NHL Preview: 10 Contenders For The Cup
“It’s about damn time.” The words LeBron James spoke after winning his first NBA title last June apply to the beginning of the 2013 NHL season. After a lockout cost the league 3 ½ months and what will amount to 32 regular season games, we’ll begin a shortened season on Saturday night and TheSportsNotebook will seek to lay out the landscape of the coming pursuit of the Stanley Cup in our NHL preview.
Let me begin by saying that while I’ve missed hockey, I like the shorter regular season. When 16 of 30 teams make the playoffs and history has clearly shown there’s no real advantage to home ice or seed position, it’s not necessary to play an excruciatingly long season just to knock out less than half the league. The NHL regular season isn’t about producing the best, it’s about eliminating the worst, and 48 games is more than sufficient to do that.
To set the stage for the coming three-month sprint to the playoffs, we’ll lay the league out on four different tiers, starting with the true Stanley Cup contenders and finishing with the dregs of the league. The in-between teams are split up between those that are legitimate championship darkhorses, and those that at least can hope to make the playoffs. In this league, the latter almost by definition makes you the former, but the teams labeled “true darkhorses” will be ones that are seen to have a chance to become championship-caliber for the long haul, not just for the postseason.
There are ten teams in this group. Las Vegas has installed the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins as the slight co-favorites at 8-1, so that number was used as the baseline for how far down into the league to reach. I went double, and stretched it to include St. Louis at 16-1. Though the tiers I’ve put each team are almost exclusively based on the betting number, I made one exception. New Jersey is listed at 30-1, but in spite of that, and a key free-agent loss, I’m not going to exclude one of the league’s consistent contenders and last year’s Eastern Conference champions from the top line of discussion.
New York Rangers (8-1): The favorites excel defensively and it starts with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, one of the game’s best. New York also does an excellent job not exposing Lundqvist to high shot volumes. The offense was above average, but not title-worthy, especially on the power play. To that end, the Rangers went out and added 30-goal scorer Rick Nash to join a team that includes another excellent scorer in Marian Gaborik. I don’t know that I would set the Rangers as the favorites, but they’re certainly worthy of being in this discussion.
Pittsburgh Penguins (8-1): Pittsburgh had the best offense in the league even with Sidney Crosby out most of the year with his concussion problems. Now Crosby is healthy, locked up to a 12-year contract extension and the Pens still have last year’s MVP, Evgeni Malkin at center, along with underrated James Neal, who would be the first scoring option most other places. Pittsburgh plays good defense and executes well on both sides of the power-play equation. The issue is really whether Marc Andre-Fleury can still be a Cup-winning goalie. He didn’t play like it all last season and his worst moments came in the playoffs. We know Pittsburgh will win games, score goals and have stretches where they look unstoppable, but it’s Fleury who settles the ultimate fate.
Los Angeles Kings (9-1): They became the first #8 seed to win the Stanley Cup last year and they did it in devastating fashion. Jonathan Quick went from being a solid goalie to being unstoppable. That’s par for the course in the NHL as the question of which goalie will get in the mysterious “zone” for a couple months is the overriding question of every postseason. What was most impressive about the Kings’ play for the long-term was that the offense became a genuine force. Anze Kopitar’s at the center spot, with Dustin Penner and Dustin Brown on the wings. If they carry their playoff effort over into this season, Los Angeles will be a genuine elite team, not just one that caught magic in a bottle for one spring.
Vancouver Canucks (10-1): At long last, the Canucks are making Cory Schneider the #1 goaltender, elevating him over the overrated Roberto Luongo. Vancouver made the switch after falling behind Los Angeles in last year’s playoffs, and had Schneider been inserted earlier, it might have meant an entirely different outcome. Because this team can skate and score with anyone, starting with the Sedin brothers, Henrik and Daniel and including winger Alex Burrows. Now that Vancouver has the right man in goal, the defense needs to tighten up—they were in the bottom third of the league in shots allowed.
