Thursday, June 18, 2009

2009 NHL Season Wrap Up

Pittsburgh Penguins

Congratulations to the Pittsburgh Penguins on winning the 2009 Stanley Cup!  It was probably one of most improbable championship victories I've ever seen.  The team was ripped apart last summer via free agency and the team was getting pounded by basement dwellers like the Islanders and Maple Leafs before finally firing coach Michael Therrien in February.  Enter Dan Bylsma.  He comes in and installs a new, aggressive forechecking strategy that plays more to the players strengths.  The change in strategy combined with a couple of trades and the Penguins were right back to being one of the elite teams in the league.  They then climbed out of 10th place and skyrocketed up the standings.  On the last day of the regular season they won the 4th seed and actually had home ice advantage during the first round of the playoffs.

As incredible as it was to see them rise so quickly, it was just as amazing to see them blast through the Stanley Cup playoffs.  The Flyers remained on the wrong end of the leash in the first round.  The new Capitals look just like the old Caps getting knocked out of the playoffs by the Penguins.  In the conference finals, the Penguins pounced on a worn down Hurricanes team and won their second straight Prince of Wales trophy.

In the Finals, it was very apparent that the Penguins were simply the hungrier team.  I don't know if it was because their former teammate, Marian Hossa, was on the other side or because they had just lost it the year before but a lot of the Penguins players played above their usual talent level and this gave them the edge they needed.  For the most part Crosby and Malkin were shutdown by the Detroit defense and if the Pens were going to win it they would need big contributions from other players and they got it.  Guys like Jordan Staal and Max Talbot scored big goals.  Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik played outstanding defense and Marc Andre Fleury played probably the best hockey of his life in games 6 and 7.  The Penguins proved that they are more than just a "two man show" as many skeptics had called them and the TEAM was very deserving of the Cup this season.

Looking into the off season, the Pens front office has their work cut out for them.  Evgeni Malkin's contract extension will kick in next year and his cap hit will go from $3.8 million to $8.7 million.  Jordan Staal who was making less than $1 million will now make $4 million.  That's close to $9 million less to work with going into next season with guys like Satan, Fedotenko, Guerin and Scuderi all unrestricted free agents.  The current salary cap is $56.7 million and if it stays the same the Pens will have about $8 million available to sign these players.  However, the cap is projected to go down to $55 million due to the struggling economy.  Whatever the cap may be, the Pens need to resign Rob Scuderi.  He was a fantastic shot blocker and just a real good shutdown defenseman throughout the playoffs.  He needs to be their top priority.  Next, will be a top two line winger.  Guerin will probably want too much, Satan isn't worth the equipment he wears, and I'm not a huge fan of Fedotenko, so the Pens will be better off looking elsewhere.

With the salary cap crunch going into effect, the Pens will need to get creative with their lines.   I think the Pens will need to put Crosby and Malkin together on the same line and give Staal more responsibility as the second line center.  Doing this gives Crosby and the elite winger he should have, validates giving Staal that bigger contract and gives the Pens two good scoring lines as opposed to having them all on separate lines and spreading their talent thin.

Stanley Cup Runner Up

Detroit Red Wings -Well this wasn't the ending I was envisioning (or hoping for), but the Red Wings have fallen just one game short of back to back championships.  It's a tough pill to swallow, but as Henrik Zetterberg mentioned in an interview, the team will learn from this and use it as motivation for next year, just as the Penguins did this year.  Losing in the Finals can be a great motivator for future playoff runs.  When the Wings lost in the Finals in '95, they dominated the league for the next three years with the best regular season record of all time ('96) and two Stanley Cups ('97 - '98).  Winners take negatives and turn them into positives and I believe this team knows that and will be back soon.

Before this playoff run began, I felt that Henrik Zetterberg was one of the best two way players in the game.  Today, I know, without a doubt that not only is he the best two way player in the game, but he's one of the best players period.  The Red Wings may have come up short of their objective this season, but it wasn't due to the lack of effort on the part of Zetterberg.  His assignment going into this series was to shutdown two of the most dynamic offensive players in hockey and without his Selke nominee and teammate, Pavel Datsyuk, for most of the series he was going to have to do it by himself... and he did.  Sidney Crosby recorded just one goal and two assists in the 7 game series while Malkin was limited to just 2 goals equaling the output of the Wings black ace, Justin Abdelkader.  Z will probably never win the Art Ross or Hart Trophies, but his drive, leadership and talent should win him the trophy that matters most, the Stanley Cup, several times before the end of his career.

Going into this off season, like the Penguins, will have to make some tough decisions especially with the possibility of the salary cap shrinking.  Zetterberg will get a $4 million dollar raise next year and Johan Franzen will get a $3 million dollar raise himself, giving them about $5 mil of cap space, $3 mil if it goes down.  The biggest question mark is Marian Hossa.  His disappearance in the post season will surely hurt his market value, but will it bring down his price enough for the Wings to resign him?  The rumor right now is that the Wings are looking to lock him up, long term at $4 mil cap hit per year for the remainder of his career.  Its up to Hossa now whether he wants to finish what he started and go after that elusive Stanley Cup with the team he believed he could do it with or jet off to somewhere else, take the big money and probably never get his name engraved on hockey's holy grail.  As a Wings fan, I hope he takes a hometown discount and stays with the Wings.  His style of play fits this team perfectly and his presence on the second line gives them the best second line in the NHL.  If Hossa leaves, I would like to see the Wings go after Mats Sundin or Marian Gaborik or use that extra money to sure up the back end of their defensive corp because Lebda and Lilja are at times downright scary in their own end.

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