Saturday, September 14, 2013

Now It Is Beginning

Do you remember last spring when the last four Cup winners made the Conference Finals?

I'm going to go out on a limb and say that we are going to see more of this pattern rather than less over the next couple of years. The buzzword for many when talking about the NHL is parity but while there is a mushy middle that is growing, thus shrinking the number of elite teams, at least out west, there is also a clear number of teams that have separated themselves from the pack. As we all know anything can happen come the spring and injuries will play a part but if I were a betting man I would put money on the Stanley Cup being in Chicago, Los Angeles or San Jose next summer with St. Louis just being a step below that group due to their lack of the elite offensive talent that the big three have.

Last spring I thought those four teams plus the Canucks were the heavyweights and that while an upset might happen the reality was (and is) that the East was a step below the West. Nothing has changed my mind except I think Vancouver's window has closed once and for all.

This summer was a bit of a bust wasn't it? With the cap falling we (or at least I) envisioned madness with teams buying out quality players and selling high priced players at ten cents on the dollar. The reality was a letdown. Not much happened. Pending free agents extended contracts with their existing teams for the most part. The guys who lost out were the UFAs as teams looked to their farms to fill roster spots on the cheap, leaving a number of veterans looking for tryouts.

The lack of movement, especially when it comes to the high profile unrestricted guys, means that the old quick fix no longer exists. Brian Burke found that out during his tenure with the Leafs. You may have all the money in the world but when all of the star players stay with their clubs it makes it hard to make the big splash. Getzlaf and Perry stayed with Anaheim  for example, leaving Clarkson, Clarkson!, as the biggest UFA forward. I never even had heard of the guy until two years ago and to think that he was the big prize this summer is mind boggling.

Already Kris Letang is off the market for next summer and you can bet that the majority of the big names will be gone when July rolls around. There is some serious quality out there although it trends to the older crowd, the best player who may be available is Phil Kessel. (loLeafs).

It could make for an interesting trade deadline although running through the top of that list you'll note that most of the big name quality guys play for playoff contenders and won't be moving. That's the thing with the NHL these days, there's always the promise of all of these exciting moves and the end result is usually nothing. Hilariously the biggest possibility for carnage is Toronto where their best defenceman and best forward are both pending UFAs and the team looks less than impressive. A Leaf freefall followed by Kessel and Phaneuf getting shipped out (a move that would be applauded by many fans and MLSE's media lackeys (Hi DREGS!!)) would be, well it would be amazing, especially considering that there are no UFAs who could come in and do the job that they do.



In any case back to point and as I said I see Chicago or LA or San Jose. The Hawks return mostly intact. They will see if any of their impressive prospects up front can replace Frolik, Bolland and Stallberg and if they cannot then they will bring in reinforcements in the spring. The Kings lost Penner and Scuderi but Willie Mitchell is back and while their biggest concern is probably scoring goals I would bet on them bringing in a winger at some point. As for the Sharks well this may be the last kick at it for this bunch with Thornton, Marleau and Boyle all unrestricted next summer but they're in the mix. They're always in the mix.

The Blues have the best D in the league and they have a deep deep bunch up front and really they probably deserve to be included in that upper tier. The good news for them is with the new divisions they'll avoid the heavyweight battle in the first round and if they can score more than a little they will be a threat to go all the way.

In the Least its wide open, same as last year. Any team could come out of the conference and get pumped by the Western representative. Nobody took a big step forward over the summer except for Ottawa who added Bobby Ryan. He is going to score 40 is my guess and so you can add the Sens to the upper echelon which includes, well who does it include? Boston. Pittsburgh, despite that abysmal back end. Montreal. Detroit. The Rangers. Probably Washington and the Islanders as well. Boston and the Pens are still the cream of the crop though. Well and the Wings.

You know what's funny? There really isn't much room out east. Maybe one or two of those teams gets devastated by injuries or falls apart but the reality is there is a clear upper echelon in the junior circuit.

 A lot of teams with high hopes are going to fail in a big way. I'm looking at you Toronto.

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