While high-profile player movement and seemingly unfettered salary escalation has changed the landscape of the NHL, another trend, subtler yet more tangible, has begun to alter the game of hockey.
Across the league, more players are using Easton's "Synergy" stick, the first one-piece stick to create a buzz in the hockey world.
The revolutionary piece of equipment, developed in the late 1990s, is said to be more durable than traditional sticks, but Synergy's most intriguing trait is its ability to help players shoot faster and harder. Made of a composite of graphite, carbon and Kevlar, Synergy actually is a two-piece stick, but it arrives in the players' hands already fused. It is lighter than old-style wooden sticks and more flexible than the two- and three-piece sticks still most widely used in the NHL.
The biggest knocks against Synergy are that it does not allow players to get a strong feel for the puck on its composite blade, and it has too much "whip" in its ultra-flexible shaft.
Buffalo Sabres center Chris Gratton, who uses sticks with wooden blades attached to light, graphite shafts, covets the one-piece sticks but hasn't found a model that he feels comfortable with.
"I would like to switch, for sure; I think a lot of players would. It's just that it's tough finding a stick that has the same qualities as a wood blade. It's easier to feel the puck with a wood blade," Gratton said. "I think with wrist shots, especially, the puck comes off it a little bit harder and obviously a little bit quicker. But I haven't found a one-piece that's stiff enough."
Synergy's most prominent fans (among the 106 NHL players who use the stick, according to Easton's Web site) are smallish forwards like Detroit's Steve Yzerman and Colorado's Joe Sakic. The whip in the stick's shaft appears to be of greater concern to big men like Gratton, who at 6-foot-4, 226 pounds has a powerful slap shot that requires a shaft with less give.
Although Buffalo's Tim Connolly experiments with Synergy, the only Sabres regularly using the model are forwards Curtis Brown and Maxim Afinogenov. Brown likes the low-maintenance aspect of the one-piece, which comes with a fixed curvature to the blade.
"Once the curve is set you can't really change it too much, whereas with a wood stick you can take a torch to it or heat it up and then maybe tinker around with it a little bit more, which a lot of guys do," Brown said. "I'm a player that doesn't alter his curve too much. I don't like to play around with my sticks. I just pretty much get used to one; it doesn't really matter if it's a little bit different (than a self-customized stick). I can just get used to it rather than trying to change all the time, whereas some guys, they like to change their curve up here and there and adjust a few different things. Usually I just keep mine set, and then it's a lot easier for me. I just grab a stick and go."
Gratton, who isn't shy about using saws and blowtorches, said he gladly would quit the carpentry game for the right one-piece, whether it's a Synergy or one of the composite sticks now in development by another manufacturer to compete with Easton's popular product.
"All you have to do is cut it down (for height) and away you go. I think the consistency from the one-piece from stick to stick is a little better than changing your blade and a (connecting piece) and a shaft every time you've got to switch," Gratton said. "If you look at all the guys in the league that have great wrist shots they're all using the Synergies, the one-piece. And the guys that really snap the puck, the puck comes off their blade twice as hard."
One day after his knee-on-knee hit on Buffalo's Vaclav Varada, Montreal Canadiens center Doug Gilmour took another shot at the Sabres winger through the media.
"I know (Varada's) character. I played there, I know the way he plays. That's why I went after him," an unapologetic Gilmour told Canada's Slam Sports on Saturday.
Gilmour's hit came seconds after Varada dived into Canadiens goaltender Jose Theodore Friday night in HSBC Arena, giving the goalie a concussion that likely will put him out of commission for a week. Gilmour and Varada were assessed five-minute majors and game misconducts, and each served a one-game suspension Saturday night.
"The proof is in the picture. Usually you see guys try and jump over," Gilmour said. "I think everybody knows the character of everybody else in the league. You know when it's an accident out there and you respect their personality. Everybody knows his personality."
Theodore reported having a headache Saturday and told a reporter from the Web site that Varada was trying to hurt him.