Some Stanley Cup champions are merely treated as the winners of hockey’s grand post-season tournament. Take the Carolina Hurricanes’ 2006 victory for example. Pushing aside for a moment that they won 52 games, a feat this season’s Cup-hopefuls needed at least a first-round victory to attain, they haven’t gone down as one of the better, or, hell, even memorable, teams in the proverbial Club of Champions. That’s a shame because they certainly were very good.

They had the requisite long-suffering Hall of Famer in Rod Brind’Amour, and unique champion and HoF’er in Dr. Mark Recchi, plus a cast of players who did, or will, enter the Hall of Really Quite Excellently Good players like Glen Wesley, Doug Weight, Cory Stillman, Andrew Ladd, a 21-year-old Eric Staal, and a 24-year-old Justin Williams who was giving fans already their second taste of his playoff brilliance.

They also had 21-year-old Cam Ward, who played like the Ward of today during his 28-game taste of the league during the regular season. But as fate should have it, he turned into Ken Dryden when he was asked to save the ‘Canes season in Game 3 down 2-love to Montreal in the first round.

After replacing original starter Martin Gerber, Ward would go on to post a 15-8 record with a .920 SV% and a 2.17 GAA with an astounding 86 GA% plus the Conn Smythe trophy – as a rookie. Let’s put that latter number into a bit of context among fellow Cup winners since the last lockout. Only Jonathan Quick’s 69 GA% in 2012 and Tim Thomas’ 71 GA% in 2011 beat Ward’s mark, with Corey Crawford next at 88 in 2013. For one final layer of context, Martin Jones (first year full-time starter) is sporting a 96 now through four games of the Final and Matt Murray owns a 90 – like Ward, also as a rookie.

What’s so special, and also so rote, about this Canes’ cup team is how they straddle the line between mere winners and champions. This was a team full of genuinely great hockey players, pushed along by one of the best goaltending efforts we’ve seen in the modern era. Which is what makes them so significant, and yet also so strangely forgettable. A fate that may be shared by whichever of San Jose or Pittsburgh hoists Lord Stanley’s Cup within the next week or so.

That’s really a shame – yes, for the ’06 ‘Canes as well – because both the Sharks and Penguins are also genuinely great teams. For San Jose, it was a toss-up between who should win the Conn Smyth between Martin Jones, Joe Pavelski, Brent Burns and Logan Couture coming into the series on their side alone. Along with Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton, each number could be retired by San Jose before the next decade is through.

Pittsburgh, in the meantime, has been the best team in talent and efficiency since Mike Sullivan took over because he capitalized on scoring depth that’s straight out of NHL ’15. (Not that I predicted them to win.) Hell, that Phil Kessel trade would normally get vetoed in NHL ’15 but somehow GM Jim Rutherford was able to lovingly guide Toronto’s hand onto the override button.

AND HE’S BEEN ON THE THIRD LINE!

Which, if we’ll allow for hindsight’s 20/20 perspective, is ideal because there isn’t a team in the League that can shutout all three of Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, and Sidney Crosby when spread out like that. Damn near genius that Rutherford, who, by the way, was also the GM for the aforementioned Hurricanes.

Lastly, as we close our parallels today, we have Matt Murray’s bid for the Conn Smythe to which I say – yes, give it to him. He’s been the defensive leader since replacing Jeff Zatkoff in Game 3 against the Rangers and the Penguins haven’t looked back since. Kessel has been great, no doubt, but even the Rangers could’ve beaten Zatkoff just as the Montreal Canadians could’ve beaten Martin Gerber 10 years ago. Murray is Ward, with hopefully more longevity at his peak.

Speaking of longevity, let’s talk about the seemingly impending expansion for a moment.
The truth is that hockey will always strike as a bit strange in non-traditional markets, of which there’s currently eight teams located within the Sun Belt area of the United States. Likewise, hockey always strikes as a bit of a strange thing in cities where there isn’t a substantial snowpack on the ground from November to March.
But whether it’s Las Vegas, Quebec City, Seattle, Kansas City (either), really all that matters is that the franchise receives continuous boisterous support from the fans matched only by their financial stability. As it turns out, it doesn’t matter where a franchise is located if they never win and/or receive poor support. We live in an ever-globalizing world where Mother Nature hasn’t been the primary determinant for possibilities. Which does nothing to explain how Don Cherry will continue to be on the air, but I digress.
We all want the same things; exciting winning hockey teams at a cost the average family can afford..but also with enough to pimp out and look fancy. The location of that is irrelevant. One simply wonders if we aren’t about to over-tap the well of the world’s talent in the sport. We’re at 690 jobs through 30 teams thus far just at the NHL level, and it’s only been the last couple of years the talent has caught up to cultural and roster construction changes.

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