Calling Contender or Pretender for the NHL's Top Teams in 2016-17

Lyle Richardson@@SpectorsHockeyFeatured ColumnistMarch 20, 2017

Calling Contender or Pretender for the NHL's Top Teams in 2016-17

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    The NHL's regular season ends on April 15. The top teams in the standings, such as the Washington Capitals, Chicago Blackhawks and the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, will be among the favorites to reach this year's Cup Final.

    Riding high in the regular-season standings, however, doesn't guarantee a path to the Cup. Possessing sufficient depth in skilled talent, playoff experience, special teams performance and leadership are among the factors that can separate a contender from a pretender.

    Here's a look at the top NHL teams to determine those with the best chance of contending for the Stanley Cup and those that will come up short.

Pretender: Anaheim Ducks

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    Sitting second in the Pacific Division with 87 points, the Anaheim Ducks are only four behind the division-leading San Jose Sharks. While the Ducks are a more consistent club compared to last season, they won't be a serious contender for the Stanley Cup. 

    Anaheim is among the league's strongest defensive clubs. The goalie tandem of John Gibson and Jonathan Bernier has the fourth-best goals against per game (2.43). Led by Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm, the defense corps allows the ninth-fewest shots per game (29.7). They also have the fourth-best penalty-kill percentage (85.0).

    Scoring punch, however, is another matter. Despite the presence of offensive stars such as Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and 30-goal scorer Rickard Rakell, the Ducks are 21st in goals per game (2.54). Their power-play percentage (18.4) sits 18th, and they're 23rd in shots for per game (29.6). 

    Despite the Ducks' solid goaltending and defense, their lack of goal production could prove costly against better-balanced opponents. They must improve their offense if they're to challenge for the Cup. At this stage in the season, they're unlikely to get any better than they already are.

Contender: San Jose Sharks

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    Sitting atop the Pacific Division, with 91 points in 71 games, the San Jose Sharks are seventh in the league's overall standings. The 2016 Stanley Cup finalist remains a serious Cup contender. 

    The core of talent that led the Sharks last season—goaltender Martin Jones, defensemen Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic and forwards Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture and Joe Thornton—remains intact. They're defensively sound, giving up the third-fewest goals per game (2.31) and third-fewest shots (27.6). 

    However, the Sharks offense (2.73 goals per game) ranks 16th overall. That's down from fourth-best (2.89) a year ago. Their penalty-kill percentage (80.5) is among the bottom third. The power-play percentage (16.8) is among the league's worst. Veteran forwards Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Joel Ward are starting to show their age. 

    Still, the Sharks shouldn't be taken lightly as a Cup contender. The experience of coming so close last season should provide sufficient motivation for another run this spring.

Pretender: Montreal Canadiens

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    With 90 points in 72 games, the Montreal Canadiens lead the Atlantic Division and are eighth in the league standings. Despite this placement, however, the Canadiens aren't likely to end their 24-year Stanley Cup drought.

    On Feb. 14, the Habs replaced Michel Therrien as head coach with Claude Julien. That move snapped them out of a lengthy losing skid, and the team has won eight of its past 10 games. Thanks to superstar goaltender Carey Price, it has the seventh-best goals against per game (2.47). With 33 goals, team captain Max Pacioretty could reach 40 by season's end. 

    Scoring, however, remains an issue for the Canadiens. They're 17th in goals per game (2.72), and the production drops sharply beyond leading scorers Pacioretty, Alexander Radulov, Shea Weber and Alex Galchenyuk. They generate the 11th-fewest shots per game (29.9), and the penalty-kill percentage (80.6) is uncomfortably close to the league's bottom third. 

    Given that anemic offense, the Canadiens will only go as far as Price can carry them. While NHL playoff history is replete with instances of hot goalies carrying teams to championship glory, Habs fans shouldn't get their hopes up this year. Without timely offense, the Canadiens won't get far. 

Contender: Pittsburgh Penguins

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    The defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins sit third in the Metropolitan Division, with 99 points, and they're tied for third with the Chicago Blackhawks in the league standings. They could become the first team since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings to repeat as champions. 

    Scoring has been a strength for the Penguins this season. Led by star men Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel, they're the league leaders in goals per game (3.46) and shots per game (34.1). They also have the sixth-best power-play percentage (22.1).

    The Penguins' defensive numbers, however, are cause for concern. They've given up the fourth-most shots against per game (32.3). Blueliners Kris Letang, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey are sidelined by injuries. The goaltending tandem of Matt Murray and Marc-Andre Fleury is middling in goals against per game (2.75). 

