the Civic Arena. It is an awesome place to see a hockey game. The NHL should use all the muscle they have to keep the Penguins in Pittsburgh and help build an intimate and as brilliant a venue as the Pittsburgh Pirates play in. This is a special franchise with a significant history. One of the three greatest players of all time is playing there. What is Mario Lemieux's legacy if the Penguins leave? He'll have no uniform. I was watching a Penguins Classic game from 1991 on DirecTV the other day. What a team! What a power play. Lemieux, Stevens and Recchi in their primes, and Coffey and Murphy on the point! Bob Johnson coached in Pittsburgh. Scotty Bowman coached there. Mike Lang, Jaromir Jagr, Joey Mullen, Craig Patrick, Tom Barrasso, Ron Francis, two Stanley Cups … and it says here they get Sidney Crosby in the next draft and the cycle of greatness will return."

John,
How can Mario be both player and owner? It seems like a conflict. Can't he just pay himself the minimum because he is already making money off the team? If so, it seems unfair that Pittsburgh can get a very talented player like Mario for so little, leaving more cap room for other players.

Peter Herrlett
Glen Rock, N.J.

Mario has not made money off the Penguins as an owner. That's one reason why he came back as a player and why the NHLPA should have realized the NHL was financially in trouble. It is probably a conflict, but both sides realize the benefit of Mario playing. Mario has been paid well as a player since he has come back. It will be interesting to see what his income will be as a player this season now that there is a salary cap. Mario should receive market value for his services, and the Penguins can't make his salary a farce. I suspect it will be in the $3.5 million range.

John,

How's the Otter?

Mark Inman
Carlsbad, Calif.

Finally saw "Anchorman." Liked it. Finally saw "Garden State," and Natalie Portman's eyes remind Ken of hockey cards. Young and happy. Finally got an MP3 player and can't stop listening to "Amsterdam" by Guster. Ken, my pet otter, will stop getting the full body wax now that NHL hockey is back.

John,
I wanted to get your comments on the rule changes.
Mike Cottone

  • No more ties: I really wish the NHL had added three minutes of overtime before the shootout. The fewer shootouts, the better. That being said, shootouts televise well and are easily interpreted by new fans. I think of Sidney Crosby coming down one-on-one on Martin Brodeur opening night, and my ears start to bleed with excitement.

  • Two-line passes allowed: I really think this will help the game. Not greatly, but in spots. We'll see goalies make long passes, players coming out of the penalty box, going on breakaways, and more speed in the neutral zone.

  • Tag-up rule: Keeps players on the ice, makes shifts longer and keeps the action going. Tired players equal mistakes, and that equals goals.

  • Goalie restrictions: The equipment will be smaller, but will it be small enough to negate bigger nets? We'll see. Restrictions on goaltenders handling the puck should help the forecheck, which leads to good hitting, turnovers and a few more goals. Goalies still can play the puck in front of the end line and still will be able to make long outlet passes over two lines. Brodeur will still be able to use his skill.

  • Bigger offensive zones: The net is 2 feet closer to the end boards, and the blue lines are pushed 2 feet closer to the red line. I wish they had made the lines thicker just because I like how it looks. I don't see the bigger offensive zones resulting in much except long shots from defensemen that rattle off the glass.

  • Icing changes: If a team ices the puck, it can't make a line change. Good rule. Tired players mean more goals.

  • Zero tolerance on obstruction: Here we go again. "This time we really mean it." If they call this rule, we will have 19 power plays a game and Kovalchuk will score 67 goals this year.

  • New instigator rule: A player who instigates a fight in the final five minutes of a game will receive a game misconduct and an automatic one-game suspension. This is the Todd-Bertuzzi-we-don't-want-to-be-on-CNN-anymore rule.

    John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.

    John Buccigross | email

    SportsCenter anchor
    John Buccigross joined ESPN as an anchor in October 1996. He currently can be seen as an anchor on "SportsCenter." Buccigross frequently contributes to ESPN.com during the season.
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