The Stanley Cup has been awarded and the NHL season is over. As my wife put it this evening, "Today's the first day it's seemed like summer. The NHL season is over."
The Flyers and Blackhawks were very similar and it made for an exciting final. However, Chicago had the better goaltending. Michael Leighton was better than anyone expected and he was solid for most of the games, but Niemi was better. Another factor was fatigue. Philly’s top pair might be better than Chicago’s (and that’s certainly a debatable point), but Chicago’s bottom four are better. Especially their five-six pair. Laviolette barely used his bottom two in the whole playoffs. And while Chris Pronger is a workhorse, he was showing fatigue in the last couple of games. In game 5 he was on the ice for every Chicago goal except for the one where he was in the penalty box. In game 6 he took a few bad penalties and made some poor decisions. In addition, in both games (and game four) he took too many long shifts and got caught out on the ice leading to scoring chances for Chicago.
But the real question is: Can the two teams make it back next year?
The Blackhawks have a good young core, but are going to be in a tight cap space next year. Kane, Toews and Keith are getting huge raises. The team has four UFAs (John Madden, Adam Burish, Nick "The Beach" Boynton and Kim Johnsson) and eight RFAs (including Andrew Ladd, Ben Eager, Niklas Hjalmarsson and Antti Niemi). The 14 players they have signed are only $3 million under this year’s payroll. This year’s cushion was $336,000. They could easily use the rest of their cap space keeping Niemi. Cristobal Huet and $5.625 million a year salary need to go for sure. If they can do that and keep their RFAs for a reasonable price they can keep the core together and have a good chance at returning to the final. Someone's going to have to go, but good dealing can keep the trades to a minimum.
The biggest challenge to the Blackhawks in the Western Conference will likely be the Colorado Avalanche and Detroit Red Wings. The Sharks and Canucks are starting to acquire the stink of playoff failure and unless something changes drastically, they will not make it past the Conference Final yet again.
As for the Flyers, they have 16 players signed, with probably a $52 million cap hit. They had space this year and their payroll is $12 million less not counting bonuses. While the team has an insane 11 UFAs this off-season, they include Arron Asham and Lukas Krajicek, but also four goalies (Michael Leighton, Ray Emery, Sebastion Caron and Johan Backlund), oft-injured defenseman Mike Rathje and a bunch of minor-league players. Rathje and Emery’s careers are probably finished. Of their 7 RFAs, Dan Carcillo, Darroll Powe, Ryan Parent and Braydon Coburn are due significant raises, with Coburn's probably the biggest.
The biggest question, as always for the Flyers, is goaltending. They can probably easily keep the same group of forwards together, and with Rathje’s salary off the books, resign their RFA defensemen and have enough left over to pay a top-flight goalie if they can find one. Keeping in mind that this team was in the league basement before firing coach John Stevens and hiring Peter Laviolette and that once they learned his system had to claw their way into the playoffs before dominating the Devils and Canadiens and coming back from 3-0 against the Bruins, with a full year under Laviolette and a top-flight goalie the Flyers have the potential to win the Conference and challenge for the Cup again.