If anybody can honestly sit there and tell me the 2003 Stanley Cup Playoffs, including the Finals, were boring, then you fit into one of three categories: 1) You’re not a hockey fan.  2) You’re not a hockey fan, and 3) You’re not a hockey fan.  The playoffs, including the finals, had a little bit of everything.  Everything from hard hitting, great defense, scoring, speedy rushes down the wing, and my favorite, overtime.  Two out of the final three series went to seven games, including the final.

In any event, for whatever it’s worth, congratulations and a big tip of my hat are in order to the 2003 Stanley Cup Champion New Jersey Devils.  They proved to the entire world (including me) they were the better team.

The report cards concept was very well received the last time around, so I decided to follow up with it at season’s end.  Sadly, here we are.  The question is, after I complete this, what do we do now aside from watch the NHL awards, the entry draft, and free agent signings?  Don’t get me wrong, I always look forward to summer, but the tradeoff is hockey is over.  Oh well, as players like to say in key situations, better not to dwell on what I can’t control and worry about what I can.  Before we know it, summer will be over again and training camps will open up in earnest.  Here then, is my take on what was a fantastic season.

Mighty Ducks of Anaheim - When we last checked in with the Ducks, they were in a position to have a good second half and maybe, just maybe earn a playoff berth.  The only problem I noted at the time was the Ducks weren’t consistent enough.  Enter Sandis Ozolinsh, and then Adam Oates and Steve Thomas.  Not only did Anaheim exceed everybody’s expectations (myself included), they were within one game of being crowned champions, and for a team who wasn’t even supposed to be, it speaks volumes about the team itself and the personnel involved.  The look on Jean-Sebastien Giguere’s face when he was named Conn Smythe trophy winner kind of said it all, but hold your head up high, Giggy, your time will come, believe me.  Already there’s talk the Ducks could make a move to bring back Paul Kariya’s former right hand man Teemu Selanne.  If this actually happens, look out!  Giguere will only get better, and hopefully Thomas and Oates will stick around for another go at it.  Selanne, along with maybe another veteran defenseman are all the Ducks really need to be able to put the finishing touches on what almost was their first championship.  “A Mighty Decade” it has been indeed, and there’s more to come.  Grade: A+

Atlanta Thrashers – What a difference a new coach makes!  Bob Hartley added an instant spark to a group of players who were criticized for their less than inspiring style of play.  It’s not always the best move to fire the coach and bring in a new one, but in this case, it worked.  Ilya Kovalchuk and Dany Heatley remained consistent throughout the year and really put on a show at the All-Star fesitivities.  Byron Dafoe never seemed to find his niche in net here and there’s talk he won’t be back.  Kari Lehtonen, Atlanta’s first round draft pick from 2002, has signed with the team and appears ready to make the move as at least the Thrashers’ back up goalie, if not the number one goalie.  Defenseman Matt Suderman won’t be so lucky.  Atlanta passed on signing him to a major league deal, which means he will re-enter the draft.  Overall, the team has made baby steps towards respectability and continue to form a nucleus of players who will one day take Atlanta to the promised land, perhaps as soon as next season.  Grade: D+

Boston Bruins – After a promising start, the wheels essentially fell off for Boston.  It probably didn’t help matters when the Bruins ended up with New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs, and to be quite frank, they didn’t really make much of an effort, except for maybe one game.  It’s hard to say what happened here.  Where did Joe Thornton go?  People wonder why Thornton wasn’t picked for Team Canada a couple of years ago, look no further than his production (or lack thereof).  He is supposed to be the leader of this team, but has been far from it.  Why can’t Jeff Hackett stop the puck?  Can Bryan Berard really see or is he just saying he can?  What had the potential to be a great season turned into another mediocre season for Boston.  Some blame the players, some blame management.  You be the judge.  Grade: D

Buffalo Sabres – When you’re at rock bottom, the only way to go is up.  I could rant and rave about just how bad this team was on the ice, but through it all I find myself feeling sorry for the team which was once referred to as the hard hat capital of the NHL.  Clearly the Sabres recognize this.  The team has a new owner which has faith in most of the personnel already here.  Head coach Lindy Ruff and general manager Darcy Regier have been retained with confidence, with promise a competitive product will be put on the ice.  Buffalo has already started by signing Derek Roy, their first rounder from 2001 who was one of the key pieces of Kitchener’s Memorial Cup run.  Miroslav Satan, Daniel Briere and Jochen Hecht should all be back, as should veteran defensemen Alexei Zhitnik and Rhett Warrener.  Expect many more new faces on this team and possibly a free agent signing or two.  The goaltender Martin Biron is due for a breakout season of Giguere proportions.  While the past season was more or less a write off, the future looks bright.  Grade: D-

