This isn't a popularity contest ....
These message Boards are to share and exchange information. The number of replies preceding each of the threads is unnecessary and should be placed off to the right if it's going to remain on this site at all. These boards are not and should not be a popularity contest, and if the thread is hot, i.e. has many replies, let us figure it out on our own. I think that "space" can be better utilized. We don't care what the number or replies are. The previous site had the number of replies displayed discreetly to the right of the thread, in parenthesis. Not very obvious, yet good. Can we get the same here? Let me hear from those who agree and the dissenters.
I believe you have a misguided interpretation of the Reply Count. It's a useful way to keep track of new replies more than anything else- for a good example of how this is used, see Livejournal's old Friends Page layout where each post has a link to comments that reads "N Comments". If you know that you last looked at the thread when it had 3 replies, and it now has 7, it's time to check it out again.
Another example is the link to comments on Metafilter. It's just standard message board design.
The "new" icon serves the same function in a slightly different way.
I've never thought of these sorts of post counts as a contest, just useful information.