Stanley Cup Final: 10 Teams That Will Contend for the Cup in 2013

Simon Cherin-Gordon@SimoncgoContributor IIIJune 15, 2012

Stanley Cup Final: 10 Teams That Will Contend for the Cup in 2013

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    The Los Angeles Kings just completed one of the most dominant Stanley Cup runs in NHL history.

    In fact, since the playoffs expanded to include 16 teams in 1980, only the 1988 Edmonton Oilers have finished the playoffs with a better record.

    Those Oilers had just won their second consecutive Cup, their fourth in five seasons. They'd go on to win another just two years later.

    That fifth Oilers Cup marked the end of the last great NHL dynasty.

    The Penguins and Red Wings have won back-to-back Cups since then, and New Jersey, Detroit, Pittsburgh and Colorado combined to win 10 of the next 14 Cups. The Pens and Wings have each added another in the past eight seasons. But no team has won back-to-back Cups since 1998, and the last nine NHL champions have been nine different teams.

    So as rare as L.A.'s dominant run was, repeating that kind of success is even rarer in today's NHL.

    While the Kings will enter next season as a Stanley Cup favorite, there will be about a dozen other teams with a realistic chance. Just to weed that group down to 10 is hard enough. Ranking them is next to impossible.

    With that said, here's a look at the 10 teams most likely to lift Lord Stanley's Cup in 2013.

10. Phoenix Coyotes

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    The Coyotes go into every season as a team that appears unlikely to make the playoffs. Yet over the last three seasons, Phoenix has been one of only five teams—along with Pittsburgh, Vancouver, Detroit and Nashville—to finish each season with at least 97 points.

    After being completely written off in 2011-12 due to the departure of Ilya Bryzgalov, the Coyotes won their first division title and went all the way to the Western Conference finals.

    The reason the Coyotes continue to win is leadership, toughness, roster balance and incredible coaching from Dave Tippett.

    Usually, the Coyotes are passive in free agency, but with new ownership on the horizon and a ton of momentum due to their playoff run and new commitment to Arizona, the Coyotes are one or two signings away from competing for the 2013 cup.


    Why Not

    The Coyotes did make the final four this season, but they also had some fortunate playoff luck.

    They finished in the top three out west by winning the Pacific Division, despite only having the sixth-most points in the conference. This gave them home-ice advantage against Chicago and Nashville, two teams that finished with better records.

    The Coyotes knocked off Chicago with three overtime wins and knocked off a Nashville team that was imploding internally.

    This isn't to take anything away from Phoenix, but had the L.A. Kings or San Jose Sharks won just one more game, Phoenix would have likely been one-and-done, which is its usual script. If the Coyotes don't significantly improve this summer, they may return to that reality in 2013.

9. Detroit Red Wings

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    When are the Detroit Red Wings not cup contenders?

    The Wings may have won just one playoff game in 2012, but they also finished with 48 wins, 102 points, a plus-45 goal differential and the best home record in the league. 

    With loads of cap room this offseason and some big free agents such as Ryan Suter and Zach Parise clearly in their sights, the Wings could be a revamped team in 2012-13, potentially one with more speed and youth than we've seen in years.

    Why Not

    The biggest why not is 6'1" and weighs 190 pounds.

    That would be Nick Lidstrom, the best defenseman the NHL has seen since Bobby Orr. Lidstrom won seven Norris Trophies and could have won it in each of his 20 seasons. The Wings won four cups with Lidstrom at the point, and even signing Suter would in no way make up for his decision to retire.

    Beyond Lidstrom, several other key Red Wings players are declining, and whether it shows up in their regular-season stats or not, the last few Detroit teams have seemed to run out of gas early in the postseason.

8. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    The Pittsburgh Penguins have the two best players in the National Hockey League.

    With Sidney Crosby out for most of the season, Evgeni Malkin quieted his doubters in 2011-12. Malkin dominated the NHL with a season that should net him the Hart Trophy.

    Throw a healthy Sid back into the mix next year, and the league better duck and cover.

    The Penguins' 108 points made them the NHL's fourth-best team, but playing in the same division as New York knocked them down to the No. 4 seed. This drew them a tough first-round matchup with a Flyers team that has their number. But a healthy Pens team would have a great shot at the Presidents' Trophy, and that would make a deep playoff run much easier.


    Why Not

    For as great as Pittsburgh has been over the past three regular seasons, the Penguins have won a total of one playoff series—and that was against Ottawa.

    While Vancouver, San Jose and Washington continue to take the heat as "playoff chokers," all three of those teams have won more playoff series than the Penguins in that time.