Calgary Flames – The odds have been released, and the Flames are listed as having an 85-1 chance of winning the Stanley Cup next season.  I’m thinking these odds will change somewhat once we find out what players are staying and which ones are leaving.  When we look at the team on paper, they aren’t really a bad team.  Some will blame coaching, others will blame management, while others will simply say the players didn’t buy into a system.  Jarome Iginla had a disappointing follow-up to what was a career year, then again, he was out for a good portion of the season due to injury.  He started to make up for it late in the season but by then it was too late.  Rob Niedermayer provided a good spark for this team when he actually got a chance to play, then he was traded to Anaheim.  Chris Drury showed us little spurts of what made him successful in Colorado, but wasn’t anywhere near effective.  If it wasn’t for goalie Roman Turek, the Flames record may have been a lot worse.  Then again, the fans still continued to show up in droves, which is good news for a small market team trying to survive beyond 2004.  The off season should be very interesting, but the Flames need to concentrate on one thing.  Make the playoffs next season, no matter what it takes.  Grade: F

Carolina Hurricanes – There are a few cynical people out there who are saying the reason New Jersey won the Stanley Cup is because they didn’t have to play Carolina in the first round.  Let’s get real.  Even if the Canes had qualified, they were far from the same team we saw last year.  I almost wanted to see them make it just to stage a rematch.  Without Martin Gelinas, this team was not the same.  Both goaltenders Arturs Irbe and Kevin Weekes both came down to earth.  One of them could end up the odd man out next season if Patrick DesRochers has a good training camp.  Ron Francis and Jeff O’Neill led the team in scoring, but their defense was terrible outside of Sean Hill, so bad in fact, Glen Wesley breathed a sigh of relief when he was picked up by Toronto at the trading deadline.  Eric Cole was virtually non-existent.  Rookie Brad DeFauw was a pleasant surprise.  I think perhaps expectations were a little too high after this team made its first ever finals appearance, but you can be sure they will do everything they can to rebound next season, or expect the coach to take the fall.  They’re serious this time.  Grade: F

Chicago Blackhawks – One of the things Chicago needs to do if they’re ever going to get back to respectability is get rid of all the distractions.  Theo Fleury entered Stage 3 of the NHL’s substance abuse program and is eligible to return in October, most likely not with the Hawks.  Alexei Zhamnov was charged for drinking and driving and is apparently being looked after not only by the law but by the team.  You have to wonder what kind of effect this can have on a team which has struggled to rekindle the magic from their days in the old Chicago stadium.  I’ve always thought it’s a shame this team only has one Stanley Cup, given they were one of the original six and have been a dominant team for a long time, just not recently.  This is a team I expect will break out of its slump next season and if nothing else get back into the postseason.  It will all have to start with Jocelyn Thibault, who had a fairly good year.  Tyler Arnason had a fine rookie season.  Steve Sullivan led the team in scoring.  Eric Daze played well considering he was injured for half the season.  The Blackhawks need a good defenseman, and seem to have their eye on Derian Hatcher if he doesn’t renew his contract with Dallas.  This team only finished three games below .500, which wasn’t bad, but then again, they were only five points better than Nashville.  They have to be better and I know they will be.  Grade: F

Colorado Avalanche – Is there life after Patrick Roy?  For the Avalanche, this question will be answered very soon.  Roy was simply not the same goalie who won four Stanley Cups.  For me he simply wasn’t the same since Game 7 of the Western Conference Final against Detroit last year.  Sure, he managed to break a few records along the way, but when he wasn’t able to help Colorado protect a 3-1 series lead against the upstart Minnesota Wild, I knew he was done.  Despite the first round exit, Colorado’s season was capped off by having Peter Forsberg back on top of his game, and a 50 goal season by Milan Hejduk.  Joe Sakic, surprisingly enough, finished a distant fourth on the team in regular season scoring, but led the team with nine points in seven playoff games.  As we all know it wasn’t enough.  Grade: B-