Boston Bruins (12-1): Tim Thomas has retired and the job of replacing the Stanley Cup-winning goaltender falls to Tuuka Raask. The young goalie has shown the signs he’s ready to handle the job, and as a B’s fan, I feel like Raask is to Boston what Aaron Rodgers was to the Green Bay Packers—the man ready to step in for a legend and get it done. Raask has an underrated offense in front of him. Boston’s balanced attack was third in the NHL last year. They don’t have a top scorer, save perhaps Nathan Horton, and the power play is mediocre, but Boston is a very consistent team that grinds games out and if Raask is up to the job, a second Cup in three years is within reach.
Detroit Red Wings (12-1): The Wings flamed out in last year’s playoffs, but they really have no weaknesses other than a bad power play unit. But they have competent goaltending with Jimmy Howard, play excellent team defense in front of him, and the puck movement that has always defined this team is in good hands with Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Valtteri Filippula. Detroit could use someone to really step up as a scorer, but even without that, we’ll be talking about this team again in late April.
Chicago Blackhawks (12-1): For the most part, this is the Western Conference version of the Penguins. The skating talent is immense, with Jonathan Toews, Patrick Sharp, Patrick Kane and Marian Hossa. The defenseman are capable passers in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. Put simply, the Blackhawks can beat you from anywhere on the ice and do it in high volume. But like Pittsburgh, they have a goaltending problem. Last year they lost to Phoenix in the playoffs exclusively because Corey Crawford was nowhere near the class of goalie that Mike Smith was. And unlike Pittsburgh, Chicago is lousy on both ends of the power play. This is an exciting team, but they look like more flash than substance against good teams.
Philadelphia Flyers (15-1): This is the third team of the championship contenders that’s only a goaltender away. Philadelphia’s offense, led by center Claude Giroux, was second only to Pittsburgh in the regular season and the Flyers outscored the Pens in the playoffs. Philly also does a credible job in limiting shots on goal. But that doesn’t stop the puck from finding the back of the net for opponents. Ilya Bryzgalov is inadequate in goal and the problems that really started to plague the Flyers late in the 2011 regular season continue—they have the skating talent to be a contender, but lack the goaltending to finish the job.
St. Louis Blues (16-1): A well-coached, defensive-oriented team, the Blues have two good goalies in Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliot. They have good passers, from defenseman Alex Pietrangelo to David Backes and T.J. Oshie on the frontline. The issue is whether or not someone can finish. The Blues are the mirror image of rival Chicago. Over the regular season, a team like Chicago’s can outskate people. In the playoffs though, when defense rules the day, St. Louis is better suited to win. But eventually you run into a team that can defend, has a hot goalie and can also score. If St. Loo can’t fill in the last part of that equation, they’ll still come up short of the Cup.
New Jersey Devils (30-1): The Devils relied on the scoring combo of Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk to reach the Finals a year ago. Parise left for Minnesota via free agency, so it will be incumbent on Patrik Elias and David Clarkson to pick up the slack. The bigger question though is how much Martin Brodeur has left to give in the goal? The veteran and future Hall of Famer was mediocre during last year’s regular season and at times during the playoffs, but came up with enough clutch performances to keep New Jersey advancing. I love the guy and you know he’ll leave everything he’s got on the ice, but if the tank is empty at this point in his career, then Las Vegas is right in pricing New Jersey well out of championship range.
THE DARK HORSES
This group covers eight teams that are priced between 20-1 and 30-1 to win the Stanley Cup. If you assume the ten teams above will all make the playoffs, that leave six spots left these eight.
Buffalo Sabres (20-1): I don’t get the optimism for Buffalo at all. They missed the playoffs last year—albeit in ninth place, so they had a shot to the very end. But they do nothing particularly well, have no real defining offensive players and goalie Ryan Miller is average at best. Personally, I would drop them down one tier.
