Breaking Down the Stanley Cup Playoff Picture After 2014 NHL Trade Deadline

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Breaking Down the Stanley Cup Playoff Picture After 2014 NHL Trade Deadline
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The thing we can safely predict about the results of this NHL trade deadline: only one team is going to win the Stanley Cup. 

Right now, many teams' fans, and maybe their own general managers, are telling themselves: "We got this!" after their acts of thievery at the deadline. But we know this: While Thomas Vanek might win the Stanley Cup for Montreal, or Ryan Miller might win it for St. Louis, or Martin St. Louis might do it for the Rangers and maybe Ryan Callahan will for the Lightning and Marian Gaborik might with L.A. —four of those fantasy scenarios, and maybe all five, will be wrong.

Who really got better at the deadline and saw their chances at a Cup tangibly go up? Predictions in the hockey business should be accompanied by a laugh track, but here goes my assessment of the top contenders and how the deadline did/will affect those Cup chances.

But first, a couple of opinions on the day from a former NHL GM, Doug MacLean, and a former player, Theo Fleury, who himself was once a big deadline-day acquisition by the Avalanche in 1998. Both work for Rogers Sportsnet now, the league's new Canadian broadcast partner starting next season.

Count Fleury among those not convinced the deadline deals will have much effect on the race for the Cup.

"I don't think Thomas Vanek going to Montreal is going to make a big difference for that hockey club. Or, Gaborik going to L.A. I don't think that those guys are going to have the impact that everybody thinks they're going to have," Fleury said on Rogers Sportnet.

MacLean, no stranger to trades in his days with Columbus and Florida, told Rogers he was struck by how much of a buyer's market it is in today's NHL:

Here's what I took away from the day: it was going to be a first-round pick for rentals, and GMs have decided they're not going to pay first-round picks for rentals any longer. So those guys that had those guys dangling out there had to drop their price to a second-round pick or a prospect. So you drop the pick, you camouflage to your owner that you picked up a couple of prospects and nobody will remember them. It's tough on the guys who had the rentals today, because GMs simply won't pay a first-round pick for them anymore. The GM today is the equivalent to an assistant GM five or six years ago.

He's right. More of the big deals happen more often in the summer now. But, hey, there were still plenty of deals the last two days, and, sorry Theo, I think they'll have more impact than you might think. Here's how I saw it:

Western Conference

Anaheim Ducks (Better, but...): Most everyone (hand raised) thought the Ducks would make one of the big power plays of the actual deadline day. Turns out, all that alleged rearranging of the furniture for a big name was off the mark. Not that GM Bob Murray didn't try. The Orange County Register reported that the Ducks made a serious play for Vancouver center Ryan Kesler, but he found out—as did every other GM who made a pitch to Cancucks GM Mike Gillis—that the price was too steep.

So, the current points leader in the league will have to be satisfied with veteran defenseman Stephane Robidas (who still is rehabbing from a broken leg but should be back soon) and some draft picks in exchange for goalie Viktor Fasth and big forward Dustin Penner

I think this is a better team assuming Robidas comes back anywhere near his usual self. But after all that buildup about adding another top forward, and reports that the Ducks tried to get one but struck out, there is something of a letdown feeling I have about these guys' chances. Sure, Penner is a trick-or-treat player, but he's won two Stanley Cups and his size created some room for others out there. I still wonder about Anaheim's overall depth up front, especially in losing Penner and not adding anyone special.

St. Louis Blues (A lot better, but...): Look, there's just not much not to like about this team. A really good team before the deadline turned their goaltender from Jaroslav Halak into Ryan Miller (win) and added super-pest extraordinaire Steve Ott (win). Sure, Chris Stewart is gone from the previous group, but his up-and-down game had worn out in some of the same ways it did in Colorado.

So, this is a better team. Is it the Cup favorite now? Not yet, not with me anyway. The Blues still don't have a dynamic No. 1 center. They're not weak at center by any means, but for them to win they'll need to really get that scoring-by-committee in the playoffs, and that's something that has eluded them in recent years. 

There is so much pressure on the Blues to win this year now, with the Miller-Ott deal. But while Miller is an upgrade over Halak, and goaltending certainly is important in the playoffs, some hockey people still aren't sold on the Blues' 12 forwards as being championship material. We'll find out.

Chicago Blackhawks (Standing pat might have been best option): Until proven otherwise, these guys are still the best team in the league and my pick to win another Cup. Marian Hossa's injury the other day in their game at Soldier Field might have forced GM Stan Bowman to get someone today, but he is expected back in plenty of time for the playoffs.

No, the Hawks probably won't even win the Central Division, and might not even beat out Colorado for second place. But this is still the best team. As long as Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and the rest of a strong supporting cast are healthy, they're just too deep for the opposition to beat over a sustained amount of time.

Los Angeles Kings (Better, and only a fool would count them out): Marian Gaborik has never won a Cup, never even been to a Cup Final, and he's been in the league a long time now

Paul Vernon/Associated Press

But if you ask me, Gabby has never been on a team as good as the Los Angeles Kings are now. Don't be fooled by the Kings' place in the overall Western standings. Yes, they're too far back of Anaheim and San Jose to catch them. But they've won five in a row and are looking a lot like the team in 2012 that supposedly wasn't all that scary, only to catch fire and win a Cup. Now, they've just added a highly-skilled winger to probably play on a line with Anze Kopitar

I think this works out very well for L.A. Enough to win a Cup? There are still some offensive depth issues probably and this team has played a lot of hockey in the last two years. Their top guys might be tired mentally. But Gaborik will help that offense, and this team already is stacked on D and in net. Wait, can I make them the favorites now?

