THE NHL got a dream finals this spring: Its biggest star, Sidney Crosby, facing the Red Wings, perhaps its most entertaining team. After getting essentially anonymous matchups in 2006 (Carolina-Edmonton) and '07 (Anaheim-Ottawa), the league can now hope (off the record, of course) for a Penguins-Wings rematch in 2009. Here's a look at each team's off-season challenges.
Though nine of last season's regulars were 35 or older, don't expect this deep team to drop off. In characteristic style Detroit will give added minutes to its talented young guard while rolling back ice time for some older stars. The Wings must decide whether to bring back 46-year-old defenseman Chris Chelios (who didn't dress in the finals) but otherwise have few moves to make; expect them to re-sign defenseman Brad Stuart, their most significant free agent. Detroit should start next season well under what is expected to be a roughly $56 million salary cap, so there's room to add a player should injuries create a need. Will the Wings play complacently after winning the Cup? Not on coach Mike Babcock's watch. He prods his players and is perfect for a team that's not afraid to be challenged. The Red Wings could be the first repeat champions since, well, the Red Wings, in 1997 and '98.
A strong young nucleus is here, but the team could be in danger of losing important secondary players. Pittsburgh has five notable unrestricted free agents this summer, and with goalie Marc-André Fleury about to get a sizable raise as a restricted free agent, and third-year centers Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal to become RFAs after next season, the low-revenue franchise must spend cautiously. The Pens will likely lose forward Ryan Malone (who had a career-best 27 goals) and bruising defenseman Brooks Orpik but should retain forward Pascal Dupuis and pest Jarkko Ruutu. The key is scorer Marian Hossa, who could command more than $7 million a year. If Pittsburgh can sign him at closer to $5 million, they'll do it; if not, they'll search elsewhere for scoring depth. Given the improvement of conference rivals such as Washington, Montreal and Philadelphia, crafty G.M. Ray Shero—who landed Hossa and Petr Sykora in the past year—needs to work creatively to augment his core, and keep the team ahead of the pack.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
LAST GASP Free-agent-to-be Hossa was thwarted by Chris Osgood in the final second of Game 6.