NHL Season 2013: Breaking Down the Stanley Cup Contenders and Pretenders

Franklin SteeleAnalyst IIJanuary 6, 2013

NHL Season 2013: Breaking Down the Stanley Cup Contenders and Pretenders

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    After the Los Angeles Kings made arguably the most improbable run to the Stanley Cup in the history of the NHL, fans across North America must believe one thing: "If an eighth seed can come out of the Western Conference after barely making it into the playoffs, then my favorite team can do that!"

    Right?

    In some cases, absolutely. In others, no. Not so much.

    We are talking about separating the pretenders from the contenders. The cream from the crop.

    One could argue that the Kings made an unlikely charge to the Stanley Cup, but anyone looking at that team knew that the pieces were there once they made the playoffs.

    While they didn't present their case well during the regular season, on paper this was a team with a well-rounded offence that could get goals from all four lines. They also boasted big-bodied forwards that weren't afraid to get to the net.

    They iced several notable blueliners as well, capable of both preventing goals and scoring them.

    And then there was the goaltender, Jonathan Quick. Saying that he made timely saves would be an understatement, but the Kings knew exactly what they had between the pipes every single night.

    These components—and so much more—made LA Cup contenders. So who has a shot at winning the whole thing through a shortened, sprint-like NHL season now that the lockout is tentatively over, and who is living in a dream world?

    Let's find out.

Pretenders: San Jose Sharks

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    In my mind, if the San Jose Sharks were going to take a run at the Stanley Cup, then they would have done it by now.

    They don't lack the weapons and finishers at forward, boasting Joe Thornton, Martin Havlat, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Ryan Clowe and Joe Pavelski in their top six. They also have a solid group of third-and-fourth liners who can do some work, but there is a noticeable drop in talent from the second line to the third line.

    Still, offense isn't usually San Jose's issue. Especially with guys like Dan Boyle and Brent Burns firing away from the blue line.

    They have a good mix of youth and veterans here, and they have a solid one-two punch in net.

    So why can't they get the job done in the postseason?

    It's hard to tell for sure, especially without spending any time in the locker room and around the team, but to me, it's a simple lack of players with a killer instinct.

    Pavelski has become known as a Red Wings-killer, but outside of that I don't think that many people feel like they just know Marleau is going to bury one in a double overtime game like they know some other guys from around the league will.

    This just isn't a roster full of guys who are made for big moments, and come playoff time, that really matters.

    Management has shown tremendous patience with this core, but it has yet to pay off. Until they make some kind of move up front that signals a change in attitude and identity, I don't see the Sharks winning the big games, four series in a row.

Contenders: Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Depth kills in the playoffs.

    This isn't about another writer getting all hung up on Sidney Crosby. This is about giving credit where credit is due, and the Pittsburgh Penguins are one of the most well constructed teams in the NHL. Sure, they fall flat during their postseason run last year, but that happens.

    The Pens are still a hungry, deep, talented team full of players that stand in stark contract to the likes of the San Jose Sharks. Be real here: If you had to pick between Crosby having the puck on his stick during the last four seconds of play with the game on the line and Joe Thornton with 10, you'd go with Crosby every time.

    Unless you are a total homer who hasn't watched a hockey game in something like five years. But I digress.

    This squad may or may not have the defensive depth to go all the way this season, but they have a stable of young blueliners just itching to make an impact at the pro-level. If any of Derrick Pouliot, Joe Morrow or Simon Despres can step in and make a difference right out of the gates, then Pittsburgh could be poised for a magical run.

    The trade of Jordan Staal hurts forward depth on paper, but the Pens had plenty of that to go around in the first place, and Brandon Sutter will be much more comfortable (and perhaps more effective) in his new third-line role.

Pretenders: Buffalo Sabres

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    Nine out of 10 times, you can't buy a Stanley Cup.

    You can try, and you'll probably even make the playoffs, but at the end of the day, the dollar and cents don't matter. After all, players don't get paid during the ultimate team tournament.

    I honestly pull for the Buffalo Sabres—they've been one of my favorite teams since I started seriously following the game—but there are two ways to attempt to build a champion, and they selected the wrong route.

    Terry Pegula did his best to light a fire under his newly acquired team. He set Buffalo buzzing about by throwing around dollars during his first shot at free agency. Sadly, he ponied up for the wrong horses.

