Thursday, June 15, 2017

Repeat Champions

Late to the party...

The Pittsburgh Penguins accomplished, something something very rare in the NHL these days, repeating as Stanley Cup Champions.  The 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings were the last team to do so, with the Penguins becoming the first in the Cap Era to do so.

The road to repeating was not an easy one.  Their reward for finishing second in the entire league was to take on the team that finished fourth overall in the league, in the Columbus Blue Jackets, before needing 7 games against the President Trophy winning Washington Capitals in the next round.  Ottawa proved to be a very tough foe in the Eastern Conference Final, needing a dramatic double overtime winner by veteran Chris Kunitz to send Pittsburgh into the Final where they met the exciting Nashville Predators.  It took 6 games, as I predicted, before Pittsburgh was able to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup again in Smashville, once again following in tradition of clinching on the road like their previous four Cup wins.

The question now becomes can they 3-peat?  That's something that hasn't happened since the New York Islanders dynasty of the 80's (1980-84) when they won four straight Cups.  It's somewhat unlikely, though not entirely impossible.

Consider the team still has the best player in the league in Sidney Crosby, who won his second straight Conn Smythe.  Evgeni Malkin is no slouch, either.  Matt Murrary is only 23. The team won with a defence that didn't have a player who had ever received a single Norris trophy vote.  Imagine how much better it will be when Kris Letang returns next season after being injured the last half of the season.

There will be changes; more than there were last season.  Some players like Matt Cullen and Chris Kunitz will be moving on.  At 40, Cullen has already said he was retiring, although he said that last year as well.  Kunitz could do the same after winning his fourth Cup.

Nick Bonio and Trevor Daley are both UFA's, but I'd would say short of a low ball offer, both would be foolish to leave.  Daley would be the bigger loss as Bonino didn't quite have the playoff he had a year before as part of the HBK line (Phil Kessel and Carl Hagelin).

So who could possibly stop the Penguins attempt at a 3-peat?

Eastern Conference

Washington Capitals: They were the President Trophy winners last season, but after failing to advance beyond the second round, again, thanks to the Penguins, Washington faces some changes.  Most of the key guys are signed thru next season, though T.J. Oshie, Karl Azner, and Kevin Shattenkirk are all UFAs.

Tampa Bay Lightning: A healthy Steven Stamkos should get the Lightning back into the playoffs after missing last year.  They came close a couple of years ago, losing to the Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final, then lost to Pittsburgh the next year in the Eastern Conference Final.  Even after today's massive trade with the Montreal Canadiens, saying goodbye to Jonathan Drouin, they still have a deep team.

Montreal Canadiens: Marc Bergevin finally addressed the scoring woes that plagued the Canadiens in the playoffs by acquiring Drouin from the Lightning.  They still need a true number one centre and there is still a question of whether Alex Radulov will be re-signed or not.  The Russian forward proved that he was a changed man last season, but could he price himself out?  They have one of the best, if not the best, goalie in the league in Carey Price.  The window may be closing fast as Price is set to be a UFA soon, which could force Bergevin to make more moves to turn the team into an even bigger contender.

Pittsburgh Penguins: Wait, what?  The Penguins have played a lot of hockey in the past couple of seasons and face another short off-season.  There was already suggestion that the team was running on fumes in the Final, though we all know how that turned out.  It's possible that a 3-peat is out of the question, but another championship the year after might not be as surprising.

Western Conference

Chicago Blackhawks: The Hawks were stunned by the Predators in the first round.  Not because they lost, but because they were swept.  That prompted changes behind the bench to Joel Quennville's assistants.  The team itself, remains intact.  Along with Pittsburgh, they are the only team to have won 3 Stanley Cups since 2009.  They are due for a fourth.

Anaheim Ducks: Always a bridesmaid, never the bride.  The window to win appears to be closing somewhat as the team's leaders get older.  The expansion draft could throw a wrench in their Stanley Cup aspirations, as they could potentially lose a really good player, either up front or on the back end.

Nashville Predators: Despite finishing 8th in the west, the Predators are a better team than their record belies.  They have arguably the best defence in the league and have a young nucleus of forwards.  Beating Chicago, St. Louis and Anaheim on their way to the Final prove they are a true contender and a return to the Final is not out of the question.

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