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Lessons learned from the regular season...

04/09/2012 at 11:46pm EDT

Another regular season is behind us; before the playoffs begin, I thought it may be fun to share what 6 months of toil have taught me.

Anyone can win the Southeast division - and probably will. Thanks to the Panthers, it’s now the only division that all 5 of its members have won since the lockout. Like many, I had assumed that Dale Tallon’s collection of third-line stars would tread water in anticipation of younger stars emerging around them; their success this season speaks volumes not to Tallon’s genius but to the coaching ability of Kevin Dineen, a long-time candidate who I’m guessing several teams are now casting rueful eyes at.

Nearly right is still wrong - or how the Washington Capitals built their roster. Look at the top teams in the NHL today, and you’ll see several common themes. First, these teams are built down the middle. The Capitals have Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich, neither of whom can bring either the stardust of a Crosby or Malkin, nor the overall game of a Toews, Datsyuk or Bergeron. Second, the team’s stars are humble, dedicated leaders. The Capitals are built around Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Mike Green, none of whom have yet displayed ‘the right stuff’ to put a team onto their shoulders in the way that Toews, Malkin or Chara can. Third, problems are solved on a long-term basis. The Capitals have constantly looked for the quick-fix, low-investment answer to their problems, be it trade deadline acquisitions in past years or one-year deals handed out to veterans like Tomas Vokoun. It’s almost certainly time for Washington to do what Philadelphia did last year, and move on from this flawed core with a sensible plan for the long-term.

The Ottawa Senators are the real deal - particularly Jason Spezza. If you got all NHL fans to compile a list of the top 10 centres in the game today, Spezza would not get on enough of them - and by ‘enough’, I mean ‘all’. Not only is he still a superb playmaker (over 50 assists this season), but he is now a 30 goal scorer with an outstanding two-way game. With all the attention focused upon Erik Karlsson’s incredible output this year, Spezza’s brilliance has been overlooked. Not only have Bryan Murray and Paul MacLean built a competitive team when many saw only the basement looming, there is also a treasure trove of exciting young talent on the way. Compare their situation to Edmonton or Toronto…

An elite team - so why am I so scared? Admiision time - I’m a Vancouver Canucks fan. They’ve just become only the fifth team to retain the President’s Trophy; the other four all celebrated this by winning the Stanley Cup either that season, or the year afterwards. The Canucks have depth in every position, two elite goalies, and are capable of winning games in any way they like. And yet… it really would not shock me if they were beaten by the Los Angeles Kings. Partly this is because the Kings are an extremely good team - ridiculously good for a #8 seed, with the ingredients to be a Cup contender in the mould of Calgary in 2004 and Edmonton in 2006. Much as I praised the Sens, I’d take a series against them instead of the Kings in a heartbeat. Partly, though, I fear that the Canucks have all the pieces, but haven’t sussed how to put them all together at the same time. All season, as one part of the team has excelled, another has struggled. But…

You don’t have to be perfect to be the best - you just have to be better than everyone else. Like the old joke about two ramblers who come across a bear: one of them points out that there’s no real chance that a man can outrun a bear, to which the other replies, “I don’t have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you.” There are at least 10 teams in this year’s playoffs whose names would not disgrace the Stanley Cup as champions. As much as this is a contest of will and skill, it is also a contest of chance and fortune - that is not to say that the eventual winners are not deserving, but rather that there will also be other teams who deserve our respect and admiration, who play the game to the level of champions.

Here’s to two months of dreams and legends.

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