One of the great things about this time of the year, the days after players have started to drift back into NHL cities in anticipation of training camps starting in a matter of weeks, is to project, to dream, to imagine what might be.
And what better thing to imagine than which of the 30 teams will still be standing in June at the start of the Stanley Cup finals?
It is an exercise in fancy and maybe a little fancy stats with intuition and common sense thrown in, although we know that hat sense is oft-times uncommon come playoff time.
OK, I was relatively close on the Ducks, who bowed out in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals against the Chicago Blackhawks, who would go on to defeat the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games in the finals. The Bruins? Not so much. Reminds me of picking the Vancouver Canucks to win the Cup coming out of the 2004-05 lockout only to see them miss the playoffs entirely. Oh, well.
How about next June, then?
Anaheim Ducks versus Washington Capitals
Spoiler alert: This is my 2016 Stanley Cup prediction heading into camp. We had the Caps emerging from the Eastern Conference when the playoffs started last spring. The Caps lost a heartbreaker in overtime in Game 7 against the New York Rangers in the second round, but Washington general manager Brian MacLellan added T.J. Oshie up front to go with three-time Cup winner Justin Williams to bolster the Caps’ chances this season. Evgeny Kuznetsov is a special young player and Braden Holtby is the real deal in goal. Throw in motivated leaders Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom for whom the window is slowly closing in Washington, and we like the Caps’ chances of emerging from the wide-open (again) Eastern Conference. The Western Conference is just a little more wide open with uncertainty dogging the Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings, and we like the retooling that Anaheim GM Bob Murray has done to the Ducks with Carl Hagelin, Chris Stewart and Kevin Bieksa giving the already big and talented Ducks a slightly different look. Plus who doesn’t want to see Anaheim head coach Bruce Boudreau coach in his first finals against his first NHL team, the Caps?
Prediction: Ducks in 7; Anton Khudobin makes 50 saves in the double-overtime Cup-clinching victory.
Remember 1989? The two best teams in the NHL by a country mile squared off in a great finals that saw the Flames, including Hall of Famer Lanny McDonald, earn their first and only Stanley Cup by defeating Patrick Roy and the Habs in six games. The Flames could be one of those step up, step back teams after a surprise run to the second round last spring, but GM Brad Treliving (with help from his predecessor Jay Feaster) has built a really good team, bolstered by the addition of former Bruins defenseman Dougie Hamilton and former Cup-winner Michael Frolik. The goaltending? Meh. But maybe good enough. The Habs, of course, are led by the best goalie in the world in Carey Price and, while there are still holes in this lineup, they should be a playoff team once again, and we know all you need to do is get in the door.
Prediction: Habs in 6; Alexander Semin scores the Cup-clinching goal with his 14th shot of Game 6 with a wicked slap shot from just inside the Flames’ blue line that beats Joni Ortio, the third goaltender used by Flames coach Bob Hartley in the finals.
How about a finals featuring two teams whose unfulfilled playoff expectations are legion? The Penguins have advanced beyond the second round just once since winning the Cup in 2009 (being swept by Boston in 2013) but that hasn’t stopped previous GM Ray Shero and now replacement Jim Rutherford from swinging for the fences every single year. Rutherford scooped up Phil Kessel from the Toronto Maple Leafs, then added Nick Bonino and Eric Fehr, and once again the Pens are going to be one of the most interesting teams to watch. Meanwhile, Ken Hitchcock is back behind the Blues bench in spite of another first-round playoff disappointment and the Blues once again look like a team built to go the distance with Vladimir Tarasenko signed long term and one of the most imposing blue-line units in the NHL. Imagine Tarasenko trading chances with countryman Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby trying to turn fellow Canadian Olympian Alex Pietrangelo inside out. Fun? Oh, yeah.
Prediction: Penguins in 7; Kessel scores the winner from Crosby in an exact replica of Gretzky to Lemieux in the 1987 Canada Cup finale, with Malkin providing the decoy.
San Jose Sharks versus Boston Bruins
Stepping closer to the fringe here, but we do like what San Jose GM Doug Wilson did in adding playoff presence Joel Ward and Paul Martin, who will bolster the top four along the San Jose blue line. Peter DeBoer is a fresh voice behind the bench and, if Wilson is right on Martin Jones in net, the Sharks will challenge the Ducks for the top spot in the Pacific. Meanwhile, the Bruins are in transition, no doubt. But Zdeno Chara will be rested after a rare non-playoff spring and there is still a solid nucleus that knows how to win, led by defending Frank J. Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron and backstopped by former Vezina Trophy winner Tuukka Rask.
Prediction: San Jose in 6; Joe Thornton, suspended by the Sharks for Game 5 after dumping a full drink and a bowl of guacamole on Doug Wilson’s head during a team dinner, scores the winner, going coast to coast. Thornton then parades the Cup around TD Garden in Boston shirtless and announces his retirement to become player-coach of the Zurich Lions of the Swiss Elite league.
When this matchup actually unfolds next spring, I will preface all coverage with “as first reported by ESPN.com.” Because it could happen. For a stretch last season Nashville was the best team in the NHL, led by Vezina Trophy finalist Pekka Rinne and two-time gold medalist and team captain Shea Weber. The Preds swooned down the stretch and were bounced in the first round by Chicago but should learn from that experience and once again be a playoff team in spite of the intense competition bound to unfold in the Central Division. Columbus, meanwhile, was last fall’s Eastern Conference darling but a rash of injuries dashed playoff hopes early. Still, the Blue Jackets played hard and were tied for the league lead in wins after March 1. Add Brandon Saad to an already hard-working, talented team and factor in former Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky in goal and this is a team ready to make noise.
Prediction: Columbus in 7; Scott Hartnell with the Cup-winner on a rare breakaway after the Nationwide Arena cannon inadvertently fires during a Nashville power play in double overtime.