MY EDMONTON OILERS HAD THEIR PLAYOFF HOPES LAID TO REST MONTHS AGO. SO WHO TO FOLLOW THESE STANLEY CUP PLAYOFFS? HERE ARE FIVE VERY LIKEABLE CANDIDATES
So here we are, at the beginning of another campaign for Lord Stanley’s coveted chalice. Back in October there were thirty teams with visions of the Stanley Cup dancing in their head, but seven and a half months later the weak and the slow have been culled and we’re down to the sixteen most worthy teams; sixteen that will be reduced to a single champion in two months time.
But the biggest question I find myself asking is who to cheer for. I’ve made no secret that my heart belongs to the Edmonton Oilers, arguably the most dysfunctional franchise in all of professional sports (and I’ve also been one of their most vocal critics). The Oil were essentially banished from chasing Lord Stanley’s Cup some time around November, meaning that for a ninth year in a row, myself and other long suffering Oilers fans are left on the outside looking in (and worse yet, our current and failure obsessed management group seems oblivious or indifferent to the fan base’s growing frustration and fatigue). So I face a choice; ignore the playoffs altogether, choosing to deprive myself of the best hockey all year, or choose another franchise to champion my hopes and dreams. Cheer might be a little too strong for the limited emotional investment I’m willing to make, while support is probably a more accurate term of what I’m looking to offer some NHL franchise over the next few months. Now the question becomes how to narrow it down. While I may not have determined my franchise of choice for this season’s Stanley Cup playoffs yet, I have determined the five teams most worthy of my support. And why.
Winnipeg Jets: Perhaps the second biggest underdogs to even make the playoffs this season, the Jets have been playing desperation hockey for 82 games already, clinching their first post-season berth since landing back in the ‘Peg in 2011. Few pundits believed the Jets had a snowball’s chance to make the playoff dance, but Winnipeg has fought and clawed all season long. When the Evander Kane situation reached apparent critical mass last February, Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff overcame his trade reluctant rep and pulled the trigger on a deal that sent the talented but much maligned young power forward to the struggling Buffalo Sabres in a deal that improved his roster both today and down the road. Every time adversity reared it’s gruesome head, the Jets buckled down and pressed their collective shoulder to the grindstone even harder. It would seem the NHL’s smallest market is this year’s little engine that could, and have so far risen to the occasion through blood, sweat and intestinal fortitude. How can you not like that?
Calgary Flames: This was supposed to be just the second year of the Flames official rebuild. When Calgary traded franchise cornerstone Jarome Iginla in the spring of 2013, it signaled a long overdue changing of the guard for the Flames, one that was supposed to see them competing for the first overall pick in this June’s entry draft. But things haven’t quite followed that particular script. While Winnipeg may have been the NHL’s second biggest playoff underdog story, the Flames were by far it’s largest. Everyone kept expecting Calgary to fall out of playoff contention any day, but the Flames kept the naysayers waiting and silenced them for good when they fought and shoved their way into the playoff picture. The Flames were this year’s Come Back Kids, leading the NHL in comebacks when they trailed opponents by a goal or more entering the third period. To a man, Calgary embraced a new “Never Say Die” culture; one adopted by the new leadership Calgary ownership brought in to complete the rebuild. There’s a lesson there that Calgary’s provincial cousins down the road in Edmonton have failed to realize, and if the Flames go deep in this year’s playoffs, it will serve to embarrass the Oiler’s incompetent brass even more. And that’s reason enough to show them some love.
Ottawa Senators: Ottawa was another team that wasn’t supposed to be part of the playoff equation this year, but enough dominoes fell into place to allow the Ottawa Senators to stage the biggest second half turnaround in NHL history. And simply put, the Sens, bar none, were the NHL’s biggest Cinderella Story this year. Sure, the team played better under Dave Cameron, who replaced 2013 Jack Adams winning coach Paul MacLean after Ottawa fired the Walrus mid-season. And sure, new captain Erik Karlsson deserves a healthy dose of credit, leading the team in scoring (again) while leading all NHL blue liners in points (again), not to mention how important Ottawa’s young guns were to their success this season; with Mark Stone (who should win the Calder trophy for best rookie), Mike Hoffman (who lead both Ottawa and all NHL freshmen in goals), Mika Zibanejad (2011’s sixth overall pick who looks to have usurped Kyle Turris as Ottawa’s number one centre) and Curtis Lazar (a big part of Canada’s gold medal winning squad at this year’s World Junior tournament). But the Sens momentous turnaround belongs primarily to one player-Andrew “Hamburglar” Hammond. When Ottawa’s regular net minders went down with injuries at the end of January and Hammond, who was posting less then mediocre numbers with the AHL Binghamton Senators, was thrust into the Sens crease, everyone pretty much stuck a fork in Ottawa’s playoff hopes (the Sens were 14 points out of a playoff spot at that point). But a funny thing happened-Hammond became the architect of a bona fide NHL Miracle on Ice. The Sens became supernova hot overnight and Hammond began breaking 80 year old records as he pulled Ottawa into the playoffs. And if that wasn’t enough of a storybook plot line for you, the team is pulling to give GM Bryan Murray, whose been battling terminal cancer all season long, one final season of memorable hockey and they’ll be dedicating every second of success to the memory of assistant coach Mike Lee who died a few days ago. This team will be playing with unimaginable emotional chutzpah.
