Game One of the Stanley Cup Final(s) is this evening and I was tantalized by someone proffering the question, “How far are the Sabres from the Devils, anyway?”
Where to begin?
From an overall perspective, I get it. Last year, the Devils spent the first half of their season urinating on themselves before almost scrubbing the season clean in the wash. Like the Sabres, their comeuppance didn’t arrive on-time and they battled through 2011-12, presumably using lessons learned to karate-kick a devilish division.
And while the argument is likely moot considering the wealth of changes to come in the offseason — how far away? Not far if the guy you want to trade up for is worth anything near comparisons drawn to the most electric player ever in Pavel Bure — the comparison gives me the old ice cream brain freeze. Sure there’s a celebrated goaltender and some journeymen, but it kinda ends there.
To start with, if chemistry wasn’t relished by NHL executives, the Devils would likely consider swapping their entire D-corps for the Sabres’ group right now. No disrespect for New Jersey’s blue line, but Buffalo has one of the best top-to-bottom in the league.
The whole goaltending thing is a massive stretch as well. I believe in Ryan Miller as one of the elite-skilled and minded goalies in the National Hockey League. Defensive-systems aside, however, Brodeur has three Stanley Cups, two gold medals, approximately four billion NHL records and a horrific divorce story. Miller’s got a Vezina, a silver and an annual party where players slapbox for charity.
What else do the Devils have?
— An ageless future Hall-of-Fame center (Patrik Elias) who plays responsible two-way hockey, scores goals, piles on assists and kills penalties like a gladiator. He also was captain for two years and had it taken away (which would have Buffalo fans assuming he couldn’t possibly stay in that locker room after a humiliation like that).
— An ageless sniper (Petr Syrkora) who’s a lock for 20 goals-per-year despite being older than some species of amphibians.
— Oh, and both those players were with Brodeur in New Jersey through Cup campaigns. Brodeur has three with three different coaches, Elias two with two and Sykora one with one. So, no experience at all.
— The Devils 89.6% regular season penalty kill is the best percentage of all-time. While power play production seems to be at historically-low levels and the Devils PK has fallen off in the playoffs, that’s a legendary figure there and we’re talking about the Sabres and an entire season.
— Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk equal two elite wingers and there’s no BSing elite. While the Sabres have a strong, bull-strength star in Thomas Vanek, Parise and Kovy are far better goal-creators. Vanek is more defensively-responsibly and I love him on my team, but in terms of game-breakers, Drew Stafford and Thomas Vanek are the poor man’s ZP and Kovalchuk.
— New Jersey is a big team. They have one player under 5’9″ and the Sabres have three. The Devils version is — sorry, Rochester — relatively inconsequential Stephen Gionta. The Sabres’ shorties are pivotal offensive members (Derek Roy, Tyler Ennis, arguably Nathan Gerbe). The NHL is back to clutch-and-grab with a new verb. Now it’s clutch-grab-and-concuss.
Look, the Sabres can definitely make a Cup contender in one offseason thanks to a super-strong defense, reliable goaltender and enough assets to acquire a pivot-piece (not to mention roster space for improved periphery). But let’s not pretend this particular bunch is about to acquire a fairy godmother.
Onto the Final…
The Kings are a strong team and Jonathan Quick is a special goaltender. Los Angeles also has that “bunch of cast-offs” feeling that would be very difficult to root against if it weren’t for Mike Richards being one of said cast-offs. On paper, their roster looks deeper and their playoff has been nearly impeccable. It’s definitely silly to say these Kings are far-off in Cup experience because the Devils one a few more than a decade ago, but I like New Jersey’s jam. The PP/PK in the playoffs is a weird set of circumstances where the Devils have been dynamite on the PP, but poor on the PK. The Kings have the exact opposite. In an odd scenario, the teams rank last and second-last in playoff faceoff-percentage. Both teams have American guys wearing the C, which is just fine by me.
I’d be very surprised if we have less than six games of hockey left in the 2011-12 campaign, but I’m not betting against Puddy’s boys. New Jersey in six with the Conn Smythe to Yank captain Zach Parise.