What team will rise to the challenge for the 2011-12 Stanley Cup?
I know, I know, it’s still July.
NHL free agency just opened last week and the hockey season doesn’t start up again for three months.
But considering the lack of “big names” in this year’s free agency pool, there have actually been a number of interesting moves that have changed the faces of some of the NHL’s elite teams.
Clubs have tinkered with their rosters in efforts to dethrone the Boston Bruins as the NHL's champions, but the question is; who made the best improvements?
So without any further delay, here is a countdown of 10 teams that could find themselves triumphantly hoisting Lord Stanley’s mug next summer.
With the addition of Brad Richards, the Rangers can look forward to a lot of celebrating in 2011-12.
Sure, the Rangers barely scraped their way into the playoffs last season, but in landing this years’ prized free agent Brad Richards they now have a legitimate one-two offensive punch.
Richards is extremely imaginative with the puck and he definitely has the on ice awareness to locate sniper Marian Gaborik when he’s in prime scoring position, not to mention he can put the puck in the net himself. These two promise to be very dangerous, particularly on the power play.
Brandon Dubinsky and Ryan Callahan are two hard-nosed, defensive minded forwards who will be able to make up for the lapses in defending that Richards and Gaborik can be prone to, and they can also provide some secondary scoring and leadership. Both Dubinsky and Callahan are RFA’s at the moment, but expect the Rangers to find room for their top penalty killing forwards.
Cutting loose former captain Chris Drury should ensure that sophomore forward Derek Stepan will get the opportunity to improve on his 21 goal, 45 point rookie campaign that was a pleasant surprise for the blueshirts a year ago.
Leading the youthful Rangers back-end, Marc Staal is blossoming into one of the premier shut-down defenders in the league who can also chip in about 30 points or so and Dan Girardi has also shown flashes of a player who the Rangers defence can heavily rely on.
Henrik Lundqvist has turned in six straight 30-win seasons, the last five of which held 35+ wins. King Henrik is one of the league’s premier goalies, almost impossible to beat down low.
His poise under pressure could come in handy should the Rangers go deep into the playoffs.
"Big Joe" Thornton and the Sharks look to rebound from last year's dissapointing playoff exit.
His scoring touch is bound to fit in nicely as the Sharks are stacked up front. Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski and Ryane Clowe are all returning for the Sharks next season.
Also, the Sharks inked free agent Michael Handzus this off season. “Zeus” is a monster at 6-foot-4, making the already towering San Jose offense even more enormous. He has good hands around the net and will provide a reassuring veteran presence come playoff time.
Burns, also a monster at 6-foot-5, can generate a lot of offense for a defender but has trouble shutting down the opposition in his own end. He will have plenty of help in San Jose as Dan Boyle and Douglas Murray are world class defenders. Despite coming off of a career season, a change of scenery could be exactly what Burns needs to grow into his potential.
Unflappable Antti Niemi returns in goal for the Sharks, after being fooled by a lucky bounce that eluded everybody in the building except for Kevin Bieksa in last year’s playoffs.
Niemi continues to grow as a young goaltender, and last year’s 35 wins and .920 save percentage seem to imply that he is adjusting well in San Jose. If he can stay on top of his game, expect to see the Sharks circling come playoff time next season.
The Flyers said goodbye to Jeff Carter and Mike Richards, but their young talent will look to step into leadership roles.
In what was the most bizarre day of this year’s off season, the Philadelphia Flyers traded away captain Mike Richards and top goal scorer Jeff Carter in two separate deals.
Talk about a changing of the guard.
Yet the Flyers still possess a dangerous offensive arsenal, with Claude Giroux and James van Riemsdyk set to carry the load. Danny Briere will be his 30-goal self, lurking around the net waiting to bury any loose pucks and Scott Hartnell will continue to be a bull in a china shop on the fore check for Philly.
All-time NHL great Jaromir Jagr joins the Flyers in what might be his final kick at the can. The uber-talented Jagr can help school the now young Flyers offense, but how he fits into coach Peter Laviolette’s defensive minded game plan remains to be seen.
Newcomers Wayne Simmonds and Max Talbot will help bring some sandpaper and character to the Flyers locker room. Both fan favourites on their previous teams, they will definitely do a lot to nourish the winning culture that is growing in Philly.