    Pittsburgh can keep believing that its guys who got it done in 2009 can get it done again, but the fact is that they haven't even come close to doing so.

    An upgrade on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury and some character moves may be the only way for the Pens to get back into the deep part of the playoffs.

7. San Jose Sharks

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    The 2011-12 Sharks may have finished seventh in the Western Conference and been eliminated in five playoff games. However, the previous four Sharks teams finished in the top two, and the previous two went to the conference finals.

    Going into 2012-13, the Sharks seem to lie somewhere between those two extremes. That being said, they are in position to become the perennial cup contender they're used to being and leave the average No. 7 seed team as a memory.

    With the impending addition of Brad Stuart, the Sharks' blue line will become an elite unit. This move is an immediate improvement, leaving them one big forward away from again having arguably the most stacked lineup in the NHL.


    Why Not

    The 2012-13 season could be seen as a temporary setback, but it could just as easily mark the beginning of the end for San Jose's current core.

    Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle and Joe Thornton are the Sharks' best players, and they are all 32 and older. Much like with Detroit, there is no reason to believe next year's Sharks will get it done unless some significant youth and speed is added to the lineup.

    The Sharks would ideally like to find this via free agency. But with eight roster spots to fill and roughly only $15 million in cap room, the Sharks could be forced to make lateral moves.

6. St. Louis Blues

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    After hiring Ken Hitchcock a month into the 2011-12 season, St. Louis was the best team in the NHL. The Blues' suffocating defense (allowed a league-low 2.01 goals per game) and team speed earned them 109 points and the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference.

    After making quick work of San Jose, they were swept by Los Angeles in Round 2. But St. Louis has an incredibly deep, young roster that seems to be going nowhere but up.

    General manager Doug Armstrong has made shrewd trades and bargain signings to build the current roster. The Blues are one or two additions to the offense away from being the team to beat in the Western Conference.


    Why Not

    The Blues did win a playoff series, but it was a dream matchup for them. They swept the Sharks in the regular season, holding them to three goals in four games.

    Once slotted against a tougher Kings team, the Blues were completely obliterated.

    This was a harsh end to a feel-good story. But on paper, it made sense. The Blues simply don't have the star power of an elite team. While David Backes, Alex Pietrangelo, T.J. Oshie and Kevin Shattenkirk are very nice pieces, they aren't going to lead a team deep into the playoffs.

    Other defensive-minded teams like L.A., the New York Rangers and New Jersey went deep due to having a couple all-world offensive players to back up their defense. Until the Blues acquire or develop some superstars, they won't be a true cup threat.

5. New York Rangers

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    Like St. Louis, the Rangers dominated the competition all season due to smothering defense. Unlike St. Louis, New York had the offensive talent to make a deep playoff run.

    With Brad Richards, Marian Gaborik and Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers have the star power to lead their team all the way. They have the necessary leadership with Ryan Callahan and Marc Staal.

    Then you look at the young talent emerging in New York—Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh, Carl Hagelin, Michael Del Zotto—and this team seems to be on an unstoppable road to domination.

    With cap room to bring in another great player this summer, New York could enter next season as odds-on Stanley Cup favorites.


    Why Not

    While the Rangers did make a deep playoff run, it took everything they had. They barely got by the Ottawa Senators and were seemingly outplayed during the first six games of a seven-game series with Washington.

    If New York hadn't finished atop the conference and drawn New Jersey or Philly, it would have been gone in Round 1. Luckily, it did finish in first, but Pittsburgh was only one point behind.

    With a healthy Crosby, the Pens will be division favorites next year, meaning New York will likely finish no higher than fourth.

    The Rangers can counteract this with a big offseason addition of their own. But getting locked into a massive long-term deal will cripple them when trying to extend their young talent over the next couple offseasons.

4. Philadelphia Flyers

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    Simply put, the Flyers offense is going to be downright deadly next year. If the 2011-12 team finished third in the NHL in goals, it's hard to imagine them not leading the league next season.

    That's because Sean Couturier, Brayden Schenn, Eric Wellwood, Jakub Voracek, James van Riemsdyk, Wayne Simmonds and Claude Giroux are all between the ages of 19 and 24. That's ignoring Matt Read (a 26-year-old rookie) as well as veterans Scott Hartnell, Danny Briere and Jaromir Jagr.

    The Flyers also have a very deep defense and a goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov who should play much better during his second year in Philadelphia.

    If the defense can improve a little, there may be no answer for what will likely be the deepest, scariest group of forwards the league has seen in years.


