If the final four teams aren't a reason to see how the new rules and financial state of the league is working, then it's the fans of the Edmonton Oilers that should be a real eye-opener. When you hear about the parties on Whyte Avenue, it's not because they are trying to re-create the Red Mile from Calgary's 2004 Cup run, it's because they know if they can't win it this year, they have as good of a chance next season.
In year's past, many teams, the Oilers included, who were the "Cinderella" team often got their talent plucked the next season because of the contract demands. Now that there is a salary cap and everyone is on a level playing field, teams who couldn't compete without a cap are the deadliest teams out there. If you don't believe me, just look back in September.
I mention September because that's when The Hockey News put out their yearbook for the upcoming season. The beat writers for each team goes over the team, gives their thoughts and all the fun stuff. Just looking at the teams that make up the final four and you can see some surprises out of it and you can see some optimism coming through.
Both Anaheim (B+) and Edmonton (B-) were given high optimism. The Ducks needed Giguere to come through and be his Conn Smythe self, while the Oilers needed some help in goal to become successful. The Ducks and their goaltending was hot and cold, but it seemed like they got the right mix at the end when it was needed the most. The Oilers got Dwayne Roloson who has been keeping the Oilers in the game for the most part. Now, the Oilers have moved on and rest up for their biggest series yet.
Buffalo (C-) and Carolina (D+) were pretty much pegged dead in the water. The Sabres were said to be too young and may not be able to handle the pressure of the "new" game. Well, I don't know if the youth hurt them more than helping them, but the pressure doesn't seem to be an issue. The Canes needed some big step forwards to get them in the playoffs. With the emergence of Eric Staal, Erik Cole, and Martin Gerber, I think the Canes were a little underrated at the beginning of the year by their own beat writer.
Gary Bettman has to be happy with the game. Not only does it have more flow, but the parity even bigger than it was before. Plus, with the even ground everyone is on financially, there is only one team who's future in their city is up in the air, but that's up to the Penguins, the City of Pittsburgh, and hot, hot slots. Regardless, it seems that the year off did the game a wealth of good in the grand scheme of things.