Thursday, October 6, 2011

Anticipating the Hurdles Teams Must Overcome to Lift the Cup

It is right in front of us; the 95th season of NHL hockey. If you are like me you are reviewing team rosters trying to determine where players moved over the summer, and interested in the rookies that made the squad.

We have a great lineup on opening night. Boston raises the banner after ending the long Cup drought. And, Philly fan is hating every minute of it. The way the series sweep ended last season, actually quite embarrassing, you could see a determined Flyers team come out and catch the B's off guard - who will be naturally basking in the success of last season. Hey B's it is a new season be ready to rock!

Montreal invades Toronto for the Canadian audiences. Both of these teams could be on the outside looking in when April arrives so while it is Game #1 on the schedule they should treat as a game against a team that will be challenging them for the last playoff spot. Believe it or not, big game early in the season.

The nightcap has Pittsburgh going to Vancouver. Hey, weren't we supposed to be watching the Canucks raise the banner and bringing glory back to Canada? Reality can be harsh and in the case of the Canucks this off-season had to be like chewing on sand for four months. I would like to be able to tell you what to expect from Vancouver, but it is really hard to predict. I think Vancouver fan is going to have a shorter fuse with their team and the Game 7 loss only intensified the pressure. The Pens on the other hand are coming in to the season with great optimism getting Malkin back and Crosby soon to follow. Pittsburgh became an outstanding defensive team in the absence of their two superstars. This will serve them well throughout this season.

Every NHL season is a marathon with twists and turns that no one can predict. Who predicted that Boston would be Stanley Cup champions after an embarrassing loss to the Flyers when up 3-0 in the 2009 playoffs? What I will do is try to categorize where I think the teams are in terms of the hurdles they must overcome to lift the Cup.

Avoid the Hangover - Boston, Vancouver
Recent history has not been kind to teams that have made the Stanley Cup Finals the previous year. Only the Wings and Pens have been able to return to the Finals the following year and no team has repeated since the 1997-98 Red Wings. The dreaded Stanley Cup hangover looms over the Bruins who basically have kept their roster intact. Boston has to be careful to keep the focus on grinding out wins in the regular season to put themselves in a favorable seed in the post season. Certainly higher seeds don't make a huge difference in the NHL but you don't want to have to face Philly or Tampa first round, and then if you survive Pittsburgh or Washington in the second round. Boston needs to stay focused and hope that Tim Thomas stays red hot.

Vancouver also needs to avoid the Stanley Cup hangover. You might think that losing Game 7 at home would be the ultimate motivator, but again history does not necessarily support this theory. It is terribly hard to skate the marathon that is the NHL season again and then peak in the post season and get back to the Finals. With the intense fishbowl scrutiny the Canucks will be playing under this year don't be surprised if they struggle during the season.

Bounce Back - Pittsburgh, Detroit, Chicago
This category is reserved for teams that have been to the hockey pinnacle in recent years and then fallen back. The Pens, Wings, and Hawks all have suffered from things out of their control - injuries and a jettison of talent from their roster. Certainly on paper it seems all three teams have the talent to contend, but they also had top players who had subpar seasons. Crosby, Malkin, Neal and Fleury all need to be on their game in Pittsburgh after a reduction in production (much of it due to injury). In Chicago Duncan Keith needs to play like he did in the Stanley Cup season and Patrick Kane needs to a consistent force offensively. And, in Detroit, Zetterberg and Datsyuk need to stay healthy on a team that has lost scoring depth the last few years. If one of these teams' superstars have great seasons (and stay healthy) don't be surprised if they win the Cup.

Looking for the Breakthrough - San Jose, Washington, Los Angeles
In this category are the teams, to me, that have high expectations but feel that have not realized their potential. Every year people expect that San Jose and Washington will win the Cup, and every year they have been wrong. With some changes both teams hope to have the formula to finally reach the Finals and win the Cup for the first time in franchise history. As long as the burden of unfulfilled expectations does not become too heavy one of these teams could finally breakthrough. But, without having a prior history of going the distance both have to trust that they have what it takes. I put LA in this category only because they have so much talent and added more in the offseason. Is it their time to finally breakthrough? 

Put Your Name on a Piece of Tape and Put it On Your Helmet Please - Philadelphia, Florida
The hurdle that both Philly and Florida have to face after believing they had the roster in previous years to win (and Philly was within 2 games of winning the Cup) is developing team bonds and communication with many new faces. Past history tells us that roster shake-ups often don't lead to immediate success but can in the long run. The Flyers did overhaul their roster with the Forsberg trade a few years ago and then promptly made the Conference Finals but that was backboned by homegrown centers Carter and Richards who are now elsewhere. On teams that have experienced many roster changes there is a redefining of roles and a re-establishing of leadership and team norms. It will be interesting to see if the changes for Florida and Philly are for the better, and how long it takes for the team to mesh and perform cohesively.

Are we a Contender? - New York Rangers, Phoenix, Nashville, Buffalo
In this category are the teams that many pundits would say are on the fence and could go either way in terms of the standings. These teams have not had recent playoff success, other than the Preds 1st round win over the Ducks last year, but optimism exists. Out of this group I would say that Buffalo is the most likely to elevate and reach the category of teams contending for the Finals because of their offseason acquisitions. Myers, Regehr, and Erhoff on defense look outstanding and Ryan Miller is good enough to take them all the way. The other three teams still have question marks... do they really believe deep down that they can elevate past the middle of the road teams?

Don't Slip - Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Montreal, Dallas
In my opinion this group deals with the doubt of "are we still as good?" Tampa most certainly tapped their potential last season, and maybe Anaheim as well. Montreal has been an excellent playoff performer the last few years and Dallas has been hanging around. But, these teams did not get significantly better and must hope that internally their players continue to develop or they could be caught by other teams that are trending up.

The Rest of the Field
Look, it is no slight to rest of the NHL teams that I have not listed, but their recent history tells us that they likely will not be a contender in May/June. The field is looking for the right ingredients to have a good start to the season and to build the belief that they can contend. I do not predict much change in the playoff entrants from past year. There seems to be a real divide between the playoff teams and the non-playoff teams. Yet, usually there is one surprise team that makes a run. My two teams that I think believe that they can reach the playoffs despite not making it last year are St. Louis and Carolina. They have had playoff seasons in recent years and have good young players. Consistency is another big issue for teams in this category. Can they avoid long slumps and consistently post enough points in each 5-game block? A lack of consistency and long slumps have eliminated the Canes from postseason play in recent seasons.

There you have it, my thoughts on some of the barriers teams face mentally. While I could have written a great deal on the mental dynamics each team will be facing this season I don't think you would read a post that long. My picks for the teams that have the most formidable hurdles to overcome -

Toronto (fan base asking for too much with too little talent),
Vancouver (the "blahs" after a downright confusing performance in the last two rounds of the playoffs; how do you play that bad when you are one of the best two teams in the league?),
Philadelphia (changing of leadership, great expectations on young players, but they do have Pronger!),
Washington (labeled as the underachievers in the playoffs which becomes a hard label to shake),
San Jose (when will they breakthrough? The window of opportunity is always closing), and,
New Jersey (can they continue to believe despite everyone discussing their inevitable demise).

Enjoy the 2011-2012 NHL season and keep checking back for more insights on the mental game of hockey.

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