Wayne Gretzky’s Edmonton Oilers couldn’t do it. Nor could Nicklas Lidstrom’s Detroit Red Wings. Even the Pittsburgh Penguins’ dynamic duo of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr could not pull off the feat.
Indeed, as impressive as the accomplishments of those Hall of Famers have been, none were able to pull off what Sidney Crosby and his Penguins have the opportunity to do: Three-peat.
In fact, you have to go back to the 1980-84 New York Islanders to find the last team to do it. In the end, Al Arbour’s juggernaut won four consecutive Stanley Cups. From the lightning-quick release of Mike Bossy to the skill and determination of Bryan Trottier to the blue-line domination of Denis Potvin to the swashbuckling intimidation of goalie Billy Smith, the Islanders became one of the top dynasties the league has ever seen.
Will we use the “dynasty” word when all is said and done if the Penguins hoist hockey’s Holy Grail for a third consecutive season?
The building blocks are there. Crosby, fellow forwards Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, defenceman Kris Letang and goalie Matt Murray provide the type of franchise foundation rarely seen in the salary-cap era. That the Penguins were able to repeat this spring without the services of an injured Letang makes their most recent championship that much more impressive.
Now comes the quest for three.
“We know the odds aren’t on our side. That’s OK,” Crosby said. “We have a group that believes in one another, and it’s going to take a lot of things to go right, but why not?”
Taking all things into account, the Penguins’ bid for history is the top NHL storyline entering the 2017-18 season. Their biggest obstacle? League-wide parity.
To that end, Postmedia conducted a poll of some of the league’s top stars during the NHL’s annual media tour several weeks ago in New York. One of the questions posed to the likes of Connor McDavid, Patrick Kane and Jamie Benn: Who will win the Stanley Cup?
The 25 players surveyed ended up picking 11 different teams, more than one-third of the league’s 31 franchises. That’s what you call parity.
The Penguins did receive some love, tying for top spot with the Dallas Stars at four votes each. There were plenty of other contenders, including the Oilers (3), Chicago Blackhawks (3), Tampa Bay Lightning (3), Anaheim Ducks (2), Washington Capitals (2), Nashville Predators (1), St. Louis Blues (1), San Jose Sharks (1) and Los Angeles Kings (1).
In the end, the scrap for the Cup might be the most wide-open fight we’ve ever seen. Here are nine other storylines to watch this season.
YOUNG GUNS RISE
Maybe it’s not the official passing of the torch. But the emergence of a new generation certainly is leaving its footprint on the sport, a movement featuring the likes of McDavid, Nathan MacKinnon, Johnny Gaudreau, Mark Scheifele, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner, Jack Eichel — the list goes on and on.
During the less-than-memorable World Cup of Hockey a year ago, the highlight was the electrifying play of Team North America, a group of 23-and-under players that captured the imagination of fans everywhere.
“It was so much fun,” McDavid said. “It would have been awesome to have reached the playoff round and see what we could have done.”
Despite winning the Hart Trophy as league MVP, McDavid still considers Crosby the sport’s top player. But, if the torch hasn’t been passed, it’s at least being shared. And there are plenty of other young guns waiting in the wings, too.
In the spring of 2016, zero of the seven Canadian-based teams were in the playoffs. One year later, there were five.
And while it’s doubtful all seven will qualify for the 2018 Cup tournament, it’s not unreasonable to think six could be in the mix.
This spring, the Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames reached the post-season. And with some more consistent goaltending, the Winnipeg Jets could add to that list by the time next April rolls around.
The lone long shot in the bunch appears to be the Vancouver Canucks, who have a long rebuild ahead.
BIG HACK ATTACK
Players who were whining during the pre-season about the rash of penalties being handed out for whacks to an opponent’s hand should take time to watch video of the ugly finger injuries sustained last season by the likes of Gaudreau and Marc Methot.
Good for incoming player safety sheriff George Parros for vowing to eliminate this type of harmful hacking from the game. Players need to adapt, not protest.
