After a fantastic 2011 Stanley Cup Playoff tournament that ended with Boston hosting its first NHL-related parade in nearly four decades and one of the most memorable offseasons in NHL history, it's time to look ahead to the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Which teams have the best chance of hoisting Lord Stanley's Cup 10 months from now? Read on to find out.
All odds are courtesy of www.bodog.com and are current as of Monday, July 25 at 5 p.m. EST.
Comments are always welcome and appreciated.
The Blackhawks took a few steps back following a heartbreaking Game 7 loss to the Vancouver Canucks by facilitating the departures of Troy Brouwer, Tomas Kopecky, Brian Campbell and Chris Campoli. Brouwer, Kopecky and Campbell were all members of the 2010 Stanley Cup Championship team, and all three were solid two-way contributors for the 'Hawks on and off the ice. After last offseason's departures of Dustin Byfuglein, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, Brent Sopel, Antti Niemi and Ben Eager, the Hawks bear little resemblance to the team that won the 2010 Stanley Cup.
On the plus side, the Blackhawks did add veteran blueliners Sean O'Donnell and Steve Montador. The two should solidify the 'Hawks third pairing, at least for the upcoming season. Chicago also added veteran winger Andrew Brunette, who, even at age 37, showed he's more than capable of providing secondary scoring for an NHL team by notching 18 goals for the Wild in 2010-2011. His addition should take some of the pressure off of the Hawks "big four" up front: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp.
The emergence of young goaltender Corey Crawford as a quality NHL netminder should provide additional stability on the back-end and alleviate some of the pressure on the 'Hawks offense.
All in all, the Blackhawks have a solid chance to hoist the Cup for the second time in three years in 2012. They have a pair of young clutch playmakers in Toews and Kane, one of the best defensive pairs in the NHL with Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and a number of quality veterans capable of making plays at both ends of the ice (Hossa, Sharp, Bolland and Brunette, to name a few).
Despite losing one of the league's better offensive defenseman in Brian Rafalski, the Red Wings are still poised to make a strong push for the Cup in 2012. Led by the best two-way player in the world in Pavel Datsyuk and the best defenseman to ever play the game in Niklas Lidstrom, the Wings are a force to be reckoned with in the West.
In addition to Lidstrom and Datsyuk, the Wings boast an immensely talented veteran core with forwards Johan Frazen, Tomas Holmstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Todd Bertuzzi and Danny Cleary. The Detroit defense rounds out its top four with Niklas Kronwall, Brad Stuart and Jonathan Ericsson. The acquisiton of Ian White should provide additional depth and help offset the loss of Rafalski.
The emergence of Jimmy Howard as a solid netminder should provide the Wings with an anchor in net for years to come, as well as some much-needed stability after the retirement of (potential) future Hall of Fame goaltender Chris Osgood.
Overall, the Wings are a solid veteran team top-to-bottom. They have depth and talent at almost every position, they have astonishing amounts of playoff experience, and they are hungry for their first title in four seasons, which is an eternity in Hockeytown. As always, their success will come down to whether or not their veteran role players are able to get into a groove early and stay healthy and productive as the season drags along. If they can, look out.
Aside from the Flyers, no contending team underwent a greater makeover than the Sharks. The team traded away former 40-goal scorer Dany Heatley, promising young gun Devin Setoguchi and 2010 first round pick Chris Coyle. The club added veteran playmaker Martin Havlat, All-Star defenseman Brent Burns and defensive specialist Michal Handzus.
In 2010-2011, the Sharks boasted one of the deepest forward groups in the league, with seven players notching 20 or more goals. Expect that trend to continue in 2011-2012, with the club returning All-Stars Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, emerging star Logan Couture and veteran wingers Ryan Clowe and Joe Pavelski. Solid two-way forwards Jamie McGinn and Ben Ferriero figure to round out the top nine.
