by Mike Chen on 01/11/10 at 04:00 PM ET
Only one team can win the Stanley Cup. Does that mean that the season is a failure for the other 29 teams? For teams like Chicago and Washington, the answer could be yes, though I’d say that making the final four teams could be argued as the measuring stick for a reasonably successful season. For the rest of the teams, I think fans have to consider the context of their expectations going into the season. Did you expect your team to vie for the Stanley Cup this season or were you just hoping they wouldn’t finish in the basement again?
For the latter, it’s important to temper mid-season frustrations with a little bit of realism. If rookies are having a good first season and the team is competing hard most nights, then a .500 record could be a major step forward—and anything else could just be a bonus. Let’s look at a few examples.
I’ve heard some grumblings from Tampa Bay fans that the Lightning aren’t meeting expectations and they should be better than the on-again/off-again squad we’re currently seeing. However, if you consider where things were at the beginning of the season, wouldn’t it be reasonable to say that things have progressed pretty well? Victor Hedman’s had a strong, if not spectacular rookie season, and Steven Stamkos has developed into a true force. One strong surge could leap the Bolts over the pack into a playoff spot and they’re playing meaningful games in January. Considering the disaster of last season, couldn’t this be viewed as a success?
What about in Colorado? You’re starting to see Avalanche pundits wonder if the early season magic is gone and if the team will slip out of the playoff race after such a strong start. While missing the playoffs will be disappointing, the team is still technically in a transition phase. Look at the key roles assigned to rookies—they may have had their ups and downs but they’ve laid the foundation for future success. Plus, Craig Anderson has proven himself as the right free agent pick, and maybe he wouldn’t be wavering if he didn’t face so many damn shots each night. With all that in mind, as long as the Avs don’t free-fall to the Western Conference basement, I’d peg the season a success since significant steps were taken in the rebuilding process.
Same thing in Phoenix. While the Coyotes look a little more stable than Colorado thanks to Dave Tippett’s tight-checking system, just making it to the playoffs could be a near-miracle with the way last season imploded and how off-ice issues had gone. Anything other than that is a bonus.
I think it comes down to keeping measured expectations. When you get a hint of success, you want more, and sometimes expectations get thrown out of whack. Instead, the more reasonable way to look at projections is if you look at this season’s progress over last season. Even the notion of progress is relative—if a team was filled with aging overpaid veterans last season, then jettisoning those and letting top prospects get NHL experience could be considered progress, regardless of record. Or it could be about a bottom-dwelling team finally finding its footing in the path to respectability.
Of course, the trick is to keep that progress going. Momentum’s a tricky thing—just ask Ken Hitchcock about that. After Columbus’ great start to the season, it’s been nothing but downhill, and last season’s toe-dip into the playoffs seems like a distant memory.
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