The health of Chris Pronger will be a major factor in determining the success of the Flyers next season. Coming of a three-surgery year, at age 36, his health remains a mystery. But just in case Pronger misses a few games, the Flyers have Kimmo Timonen, Andrej Meszaros, Braydon Coburn and Matt Carle to round out what may be the league’s best blue line.
And of course, the big free agent signing, Ilya Bryzgalov will be the Flyers new goaltender. Coming off of a 36-win, .921 save percentage season with the Coyotes; Bryzgalov guarantees solid net-minding for the Flyers, a team that has historically lacked a top-notch goaltender.
Should all of these new pieces fit together to form a cohesive unit, the new-look Flyers may return to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in three seasons.
Drew Doughty and the Kings will look to grind down the opposition with hard hitting and defense.
The Los Angeles Kings proved that they’re ready to make an imminent push for the Cup when they traded top prospect Brayden Schenn and forward Wayne Simmonds to the Flyers for Mike Richards.
Richards is a proven two-way forward who is as dangerous physically as he is offensively. Lethal on both the power play and penalty kill, Richards will help the Kings special teams immensely.
He joins Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Justin Williams and Dustin Penner as part of the Kings enigmatic offense. Richards will also be reuniting with former Flyer Simon Gagne, who signed with the team as an unrestricted free agent.
The Kings won’t blow the doors off with their offense, but Richards and Gagne will certainly help to improve their goals-for totals next year. But, with 198 goals against last season the Kings tied the Rangers as the fifth stingiest team in the league.
Drew Doughty, who the Kings expect to re-sign in the coming weeks, paves the way as the young leader of the defence. Doughty has an uncanny ability to jump into a play to create an odd man rush, and in the 2010 Olympics showed his poise playing very well for Team Canada.
Jack Johnson is another young stud on the Kings defence known for thundering hits and soft hands, like Doughty, but he comes with a little more grit to his game. Willie Mitchell and Rob Scuderi are other stringent defenders who know how to isolate offensive threats and minimize their chances.
In net the Kings will continue to flaunt their youthful goalie tandem of Jonathan Quick and Jonathan Bernier, with Quick figuring to get the majority of starts. If Quick can replicate, or better, his 35 wins earned last year expect the Kings to be in a favourable position come playoff time.
Through hard work and defence, the Kings could be crowned champions of the NHL in a year’s time.
Staal, Malkin and Crosby each missed half of last season. With all three forwards healthy, the Penguins will return to top form.
41, 42, 43.
That’s how many games the Pens got from top three centers Sidney Crosby, Jordan Staal and Evgeni Malkin in the regular season last year, as they all missed time with serious injuries.
With all three players figured to be healthy (keep your fingers crossed, Crosby), the Pens will likely return to their offensive-juggernaut selves in 2011-12.
After sitting out half of last season Malkin is raring to go. When Geno’s motivated he’s dangerous, as was on full display when he captured the Conn Smythe trophy during Pittsburgh’s 2009 Stanley Cup victory.
Staal should continue to be one of the leagues better all-around players, and Crosby will terrify defencemen and goalies league wide.
James Neal will experience his first full season with the Pens and, if playing with Crosby, could very well score 30 goals. His previous career high was 27 with Dallas in 2009-10.
Adding Steve Sullivan and retaining Tyler Kennedy were two off-season moves that won’t make headlines, but will prove very valuable for the Pens moving forward. Sullivan is an established veteran who can pitch in with regular scoring, and Kennedy is a relentless checker and staple on the Penguins front-end.
Needless to say, the Penguins will be a lot more explosive offensively than they were last year.
With the guidance of Dan Bylsma and his coaching staff, Pittsburgh was one of the best defensive teams in the league last season and were the top penalty killing team league wide.
Kris Letang returns to anchor the blue line and run the power play from the point, while Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Ben Lovejoy, Zbynek Michalek and Matt Niskanen form what is a much underrated defensive unit for Pittsburgh.
With Marc-Andre Fleury in net, the Penguins can pretty much expect 35-40 wins as the acrobatic Canadian will return with a vengeance after being outplayed by Dwayne Roloson in last year’s seven game nail biter against Tampa.
When it’s all said and done, how could anyone be surprised to see Crosby and the Pens with another Stanley Cup?
The Red Wings ultra talented core will be together again in 2011-12
Speaking of not being surprised, how about the Red Wings?
Year after year the Wings get older and people say that they’re going to drop off, yet year after year Detroit keeps on winning.
This is unlikely to change, since the Wings haven’t really shook up their roster.
