When the EURO League started less than three seasons ago, it was two Swiss teams that broke out of the gate fastest. This season, however, all their German neighbors have passed them in the Schloder Division standings.
The changing of the guard was part of the plan really. Bern and Geneva were drafted to win immediately … and Geneva did in fact. The German GMs took a more patient approach and it looks like their time has come.
Today Geneva and Bern have been abandoned by their original GMs and turned over to new managers. They are also older and less powerful while Germany’s best, Munich and Berlin, have matured and muscled their way to the top third of the Southern Conference and league. And Frankfurt is speeding up on the outside with a stable of young thoroughbreds.
It appears they are out this season, but with some minor rebuilding, Geneva can get back in the hunt as early as Season 4. The Genevateam that GM Andy Rolling inherited still has some gas in the tank. Nicklas Lidstrom may be gone and 11 starters are 30 years old or older, but Kari Lehtonen is only 30 and still among the very best goalies in the league. Right in front of him, two-time all-star Dennis Wideman is also only 30 and his partner, Michael Del Zotto, is going to be a dominant force for years. Up front is where Geneva’s challenge lies. The top line of Patrick Marleau, Marian Gaborik and Chris Kunitz will fade from prominence shortly and the younger second line of Thomas Vanek, David Desharnais and Nick Foligno will have a tough time competing against the other teams’ top lines.
Bern, which is precariously holding on to the final playoff spot, narrowly ahead of a Madrid team that has four games in hand, might face a tougher rebuild in the next few seasons. If they get in this year, it might be their best chance in a few years of going for the Cup. The top 2 defensemen – Brent Seabrook and Tobias Enstrom – could remain a top-level pairing for a good 5 more years and Mike Smith in goal is only 31. But the forward lines are old compared to most teams in the league. Center Mika Zibanejad is only 20 and has great potential, but he is one of only two starting forwards under the age of 30.
Zurich is on the way up, and a recent 3-11 cold streak not withstanding, can do some damage in the playoffs. The Lions possess two of the best forward lines in the league in Patrice Bergeron-Patrick Sharp-Alexander Radulov and Patrick Kane-Ilya Kovalchuk-Drew Stafford. Even their fourth line has plenty of skill with Tim Connolly and Jiri Hudler on the wings. The Lions defense corps is adequate but not great, with six players with OV ratings of 72 to 77. The main question in Zurich – this year and next – is goalie Brian Elliott. Next season, the salary cap will enter the equation. Elliott has probably been the best bargain in the league, but this season ends his 3-year, $600,000 contract. But first things first. Elliott is good, but is he good enough to carry a team through the playoffs? The knock on him in St. Louis was that he was better as a backup than a starter. He’ll be looking to disprove that theory in late May against one of the top four teams in the Southern Conference – assuming Zurich is able to hold on to a playoff spot over the last 8 games.
Berlin is poised to be the second seed in the playoffs. Captain Logan Couture, Ryan Callahan and Loui Eriksson lead the way. They are the best of a forward corps that is stocked with skill, but first and foremost, responsible on defense. The forechecking system espoused by coach Adam Oates seems to be working well. The Smurfs rank fourth in the league in shots against and fifth in goals against. Jimmy Howard, a mid-season acquisition from Oslo, is ranked among the top three or four goalies in the league, so there is ample reason to be optimistic in the German capital.
Bob Hartley has his Munich team in third place in the Southern Conference at the moment, but the Fox could end up second or fourth. Joe Thornton is 8th in scoring and the veteran has shown he doesn’t let his game slip in the playoffs. Jumbo Joe has 41 points and 15 goals in 30 career playoff games for Munich. His teammates are a mix of young and old, with the second line of Dave Bolland, Matt Cooke and Steve Downie working well this season to achieve a plus 20 rating. But the most important of all of the Fox is a 27-year-old Connecticut native who wears number 32. Jonathan Quick currently has the second best save percentage in the league behind Henrik Lundqvist of Helsinki. He is 16-14 lifetime in playoff games with a 91.4 save percentage.
Frankfurt seemed anchored to the bottom of the standings the first two seasons. They always had the scary but young first line of Claude Giroux-Steven Stamkos-Max Pacioretty, but this season, they have made huge strides and if they can win 3 of their final 6 games, should be able to reach the playoffs for the first time. The improvement this season might have something to do with the pre-season addition of veteran free agents Vinny Lecavalier, Rich Peverley and Barrett Jackman, although none of them has produced eye-popping statistics. It probably has more to do with the fact players who were too young before this season have matured into competent players. Dougie Hamilton, for example, improved his point production twofold this season (22 points to 38 so far) and went from a minus 5 to a plus 5. If the Inferno do make the playoffs this season, they will be extreme longshots for the Cup. In a few years, however, they might be among the top contenders.