Ranking the Top Stanley Cup Contenders at the Olympic Break

Allan Mitchell@@Lowetide_Featured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2014

Ranking the Top Stanley Cup Contenders at the Olympic Break

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The NHL's Olympic break gives us an opportunity to look closely at the Stanley Cup contenders. More than any other season in memory, there's a new look to the group. Out with the old (Detroit, Vancouver) and in with the new. 

    It's a long year and much of the regular-season story is yet to be written, but there are clear trends this year. 

    Here are the 10 strongest contenders for the 2014 Stanley Cup. 

10. Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Record: Columbus is 58GP, 29-24-5 at the break. The Blue Jackets are one point out of a playoff spot.

    What they must prove: The Blue Jackets are new to contention, so they need to prove they can handle the pressure. That includes their brilliant new star Ryan Johansen who is on pace for a 30-goal season. They need to tighten up defensively and allow fewer shots on goal.

    What gives them an edge: This team being mentioned as a possible Stanley Cup contender is news, but there's a growing story to support it. The signing of Nathan Horton in the off-season didn't have immediate results, but things clicked when he started playing.

9. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    Record: Pittsburgh is 58GP, 40-15-3 this season. The Penguins are dominating the Metropolitan Division and are 16 points ahead of the second-place New York Rangers.

    What they must prove: The Penguins have to prove they have enough depth to sustain a deep playoff run. The gap between their best players and their fourth-line regulars is so large the opposition can take advantage.

    What gives them an edge: The best players on this team are the best in the world. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are a historically awesome one-two punch for the Penguins.

8. Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Record: Tampa Bay is 58GP, 33-20-5 this season. The Lightning are in second place in the Atlantic Division, eight points ahead of ninth-place Columbus in the Eastern Conference.

    What they must prove: The Lightning have to prove they can get back to 2011 levels under coach Jon Cooper. The longer they go without having a deep playoff run, the more that year looks like a fluke.

    What gives them an edge: Other teams will have to trade at the deadline for a boost. The return of Steven Stamkos should give Tampa Bay a major lift. His impact on even-strength scoring is incredible and will benefit the moment he returns.

7. Dallas Stars

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    Matt Strasen/Associated Press

    Record: Dallas is 58GP, 27-21-10, and is tied with Phoenix for the final playoff spot in the Western Conference.

    What they must prove: The Stars must prove they can deliver better on special teams. The power play ranks 23rd in efficiency, and the penalty kill is only marginally better.

    What gives them an edge: It's an effective five-by-five team, easily one of the 10 best in the NHL. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn have 18 even-strength goals each, ranking them inside the league's top 10 in that category.

6. St. Louis Blues

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Record: St. Louis is 57GP, 39-12-6 at the Olympic break, good for a first-place tie in the Central Division.

    What they must prove: There isn't much left to prove beyond postseason success. The Blues haven't made it to the third round in over a decade. 

    What gives them an edge: St. Louis leads the league in goal differential. The Blues have better depth, and this is the first full season for coach Ken Hitchcock. They may tweak at the deadline and perhaps acquire an upgrade in goal. Even if they stand pat, the Blues are good enough to go deep into the postseason.

5. Boston Bruins

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    Record: Boston is 57GP, 37-16-4 at the Olympic break. The Bruins lead the Atlantic Division by seven points.

    What they must prove: The Bruins don't have to prove anything. The management group does an excellent job of putting the team in contention each season. There's very little tinkering required with the roster, possibly an additional defenseman.

    What gives them an edge: The key for this team is smart drafting and the relative weakness of the conference they play in. Boston's edge—should it make the final again—will come from the injuries sustained by the Western Conference representative during their long playoff run.

4. Anaheim Ducks

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    Alex Gallardo/Associated Press

    Record: Anaheim is 60GP, 41-14-5 this season. The Ducks are in first place in the Pacific Division and have the most points in the NHL at the break.

    What they must prove: Ryan Getzlaf is the most productive five-by-five player in the NHL this season. He'll need to sustain that, while the Ducks as a team maintain their league-leading shooting percentage.

    What gives them an edge: The Ducks are a good team that is enjoying a great deal of luck. Their possession numbers are mid-pack, but they have the league's best record. This is unlikely to end well.

3. Los Angeles Kings

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    Reed Saxon/Associated Press

    Record: Los Angeles is 59GP, 31-22-6 this year. The Kings are in third place in the Pacific Division, four points ahead of ninth-place Phoenix.

    What they must prove: The Kings have to find a way to score goals. They are an outstanding hockey team, but their ability to score will be the major issue in the playoffs.

    What gives them an edge: They are an outstanding possession team. Fifty-seven percent of the game is spent in the opposition's end. That's an outstanding number. If Los Angeles can score more goals, it will win the Stanley Cup.

2. Chicago Blackhawks

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    Reed Saxon/Associated Press

    Record: Chicago is 60GP, 35-11-14 and tied for first in the Central Division with St. Louis.

    What they must prove: The Blackhawks are trying to accomplish what no team has done since 1998. That season, Detroit won their second Stanley Cup in a row, and it hasn't happened since.

    What gives them an edge: Chicago is almost as strong at possession as Los Angeles and can score goals. The 'Hawks 207 markers this season is the best in the NHL.

1. San Jose Sharks

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Record: San Jose is 59GP, 37-16-6 at the Olympic break. The Sharks are in second place in the Pacific Division.

    What they must prove: The Sharks have been a very good team for a long time, but playoff success has eluded them. They've never made it to the finals. They also need to improve their power play.

    What gives them an edge: They are a quality possession team and have excellent scoring depth. San Jose has been a strong contender for years, and their window of opportunity may be closing. That may motivate management to be aggressive at the deadline.