|I used this Bobrovsky illustration by @PREDSmyth again cause I like it.|
Thinking about the time leading up to the trade deadline, and I felt 'gosh, they win a game or two here, and they might be buyers at the deadline'. Well, they won those games. Then there was the incredible road trip to end the season in which they went 5-1. I don't know how many times before that road trip that I said 'stick a fork in them, they're done'. But the teams resiliency and belief came through time and again, to build up to the fantastic crescendo at the finale.
So now what?
I remember well after the 2008-09 season we were all certain that our core of young players was ready to move forward, and we would be going deeper into the playoffs. We all know that in that Olympic year, with a compressed schedule, and little or no practice time (sound familiar?), that after a franchise record (at the time) hot start, the team went on a disastrous December swoon, and soon started tuning Hitch out. That was the beginning of a three year regression, with intermittent bright spots. And there is a part of me that fears the same thing might happen next year. On the other hand, there are also some real differences.
For instance, how do you chop the head off an amoeba?
In the 2009-10 team it was clear that opposing teams had the mantra, stop Nash and you can beat the rest. Faced with that relentless gauntlet, Nash was unable to pull the whole team along with him, and the house of cards collapsed in December. It didn't help that the goal tender had decided that 'hey, this NHL stuff is easy' and reported to camp in less than Olympic athlete condition, which began Mason's long regression.
So there is a deep, primal hockey fan fear in me that this could turn out the same next year, that this team regresses instead of moving forward. Look at the Florida Panthers this year. They won the SouthLeast last year, but are picking second this year, having lost the lottery. So what are some things that I look for to find hope, instead of fear?
One, I rely on Bob's relentless work ethic, that has been an evident part of his character for years. I don't think that is going to change. I believe he will take his No. 1 goal tender status into the summer as a precious jewel because he knows how it can change (see re: Bryzgalov). I think he will want to take things to another level next year, and I think he will be motivated to make the playoffs. There will be a pretty spirited battle for the number 2 slot behind Bob between Curtis McHelinney down in Springfield and Michael Leighton, who is not as bad as those people from the desert planet of Philadelphia would have you believe. We may have a pretty good netminder as number 2 next year, not to mention the young talent in the pipeline (Anton Forsberg, I'm talkin' to you).
Another thing I rely on is the fact that Nick Foligno is saying that this is the most fun he's ever had playing hockey. Winning is fun. If we had the first or second pick, he might not be singing the same tune. This team had a taste of both sides of that coin, losing and working through that to winning. It gives one hope to know that the core of this team knows that if you buckle down, work hard, and stick with it, that the good things will come on the other side.
The other thing, is this team has great character depth, a subject for a future blog, but relevant here as well. The 2009-10 team was relying on RJ, Boll, and Dorsett to provide character. The 2013-14 team has character throughout the lines and pairings. Its not just Nash trying to lead the way, its everyone (hence the earlier amoeba reference). This is a large buffer against regression.
I hope JD and Jarmo bring back Vinny, and Aucoin for that matter. Go that one year contract route. I thought those guys provided an awful lot to what is still going to be a very young team. Oakes will miss some time due to injury, its part of the package, but that's just opportunity for the young guys.
So at the end of the day, there are some distinct differences between the 2009-10 team, an the 2013-14 team. That is what gives me hope that this year was a foundation, instead of an improbable bright spot in a sea of darkness.