Tonight, two teams will play for all the marbles. After 2,460 regular season games and another 100 or so post season nail-biters, the NHL's Stanley Cup Champions will be determined after one more game between the Detroit Red Wings and Pittsburgh Penguins. Interestingly enough, both of these teams went the distance last season as well, which leads me to a simple question. Whatever happened to the dreaded "Stanley Cup Hangover"?
In 2002-03, the year after the Hurricanes lost to the Red Wings in the finals, they finished last in the league. The team failed to make the playoffs the following year as well. After winning the Cup in 2006, they could not make the playoffs again for another two years. The primary excuse? The "Stanley Cup Hangover".
Carolina fans were told that it was just too difficult to expect their team to excel two years in a row. There was too much parity in the league. Players did not have enough time to rest up during the offseason. After playing with everything at stake in June, it was too difficult for players to mentally prepare themselves to go through the grind again the following October. And of course there were injuries. Remember the excuses?
This year fans can see the reality of the situation. Teams create their own "Stanley Cup Hangovers", they are not necessarily set in stone.
If the franchise's ownership group is willing to spend the money, if management is savvy and brave enough to make the proper changes, if the players are totally committed and are good enough, it's not impossible to play in the Finals two years in a row.
Neither the Red Wings or the Pens sat on their hands and kept their rosters unchanged, perfectly content to stick with the same lineup that got them to the Finals in 2008. Most notably, the Wings added the top free agent on the market at the time, Marian Hossa, who was not a cheap addition by any means. The Pens tweaked their lineup during the offseason, but went for broke at the trade deadline when they acquired both Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz.
Both teams suffered from injuries throughout the year, some more devastating than others, but both teams survived because they were better teams than they were the previous year. Both teams had improved enough to be successful regardless of the injuries.
Which brings me back to the Hurricanes. Was the team better in 2002-03 than it was the previous year? Had the team improved the year after winning the Cup in 2006? The answer to both questions is a resounding no.
Management seemed to be content to keep things status quo, and the players who did leave were not replaced with equal or better performers. For instance, when Martin Gerber left for more money he was replaced by John Grahame, a cheaper option but a player who did not even come close to performing as needed. Matt Cullen was sorely missed as well. (Management did recognize that and brought him back subsequently). And last but not least, many fans believe the team still misses the physical presence of Aaron Ward.
The 2006-07 team was certainly worse than the 2005-06 one and that probably explains the Carolina "Stanley Cup Hangover". While Detroit and Pittsburgh both improved themselves over last season's teams, when the Canes won, they did not improve and they paid the consequences.
Now it seems that Jim Rutherford is in the "no need to make a change" mode, once again. In an interview this week with 99.9 The Fan's Mike Maniscalco, he said that he would be perfectly willing to face the Penguins again with the same lineup that was swept by them in the playoffs previously. The GM is very happy with the way the team performed and wants to bring them back, intact, with perhaps one or two minor tweaks.
There are a couple of problems with this line of thinking.
First of all, while the Canes should be commended for an excellent postseason, as well as for playing lights out during the last third of the regular season, it's not like they blew through their competition. They could have easily lost either of those playoff series. They were just 80 seconds away from losing in round one. A team makes it's own luck, but when things are so close, it's hard to believe that there is no need for improvement.
Secondly, other teams are not sitting back and keeping their lineups status quo. Everyone is trying to improve, including the teams that finished ahead of you. If you stay the same but several other teams improve, how does that impact your record?
Jim Rutherford is an excellent general manager with a superb track record, (except in years after making the Finals). But sometimes it seems like he gets too comfortable with players and is slow to make a change. If the Hurricanes come back next season with, in essence, the same roster as last season, will they be better, the same, or worse than last year? And what if a key player gets injured?
If Ken Holland or Ray Shero stuck with the same lineups that they had last season, I doubt either of those teams would be playing for the Stanley Cup tonight. Best of luck to both franchises and may the best team win.