As 2013 draws to a close, which teams appear most likely to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup next summer? We'll rank Chicago, Boston and the league's other top teams, and fill in the rest of the list by tracking down this year's most likely dark horses.
While the ranking is largely a matter of my own personal opinion, it is backed up by a variety of leading hockey analytics. For years we've seen that good puck-possession teams have a huge edge in the playoffs, and the exact importance of good defense, disciplined play and effective special teams has become more apparent.
Of course, there's always the question of which goalies will catch fire at the right time, and which team's snipers will start finding twine. These factors are absolutely critical, but impossible to predict, so each team is assigned only its approximate odds of winning it all.
Each contender's strengths and weaknesses are reviewed at a high level, to make it clear what each team will need to do. The list starts on the next slide with the team just above the Colorado Avalanche, who just missed the cut. Sorry!
All data sourced from NHL.com, unless otherwise noted.
Contender Credentials: The Canucks still have almost everyone that made them Stanley Cup finalists in 2011. Most notably, their incomparable top-line offensive duo of Henrik and Daniel Sedin has led them to a fifth-place ranking in shots per game, and 2010-11 Selke Trophy winner Ryan Kesler is leading the No. 1 penalty kill in the NHL.
New coach John Tortorella has also improved their depth lines, turning Chris Tanev into a top-four defenseman, Chris Higgins into a top shutdown forward, and Mike Santorelli into the free-agent bargain of the year.
Potential Problems: The Canucks are by no means a dominant team. Their power play is dragging along at 23rd, and while hits aren't always accurately recorded, their 27th-place ranking does call their physicality into question. With some bad bounces in the powerful Western Conference, the Canucks could even find themselves out of the postseason altogether!
Their Odds: At 35-1, the Canucks are the so-called best of the rest.
Contender Credentials: As covered in my recent Bleacher Report article, Montreal has almost everything it needs to be a legitimate Stanley Cup dark horse. Not only do the Canadiens have history on their side (24 Stanley Cups), they have an ideal blend of youth and experience, a solid power play, the fourth-best penalty kill and currently lead the NHL in blocked shots by a wide margin. Add in red-hot goalie Carey Price and defending Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban, and you have the makings of some playoff upsets.
Potential Problems: Montreal's fundamental issue is its poor possession game. They're 23rd in both shots per game and in possession, according to Extra Skater. The 2008 Pittsburgh Penguins are the only recent Stanley Cup finalist to rank that low in the regular season.
Odds: At 30-1, Montreal is right in the prototypical Cinderella situation.
Contender Credentials: The Bolts have been surprisingly competitive in the absence of Steven Stamkos thanks to several lesser-known strengths, which bodes very well for them upon his return.
Most notably there's defending Art Ross scoring champion Martin St. Louis, high-risk free agent of the year Valtteri Filppula, red-hot goalie Ben Bishop and a truly amazing collection of first- and second-year players.
Potential Problems: Video review capabilities have improved since 2004. But seriously, their power play isn't that strong even when Stamkos is in the lineup, and it might not be realistic to expect Bishop to continue playing at this level.
Odds: 20-1, because it will be easier to make the Final through the weaker Eastern Conference.
Contender Credentials: The 2013-14 Ducks aren't that dissimilar from their 2006-07 Stanley Cup-winning edition. Most notably they have one of the league's top shutdown lines, which allows them to fully unleash their high-scoring top scorers Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry.
They also have a depth of goaltending and inspirational veteran leadership from Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne, and while their top defensive pairing isn't nearly as awesome as Chris Pronger and Scott Niedermayer were, their blue line is much deeper.
Potential Problems: While the Ducks' power play may be struggling, the real problem is that, according to Extra Skater, they are not a good possession team. They will be relying on hot goaltending and clutch shooting, much as they always have. Unfortunately, those qualities tend to be fickle by nature.
Odds: At 15-1, the Ducks could be a real threat if they get hot enough at the right time.
Contender Credentials: The 2012 Stanley Cup champions have remained one of the league's most sound defensive teams and are currently the second-best possession team in the league, according to Extra Skater.
Thanks to Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty leading a depth of two-way forwards and shutdown defensemen, the Kings have a solid penalty kill and are sixth best in shots allowed. As a team, the Kings are among the league leaders in virtually every way to measure possession-based defense, including a league-leading 54.2 faceoff percentage.
