Looking back at a memorable 2007-08 regular season
So much hockey, so little time.
Seems like only yesterday we were wondering what that thing was on our plate in London (it was a deep-fried carrot) and watching the Brits trying to tell the difference between a Duck and a King as the NHL began the regular season for the first time in Europe.
Now, all of a sudden, we're talking California Dreaming, Part Deux, as the playoffs begin. The only question is whether it'll be Anaheim or San Jose making Stanley Cup parade plans in early June. But before we turn our full attention to the postseason, a time for a little stream of consciousness on the season just past.
• Guess the trip overseas didn't hurt the Ducks as much as it looked like it might when they began the season 4-6-2. Of course, getting Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne back from semiretirement at midseason didn't hurt, did it? As for worries that more players would do the same (Peter Forsberg returned just before the trade deadline and signed with Colorado), that seems a bit melodramatic. The Ducks have proven to be among the NHL's elite teams without the services of top forward Corey Perry, who is out with a knee injury.
• It was a season of whopper suspensions (Steve Downie, Jesse Boulerice and Chris Simon, to name a few), but there were more questions than answers when it comes to trying to figure out just what the NHL's plan really is for keeping its players in line. The NHL is under increasing pressure to make the process more transparent, a process some GMs refer to as the Star Chamber.
• Two of the most horrific incidents, however, were accidental. Panthers forward Richard Zednik was inadvertently cut in the neck by teammate Olli Jokinen's skate, and Dan Boyle's wrist was sliced open when his own skate fell on him in his dressing room stall. Both recovered, but there is now a push for mandatory neck guards.
• OK, we give up trying to figure out the New Jersey Devils. They can't score; they lost Brian Rafalski and Scott Gomez last season via free agency after the retirement of Scott Stevens and the defection of Scott Niedermayer after the lockout; and Patrik Elias is a shadow of his former superlative self. And yet, the Devils are still headed to the playoffs for the 11th straight season. We don't think they're long for the playoffs, but we didn't think they'd come this far this season.
• We happened to be in Washington the night Alexander Ovechkin scored four against Montreal, each one more sensational than the last. He hits, he scores, he loves this game and isn't afraid to poke fun at himself. Wonder if owner Ted Leonsis wishes he'd signed Ovechkin to a 20-year deal instead of just 13?
• Speaking of Montreal, here's another team that not just defied predictions, but destroyed them. One quality top GMs have to possess is a strong belief in themselves and their people. Habs head man Bob Gainey believed he had the answer in his dressing room and was exceptionally quiet last summer when it came to the free-agent market. He was roasted in many quarters, including this one, but his belief has paid off with the emergence of brothers Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn, rock-solid defenseman Mike Komisarek, Chris Higgins and, of course, netminder Carey Price. He also believed Alexei Kovalev could be a positive force in the dressing room and not the distraction he was last season. Again, Gainey was right; Kovalev has been a tour de force in 2007-08.
• The season saw a bevy of bright young stars take giant steps forward. One of our favorites is Mike Richards, who seemed to morph into one of the game's best two-way players and a natural leader overnight. His Flyers jersey is practically crying out for a "C." Likewise, Jonathan Toews has all the intangible qualities that suggest not just great point totals, but also a winner. Others who caught our eye included Tobias Enstrom, the diminutive rookie defenseman in Atlanta, and Matt Niskanen in Dallas.
• It's unfortunate that it took the death of a man, president Bill Wirtz, to set a storied franchise back on track, but that's the reality of the Chicago Blackhawks' situation. Next season, the growing legion of Hawks fans likely will get to see all 82 games on television for the first time. And, they'll get to see a team loaded with bright, young talent, including Toews and Patrick Kane, the odds-on favorite for the rookie of the year award. Seeing firsthand 3,000 fans line up on a blustery December day for autographs from the rookie sensations was one of the most memorable images of the season. With the Boston Bruins making headway at reconnecting with their fans (making the playoffs for the first time since 2004 is crucial), the prospect of a revival in the two Original Six markets bodes well for the league moving forward.
• The NHL's second foray into the outdoors on Jan. 1 in Buffalo turned out to be a classic in almost every regard. From the snow falling to the packed house at Ralph Wilson Stadium (quick, get Norman Rockwell on the phone) to the shootout winner scored by Sidney Crosby, it was all the NHL could have hoped for, and more. By the end of the game, however, the ice had pretty much deteriorated and the game itself bore little resemblance to what fans are used to seeing. That's why the best news coming out of the event was the league's cautious approach moving forward. Such caution is important to maintaining the magic of the event and the integrity of the product.
