Buccigross: Flyers, Thrashers are early winners

Updated: August 8, 2005, 3:17 PM ET
By John Buccigross | Special to ESPN.com

August … and everything after. That will be this year's chapter in the NHL History Book.

Player moves will shape careers. The moves will be significant, insignificant or career-ending. The general managers who can accurately evaluate talent, demonstrate a plan and act as a connector to free agents will be the hockey heroes of this generation. The others will be exposed for what they are: tired, boring members of the Good Ol' Boys' Club.

Wayne Gretzky
Remember how Wayne saw the ice? A successful GM has to be the same way in free agency.

What makes this NHL offseason so untainted is that every GM had an equal shot. They all knew this economic day would come.

If GMs or owners attempt to justify their cap constraints with any alibi necessary, you can expect more ineptitude. And if you hear a GM wail at the loss of a future Hall of Famer or local icon, expect an immediate downward spiral in the standings.

The most important ingredient for a good general manager is talent evaluation. A GM has to know who is truly good, and who is truly replaceable. Some have no idea.

A GM needs to think in the way Wayne Gretzky approached his game.

Gretzky was a great player because in important moments of a game, the rink would go quiet. A relaxing haze would settle over Wayne's world and everything would move in slow motion. The haze would block out everything unnecessary, and heighten and brighten all important bits of information. His cognitive abilities were optimal because his game was based on love and rage. If Wayne's game was based solely on love, he would never have raised his temperament enough to justify finishing the job. If his game was based solely on rage, he wouldn't have control and would lose his vision and touch in critical moments and thus, lose his way.

He wouldn't have been Wayne Gretzky. He would have been Eric Lindros. Still a very, very good player, but not a Gretzky.

That's why Wayne made people look silly. His mind was serene, so his body flowed. Opponents' minds were mush, so their bodies reacted like Barry Melrose after his first beer.

A GM also must think this way. He must have love and he must have rage.

If he is too soft, he won't do the work. And if he is too wired, he won't have any vision. We are seeing both examples as each NHL team is being built.

Who is seeing this landscape in slow motion and who is seeing just a frenetic kaleidoscope of faces, names and numbers, and throwing it all on a wall to see what sticks? We'll know come April.

In no particular order, let's look at how each team stacks up in the Eastern Conference. Next week, we'll look at the Western Conference. These are not official season previews -- that comes in late September when all the rosters are set.

Atlantic Division

New Jersey Devils
They are starting to resemble the Columbus Blue Jackets, except they have Martin Brodeur. Small up the middle and not a lot of goal-scoring punch on the wings. Losing Scott Niedermayer is devastating. He controlled games with his skating. After such an amazing run, the Devils have issues. Of course, they are in good hands. If I bought an NHL team tomorrow, Lou Lamoriello would be my GM -- hands down. I bet right now he's thinking, "Do I trade Marty and start over again?" And he's also thinking, "I think if everything falls right, we can win the East." But, the first thought will win out. Not that he will trade Brodeur, but he needs to think about trading him -- and John Madden and Brian Rafalski. At the first sign of a struggle this season, I would trade all three guys and start again. Get draft picks, get prospects, get younger, get Wade Redden, get Phil Kessel and get ready for the new arena. The salary cap requires one to think in such cold, unthinkable terms.

New York Islanders
At this point, I find them small, soft and generally uninteresting.

Philadelphia Flyers
Clearly the class of the division. They will win the Atlantic by at least 25 points. Strong up the middle, strong on the back. Simon Gagne is the key in a lot of this to me. A 35-40-goal season from Gagne makes the Flyers elite. The Flyers have that beautiful mix of young and old. However, the question remains: Will they have a steady goaltender come playoff time?

New York Rangers
Trade Jaromir Jagr now. This team is in that might-kind-of-barely-make-the-playoffs-and-draft-ninth-overall-forever mode. Clear cap space, develop players who want to be Rangers, hope you win next year's ping-pong ball contest, draft Kessel, and let Joe Thornton and Vincent Lecavalier's people covertly know that huge money and term years await these Broadway-bound darlings next summer. Does Glen Sather even think this way? Or is he thinking about his next cigar and next fishing expedition? Martin Straka? Are you kidding me?