Perennial Selke nominee and puckhandling wizard Pavel Datsyuk will join forces with playmaking, goal scoring Henrik Zetterberg to once again form Detroit’s version of the dynamic duo.
These two will dominate power plays, penalty kills, face offs...you name it, they’ll do it and they’ll do it well.
Johan Franzen will continue to score goals in ridiculously large bunches, while Dan Cleary, Todd Bertuzzi, Jiri Hudler and playoff hero Darren Helm will provide secondary scoring for the Wings. These players all buy into a tremendous puck possession mentality, which often sees them own the puck for most of the game and earn wins as a result.
On defence, of course, is future Hall of Famer Nicklas Lidstrom who uses his intelligence to control the game despite being 41 years old. Lidstrom will shut down all scorers who come his way, as well as chip in with the odd goal from the point or clever bounce-pass off the end boards at Joe Louis Arena.
The Wings recently signed the much traveled Ian White, who will add some offense to the Red Wings back end. He will join hard-hitting Nicklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart and the overpaid Jonathan Ericsson in what has been a pretty impressive defence in past years.
Jimmy Howard is proving to be a solid starter for the Wings between the pipes. The 27-year-old has had back to back 37-win seasons and has played 23 playoff games already at such a young age. Head coach Mike Babcock’s Red Wings play such a solid team game that their goaltender often only need to make the first save, and Howard is certainly capable of that.
Don’t be fooled by the gray in their beards, the Red Wings are a wily bunch who seem to wait in the weeds every year waiting to strike when the time is right.
Last year's champions, the Bruins are ready to take on all challengers.
Can the Bruins be the first team to repeat since the Detroit Red Wings of 1997 and 1998?
Boston will hit the ice in 2011-12 with, mostly, the same roster that they won the Stanley Cup with last year. The Bruins said goodbye to Michael Ryder, Mark Recchi and Tomas Kaberle, but signed Benoit Pouliot and traded for Joe Corvo to fill the holes.
The Bruins strength on offense will continue to be their depth. Milan Lucic and David Krejci both scored 62 points last year to lead Boston, but their totals were nowhere near the league lead. As a team however, Boston was eighth in the league in scoring thanks to their offensive depth.
Patrice Bergeron, Nathan Horton, Tyler Seguin, Brad Marchand and Rich Peverly combine with Lucic and Krejci as representatives of the most plentifully stocked pantry of forwards in the NHL.
Captain Zdeno Chara will continue to patrol the blue line like a redwood on skates, intimidating all who cross his path and horrifying goaltenders with his blazing slap shot. Newcomer Joe Corvo joins a unit that includes Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk and Andrew Ference as a fairly solid group.
Corvo is known more for his offense from the back end, and will serve as a strong replacement for Kaberle as power play quarterback, as Kaberle never really hit his stride with the Bruins.
Tim Thomas will look to build on his record setting season last year, a campaign that saw him set the NHL, record for save percentage at .938, win the Conn Smythe and Vezina trophies and capture a Stanley Cup.
Arguably the best goalie in the game, Thomas could splash and sprawl his team through the season yet again and when he needs a night off the B’s can turn to talented youngster Tuukka Rask.
A season of playing against teams who are trying their hardest to take down the champs will either make or break the Bruins in the long run, but at this point you can’t count them out.
Chicago's strong young core look to return to championship form in 2011-12.
The Blackhawks were another team that just barely squeaked into the playoffs a year ago, but we can’t forget about the 2010 Stanley Cup champs.
Chicago added some beef in the off-season through picking up tough guys Dan Carcillo and Jamal Mayers, veteran defencemen Sean O’Donnell and Steve Montador and blue ribbon crease crasher Andrew Brunette.
All new players are big and/or tough, which says a lot about what Chicago felt was missing from their squad last year.
“Captain Serious” Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and David Bolland will provide the bulk of the offense for the Hawks, as they did a year ago when they scored the fourth most goals in the league. With Bolland and Hossa out of the line up for close to 20 games each last season, the Hawks will certainly benefit from their contributions should they be able to stay healthy.
Michael Frolik will spend his first full season with Chicago, and the speedy winger could benefit from playing with the Blackhawks talented offense. If he can manage to be consistent, the former first round pick could top his career high 21 goals.
On the back end the Hawks managed to shed Brian Campbell’s gargantuan contract, and replace it with two smaller ones in the form of O’Donnell and Montador. The gritty veterans join defensive stalwarts Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, adding depth to Chicago’s blue line.
