— Before the 2009-’10 NHL season began I picked the Canucks to win the Stanley Cup. Well, I'm not turning back now. 'Nucks all the way, baby.
I see it clearly: first Cup in the franchise's history. Old Canuckleheads Harold Snepsts and Tiger Williams tag team Roberto Luongo amid the wild on-ice celebration at GM place, wrest the Cup away from the stunned team captain and disappear with it into Gastown before Henrik Sedin gets a chance to hoist it above his head.
Trust me, I know these things. At least I did.
Prior to 2006-'07, I picked the Ducks to win it all. Chris Pronger & Co. got it done. The following preseason, I picked the Red Wings. Two-for-two. Confident, I doubled down with the Wings prior to 2008-'09, and felt extra confident when Game 7 of the Cup finals moved to the Joe. O.K., hey, so I lost a little of my mojo, but I wasn't alone (see: Marian Hossa's final-round stats for the Winged Wheels).
Nothing's holding back the Canucks. They can't match Washington's prolific scoring — possibly an issue in the final round — but they ran in lockstep for firepower all season with fellow Western Conference leaders San Jose and Chicago. They are no longer the popgun Canucks, not with Henrik Sedin capturing the Art Ross Trophy as the league's top point-getter (112) and his brother, Daniel, adding 85 points of his own. Daniel missed about a quarter of the season due to injury, but averaged 1.35 points per game. Henrik's rate was only a fraction better (1.37).
They also have the game's top No. 2 center in the gritty Ryan Kesler.
Their defense lacks a superstar, but their guys are very mobile (especially the speedy Christian Ehrhoff) and effective. Kevin Bieksa and Shane O'Brien bring the kind of moxie (read: a combined 164 penalty minutes) that make coach Alain Vigneault's squad tough to play against — another of the traits that has often been lacking for a club that has made it to the Cup finals only twice in team history.
Backing it all is Luongo, the 6-foot-3 keeper who helped Team Canada to the Olympic gold medal in February. Now 31, he has never carried the Canucks beyond the second round. But he is one of the game's elite netminders, capable of stealing a game or two, even a series.
Of the three top seeds in the West, including San Jose, Chicago and Vancouver, Luongo is the best netminder. Fourth seed Phoenix has better a goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov, my pick for MVP (Hart Trophy) this season, but the Desert Dogs don't have enough front-to-back talent to give Bryzgalov enough support.
Let's look at some of the other top Cup contenders and why they won't measure up to the distant sons of King Richard Brodeur:
This is the year, finally, when Jumbo Joe Thornton fills out his postseason resume. Thus far he has been January Joe, lacking both purpose and production in the playoffs. But Jumbo won't be enough for the Sharks to get out of the second round (sound familiar?). Plenty of high-end point production in the likes of Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Dany Heatley, not to mention Dan Boyle on the back line. But the problem here, as underscored at the Olympics, is netminder Evgeni Nabokov. Is he tired? Feeling the pressure? Good year-end numbers, but his Olympic peformance was less than average and his game with the Sharks showed some troubling soft spots after the Games.
Here come the ’Hawks, and they sure are fun to watch, making the NHL exciting and relevant again in the Windy City. They could make it to the Western finals again, but the goaltending is very sketchy with Antti Niemi and Cristobal Huet. They would have been better to stick with Nikolai Khabibulin (provided they could have kept him from motoring while under the influence) in net. They'll also miss mobile defenseman Brian Campbell, sidelined with multiple injuries when heaved into the endboards by Alex Ovechkin late in the season.
Hard to dismiss the Winged Wheels. Especially after picking them as the Cup favorite two years running. And especially when they have been so hot post-Olympics. The biggest question here is health and mileage. They're in good shape now, but they had lots of key guys out for lengthy stretches this season and there is no telling how they'll hold up under intense postseason pressure. Overall, too, it's a lineup that has played a lot of postseason hockey — going 11 of a possible 12 rounds the last three seasons. That wears down the legs. They also are entrusting the net to rookie goaltender Jimmy Howard, who has been sensational. It's just the playoffs have a way of humbling rookie goalies.
There is still a lot to like about the defending Cup champs. Would have picked them as the Cup favorite had they been able to land Ilya Kovalchuk at the trade deadline, similar to how they picked off Marian Hossa in 2008. They will miss stay-at-home defenseman Rob Scuderi, who bolted to the Kings as a free agent last summer. Chris Kunitz hasn't been the same contributor he was last year upon arriving from Anaheim. They've also got all the bad karma surrounding Matt Cooke, now the game's No. 1 headhunter (dealing with his own headaches after a beating by Evander Kane).
They will breeze in Round 1 vs. the Flyers and that will help their longevity. With Jacques Lemaire behind the bench and Martin Brodeur, they live on defense and netminding, and they live well. Kovalchuk was a bit of a quirky fit after arriving from Atlanta. No surprise, given Lemaire's trappist tendencies. I think the whole Kovalchuk thing is going to backfire on them. Square peg meets round hole. If he had a full season to adjust to the whole defensive scheme, maybe things would be different. Add to the fact that Brodeur again will look tired from too much work, and they could be erased in Round 2.
Won't this be a fun Cup finals, Caps and Canucks? For all the fretting about Washington's goaltending, Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov seem O.K. The issue here will be the need to play team defense, making the Caps the anti-Devils. These guys can score from the pizza stand, but they showed in last year's playoffs that they couldn't button down the blue line in crucial situations. I am not counting on it this year, either. Coach Bruce Boudreau likes the game full steam ahead, and we should all be thankful for that. Even the great Oilers teams knew how to tame it down in the second season and live with fewer goals The Caps have yet to develop that kind of guile.
Q: Who are your picks for the top awards?
— Chris Middleton from Eden Prairie, Minn.
A: I'm going with Coyotes goalie Ilya Bryzgalov for both the Hart (MVP) and the Vezina (top netminder). With even average netminding the Coyotes might have missed the playoffs. All in all, a tremendous season for a goalie the Ducks once had to give away.
Calder (rookie of the year): Sabres defenseman Tyler Myers. Exceptional agility for such a big kid. Fit seamlessly and impressively into the Sabres back line.
Norris (top defenseman): The Red Wings' Nicklas Lidstrom. Forget about where he finished in points. Turns age 40 in late April and he remains the gold standard along the blue line.
Selke (best defensive forward): Red Wings forward Pavel Datsyuk. Also was the only Russian forward to play any defense at the Olympics.
Lady Byng (most gentlemanly): Ducks forward Teemu Selanne. Hope the honor convinces him to hang around at least one more year.
Jack Adams (best coach): The Coyotes' Dave Tippett. Talk about making chicken salad out of chicken spit.
Executive of the Year: Coyotes GM Don Maloney. You may now return to the Rangers front office.
Q: Which non-playoff team has the best chance to turn things around next season?
— Larry from Mich.
A: I'm going with the Leafs, Larry, because I saw them play a lot of good games this season, only to see them lose, especially in the first half, because of bad goals — and bad goaltending. The net will be improved next season with an experienced Jonas Gustavsson pairing with veteran J-S Giguere from the start.
Also, you'll see GM Brian Burke swap defenseman Tomas Kaberle for a top six forward who will help bolster the scoring. Figure them for a seventh or eighth seed in the East.