Colorado Avalanche (It's all about the future still): Patrick Roy's Amazin' Avs only added a backup to the backup goalie Wednesday, getting Reto Berra (no relation to Lawrence "Yogi") from Calgary for a second-round pick. Management has some concerns about J.S. Giguere's iffy back, so he was brought in as further insurance.

While this team still needs some help at defense and most of their young offensive players are still green to a serious playoff run, most Avs fans were breathing easier after 3 p.m. Eastern Time Wednesday. That's because center Paul Stastny, a pending UFA, wasn't traded. The Avs have agreed to hold serious talks with him after the season toward a new deal, and there is optimism that will happen. If the Avs hadn't felt that way, odds were strong he would have been traded, which likely would have dealt a big blow to any chances of a Cup this year.

Do the Avs have a realistic chance at a Cup even with Stastny? Most say no. Just not enough quality on D, still not enough proven material everywhere else. But the team's motto—"Why not us?"—has worked out pretty well so far. You never know. Or better put, why not them?

LM Otero/Associated Press
Moulson

Minnesota Wild (Not bad, but...): Matt Moulson was a nice pickup (although he may prove very expensive if he leaves as a UFA this summer), and combined with the return from injury of Mikko Koivu, the Wild are suddenly a lot better offensively. 

Only one problem: Darcy Kuemper is their starting goalie and Ilya Bryzgalov the backup. Not good enough for a Cup.

San Jose Sharks (Strangely silent): As David Pollak of The Mercury News points out, never before in the long tenure of Doug Wilson as GM had the Sharks not made a deadline deal, until this year. So, it was strange indeed not to see Team Teal introduce some new shiny pickup this week.

But the Sharks were pretty much capped out to begin with, and the recent returns from injury of Logan Couture and Raffi Torres lessened Wilson's needs up front, despite the continued absence of exciting rookie Tomas Hertl.

This team is still very good and maybe this time staying pat will be the right call for a team that's had so many playoff disappointments despite plenty of deadline deals. But you have to believe the Sharks are still not quite good enough to go all the way, with plenty of age up front.

Eastern Conference

Pittsburgh Penguins (The big losers, but maybe it won't matter): Penguins fans were practically in line already to buy new jerseys with "Kesler" on the back. Despite lots of "Ray Shero always gets his man" stories, Shero didn't get his man. He didn't land any of the other big names available either, so deadline day was a giant letdown in Pittsburgh.

Now, Brandon Sutter has to go forward knowing Shero wanted to deal him for Kesler (well, maybe that's a compliment, but still, it hurts to see your name in trade rumors when you're a young player). Paul Martin and Kris Letang are both out, but Shero didn't get anyone to help the defense. He did get two veteran forwards in Marcel Goc and Lee Stempniak, but that's a far cry from a Kesler or a Vanek or a Gaborik. 

Then again, sometimes little role players like them surprise you in the playoffs. Shero better hope so, otherwise he's going to have a long summer of people ripping him for not closing the big deals at the deadline.

Still, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin do play for this team at last check. And they play in the weak Eastern Conference. There is still plenty of hope of a Cup run.

Boston Bruins (Andrej Meszaros?): The Bs had a good team already, but GM Peter Chiarelli didn't do his group any favors with his only deadline-day pickup. Meszaros is an overpaid, over-the-hill stiff that couldn't even play much on a bad defensive team in Philly. 

According to CSN New England, the Bruins were rumored to be in on bigger defensive names such as Andrew MacDonald, Chris Phillips and Stephane Robidas, but came away with the runt of the litter in Meszaros. There's no question the Bruins took a step back in some ways on deadline day.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
Vanek

Montreal Canadiens (In Vanek they trust?): Surprise of the day went to secretive Montreal GM Marc Bergevin, who pried Thomas Vanek out of Long Island for a relative pittance. Vanek had his reputation tarnished with ill-advised partying at the Olympics, but the guy is almost an automatic point-a-game player. The Habs needed a big stick and they got it. 

Assuming Carey Price comes back healthy soon, this is a team to get excited about again. Are they Cup material? Probably not, but the chances went up Wednesday.

Tampa Bay Lightning (Great trade by Yzerman, but...): Count me among those who think GM Steve Yzerman made a great trade in getting so much for unhappy 38-year-old winger Marty St. Louis. You get the Rangers' captain, Ryan Callahan, plus first- and second-round picks? Wow. Amazing trade by Steve Y. (Conversely, what a stupid trade by the Rangers, but with Glen Sather in charge, that's going to happen).

Now, Steven Stamkos is coming back too. Do I think the Lightning can win a Cup this year? No, because the defense still isn't good enough. But Yzerman really helped his team on deadline day. 

 

In Summary

Chicago is still the pick here, but let's just say I won't be calling my bookie anytime soon in laying a huge bet on that. This league so close in parity, and some teams got a little closer to Chicago this week with their moves. I'll go with Chicago-Montreal as my Stanley Cup Final prediction.

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