Screen Shots: Future watching

For the NHL teams that won’t qualify for this season’s playoffs, the months of March and April are like one extended, excruciating blind date. In both cases, you know how it ends well before it ends, and how it ends ain’t ideal.

A round of appreciative applause, then, for the signature stylings of The Future. The eternal refuge of the disillusioned and distraught, T.F. is often all that sustains sports fans of consistently win-orexic franchises. In the NHL, it somehow assures otherwise reasonable people in every city that their team’s players are different somehow than the others, that their team will compete in eight of the next Stanley Cup Finals. At least.

Shockingly, many teams utilize T.F. as their primary marketing tool. And why shouldn’t they; between injuries, un-panned-out prospects, Millburian trades and male pattern baldness treatments, any team’s fortunes could take turn for the fortunate.

Nobody knows what T.F. holds, so everybody’s got a right to plant their flag in its foundation. But let’s not kid ourselves — some of the teams that are in the league’s cellar this season are going to stink similarly next season. Others will improve and make the leap into post-season contender, as the Sabres, Hurricanes and Rangers did this year.

Who will next season’s movers and fakers be? Good question, readers/voices in my head; here are your answers.

Mover: Florida. The Panthers remain NHL roadkill — only four teams have fewer wins away from home this season — but that’s the sign of a young team still finding its way.

Even if GM Mike Keenan can’t convince Roberto Luongo to sign a long-term contract, the bounty he’d receive in return for the goalie will keep Florida looking good for years. The more troubling question: will any South Floridians care?

Faker: Islanders. Hey, nobody’s discounting the job interim coach Brad Shaw has done with the Isles since taking over for Steve Stirling and surviving Mike Millbury’s latest round of controlled demolitions to the roster.

Shaw deserves another shot next year. But until this team bulks up at forward, and until the Defense Corps Formerly Known As Good gets a full-on overhaul, Shaw might as well go ahead and book that late April 2007 vacation right now.

Mover: Phoenix. It’s been a trying year for Wayne Gretzky on and off the ice this season. But after a whirlwind of personnel activity (Gretzky and GM Mike Barnett pulled off a whopping nine trades this season, as well as numerous other roster shuffles), it looks as if The Great One knows what he wants: a young, tough group of blueliners, backed up by talented-but-defensively-responsible forwards.

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With a few veteran additions up front this summer, Gretzky and the Coyotes could bring Phoenix fans a special present in 2007: the franchise’s first post-season series win in 20 years.

Faker: Blues. The ownership situation in St. Louis is now resolved, and Dave Checketts is the proud new papa of a 20-win NHL team. What’s worse – at the beginning of April, the Blues had the worst goals-for/goals allowed differential in the league.

To paraphrase Adam Ant: don’t score, don’t defend – what do ya do?

The answer: start a new streak. Only this one isn’t going to be about consecutive years making the playoffs; it’ll be consecutive years missing them.

Mover: Maple Leafs. The words “unqualified disaster” sum up this season quite nicely in Canada’s most hated city. Not qualifying for the playoffs is GM John Ferguson’s worst-case scenario, because it means he’ll face immense pressure to make a huge splash in the off-season and keep the barbarians outside the gate.

Funny thing is, we think he’ll do it. Ferguson has already drastically made over the AHL franchise, to the point where the call-ups this year look more prepared than many of the well-compensated veterans. If he avoids the temptation to make typical Toronto moves – i.e. overpay for a guy like Bryan McCabe, bring in big-name vets on the downside of their careers – Ferguson will have the right financial tools to work with. His chiseling skills will determine whether he gets to stick around.

Faker: Pittsburgh. Yes, the Penguins are likely to have Russian super-prospect Evgeni Malkin in the lineup next year, and they’ll also have one of Phil Kessel or Erik Johnson from the 2006 draft.

However the off-ice issues the team faces (a change in ownership, followed by the all-but-inevitable management change that could include GM Craig Patrick and coach Michel Therrien) don’t paint a stable picture for the Pens in the short term.

This team could be spectacular one day, but not next year – and sadly, maybe not in Pittsburgh, either.

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