Columbus Blue Jackets – So high profile rookie Rick Nash wasn’t enough to get the Jackets over the hump this year.  They essentially have a similar team and system to the Minnesota Wild, but unfortunately Grant Marshall got traded to New Jersey.  Consistency was the key to Columbus’ second half, they weren’t.  The best players on this team were Nash and the former Hartford Whalers’ connection of Geoff Sanderson and Andrew Cassels.  Marc Denis will continue to be the number one goalie but could get challenged by Fred Brathwaite, who the club recently signed for backup purposes.  Question is, are the Blue Jackets on the right track by building their team slowly or will Minnesota beat them to the punch?  One thing for sure, Doug MacLean will now be the full time head coach of this team as well as the general manager, which means the team will have to be at their best every night, or else.  They certainly weren’t this season.  Grade: D-

Dallas Stars – After it looked as if the Stars would run away with the West, it turned out to be just another mediocre season.  Mike Modano continues to lead this team, and should end up with the captaincy of this team if in fact Derian Hatcher doesn’t come back.  Talk is Kirk Muller, Pierre Turgeon and Ulf Dahlen all will be changing postal codes next season as well, if anybody’s interested.  Marty Turco proved there is life after Ed Belfour.  Jere Lehtinen continues to be a crafty sniper.  A big factor in the Stars’ playoff performance was the absence of Bill Guerin for most of their playoff run.  A new era is coming to Dallas as Bob Gainey has now officially severed all ties with the team and is moving on to Montreal.  The face of this team should be very different next season and it will be interesting to see if they can turn things around and get back to their dominant ways.  Grade: C+

Detroit Red Wings – I can still hear them chanting “Cuuujooo” in Anaheim, and Toronto.  He wanted a chance to win a Stanley Cup.  Little does he know he probably had his best chance in Toronto.  He didn’t listen, and rather than make at least a second round run to the playoffs, which Toronto would have done with him in net, he settled to go to Detroit where they were swept in the first round by Anaheim.  Despite going from champs to chumps, the Red Wings had another fine season.  Brett Hull reached the 700 goal plateau.  Steve Yzerman is up for the Masterton trophy.  Sergei Fedorov quietly outscored everybody on the team, again.  This team had six players with at least 50 points, three 30 goal scorers, and rookie Henrik Zetterberg was a 22 goal scorer.  Their defense was rock solid.  Why then did the Wings get swept in the first round?  It was the classic high scoring team meets hot goalie syndrome.  I don’t think Detroit really played bad, just Giguere was amazing.  I think if Luc Robitaille would have actually scored in overtime instead of hitting the post, the series would have been a lot different and we could be looking at a Detroit victory today instead of a New Jersey victory.  I know they would have at least made life difficult for Vancouver or Minnesota.  You could see the disappointment in everybody after the first round, and I know this much, Detroit will learn from this season and be better for it.  Grade: B-

Edmonton Oilers – On November 22, 2003, weather permitting, Edmonton will play Montreal in the first ever NHL game played outside.  The venue will be Commonwealth Stadium, and close to 60,000 people are expected to be there.  I’m seriously considering being one of them.  It could be just the thing the Oilers need to get back to their inspiring play from the past.  Now if only they could ever get by Dallas in the playoffs.  At least Craig MacTavish will return as coach, and with most of the so-called big money players gone, Edmonton has a chance to get some of their developing players into the mix.  Hopefully they can get a couple of defensemen to step up and help this team in an area which is their weakest link.  Too many times this team blew leads late in a game, especially in the playoffs, and they can’t continue to make headway in the conference if they don’t address this position.  They also have to look into playing a more disciplined system.  They can’t keep giving the other team power play chances.  Look for Kari Haakana to step up next year and possibly Jarret Stoll and Raffi Torres.  For now, though, the Oilers can look towards Anaheim and wonder what might have been if they could’ve got their act together.  Grade: C+

