Thursday, March 6, 2008
Updated: March 7, 11:07 AM ET
Will Red Wings, Sens rebound and become a Cup threat again?
By Scott Burnside and Damien Cox
Editor's note: In our "Friday Faceoff," ESPN.com NHL writer Scott Burnside (based in Atlanta) and Toronto Star columnist and frequent ESPN.com contributor Damien Cox (based in Toronto) duke it out over any given hockey topic. Let the games begin!
This week's topic: Can the Red Wings and Senators rebound and become the Cup contenders they looked like for most of the season?
Scott Burnside: Hello, Damien. Is Leaf Nation in mourning this morning after their loss to New Jersey on Tuesday, likely crippling their million-to-one chance of making the playoffs? Speaking of mourning, how do you think fans in Detroit and Ottawa are feeling these days when the surefire bets to reach the finals for most of the season have fallen into the abyss? (Do you like that word, abyss?)
Damien Cox: Abyss. Hmm. Is that what Roger Clemens got from all those B-12 shots in the butt? Oh, abscess. Right, that's different. See, I don't really think the Sens and Wings are in the same situation at all. The Sens are in free fall, their goalie won't come to practice on time and the coach just got canned. By comparison, Detroit remains the model of stability. Injuries on the blue line fueled the Wings' slump, and those guys are all coming back within the next week.
Scott: I agree the Senators' problems are different in nature than the problems facing the Wings. The Sens have more deep-rooted problems, ones of character and leadership, including a goalie who appears not to care a whit about the fortunes of his team. The Wings, of course, have been crippled by injuries to core players. But I wonder if the end result will be the same -- can either team rebound and become the Cup contender it looked like for most of the season? I think the answer is no.
Damien: Well, the advantage the Sens have, of course, is that their job of at least returning to the Stanley Cup finals is a lot easier. While the Western Conference playoffs will feature four slobber-knockers in the first round alone, the East is filled with mediocrity and uncertainty. If the Sens can pull themselves together and just play some consistent hockey, they may well still become the Eastern representative. But that's not exactly their goal, is it?
Scott: Yes, the Red Wings watched as Anaheim got better with Teemu Selanne, the Stars acquired Conn Smythe Trophy winner Brad Richards to give them terrific depth down the middle and the Sharks, those perennial playoff underachievers, got Brian Campbell, who seems to have immediately stabilized the San Jose blue line. If you're Detroit GM Ken Holland, you've got to be a bit nervous. As for Sens GM Bryan Murray, all he has to worry about is not melting down as he did the other night in Anaheim and hoping Ray Emery wakes up and the Sens have a decent shot of returning to the finals. I think, given the collection of elite goaltending in the West, the Wings' main concern is whether Dominik Hasek is going to be able to hold up. His wonky hip may be the biggest factor in the Wings coming out of the talent-laden West.
Damien: Interesting, though, that both the Sens and Wings were having problems before the Feb. 26 trade deadline, yet neither team did much to alter its lineup, unless you consider either Martin Lapointe or Brad Stuart to be the impact players he once was projected to be.
Scott: Well, I would argue the acquisitions of Cory Stillman and Mike Commodore from Carolina qualify as significant upgrades for the Sens, certainly more significant than last season's additions of Mike Comrie and Oleg Saprykin (with all due respect to them). And I know it takes time for guys to fit in with a new team. It took Doug Weight a long time to mesh in Carolina before the Hurricanes won the Cup in 2006. One of the reasons the Wings were so successful last season in going to the Western Conference finals was that Hasek was steady and reliable. On a great team, that's often enough. But if he's in and out of the lineup, can a platoon of Chris Osgood and a gimpy Hasek hope to compete with Jean-Sebastien Giguere, Marty Turco and iron man Evgeni Nabokov? Especially if Nicklas Lidstrom isn't his normal all-world self (knee), I think that's a tall order. So, just wondering, does this mean all the smart GMs are in the West since they were the ones who collected all the top baubles at the trade deadline (except Marian Hossa, who landed in Pittsburgh)?
Damien: Well, you mentioned Richards in Dallas. Super-smart move by co-interim GMs Les Jackson and Brett Hull, if only because Richards doesn't have to go in there and carry the load because the Stars already have Mike Ribeiro, who's having a terrific season, and Mike Modano. George McPhee in Washington, I think, did a really nice job of adding some pieces without sacrificing much. Given our Faceoff a couple of weeks back, I think you and I agreed it would be great to have Alexander Ovechkin in the postseason dance.
