September 30, 2009 Brooins Brewing for a Cup TFP Columnist
Dennis Bernstein makes his Stanley Cup prediction.
[LOS ANGELES, CA] -- It was a great
summer, I experienced so many wonderful things. Warm weather, a visit
to the New Yankee Stadium, covering the NHL Awards at the Palms in Las
Vegas, the well received launch of The Fourth Period Magazine, and
(saving the best for last) getting married in June to the most
incredible person I've ever met (a hockey mom and now a proud Los
Angeles Kings season ticket holder to boot). What more could any
red-blooded sports lover desire?
But as the calendar page turns to October and we wonder where another
year has gone, it's time for the nine-month chase for the most
recognized trophy in all sports, The Stanley Cup.
The Playoff Gods were kind to the NHL
last year, with an old Original Six franchise, the Chicago Blackhawks,
on track to returning to former glory, a stirring seven game final
series pitting the present, the Detroit Red Wings and the future, the
Pittsburgh Penguins. Network television ratings for Game 7 hit a
20-year high, proving that despite the black hole (and eye) the
Phoenix Coyotes have become, when the game is as its best it's still a
sport for the North American masses.
In my annual rite of passage, I gaze into my-not-so crystal ball and
try to come up with the team that will skate that prized chalice
around the rink in June. My perfect record remains intact, 12-years of
hockey writing, 12 misses.
Last season, people scoffed at my
selection of the Chicago Blackhawks but after a renaissance 100 point
season and a berth in the Western Conference Finals, it was a
respectable pick. I took comfort in not having to explain how the San
Jose Sharks 2008-09 playoff experience lasted just six games.
We'll eschew from making the case for my selection initially,
preferring to give the reader the reasons why the other contenders
won't win the prize.
Here are the suspects, in no particular
order with their fatal flaws:
PITTSBURGH Ė Always good to disavow the reigning champs. I
never pick back-to-back champions based on a) the stats that say itís
been over a decade since Detroit repeated, b) the fact that 29 teams
are pointing at you and c) that dreaded Stanley Cup hangover.
Of all the recent champs, the Penguins
are the biggest threat to repeat, their young superstars have a ring
on their finger, the young goaltender won a road Game 7 in arena that
had been a house of horrors for him and the core of the team is still
DETROIT Ė They can never be counted out because they're clearly
the best organization in the NHL. They always have players coming
through the system thanks to the genius of Ken Holland, despite
drafting at the bottom of the first round of the draft every year.
Winged Wheel fans can moan that if Pavel Datsyuk was healthy, they
wouldn't have booed the Cup celebration because it would have been the
Red and White lifting the trophy. They'll miss Marian Hossa (but not
for the first two months due to injury or the playoffs due to lack of
clutch play) and the other low hanging fruit harvested by other
organizations and leagues (Kopecky, Hudler and Samuelsson). With
Nicklas Lidstrom, now 39, and Brian Rafalski 35, this team looks a
little too grizzled to avenge their finals loss. This will be the year
where younger bones will outlast experience.
CHICAGO Ė Everyone's (except Motown) darlings last year, but
what do they do for an encore with expectations for their first
championship since 1961? They traded a Havlat for a Hossa and
that's an upgrade that could threaten the Red Wings' domination of the
Central Division. Besides the big Hossa deal, GM Stan Bowman smartly
brought depth to the forward wall by signing checking line center John
Madden and picking Detroitís pocket again to sign Tomas Kopecky.
Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews only get a year better and defensemen
Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are veterans in their mid 20s. So with
all the kudos, why wouldn't I run the Hawks' flag up the pole again?
Simply, the thought of Cristobal Huet taking Chicago four rounds deep
isn't based in reality. An afterthought in last year's playoff and now
needing to earn his $5.625 annual contact puts the Frenchman in
pressure situation he's never experienced even though he tended goal
in Montreal back in the day. Though 27 games over .500 for his regular
season career, Huet's numbers for the playoffs are 6-9-1 with a 3.10
goals against average. I just cancelled the parade down Madison Street
after reading those stats unless Bowman can clear cap room at the
deadline and deal for Anaheim's Jean-Sebastien Giguere, truly a
perfect goalie for this team.
VANCOUVER Ė The hip pick to click for the Cup, I didn't see it
last year and don't see it this year. GM Mike Gillis salvaged the
franchise when he re-signed the Sedin twins, fortunately for Gillis
that the city reminds the twins of their Swedish homeland. When the
best move is NOT signing a free agent (the failed Mats Sundin
experiment), there won't be a significant upgrade in talent along the
forward line. Some people think that another Detroit refugee, Mikael
Samuelsson will pair with the Sedins to score 35-40, but just because
all three line mates have the same country of origin on their
passport, it doesn't equal close to production of 100 goals. The
backline will miss lifetime Canuck Mattias Ohlund (gone to mentor
Tampa's Victor Hedman for a sweet payday) but dealing for Christian
Erhoff, Mathieu Schneider and Brad Lukowich brings savvy and offense.
