There might never be another NHL playoff season like the one we just witnessed. The No. 8-seeded Los Angeles Kings fought through the top three seeds in the Western Conference, and then the New Jersey Devils in the Stanley Cup Final in order to win their first Stanley Cup in franchise history.
When Wayne Gretzky failed to lead the Kings to a cup, I'm sure many fans in Southern California were wondering if it would ever happen. But then Dustin Brown, Jonathan Quick, Anze Kopitar and many others came to the rescue.
I don't think head coach Darryl Sutter smiled one time throughout the playoffs until the final second expired, but now he can grin for the entire offseason. Sadly, the 2011-12 season is finally over. So why not take a look at the early favorites to bring home Lord Stanley's Cup next year?
Record Last Year: 48-26-8 (4th in Western Conference)
2012 Finish: Lost to PHX 4-1 in Western Conference semifinals
If the last two years have proved anything, it's that in order to win it all a great goaltender who can get hot is an absolute must. About seven months ago, the Predators signed Pekka Rinne to a seven-year, $49 million contract, and I think that was a great move.
Rinne has proved that he has what it takes in order to move a team through the playoffs, and if Nashville can find a way to get some scoring, they could be a real contender for the cup.
Player to Watch: Mike Fisher
Fisher will be in a contract year next year, and he needs to find a way to produce more than 51 points if the Predators want to find themselves in the cup chase. He was minus-four in the playoffs, which tied him with Roman Josi for the worst plus-minus rating on the team.
He is married to Carrie Underwood though... so that's a personal plus for him I'm sure.
Record Last Year: 48-28-6 (6th in Eastern Conference)
2012 Finish: Lost to LAK 4-2 in Stanley Cup Final
The Devils finished the year as the fourth-best team in their division, but when the playoffs came, they played their best hockey of the year. There are a lot of questions going into the offseason, and the main one surrounds their captain Zach Parise.
Early speculation is that Marty "Party" Brodeur will be back next season, so it is going to rest on management's shoulders to find a way to bring back their captain. My guess is that they more than likely won't considering the amount of big-market teams that are going to be throwing huge offers his way. But maybe Ilya Kovalchuk will be able to lead them back to the finals.
Player to Watch: Martin Brodeur
Assuming he comes back, Brodeur will the one that is going to make or break the Devils' season. They play in arguably the hardest division in the NHL, and if one man can lead New Jersey back to the finals, it's their three-time Stanley Cup champion standing between the pipes.
Record Last Year: 49-22-11 (2nd in Western Conference)
2012 Finish: Lost 4-0 to LAK in Western Conference semifinals
The surprise of the regular season and the disappointment of the postseason may be the St. Louis Blues. Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott came out of nowhere to be one of the best goaltending tandems in recent memory, but the Blues failed to consistently produce offense in front of them.
When the playoffs rolled around however, both goaltenders failed to perform, and with the exception of Andy McDonald, the offensive production never found a groove. It was still great to see some good hockey out of a storied franchise like the Blues, and they will be contenders as next season begins.
Player to Watch: T.J. Oshie
He is a restricted free agent, but if a team-leading 54 points in 80 games isn't enough for the Blues to put some serious money on him, then I would be very surprised. The kicker is that he was terrible in the playoffs. He had zero goals and finished with a minus-three rating.
Looks like there are still good seats available in Philly!
Record Last Year: 47-26-9 (5th in Eastern Conference)
2012 Finish: Lost to NJD 4-1 in Eastern Conference semifinals
After their domination of the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, many thought that the Flyers were the favorite with only eight teams remaining. Claude Giroux was the breakout star of Round 1, and had a stranglehold on the points lead in the playoffs for weeks.
But then the Devils came in and took away that dream. Martin Brodeur got hot, and the Devils shut down the explosive attack of the Flyers. The toughest pill to swallow for Philly? Watching Mike Richards hand the Stanley Cup to Jeff Carter on Monday night...both played for the Flyers last year.
Player to Watch: James Van Riemsdyk
Two years ago, Van Riemsdyk was arguably the best player for the Flyers in the postseason, given it wasn't that long of a run. This year he only played in 43 games during the regular season and had a respectable .56 points per game; he was quiet in the playoffs, however, with only one goal. He is going to have to step up if the Flyers want to hoist the cup.
Record Last Year: 48-28-6 (5th in Western Conference)
2012 Finish: Lost to NSH 4-1 in Western Conference quarterfinals
I know, I know, Nicklas Lidstrom retired. But everyone is failing to remember that they still have guys like Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg. The only reason why I have the Wings this high is because I honestly think that Zach Parise is going to sign with Detroit this offseason.
The biggest problem that Hockeytown is going to have next year is how much trust they want to place on Jimmy Howard. Sure, he has been great in the regular season for the last couple years, but he is starting to prove that he is not yet ready to lead them to the promise land.
