Forget about the old Montreal Canadiens and those other power house teams that used to dominate the NHL.
With the Detroit Red Wings winning the Stanley Cup, it has become clear that dynasties have gone the way of dinosaurs in hockey. Gone forever are the days when teams like the Canadiens and New York Islanders could win four straight Cups and the Edmonton Oilers five in seven seasons in the post-expansion years.
Historians, take note:
There have been six different league champions and 11 different teams in the finals since 1992, a sure sign that parity has taken over the league in a big way in the ‘90s.
The trend is a combination of several factors, most notably the influx of talent from abroad, particularly Eastern European countries, and a larger talent base in the U.S.
Witness, for instance, the “Russian Five” who helped the Red Wings win this year. And John LeClair, an American, who played an important role in leading the Philadelphia Flyers to the finals.
A free-agent market that has allowed more movement of players throughout the league has been another factor in spreading out the talent. Wayne Gretzky was only one example this past season. He signed with the New York Rangers and was instrumental in their charge to the Eastern Conference finals.
Nor are teams afraid to trade big-name players anymore. In fact, in some cases, they have to. Often, contract demands by stars have forced small-market teams to unload good players, creating in some ways a merry-go-round of talent.
The days are also gone when players remain loyal to one team, suffering in silence with no chance to ever win the Stanley Cup. Now, star players are often demanding trades to get out of miserable situations.
Case in point: Brendan Shanahan. He was unhappy playing in Hartford and wanted to go to a team where he could win a Stanley Cup. Presto - he was on his way to Detroit and the NHL championship. Coach Scotty Bowman emphasized that Shanahan, a power left wing, was one of the key ingredients in his Stanley Cup run.
Shanahan’s case is eerily familiar: Last year, goaltender Patrick Roy forced his trade to Colorado after a battle of egos with his coach in Montreal. The result: a Stanley Cup in Colorado.
Goaltending, of course, is the great equalizing factor in hockey. And it has been uniformly good of late. Practically every team has at least one top-notch goalie and in many cases, two.
Even with tighter team defenses this past season across the board, you could make a case that it was the best group of goalies in league history. The proof: a record 130 shutouts, bettering the old mark of 93 set three years ago.
Just look at the Red Wings. During the regular season, Chris Osgood played the lion’s share of games in net for them, yet when it came time for the playoffs, it was Mike Vernon who carried the load for Detroit. All he did was win the Conn Smythe trophy as most valuable player.
And both Ron Hextall and Garth Snow were used interchangeably right through the finals for the Flyers.
If there has been anything that has not changed in the NHL, it is the likelihood that the team that wins the regular season championship might not win the Stanley Cup.
In the 30 years since expansion, just half the teams that had the highest point total in the regular season managed to win the Cup. This has been particularly true in the last eight years, when only the New York Rangers in 1994 managed to do both.
The league champion Red Wings only had the fifth-best record (38-26-18) in the NHL and five teams posted more victories during the regular season.
Which proved once again, of course, that the NHL’s “second season” was more important than the first.
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