Chris Pronger is the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe if Philly wins the Cup. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images)
I fully expect this year’s Cup final to be one of the best we’ve seen in years. The Blackhawks and Flyers are deep, quick-strike teams with oodles of talent and a rough-and-tumble style of play built for post-season success.
Chicago is favored by most – not by me, but by most – but for the Hawks’ sake they better do it this year, because they’ll be hard-pressed to get back to the final any time soon – Jonathan Toews or no Jonathan Toews.
(As an aside, isn’t a bit early to be comparing Toews to the likes of Bryan Trottier or Joe Sakic? Not that I don’t think he’s a helluva player, but put a sock in it people.)
Why do the Hawks need to win it this year? The new NHL, that’s why. The salary cap is going to severely handcuff Chicago this summer. Roster turnover will be a necessity, as the Hawks need to find ways to fit their core players under the cap and leave enough aside to fill out their lineup.
To put it mildly, Chicago is in dire straits; GM Stan Bowman will have to work miracles to keep his team as competitive next season. According to capgeek.com, the Hawks – with just 14 players signed – are already nearly $800,000 over the current $56.8-million cap. (Expectations are the ceiling will go up by about $1 million for 2010-11.)
Among those slated for free agency: No. 1 netminder Antti Niemi, top-four defenseman Niklas Hjalmarsson and depth forwards John Madden, Adam Burish, Andrew Ladd and Ben Eager. Only Madden is unrestricted, but Niemi will need a huge raise from his $800,000 and Hjalmarsson made just $600,000 this year. Ladd, Eager and Burish will have to go if Bowman can’t work some trades and there’s very little in the system to replace those players.
Some will say the easy answer is to bury erstwhile No. 1 Cristobal Huet and his $5.6 million salary in the minors, but Niemi is going to eat up $3 million of that, so Bowman will still be between a rock and a hard place.
If you’re a big fan of Patrick Sharp, Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg or Dave Bolland, get ready to stitch another name and number on your Hawks jersey because one or two of those guys will have to be moved.
In Philly, things are better, but not great – $48.6 million tied up in 16 players next season. Free agents include suddenly sublime stopper Michael Leighton, ever-improving defenseman Braydon Coburn and thorns-in-others’ sides Arron Asham and Dan Carcillo.
But those are problems that should be much more easily navigated by Flyers GM Paul Holmgren. And getting players to re-sign for a chance at a second-consecutive Cup will only make it easier.
That’s right folks, I’m saying Philly will win – and make THN’s choice of them last summer in the 2009-10 Yearbook look quite prescient. Here’s why:
Pronger is the No. 1 player in this series and the top Flyers contender for the Conn Smythe Trophy. The guy plays half the game, shuts down the opposition’s top forwards and is the top-scoring blueliner still playing by a relative country mile. All the while being the nastiest, most intimidating and smartest player around.
Pronger’s three blueline mates make Philly’s top four better than Chicago’s, too. Coburn, Kimmo Timonen and Matt Carle along with Pronger are the best group in the NHL, hands down. They can play smooth offense, tight defense and, no matter which they’re doing, will hurt you physically. They haven’t seen the likes of Byfuglien and Co. yet, but they’re better equipped to handle those big bodies than anyone else.
That’s not to say the Hawks don’t have a strong defense in their own right, but I’ll take the likes of Timonen and Carle over Hjalmarsson and Brian Campbell as my No. 2 pairing anytime.
Up front, the Flyers have a great mix of skill and veteran savvy. Chicago may actually trump Philly in the skill department, but the young Hawks lack the seasoning to get over the top. It’s pretty much a wash.
The only thing that can ruin it is shoddy goaltending. Leighton is the guy most think will falter first, but his play to date has been out of this world and there’s no reason to think it will end.
I’m predicting Philly, with Pronger and overall experience being the determining factors. Whether you agree with me or not, what can’t be disputed is that neither team has seen an opponent as physical and deadly in both ends as they will this series. And that will make for a great final.
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