Player to Watch: Henrik Zetterberg
Zetty is going to have more pressure on him then ever before. Why? Because more than likely he will be carrying the C on his sweater, and the only two guys whose skates he needs to fill are Hall of Famers Nicklas Lidstrom and Steve Yzerman...no pressure.
Record Last Year: 45-26-11 (6th in Western Conference)
2012 Finish: Lost to PHX 4-2 in Western Conference quarterfinals
Another huge disappointment of the 2012 NHL playoffs was the Chicago Blackhawks. All the bits and pieces are there to make another championship team, but this year the streaking Coyotes got the best of them.
Think about it: Johnny Toews, Patrick Kane, Brent Seabrook, Duncan Keith and Marian Hossa are still on the same roster. They honestly are one of the best teams on paper, but as we all know there is a reason why the games are played. If they can find the state of mind that had them raising the cup in 2010, then there is no reason why they can't do it again.
Player to Watch: Viktor Stalberg
The 26-year-old Swede put up 43 points in 2012, which was a 19-point increase from the year before. He was one of the biggest surprises for the Hawks, and he will need to continue his progression if the Windy City will be winning it all any time soon.
Record Last Year: 51-22-9 (1st in Western Conference)
2012 Finish: Lost to LAK 4-1 in Western Conference quarterfinals
The Kings shocked the Presidents' Trophy winners in the first round of the playoffs; however, it would have been interesting to see how the series would have ended up had Daniel Sedin been healthy for the first three games.
One of the more fascinating storylines of the NHL offseason is going to be how the Canucks front office handles their goalie situation. If I was the one calling the shots, I would see what kind of value I could get for Roberto Luongo and give Cory Schneider a shot at the starting job.
Player to Watch: Ryan Kesler
The Sedin twins are going to produce, there is no doubt about that, but Ryan Kesler is the catalyst to this team. He took three costly penalties in the first-round series against Los Angeles and failed to score a goal in any of the five games. He will need to be huge in the playoffs next year if the Canucks want to bring the Stanley Cup back to Canada.
Record Last Year: 51-24-7 (1st in Eastern Conference)
2012 Finish: Lost to NJD 4-2 in Eastern Conference final
During the conference finals, I was almost positive that the Rangers were going to win it all. The Rangers have everything that an organization needs in order to win a Stanley Cup. They have a great leader in Ryan Callahan, a great scorer in Marian Gaborik and a great goaltender in Henrik Lundqvist.
John Tortorella is going to be the difference next season. His attitude and persona is either exactly what the Rangers need, or exactly what they don't need. He has an Ozzie Guillen-esque flair (minus the Fidel Castro comments) and in a city like New York, if he fails to get his team to rally next season, he could be out the door quite soon.
Player to Watch: Marc Staal
He was plagued by injury in the regular season, but when healthy he was absolutely awful. He is the highest paid defenseman on the New York roster, and five points in 46 games with a minus-seven rating isn't really warranting the $3.975 million he is making annually. Look for a big improvement out of him next year.
Record Last Year: 51-25-6 (4th in Eastern Conference)
2012 Finish: Lost to PHI 4-2 in Eastern Conference quarterfinals
According to Vegas, the Penguins are the odds-on favorite to win it all, and there are multiple storylines to follow in the Steel City this offseason. The trade and signing of Tomas Vokoun should push Marc-Andre Fleury next season after an abysmal playoff stretch, and there are rumors of a huge contract extension for Sidney Crosby.
In all honesty, if the Penguins can find a way to keep their roster healthy for most of the year, they are going to be one tough force to line up against. Even if Jordan Staal ends up leaving for Carolina, which I think he will, the Penguins are still going to be one of the favorites to take it all.
Player to Watch: Paul Martin
Paul Martin was horrible in the playoffs, especially for someone getting paid a ton of money. He is getting $5 million per year, which is far more than he deserves after his recent showing. Fans were screaming for Simon Despres over Martin in May.
Record Last Year: 40-27-15 (8th in Western Conference)
2012 Finish: Stanley Cup champions
Can there be any other favorite? Now, I know that there hasn't been a repeat champion since the Red Wings did it in the late '90s...but how can you pick against a young team that just went 16-4 on its way to the most dominant playoff run in recent memory?
I know they were a No. 8-seed, but they played like they had won the Presidents' Trophy. With the star power of Dustin Brown, Jeff Carter, Jonathon Quick and Anze Kopitar, there is no reason LA can't go back to the dance and win it all.
Player to Watch: Matt Greene
Behind Paul Bissonnette, Matt Greene might just be the best personality in hockey. But unlike Biz Nasty, Greener gets ice time, and a lot of it at that. His physical play on the blue line and leadership throughout the playoffs were an integral and underrated part of the Kings' historical run. If he continues to do the same next year, he and his teammates may just be raising Lord Stanley's Cup again this time next year.