7 Teams in the Race for the 2011/12 Stanley Cup
With the free agent frenzy now in the past, the final chapter of a busy off season is nearing completion. Excluding a few names, most of the available talent on the market has found a home for the upcoming season. Teams now have a clear view of how their roster will look for the new year.
Some teams made significant strides towards success, while others lost ground. Enormous contracts piled up, as teams paid dearly for whatever was available, jockeying for position to make a better run at the ultimate prize.
But which teams succeeded?
Here are the top 7 teams heading into next season.
On the Cusp of Greatness...
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The 2011/12 edition of the Chicago Blackhawks looks drastically different than the cup winning team of last year.
So much so that it's barely recognizable. Virtually every player not deemed a core member has been traded away to free up cap space, forcing management to bring in veterans or bargain players to fill holes.
While the team finally has some cap space to work with, it has left a lot of questions about their line up for the upcoming campaign.
Losing Brian Campbell's offensive ability and Troy Brouwer's energy has left the Blackhawks exposed. They've lost too much too quickly, and while veteran Andrew Brunette will help, players like Rostislav Olesz, Daniel Carcillo or Jamal Mayers are hardly replacements for the talent that they've sent away.
Are the Blackhawks still a good team? Of course. Are they a serious cup threat? It remains to be seen, but don't hold your breathe.
Detroit Red Wings
The Detroit Red Wings are a team that never cease to amaze me. They manage to stay highly competitive every year without fail, despite the fact that they're one of the oldest teams in the league.
Even after sustaining injuries to their key players, Mike Babcock's squad continues to gain ground in the standings and remain competitive in the conference.
This is no doubt a testament to the fantastic coaching and team play in Motown that allows players to come in and out of the lineup without missing a beat.
With Lidstrom getting another year older and Rafalski retiring, it will be a more daunting task this time around in Detroit.
With promising netminder Jimmy Howard between the pipes, and dazzling talent like Datsyuk and Zetterberg terrorizing opposing goaltenders, this team will still have more than enough talent to pile up some wins next year.
While FA additions Mike Commodore or Ian White will help, a weaker defense and the pressure on their veterans to play significant roles will cause the Red Wings to take a few steps back.
The Penguin's fate next year rests on the return of superstar captain Sidney Crosby.
After suffering a season ending injury that included multiple setbacks, the hockey world will be awaiting his return to action next season, closely analyzing his every move.
Will the kid return to form, or be a shadow of his former self? More questions without answers. One thing is for certain however—without Crosby, Pittsburgh's chances of a cup in the 2011/12 campaign will be slim at best.
The Penguin's remarkably steady play despite missing both Crosby and Malkin was impressive, and like Detroit, the team sustained a high level of performance because of the system put in place by Dan Bylsma.
The Jack Adams winner would need a minor miracle to return to the post season without his stars though, a miracle that could arrive in the form of two healthy players.
If Crosby and Malkin can stay healthy for 82 games, Pittsburgh is right back in the hunt.
7: New York Rangers
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The start of free agency on July 1st was dizzying, as over 60 players put ink to paper.
Some teams payed steep prices for players, others found bargains or merely retained the services of their own free agents, opting to stay away from the heavy spending.
It may have taken an extra day, but the biggest name in free agency found a new home, leaving the transitioning Dallas Stars to move to a team with a bright future. Brad Richards signed a 9 year, 60 million dollar contract to play with the Rangers, a move that instantly upgrades the team's offense.
Richards tallied 77 points in 72 games last season. He's what the Rangers have been desperate to find: a highly talented number one center to lead the team's offense.
Last season, the Rangers averaged 2.73 goals per game and finished 18th overall power plays, numbers which will increase with the addition of Richards.
With the center leading the way up front next season, New York will be led by defenders Dan Girardi and Marc Staal on the back end, and Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh in support.
Deadline acquisition Bryan McCabe is still unsigned and it remains to be seen where he'll end up next year. Marred by inconsistent play, McCabe's 5.75 million price tag is huge, surely giving management cold feet. If McCabe lowers his price significantly, his offensive contributions and ability to work the power play would be a nice fit next season in New York.