    All he really did was saddle his team with questionable-at-best contracts (Villie Leino, Christian Ehrhoff, I'm looking at you), and dealt one of the best (only) up-and-coming true power forwards in the NHL to the Vancouver Canucks for a guy with an alleged attitude problem in Cody Hodgson.

    I look over their roster and see a team that is overspending on several guys just a bit, and before the lockout that could cost you enough. Now with the cap being where it is, Buffalo is stuck with a team that is among the highest paid in the NHL without a true game-breaking talent up front.

    Ryan Miller will absolutely always keep them in games, and Thomas Vanek can put up goals with the best of 'em, but there just isn't enough to go around on this team to make them true contenders and they haven't left themselves many viable ways out of the mess.

    They drafted two rock solid centers in the last draft with Mikhail Grigorenko and Zemgus Girgensons, but neither of these future NHL regulars will be seasoned enough to help this team to a Cup this season.

Contenders: Edmonton Oilers

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    Now this is how you build a championship team.

    Endure a few (very) frustrating years, stockpile youth, energy and talent, and then capitalize within the large window you've secured for yourself.

    The Edmonton Oilers have won three first overall selections over the last three years, breaking the hearts of Columbus Blue Jackets fans and causing the Oiler faithful to dream of another dynasty-dream team.

    There really is no other way to write it: This team is totally stacked at forward. Adding Nail Yakupov to a group that already included Jordan Eberle, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Taylor Hall is something you couldn't pull off in NHL '13 or any kind of fantasy hockey draft, yet that is the reality in Edmonton.

    Tons and tons of firepower, and more importantly, from kids who have shown a killer instinct in the past.

    Justin Schultz has been the only one capable of keeping pace with Eberle for the AHL scoring lead, which is mildly crazy because he's a defensemen. So that signing worked out, it would appear.

    The only question for the Oilers is in net, but there are a few things to consider there.

    Devin Dubnyk will need to be better than he was last season, splitting his games evenly at 20-20, but the team in front of him is a year older and has added two young game breakers in Yakupov and Schultz. So Dubnyk doesn't need to be brilliant. He just needs to do his best Chris Osgood impression, making the stops when he needs to, and not being a determent to momentum.

    If Dubnyk has some kind of meltdown, there is always Nikolai Khabibulin to fall back on. During most seasons, this wouldn't be a positive thing, but the 'Bulin Wall is in a contract year. That means all the world to him, as he miraculously plays his best hockey when a new dead (money) is on the line.

    That being said, I don't think that this is the year for the Oilers, but I think they'll do some serious damage. Remember, most young teams like this need to lose the big one before winning it. I wouldn't be surprised if that was the case for this youthful, talent-laden squad this season.

Pretenders: Chicago Blackhawks

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    I hate to say that one man is the reason for one team being a pretender instead of a contender, but until Corey Crawford can show that he is a legitimate NHL starter, then the Chicago Blackhawks and their fate rests between the pipes.

    We know that Crawford has the ability to be a big-time stopper in the league, but too many netminders in recent memory have posted one-and-done good seasons for this to not be a concern. With the man in net in top form, Chicago automatically switches to the contender column, but not a moment until.

    The 'Hawks have the talent, leadership and the "been there, done that" attitude than can carry you a long way. Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews lead the way for the team's young core. They both have rings and have played in enough big games by now—these guys are prime during prime time.

    Add in Marian Hossa, the most underrated forward in hockey in Patrick Sharp up front along with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook anchoring the blue line, and the pieces are still there for the Blackhawks to make some noise in the Western Conference.

    Jimmy Hayes may be struggling right now, but injecting him and Brandon Saad into the lineup could make their forward core even more dangerous than it already is.

    So it really all does come back to Crawford.

    If he can't get the job done, it falls to Ray Emery, who can come up with timely wins but probably isn't the guy you would want leading the charge into a tough playoff series. It'd be up to management before that point to move an asset and attain a netminder than can lock down the only real liability this team has.

Contenders: Boston Bruins

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    The only thing that would prevent the Boston Bruins from being contenders is karma.

    What Jeremy Jacobs does from his mansion and what this team is capable of on the ice are two different things, though no less devastating.

