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Published:October 4th, 2006 09:52 EST
New NHL  Season Promotes Exciting Hockey, Surprises

New NHL Season Promotes Exciting Hockey, Surprises

By Tyler Collins

For hockey fans, the 2005-2006 season was among the most exciting ever, with memorable playoffs and worthy Stanley Cup Final. The upcoming season looks to build upon last season's strengths, and continue the trend of exciting, fast hockey. The rule changes brought in after the lockout season of 2004-2005 were geared to attract fans back to the game and improve the quality of the on-ice product. The institution of the shoot-out and the elimination of the tie game was used to increase the game's flair factor, in the hope that this would in turn attract new fans. Another key rule change, the crackdown on obstruction- defined as any play that interferes with a player not touching the puck or en route to the puck- served to reduce the effect of the neutral zone trap. This notorious system, championed by ex-New Jersey coach Jacques Lemaire, stopped any attack based on speed before the opposing team could enter the offensive zone. Many feel obstruction was a necessary condition of the trap.

This crackdown led to a renaissance of scoring and speed. Scoring levels increased to a level not seen since the early 1990's. The 50-goal scorer, more rare than the Tasmanian tiger for the past seven seasons, also returned, with five NHL players reaching this elusive mark. Moreover, restrictions on the size of goaltender equipment put the onus on netminders to prove their mettle. Some- like Calgary's Mikka Kirpusoff and San Jose's Vesa Toskala, established themselves as top-notch goaltenders, while others- like Boston's Andrew Raycroft, faltered and were cast to the press box, left to hold out hope that some NHL club failed to notice their sub-par performance.

With the salary cap set at $44 million U.S., large-market teams are becoming increasingly unable to lure the top players to their cities with the promise of a large paycheque. This may play a role in the 'changing of the guard' that was observed last season. In the Western Conference, the perennial conference winners- Detroit, Dallas, and Colorado, all found themselves booking tee off times by the end of the second round. No team from outside this trio advanced to the Stanley Cup Final between 1995 and 2002. With the emphasis now on speed and skill over brawn, younger teams have emerged as contenders with Calgary, Anaheim, and Edmonton leading the pack. A similar scenario has occurred in the East. New Jersey- the conference's recent powerhouse looked slow and over-matched in a five game loss to the Cup-champion Hurricanes in the second round. The end result was two small-market teams battling for the NHL's holiest prize.

To build contending teams, NHL clubs must now place a strong importance on the entry draft. Also, they must employ a General Manager with the ability to manage the team's payroll while luring required free agents to their city at a reasonable price. Big market teams are less likely to 'rent players' during a Stanley Cup Drive and league stars are now equally as likely to give a discount to a small-market team.

The upcoming season promises to build upon the excitement and surprises of '05-06. The game will continue to evolve within its new rule structure, which league executive’s hope will increase the amount fan revenue. With the most anticipated season in decades scheduled to begin tonight, hockey fans can finally breathe that sight of relief and know that their game is once again alive and well.