Keith and Seabrook continue to be one of the league’s best defensive pairing, almost unbeatable when on the ice together. If Seabrook can stay away from concussion trouble this season, it will be a valuable factor for the Hawks as he is capable of playing big minutes against the league’s best forwards.
In goal is where the question marks arise in Chicago. Corey Crawford managed 33 wins in 57 games played last year, good enough to land him a spot on the NHL’s all-rookie team. But that was Crawford’s first full season with the Hawks and his abilities remain somewhat of a mystery. At 6-foot-2, he has the size to be an effective full-time goaltender and coming from the goaltender hotbed of Montreal can’t hurt either.
At the end of the day it will be Chicago’s dominance at forward that will carry them next season, and if their offence is firing on all cylinders they are nearly impossible to stop.
The Canucks top guns will refocus their sights after coming up just short last season.
Vancouver had the best record both at home and on the road last season. They also boasted the league’s top power play, thanks to the dominance of Henrik and Daniel Sedin.
Once again the twins should be a force to be reckoned with playing alongside the pesky Alex Burrows. Ryan Kesler will lead the second unit, hopefully with a healthy Mason Raymond on his wing should he be able to fully recover after a frightening back injury in last year’s playoffs.
Chris Higgins re-signed with the club after a solid playoffs and Mikael Samuelsson hopes to return to his 30 goal form of two seasons ago, after a disappointing step backwards last year.
The Canucks said goodbye to some toughness, and some a lot of time spent killing penalties, after Raffi Torres and Tanner Glass signed with new teams. The Canucks also lost Christian Erhoff to Buffalo, where he landed a 10-year deal.
The Canucks shouldn’t suffer from these losses too much though, as players like Cody Hodgson, Bill Sweatt and Mike Duco are farmhands looking to crack the big clubs roster. Also, if newcomer Marco Sturm can manage to keep his health in check he can be accountable for 20 goals.
On defence the Canucks remain solid. Kevin Bieksa leads a crew of defenders including Alex Edler, who is making a real name for himself with his power play skills and solid shut down game. The trick for Edler though is to stay healthy, as he has a history of back problems.
Roberto Luongo will continue to be an elite goaltender, but he will always be haunted by the reputation that he can’t win in big games. Aside from that, Luongo is fully capable of collecting 40 wins, given his ability to steal games combined with the strength of his teams play. He will play most of games for his team, giving them a chance to win every time he’s between the pipes.
It is up to the Canucks to not beat themselves next season, and if they can stay healthy they are likely to be knocking on the door of a championship once again.
Ovi and the Caps have reloaded their offense, and look to be frontrunners in next years quest for the Cup.
The Capitals were the runaway winners in this year’s free agency rush, despite not landing any true superstars in the process.
The Caps readied themselves for another run at the Cup by re-signing heart-and-soul grinder Brooks Laich, picking up Joel Ward and Jeff Halpern as depth forwards, adding veteran, puck moving defenseman Roman Hamrlik and signing goaltender Tomas Vokoun.
Alex Ovechkin will continue to be the league’s most dangerous shooter, while Nicklas Backstrom will almost certainly bounce back from an awful season that saw his offensive production dip nearly 40 points. Alex Semin will also be returning and entering a contract year. Expect him to be on top of his game.
Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich will be physical fore checkers and crease crashers and Ward is coming off of a great post season with the Predators. He will serve as one of the many big forwards in the Caps arsenal.
Washington’s defence will be strong again with Mike Green pacing the way offensively and on the power play. Mix in Dennis Wideman, Roman Hamrlik, John Carlson and Jeff Schultz and the Caps figure to be pretty well off on the defensive side of the puck.
Vokoun embodies the veteran netminder that Washington has been missing for so many years. After four years in Florida that saw him bombarded with shots on a nightly basis, Vokoun still managed to hover around the .925 mark in terms of save percentage.
Seeing that Vokoun plays in 55-60 games each year, it provides a good opportunity for Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth to get some NHL experience without carrying the burden of being a starter for a team that’s expected to win on a nightly basis.
Considering the Capitals play in arguably the weakest division in hockey and their forwards, and now goaltending, are among the league’s elite they have a legitimate shot at making a Stanley Cup run. After years of playoff disappointments, the Caps appear to be refocused and are front-runners for the Cup in 2011-12.