Assuming no drop off in performance from arguably the best goalie in
the league, Roberto Luongo, the talent on the roster is close to the
best in the West. What you don't see it toughness, either mental (only
four players in the room have a ring) or physical (this team is
finesse with a capital F) and that will be their downfall.
SAN JOSE Ė Goalies around the league will have sleepless nights
pondering Joe Thornton dishing passes to Dany Heatley and if the
controversial winger is in shape, you can put him down for 50 goals.
Second year coach Todd McLellan learned his lesson in the post season,
stripping the captaincy from the ill-suited Patrick Marleau, but
should have gone the extra mile and appointed Dan Boyle as the man
with the C. I witnessed first hand Boyle's bitterness and
disappointment after their first round elimination by the Anaheim
Ducks and sadly, he was the only one with any passion in his voice in
that locker room. I'm convinced that goaltender Evgeni Nabokov is a
function of the system he plays in and the team he plays for and not
an elite netminder, he'd have to win a championship to change my mind.
At this point, no one cares about 100 point seasons, No.1 seeds or
President's Trophies. It's all or nothing for the Sharks, but the
team's character isn't robust enough to fend off all the challenges of
winning sixteen post season games.
WASHINGTON Ė The sting of a Game 7 home loss to the eventual
champion Penguins should be all the motivation all this team needs to
do better. Of bigger concern is if that sting stays with goaltender
Semyon Varlamov, who was last seen driven from the net in the closing
stanza. The game's best offensive talent, Alex Ovechkin, might get 60
and the roster is a little smarter with Brendan Morrison and more
physical with the deft signing of Mike Knuble in the free agent
market. A year's worth of seasoning (and disappointment) makes them
better but with lack of depth on the blueline and unproven playoff
goaltender (remember they were life and death with the Rangers in
round one before getting off the deck) makes them very exciting but
not a champion.
PHILADELPHIA Ė Hmm, Chris Pronger looks right at home in Orange
and Black. Hmm, most people couldn't tell you that Jeff Carter was
second behind Ovechkin in goal scoring last season? Hmm, if Claude
Giroux develops further and Daniel Briere is healthy, aren't they as
good as any team in the East? Hmm, that would be a no because relying
on wild Ray Emery and Brian Boucher (didn't he set a shutout record
once) to backstop you to a championship is a pipe dream.
So by process of elimination, we come to the team that plays hard by
the Back Bay and toils in the shadow of Faneuil Hall (being from the
Bronx doesn't make them cherished visions.)
The Bruins had a love fest with the city
last season; Tim Thomas was acrobatic, Zdeno Chara was dominant and
their forwards came at you in waves. They improved from 76 points and
no playoffs two seasons ago to 116 points and the number one seed in
the East. The karma around TD Garden swelled when the Brooins
dispatched their nemesis, the Montreal Canadiens, in a four game
sweep. All that stood between Boston and a berth in the Final Four was
the crafty, spirited and sixth seeded Carolina Hurricanes. The Canes
were coming off an exhausting and draining seven game series against
the New Jersey Devils and couldnít possibly have anything left in the
tank against a better and more rested team.
But that's why they play the games, Bruins faithful. Carolina did have
one tank of gas left, when Scott Walker (whose blind side hit of Aaron
Ward made him public enemy number one) scored in overtime in Game 7.
The moment his shot eluded Thomas, the clock turned 27, the number of
years it's been since the Cup spent its summer in Cape Cod.
So what's different this year?
Most think that the biggest change is a
negative one, GM Peter Chiarelli ended cap issues and a contract
impasse by dealing 36 goal scorer and 21-year-old Phil Kessel.
Chiarelli has a chance to recoup the talent from his trading partner,
Toronto's blustery GM Brian Burke by virtue of receiving three high
draft picks for the winger. The major concern for Chowderheads is
replacing the team's leading goal scorer but in looking at the roster,
those concerns should be minimized. Kessel's departure opens up more
opportunity for wingers Milan Lucic (given increasing ice time, he has
to score more than 17 goals), Marco Sturm (an afterthought after an
injury plagued season) and Blake Wheeler (who should go for 30). With
a one-two punch down the middle of Marc Savard (the least known
superstar in the league) and David Krejci, goal production clearly
wonít be an issue.
Other than the great but aging Lidstrom, Zdeno Chara is the best
defenseman in the league. His size, physicality and scoring prowess
(11 powerplay goals) makes him a game changer on the backline. His
running mate, Dennis Wideman, is the most unsung blueliner in the
league as the former eighth round pick by the Buffalo Sabres had
statistically as good a season as Chara (same point production, higher
plus/minus rating). Matt Hunsick and Mark Stuart are relative unknowns
that had strong seasons and with the addition of Derek Morris, the
defense is an effective and deep unit.
