As I sit here watching the opening slate of games to kick off the 2011-2012 NHL season, I can’t help but think about what’s going to happen in the hockey world over the next several months. Last season brought us some big surprises, another Capitals postseason collapse, an interesting Cup Finals (to say the least), followed by some first-class rioting in Vancouver. I can’t wait to see what’s in store for us this year.
So for my first article of the new season, I wanted to look at which teams in each conference currently look to be in the best position to make a big splash in the regular season and are poised for a deep run in the playoffs. I limited this to five teams per conference, which left a couple potential contenders off the list, because I wanted to focus only on the teams that have the best chance of making it to the conference finals (or further).
Of course, this list could look totally different by January, but here’s how I see the top contenders looking at the start of the season (teams are listed in no particular order).
Vancouver Canucks – No team I watched last season impressed me as much as the Canucks. They were clearly the best team throughout the entire year and seemed destined to be the first Canadian team to bring home the Stanley Cup since 1993. They came agonizingly close and I would imagine that they will come back hungrier this season. Although, maybe without quite the same level of regular season success. The Sedin twins (Daniel and Henrik) and Ryan Kesler are still dynamic players and Mikael Samuelsson is a difference maker as well. While Roberto Luongo caught a lot of heat for his performance in last year’s finals, I’m not ready to call him a liability. He still has a solid net presence even though he may not be the player that won the Gold Medal for Canada just a short while ago. All of that, added to a defense that led the league in goals against last season means anything less than a trip to the conference finals should be counted as a disappointment.
San Jose Sharks – What is left to say about the Sharks that hasn’t been said over the last several years? They’re still one of the most talented teams in league and made a few changes to the roster (no Danny Heatley or Devin Setoguchi). However, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, and Joe Pavelski will continue to be impact players and second year player Logan Couture could put up some big numbers. Newcomers Martin Havlat, Brent Burns, and Michal Handzus have a chance to make this team better than last year, but they should have some stiffer competition within the division this time around. The Sharks could easily make it to the Western finals for the third consecutive time, but at this point San Jose has to be thinking Stanley Cup or bust.
Detroit Red WIngs – The concerns? Age and health. Although we’ve been hearing that about the Red Wings for years now and it doesn’t seem to slow them down. Just ask Nick Lidstrom, who at the ripe age of 41 years brought home the Norris Trophy as the league’s best defenseman last season. But unlike in past years, the Wings don’t seem to have the elite caliber of young players to replace their veteran stars in the future. Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are still among the best players in league (some people like to use the qualifier “two-way” when describing them but I’m not sure it fully does them justice) and Lidstrom will continue to be an anchor on the blue line. Johan Franzen and Dan Cleary are also big assets when they can stay off of the injured reserve. If these guys stay healthy, Detroit will continue to be a force in the West and an outside Cup contender. However, if they are to be one of the top contenders for a championship, somebody else will have to step up. Jimmy Howard is one of the better goaltenders in the conference, but if he has a breakout season – or gets hot for the playoffs – he could help carry them to the finals. Also look to see if Niklas Kronwall or Jonathan Ericsson can improve and vill the void left by Brian Rafalski’s retirement. Unless these guys, along with one or two or the young forwards, step up big time I see the conference finals as the ceiling for Detroit.
Los Angeles Kings – The Kings should be a really fun team to watch this season. Maybe I’m just biased because I live in LA and will get to attend their games, but I am excited to see how this team progresses and how the new pieces fit. There are several big stories surrounding the team coming out of the offseason and we are eagerly awaiting the on-ice result. The biggest move they made was obviously the play for Mike Richards, who should be able to make an immediate impact as the Kings’ second line center. They gave up winger Wayne Simmonds in the trade, but he was more popular amongst the fans than he was vital to the team. Ryan Smyth returned to his original team in Edmonton, but the biggest loss the Kings have to deal with is the departure of Handzus, who will be lacing up for division foe San Jose. However, Simon Gagne should be able to make a immediate impact and will be a significant contributor alongside Richards if he can stay healthy. The absence of Anze Kopitar hurt the Kings in the playoffs last season, but he is back, healthy and could put some big numbers with the increased firepower this team has. The contract negotiations with Drew Doughty finally came to a close with the Kings being able to lock him down for 8 years. Doughty missed training camp and preseason games and it’s hard to tell how that will affect him, but I’m confident he will be able to shake off any rust and be a big contributor on the blue line. All of this goes without mentioning the fact that the Kings have one of the more enviable goaltending situations in the league. Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier are both very solid in net and head coach Terry Murray has said he might just be riding the hot goalie throughout the year. I think this team makes the jump up to the next level and becomes a legitimate contender for the Cup.
Chicago Blackhawks – The Stanley Cup champs from two years ago struggled last season and barely snuck into the playoffs as the eight seed. However, they came back from down 3-0 in their first round playoff series to give the Canucks a run for their money and force a game 7. Look for Chicago to have a bit of a bounce-back year and contend in the West this season. They still have Jonathan Toews, who is one of the best players in the league and has the potential to compete for the Hart Trophy as the most valuable player in the NHL. Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marion Hossa still reside in the Second City and help power this team’s offense and one of the best power plays in the league. Where this team needs to improve from last season is keeping the puck out of their own net. Despite the loss of Brian Campbell, the Blackhawks have some talent on the blue line in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook but not much depth otherwise. Additionally, they have to deal with having one of the league’s worst penality kills last season (25th) and inconsistent goaltending. Ray Emery found his way to Chicago, but his impact should be minimal and Corey Crawford will once again shoulder the load for the ‘Hawks. I think he is up to the task and Chicago could be looking at a trip to the conference finals.
