New Parity Brings Competitive Edge

With the new salary cap leading to parity across the league, the NHL has received a much needed facelift during the offseason. Bottom-dwellers such as the Columbus Blue Jackets and Pittsburgh Penguins have snatched up marquee players to suddenly become very competitive. Trades and free agent signings on a never-before-seen scale were the hot trend of this summer. Here is a look at some of this offseason’s biggest and most important player personnel moves.

In a surprise move, the Philadelphia Flyers, notorious owners of one of the NHL’s highest payrolls, dumped over-the-hill veterans Mark Recchi, Jon LeClair and Tony Amonte in preparation for a flurry of offseason activity. The Flyers then addressed their biggest need by beefing up their defense with towering blue liners Mike Rathje and Darien Hatcher. The move was a risky one, as both players are more lumbering checkers with somewhat limited puck handling skills. Nevertheless, Hatcher has a reputation as being one of the meanest players in the NHL, and opposing forwards will have to think twice before moving into Philly’s defensive zone.

The Flyers also added to their offense by signing ex-Avalanche center Peter Forsberg, thought by many to be the best hockey player in the world. This move also has its share of risks – the oft-injured forward has missed significant amounts of time during the last few seasons – but Forsberg brings to the ice an unmatched combination of speed, finesse and power. If he stays healthy, look for the Flyers to occupy one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference.

Although they boasted two of the NHL’s best young players, Dany Heatley and Iyla Kovalchuk, the Atlanta Thrashers have posed little threat to the hockey status quo over the last few seasons. The talented tandem provided the only excitement on what has been a constantly disappointing Atlanta squad. This summer, however, the Thrashers split their dynamic duo apart, sending Heatley to the Ottawa Senators in exchange for Marian Hossa.

Hossa is another top young player, and Atlanta fans should expect Heatley-type numbers once he gets in sync with Kovalchuk. Moving Heatley seems to be more about chemistry than anything else. Two seasons ago, the German forward was involved in a car accident that killed teammate Dan Snyder. The Senators got rid of Hossa because he appeared unlikely to sign a long-term contract. This deal is essentially a swapping of talent for talent, and both teams should be pleased with the results.

For the last few seasons, the Penguins have been cellar dwellers in the Eastern Conference. The small-market team, which has never stressed defense, imploded after the departure of all-star forwards Jaromir Jagr and Alexei Kovalev and chronic injuries to star center Mario Lemieux.

Now the Penguins are back with a vengeance. Pittsburgh used the first pick in the draft to select phenom Sidney Crosby, who is being hailed as the next Wayne Gretzky. Crosby will pair with former Los Angeles King Ziggy Palffy and discarded Flyers Recchi and LeClair and try to bring some of the power to the Penguins’ offense.

On the defensive side of things, Pittsburgh signed scoring defenseman Sergei Gonchar and goalie Jocelyn Thibault. Gonchar has led NHL blue liners in scoring for the last few seasons, and should provide a tremendous boost to the Pens’ power play. Thibault is a little past his prime and is no longer a top-tier NHL netminder, but he should fit in nicely as a stop-gap for this year as the organization works to bring highly touted prospect Marc-Andre Fleury along.

With all of these changes, it is tough to tell where the Penguins will be at the end of this season. Some predict that they have the right combination of youth and experience to carry them all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. Other question whether such a drastic overhaul will cause chemistry problems. One thing that is for certain, the Eastern Conference is a much different place than it was last year.