Montreal Canadiens: The Habs were Canada’s lone post-season representative last year and they battled all the way to the Eastern Conference final before being eliminated by the New York Rangers. It is quite possible those two meet again this spring, possibly battling once again for the privilege of representing the East in the Stanley Cup Finals and a potential rematch between these two powerhouses will be epic as both teams have improved significantly since last June. I’ve always favoured the NHL’s masked men and while not taking anything away from the aforementioned Andrew Hammond or the Minnesota Wild’s Devan Dubnyk (who pulled a similar resurrection act with Minnesota’s flailing playoff hopes), Carey Price has quietly put together an historical campaign that has put his name alongside legends like Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy. His season long numbers have guaranteed him the Vezina trophy as the League’s top goalie and there’s also plenty of chatter about him taking home the Hart as the NHL’s most valuable player as well. And while I’ve never denied his flaws, it never fails to amaze me how little respect P.K. Subban gets, especially after his heroics last spring against the Boston Bruins (Subban took home the Norris trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman in 2013 and was the NHL’s second highest scoring blue liner this season). Maybe another deep post season run will get him some much-deserved respect. But my biggest reason for wanting to see the Habs enjoy some Stanley Cup success is Jeff Petry. Petry became the most recent in a long line of whipping boys for Edmonton Oilers management and fans despite numbers showing he was the best defenseman on a team where the blue line was their biggest weakness. The Oilers showed him little respect, signalling they were planning on trading him when they signed him to a single year deal last summer and then followed through on their intentions by shipping him to the Habs for draft picks at last March’s trade deadline. Yes, a team with a notoriously weak blue line gave away their best d-man for nothing (reason number 517 why Edmonton has spent the better part of the past decade well outside the playoff bubble). Seeing Petry, who was immediately slotted into the Habs top defensive four upon arrival, playing for the Stanley Cup will be an added bonus to humiliate Oilers brass.
Minnesota Wild: With the previous four entries on the list hailing from north of the border, this selection may leave you scratching your head a bit. And make no mistake, I’d love to see the Stanley Cup return to the Great White North for the first time in 22 years, but I’m also a pragmatist and with American teams constituting two thirds of playoff bound squads (including heavy hitters like the Rangers, Chicago, Anaheim, Nashville and others), the numbers are stacked against a Canadian captain skating victory laps holding the Cup aloft this June. And I do admire the way the Wild, a perennial playoff absentee a few years ago, have built their team, combining smart drafting, patient and efficient player development, shrewd trading and a few big free agent splashes into a recipe that has turned them into everyone’s favourite dark horse in the West. But my true motive for wanting to see the Wild raise a banner or two following this spring’s playoffs is Minnesota goaltending hero and former Edmonton Oiler Devan Dubnyk. You see, like Jeff Petry was this season, Dubnyk was Edmonton’s scapegoat last year, being dealt to the Nashville Predators for (overpaid) fourth line grinder Matt Hendricks. During the lockout shortened 2013 season, Dubnyk, whose career had been trending upwards, finally seized hold of Edmonton’s top net minding job, but as soon as Dallas Eakins came on board as the Oilers bench boss, he was among a number of young players whose careers went south in a hurry (sophomores Nail Yakupov and Justin Schultz being the other two). Now Oiler apologists will point out that Dubnyk fared poorly with Nashville after the deal in question and never played a single minute for the Canadiens when the Preds dealt him to Montreal later that season. But what those pundits fail to point out is that when Dubs landed in Nashville he was well behind Pekka Rinne on the depth chart and when he arrived in Montreal he was behind Carey Price, Peter Budaj and Dustin Tokarski. When the Arizona Coyotes signed him to a one-year deal last summer, Dubs began posting numbers superior than starter and former Olympian Mike Smith (on a horrible team, no less) and when the Wild acquired him for the bank breaking price of a third round draft pick last January, Dubnyk (who set new standards for work horses everywhere, starting all but one game between then and the end of the season) turned Minnesota’s fortunes around nearly as much as Hammond did Ottawa’s. In fact, my dream final this year is a Minnesota-Montreal matchup, where no matter who wins, one of Edmonton’s head slapping mistakes will be on full display, and one will eventually have his name etched onto the Stanley Cup.