Pittsburgh Penguins
I'm surprised the Penguins didn't sign Paul Kariya. Two years at $4.5 million per year seems reasonable and within their cap budget. I think it would have brought a little more certainty to the Pens. Can Evgeni Malkin step in and play? I loved him at the World Juniors -- he had Mats Sundin qualities. Can Ryan Whitney step in and have an impact on defense? Do they roll the dice with Marc-Andre Fleury and sign a veteran backup? Or do they spend a little more and sign Curtis Joseph just in case? Tough call. But with Ziggy Palffy agreeing to a deal this weekend, the Penguins can now think playoffs and maybe even win a round.

Northeast Division

Buffalo Sabres
Very curious. I thought for sure Tom Golisano was going to spend some of his billions to add to this interesting roster. There isn't much left out there via free agency. Perhaps their plan is to keep plenty of cap space, give their young players another year to develop and go for it next year. If the NHL is truly an exhibition of speed and skill, Buffalo is ahead of the curve. But I just don't see much semblance of any defense here, and I still believe we will not see an explosion of goals this season. Defense will still win the Stanley Cup.

Boston Bruins
The fact that Peter Forsberg was there to be had and Boston didn't make it happen is very troubling if you are a Bruins fan. Did the Bruins offer two years at $12 million? If not, why not? Would Forsberg have taken it? I think Boston would have been a better fit for Forsberg. He could have played with the incredibly smart and fast Sergei Samsonov and Patrice Bergeron. That would have been the highest IQ line in hockey. I assume the Bruins will plug in Brad Isbister with Thornton and Glen Murray, setting Isbister up for a Mike Knuble-like career year. The Bruins are good and will make the playoffs. But they could have been really good and had a shot at the Stanley Cup. I don't see that right now.

Montreal Canadiens
Nothing real exciting to talk about here. They are a very competent organization. Run well. Great tradition. Good, young players. Solid veterans. But they have Radek Bonk, and for me, he is akin to Gloria Estefan. I don't want to hear, see, or have anything to do with Gloria Estefan and Radek Bonk. They are the only two people on Earth I feel that way about, and I can't give you an intelligent reason why. I do find great joy in watching Mathieu Dandenault.

Ottawa Senators
If these new rules do mean more goals, no one is scoring more than these guys. But if they are counting on Dominik Hasek to win them a Stanley Cup, they'd be just as well off if John Muckler was running things in Ottawa. What? He is?! My bad.

Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs are obviously a bit bloated and aging. If Jason Allison is healthy, the Leafs should have enough to make the playoffs. But this team needs to make a decision, and my decision would be to blow it up. Strip thyself of salary, get a high draft pick and go after unrestricted free agents in the next summer or two. This team is like Journey or some other band that continues to tour with the name and keeps plugging in new people when others in the band die, go bald or become David Lee Roth. They need a whole new identity.

Southeast Division
Atlanta Thrashers
This team is going to the playoffs. Bobby Holik gives the Thrashers much-needed size up front. Their defense is solid, they have grit and goal scoring up front and Kari Lehtonen is the real deal in net. Also, come trade-deadline time, GM Don Waddell will have enough young resources to make a deal and tidy things up.

Carolina Hurricanes
They look like an expansion team. Serviceable veterans to plug holes until the high draft picks are hopefully ready. The Hurricanes need to get into the lottery and hopefully get the No. 1 pick to draft Kessel. They will have loads of cap room in the coming years, so if they stay the course, they will be fine.

Florida Panthers
When you have Roberto Luongo, you have a chance. But can this team score enough goals? They will be tough, but if the veterans get banged up or suddenly lose a step, it could be difficult to compete with Atlanta's and Tampa Bay's offenses. But if the Panthers can beat up on Washington and Carolina, they may be able to make it three teams from the Southeast in the playoffs.

Tampa Bay Lightning
This team is loaded, but what is the plan in net? Does the team make the goalie? Nikolai Khabibulin had a .910 save percentage and three shutouts during the regular season in 2003-04. If they can find someone to equal those numbers, they should still win the division and be a Stanley Cup contender.