No matter what happens with McCabe, all star netminder Henrik Lundqvist will be called upon once again on a nightly basis to give this hockey club a chance to win games. If the Swedish born player can remain steady between the pipes, the Rangers have a good chance of advancing deep into the post season.
KEYS to success—strong defense, consistent goaltending
6: Buffalo Sabres
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The Buffalo Sabres had a very busy off season after a disappointing first round exit to the Philadelphia Flyers.
New owner Terry Pegula gave the go ahead to open the cheque book. The Sabres traded for Robyn Regehr out of Calgary before signing Christian Ehrhoff and Ville Leino as free agents.
Both players received long term deals and significant raises from their previous contracts. Ehrhoff will also be a nice addition to the Sabres power play, which clocked in at 9th overall last season.
The departure of injury prone center Tim Connolly creates a minor hole up the middle, but the Sabres offense has still improved. With players like Derek Roy, Thomas Vanek, Brad Boyes, Tyler Ennis and Drew Stafford already on the roster, the team added depth that will help them throughout the 82 game grind of the regular season.
Meanwhile, Christian Ehrhoff will help balance out the 2nd defensive pairing for the Sabres, who expect veteran Robyn Regehr to play alongside Calder Trophy winning defenseman Tyler Myers.
Although Steve Montador skipped town to head for Chicago, the Sabres have enough talent on the back end with Jordan Leopold and Mike Weber.
This is great news for Olympic goaltender Ryan Miller, who is coming off an statistically average year where he posted a 2.56 GAA and a .916 save percentage. A strong performance from him will be important to the team's success.
If Miller can return to Vezina winning form and the team can remain healthy, look for the Buffalo Sabres to be competing into May come playoff time.
KEYS to success—better start to the season, strong goaltending.
5: Los Angeles Kings
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The Los Angeles Kings had a bizarre off season.
Within a few weeks the Kings gave their roster a face lift, adding and subtracting star talent seemingly on a whim.
While Jeff Carter was long rumored to be on the chop block in Philadelphia, the blockbuster deal that saw two way center and captain Mike Richards dealt to LA for top prospect Brayden Schenn, winger Wayne Simmonds and a 2nd round pick took the hockey world by surprise.
Love it or hate it, the Kings shook things up in a major way, later dealing Ryan Smyth to the Oilers, and signing free agent Simon Gagne to a 2 year deal. The Los Angeles Kings now own perhaps the most star studded top 6 offense in the league.
However is it the best?
The acquisition of Dustin Penner last year turned out to be bittersweet for Kings fans, due to his lackluster and often inconsistent play.
Then when star forward Anze Kopitar broke his leg, all hope of a deep playoff run seemed to fade away. GM Dean Lombardi appears to have addressed the King's lack of depth up front by adding Gagne and Richards, former teammates from their time with the Flyers.
Still this is far from a slam dunk deal. Simon Gagne's production has declined since he eclipsed 40 goals in Philly, while Penner's almost indifferent play and Richard's reported locker issues raise some major questions.
What will Lombardi get out of these players next year? Can they play together at a consistently high level?
Then there's Drew Doughty. The highly skilled defenseman received a qualifying offer prior to July 1st, and has been in contract negotiations ever since.
While an offer sheet from another team appears unlikely, many Kings fans are left wondering just how much their team will have to fork over to keep the highly touted defender in town. The team has the cap space to sign him, but afterwards they'll likely be close to the ceiling.
Assuming Doughty signs on, the Kings will be stable on the back end and have enough scoring potential up front to make some noise next year.
Add in the young and talented Jonathan duo in net and you have an entertaining season to look forward to in LA at the very least.
KEYS to success—goaltending, a potent offense, and Drew Doughty.
4: Vancouver Canucks
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It's been over a month since Vancouver's crushing game 7 loss to the Boston Bruins.
