The New Jersey Devils postponed the inevitable but when the Los Angeles Kings win the Stanley Cup Saturday night or a few nights later, their fans can at least look forward to another good run next year.
All but four of the players making a meaningful contribution to the Kings' Cup run are signed for next season. While all four - Dustin Penner, Colin Fraser, Dwight King and Jarret Stoll - are solid players, none of them are stars whose absence would hold back the team.
What might hold back this team, which is why I said a good run next season not another Stanley Cup, is the difficulty of winning a second consecutive NHL championship. Parity, thanks to the salary cap, and the rigours of an 82-game schedule followed by an even worse grind of four playoff rounds play havoc with a team's prospects.
In the 1980s and 1990s, it was almost routine for a team to appear in consecutive Stanley Cup finals thanks to dynasties like the Edmonton Oilers and Detroit Red Wings. The Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Devils and Dallas Stars all appeared in at least two consecutive finals from 1991 through 2001.
Since then, however, only the Penguins and Red Wings managed the feat, with the Penguins losing to the Red Wings in 2008 before beating them for the Stanley Cup the following year.
A lot of this has to do with the salary cap, which was introduced in 2005. If you patiently assemble a deep, talented team, good luck keeping it together under the cap. See Blackhawks, Chicago, circa 2010.
Then there is still the grind of the schedule. Winning the Cup is as much about winning the war of attrition as it is about playing the best hockey. Champions need luck with injuries or they'll always fall short.
On the salary side, though, Kings GM Dean Lombardi is sitting about as pretty as you can these days, especially with the end of the collective agreement coming in September.
NHL general managers get few restful nights off but Lombardi can put his feet up, if only figuratively, for a while because the majority of his team will be around next season to take another run at the Cup. With $54.2-million committed to salaries so far for next season and only four players to sign, Lombardi even has his payroll in shape to weather the uncertainty of next season's salary cap. It is low enough to likely fit under whatever cap comes out of the next agreement (the current temporary 2012-13 cap of $70.3-million is unlikely to last).
The owners are looking for the players to reduce their share of the NHL's hockey-related revenue from 57 per cent to 50 or less. But with commissioner Gary Bettman boasting of record revenue and the available evidence backing him up, there is a good chance even a seven-per-cent cut in the players` share could mean the cap stays at this season`s $64.3-million or maybe even a bit higher.
In the meantime, while Devils GM Lou Lamoriello has to grapple with finding a way to keep pending free agent Zach Parise while Ilya Kovalchuk`s salary jumps from $6.7-million to $11-million and his owner is facing bankruptcy, the Kings` biggest concern is getting their payroll in shape for 2013-14, when 11 players on the current roster have their contracts expire.
For now, Lombardi can savour the idea of paying goaltender Jonathan Quick the bargain rate of $1.8-million next season (the last year of his deal) and just where he`ll trade highly-regarded backup Jonathan Bernier for assets to keep the vault brimming with talent.