Washington Capitals
This is obviously the worst team in the NHL. But that is good. This is the team that drafted American-born Bobby Carpenter and they will be rewarded for that by winning the NHL draft lottery next May for the right to draft Kessel. That should be the Caps' plan this season. Be as bad as possible. Alexander Ovechkin is the real deal and will be reason enough to buy a ticket in D.C. Everyone can't become instant contenders via free agency. The Caps need to stink, draft, stink, draft for a couple of more years, and then they can see where they are. Otherwise, they are just wasting money. The NHL will come to resemble the NFL in terms of parity. The NHL will also become very young. In some respects that is good, because the game is going to become much faster. We already know the NHL is a much better game than the NFL's six-seconds-of-action, 30-seconds-of-walking-around show. Relax, Capital fans. You could be raising a Cup in 3-5 years. There is hope.

The Mailbag

Buccigross,
Shootouts were used for several years in the IHL. Over time, interest decreased to the point that many fans left the game before the shootout began, just to beat the traffic. It would not be advisable for the relaunched NHL to repeat the experience of the IHL.

Eric Fischer
Campbell, Calif.

I've heard this a lot and time will tell. As stated here before, eight minutes (or why not take it to 10 minutes) of 4-on-4 would drastically decrease the number of shootouts, and that would be a good thing. Preserving the taste of a shootout was overlooked.

John,
I am in a bit of a predicament and I think you may be able to help. My girlfriend bought me a vintage '70s Bruins jersey for my upcoming birthday. Now, in itself that is a fantastic gift. The problem is, she told me that she got my name stitched in the back with my high school number.

I understand it is a very thoughtful and expensive gift, but I can't be one of those guys with his own name on the back of his jersey! I always make fun of those guys.

Since I probably can't return it since it is personalized, what do you think about the prospect of changing the name? The problem is that the number is 15, and old Milt Schmidt's number is retired from the old days. While I do respect Milt for his legendary career and his time in the Bruins' front office (and I also grew up and graduated with his granddaughter who lived on the street behind my parents' house), he may be a little too dated for a jersey, especially since I had never seen him play.

Any suggestions/advice much appreciated.

Thanks,
Kevin Morrissey
Boston

I think it would be cool to have Milt Schmidt's name on your back. Great player, great guy and who else has one? I understand where you are coming from as far as having your name on the back of a sweater. That being said, when it comes to acts of love from people I love, I am as soft as Miroslav Satan in a best-of-seven series. I've always tended to give a life and a soul to inanimate objects since I was a kid, and when someone I love provides that object, well, I would wear a thong down Main Street and might even throw on a top hat. If you love the girl, I would not change the sweater and just wear it when you watch games at home. If you don't love her, I would break up with her right now. You got your pride, brutha.

John,

I just wanted to bring to your attention that not all organizations are treating fans as badly as the Islanders and Red Wings (as per your last column). The Devils held a draft party inside Continental Airlines Arena. The 6,000-plus fans that showed up were able to meet, take pictures, and get autographs from John Madden and Sergei Brylin. All kinds of activities were set up for fans to enjoy, including raffles for game-used equipment, games for children and the first round of the draft was televised over the scoreboard. There was free food, and last but not least, every single fan was given a free ticket to a game for the upcoming season. I hope fans of other teams were treated half as good.

John Reitsma

In terms of how the organization is run and the level of play on the ice, the New Jersey Devils are the most underrated team in professional sports.

John,

Red Coyotes' sweater with No. 99 and GRETZKY on the back … yea or nay?

Dan Vargo

Nay.

John,
I would just like to send a comment of support in your prediction of success for Sir Sid. I have had the pleasure of being an off-ice official in Lewiston (QMJHL) over the last two seasons and have to say that this kid is truly different. People who haven't seen him play or just seeing the highlights shouldn't be too quick to judge that he isn't ready for the NHL and won't make an impact. This kid is part of a new generation of players.

He is incredibly smart, poised, talented, and dedicated. He gives 100 percent every time out because he wants to be better. I have never seen a player with the explosive speed and the passing brilliance. Man can he skate! I saw him pick up a pass at his blue line and split the defenders and blow by them for a breakaway at the red line like they were pylons. I think all the praise is warranted and we will see something special for years to come.

The best thing about the kid however is his personality and humble demeanor. His parents can be proud because he is a great kid with a terrific head on his shoulders.

Thanks,
Kevin
Lewiston, Maine

For every point Sidney Crosby is under 100, I'll give $10 to the Cam Neely house for families of cancer patients. For every point Crosby is over 100 points, I'll give myself $10 toward my Starburst Fruit Chews yearly budget.

Hey John!

