At that time, who would've figured that neither the champion Hurricanes nor the surprising Oilers would qualify for the postseason in 2007? There couldn't have been many of you.
Fast-forward to the present. After the recently completed Cup finals between the Ducks and Senators, you've got to figure these two teams are good enough to be right back in the mix next spring. Certainly, these teams will be serious Cup contenders, right?
Well, each season is different. And these days, in the league's cap era, things can change dramatically from season to season. There are other things you just can't predict. (Who knew Chris Pronger's wife disliked Edmonton so much?)
We can predict that both the Ducks and Senators will at least be a little different when the 2007-08 season opens in October. Here's a look at some of the issues facing both teams in the coming weeks and months.
• GM Brian Burke will spend a good portion of the next few weeks trying to re-sign starting goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who can hit the open market on July 1.
Giguere earned $3.99 million last season. If he gets to July 1, with few (if any) top-quality stoppers available, Giguere could get some very significant offers. The Red Wings and Kings, for example, would be very interested in talking to the Cup-winning goalie. As many clubs can attest, Cup-winning goalies are very hard to find.
Giguere might be willing to take a little less to stay in Anaheim. There are several reasons for him to do that, but I can't imagine it will be too much less.
Burke wants to keep Giguere, but I get the feeling he does have limits in both dollars and term. It should be an interesting negotiation in the coming weeks.
If Giguere leaves the Pond, the Ducks will turn to backup Ilya Bryzgalov and 25-year-old Swiss import Jonas Hiller, who just signed a one-year deal with the club. If Giguere stays, Burke would probably move Bryzgalov (and his $1.181 million contract) to save money.
• Burke also must find out what veteran right winger Teemu Selanne plans to do. Selanne, 36, wouldn't commit to any decision about next season during last week's Cup celebration. The Finnish Flash wanted to take some time to weigh his options. Selanne has enjoyed terrific back-to-back seasons in Anaheim. He netted 48 goals and dished out 46 assists during the 2006-07 campaign.
• Last season, with bonuses, Selanne's cap number was $6 million. If he did decide to return, he would likely want something similar. It is, however, highly unlikely he'd return to North America to play for another team. Selanne will either return to the Ducks or retire from the NHL.
• Veteran defenseman Sean O'Donnell, 35, can also become a free agent. He earned $1.52 million last season. He might have to take a slight pay cut to stay in Anaheim. O'Donnell likes Southern California and he might be inclined to do so.
• Big left winger Dustin Penner is one of the Ducks who can become a restricted free agent. (Defensemen Kent Huskins and Aaron Rome, right winger Ryan Shannon and goalie Sebastien Caron are the others.) Would another club throw an offer sheet at Penner? It's possible. Burke, who already re-signed wingers Travis Moen and George Parros, won't want to lose an oversized, young winger like Penner. He'll do what he must to get him re-signed.
• Before the worrying about their roster, the Senators have some other issues to figure out. GM John Muckler, 73, is entering the final year of his contract. Does he want to return? He has told friends he'd like to fulfill the last season of his deal. Does Senators owner Eugene Melnyk want Muckler to return? He hasn't made any definitive statement.
The Muckler situation dovetails with another issue: Bryan Murray. The coach can be a free agent if not re-signed by July 1. After taking the Senators to their first Cup finals, Murray might be a hot commodity for another club seeking a coach or a manager.
Melnyk could go a couple of different ways. He could push to keep the status quo, allowing Muckler to complete his term and sign Murray to a new, long-term deal. In that case, Murray likely would want to clarify his position as eventual successor to Muckler.
If Melnyk decides Muckler should forgo the final season of his contract, the owner would push the veteran exec into a well-paid consulting role. Then, Melnyk would be free to install Murray as the new GM. Murray could remain as coach or turn that job over to top assistant John Paddock.
Finally, Melnyk could decide to keep Muckler in place and roll the dice with Murray. I can't see that scenario playing out because Murray did such a good job during the 2006-07 season.
• The club has three players who can leave via unrestricted free agency July 1. Forwards Mike Comrie and Dean McAmmond as well as defenseman Tom Preissing can test the open market. Comrie, who was acquired from Phoenix in a midseason deal, was a nice short-term fit. But unless he's willing to take a substantial pay cut from the $3 million he earned last season, Comrie won't be back in Ottawa.
McAmmond, who suffered a concussion in Game 3 of the finals thanks to the left elbow of Pronger, is a fleet and versatile role player. His presence was missed in the finals' last two games. McAmmond earned $725,000 last season. He likely could be retained for a similar number.
Preissing, who came to Ottawa from San Jose last summer, earned $600,000 last season. On the open market, he could triple that number. I suspect he'll leave for greener ($$$) pastures.
• The Senators also have four restricted free agents; the most significant is goalie Ray Emery, who was a bargain at $925,000. He should triple, or quadruple, that number during the summer. Of course, the Senators will have to figure out what they're going to do with expensive backup Martin Gerber. The club signed Gerber as a free agent last summer to a three-year, $11.1 million deal only to watch him lose the starting job to Emery.
Logically, the Senators will try to shop Gerber, but if there are no takers, they might have to consider buying out the remaining two years of his deal. If they did that, the team would save approximately $2.5 million in real dollars, but take a cap hit of roughly $1.2 million in each of the next four seasons.