Minnesota Wild (20-1): When was the last time a Minnesota franchise was seen wildly spending money? That’s what the Wild did in the offseason, locking up both Zach Parise, and Nashville’s Ryan Suter to 13-year contracts that will keep both in the Twin Cities past their 40th birthday. This is a significant upgrade that helps on both ends. Suter was a cornerstone of a good Nashville defense and Parise can both score and dish the puck. The Wild don’t really have the goaltending to move to the next level, but I suspect the fans will settle for just being a good playoff team.
San Jose Sharks (25-1): This could be a good longshot bet. San Jose finished eighth last year in goals allowed and shots allowed, so they’re good on both goaltending and team defense. They have good scorers in Patrick Marleu, Logan Couture and Joe Pavlevski, and all are adept passers as well. And few pass like Joe Thornton as the veteran center had 59 assists last year. The Sharks didn’t put it all together last year, settling for a 7-seed and first-round loss to St. Louis, but I’d keep an eye on them this time around.
Tampa Bay Lightning (25-1): Steven Stamkos is perhaps the NHL’s most electrifying offensive player, leading the league with 60 goals. Martin St. Louis is a talented secondary scorer. But the Lightning play no defense and are in transition at goalie. I don’t like their chances.
Nashville Predators (25-1): The loss of Ryan Suter will hurt, but Shea Weber can still defend and pass, and the Preds get good puck movement from David Legwand and Martin Erat. And overseeing it all in goal is Pekka Rinne, a goalie who’s good enough to put you in the playoff and one of those who could become the mythical “hot goalie” come spring. Nashville is not an all-around championship team, but they are a playoff one and could ride Rinne all the way if they catch the right wave.
Washington Capitals (30-1): I don’t know that I buy Washington being outside the top tier of teams, but unlike New Jersey, the Caps haven’t done enough—or anything—in the postseason to give me the confidence to overrule Las Vegas. But this year is Braden Holtby’s chance to show the yeoman’s work he did in last year’s playoff win over Boston wasn’t just a fluke. The 22-year-old got a chance because of an injury to Michael Neuwirth and took full advantage. Alex Ovechkin had a subpar year, but if he gets his offensive mojo back and Holtby is really the goalie of the future, then watch out.
Carolina Hurricane (30-1): Carolina grabbed Alexander Semin away from Washington and the forward will add to a respectable scoring and passing group that’s led by Eric Staal. But Semin can’t fix the defense. Cam Ward is no longer the same goalie who won the 2006 Stanley Cup and the Hurricanes were the worst defense in the league at preventing shots.
Anaheim Mighty Ducks (30-1): The offensive talent is here to suggest the Mighty Ducks can outperform their 23rd ranking in goals from last season. The defensive group is pretty good, but like so many teams outside the top rung (and a few within the top rung) it’s about getting consistent goaltending. Even if Anaheim’s offense rounds into form, they can’t cover for shaky goaltending.
HOPING FOR THE PLAYOFFS
40-1 must be some type of default number in Las Vegas for teams that are just fighting to get into the postseason and then hoping for some magic. Eight teams were at that number and one more at 60-1.
Florida Panthers (40-1): A strong power play unit and a weak division helped propel the Panthers into the playoffs last year. The weak Southeast Division might again save them—Washington and Tampa Bay are the only teams from the Southeast we’ve listed to this point and neither are unbeatable. But Florida needs the goalie duo of Jose Theodore and Scott Clemmensen to be much more consistent and they need someone who can light the lamp.
Phoenix Coyotes (40-1): Mike Smith put this team on his back and carried them into the playoffs, winning the weak Pacific Division. Then Smith pushed his team through two playoff rounds before losing to the Kings. But even in a sport where the goalie is of pre-eminent importance, there’s only so much one guy can do. Smith’s teammates in front of him were mostly subpar and one of the good ones, Ray Whitney is now gone.
