Thursday, June 07, 2007

Anaheim Wins The Stanley Cup

With a 6-2 victory over the Ottawa Senators, the Anaheim Ducks have won the Stanley Cup winning their finals series four games to one. Scott Niedermayer was given the Conn Smythe despite the fact he was the third best defenceman in the playoffs.

Anaheim has convinced me that they are an elite team this season. They are the best team the NHL has seen so far in its post-lockout era. It is possible to build an elite team with a salary cap (though it is clearly harder).

The Conn Smythe race was interesting this year. I argue that the most valuable player in the playoffs was Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit and he didn't even make the finals. The most valuable player in the finals throughout the playoffs was Chris Pronger, but because of his suspensions he was not going to win the award. Enter Scott Niedermayer. He is clearly an all star level defenceman. He clearly played well, but he was the third best defenceman in the NHL in the playoffs. And he is MVP.

The stunning thing about the playoffs is how predictable they were. I managed to make 14 out of 15 correct predictions of the series winners. Here are my first round, second round, third round and finals predictions. The only wrong call was picking Calgary over Detroit in round one. The fact that the number one seed actually eliminated the number eight seed is hardly an upset. One could argue there were no upsets in this year's playoffs. That is stunning.

With the season over, now is a good time to look at the state of the game and what it is becoming. Just like last year I think we are still in transition from out of the lockout and I think likely the problems that led to the lockout are not solved and there will be some pain before they are. I think three major trends can be seen developing this year.

First, it is possible to build an elite team in the current NHL. Brian Burke did it in Anaheim. He did it with some outstanding general manager work. He found talent where others didn't (Beauchemin, Kunitz), in young players (Getzlaf, Perry), in checkers (Pahlsson, R. Niedermayer), in proven stars (Pronger, S. Niedermayer). Anaheim was brilliantly built. They are a model for how a franchise should be run. I was skeptical that it might not be possible to build an elite team in today's NHL. I am proven wrong. The question now is how does this successful team stay together? They have their top scorer (Teemu Selanne) and top goalie (Jean-Sebastien Giguere) both becoming unrestricted free agents this summer. They could lose them both. That would be a big blow. It would prevent fans from seeing this elite team take a shot at repeating.

As the salary cap goes up, I think we will see more elite teams. Those that are bought in big markets. The players will be available for purchase as young as 25 under this CBA. It is still possible to build an elite team. Anaheim did it. But which model will be more common and will either be able to keep their team together to repeat?

The second clear trend is the Sidney Crosby era. He's only 19 and the top scorer and probable Hart Trophy winner. This could be an era of dominance that lasts for well over a decade. Crosby could be on the verge of establishing himself as one of the NHL's all time greats. Of course, it is also possible that another player such as Joe Thornton, Alexander Ovechkin or someone else is more dominant then Crosby next year. However, it is clear that likely this time will be remembered as the Crosby era. Whether it happens with him in Pittsburgh or if he is the first superstar to leave via free agency before he has his best years of his career is to be determined.

Finally, it is clear that the problems the lockout was supposed to have solved are still here. There are too many NHL franchises in markets that do not care about them. Likely, the Predators days in Nashville are numbered. The TV deal is a mess. This mess was pushed to the forefront by the Preakness Stakes overtime debacle. Gary Bettman's push to get a major US TV deal has failed. It has already caused fans significant pain (a year lost to lockout and an ill-advised CBA). The problem keeps getting more and more obvious. This failure must be admitted and an alternative direction found. The sooner the better. The longer this has to play out the worse things will get.

Anaheim's victory renews some faith in me that elite teams can exist under this CBA. There are certainly significant problems in Gary Bettman's business model that must be solved (likely by abandoning the model). We are embarking on the Sidney Crosby era and it will be interesting to see where he takes the game. In the meantime, the summer is here so lets all enjoy the sun and watch our teams build for next year.

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