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Speed, fitness rule the NHL in short season

Thomas Vanek is off to a great early start for Buffalo, scoring two goals and six points in two games. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

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Thomas Vanek is off to a great early start for Buffalo, scoring two goals and six points in two games. (Photo by Andy Marlin/NHLI via Getty Images)

In a shortened season, everything is magnified. That means it’s never too early to look for trends and even if the play was a little sloppy in the first days of the 2013 season, the maxim “speed kills” certainly made itself known.

In Buffalo, Thomas Vanek ventilated the Philadelphia Flyers in his team’s first game of the year, a 5-2 home win that saw the skilled Austrian blow by Philly’s defense several times, leading to two goals, one of which was an empty-netter. Vanek spent part of the lockout back home in Austria, where he joined the Graz 99ers, the team he played for as a youth. The Sabres star had hoped to help the 99ers bolster attendance, as the club had fallen on hard times. But getting the chance to play during the NHL hiatus obviously helped him, too. Vanek tallied five goals and 15 points in 11 games for Graz and now has six points in his first two games with Buffalo. Meanwhile, Kurtis Foster was the only member of Philly’s top six blueliners to play during the lockout (he logged 13 games with Tappara in Finland) and it certainly showed.

But it would be too simplistic to say that playing elsewhere during the lockout translates into immediate success back home. After all, Montreal Canadiens defenseman Andrei Markov looked wretched in his season debut against Toronto and he played in the Kontinental League during the work stoppage. The Russian stalwart (who has battled major injuries the past few years) saw several Maple Leafs blow past him on the evening, so clearly there was still rust on the engine.

If anything, the importance of overall physical fitness and preparedness should be under the microscope. One of the best examples is Teemu Selanne, aka ‘The Ageless One.’ In human years, the Finnish Flash is 42 and Selanne didn’t play anywhere during the lockout. There was even talk of him retiring if the season had been cancelled, but as a Finnish reporter told me at the World Junior Championship in Russia, there was no way Selanne would let someone else (i.e. Gary Bettman) dictate when his career would end; it will be on his terms whenever it happens. The Ducks are, I’m sure, ecstatic that he continues to ply his trade in Anaheim, especially when he proves he is still capable of four-point nights, as he did in the season-opening win over Vancouver. Even when Selanne was taking portions of seasons off a couple years ago, he always returned in fighting form, tallying nearly a point per game once back in uniform.

The fact the New York Rangers are off to a slow start is also interesting. Coach John Tortorella is famous for physically preparing his squads through torturous training camps, but he could only do so much this winter due to the compressed schedule. Will the Blueshirts get a chance to catch up to speed in time?

I recognize we’re only in the first week here, but sticking with the quickness theme, everything will be magnified. A four-game losing streak should ring the same alarm bells as an eight-game skid normally would and how many teams could survive one or two of those with their playoff hopes intact?

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CHANGE IN EUROPEAN PROSPECT RIGHTS

Interesting wrinkle in the new CBA: Teams who select Europeans in the draft now have four years to sign the players, as opposed to two. According to insiders, this could alter the way teams draft this summer in New Jersey.

For example, franchises would have more incentive to select a player with long-term upside who is still years away from contributing because the developmental track is longer. As a consequence, other players may be pushed out of the draft altogether, making them free agents. The rule pertains to 18 year olds, aka first-year eligible players. For 19 year olds, teams have three years, for 20 year olds, they have two. The one country this does not apply to is Russia, since the NHL and KHL still do not have a functioning agreement on transfers. In this case, NHL teams essentially hold a Russian draft pick's rights as long as they want.

Ryan Kennedy, the co-author of Young Guns II, is THN's associate senior writer and a regular contributor to THN.com. His column appears Wednesdays and The Hot List appears Tuesdays. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/THNRyanKennedy.

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