Q: Which division in the Eastern Conference do you think is the strongest, and why? And do you think the Atlantic Division is as tough as it ever was, being that all the teams are playoff-caliber?
Shawn Marocco, Aliquippa
MOLINARI: It's a little early to make any definitive statements based on the results to date -- anyone willing to do so has to be ready to conclusively cast the Penguins as a non-playoff team, since they don't have a place among the top eight in the East at the moment -- but the results of the first two months of the season suggest that the Southeast isn't in the running for that title. Going into last night's games, four clubs from that division (Atlanta, Florida, Tampa Bay and Washington) joined the Penguins at the bottom of the Eastern standings.
Choosing between the Atlantic and Northeast really is a toss-up, although it might not be if Ottawa hadn't slipped into a free fall a couple of weeks ago. Both divisions have at least one team that appears to have the potential to seriously contend for a Stanley Cup (New York Rangers, Ottawa) and a couple of others that have played better than many observers might have anticipated (Montreal -- its recent stumble aside -- and Boston, New York Islanders and New Jersey).
To this point in the season, the Atlantic certainly looks to be as good as, if not better than, it has been at any point in recent history, if only because every member of the division has looked capable of seriously competing for a playoff spot. That hasn't been the case in recent years, where there always has been at least one team effectively out of the running by midseason. In 2006-07, it was Philadelphia, after the Penguins had filled that role so well for the previous four seasons.
Q: Since the "new" NHL is supposed to be all about opening up the game and showcasing talent, why doesn't the Board of Governors seriously consider making the rinks Olympic-sized? A rule mandating that every new arena must have international-sized ice would definitely make the NHL a more interesting place, and add a real home-ice advantage for certain teams. I realize it won't happen, but it seems to me that it's a nice middle ground between the extremes of making no changes and making the nets larger.
MOLINARI: The belief here is that the larger international ice surface enhances hockey's entertainment value by giving skilled players more room -- and thus, more time -- to operate, although fans who put a premium on hard hitting probably don't care for it as much because playing physically is tougher when there's more space to cover.
Ideally, the NHL would adopt the bigger surface as its standard, but that simply isn't practical, from a financial perspective. Never mind the revenue that would be lost from removing a few rows of high-priced seats; the cost of simply retro-fitting arenas to accommodate the larger surface would be exorbitant, based on what people inside the industry have said in recent years.
And while baseball teams are allowed to set the dimensions of their ballparks -- and then construct their lineup to take full advantage of them -- the thinking here is that hockey is better-served by having a standard playing surface. (The same applies to football and basketball, for that matter.) In the best of all worlds, it would be the longer, wider sheet of ice used in the international game; failing that, however, it's best that all 30 clubs stick with the 200-foot-by-85-foot now called for by NHL regulations.