    The way that the big, bad B's would win another Stanley Cup is basically the same way they won it in 2011. By bearing down, by being tough, by wearing teams down and with remarkably sound goaltending. Heading into this shortened season, all the pieces to that puzzle appear to be in place.

    That is, until they decide who to move (and for what) to remain cap compliment. It's somewhat possible that we see a Chicago Blackhawks-esque breaking down of a championship-caliber team. That said, the Bruins have several young pieces in place that the 'Hawks did not.

    Tyler Seguin could challenge for a scoring title this season—he is just that good. And Dougie Hamilton should be making his anxiously awaited debut on the blue line for the Bruins. The good news for the rest of the NHL is that Zdeno Chara may actually look like a normal-sized person when lined up with Hamilton.

    But that will only be because Hamilton is every bit as big as his Slovakian counterpart. Yikes.

    Even considering the changes that may be on the way in Boston, this team is too big, too talented, and plays playoff style hockey too well to not be in the conversation as contenders.

Pretenders: Vancouver Canucks

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    The road to the Stanley Cup may typically run through Vancouver, but that isn't necessarily a good thing for the Canucks. Mostly because they have shown, time and time again, that they don't have the dreaded intangibles needed to win a seven-game series for the ultimate prize.

    Name one guy on this team that you'd be afraid of. That would keep you up a little bit at night, trying to figure out how to handle him. I'll save you the time and the thought, because there isn't one.

    This is a team that has been built to succeed in the regular season, and that's fine and dandy. I don't think it's outside the realm of possibility that the Canucks win the Western Conference again. They could certainly put up another 50-win season, because they are a talented hockey team.

    But killers they are not.

    The Sedin twins are guaranteed to put up good numbers, and they'll always be a drag to play against in one-off situations. They can out-cycle even the best of defenders because they are psychically connected, and that's a fact.

    Give a squad three or four games to wear the squirmy forwards down though, and things change. There is a simple plan to beating this team, and to this point management has yet to make any real personnel adjustments to address it.

    The belief has been that Roberto Luongo, and just Luongo, couldn't win big games. That's true, and moving to Cory Schneider could help that one problem, but it wasn't just the netminder that couldn't win in the playoffs. This is a whole team that hasn't shown the ability to win in the playoffs.

    Until they win a tough series or two and show their talented guys can hold up under pressure, Vancouver will continue to be a pretender.

Contenders: St. Louis Blues

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    I've thought that the St. Louis Blues could do some damage in the playoffs over the last two seasons, and I haven't been on the money. This year could change all that, however.

    The Blues already have several pieces of a championship-caliber team in place. They are a typical defense-first, Ken Hitchcockian team that prevents goals better than it scores them. The blueliners in St. Louis may not be All-Stars, but as a group they are rock solid.

    And once you get through the fleet of defensive-minded forwards and pass through the offensive zone, you still need to beat one of two top-notch netminders to score a goal. Doing this across a six or seven can wear teams down.

    They were tied as the fourth best team in hockey last season, and they'll be a rare squad among the top teams in the league in that they will actually be better this time around. Perhaps drastically better, depending on the impact of two incoming youngsters.

    The Blues were in the middle of the pack for goals scored per game last season. Adding one offensive dynamo can sometimes be enough to jack up some numbers. Add two offensive dynamos, and the sky is the limit for this young Blues squad.

    Vladimir Tarasenko has been widely considered one of the best players outside of the NHL for a few seasons now and will immediately be a shot in the arm for the Blues. He makes their offense better overnight and could prove a deadly addition to their power play as well.

    If the addition of Tarasenko wasn't enough to boost the goals per game in St. Louis, then it's hard to believe Jaden Schwartz won't put them over the top.

    It's hard to predict how unseasoned players will respond to the NHL and the intensity of the playoffs, but these two won't be as heavily counted on as they would be if they were landing on a non-playoff, rebuilding team. That isn't the case here, as the Blues are already very good.

    This season, and for the next few, St. Louis could be downright scary.

Pretenders: Washington Capitals

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    The Washington Capitals have been on-and-off as Stanley Cup favorites for the better part of a half-decade now, and they have yet to deliver. Or to even make it into the final round of the playoffs. Alexander Semin has been in the NHL for seven years now, and has yet to play a game in the Finals.