Ottawa Senators (40-1): The Senators got in the playoffs last year and pushed the Rangers to a Game 7 before losing in the first round. Ottawa can score, with no fewer than three legitimate threats on the offensive end of the ice, led by center Jason Spezza and having a talented passer in Erik Karlsson at defenseman. I know they have goalie issues, but what am I missing that has the Senators priced so far behind teams like Tampa Bay, Anaheim, Carolina and Buffalo?
Toronto Maple Leafs (40-1): Toronto’s led by 37-goal scorer Phil Kessel and he’s supported by Joffrey Lupul on the opposite wing. But there’s no real depth and no real defense. It’s tough to see Leafs doing much.
Dallas Stars (40-1): Dallas went out and got Whitney away from Phoenix and added him to a frontline that includes Michael Ryder and Loui Eriksson, meaning the Stars’ 22nd-ranked offense should see a nice bump up in productivity. The worst-in-the-league power play has to improve. Kari Lehtonen in goal is good enough to put a team like this in the playoffs.
Colorado Avalanche (40-1): The Avalanche don’t have anyone who stands out, but their left wing spot goes three-deep with players who scored 20 goals last year, and P.A. Paranteau is a top passer on the right side. The goaltending is an adequate platoon. Jean Sebastian-Giguere’s glory days are behind him (with Anaheim he was playoff MVP on a finalist in 2003 and won the Cup in 2007), but then so are Brodeur’s, and he still took a team deep into the playoffs. Who knows, maybe Giguere could get one last run at glory.
Montreal Canadiens (40-1): Montreal kind of fell apart last year, but let’s not forget that in 2011 they made the playoffs and won the first two games in the opening round against Boston. That series got away, the Bruins won the Cup and the Canadiens went the other direction. But Montreal still plays good overall defense and has a quality scorer in Erik Cole. If they can upgrade a woeful power play, they can certainly get back into the postseason.
Edmonton Oilers (40-1): Jordan Eberle is a very talented second-year player, both scoring and passing. He’s also all the Oilers have. Those memories of Gretzky’s Glory Days or the miracle run of 2006 will have to sustain the good people of Edmonton at least one more year.
Winnipeg Jets (60-1): Blake Wheeler and Evander Kane give the Jets a decent offensive combo that covers both flanks, but they do nothing else well.
THE ULTRA LONGSHOTS
If Las Vegas is to be believed, even scraping into the postseason as a #8 seed qualifies as a pipe dream for these three teams.
NY Islanders (100-1): I don’t buy the Islanders being this bad. They did an adequate job at getting shots and stopping them a year ago. Now they just need to improve their finishing and get a little bit better goaltending. I don’t mean to make it out like that’s easy, but a team with three quality offensive players like Mark Streit, Matt Moulson and John Tavares isn’t a hopeless case.
Calgary (100-1): While I don’t see the Flames as a legitimate longshot threat like the Islanders, I also don’t see why they’re perceived as this much worse than, say Winnipeg or Edmonton. The Flames were 14th in the league at stopping goals last year in spite of some leaky defense that left goalie Mikka Kiprusoff overexposed at times. But Kiprusoff proved good enough to still keep his team in games and if you’re in the league’s top half at stopping goals, why can’t you at least get to the last couple weeks of the regular season with a shot at the playoffs.
Columbus Blue Jackets (100-1): I do buy the Jackets being this bad. The only thing this team proves is that the only professional team in Columbus should be Ohio State football.
I’ll make my final predictions on Saturday morning, with picks on all eight teams in the playoffs and ranking them 1-8, and of course picks on the ultimate teams to be in the Finals and eventually win the Cup. Since this article focused on the championship odds, I’ll say that if I happened to be strolling through the Bellagio, I’d at least be tempted to grab Boston at 12-1. That’s not just bias talking. I think the Bruins are for real, although in fairness, the bias probably clinches whatever feelings I have. And I really think San Jose is worth a flyer at 25-1.