As someone who was also born on Aug. 7, it made my day to read your column and find out I share a birthday with none other than Sid the Kid!

All my life I've been left to think of myself as celebrating the same day as David Duchovny, Charlize Theron, and Bruce Dickinson (MORE COWBELL!).

August 7th REPRESENT!
Mike Morton,
London, Ontario

John,

What's the deal with all these outlandish free agent signings? Gonchar -- $5 million (from Pittsburgh?!). Foote -- $4.6M (FOOTE!!) Forsberg -- $5M. I thought the CBA was supposed to curb player salaries. This is awfully fishy. … Me thinks we fans were duped.

Regards,
Joseph Tasca

There will still be situations where players will be overpaid. Certain markets will have to do that to attract players like Adam Foote. The Blue Jackets have been one of the softest teams in the NHL. They have a pathetic road record, which is a great reflection of character. The third- and fourth-liners will take a pretty good hit. What the new CBA does is keep the Flyers from spending $20 million more dollars, which is what they would have done after signing Forsberg. If there was no cap, Nikolai Khabibulin would be a Flyer.

John,

What affect will the nets being closer to the end boards really have? Bigger, harder hits behind the net? Less Forsberg wrap-arounds?

Thanks
Mike (Nagoya, Japan)

More offensive space. It's difficult to score behind the net. There will be better shooting angles, and angles of attack for wingers beating defensemen wide. It will help Joe Thornton and Peter Forsberg, and yes, Sidney Crosby.

John,

I would like to ask Gary Bettman a question. How does he expect scoring to increase when all the top talent is splitting up on different teams? Well I have an answer, it won't! The games are going to be even more low scoring than they were before. So I hope the new season turns out great for you Bettman, because you have officially lost this fan. And I know for a fact that I am not going to be the last.

Adam Dumelle
St. Charles, Ill.

Players entering the NHL are better prepared and NHL-ready than they were 10 years ago. And players are playing better, longer. There are enough good players in the league. The only way goal scoring will increase is with a little bigger net, I think. I hope I'm wrong and we get multiple 50-goal scorers this season.

John,

I think you're on to something with the idea of creating more of a frenzied college atmosphere in NHL barns. Your comment about an outdoor game between the Wings and Leafs is great, except for your choice of college pep bands.

If you've ever made the journey up to Houghton to see a Michigan Tech Huskies game, you should know that there is only one pep band for the job.

The Michigan Tech Huskies Pep Band could show people a thing or two about how to fire up a crowd. You can bet they'd have no trouble with the cold either.

Steve Palmer
MTU '99

John,

Not to beat the Sid Crosby issue to death, but just last year everyone was saying Alexander Ovechkin was the next Mario Lemieux and that he was the best NHL prospect to come along in years. Is Crosby that much better than Ovechkin, or has the long lockout and the fact that Ovechkin plays in Russia instead of North America already made people forget about him?

Thanks for your time,
Matt in Wichita, Kansas

I never heard anyone compare Ovechkin to Lemieux, Matt. Different player. Ovechkin will be a star. I've heard him being compared to Ilya Kovalchuk, but there is no way he has the shooting release of King Ilya. I don't think Ovechkin will win the Calder because he won't have the support. Crosby is a great player, has very good teammates and will get loads of ice time. That equals 100 points and probably the Rookie of the Year. It's Crosby or Kari Lehtonen.

John,

A larger offensive zone means that a slightly larger space is usable for everyone, offensively and defensively. Breakouts will be easier and a trap will be more difficult to implement, but by the same token more effort is required of the team breaking out so to pass the blue line. Offensively, remember back to the days when four-on-four was used for matching penalties (Gretzky era). The NHL had to change it to 5-on-5 because Gretzky utilized the power of having more space. More room in the offensive zone allows for more room to maneuver, and because of this I would bet defenses have a more difficult time with coverage. If for some reason this doesn't result in more goals, it should at least result in more exciting puck movement, which isn't a bad thing.

Corey
S. Burlington, Vt.

Great e-mail, Corey. Gretzky could find time and space in a Blink 182 mosh pit. Gods are not eligible in analogies. But, yes, time and space and no illegal stick checking/pulling/poking, will allow for more speed to generate more quickly, allowing for smaller, quick, smart players to get into a position to score more often. If the new goalie gear allows for a little more net to shoot, enough for a reasonable opportunity to score, we will have something.

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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