• Here's a nod to former Phoenix GM Mike Barnett, who was dispatched last season, but whose draft picks and trades gave his replacement, Don Maloney, a fine base on which to build as the Coyotes were one of the season's biggest surprises. Although the Coyotes were eliminated from playoff contention on the second-to-last weekend of the regular season, there is reason for optimism moving forward. Other surprises this season -- Columbus, Chicago, Washington, Montreal and Nashville.
• Disappointments? Atlanta is a colossal mess. St. Louis has taken a big step backward, and Tampa needs to take a step forward or risk undoing all of the good that came with winning the Stanley Cup in 2004.
• We love Chris Pronger's acerbic wit and defiance, but the Ducks defenseman has to know he got off easy after giving the Simon Stomp to Ryan Kesler of the Vancouver Canucks. He was suspended for eight games and returned for Anaheim's regular-season finale.
• Only in Toronto does the GM (John Ferguson) get fired and the interim GM (Cliff Fletcher) fail to carry out his mandate, which is to clear out dead wood and stockpile draft picks and prospects and see the team built by the former GM go on an improbable charge toward the playoffs. Alas, the Leafs fell just short, leaving them without a top draft pick and with nothing to show for their efforts. Typical. And so the big offseason story will be who will come in to replace Fletcher. Talk about Brian Burke (Ducks), Ken Holland (Red Wings) and Jim Rutherford (Hurricanes) all you want, but it says here the Leafs will have all kinds of trouble attracting a top candidate from another team (their preferred route) because it offers little beyond a big pay check and even bigger headaches.
• The Predators were life and death down the stretch to make the playoffs for the fourth straight season. The bigger question was whether anyone in Nashville noticed.
• Not sure whether to give kudos to Mike Keenan in Calgary or not. Despite an up-and-down season in Calgary, Iron Mike apparently has changed his spots, as the volatile coach seemed to keep his cool for the most part. The problem for Flames fans is that Calgary looks to be in no better position than a year ago, when it looked lost in losing to Detroit in six games in the first round.
• Welcome back, Darren McCarty. Here's hoping this isn't just a second chance at your NHL career, but a second chance at having a happy, productive life. Good on Detroit GM Holland for giving McCarty the chance and kudos to coach Mike Babcock for starting McCarty with his old linemates Kris Draper and Kirk Maltby in his first game back at Joe Louis Arena.
• Speaking of second chances, Carolina's Rutherford once again showed he's a shrewd judge of talent as he plucked Sergei Samsonov off waivers and watched as Samsonov delivered 30 points in his first 35 games. Another late addition, Tuomo Ruutu, chipped in nine points in his first 13 games with the Hurricanes. We would be remiss if we didn't offer congratulation for Rutherford's other new addition, James Samuel John Rutherford, who was born March 11. No word on whether young James Samuel John had been inked to an entry-level contract.
• Here's a player you probably never heard of before this season but who may end up playing for Canada in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics -- Capitals defenseman Mike Green. Green, who skates like the wind, was the league leader in goals by a defenseman with 18 as the final week of the regular season began. Green is a huge part of the Caps' resurgence and will be looking for a whopper pay increase this summer. Other names that came out of the blue -- David Booth in Florida, Mark Streit in Montreal, David Krejci in Boston and Dan Ellis in Nashville.
• The Ottawa Senators' fall from grace was precipitous, and one wonders just where rock bottom will be. After starting 15-2-0, the Senators began the last week of the regular season facing the prospect that they actually could miss the playoffs altogether. They made it in, but the defending East champions looked incapable of beating any team in the conference. The coddling of netminder Ray Emery seems to have been a catalyst to a host of other dressing-room problems. Mercurial owner Eugene Melnyk is not one who takes mistakes lightly, so it will be interesting to see how he will respond if the Senators' fade continues into the playoffs.
• Away from the rink, the hiring of former federal prosecutor Paul Kelly to take over as executive director of the beleaguered National Hockey League Players' Association generally has been regarded as a positive step, not just for the union, but also for the game. The man who has prosecuted gangland murders and gangsters, and who once upon a time helped bring down Alan Eagleson, is conciliatory by nature but battle-hardened.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
2008 NHL PLAYOFFS
After a wild race to the finish, the NHL playoffs are set. Heading into Wednesday's opening night, Scott Burnside previews the first round:
• No. 1 Montreal vs. No. 8 Boston
• No. 2 Pittsburgh vs. No. 7 Ottawa
• No. 3 Washington vs. No. 6 Philadelphia
• No. 4 New Jersey vs. No. 5 New York Rangers
• Vote: What are your first-round picks?