The 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs are over, and thanks to the Chicago Blackhawks in this round, I have a winning record predicting playoff round victories. Like last year, I'll give a brief sketch of the possible future for the two competing teams, and also any trends for the future of the NHL that might be predicted by this year's playoffs.
In some ways, it was unfortunate that two of the longest suffering teams in the NHL met in the Stanley Cup Final. While the winner has a dark curse-like weight lifted from its shoulders, the loser will continue under it.
It would have been worse if Chicago and its league-leading 49 years of Cup drought had lost, but the Flyers remain suffering under a 35 year black cloud. If grit and character alone are enough to win championships, the Flyers would have won.
But a Flyer win would have been an upset, and the word "upset" means that the Flyers don't have enough talent. The way the overall playoffs turned out, it meant that Philadelphia looked better than it really was, because they were able to avoid more talented teams like Pittsburgh and Washington. They easily beat a declining power, New Jersey, and another under-talented team like themselves, Montreal.
But when they ran into teams with equal or more talent who are willing to work just as hard, they had problems. Grit and character were enough to get by another hexed team of approximately equal talent, Boston. Those ingredients were not enough to beat a much more talented team, Chicago, just like they were not enough to beat talented Pittsburgh in earlier years.
One wonders if they had met the Penguins, or even Washington in the earlier rounds, whether they would have made it to the Stanley Cup Final.
None the less, reaching the Finals should help season this team for future years, but there are still serious problems talent-wise for Philadelphia to contend with more talented teams like Chicago, Pittsburgh, Washington, and possibly Detroit.
The goaltending situation is still unsettled with three different candidates vying for the starting job, and there is also a possibility that the Flyers will try to sign someone else whom they think is better than what they got. But even with the goaltending settled, the Flyers still need more.
They are deep in above average talent, but with the exception of Chris Pronger, they don't have really top star players like the more talented teams have. Jeff Carter and Mike Richards had a horrible final against the Blackhawks. The Flyers need top young star players who can produce in pressure situations. It doesn't help that their best player, Pronger, is 35 years old.
One positive was the play of their second line which held its own against any of the Blackhawk lines. It will be interesting to see what Philadelphia does in the off-season to improve itself.
49 years... 49 long, long, long years.... are finally over! The dark cursed cloud that hangs over a Chicago hockey team like it used to hang over their MLB American League team and still does over their National League team is finally gone! Chicago doesn't have the team with highest talented players (that's Pittsburgh or maybe Washington), but it does have the team with the most overall talent.
That depth allowed Joel Quenneville to shuffle his lines in almost any combination and still have scoring threats no matter who came on the ice. It allowed him to bench players who would be starters on almost any other NHL team. It allowed the Blackhawks to get by with just passable goaltending by Antti Niemi.
It allowed Chicago to break a curse of 49 years.
Ex-GM, Dale Tallon, and his successor, Stan Bowman get a lot of credit for drafting the right players and making the right trades to turn this cursed franchise not only into a Stanley Cup Champion, but one that can win the Stanley Cup for several years and be the dynasty team that everyone thought Pittsburgh might be when they won in 2009.
Except for a possible revival by Detroit, there is nobody to threaten the Blackhawks in the Western Conference unless Chicago suffers unfortunate injuries, or another team makes some dramatic moves in the off season to catch up to the talent gap that Chicago has opened up between itself and its rivals. Only ex-Champion Pittsburgh looks like the equal of the Hawks on paper.
Goaltending Still Isn't Enough
Except for Montreal Canadiens goaltender, Jaroslav Halak, no playoff goaltender looked like the successor to the declining Martin Brodeur. Halak was the only goaltender in the playoffs who might have won the Conn Smythe Trophy if his team had gone all the way. The important trend now in the NHL is to get the biggest bodies in front of a goaltender so that he can't see what's being shot at him.
The outstanding goaltender is only good as his defence is able to clear the shooting lanes. This was a trend that was continued from the 2009 playoffs. It is significant that the Stanley Cup Champions, the Chicago Blackhawks, have the best player to do that, Dustin Byfuglien.
The NHL Is A Two Team League
People say that the opportunity for the NHL to have dynasty teams is lost forever because of the salary cap. But on paper, at least, the NHL is a now a two team league between Pittsburgh in the East and Chicago in the West. Both teams are still up and coming young teams that have already won the Stanley Cup and have the ability to win several more. Both have passable, but unremarkable goaltending. Both have good coaching.
The difference between the two is that Pittsburgh has probably the best two players in the NHL while Chicago has the best overall talent. A Pittsburgh-Chicago Final for 2011 is probably what is anticipated for next year, and possibly for several times during the next half-decade.
Who Is On Tier Two?
None of the teams on this level look like they are ready to surplant Pittsburgh and Chicago next year unless an upset occurs. So who is the future hope of the NHL?
Now that its ownership, management, and coaching is settled, look for a return of the Tampa Bay Lightning to contending status.
After Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay probably has the best talent in the east, which should be further augmented by this year's high draft choice. The Lightning's major weakness is in goal. If they can do something about it in the off season, Tampa Bay will be threatening Pittsburgh sooner than expected.
Philadelphia gets on this list because of the grit they showed in this year's playoffs. But they have to solve the problems listed above and an aging Chris Pronger doesn't help matters.
Ottawa turned itself around, and ran into a tough customer, Pittsburgh, and was put out in the first round. They might have won at least one playoff round if they had been playing somebody else. They are well coached and their two goaltenders showed some promise. A good draft and some astute trades will help them.
Their biggest worry is that their spiritual leader, Daniel Alfredsson, like Pronger, is getting older and may soon be unable to play at the high level of the past.
Montreal grudgingly gets on this list because of Halak. But they just squeaked into the playoffs and not even the best goalie can keep pulling upset after upset. They need to upgrade themselves everywhere else.
Finally there is Washington. But the Capitals have not won anything and suffered a major demoralizing defeat in the first round of the playoffs. Is this team spiritually capable of winning anything?
They've got loads of talent, including Alexander Ovechkin, but he looked bad against both Montreal and Canada in the Olympics. There are questions about the goaltending. There are questions about the coaching. There are questions about team spirit and toughness. This team needs to find itself. It may go backwards first, before going forward again.
The best contender for Chicago would be the return of arch-rival Detroit. The question is how far from their championship year, have they declined? One huge question rests in goal. How much does Nicklas Lindstrom have left? An influx of young talent to go with the veteran leadership needs to happen.
The best of Chicago's playoff opponents was Vancouver, who made the Hawks look bad in two games, but looked like a tier two team the rest of the way. For two years, the Canucks have thought the Sedin-Luongo combination was enough.
After two years, it's been proved that they can't handle Chicago. A horrible penalty killing problem needs to be fixed. The Canucks can score goals, but they can't handle big bodies like Byfuglien. More defensive help is needed.
Los Angeles played well in their return to the playoffs and they do have a lot of good up and coming talent. Their goaltending is passable to good. A good draft and more playoff seasoning will help them in the coming decade.
San Jose thinks they have a contender, but the spiritual state of their "big" line in the playoffs is highly questionable. They got nothing from their big line in the first round of the playoffs against a bad Colorado team, and only Patrick Marleau did anything against Chicago.
Their second line showed grit until they burned out, and they were the only one of Chicago's opponents not to win a game. The management has been timid and refuses to tinker with the team's chemistry. Soon time may catch up with this pretender, not contender.
One "sleeper" team may be ex-champion Anaheim, which when they had Chris Pronger, was the hardest hitting team in the NHL. They still have much of the nucleus of their championship team, including good goaltending. A few astute trades, and a good draft might get them back to contending status next year.