This leads into the key variable in the equation, the goaltender you
can't help but root for, Tim Thomas. Drafted by a team no longer in
existence (Quebec Nordiques) in a round that no longer exists (the
ninth), the days of playing in Europe and toiling in the minors (as
recently as the 2005-06 season) culminated in a season that few NHL
netminders have ever achieved. Thomas was primarily responsible for
the Bruins goaltending tandem winning the Jennings Trophy, captured
the Roger Crozier Saving Grace Award (best save percentage), won the
Vezina Trophy (best goaltender) and was a first team All Star. All
that was and is missing from his resume is a Stanley Cup championship
(and maybe a Conn Smythe trophy while heís at it.)
The glimpse of championship greatness he was never expected to attain
is all the motivation the 35-year-old native of Flint, Michigan needs
this season. Since being anointed the starter's role three seasons
ago, Thomas has raised the level of his game every season to be
deservedly considered as one of the elite netminders in the league.
The Bruins are deep, youthful and experienced enough to win 16 games
in the second season. Boston has an unknown superstar in Savard
supported by four lines of skilled talent. They have an intimidating
force in Chara leading a tough and talented defensive corps and
possess a goaltender thatís fought every inch of the way to position
his team to win a championship. This year itís not about brand name
superstars, itís about karma and convergence.
Frequent readers of my column know that I cherish my friends and
consider them gifts. The old saying goes, "you pick your friends, not
your family, so if your friends are jerks then you're one as well."
Iíve learned some of life's lessons quite well and understand that one
is only as good as the integrity of their relationships.
Over the past 12 years, I've been lucky to experience the best this
game has to offer from Stanley Cup Finals to All Star Game to Premiere
Series in Europe. Iíve stood and questioned Messier, Gretzky, and
Lemieux and am grateful every day for being in the right place at the
right time. While I grew up loving the game as a kid in New York, the
game got away from me (or me from the game) in the decade from 1985 to
1995. The New York Football Giants won a couple of Super Bowls, the
New York Yankees regained their prominence, got married, etc. There
really wasnít a place for hockey in my life, shame on me.
A chance meeting at a New Jersey Devils Stanley Cup party placed me in
a bar next to a kid in his mid 20s that was fervent a Devils fan as
thereís ever been. While I canít recall the gist of the conversation,
little did I know that it was small talk that launched a friendship
that lasted over a decade.
John Artinian was the primary reason I got back into hockey. He was so
plugged into the team; he was pals with the likes of Mike Peluso and
Ken Daneyko and would lead me to the late night lair, the infamous
Verona Inn where even a young Scott Neidermayer could be seen downing
a beer or two.
John was there during the terminal illness of my son Taylor, always
looking to lighten the moment with his wise cracks or hockey talk. I
recall watching a five-OT playoff game on the floor of my home with
him and Peluso and wagering on who would score the game winner (Iím
pretty sure Petr Nedved got it). It was a scene that almost made me
forget the gravity of the situation and the hopelessness that lingered
on for four years.
I eventually landed in Los Angeles and John was not too far behind,
while I struggled with my new surrounding and career (I was a boring
accountant up until then, imagine that). John acclimated quickly. He
found his wife Keghan by the Pacific, they had two beautiful children
and he started his own direct marketing business. Despite all the
personal and business demands, John always found time to get in front
of the TV for a crucial Devils contest, a Devil for life, you know. He
attended my wedding in June and sat at a table with other hockey
luminaries but just a few feet away from ours, enjoying the experience
of seeing his friend both happy and in love.
It pains me to refer to John in the past tense because he was cruelly
and tragically taken from us this past weekend. After fighting a year
long battle with testicular cancer, he beat both the disease and the
accompanying fear that came with it. Given a clean bill of health, he
was back on track to a normal life.
But that life was snuffed out in a back alley somewhere in New Orleans
early Saturday morning. John accompanied a friend who was performing
at an event and was on the way back from the show when from behind and
with no warning, a car rolled up. The driver made contact with such
force that it threw my friend 20-feet in the air and the resulting
impact ended his life. The despicable person who perpetrated the act
has not come forward to admit the guilt of ending John's life at 37.
We are mystified as to why such things happen in the world. Iíve told
my wife more than once that oft times life is about managing loss.
Possessions, loved ones, health and beauty are all taken away from us
as we advance in years. I stopped asking Ďwhy?í the day they said my
son would never walk, say Mom or Dad and that I would have to eulogize
him before his fifth birthday. Itís not right. Itís not the way things
should be. Still, they occur every day.
I push on with this belief; I will get the answers some day but my
feeble human mind cannot comprehend the reasoning behind it. So I take
comfort in knowing that when I evolve to a high level of consciousness
(because it was be the cruelest joke if this is all there was). I will
get the answers.
To John's loving family and to his friends, I offer these words of
consolation. If there's a Stanley Cup in heaven, I know our friend is
holding it high.
Bernstein, the man behind SCORE! Media and an NHL
Analyst with ESPN Radio, is the Los Angeles
Correspondent for The Fourth Period Magazine and a Columnist