Step to the front of the line if you thought last season's playoffs would be waged without both Stanley Cup finalists from the year before. Or that a perennial winner like Philadelphia would completely implode out of the gate.
How about seeing a rookie class make an impact that rivaled that of its immediate predecessor -- was that realistic to expect? Didn't think so, but then again was there anyone, anywhere who could have fathomed things getting so bad for the Great One in Phoenix?
|'I definitely think (the playoffs) was a great learning time for us. Just to get the taste,' Sidney Crosby says. (Getty Images)|
And that hasn't really changed as the NHL heads into year three of the collective bargaining agreement, although we'll take our chances here anyway by calling the Pittsburgh Penguins, led by captain Sidney Crosby, to hoist the Stanley Cup in June.
"You can't talk about it, we're not going to talk about it," Crosby insisted this week in a league-wide conference call. "It's easy to say, but we have to prove that."
Fair enough considering there are more than a handful of teams with legitimate title aspirations heading into the new season.
Take the Anaheim Ducks for example. They outmuscled and outhustled everyone on their way to the Stanley Cup last spring, and after opening their season over the weekend in London against the Los Angeles Kings, look like they'll be just as tough even if Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne stay retired.
"We still got a heck of a lot of talent," said Anaheim's new captain Chris Pronger. "The only approach that might be different is that we've got to push ourselves even harder. We are defending Stanley Cup champions, so we are going to have an even bigger target on our backs, and the way that we play, teams are obviously going to be gunning for us."
Among them will be the Ottawa Senators, San Jose Sharks, Buffalo Sabres and Detroit Red Wings, who all have championship caliber teams on paper, and possibly the New York Rangers and Colorado Avalanche, who were big winners in free agency over the summer. Teams that have goalies like Vancouver's Roberto Luongo are automatic factors as well, and in Calgary, there is a level of talent that will show if Mike Keenan -- who joins Boston's Claude Julien and New Jersey's Brent Sutter as new faces behind the bench -- still remembers how to win.
"A lot of teams are very, very close," said Red Wings general manager Ken Holland.
Maybe, but no one has assembled the quality mix Pittsburgh has around Crosby, who at 20 is now unquestionably the game's greatest player and approaching iconic status.
The Penguins have some veteran leadership with Gary Roberts, Mark Recchi and Sergei Gonchar, but they are basically a deep bunch of super talented kids who have been evolving collectively and developing the kind of chemistry and exuberance the Oilers and Islanders did once upon a time before they became dynasties.
With a lineup boosted by rookie of the year winner Evgeni Malkin and finalist Jordan Staal and a great season by goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins posted a 47-point improvement in the standings, a turnaround that nearly brought them a division flag. The season ended on a disappointing note in the first round of the playoffs, but it provided a lesson those other great teams learned before they became ready to win.
"The fortunate thing about playing on this team, there's a lot of younger guys and we're all kind of growing up together," Crosby said. "I definitely think (the playoffs) was a great learning time for us. Just to get the taste, I think we really needed that, so when the opportunity comes again, we'll know the situation and be a little bit more familiar with it.
"But we have to be ready from the start. A lot of good teams don't make the playoffs."
Credit that to the salary cap, which has forced a dispersal of talent, and rule changes that have rewarded speed and skill instead of size and suffocating defense. It is an environment that has made it easier for young and smaller players to break in and has allowed also-ran teams to overhaul enough to change their fortunes in just one summer.
That's why the Blackhawks, Flyers, Capitals and Kings believe they can immediately rebound from miserable seasons to become playoff contenders after making significant lineup changes, while a few other mid-level teams think they can go even farther.
"You just never know; the league is very evenly balanced now," said Flyers GM Paul Holmgren. "You just gotta take each game as they come and hope you can stay healthy and click on all cylinders at the right time because parity is here to stay."