If memory serves, and it might be less reliable now than the Maple Leafs' defence, when we most recently spoke six years ago, we were just about to tell you looking ahead that Detroit likely would win the Stanley Cup that spring, followed by New Jersey and Tampa Bay, that there would be an unforgivable year of darkness, and when the lights came back on that Carolina would, of course, emerge victorious, with still mighty Anaheim to follow.
Yeah, that was it. Turns out that is pretty much how history unfolded, too, though we never would have guessed that along the way the dollar would become, well, a dollar and blond hockey wives would cool to the idea of spending winter in Edmonton. Who knew?
Which brings us to the here and now, a handful of days into a new season that started before the exhibition season ended, with the burning questions across the country: Who will Mike Keenan tick off in Calgary? Can the Canucks score enough to go deep? Does Alexei Kovalev have a pulse? Is Dustin Penner worth the millions? Are the Senators still as good? Can Leafs management just get along? And who will win the Stanley Cup?
The answers, in order: He will love all. The jury is out.So far, so good. For them, he is worth every nickel. They are every bit as good. Not likely.And, the answer to the last question, who will win the Stanley Cup: No clue.
There was a time, such as six years ago, when the business of picking winners was much easier, though still an imperfect science. The likes of Colorado, Dallas, New Jersey and Detroit always were in the hunt, with the odd surprise visitor to the final, and big spenders such as the Maple Leafs, Flyers and their kind usually were not far behind. Pick one of those first four and generally you had a fighting chance of being right, or at least not laughed at.
But then, out of the lockout, there is a final four of Carolina, Edmonton, Buffalo and Anaheim and suddenly everyone is dreaming in high definition.
Heading into this season, you comfortably could suggest at least seven teams (Ottawa, Pittsburgh, New York Rangers, Detroit, Anaheim, San Jose and Dallas) fall into the serious contender category, while perhaps a half-dozen more (Buffalo, New Jersey, Vancouver, Minnesota, Calgary and Colorado) rest in the next tier of hopefuls, with a handful of others (Carolina, Philadelphia, Toronto, Nashville, Tampa Bay and Montreal) insistent they will be better and as such have a shot, albeit a very long one.
And history has proven never to underestimate Edmonton, no matter how bad it got last year, unless of course your name is Brian Burke.
Point is, as the commissioner promised post-lockout, degrees of economic and competitive parity have gripped the league, which means making predictions is even more of a fool's game. That said, and suitably typecast for the game, onward with predicting who might win the Cup.
Notwithstanding all the factors that come into play over the course of the year, in the East the big three appear to be Ottawa, which shook a big monkey off its back last spring getting to the final; the Rangers, who are back to building the old-fashioned way -- buy, buy, buy, only smartly; and Pittsburgh, just because it has the best player in the game. And like we said, you can make a good case for several others, including Buffalo.
Out west, where it should be a grand season, most likely all eight who make the playoffs will have a legitimate shot, or reason to hope. Out of the gate, San Jose is the consensus pick of most and for good reason.
DUCKS STILL MIGHTY
Anaheim will be strong, but will need some help along the way if the retirement home doesn't empty out as hoped. Dallas always is tough, with Vancouver legit because of its goaltender. Minnesota is getting closer, while Colorado got a lot better with Ryan Smyth and Scott Hannan, and Keenan will make a difference (yes, a positive difference) in Calgary.
Then there is Detroit, which has the luxury of feasting on the Central Division 32 times during the season, which means the Wings will always sleep well, with plenty of points in their bellies, and be in the top three seeds heading into the playoffs.
Beyond that, they are good in goal, have the best defenceman in Nicklas Lidstrom, the oldest best defenceman in Chris Chelios, a ton of talented kids, and were arguably just a goal and a minute away from being in the final last spring.
They also still have money to spend and there have been whispers all summer and fall that maybe, just maybe, if Peter Forsberg gets the urge again, he may be a Wing, all of which would make them the champions ... six years later.
It's nice to be back.