Florida Panthers – Even though this team made it to the finals long before their expansion cousins in Anaheim, you know they had to be watching the playoffs with great interest.  Really, this team is very similar to the Ducks in the sense they have a very good goaltender in Roberto Luongo, they have a few solid, although young, defensemen, yet have a hard time scoring.  Outside of Olli Jokinen, this team pretty much fired blanks.  Maybe they need to convince Bill Lindsay to come back to the NHL or something.  No matter what, they need to get a few veteran players into the mix if they ever hope to have the kind of run Anaheim enjoyed this year.  Maybe they’ll try to get Muller, Dahlen or even Turgeon out of Dallas.  Maybe Mike Keenan isn’t the right coach for this team either.  If Tampa Bay can improve their output by 24 points, so can the Panthers.  Grade: F

Los Angeles Kings – The main thing the Kings need to focus on for next season is getting and staying healthy.  536 – those were the number of man games lost to injury.  Zigmund Palffy managed to score 37 goals, but nobody else scored over 20.  Brian Smolinksi scored 18 before his trade to Ottawa.  No wonder the Kings picked up the option on Palffy’s contract.  Without him where would they be?  Management expects the off season to be a busy one.  With Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh back in the lineup, Los Angeles should be able to get back to winning, unless the injury bug continues to bite. Grade: D-

Minnesota Wild – If Jacques Lemaire doesn’t end up coach of the year, I want to know who’s in charge of the voting.  To take a team in its third season to the semi-finals says a lot about the defense first system.  Of course it helps to have some young talent to complement a string of veterans, or rejects from other teams, whichever way you want to look at it.  Oddly enough, there are plenty of decisions which need to be made by this team.  Given the run they had, these decisions shouldn’t be too hard.  Richard Park apparently has an option year left on his contract, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Johnson, Andrei Zyuzin and Antti Laaksonen are all restricted free agents.  Cliff Ronning will be unrestricted.  If the people who make all these decisions are smart, they will find a way to keep them all.  This team showed they have a lot of chemistry to be able to come back twice from down three games to one to win a series, both times against good teams.  The west just keeps getting tougher and tougher.  Grade: A

Montreal Canadiens – The boos rained down with a vengeance on the players during the last home game at Centre Bell, a game which was supposed to be fan appreciation night.  Only problem is, half of the fans were already gone home by the time the halfway mark of the third period was reached.  The Habs can’t blame injuries this year for what transpired.  After the first few weeks of the season, Montreal was in a position to challenge Ottawa for first in the conference.  Then something happened.  Jose Theodore started to come back to earth.  Then there was the Oleg Petrov incident, followed by the Patrice “broken wood” Brisebois incident, followed by the national anthem incident.  Then the Habs did something I never thought I’d see them do, they traded Doug Gilmour back to Toronto.  Montreal went from almost first to almost worst, as they finished five games below .500.  Now there’s word the Habs are giving “careful consideration” to retiring Patrick Roy’s old #33.  Question is, what is there to consider?  One would think the two Stanley Cups he won during his tenure in Montreal would be enough, but apparently not.  It seems the blanc, bleu et rouge have lost all touch with tradition and the team clearly doesn’t have the killer instinct displayed by so many Habs teams of the past.  When Guy Lafleur has to come out and tell fans how embarrassing it is to see grown adults act like children you know something is dead wrong in Montreal.   Perhaps now Bob Gainey has assumed the role of general manager some integrity can be brought back to this historic franchise, but for now there is something bad brewing, and it isn’t the beer.  Maybe they need to put Lafleur in charge somewhere.  Grade: F

Nashville Predators – Another team which seemed to lose sight of its goal late in the season.  The Predators were probably the best team who didn’t make the playoffs.  The turning point for me came at the trading deadline, when they got rid of a defenseman for a goalie they didn’t need.  Despite falling just short of a playoff spot, many positives can be taken away from the season.  Nashville proved their uniforms are worth all the gold displayed on them.  Some key players had breakout seasons, like rookie Adam Hall and veteran David Legwand.  Andy Delmore was arguably one of the best defensemen in the league.  Changes are sure to come, question is, how big will they be?  Grade: C

New Jersey Devils – When your team wins the Stanley Cup, not much really has to be said.  All the goals which were set at the beginning of the season were accomplished, and now the other 29 teams have to figure out how they can get a piece of the action.  Pat Burns finally has a Stanley Cup.  Scott Stevens, Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Ken Daneyko and Joe Nieuwendyk now have three.  If there is one knock on the Devils, it’s their location.  If they’re going to keep winning like this, they may want to invest in a new arena in a solid location, preferably somewhere they can stage a parade.  Here’s a suggestion.  Why not build an arena in Atlantic City and tell the Philadelphia Flyers to find someplace else to practice?  Then they could stage one hell of a championship party on the boardwalk.  Just a suggestion.  I’m sure Donald Trump would be willing to give up some of his precious land for the project.  I know for a fact it would get more fans out to the games, if reception for the ECHL Champion Atlantic City Boardwalk Bullies is any indication.  Grade: A+