Scott: Yes, but it's possible the team that did the most in the East, the Caps, may not make the playoffs (I agree, it would be shame, mostly since I picked the Caps as our dark horse team this season, and it's all about me). And the Pens with Hossa, who knows? Do you subscribe to the theory that no matter what happens in the dogs-breakfast Eastern Conference, the Stanley Cup champ will inevitably come from the Western Conference? Or do you see a potential Super Bowl dynamic happening where everyone assumes the champ is coming from the AFC only to see the NFC carry home the big prize?
Damien: Ahh, now you're on to something. See, the West has been the stronger conference for what, five seasons? Yet the Ducks broke an Eastern stranglehold on the Cup itself by winning after the Devils, Lightning and Hurricanes had won the previous three. The toll on the Western teams in terms of travel and the grind seems to be significantly greater than on the Eastern clubs, which gives the East an advantage when the Cup finals roll around in, oh, what is it now, mid-August? So yeah, I wouldn't rule out an Eastern winner just yet.
Scott: I think you're right and it'll be interesting to see if we ever get to a situation where the playoffs feature 2-3-2 playoff patterns instead of the 2-2-1-1-1 that can be a killer when teams get into six- and seven-game series. Of course, it didn't really hurt Anaheim last season, when the Ducks flew back and forth to Detroit during the conference finals. Do you really subscribe to the notion that the style of hockey is dramatically different in the West? It wasn't all that long ago the East had the reputation as being the rough-and-tough conference with the West being more wide open. Now with Ovechkin, Crosby, Vincent Lecavalier et al, the theory seems to be the East is more free-flowing. Maybe we spend too much time trying to spot trends.
Damien: I think there are small differences -- more crease crashing in the West, some more individual, explosive players in the East, more solid goaltending right now in the West. But that changes over time, and I don't think there's a major philosophical difference. In fact, these days, with everyone focusing on keeping young players for competitive and financial reasons, it's as though the entire league has become a draft-and-develop operation. Whatever happened to the crazy old days when the St. Louis Blues traded all their picks and spent money they never had in the first place?
Scott: I know. I pine for the days when the Rangers used to scoop every withering star in the league and paid them 10 times what they were worth only to miss the playoffs by 10 points. These days, they can't even come to terms with Sean Avery. Still, I am curious to see how the East plays out. Who knows, it could be Carolina, riding the coattails of Sergei Samsonov, returning to the Cup finals. Can you imagine it?
Damien: I don't see that without Rod Brind'Amour, although the Canes deserve enormous credit for playing well without him. I guess the reality of the situation is, 16 teams are going to make the postseason and probably 14 of them will have a reasonable shot at winning it all. No dynasties, but no gimmes, either.
Scott: So, you think Nashville or Vancouver or Colorado or even Chicago might have a chance to knock off the Red Wings? Hard to imagine, but I always liked that idea. I've never quite understood the notion of some hockey observers who think it's a bad thing that there aren't one or two teams that are guaranteed a trip to the conference finals or Cup finals. What's exciting about knowing that Detroit or Ottawa is going to circle-boot some poor team in four or five games?
Damien: Agreed. However, the reason why there is so much parity has less to do with quality and more to do with an evening out of mediocrity due to the cap and a low-scoring brand of hockey that is often boring and allows even average teams to appear more formidable because every night it's 2-1.
Scott: I guess that's what will be interesting in watching the Sens and Wings down the stretch and into the playoffs. They were intriguing because they looked to be flawless, or at least teams with very few chinks in the armor. Now, they both look pretty mortal. So, what's your prediction for both teams? (You'll notice how I put you under the gun first. I'm good at that.)
Damien: For the Sens, it's all in the first-round matchup and whether they can get either Emery or Gerber playing with confidence by playoff time. That D-combination of Mike Commodore and Luke Richardson just looks vulnerable against any team with speed. Detroit? I think the Wings are going to be fine when Lidstrom gets back. To me, they look like they lost a bit of passion for the game, and a first-round matchup against Colorado would solve that in a hurry.
Scott: Yes. I think the Wings will be OK through the first round, but they'll miss Dan Cleary's grit if he can't get back in the lineup and Hasek is simply going to be touch and go throughout. I think they'll have trouble getting to the conference finals given they'll likely have to play either Anaheim or San Jose or Dallas in the second round. As for the Sens, the best they can hope for in the first round in terms of goaltending is a saw-off. And unless that dynamic changes, getting out of the second round will be extremely difficult. Well, once again, I believe we've made the hockey world safe for fans. Until next time?
Damien: There is a certainly parity -- mediocrity? -- in our weekly chats. Like two fourth-liners cycling the puck endlessly. Later, pal.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com. Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."