Hard to argue against Wings repeating

SCOTT MORRISON, FOR SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 9:58 AM ET

It used to be that the Maple Leafs had to play at least one regular-season game before they were declared Stanley Cup incapable.

But this season it happened before the first puck was even dropped -- and they did the declaring themselves.

Times really have changed.

So, with the knowledge that the Leafs won't be getting any closer to the Stanley Cup this season than rubbing shoulders with the defending champions last night, and for the folks who can't wait through the remaining 1,222 regular-season games and the playoffs, let's address the burning question of who exactly will win the big prize?

The easy and obvious answer is, of course, to look no further than those same defending champion Detroit Red Wings, even though we understand how difficult it is for a team to repeat with the parity in the NHL these days.

But if any team has what it takes to establish a dynasty, it surely must be the Red Wings.

Hardly a Sean Avery-like declaration, eh?

ALWAYS NEAR TOP

Truth is, with four Stanley Cup championships in the past 11 seasons, including two in the past six, they're already a dynasty of sorts. Since they won the first of those four championships back in 1997, they've finished first overall four times and were in the top three nine times. Indeed, the lowest they have fallen was sixth overall in 1999. And on it goes, eight consecutive years with at least 100 points, 17 consecutive playoff appearances... If that ain't a dynasty, it's the next best thing.

And while no team has repeated as champion since Detroit did it back in 1997 and 1998, there are six current Red Wings (Kris Draper, Tomas Holmstrom, Nicklas Lidstrom, Kirk Maltby, Darren McCarty and Chris Osgood), along with general manager Ken Holland (and a large chunk of the management team), who were there when it happened and know how it is done.

You safely can make the argument, too, that this team is better than the one that beat the Pittsburgh Penguins last June. Think about it. Yes, they lost goaltender Dominik Hasek, but he wasn't between the pipes when the Stanley Cup was won.

Now, you again could wonder whether Chris Osgood is good enough to carry the load for a full season and playoffs as the No. 1 goaltender, and whether Ty Conklin is an adequate backup. But the fact remains that Osgood was very good all of last season and in the playoffs and Conklin helped to keep the Penguins alive when they were without goaltender Marc Andre Fleury and Sidney Crosby.

Beyond that, the other departed Red Wing is forward Dallas Drake. So, Drake and Hasek out, Marian Hossa and Conklin in. Not a bad trade.

And the overall defensive strength of the Red Wings, the wonderful special teams, the staggering depth, and an offence that was potent a year ago and now has Hossa as part of it, should be able to compensate for even a hint of weakness in goal or anywhere else.

Now, just before they cancel the season and brace for the economic Armageddon south of the border, there is still a lot that needs to happen for the Red Wings to repeat. Good health is key. Getting the right matchups in the playoffs helps. Making sure the players have the same thirst for champagne as they did a year ago is also vital.

MOTIVATED

But motivation shouldn't be a problem, not with the depth in the organization and the competition for jobs and not with Hossa present and working for less than he could have made elsewhere because he believed the Red Wings could repeat.

If not the Red Wings, it figures that the Stanley Cup champion could again come from the west, where the Anaheim Ducks will be very good again. Remember, when they had all hands on deck after the trade deadline they were exceptional, though they stumbled in the first round against a very good Dallas Stars team, which again rates as a prime contender, as do the San Jose Sharks, who have added Cup-winning experience in Dan Boyle and Rob Blake to their blue line and their dressing room.

Indeed, any team that gets into the playoffs in the West, including Calgary, will have a legitimate shot at winning, though those first four seem just a tad better.

In the East, Montreal, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and the New York Rangers, are all legit, with Washington an intriguing team and Ottawa a enigma that may return to form. New Jersey always is in the mix and maybe Carolina and Boston are ready to step up.

So many possibilities, so many teams with legitimate hope, but today the defending champion gets the nod.

But like they say, there is a reason why they play the games.


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