New York Islanders – So what do you do when players don’t get it done?  Fire the coach.  Peter Laviolette took the fall simply because Mike Milbury isn’t willing to admit he messed up, and big time.  He messed up in trading for and signing Alexei Yashin to a $9.5 million per year contract, he messed up in giving up Zdeno Chara and Jason Spezza to get him.  He messed up in firing himself as coach but not as general manager.  There have been more personnel changes on this team in the past ten years than you can shake a stick at.   If Milbury truly doesn’t want to be in New York, maybe he should step down and allow somebody else to turn this team around.  Granted, they made the playoffs and put a huge early scare into the Ottawa Senators, but it’s of little consolation when there is talk the players have all formed their own little cliques rather than build a little chemistry.   There will be a lot of work to do on the island, but don’t expect much to change until Milbury gives himself a one way ticket out.  Best of luck to Steve Stirling, the next victim, er I mean, next coach for the fishsticks.  Grade: D

New York Rangers – When are the Rangers going to learn money doesn’t buy championships?  The payroll for this very team could pay the salaries of all the 2003 final four teams combined, yet they missed the playoffs, again.  There was talk Glen Sather was trying to woo Scotty Bowman out of retirement and maybe just maybe they could get Mario Lemieux out of Pittsburgh.  Wrong on both counts.  So what does one do when they have a team who can’t get it done?  First of all, Eric Lindros has to be better.  Mark Messier needs to retire.  Pavel Bure needs to quit hurting his knee.  Bobby Holik needs to take a paycut.  Maybe some smart drafting and some good free agent signings which won’t break the bank are in order.  Their current strategy sure isn’t working.  I don’t think the Rangers really want to wait another 54 years until their next Stanley Cup, but at the rate they’re going they will probably wait 104.  Grade: F

Ottawa Senators – The best team money can buy, or at least Eugene Melnyk thinks so.  The only thing standing in the way of the billionaire’s name ending up on the Sens’ paychecks is court approval, which at this point will be a mere formality.  It’s really funny how this game works sometimes.  When this franchise was first put together, they had virtually no money, no players, and no fans.  They said they would build their team the old fashioned way, trade only when it was in the team’s best interest, build through the draft, and allow their players to develop.  The one thing which was said and I’ll never forget it was this team will make the playoffs within five years of its existence and will contend for the Stanley Cup within 10-12 years.  Mission accomplished, almost.  The Sens made the playoffs in their fourth season in the league, with a young Daniel Alfredsson leading the way.  They haven’t missed the postseason since, and in the past few years have taken baby steps, often times frustrating for the fans, but the patience in the young players has paid off.  They ended up within one game of taking New Jersey’s place in the Stanley Cup Finals, and have finally earned the respect of their fans, the media and the league.  There are still some who feel they have nothing better to do than make fun of this team, but this team has nothing to be ashamed about whatsoever, and the naysayers can all get a life.  The Senators have a core of players who are still very young and very good at what they do, and are only going to get better.  Daniel Alfredsson, Radek Bonk, Martin Havlat, Chris Phillips, Wade Redden, Anton Volchenkov, the list goes on.  Shawn Van Allen and Shane Hnidy have both signed for another year, knowing the opportunity they have here.  Magnus Arvedson hopes he will follow suit.  The team also now has the financial backing it so desperately needed.  You can bet it will be a cold day in Jamaica before Mr. Melnyk will allow this team to fold and move south.  Ottawa is here to stay and can no longer be considered “just another small market team”.  I will make a prediction now.  The Senators will be in the finals next season and possibly for many years to come.  If anybody thinks the days of the dynasty are over, you haven’t seen anything yet.  You can see the excitement for next season already building.  It’s a great time to live in Ottawa.  Grade: A+

