A quick look at the playoff brackets might convince you that you know the answer to the title question. And while it is more than likely there will be fundamental changes to the structure of both the Capaital’s and the Sharks if they get knocked out before the conference finals, you’d be wrong to think they will back slide the furthest.
Boston with all its injuries (Savard, Stuart, Seidenberg) who had that huge drop from missing the Presidents Trophy last year by such a small margin, to clawing their way into sixth this year will be another year older, but will probably enter the season with Hall or Seguin on the roster and possible former first rounders Caron and Colbourne. If all goes well Ryder & Wideman will be wearing someone else’s uniform next year, and the three missing men will be back and contributing their impressive weight.
For the Habs who many (myself included) wrote off as a proof of Gainey’s senility with a roster crowded with Umpaloompa’s and hasbeens, just making the playoffs is something to be proud of. The fact that they started the second season by snapping an eight game post season slide against the powerhouse Capitals is enormous.
The Avalanche, Coyotes and Kings were not expected to make the playoffs and many predicted two of them as lottery bound. With the youth and lack of playoff experience here, despite the heart, hustle and skill they can all wait another season or even two to learn how to win playoff hockey.
Some people will point to the defending champion Penguins and their prom dates the last two years the Wings and say surely they have the most to lose. Nope, as great as the Wings I don’t think they have the depth. They were in 9th place not long ago and have been largely carried by several aging veterans and surprise sensation Jimmy Howard. The Penguins are in part victims of their own success, and partly their leadership failed to replace the shutdown defensive pair that helped propel them to the Cup a year ago. The Penguins still have great core, and the Wings leadership know how to build.
To my mind the Devils have to go out and make it to the Conference finals this year if the sword of Damoclese isn’t to descend on everyone outside the owners office. Like the Sharks the Devils have been almost there for so long, and have added a gun slinger to their lineup. Of all the teams in the east, I suspect only the Flyers will get a sounder scrubbing if they fail.
But the team that has the most to lose isn’t someone who’s been a perennial favorite, isn’t a team with questionable coaching, or prima donnas in the locker room its the Chicago Blackhawks. The team will be a very different beast next year. For next season they have 14 players signed and come up to $57.566 million. They quite literally have nowhere to move. They will start trading as soon as they can, both at the draft and right up to the start of the new season. Being that close to the salary cap something has got to give. If the team on the ice today wants a cup there is literally no “next year”. We could quite possibly see core guys including Kane and Toews moved to make room. Hossa and Sharp are almost certainly gone. If the Black Hawks fail, they don’t just lose a game or a series, they don’t simply let slip a place in history, they give up a team that is good enough to hoist the Cup and shatter the dream of a whole city.