x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Riding on the Wings of change

Year Review The NHL's best team beat the league's most exciting team in the 2008 Stanley Cup final: how can you top that?

Detroit Red Wings centre Kris Draper holds up the Stanley Cup after the Red Wings defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in Game 6 to win the trophy in Pittsburgh.
Detroit Red Wings centre Kris Draper holds up the Stanley Cup after the Red Wings defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-2 in Game 6 to win the trophy in Pittsburgh.

The NHL's best team beat the league's most exciting team in the 2008 Stanley Cup final: how can you top that? When the Detroit Red Wings faced off with the Pittsburgh Penguins last spring, there was a hope it was the start of a new era for the NHL. Rather than two teams using suffocating defense to choke the life out of opponents, the Wings and Penguins relied on their top-end skill. Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Nicklas Lidstrom led the Wings to victory in six great games, but Sidney Crosby, 20, and Evgeni Malkin - who played like a beast when Crosby missed an extended period in the regular season - served notice that they expected to get back to the final, and fast. The soap opera of the whole affair came in the form of understated - but ultra-talented - Marian Hossa, who joined the Pens as a hired gun at the trade deadline and delivered a clutch play-off goals, but bolted in the off-season, signing a one-year free agent deal with Detroit.

While the post-season belonged to the Wings, the regular season was all Alex. Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals super- sniper, led the league with 65 goals and 112 points en route to MVP honours. More significantly, he led the Caps into the playoffs with a win on the last day of the season. But perhaps most significantly, the charismatic Ovechkin has helped elevate hockey's profile in North America and represents the fun and passion of the game.

Then there's Sean Avery. Loose lips sink ships? and hockey teams, too, as the Dallas Stars have found out. The Stars battled Detroit in the West playoff final last season, then added Avery as a free agent in the summer in the hopes of getting over the hump. Unfortunately, Avery turned out to be the hump. He never fit into the Stars' team-first structure, and Dallas slid down the standings while Avery's infamous inappropriate comments got him booted off the team and, who knows, maybe right out of the NHL.

Another vaunted talker, Brian Burke, made the league's worst-kept secret come true when he ended up as Toronto's GM in November (after parting ways with Anaheim earlier in the season). Burke arrived at the self-proclaimed "centre of the hockey universe" with a daunting challenge: to turn the luckless Maple Leafs into Cup contenders. Hey, it could happen? One ice hockey universe over, in Montreal, the Canadiens rolled out the red carpet for a year-long celebration of their centennial season. Of course, the sport's most successful franchise - 24 Cups and counting - will only be satisfied with a parade in June; a possibility, but no sure shot. In the hopes of solidifying a Cup-worthy roster, the Habs chased the NHL's most elusive free agent during the summer. But Mats Sundin is as slippery off the ice as he is on it, refusing to retire or commit to a return, leaving Montreal - as well as Vancouver, Toronto, the Rangers and, oh, another 10 or 12 teams - to deal with a new kind of Stockholm Syndrome. Meanwhile, the phenomena that was Jaromir Jagr also left the NHL - for the Russian KHL - but unlike Sundin, no one really expects to see Jagr in North America again.

Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo will be seen in the NHL again, but the league's top two goalies went down with injuries early in the 2008-09 season, leaving their teams - the New Jersey Devils and Vancouver Canucks, respectively - with the unfamiliar task of winning without their all-world stoppers. Luongo should be back early in the new year, if not sooner, but Brodeur's elbow bent the wrong way, so maybe by March but not before.

Of course, there's one story we haven't touched on, one which could ultimately prove to be far more consequential than anything previously discussed. "It's the economy, stupid" as one US president once said (no, not the shoe-dodging Bush, the guy before him). While franchises in Atlanta, Florida, Nashville and Phoenix, among others, were hurting at the gate before the economy collapsed, the new financial fallout could wreak havoc on a league that can ill afford a step backwards.

Relocation and even contraction have to be considered possibilities, given North America's falling fortunes. As if you did not already know it, this one is worth watching, folks. Think about it? if there are no cars in Detroit, how can there be any Wings? smccaig@thenational.ae