Like all professional sports, the NHL is a copycat league. What's good enough to work for one team is good enough to work for the other 29, while they will always be adapting to the current trends taking place around them. With the success of the Montreal Canadiens this postseason, specifically the success of Hal Gill and Josh Gorges going up against the best players in the world and effectively shutting them down for games at a time, I can't help but wonder what it's going to do to the free agent market when it comes to similar (and, more importantly, better) players like Ottawa's Anton Volchenkov.
My guess: It's going to make them even more valuable than they already are.
Volchenkov was going to be one of the most coveted players on the market anyway because of his combination of talent and age (he'll be just 28 when next season begins). As the Canadiens have shown during their improbable run through Washington and Pittsburgh, a top-notch shutdown defenseman -- and Volchenkov is as good as they come -- can help carry a team a long way in the post-lockout, salary cap era.
That, of course, means players like Volchenkov should be seeing dollar signs right about now.
If you look at the way teams are constructed in today's NHL, almost all of them have a small handful of big-money, core players, and the rest of the roster filled in with cheaper role players. Every team has a weakness, and most games come down to your three or four best players going up against the other team's three or four best players over and over again. It makes it a little easier to shut a team down than it might have been 10 years ago.
Let's use the 2002 Stanley Cup champion Detroit Red Wings as an example, a team that was loaded from top-to-bottom with Hall of Famer after Hall of Famer. Their top three lines consisted of some combination of Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan, Luc Robitaille, Sergei Fedorov, Brett Hull, Igor Larionov, Pavel Datsyuk and Tomas Holmstrom. Good luck stopping that team. And nobody did, as they scored 252 goals (second in the league) on their way to their third Stanley Cup in six years. You needed an answer for each of their lines. And you can look at any number of other teams from that era that went three and four lines deep; Colorado, Dallas, New Jersey, even back into the early '90s with the Penguins and the late '80s with the Oilers. There was no way to match up with all of their weapons.
Those days, quite simply, are gone.
Why wouldn't another team look at that success and want to go all out for a player like Volchenkov? I suspect a number of teams will, and that his price will ultimately be higher than it might have been two or three months ago. And once that domino falls, there's obviously a few more after that: Andy Sutton and Willie Mitchell come to mind.
Coming out of the lockout we saw a larger emphasis on puck-movers along the blue line, and while those players will still be valuable (and extremely important), I suspect we might see a small shift this offseason to the classic stay-at-home defender.