On the defensive front, the Sharks have made an improvement by acquiring All-Star offensive defenseman Brent Burns. Veteran Dan Boyle figures to continue as one of the NHL's best offensive defenseman as well as a solid defensive blueliner. The Sharks are hoping that young defenseman Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Jason Demers are able to continue to improve their games and fill out the Sharks' top four.
In net, the Sharks have former Stanley Cup winner Antti Niemi, who had a solid, if unspectacular season and a less-than-stellar postseason. For the team to take the next step, Niemi must improve his game when it matters most. He certainly has the natural talent to do so—it's just a question of whether or not he can recapture his 2010 playoff form.
Overall, San Jose GM Doug Wilson seems to have made significant progress in addressing the Sharks major holes this offseason. While the club is still a little weak on the back end, the addition of Handzus and the re-signing of RFAs McGinn and Ferriero should give a boost to the Sharks PK and take a bit of pressure off of the San Jose defense.
The big question for the Sharks going into 2011-2012 is still their defense and goaltending. If Burns and Boyle can provide solid two-way production on the backend and if youngsters Demers and Vlasic can blossom into top four defenders, the Sharks can do some damage in the playoffs. But for the club to legitimately contend for a Cup, Antti Niemi needs to elevate his play. If he can't, the Sharks are going to continue their trend of premature playoff exits for another season.
After another premature playoff exit in 2011, the Capitals finally started to make some necessary changes. But the right changes? Not so much. The team signed former Blackhawk Troy Brouwer (excellent move) but let veteran center Jason Arnott walk in free agency (bad move). They traded enigmatic Russian netminder Semyon Varlamov to the Avs for a first and second round pick (excellent move) and somehow managed to sign Tomas Vokoun for the outrageously low price of $1.5 million for one year (excellent move).
For all of that, I still don't see a major improvement on the Caps roster. Now-backup netminder Michal Neuvirth had an excellent season in 2010-2011, and I don't see Vokoun being a major upgrade. Brouwer is a gritty player who brings playoff experience and heart, but will he be able to make a difference in the Capitals locker room?
There is no question the Capitals are a talented team. They have one of the top players in the world in Alex Ovechkin, an emerging superstar in Niklas Backstrom and one of the most naturally talented players in the world in Alex Semin. But for all of their talent, they just can't win when it matters most.
At this point, I'm beginning to think its a structural problem in the organization, one that starts at the top with GM George McPhee and head coach Bruce Boudreau and permeates every level of the organization. Again, there is no question the Capitals have the talent to win the Stanley Cup. But do they have the heart? I don't think so.
The defending Stanley Cup Champion Bruins didn't have a great offseason, but most of the major pieces from their Cup team remain intact. The losses of Michael Ryder, Mark Recchi and Tomas Kaberle, along with the expected LTIR status of Marc Savard, figure to hurt the Bruins a bit in the short-term. The projected development of Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand should ease some of that pain on the stat sheet, but replacing the veteran leadership of Recchi won't be an easy task.
On the defensive end, the Bruins figure to be very good for yet another season. Zdeno Chara is one of the primiere blueliners and captains in the NHL. Dennis Sidenberg, Andrew Ference, Johnny Boychuk and Adam McQuaid are all solid veteran players who understand their roles and perform them well. If it was possible, the Bruins managed to improve their defense corps by drafting Dougie Hamilton with the ninth pick in the 2011 draft, a prospect many believe is NHL-ready. Hamilton's solid two-way game and booming shot could help the PP unit immediately, if Boston is willing to give the young blueliner a shot.
Anchoring the entire operation is reigning Vezina and Conn Smythe winner Tim Thomas, who is coming off of one of the greatest individual seasons in NHL history. There is no reason to think that the Tank won't be able to post another superb campaign in 2011-2012. While I don't think Thomas will be improving on this past season's performance in 2011-2012, it's reasonable to say that he will once again be in the Vezina discussion, provided he stays healthy and productive.