Boston Bruins – Lord Stanley’s Cup currently resides in Boston and, as always, the question will be if the defending champs will suffer through the so-called “championship hangover.” I don’t totally buy in to the notion, I just think that it’s extremely difficult to come out on top (especially after the grueling postseason) in consecutive seasons. It also probably doesn’t help when the team is still celebrating its victory three months later. However this team has all the pieces in place to make a run at the cup every year. They had a top ten offense and defense last season, not to mention the Conn Smythe recipient in Tim Thomas back in net. Some people have raised concerns over Thomas’ age (he’s 37), but it seems like he has plenty left in him to be the backbone of this team. Additionally, they have one of the better and more proven backup net minders in the league in Tuukka Rask. The Bruins still have one of the best defensemen in hockey in Zdeno Chara along with plenty of other solid blue liners such as Andrew Ference and Johnny Boychuk. There’s no shortage of talent up front either. Led by Milan Lucic and Patrice Bergeron, Boston scored the eight most goals in the league last year and have plenty of firepower and young up-and-comers to finish that high again. I don’t see them winning it all again this season, but they should be one of the top contenders from the East.
Washington Capitals – I could probably just put the section about the Sharks in here, change the names, and it would be pretty accurate. Another case of a team loaded with talent that has consistently underperformed in the postseason. Every offseason we keep hearing the same things about this team: “GM George McPhee has made all the right moves”, and “Alex Ovechkin is determined to lead his team to the promised land,” and “this is the best Capitals team yet.” I actually believe the above statements, but it is all meaningless unless the Caps can finally bring it all together in the playoffs. We all know about the offensive weapons on the team, lead by Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green, but the two biggest stories are this team’s offseason moves and last season’s switch to a defense-first philosophy. Washington was able to grab veteran goaltender Thomas Vokoun for virtually nothing, and he should be the starter to begin the season, but expect Michal Neuvirth to get his share of playing time. They were able to ship off the inconsistent Semyon Varlamov for potentially high draft picks, and added gritty players like Troy Brouwer who should help them in the playoffs. I would also look for Marcus Johansson to have a breakout year. Young defensemen Karl Alzner and John Carlson should continue to improve and become invaluable pieces in head coach Bruce Boudreau’s new defensive style of play. The Capitals have all of the tangible pieces to make a run to the conference finals or further, and anything less will once again send Ovechkin and Co. home disappointed. It could also cost Boudreau his job.
Pittsburgh Penguins – All attention is on the health of Sidney Crosby. He’s been out since January with concussion symptoms and has recently been making some notable progress towards recovery. It’s no secret how important Crosby is to this team and if he can come back healthy they should be a top contender. They still have all of the most important pieces from their Stanley Cup run a couple of years ago, and most of them are back healthy this season. Evgeni Malkin, who earned the Conn Smyth in the Pens’ championship year, is back from a bad knee injury and there are very high expectations for him. Many people see him as the favorite to win the Hart trophy as the league’s most valuable player in the regular season, perhaps along with the scoring title. Jordan Staal, who missed the first half of last season, is also back and figures to be a major contributor. Expectations are also high for defenseman Kris Letang, who some believe has the opportunity to win the Norris this year. Overall, fans and experts alike believe that, barring another injury-plagued season, Pittsburgh is in great position to potentially hoist the Cup once more. I think they should be one of the better teams in the league, but there’s enough competition within the conference that I’m not ready to proclaim them favorites to win it all.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Last year’s biggest overachievers came within one win of reaching the Stanley Cup Finals, and some expect them to take a small step back this season. However, they’ve got some snazzy new uniforms and a logo that makes them look like superheroes. They also have a guy who plays like a superhero in Steven Stamkos and their General Manager Steve Yzerman seemingly does everything like one. Martin St. Louis and Vincent Lecavalier are still big contributors to this team and bring the all-important veteran leadership into the locker room. The area where they really need to improve is on defense; they gave up almost three goals per game last season, ranking 21st in the league. Last year’s pickup of veteran net minder Dwayne Roloson turned out to be huge for the Lightning, but at 42 years old there are concerns over how well he can hold up for another season. Overall, there are a lot of questions marks surrounding this team and some people think they could even miss the playoffs, but I think they have enough big time players and experience to make it back to the postseason. I also have faith in Yzerman to make all the right moves for Tampa, possibly helping them make another run in the playoffs. But ultimately I see the conference finals as their ceiling.
Buffalo Sabres – I can see this team being near the top of the standings or one of the year’s bigger disappointments. Everyone knows about goalie Ryan Miller and his ability to carry a team. The Sabres may need him to do exactly that for stretches as this young team matures and improves over the course of the season. Most of their offensive talent comes from the wings, with Thomas Vanek and Drew Stafford each coming off of 30-goal seasons last year and Philadelphia transfer Ville Leino looking to make a big impact down the left side. Brad Boyes also played well for Buffalo after being acquired from the St. Louis Blues late last season and has a chance to be a solid producer on offense. Somebody will need to step up in the middle for the Sabres, as they are weakest at center but have some good young talent. On defense, Tyler Myers has potential to be a really good top blue-liner for a long time and Buffalo also has established guys like Robyn Regehr and Christian Ehrhoff on the back end to help keep some of the pressure off the goaltender. However, I believe that if this team is going to make it to the Finals, Ryan Miller will be the one to take them there.