Philadelphia Flyers – The interesting thing to watch for in Philly this summer is not who stays, it’s who goes.  The promise was made to start moving players out if the team didn’t perform.  While I wouldn’t go so far as to say the team didn’t perform, there certainly were a few passengers.  Already the Flyers have rid themselves of the Cech-magnet.  Roman Cechmanek has been shipped to Los Angeles, which begs the question, who will replace him?  Surely they aren’t banking on Robert Esche to be their number one goalie, or are they?  Word on the street is Jeff Hackett could make the move from Beantown.  Am I missing the big picture here?  Hard to say how many veterans will return, as so far only Sami Kapanen and Eric Choinard have been signed.  John Leclair has reportedly waived his no trade clause.  Will Tony Amonte be back?  It will certainly be an interesting summer in what we thought was the city of brotherly love.  I still say the problem is the general manager Bob Clarke, not the players, but what do I know, I just write.  Grade: C

Phoenix Coyotes – Wayne Gretzky’s team is undergoing a huge overhaul.  Quite a few WHL players have been signed by the club and should see action next year.  Players like centre Kiel McLeod of the Kelowna Rockets, defenseman Matthew Spiller and left winger Darren McLachlin of the Seattle Thunderbirds.  Top draft pick Fred Sjostrom could make the team as well.  One thing’s for sure, they have to do better than they did this season.  While Mike Johnson, Shane Doan, Ladislav Nagy and Daymond Langkow were all 20 goal scorers, the rest of the team did virtually jack.  To add injury to insult, Sean Burke was hurt for a good portion of the season.  Brian Boucher hasn’t been able to match his performance from the 2000 playoffs and doesn’t look poised to do it anytime soon.  Then again, there is now a void in the Western Conference with Patrick Roy gone to retirement, perhaps it’s time for the Coyotes to step up and start making their howls worth something.  Grade: F

Pittsburgh Penguins – The inevitable scenario has been brought up a few times over the past few weeks.  Either somehow Pittsburgh secures financing for a new arena to replace aging Mellon Arena, or lose the team.  Speculation has the team moving to Winnipeg, of all places, to replace the vacated Jets.  As far fetched as this may seem, think about it.  If a person or group of people were to somehow secure the financial backing needed to get this done, the Jets could potentially return.  At this point it is sheer speculation, but to me it sounds so crazy it just might work.  In any event, the Penguins themselves don’t know if they’re coming or going.  Mario Lemieux is undecided as to what his future in hockey will be, yet he’s the only player on the roster who could score more than 20 goals, and he didn’t even play the entire season.  Don’t count out the possibility of Lemieux moving to another team for one last hurrah.   Former Penguin great Ed Olczyk has been brought in to replace Rick Kehoe behind the bench, much to the chagrin of at least one former Penguin, Alexei Kovalev.  I think it’s a good move.  Olczyk has been in broadcasting over the past few years and can probably bring some insight to the team as to what they need to get back in the playoffs.  They certainly aren’t winning over any fans the way they’re going, with or without Mario.  With so many trades made at the trading deadline, I don’t even know who’s on this team anymore.  Grade: F

San Jose Sharks – After a season where the Sharks were expected to place in the top five, the team is not making excuses for their sub-par finish and remains optimistic they can get to the next level.  Vincent Damphousse and Mike Ricci have secured their spot on the team for next year.  Alyn McCauley didn’t get much of a chance to play and I look for him to really help this team in the scoring department.  They have to do something, because second last in the conference will not get it done.  The Sharks finished only two points less than Calgary, and were second last only to Columbus.  They need to get their goalie Evgeni Nabokov rolling again, as well as top scorers Patrick Marleau and Marco Sturm.  If Teemu Selanne does go back to Anaheim, a free agent sniper won’t hurt either.  Grade: F

St. Louis Blues – When you have to rely on four goaltenders to get it done, you know you’re in trouble.  The position seems to have stabilized now with Chris Osgood signing on for at least the next season.  This will hopefully inject some badly needed confidence into a team which blew a 3-1 lead in the first round of the playoffs.  The health of Chris Pronger and Al MacInnis was a huge factor in the Blues’ fate, yet in the regular season at least, they were able to overcome adversity and nail down 99 points and fourth in the west.  Had MacInnis not fallen to injury again in the playoffs things may have been different.  With development of players like Eric Boguniecki and Petr Cajanek, the future is bright.  Defenseman Barret Jackman will be part of the Blues’ future blueline.  With a healthy lineup, next season should be different.  Grade: C

