-The “salary cap era”… No longer can a team like the Red Wings of the early 2000s load up on All Stars to fill every position, be heavy Stanley Cup favourites and run the table to win the Stanley Cup. Imagine a team that can only give a rising star Pavel Datsyuk just over 13 minutes per game because Yzerman, Shanahan, Hull, Fedorov, Robitaille and Larionov are better options…! It now takes a group of smart scouts, managers and coaches to build a winning lineup to fit under the salary cap, without the added luxury of having a generous owner (such as the late Mike Ilitch) willing to pay for an All Star lineup at nearly any cost.
How is it possible to build a dynasty-style lineup? Research, development, luck and the right people involved. Accumulate assets through the draft or free agency, hire the right people to develop them and set them on the correct path, then time it correctly whereby your veterans are in their prime when the high-flying rookies debut. Then, fit those hefty veteran contracts in with the entry level rookies. A good coaching staff will then find the balance of playing time and chemistry with the players in which they are given. But continue to churn out a winning lineup year after year over a span of 82 games??? Tough to do. You can see how teams such as the Detroit Red Wings of the current era finally have to consider their own inevitable rebuild.
Weigh the competition. Look around the league. What do they have that we can compete with? What’s our window? Can we win this year? Next year? Where will our veterans be salary-wise when it is time to sign our rookies to their long term contracts? Will our veterans take more money for less term, allowing us to prepare for the young players’ paydays? Will we lose our young guys before they will sign an extension when eligible? How can we sign a key piece that will fit with our plans through free agency? All valid questions that have to be answered by those running the organization that you cheer for. If you saw your favourite team stand pat or even shoot for the moon and take a run at the top free agents on July 1st, you can bet they met for hours on end internally to come up with the decisions to offer and sign players or not to. There are still a few key pieces on the board, and we will see where each team is when training camps begin.
-How do the conferences differ?
When I look at the western conference, I see the top teams built to contend for the next 3-4 years with similar strengths. A few top forwards, a dependable goaltender and a very strong defence that is young (ish) and controllable (under contract for the next few seasons without the risk of losing them to free agency). Nashville and Anaheim met in the western conference final and they were very alike. Young, hungry forwards that carried the pace of play, sprinkled with skilled veterans and led by at least 4-5 dependable, all around defencemen. Their defencemen were able to jump into the rush, but also play fast and physical in making a first pass in their own zone and clear opponents from the front of the net. Roman Josi of the Predators and Cam Fowler of the Ducks will only get better as their surrounding casts get deeper and they will both move up into the top tier of defencemen as they play meaningful games deep in the playoffs. Both Rinne and Gibson are also big goalies that will stop a first shot behind those defencemen. So, if your team is in the west can they compete with those teams this season? Chicago may need a small rebuild on the fly (while dealing with a contract like Seabrook’s) to stay fast enough and a team like Dallas has been smart to add a dependable goalie and a few defencemen (as well as Radulov) to jump into the competition for the playoffs. They may need a few more pieces to be called a Stanley Cup contender, however. St. Louis and Minnesota will be threats but may not be as strong or deep as the others. San Jose and LA lost some pieces but will be in the conversation and Edmonton and Calgary will both compete as long as McDavid is healthy and Mike Smith can backstop a solid D-corps (perhaps this season’s Nashville) in Calgary. The way the west is built, the team that stays healthy and can get into the playoffs without any key injuries will have a good shot to represent the conference. It would not be surprising to see one of the defensive stalwarts like Nashville, Anaheim or Calgary standing at the end, unless McDavid, Kane, or Tarasenko can lead their teams to win a playoff round or two against those defensive corps. Tough to do.
In the East I see less focus put on building from the defensive side, although possibly two of the top three or four defencemen in the NHL are in the conference (Karlsson and Hedman). Also, although there are several top goalies in the conference, such as Price, Bobrovsky, Murray and Holtby, I would say that offence rules in the east. From Sidney and Malkin to Ovechkin, Mathews, Stamkos, Eichel, Barkov, Tavares and Giroux, it is an offensive conference. Where the west has teams with 3 or 4 of the top 30-40 defencemen, it seems there aren’t any eastern conference teams with more than 1 or 2. There are the studs like Karlsson, Hedman, Weber, Letang, Werenski, McDonaugh and possibly Gardiner or Ristolainen soon, but there isn’t a second guy in those defensive corps that are right on their heels. Possibly Morgan Reilly is the closest, but there are no defensive juggernauts like in the west. Washington chose not to offer the big contracts to Shattenkirk and Alzner, as well as Justin Williams so I see Pittsburgh (if Letang is healthy) and Toronto (great Marleau addition), who added to their depth, as favourites. Teams like the Rangers, Lightning and Bruins may become contenders once again and Montreal will be in the thick of things with a healthy Carey Price. Columbus and Ottawa will need to repeat overachieving seasons which will be difficult (but possible) to do and the other teams appear that they may need to battle to make the playoffs.
Who will be standing at the end and meet in the 2018 Stanley Cup finals? Perhaps it will be the western team that can score on their powerplays, given the strength of their defensive corps. Or the eastern team (like this year’s Senators) that can stick to a strong defensive system to counter the offensive teams in the east. We will see. All 31 teams will begin with a clean slate and the optimism that they have a chance to win.
I will predict a repeat of the 2017 Stanley Cup Finals, but with the Predators edging the Penguins to bring the Stanley Cup to “Smashville”. Calgary and Toronto will narrowly miss reaching the finals, once again energizing the “Red Mile” in Calgary and “Maple leaf Square” in Toronto. But, as we well know, anything can and will happen. Let’s simply hope 2017/2018 is as exciting as 2016/2017 was for all hockey fans.
Enjoy the off-season.
Thanks for reading.