    Not a good sign for the Caps as they continue to tinker without blowing anything up.

    So far, not blowing anything up hasn't changed the results out on the ice. Management has been remarkably patient with this core group of guys, allowing players such as Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom room to grow as players.

    It's the same old story in Washington after every early playoff exit though. It's the same quotes from the same people, saying that no major changes will befall the Capitals during the offseason. Well, if you continue to do what you've always done, you'll continue to get what you've always got.

    For Washington, that's not a good thing. Changing the netminder (again) and letting go of Alex Semin doesn't magically make this team a group of guys that is willing to do what it takes to win the Stanley Cup. I'm not the first one to claim that the Cap are the San Jose Sharks of the Eastern Conference.

    If they continue to stubbornly hang onto the same players, then there just won't be any dramatic turn around out on the ice. Change goalies, let bad attitudes walk, change coaching philosophies. Whatever. These are small screws that prove management may not have the gull to pull the trigger when it comes to the big, needed moves.

    Kind of like the team out on the ice.

Contenders: New York Rangers

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    If there is a big bad wolf heading into the season, it's the New York Rangers. If there is a bandwagon that pundits just haven't been able to help but hop in, it's that of the New York Rangers. Yes, if there is a favorite for the Stanley Cup heading into the season, it's the New York Rangers.

    They were painfully close to making the Finals last season, and then they went out and added Rick Nash for peanuts. It's not very often you can add a top-flight winger to your arsenal and not give up a top-six forward, a top-pairing blueliner or an ace of a prospect, but that's exactly the kind of fleecing that the Rangers laid on the hapless Columbus Blue Jackets for their historic leader in just about everything.

    Even if Brad Richards manages to not click with Nash (either), he still makes this a ridiculous top six when healthy. Marian Gaborik is supposedly ready to go after off-season shoulder surgery, so Rangers fans can look forward to a lethal dose of Nash-Richards-Gaborik on the first power play unit...because that'll be fair.

    If that was all that New York had going for it, then it would arguably still be a contender. Forwards of that quality don't end up playing together often unless it's the All Star game. But the Rangers boast strength, speed and skill through their bottom six as well, and their third and fourth lines boast players who can score timely goals as well as make the defensive plays required by John Tortorella's season.

    New York also has one of the deeper pools of defenders in the NHL, as all are capable of moving the puck as well as blocking shots.

    The biggest positive that this team has going for it is the correct attitude and identity. The Rangers are all about sacrifice and timeliness. This is what the playoffs are all about. Tack on the best netminder in hockey in Henrik Lundqvist, and this is the team to beat until proven otherwise.

Pretenders: Nashville Predators

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    The good news for the Nashville Predators is that they didn't lose both of their All-Star defenders this summer, and that Pekka Rinne decided to ink a deal to keep him in town for the foreseeable future. I'll be first to admit that two out of three 'aint bad.

    But keeping Shea Weber and Rinne on board didn't come without cost.

    Hanging onto both of these players will cost the franchise nearly $15 million a year between the two, not leaving the Predators (who have never been a cap team, and probably never will be) much room to fill the void left by Ryan Suter or bring in some help on offense.

    Replacing Suter will have to come from within, and the Preds are fortunate in that they have several young blueliners who could be ready to step into a more prominent role on the team. Ryan Ellis, Roman Josi and Jonathon Blum are all prime candidates to step up, and given their collective pedigrees, one of them most certainly will.

    Outside of the departure of Ellis, this is largely the same team that won the first playoff round in franchise last season, so I'm not going to discount their ability to win a round or two come summer time. I just don't think the pieces are in place to see this team through a series with some of the bigger dogs in the Western Conference.

Contenders: Minnesota Wild

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    Sick of these photos of Zach Parise and Ryan Suter yet? Well, if all things go according to plan for the Minnesota Wild, we'll just have to get used to them.

    I know a few slides back I knocked the Buffalo Sabres for trying to buy a Stanley Cup, and to some degree I could say the same thing about the Wild after their poor, poor, oh-so-broke owner Craig Leipold spent nearly $200 million on two hockey players, but at least he broke the bank on All Star talent.

