Interesting things are afoot in the NHL’s Western Conference playoffs. The four-years-running tag team of the Chicago Blackhawks and the Los Angeles Kings are both gone now, meaning some team that hasn’t won the Cup in a while–if ever–is going to take the trophy this season.
First and foremost, we’re left to ponder the obvious question: Is it over for the Kings and Blackhawks?
I have a feeling that the answer is, maybe. Perhaps. Possibly. It’s all kind of up in the air right now, because both teams have already demonstrated that they could win the Cup, be denied the next season, and then come back and regain the championship. So the mere fact of defeat is not necessarily a deal-breaker where the two former titlists are concerned.
Both the Blackhawks and the Kings will go into next season after some roster changes, but most likely their core talent will remain largely intact. Thus, there remains the ability to come back strong and get right back into the mix.
Still, losing in the first round is never the way you want to go. Oddly, though Chicago is only one year removed from winning it all, as opposed to a full two years for L.A., and they took St. Louis all the way to the brink in Game 7 this year, I suspect that the Kings may be the team more likely to bounce back and see themselves at the top of the standings in 2017.
The Blackhawks fought valiantly against the Blues, but that came after they had been teetering for several weeks coming into the playoffs. Also, Chicago has shown more of a penchant for moving players in and out of town, despite (or perhaps even because of) their success. That sort of work can keep a team fresh and constantly reloading and repairing, if not rebuilding–but it can also lead to false moves and mistakes that can upset the apple cart in a big way. The Kings, in contrast, seem much more likely to keep their team together, including a bunch of good young players (Toffoli, Pearson, Muzzin) who will serve as a foundation for several years to come. Tweaks, not overhauls, can keep the Kings in contention for a crown.
So the two teams are in decent shape moving forward. However, their fate probably lies not so much with themselves as with what steps are taken by the rest of the league’s contenders, in particular the heavy hitters in the West. If the Stars and Blues demonstrate that their recent rises are not flashes in the pan, if the Ducks maintain their steady course, if the Sharks really are back in contending form…if any or all that works out, the former champion Kings and Blackhawks may find themselves sliding down the standings, simply because other teams just got better.
How much better? We’ll end this discussion with a step away from the future and take a good look at right now. Who are the contenders from here on out?
West Favorite: Dallas Stars. This might change if Anaheim beats Nashville tonight, but even so I suspect the Stars should be the choice here. The had the best record in the West, and they score a lot of goals, and while the franchise has not been postseason successful recently, there is history there, meaning they won’t carry around with them the burden of past flameouts like the Blues will. The Stars have had that vibe all season, and I suspect there’s a good chance it will keep humming, probably into June.
West Dark Horse: San Jose Sharks. The reasons for this pick were outlined in yesterday’s post. Suffice it to say, the Sharks might be feeling pretty free and easy the rest of the way, now that they’ve cleaned up from the stink of that playoff choke from two years ago.
East Favorite: Washington Capitals. Uneasy lies the head…This pick is strictly a playing to chalk, pro forma acknowledgement that the Caps dominated the regular season, and should thus be the favorite. Everybody knows the deal with this franchise, and frankly, they way they let the Flyers hang around for six games really does not bode well for them overcoming their litany of failures. Hence, what really catches our eye is…
East Dark Horse: Pittsburgh Penguins. Hoo, boy. If the Pens really have it rolling the way they seem to right now, this will look like a stupid choice for not making them the favorite. They’ve got guys who’ve done it before, they’re hot, they had the second best goal differential in the league…if anyone is going to pimp-slap the Capitals out of the way, it has to be these guys (all apologies to the Islanders and Lightning, two fine teams but not particularly inspiring at this point). This may be the real freight train among the remaining teams.
Dynasties may be good for marketing and such, but, as noted before, the DFR likes competitive balance, and with the former champs now out of the way, there’s the promise that these Stanley Cup playoffs will lead to something really interesting.