Heartbreak and heroics this playoff season. In just six games, we learned a great deal about our team and our players. It's a shame to lose in a game where we blow a 3-goal lead on home ice in an elimination game. It's a shame to lose in OT when our fourth line is inexplicably on the ice when our top players couldn't have been too tired to be out there. It's a shame that we have lost six straight home playoff games. But it was great to be back in the playoffs, to see the fans come together in red, and to do it with class and sportsmanship.
Reasons for Hope:
1. Peter Regin - it isn't Mike Fisher that is a scoring machine, it is Regin. On his own, he isn't a top line player. But paired with Spezza and Alfredsson really doesn't expose him to be a big miss, either. He has speed, smarts, and he definitely has the hands to hang with the top players. Regin was a treat to watch and will be much improved next year, too.
2. Erik Karlsson - there is no question that the kid made some mistakes in the playoffs, but nothing that was so costly that it cost us a game or the series (we did that as a team). It was Kuba's injury that allowed us to see how special this kid is as a player and hopefully he has learned enough from this experience to work his ass off this summer with the captain and be a top pairing player next year. Unreal season for the kid.
3. Pascal Leclaire - I laughed out loud when I read Brennan in the Sun say that Pascal should have been playing the entire series, never should have been pulled in Carolina last month, rah rah rah. Get over yourself, Brennan. At no point during this season did Pascal show that he was the starting goalie. He did everything possible to ensure Elliott took over the job. Of course Elliott started the series - he was the goalie that got us here! Pascal had one win in 2010 and it was a nothing game in Florida. But what Leclaire did do in the past two games was give us some hope or excitement or bewilderment as to what we might get next season. It doesn't change the fact that he is the most injury-prone player we've ever had and it doesn't change the fact that he was quite bad when he WAS healthy. But for a guy that was written off amid suggestions he be bought out, Snoopy showed enough promise to make us just a bit excited that he will be better next season.
4. Matt Cullen and Andy Sutton - Cullen isn't a top line player and Sutton isn't a top pairing defenceman, but these guys fit in better than any other trade deadline acquisition we've ever had, except maybe Comrie 1.0. Cullen was easily our best forward in the playoffs (Sorry Regin) and gives us another second line forward with the likes of Fisher, Kovalev, Michalek, etc. Carolina used to be a contender because they had a great goalie and had nine forwards that could bury goals. We could get there if we can bury Cheechoo and keep Cullen. Sutton is a decent replacement for Volchenkov when the latter goes to the Caps this summer. He blocks as many shots and hits as many forwards, but doesn't get the same recognition because he hasn't been here his whole career. I'm curious to see his salary demands coming off a $3M season.
5. Kelly/Ruutu/Neil - our best combined line this series, these guys need to be left alone as the ultimate third line. Kelly and Ruutu really are our best backcheckers. If you watch Ruutu in our zone, he's everywhere and he's great at getting the puck to safety. These three need to be together for 82 games, leaving the fourth line to whatever rookies crack the roster, like Zach Attack and Bobby Butler...
Things that concern me:
1. Brian Elliott - What happened here? He was never an elite goalie, but he was very good for us down the stretch. He was actually quite bad in the playoffs. I know the Emery struggled in his first playoff series, so hopefully this was a big learning experience. But you have to wonder with Lehner going to Bingo and Pascal perhaps stepping back into the #1 role (amazing that we call him the starter after two games, one of which he lost), what the future holds for Elliott.
2. Alfie - I am not concerned about Alfie as I know he had pulled abdominal muscles. I'm more concerned about this team without Alfie. We are in the final years of this guy's career and it is no secret that we are downright awful when he isn't on his game. I was hoping to see Spezza take over a leadership role but it didn't happen this year, aside from some point streaks late in the season. Does BM need to look at the free agent or trade market to find that leader post-Alfredsson? We most definitely need some kind of contingency because our heroic captain is going to start showing declining production as these years tick off.
3. Volchenkov - I'm calling his departure inevitable. If you haven't listened to the 6th Sens interview with his agent, Jay Grossman, what are you waiting for? But seriously, the comments that he made were clear - A-Train needs to know that he is spending his prime physical years blocking shots for a winning team. His style is so reckless that he doesn't want to sacrifice his body for a team that isn't ready to contend. Our first round loss, albeit fair for us, might not have been enough to show A-Train that we're ready to contend. I honestly think he looks at teams like Pittsburgh, Washington, Vancouver, Detroit, or Los Angeles and takes a decent contract for a chance to win a Cup while he is still able to play at a high level. A first round series win over the Champs would have gone a long way for us in showing Volchenkov that we're a winning team, but that didn't happen.
4. Jason Spezza - I know he had a fair amount of points this round, but he looks like the same player as the Spezza from 2, 3, 5 years ago. He is still an elite talent and it is almost unfair to pick on him since he really is an incredible offensive player, but it is almost like his development has hit a plateau. Can we honestly look at Spezza's season (or Fisher, for that matter) and say that this is a player that has more potential that we haven't seen? Or is it a case of 'what you see is what you get'? $7M is given to the guy for his talent but also because he's young and he is supposed to improve. I'm just not sure how much better Spezza will be. I'm glad he's here, but I still haven't come to terms with the fact that he isn't an Yzerman. That's for me to get used to, I suppose.
5. Team upside - Do we have a lot of upside for next season? Let's be real and assume that Wiercioch and Cowen probably won't make the team, okay? So we'll have a group very similar to this year. Of this team, Karlsson and Regin are sure to improve going into next season. But who else really has room to get better? Will Fisher or Spezza take another step, or are they basically playing their best hockey now? Can Michalek come back strong after major knee surgery? Can Kovalev and Kuba come back and be close to their previous levels? Phillips and Alfie are old and at some point will start regressing. The third line is great, but they are also playing at their potential and won't really grow. My point is simple - we are a good team that is playoff-calibre, but do we have room to grow and improve as it stands today? I'm putting my trust in the little general with the healthy salad and hope that we continue to develop the kids and find somewhere (outside of Ottawa) for Cheechoo. Let's hope that this team builds on this season and doesn't just rest on it.
Have a great summer! Til the draft!