“If they seem to be intentful or directed at the fingers and hands with greater force, we’re going to be looking to do something — fines, suspensions, whatever it might be,” Parros said. “We’re going to try to change player behaviour.”
Parros’ hiring raised more than a few eyebrows around the hockey world, given his reputation as a pugilist during his playing days. But even though he racked up 1,092 penalty minutes in his 474-game career, Parros was never fined or suspended.
Now, he’ll be the one doing the suspending.
VEGAS BABY, VEGAS!
Can the sport of pucks and sticks survive in the world of craps and slots? We’re about to find out.
The NHL is the first of North America’s top four pro sports leagues to put its footprint into Las Vegas, and the early reviews have been encouraging. From high ticket demand to a thinking-outside-the-box social media department, the intrigue surrounding the Vegas Golden Knights is at a level unequaled for any incoming expansion team.
Of course, sooner or later, the bloom will come off the rose if they don’t win — or, at the least, don’t ice an entertaining product.
FACES IN NEW PLACES
On the ice, Kevin Shattenkirk is a New York Ranger; Patrick Marleau is a Maple Leaf; Jonathan Drouin is a Canadien; Artemi Panarin is a Columbus Blue Jacket; Jordan Eberle is an Islander; and Ben Bishop, Alexander Radulov and Methot are Stars.
Behind the bench, the list of incoming coaches includes Rick Tocchet (Arizona), Phil Housley (Buffalo), Ken Hitchcock (Dallas), Bob Boughner (Florida), John Stevens (Los Angeles) and Travis Green (Vancouver). Gerard Gallant, meanwhile, is the Golden Knights’ first coach.
From the moment the first puck was dropped in pre-season, NHL players suddenly felt like the faceoff circle was a foreign place.
With the league’s crackdown on cheating on draws — including tactics like using feet to obstruct opponents and swipe at pucks — what was once a fair attempt to gain a competitive advantage has transformed into a march to the penalty box.
According to director of officiating Stephen Walkom, there will be a period of growing pains before players fully adapt to the guidelines.
“By playoff time, the players will have changed the way they set up for a faceoff,” he said, adding that “we knew at camp we’d have to live through some pain.”
THE ROCKET’S RED GLARE
The quest for 50 is officially on again.
For only the second time in the past 13 seasons, no NHL player was able to reach the 50-goal plateau last season. Crosby captured the Rocket Richard Trophy with 44.
Looking healthy again after missing much of last season with a knee injury, Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos should have a shot at hitting the elusive 50 mark this season. Lightning teammate Nikita Kucherov and St. Louis sniper Vladimir Tarasenko are among those with legitimate shots too, as are McDavid and Crosby.
Having said that, don’t count out the likes of Matthews and Patrik Laine, who look to be even better in their second NHL seasons.
Attention, NHL coaches: Challenge at your own risk.
In an effort to cut down on the number of times bench bosses issue challenges debating whether plays leading to opposition goals are offside, the league will now hand out two-minute minor penalties to teams whose coaches are proven wrong in such instances.
Video coaches around the NHL will be feeling the heat whenever their head coach asks them to verify if a play was offside.
A year ago in this space, we picked the Lightning to defeat the Predators for the Stanley Cup.
We were right about the Nashville part, as the Preds went on to represent the Western Conference in the Cup final. As for Tampa Bay, well, Jon Cooper’s squad didn’t even make the playoffs, thanks largely to a huge injury list headlined by Stamkos.
This season, we’re picking the Lightning for the Cup again.
Stamkos is back and there doesn’t seem to be any possible way they can suffer as many injuries as a year ago. On the back end, Victor Hedman could very well win the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenceman, especially with Ottawa’s Erik Karlsson recovering from an ankle injury to start the year.
Looking into our crystal ball, we see McDavid’s Oilers reaching the final and giving the Lightning everything they can handle.
Other teams to watch out for in the Stanley Cup dance: the Stars, Ducks, Blue Jackets and Maple Leafs.