Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Both Stanley Cup Finalists Miss Playoffs

Something has happened this season that has never occurred since the NHL gained control of the Stanley Cup. Both of last season's Stanley Cup finalists have missed the playoffs. Sure in some years, one of the two teams misses the playoffs the next season (this last happened when the 2004 Anaheim Mighty Ducks missed the playoffs after making it to the 2003 finals). Sometimes even the defending cup champs miss the playoffs (this last happened when the 1996 New Jersey Devils missed the playoffs after winning the cup in 1995). However, it has never happened that both miss the playoffs the next season ... until now.

This result is consistent with my claim last season that there were no elite teams in the 2006 Stanley Cup playoffs, but it is still a surprise. If we truly have a CBA designed to create parity then it was bound to happen someday, but it is still a shock to see it happen to the first Stanley Cup finalists of the new CBA.

Last season, the Carolina Hurricanes beat the Edmonton Oilers in an exciting seven game series. The finals were exciting, but they did not bring us any elite teams that have a chance to go down in history as all time great teams. In fact, they gave us the most mediocre level teams to meet in the Stanley Cup finals in recent history.

Sure neither of these teams was much better than any of another dozen or so Stanley Cup contenders, but this does not explain why they both missed the playoffs the next year. There are two other contributing factors to this, bad luck (Carolina is not too far out of the playoffs and Edmonton wasn't either until the trade deadline) and the fact that it is hard to keep successful teams together under this CBA.

In November, I wrote about how good the Carolina Hurricanes had been during their cup run. For a Stanley Cup winner, they had an awful defence. Although Cam Ward had a very good playoff, he hasn't shown signs of being an elite level goalie. Their forward unit was the only part of the team that was Stanley Cup worthy, but they were unable to keep many parts of it together (Mark Recchi, Doug Weight and Matt Cullen left to free agency, injuries kept Cory Stillman to only half a season and Eric Staal was unable to follow up his breakthrough 100 point season). This year's Hurricanes are significantly worse than the 2006 cup winner and the 2006 cup winner is far from the traditional powerhouse level one would expect from a cup winner.

Edmonton was hit with even bigger problems keeping their team together. Their defence took a huge hit when they were forced to trade Chris Pronger and lost Jaroslav Spacek and Dick Tarnstrom. Other forwards, who had played large roles in the cup run, Mike Peca and Sergei Samsonov left as free agents. The team did add one valuable piece in Petr Sykora to free agency, but the remaining team was clearly not as good as the cup finalist. The team was in the running for a playoff berth (though they likely would have missed) when they traded Ryan Smyth. While I think the trade will pay dividends in the future, it lead to a historic collapse. The Edmonton Oilers post trade have played like one of the worst teams in the history of the NHL.

What does this mean for the future? Can we expect a string of Stanley Cup finalists that fail to make playoffs in the next season? If the model of a CBA designed to create parity where it is difficult to keep a successful team together holds, we can. However, I do not think that is a realistic model looking into the future. The salary cap is rising and it is rising to a level where the smaller market teams cannot afford to spend up to it. This will leave the larger market teams as the strong. With the liberalized free agency (27 year olds will be UFAs this year and some players as young as 25 could reach UFA level - as opposed to 31 year olds in the past CBA) this will make the best players in the NHL available to be purchased. The larger markets that can afford to spend to the cap and the desirable markets where players want to go (usually these are the same markets) will buy them. These teams will have the chance to be perennially strong (as long as they are well run). The best the other markets can hope to do is adopt a "moneyball" strategy where they hope that they can compete by better finding talented players that they can get into contracts for below market value (for a player of similar production). There may be a smaller market team able to succeed in this strategy, but it will be hard to compete with a well run bigger market. As a result, I think we will see more and more of the bigger markets begin to dominate. They will be much more likely to be Stanley Cup finalists and they will be much more capable of keeping their teams together in the following season. Likely, they will find it hard to assemble a dynasty level talent pool that can repeat as Stanley Cup champions, but they should be able to contend in the year following their victory.

The two teams that made the 2006 Stanley Cup finals, Carolina and Edmonton, have both missed the playoffs this season. This is a first in NHL history. Although this is a somewhat unlikely occurence this season, the CBA created the circumstances to make it much more likely than it had been in the past. The rising salary cap in the CBA will likely remove this likelihood in the future and begin to break the current parity in the NHL, so it is unlikely that we will see this happen again soon.

"Well-run bigger market"...I'm lost for words - is there a well-run bigger market? Aside from maybe Detroit - I don't see any well-run bigger market teams.
as a carolina fan...but not a fanatic...i was sad to see that we will miss the play offs...and it was no ones fault but the front office...they let good stable players go...and failed to work with the one's they had like stall during the off season...mix well with injuries at the wrong time to key players...and what have you got ? A good but so so season...when the 'canes were hot...there were untouchable...but not enough consistancy...poor forechecking...and passing...the defencemen...needed ( as i saw the last 5 games) to be more aggresive in keeping the puck or going after the puck during line changes...the short handed goals were nice...but still over all...the second half of the season looked like 'canes were too tired...out of shape ( like me) and couldn't a new coaching staff need ?? No...but getting a few more key players...working the stars you have in the off season...should help the canes for 2008...but again...opinions like back pockets on jeans...everybody has one or 2...thanks...esteban henderson,
Jason my prediction for a well-run bigger market in the future is Montreal. Bob Gainey is an excellent GM. We have rumors that two of the top three scorers this year (Crosby and LeCavalier) might want to go there.

It really wouldn't take much change for some other larger markets to be better run. A new GM might be all it takes.
One of the conveniently overlooked facts from last year's playoffs is that Carolina doesn't get past Buffalo unless 75% of the Sabres starting defensemen go down with injuries.
Buffalo with a reasonably healthy defense would have easily taken care of Carolina.
The "dominant" team from the '06 playoffs didn't make the finals.
Canucks are the Stanley cup contenders for me because they finished first in the northwest
and they also broke some team and also nhl records this season and I think they will carry that to the playoffs.Go Nucks Go.

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