The Canucks failed to match the toughness and nastiness displayed by Boston during the series, a tenacity that effectively wore them down. After the dust of defeat settled, GM Mike Gillis vocalized the notion that major injuries and a suddenly docile power play were the team's biggest downfalls.
He also maintained that a healthier roster may have been able to salvage the series. Explanations aside, the team's lack of physicality throughout the series was glaring, and many hoped that the services of tough guy Raffi Torres would be retained to preserve the grit he brought to the team.
When free agency opened, Torres opted to sign in Phoenix, while top offensive defenceman Christian Ehrhoff left to test the market.
Gillis did bring in the oft injured Marco Sturm, hoping to add some veteran goal scoring, but that's hardly a solution to Vancouver's problem. This team needs to get tougher.
When July 1st came around, management brought in several insignificant role players with big frames to add some depth. But the team is still in dire need of a punishing forward.
Even with the departures of Torres and Ehrhoff, the league's top ranked offense in 2010/11 will be back in business next year, lead by the Sedin twins and gritty center Ryan Kesler.
However, with speedy winger Mason Raymond recovering from a back injury and veteran Mikael Samuelsson coming off surgery for a sports hernia, this team could also use a bonafide top 6 forward.
With promising goaltender Corey Schnieder on for one more year, it's up to the team's management to use him as a bargaining chip to help address a few needs.
If the Vancouver Canucks decide to test the water in the upcoming season without any major changes, they will have a very complete team that will remain competitive. This team was one victory away from their first Stanley Cup, and a healthier roster might have prevailed.
Still, the need to add some size to keep pesky forwards like Brad Marchand away from the skilled players is not likely to go away. It's an issue that Gillis will certainly have to address if the Vancouver Canucks want to be back in the finals for a second consecutive year.
KEYS to success—toughness, clutch goaltending when it matters
3: Boston Bruins
The reigning Stanley Cup champs have had a relatively quiet summer, as long as cup parades and hometown celebrations aren't counted.
After knocking off the Presidents Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks in 7 games, the Bruins have had very little to do to get ready for the upcoming season.
The organization decided to let free agents Michael Ryder and Tomas Kaberle go, adding role players like Benoit Pouliot and Joe Corvo as replacements.
With Brad Marchand currently in contract negotiations and players like Adam McQuaid back under contract, fans can expect to see more of the same next year from the Bruins.
There are still a few things to watch heading into the new year though, especially in between the goal pipes.
Tim Thomas rendered simply a stellar performance this past season. Not only did he set a league record with his astonishing .938 save percentage, he carried the team to their first Stanley cup in almost 4 decades, while picking up the Conn Smythe and Vezina trophies along the way.
Perhaps it's time for Timmy to invest in a bigger trophy case.
Still, a new season brings another opportunity for talented backup Tuukka Rask to snag the number on job. With Thomas approaching 38 years, it's hard to imagine him continuing his stellar play for another full campaign.
If Rask were to assume the starting role in Boston, what kind of affect would this have on the team? With Claude Julien back at the helm directing a strong cast of defencemen, it's safe to say most Bruins fans will be happy no matter who starts next season.
Another crucial element for Boston success in the upcoming year will be a healthy roster.
One of the remarkable feats the Bruins accomplished last season was maintaining a healthy roster heading in the finals. Even after Nathan Horton was injured by a late hit in the series, the depth installed by management prior to the playoffs allowed them to adjust and continue to compete at a high level right up to the final whistle.
With the vast majority of their cup winning roster back on the ice for the 2011/12 season, expect to see the Bruins return to the post season, fighting to defend their cup.
KEYS to success—outstanding goaltending, a healthy roster.
2: San Jose Sharks
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The time for minor roster tweaks or adding fringe players to help bolster the lineup has come and gone for the Sharks.
After years of electric regular season performances, the different ways that San Jose has managed to leave the playoffs has been staggering.
From first round upsets, to poor play, to promising runs that just somehow come up short, the fans in California have seen enough. So has GM Doug Wilson.
During the entry draft in Minnesota, Wilson addressed a major need on defense by swapping winger Devon Setoguchi, a prospect, and his first round selection to acquire all star defenseman Brent Burns and a 2nd round pick from the Wild.