Potential Problems: The Kings don't have a particularly strong power play, and their aggressive defensive system has made them the third-most-penalized team in the league. While Martin Jones and Ben Scrivens have been outstanding in relief of an injured and/or mediocre Jonathan Quick, it is natural to wonder if that will persist.
Odds: Despite 15-1 odds, the Kings are one of the last teams you'd want to face in the opening round.
Contender Credentials: The Sharks are the league's most potent offensive team, leading the NHL with 36.3 shots per game, three more than anyone else. Led by skilled players like veterans Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Dan Boyle and Joe Pavelski, and young stars like Logan Couture and rookie Tomas Hertl, the Sharks have the potential to blow holes in even the league's best defensive teams.
They are also the NHL's most disciplined team, with only 110 minors, and according to Extra Skater are the third-best possession team in the league right now.
Potential Problems: There is the possibility that the grind of the playoffs could slow down a skill-based team like San Jose. While hits aren't always accurately recorded, the fact that the Sharks are 28th in the NHL raises some concerns about whether they'll be physical enough to advance all the way to the Final.
The Sharks are also one of only three teams on this list without a Stanley Cup, and the only one never to make the Final.
Odds: At 12-1, the Sharks are far too skilled to be distracted by their playoff reputation.
Contender Credentials: They say defense wins championships. Boston has the elite goaltending (Tuukka Rask), the shutdown play both up front (Patrice Bergeron) and on the blue line (Zdeno Chara), and the overall defensive system to silence the offense of any team on this list.
They also have a solid power play and the league's third-best penalty-killing percentage. All of this is why the Bruins have made the Final twice in the past three seasons, and a big reason why Sports Club Stats ranks them as the league's odds-on favorite to win it all this season.
Potential Problems: It is not easy to find flaws with any of the remaining teams on this list. The only problem for Boston would be if it all came down to either the ability to generate offense in critical situations, or how the secondary lines stacked up after the top players were mutually neutralized. In only those cases might there be two or three select teams that would have a slight edge over the Bruins.
Odds: At 10-1, the Bruins are as solid a bet as they come.
Contender Credentials: Under coach Ken Hitchcock's legendary system, the St. Louis Blues have always been one of the league's toughest teams to score against. Right now they're second in the NHL in shots allowed per game.
What makes them a top contender this year is the new offensive threat they've added to their game. Led by Alexander Steen and a depth of two-way forwards, the Blues have the fifth=best power play in the league and enough bite to be statistically ranked by Hockey Reference as this year's Stanley Cup favorite.
Potential Problems: The Blues are without an obvious weakness, although beating them appears to be much easier whenever their front five is catching its breath. If you believe in intangibles and superstition, then it's also important to note that the St. Louis Blues are right behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the league's longest active Stanley Cup drought.
Odds: At 7-1, the Blues are a team that has finally arrived in the league's top echelon.
Contender Credentials: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would probably be enough to get any NHL team onto this list. With a team as otherwise solid as Pittsburgh, it's even enough to make them the Eastern Conference favorites.
The Penguins made the final four last year and were two-time finalists five years ago, including their third Stanley Cup back in 2009. They are currently fifth in shots allowed per game and are ranked in the top three in both power-play and penalty-killing percentages.
Potential Problems: The Penguins are currently getting mauled by injuries and would no longer remain among the top contenders if that gets any worse and/or affects their two superstars.
The Penguins are not an elite possession team, but have improved. Their goaltending has also been an issue in the past, with Marc-Andre Fleury posting an above-average save percentage only once in seven postseasons.
Odds: At 6-1, their odds are only slightly better than anyone else's if they had Crosby and Malkin instead.
Contender Credentials: The defending Stanley Cup champions have won twice in the past four seasons and are the best possession team in the league, according to Extra Skater. There is absolutely no question that the Blackhawks are still the team to beat.
Chicago is top three in both shots per game and fewest shots allowed per game. They have the second-best power play, thanks in large part to last year's playoff MVP Patrick Kane, one of the league's best offensive players. The Blackhawks also have one of the league's best top four, the league's best coach (Joel Quenneville) and the league's top two-way forward in Jonathan Toews.
Potential Problems: Chicago is ranked 28th in penalty-killing percentage and is getting mediocre goaltending at best from Corey Crawford.
Odds: At 5-1, the Blackhawks are without question still the team to beat.