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Early exits will lead to unpredictable off-season

The San Jose Sharks have been a Stanley Cup threat for a number of years, but will a five-game exit at the hands of St. Louis finally push them towards a rebuild? (Photo by Mark Buckner/NHLI via Getty Images)

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The San Jose Sharks have been a Stanley Cup threat for a number of years, but will a five-game exit at the hands of St. Louis finally push them towards a rebuild? (Photo by Mark Buckner/NHLI via Getty Images)

Aside from the teams that actually make it out of the first round, you’d have to think the two people most thrilled with the early developments in these playoffs would be Rick Nash and Scott Howson.

A number of teams that were tabbed as legitimate contenders for the Stanley Cup have flamed out spectacularly in the first round of the post-season and could be joined by the New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks Monday night and either the Washington Capitals or Boston Bruins on Wednesday.

This will undoubtedly lead to howls of the need for change in a number of major NHL markets, which will lead to a greater certainty that not only will Nash be dealt, but that a team will overpay for him. Those teams, of course, will ignore the fact that Nash is already overvalued by his salary and contract terms. And instead of offering the Columbus Blue Jackets the opportunity to simply get out from under that contract in exchange for taking Nash, they’ll be more inclined to meet Howson’s demands. Clearly, Howson was wise to grab his mask and gun and demand an outrageous return at the trade deadline.

Only one team will get Nash, though, which will leave a host of others faced with the age-old question of whether to blow things up or make tweaks in hopes of taking another run at a championship next year. Don’t count on many teams going the former route. It’s simply too risky. Even though making a series of bold and decisive moves in the off-season seems to have worked out just fine for Paul Holmgren and the Philadelphia Flyers, the appetite for tearing things down to build them up again probably isn’t that high among teams who think they still have a legitimate shot to win.

Let’s take the Sharks, for example. On the surface, they look like the poster-team for underachievers in the NHL. And to an extent they deserve that reputation. You’re only as good as your results say you are and the Sharks have never won a Stanley Cup. They were also pretty easily dispatched this year by a St. Louis Blues team that endured its share of lean years before building up its roster into one that looks ready for sustained success.

But the fact is, about half the teams in this league would kill for the Sharks’ spotty record, particularly since they’re coming off back-to-back appearances in the Western Conference final. So what do the Sharks do? Do they trade Joe Thornton? Well, perhaps, if they feel they need to get rid of a player who has consistently been among the league’s elite and was probably their best all-round player this year in both the regular season and the playoffs. Patrick Marleau is by far the bigger enigma on this team, but can they really expect to move him at a $6.9 million cap hit for each of the next two seasons?

What you’re more inclined to see in San Jose is that the likes of Torrey Mitchell, Dominic Moore, Brad Winchester and Colin White will be gone as free agents and replaced by players the Sharks think might be able to give them more when they need it. Heaven knows Sharks GM Doug Wilson has made his share of blockbuster moves over the years and his team isn’t any closer to winning the Stanley Cup.

And what about a team such as the Red Wings? The same outfit that set an NHL record for consecutive wins on home ice this season faces the familiar off-season questions about whether or not they’re too old, too small and not tough enough. This is a team, however, that has had one top-20 draft pick in the past 20 years. There will be calls to finally tear things down and start to rebuild, but does anyone realistically expect the Red Wings to do that?

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Because going that route would basically mean GM Ken Holland would have to put Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg up for auction and get young players and draft picks in return. Hey, maybe that’s the way he should consider going, but don’t expect that to happen. The Red Wings will find out soon what Nicklas Lidstrom’s plans are and will likely say farewell to Brad Stuart. They’ll have a ton of cap space to chase Ryan Suter if he becomes available and hope that young players such as Brendan Smith, Riley Sheahan and Calle Jarnkrok continue to develop into future NHLers. The Red Wings will have a center ice corps of Datsyuk, Zetterberg, Darren Helm and Justin Abdelkader next season. That’s not a bad place to start, but the key for the Red Wings will be supplementing them with more depth of talent.

Whither the Canucks? Well, obviously the biggest question there is what to do with the goaltending situation. And if they decide to part with Roberto Luongo once and for all, their chances of finding a trading partner will depend on how realistic their demands are. If they demand a bundle in return, forget it. But if they’re willing to part with him for next to nothing or take on somebody else’s burdensome contract in return (see Lecavalier, Vincent) they might be able to move him.

The Pittsburgh Penguins? Well, beyond hoping that goalie Marc-Andre Fleury can bounce back from one of the worst stretches of hockey in his career and teaching the players that the ice is 200 feet long and has a defensive zone, they’re bound to stay the course.

It’s easy to say a team should tear things down and start all over again, but it’s much more difficult to accomplish. And if a team were to do that, there would be no guarantee the strategy would work. On the flip side, there are good teams in the league that know pretty much all you can do in today’s NHL is build a good team, but not a dynasty. Every team in the league has flaws and almost every team that is successful one year faces difficult decisions and questions the next. You think the Nashville Predators will be as good next season and they have been this season? We’ll see after July 1 because they’re either going to lose key parts or they’ll have to sacrifice other parts of their roster to keep them.

These days, all a team can do is build its roster the best it can and hope that things turn out in the playoffs. This is a league, after all, where a team that came within one goal of reaching the Stanley Cup final last season didn’t even make the playoffs this season.

Ken Campbell is the senior writer for The Hockey News and a regular contributor to THN.com with his column. To read more from Ken and THN's other stable of experts, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine.

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