The St. Louis Blues are the team with the most pressure in the NHL this year.
I was in St. Louis last week, and I asked the players if they felt they've underachieved the last six, seven years -- and every player said, "Totally." The Blues know they've underachieved. If they don't do well in the playoffs -- at least go to the conference finals -- I think the owners will clean house.
They'll ask themselves: Why are we spending all this money when Colorado has won the Cup, Dallas has won the Cup and Detroit has won the Cup? St. Louis arguably has been as good as those teams and has spent just as much money, so there is tons of pressure on coach Joel Quenneville and general manager Larry Pleau. There could be a major shakeup if the Blues don't win.
There was talk over the last year that ownership wanted to fire the coach, but Pleau said, "If you fire him, you fire me." Obviously, the Blues ended up not firing Quenneville, and they finished the season well. Pleau is such a calm stable influence there. But this is a situation where the Blues are going to be punished for being good, because good isn't good enough. Ownership wants bigger results than just making the playoffs and getting a few more home games.
And with the lockout looming, this may be Al MacInnis's last year; we don't know. He's said he's playing it year by year; but if there is a lockout, dollars to donuts this is his last year.
The Carolina Hurricanes are going to surprise a lot of people. I like Kevin Weekes in net. I love their defense; I think it's arguably as good as any in hockey, except maybe Detroit's. The Hurricanes have Glen Wesley back, and they've added Danny Markov, who's a great young defenseman. They're a talented group, they're big and they're strong.
Offensively, the Hurricanes will be improved. Top pick Eric Staal, who signed before they had to send him back to juniors, led the league with seven preseason goals and looks like the real deal. Rod Brind'Amour is back from his hand injury; he's healthy and looking great. And Erik Cole is back from his leg injury, and he's ready to pick up where he left off his rookie year.
The East has been wide-open over the years. Sure, teams have been consistently good like the Ottawa Senators, but they haven't won anything. No one is talking about the Hurricanes. They're coming off a year when they were terrible. There were reasons they missed the playoffs, like injuries to Weekes, Brind'Amour and Cole.
With its defensive style, the Hurricanes will be a team to contend with if they can get offense from the players who produced two years ago.
Kariya is going from a completely defensive system with the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. They wanted him to score, but they didn't want him to cheat defensively, so he ended up with 25 goals last year. Yes, they went to the Stanley Cup final, but the system was also one of the reasons why Kariya wanted to leave, taking less money to go to the Colorado Avalanche.
In coach Tony Granato's system, the Avs will be offensive. They're going to attack, and Kariya wants to try and score a ton of goals before becoming an unrestricted free agent under the next CBA. Defense is important, but it's not the major goal in Colorado. For Paul, it's just like when he first came into the league and scored 50 goals in his first full season -- you've got to figure he's going to take a run at 50 goals again. His role and his style of play will change 180 degrees.
Kariya also wanted to play with Teemu Selanne. But it's a perfect fit for an offensive player to get to play with guys like Selanne and Joe Sakic. Not only will they feed off each other, they're going to push each other, they're going to challenge each other and they're going to get better together as the season goes on. The Avs will be a fun team to watch.
So why would Fedorov take Kariya's place in Anaheim? Fedorov's role is going to be different than it was with the Detroit Red Wings because he'll be expected to score more. That didn't matter in Detroit. As long as he checked and picked up his defensive assignments -- you knew he was going to score 20 or more goals -- everything was fine. The Ducks will expect him to play well defensively, but they'd like him to chip in 30 goals. He's going to play in every situation, on the power play, on the penalty kill. He's going to get a ton of ice time, which he wanted because he felt he wasn't used enough in Detroit. So his role is going to change, but, a lot like Paul, it's a new style of play.
Ironically, even though the Ducks are known for their defensive system, Fedorov will actually have more freedom and opportunity because he'll be playing so many more minutes. In Detroit there were other great players fighting for ice time; that's not going to happen in Anaheim. He's a much more important player to the Ducks than he was to the Red Wings. With Steve Yzerman, Chris Chelios, Nicklas Lidstrom, Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan, Sergei wasn't necessarily looked upon as a leader. In Anaheim, he will be. He's a veteran, he's won the Stanley Cup, and the Ducks are looking for him to teach their young Russians and their other younger players -- which they have a ton of -- so his role is drastically different from that point of view. He's a leader in Anaheim; he was not a leader in Detroit.
God save goal scoring
Defense wins championships, and we saw that during last year's playoffs when two defense-oriented teams -- the Mighty Ducks and the New Jersey Devils -- made it to the Stanley Cup final. So now the question is: Will even more teams -- especially young ones or ones short on talent -- start playing that style of hockey?
Good question. What I'm hoping for is that the Colorado Avalanche, with their offensive mind set and all their great offensive players, win the Stanley Cup. Because if they win the Stanley Cup playing offense, maybe other teams with a ton of talent will open up the doors a little bit and say, "We can beat New Jersey with an offensive system. We can beat Minnesota with an offensive system." And then teams like Philadelphia and Detroit, with their great offensive capability, maybe the coaches will lay off the reins a little bit and give their players some freedom -- and that would be better for the game.
So I'm a big Colorado Avalanche fan; I want that style of play to win. Back in 1995, when everyone saw how the New Jersey Devils were winning with their defensive style, everyone started playing like the New Jersey Devils. I'm hoping that a new style is on the forefront and that Colorado can bring it in.
The floor is open. Send in a question and the best ones will be answered each week.
Barry Melrose, a former NHL defenseman and coach, is a hockey analyst for ESPN.