Hollywood movies and human nature have conditioned most of us to hope, if not outright expect, our stories to have happy endings.
However, as a few NHL franchises just learned, reality doesn’t grant nearly that many wishes. More often than not, it specializes in the cruelest of lessons, crushed hopes and dashed dreams.
That was the unfortunate result for the Edmonton Oilers, Toronto Maple Leafs, and Florida Panthers, which all saw their Stanley Cup aspirations coldly cast into the proverbial latrine after losing must-win games this week. And soon, playoff bubble teams such as the Buffalo Sabres, Nashville Predators – or perhaps the fast-sliding Vancouver Canucks – will set up shop with them on lottery lane.
Still, it’s not all bad news for organizations whose late-season runs ended up in vain. The league’s recent history proves that, though next year may feel as if it’s 10,000 miles away right now, 365 days or so can very well be enough time to jump back into the championship mix.
To wit: last season, the Montreal Canadiens, Carolina Hurricanes, Boston Bruins, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers respectively finished 10th, 11th, 13th. 14th and 15th in the Eastern Conference. The Bruins, Caps and Flyers are currently fighting it out for the final two playoff berths, but regardless of which two teams claim them, half of the East’s playoff participants from last year will be out of the post-season this time around.
It’s a little bit different in the Western Conference, where only Colorado may bump out either the Canucks or Predators and alter the group of eight playoff teams who qualified last spring. But that still means nearly one-third of last year’s 16 post-season contenders will have dropped out altogether.
That’s got to be some kind of consolation for this season’s crop of have-nots. And there’s more consolation where that came from.
In Edmonton, there’s 18-year-old Sam Gagner, 20-year-old Andrew Cogliano, 23-year-old Robert Nilsson and upwards of $15 million in looming salary cap space to salivate over. And did I mention their defense corps, which has just one member over the age of 25? How ’bout a brand new owner willing to spend whatever the rules allow to make the Oilers a perennial powerhouse again?
Meanwhile, in Florida, the 17 or so remaining Panthers fans can look forward to more development from Jay Bouwmeester, Stephen Weiss and Nathan Horton, some $14 million in available cap room, and potential NHL rookie seasons from highly-regarded prospects such as Shawn Matthias, Noah Welch and Keaton Ellerby.
And in Toronto, Maple Leafs supporters can take some solace in the knowledge their search for a No. 1 goaltender has finally ended thanks to the sterling late-season performance of Vesa Toskala.
As well, the Leafs likely will bring in a slew of younger players – including forwards Nikolai Kulemin, Robbie Earl and Jeremy Williams and goalie Justin Pogge – to add to an NHL lineup that already features developing youngsters Jiri Tlusty and Anton Stralman. Oh, and they’ll also have nearly $11 million (and perhaps more, once a few pieces of deadwood have their contracts bought out or assumed by Toronto’s American League affiliate) with which to improve.
Of course, there’s no guarantee any or all of the three teams will be able to correct course and slide effortlessly into the playoffs next year. Indeed, in the cases of Florida and Toronto, the playoffs have been little more than a pipe dream for a few years now. But in all three cases, a late-season push, however futile, provides plenty of cause for optimism.
A happy-ending freak like Walt Disney may not have been pleased with their story arcs at this stage, but Mary Poppins certainly would approve of the sugar that’s helping their medicine go down.
Adam Proteau is The Hockey News’ online columnist and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog appears Mondays and Wednesdays, his Ask Adam feature appears Tuesdays and Fridays, and his column, Screen Shots, appears Thursdays.
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