Melrose: Faster game already making an impact
I'm baaaack. Yes, I'll be checking in with all of you each week, giving you my take on the NHL with my picks for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
It's great to have the game back and the new product has been fun to watch. There has been a ton of offensive chances, and the game has speed.
The sport hasn't lost that physical edge, either. Some forget that hockey is a physical sport. Fans love to see that great crash into the boards. My hope, going forward, is that the league doesn't take all of that physicality out of the game. It would be a mistake.
Having said that, the new rules suit some teams' styles. Let's start there.
The Ottawa Senators and Nashville Predators (both 5-0-0) are off to great starts. Why? They are two teams built for the new rules. They have great skaters, they can fly, they can move the puck very fast. And I think some people forget the Preds made the playoffs when we last had a season.
Vancouver, Montreal and Detroit all have great-skating teams as well.
How do you stop players like Todd Bertuzzi, Markus Naslund and the Sedin brothers? How do you stop Alexei Kovalev and Niklas Sundstrom and Mike Ribeiro? A lot of these players now have more room to skate, especially when they can park in front of the net and not have a defenseman hanging on them.
The Red Wings are looking very fast, too. Players like Nicklas Lidstrom, Pavel Datsyuk and Mathieu Schneider have had more open lanes and Kris Draper is also skating well. Detroit is also having success without Steve Yzerman, who has been battling that groin injury. But Stevie Y is going to have a different role now for the Wings. He is still the leader of the team and an important part of the roster, but he's not going to be the go-to scorer any more. He'll be the perfect third-line center, the perfect player to take the draw.
The Rangers have also had a surprising and successful start. They have one of the best penalty-killing units in the league (fourth overall, 91.5 percent). Goalie Henrik Lundqvist is the new fan favorite in the Big Apple. Jaromir Jagr is fired up right now. Martin Rucinsky and Martin Straka look strong. They've got two young, offensive lines playing well.
Finally, the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have made the best use of their offseason acquisitions. Eric Lindros, Jeff O'Neill and Jason Allison have been an important part of every game, a big factor considering Mats Sundin has been out of the lineup. I love to watch the Leafs play. They physically, test teams and outwork teams to the puck. But will this lineup be healthy in January? That's a big question.
We're only two weeks in, so it will be interesting to see how these teams are faring in a few months.
There have been many injuries so far, particularly groin injuries.
It's an injury that all hockey players have had, or are scared of having. Players put so much stress on the muscles in that area, as it is. Whether it's trying to push off while skating or jumping the wrong way, players will feel it.
Some big-name players are battling such injuries right now, like Yzerman, Sergei Fedorov and Gary Roberts. When you don't play during a lockout and miss that much time, it's awfully hard to come back, get ready and be in high gear after a three-week training camp.
And with the new look adding more speed and intensity to the game, it makes it that much more difficult. Something has to give, and it's going to be the groin.
Just as some teams have had great starts, others have had no momentum coming out of the starting gate. Case in point: the Pittsburgh Penguins.
I can't understand how a team with so much talent can't get anything done. Sergei Gonchar, Mark Recchi, Zigmund Palffy, Mario Lemieux, John LeClair, Sidney Crosby. All of that talent, and their power play is that bad?! They're 12th in the league with a 17.9 percentage.
And for those who make the argument that Mario and Crosby should be on the same power-play line, I'd counter back with why shouldn't the Pens have two solid power-play units? With all of that offensive talent, they have to get it straight.
Another team that needs to step things up is the Columbus Blue Jackets. I thought this team would make a run for the playoffs, but they are already last in the Central Division at 1-5-0.
Yes, Rick Nash is hurt, but with defensemen Adam Foote and Bryan Berard, and all the young talent filling out the offense, they should be playing better. They are dead last in team scoring (11 goals) and have allowed 19. The Jackets need to find more offense soon.
My third team: the defending Western Conference champion Flames. Even with all of its offseason additions (Tony Amonte, Darren McCarty, Daymond Langkow), Calgary is still last in the Northwest (2-4-1).
I think that with those additions, players think they don't need to work as hard. But the Flames have to remember what got them to the Stanley Cup finals: everyone on the roster put the puck in the net. They've gotten away from what made them special. They need to get back to that Darryl Sutter-style of hockey.
Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN.
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