    Why Not

    The Flyers defense may be deep, but without Chris Pronger, they lack a legitimate top pairing. And while Bryzgalov could be better in Year 2, he has never been the type of goalie who can play great despite a leaky defense.

    The Flyers are also likely to lose a couple key pieces in free agency. Jagr, Voracek, Pavel Kubina and Matt Carle are all free agents, and Philly only has $9 million in cap space.

    Even if the Flyers retain their free agents and their amazing young offensive talent develops, it's hard to see this team returning to the finals unless they find some way to replace Pronger.

3. Vancouver Canucks

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    One way to look at the 2011-12 season is that the Canucks were knocked out by the No. 8 seed. Another way to look at it is that the Canucks were eliminated by the Cup champion for the third straight season.

    While this is no consolation to fans, management should take it into consideration. Had it avoided Los Angeles or even had a healthy Daniel Sedin, Vancouver could have very well won the Stanley Cup, considering the Canucks were the Presidents' Trophy winners and had about as deep, balanced and talented a roster as there was in the NHL.

    In each of the past three seasons, Roberto Luongo has been the team's Achilles' heel in the postseason. Next year may see Cory Schneider finally get a shot at the starting job.

    Imagining a team with Vancouver's forward speed, amazing blue line, the Sedin twins and a strong playoff goaltender is too scary to even think about.


    Why Not

    As smart as moving Luongo would be, the Canucks might not do it. While he certainly could win a cup—he came within one game in 2011—he seems to consistently crumble when the pressure is on.

    Even if Luongo suddenly becomes clutch or Schneider becomes the starter, the Canucks are going up against a bigger challenge than any other team on this list:

    They play in Canada.

    While hockey is Canada's game, the last 18 Stanley Cups have gone to teams from the USA. The Canucks, Oilers, Senators and Flames have all made the finals, but something about the increased pressure of playing in Canada—and maybe even the extra travel during the regular season—has led to the eventual demise of every Canadian team every year since 1993.

2. Boston Bruins

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    Just look at their roster. The Bruins have a bunch of goal-scorers, even more physical, defensively skilled forwards, a great blue line and the best goalie tandem in the league.

    They have youth, age, cup experience, great team chemistry and an awesome fanbase.

    Their plus-67 goal differential was the best in the NHL in 2011-12, and their failure to win a playoff series will only refuel the fire of a team whose last playoff run resulted in a Stanley Cup.

    They also appear to be major players in the Rick Nash sweepstakes, a player who would turn Boston from cup contenders into indisputable cup favorites entering next season.


    Why Not

    While Boston does have some great young talent up front, its defense is getting old. In fact, all of the team's projected starting defensemen outside of Johnny Boychuk will be 31 or older heading into next season. Tim Thomas will be 38 and says he plans to take a personal leave of absence next season.

    Age doesn't usually equal inability to win in the playoffs, but the complete absence of any spry young blueliners could be a problem.

    The lack of a 30-goal scorer is also a tough obstacle to overcome in the postseason. While they did it two years ago, they had to win three Game 7s to do so, and Thomas had to have one of the best postseasons of all time.

1. Los Angeles Kings

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    If next year's playoffs started tomorrow, who would be the favorites?

    It'd be the team that just went 16-4 to win the Stanley Cup.

    Of course, the playoffs don't start for about 10 months and repeating as champions is the only thing tougher than winning the cup in the first place. But L.A. seems to have a better shot than most recent winners.

    The Kings core is very young, as Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick, Anze Kopitar, Mike Richards, Jeff Carter and Dustin Brown are all between 22 and 27 years old. It's scary to think that that group can be even better, but they probably will be.

    With a full season of Carter and breakout playoff stars Dwight King (age 22) and Trevor Lewis (25), along with other youngsters such as Jordan Nolan, Slava Voynov and Alec Martinez all progressing, the Kings will likely finish 2012-13 with a much better record than they did 2011-12.


    Why Not

    As dominant as L.A. was during the postseason, the Kings were a sub-.500 team during the regular season. It's hard to believe, but this Kings team that won the Stanley Cup has a chance of missing the playoffs altogether next year.

    That won't happen, but the Kings will certainly have a rude awakening next season when things aren't going as well as they were for the past couple months.

    It happens to every cup winner, but it could hit the Kings especially hard, both due to their over-the-top playoff success as well as their worse-than-normal regular-season struggles for a cup winner.

    They will likely play something like a combination of the team they were in the playoffs and the team they were during the season, and that would get them a fifth-place finish and a second-round exit, not another Stanley Cup.