He then pulled off a one for one trade with the Wild, sending disappointing forward Dany Heatley to Minnesota for playmaker Martin Havlat. Will these be the final pieces to the puzzle that have been missing for the past decade?
After being eliminated by the Vancouver Canucks in the Western Conference Finals, the lack of defensive depth for the Sharks came bubbling to the surface for all to see.
The potent offense of the Canucks left Shark defenders turning in circles, desperately trying to keep up. Even when San Jose was able to score and look dominant against Vancouver, they weren't able to shut down their opposition when it really mattered.
That is why the addition of Brent Burns to the Shark's defense is as brilliant as it is bold It will finally give coach Todd McLellan the luxury of having a top shut down pair.
With offensively gifted defender Danny Boyle paired alongside the newly acquired Burns, the Sharks appear to have landed a major puzzle piece on the back end.
Then there is the Dany Heatley saga. Following a couple of promising seasons in Ottawa, Heatley famously demanded a trade from the team, landing in San Jose in exchange for Cheechoo and Michalek.
After several seasons playing with the Sharks, Heatley never seemed to dominate the way he was expected to. Even during the post season, Heatley looked lost on the ice and did very little to help his team when they desperately needed him.
By trading Heatley away, not only do the Sharks get a talented forward in Havlat, but they shed a lengthy salary cap hit which gives them flexibility going forward.
With Havlat's vision and skill set added to a list of talented forwards that already includes Joe Thornton, Logan Couture, Ryan Clowe and Patrick Marleau, the San Jose Sharks have found a way to balance their roster without giving up too much.
With these two off season moves, Wilson has prepared this team for a lengthy playoff run that could easily result in the franchise's first Stanley cup.
KEYS to success—Antti Niemi has to be outstanding.
1: Washington Capitals
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George McPhee has had a very busy off season.
The Washington Capitals looked primed for success after handily dispatching the Rangers in the first round, only to be swept and embarrassed by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Conference Semi Finals.
With his star players under-performing, and questions surrounding his goaltending tandem of Varlamov and Neuvirth, McPhee didnt sit back hoping his problems would solve themselves.
Instead, he went out and seized the day, piling up an impressive collection of talent to support his stars. His goaltending dilemma however, strangely did handle itself.
George McPhee later admitted to a local paper that he was surprised with what he received for disgruntled goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who publicly stated he would not be returning to Washington as he did not feel he was getting the opportunity to be the starting goaltender.
So when GM Greg Sherman of the Colorado Avalanche called, offering his 1st and 2nd round picks in the 2011/12 entry draft for the exclusive right to negotiate with the restricted free agent, McPhee was as shocked as he was delighted.
After Varlamov agreed to a 2 year deal in Colorado, that left front runner Tomas Vokoun without a team to play for, leaving the door open for McPhee to get a talented veteran for a bargain price.
Meanwhile, George also picked up tenacious forward Troy Brouwer from the Blackhawks for a pick, then signed free agent winger Joel Ward to a 4 year deal.
This came on the heels of a 6 year deal for coveted winger Brooks Laich, who will be back playing with the Caps for many years to come. With players like Jeff Halpern and Roman Hamrlik also coming on board to help round out the roster, the Washington Capitals will be putting a highly competitive team on the ice next year.
But will it be enough to bring home the Stanley cup?
If the Colorado Avalanche have another poor season in 2011/12, the Capitals will likely be looking at a lottery draft pick for Varlamov to add to the pile of talent already amassed over the past few years.
That's quite a bit for a player who wasn't planning on returning for another year. Not only will the Washington Capitals be one of the front runners for the Cup this season, they will be for many seasons to come.
While George McPhee had to hand out some big contracts to bring in some of the players he wanted, the man knows he has a window of opportunity before him. One that he's now managed to keep open for quite some time.
The Washington Capitals certainly have to be regarded as the Cup favorites to this point.
KEYS to success—keep everyone healthy, learn from past mistakes.