Tampa Bay Lightning – While it took their expansion cousins in Ottawa 11 years to make it to the conference finals, it took the Lightning just as long to win their first ever playoff series.  With two 30 goal scorers in Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier, and led by the veteran presence of Dave Andreychuk, it was no fluke.  Biggest problem for Tampa lies at the goaltender position.  Nikolai Khabibulin most likely won’t be back, if the coach’s decision to sit him out in favor of John Grahame in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Semi-Final against New Jersey was any indication.  If Khabibulin is moved it will work out well not only for Grahame, but for Evgeny Konstantinov who only played in one game.  The Lightning made strides in the right direction, and will look to continue doing so.  Grade: B

Toronto Maple Leafs – As much as we wanted to see another incarnation of the Battle of Ontario, it wasn’t in the cards.  The team looked downright scary at the trading deadline, until the injuries started piling up.  Then with the speed and physical play exhibited by Philadelphia, the Leafs just couldn’t keep up.  If Doug Gilmour’s injury is not career threatening and Glen Wesley comes back things could be very different next season.  Then again, we hear this every year.  Ed Belfour was great in the regular season but will have to find the form he found in 1999 if Toronto has any hope.  We can expect at least one major signing when the free agent frenzy starts.   It wouldn’t be an off season in Toronto without it.  Grade: C

Vancouver Canucks – After overcoming a 3-1 series deficit in round one, they allowed themselves to blow a 3-1 lead in round two, against Minnesota of all teams.  I think back to the last game of the regular season when the Canucks had a chance to secure top spot in their division and Markus Naslund had a chance to win the scoring title.  The result was a shutout at the hands of the Kings, and the Canucks had to settle for fourth spot in the conference.  I remember captain Naslund telling the fans how they choked and how things would be different in the playoffs.  Well, they were for one round and half of the second, but then the wheels fell off, again.  For me, Todd Bertuzzi was the most impressive Canuck, and the Sedin twins are getting better all the time.  Certainly the Canucks had a great year and look to better their performance next year provided Brian Burke keeps the team together, as it appears he will, but not at a penny more than what he’s paying now.  Grade: B-

Washington Capitals – Has Jaromir Jagr’s time come in Washington?  Who can replace him?  The Capitals had another mediocre season.  With the exception of 1998 when they made it all the way to the finals, Washington seems simply content just to make it to the playoffs and last at least a few games and possibly a second round.  I say this because the resources are there to sign some people to make a difference, but yet they decide on an overpaid whino whose best days are behind him.  Peter Bondra continues his fine play and Robert Lang is proving he was worth every penny of his multi-million dollar deal.  Jagr, on the other hand, has not been.  “Olie the Goalie” continues to be solid, but not solid enough.  We’re only a couple of days removed from the end of the season, yet Washington doesn’t appear in any position to make any major moves, at least not yet.  Then again, judging by the number of fans who actually show up for the games, they don’t seem to really care.  Grade: C-

The NHL – Continues to make strides to improve the game.  The final series, in the words of our commissioner, was “a testament to expansion”.  The balance between what works financially and what the fans want is something which is constantly evolving, and thanks to Mr. Bettman, we have thirty teams in existence who will hopefully all be around after 2004.  Much has been made about how boring the game has become and ratings have been at an all time low, yet the NHL continues to be a sports leader in game day ticket sales.  Say what you will about the way the game is played, say it is boring, say what you will.  You don’t know what you’re missing.  A few tweaks here and there, a commitment from the league to be more consistent and a back to basics mentality are what this game needs to survive.  The NHL’s showcase event may not build up the kind of hype and anticipation of events such as the Super Bowl or the World Series, but at least at the end of it all the fans are not disappointed in the outcome as normally it is not as one sided or as predictable as the aforementioned events.  As 2004 approaches fans and media alike remain cautiously optimistic, but we have the commitment from our commissioner that hockey will be around for many years to come.  Apparently we haven’t seen anything yet.  Grade: B+ 

Here’s to a great season.  I hope you’ve all enjoyed reading my takes over the season and I thank you all for taking the time to do so.  Next season proves to be one of the best yet, and I for one can’t wait.  I hope you can’t either.


More Puckin' Around...