    Parise and Suter make the Wild a better hockey team on the ice, no question. Ignoring the logistics of how they ended up in Minnesota, it's impossible to not look at this team and see one that couldn't level a few teams on the way to the Finals.

    The team is not quite as stacked at forward as the Rangers out East, but they still boast Parise, Dany Heatley, Mikko Koivu and Devin Setoguchi. If Heater can reestablish himself as a top-end goal scorer and Koivu can stay healthy. then this will be a very potent group.

    And that is before we consider the impact that the incoming rock star Mikael Granlund could have right out of the gates. He is already a seasoned professional, dominating play for several years in his native Finland before finally making the jump.

    Suter is the only household name on the blue line, but the Wild still posses rock-solid goaltending.

    If all the pieces come together in Minnesota, then this is a team that could steamroll a few rounds and find themselves trying to bring the Cup back to the "State of Hockey." If they don't, it could just be hockey karma biting Leipold in the rear, but I wouldn't wish that on anyone...

Pretenders: Philadelphia Flyers

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    If the Philadelphia Flyers can manage to score four or five goals every single game, then this is a team that could make a run to the Stanley Cup. Then again, the same could be said about every single other team in the NHL. Scary thing is there is enough talent at forward in Philly to make this a possibility more often then not.

    I can see the Flyers making some ruckus during the regular season, but it tends to be a bit harder to run up the score in the playoffs (see Vancouver, Washington), and offensive-centric teams don't tend to do so well.

    The long and the short of it is that Philadelphia doesn't have the defense or the netminding to progress very far in the postseason.

    I'm not sure what the Flyers thought they were getting when they sold the farm to make room for Ilya Bryzgalov, or what tapes or games they had seen, but the guy that showed up to play for them was the exact same guy that was in net for the Phoenix Coyotes.

    His GAA from his first season as a Flyer is identical to his last season as a Coyote. He managed one less shutout and saw a small dip in save percentage that could easily be chalked up to a lack of defensive prowess for Philly.

    The Flyers could very well flip one or two of their forwards for more help on the blue line (like the JVR deal with Toronto), but as they stand right now they just don't have enough oomph or stop or anything in their own zone to worry anyone through a seven-game series.

Contenders: Detroit Red Wings

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    You are going to count out the franchise that managed to make the seamless transition out of the Steve Yzerman era? Don't be silly now. The fall of the Detroit Red Wings is predicted at the beginning of every summer, and every fall the boys in red and white prove people wrong. I'm not jumping on that bandwagon now.

    Contractors, for whatever reason, have treated the retirement of Nicklas Lidstrom like it was a surprise to the Detroit Red Wings, despite it obviously being anything but. The legendary blueliner was getting up there in age and has clearly lost a step on the ice.

    So much so that the Red Wings have used Niklas Kronwall in more important situations than they have used No. 5 over the last two years. You don't replace a perfect hockey player, but you can seal the breach and minimize damage, and that's what this Red Wings team will do.

    Kronwall will take over as the leader of the blue line and will continue to slowly better his play. Initially he was just a mac-truck type headhunter, but he has since learned to pick his spot and improve his play while pinching.

    The long-awaited addition of Brendan Smith will also help bolster a core of defenders that also lost Brad Stuart to free agency. The Wings are still a piece or two away from solidifying things in their own zone, but let's not forget the fleet of two-way forwards that Detroit employs as well.

    There isn't a better two-way player in hockey than Pavel Datsyuk, and Henrik Zetterberg is no slouch in all three zones either. The addition of Jordin Tootoo gives the Red Wings a possible Grind Line reincarnate, and signing Jonas Gustavsson gives them another option in net should Jim Howard's wife decide to have any more children next year.

    The team in its current state won't be making any long term charge to the Finals, but not having faith in Ken Holland at this point just doesn't make sense. They'll put it together on the fly, like always, and do some damage.

Defending Champions, Thus Contenders: LA Kings

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    I try my best to not count of defending champions, and I'm not going to start with the LA Kings. Especially considering how they won the Stanley Cup—that is to say, they dominated.

    No major pieces of the championship team departed during the offseason, and while they didn't add any big pieces either, they clearly didn't need to. There will be no Cup hangover for this squad thanks to the lockout, and until someone finds kryptonite for Jon Quick in a seven-game series, this is a team that could very well hit the repeat button and go two for two.