    Factor in the daunting challenge of repeating as champions, and the Penguins could face a tough playoff road this spring. However, their experienced postseason depth should help them. Getting their blue line healthy in time for the playoffs will provide a welcome boost. The leadership of Conn Smythe Trophy winners Crosby and Malkin could also give them an edge.

Pretender: Columbus Blue Jackets

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    The Columbus Blue Jackets are tied with the Washington Capitals (100 points) atop the Metropolitan Division and the overall league standings. Despite having the best season in franchise history, they're unlikely to win their first championship this year.

    That's not to suggest the Jackets' overall performance hasn't been impressive. They came within one game of tying the league record for the longest win streak (17). They're second in goals against (2.30), fourth in goals per game (3.18), seventh in power-play percentage (21.5) and 10th on the penalty kill (82.8). 

    However, a lack of playoff experience throughout the Jackets roster is a concern. Only a handful of players, such as Brandon Saad, Brandon Dubinsky, Jack Johnson, Sergei Bobrovsky, Scott Hartnell and Nick Foligno, have more than a half-dozen postseason games under their belts. 

    Just as they surprised critics with their strong regular-season play, the Jackets could stage a deep playoff run this spring. However, their overall inexperience will likely be their undoing against more seasoned opponents. The Jackets have a bright future, but they'll have to wait to fulfill their championship dreams. 

Contender: Washington Capitals

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    With 100 points in 71 games, the Washington Capitals are tied with the Columbus Blue Jackets as the top team in the Eastern Conference and the league standings. Despite struggling through a recent slump, during which they won only four of 10 games, they remain a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. 

    Led by offensive mainstays Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the Capitals are among the league's highest-scoring clubs. They're third in goals per game (3.20) and possess the eighth-best power-play percentage (21.1).

    The Caps are also among the best defensive clubs. Thanks to All-Star Braden Holtby, they're tops in goals against per game (2.17). They also give up the fourth-fewest shots per game (27.7) and have the seventh-best penalty-killing percentage (83.7). 

    Despite spending nearly a decade as one of the league's top teams, winning the Presidents' Trophy in 2010 and 2016, the Capitals have consistently failed to advance beyond the second round in postseason play. Having fallen short so often, they will be motivated to put that issue behind them once and for all this season.  

Pretender: Minnesota Wild

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    With 92 points in 71 games, the Minnesota Wild sit second in the Central Division and the Western Conference standings. Despite their lofty placement, the Wild must overcome some significant hurdles to win the Stanley Cup.

    For most of this season, the Wild were riding high. Until recently, they were the top club in the West. They're second in the league in goals per game (3.23), seventh in penalty-killing percentage (83.8), eighth in goals against per game (2.47) and ninth in power-play percentage (21.1).

    But since the start of March, the wheels have come off for the Wild. They've won only two of their last 10 games. They've scored more than two goals in a game only three times during that stretch. Since Feb. 8, they've dropped three straight games to their biggest rival, the Chicago Blackhawks. 

    If the Wild are to be taken seriously as contenders, they must snap out of this late-season swoon. They could face the Blackhawks in the playoffs, who beat them in three straight series between 2013 and 2015. Finding a way to beat the Hawks in the postseason could pose their biggest challenge. 

Contender: Chicago Blackhawks

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    The Chicago Blackhawks are first in the Central Division with 99 points. They're also perched atop the Western Conference standings. Winners of three Stanley Cups since 2010, the Blackhawks are once again in serious championship contention.

    Led by previous Conn Smythe Trophy winners Jonathan Toews (2010), Patrick Kane (2013) and Duncan Keith (2015), the Blackhawks are loaded with playoff experience, skill and leadership. Thanks to scorers such as Kane, Toews and Artemi Panarin, the Hawks are seventh in goals per game (2.99). Corey Crawford and Scott Darling provide stellar goaltending, sitting fifth-best (2.46) in that category. 

    Special teams, however, are a problem for the Blackhawks. Their power-play percentage (18.7) is middle of the pack, while their penalty killing (78.0 percent) is the league's seventh-worst. They're also giving up a high number of shots against per game (31.3).

    While those issues are troubling, the Blackhawks have the depth and ability to overcome them in the postseason. Their record of playoff success speaks for itself. It wouldn't be surprising to see them hoist the Cup this spring.


    All stats and standings (as of March 19) via