For the Bruins to repeat as Champions, they're going to need to improve their offense and powerplay while still playing exceptionally good positional defense. Having only one 30-goal scorer (Milan Lucic) is not a recipe for long-term success, but the club does have young guns Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand to help in that department. The team's power play was powerless for much of the 2010-2011 season and needs to improve if the Bruins are going to overcome the losses of Ryder, Recchi, and Savard.
In the end, the Bruins' hopes of repeating as Champions depends largely on the man between the pipes. If the Tank can stay healthy and productive, the Bruins are going to be a force to be reckoned with come the 2012 playoffs. If not, the Bruins won't make it out of the first round.
The Flyers enter 2011-2012 a completely different team. Gone are franchise cornerstones Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, two-way wingers Ville Leino and Kris Versteeg, defensemen Sean O'Donnell and Dany Syvret and energy players Dan Carcillo and Darroll Powe. In their place, the Flyers have added a number of younger, bigger, faster and more talented players. To their increasingly green forward corps, the team added some grey with the signings of veteran Max Talbot and future Hall of Famer Jaromir Jagr, both of whom should provide playmaking and leadership.
The team also filled what many have long believed to be its greatest need by signing consensus top-10 netminder Ilya Bryzgalov to a nine-year pact. Uber-talented youngster Sergei Bobrovsky will serve as Bryzgalov's backup, giving the Flyers one of the best goaltending tandems in the NHL. For the first time in many years, there doesn't appear to be a goaltending question in Philadelphia.
Leading the revamped forward corps will be emerging superstar Claude Giroux, savvy veteran playmaker Danny Briere and emerging powerhouse James van Reimsdyk. If those three can stay healthy and continue to develop, Philadelphia's offense could be flat-out scary. The team currently has at least seven players capable of scoring 20-plus goals in 2011-2012, making the Flyers possibly the deepest offensive squad in the NHL. And that's before Brayden Schenn, possibly the most naturally talented player on the roster and best player outside of the NHL, is taken into account. To make matters better, the Flyers were able to draft highly touted center Sean Couturier, who many have compared to a better version of Jordan Staal. GM Paul Holmgren has already said he believes Couturier can make at instant impact at the NHL level.
On the defensive end, the Flyers boast one of the NHL's top blueline units with Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, Andrej Meszaros, Brayden Coburn and Matt Carle. Newly signed Andreas Lilja figures to round out the group and log a majority of his minutes on the PK. Should he falter, the Flyers figure to have the promising but inconsistent Oskars Bartulis on the roster.
The biggest question mark for the Flyers, despite their new look, is still Chris Pronger. If he is able to return to form in 2011-2012, Philadelphia will be one of the league's most difficult teams to play against. If he is unable to play, the Flyers will still be a playoff team, but likely won't go very far.
Pittsburgh was also relatively quiet this offseason, signing veteran winger Steve Sullivan while allowing forwards Max Talbot, Mike Comrie and Alex Kovalev to leave via free agency. Of those, the one that will hurt the team the most is Talbot, who is a world-class special teams player and fantastic locker room presence. On the bright side, those departures open up roster spots for up-and-comers Eric Tangradi and Simon Despres, both of whom have the talent to make instant impacts.
On the backend, the Penguins have solid veterans Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Deryk Engelland and Zbynek Michalek. The group played especially well down the stretch for the Penguins and should continue to improve in 2011-2012. Behind the defense is the uber-talented and under-appreciated Marc Andre Fleury, who is poised to have yet another excellent season.
There is no question the Penguins are a solid team top-to-bottom. However, the team's ability to legitimately compete for a Stanley Cup depends on the health of their captain, Sidney Crosby, after he suffered yet another serious concussion. The fact that Crosby has resumed on-ice training in recent weeks is an excellent sign for the Penguins, but there are still a number of questions surrounding No. 87.
Almost as important as Crosby's health is the status of Malkin's knee. Rumors out of Russia have "Geno" rehabbing on schedule and looking ready for a great season. Again, that's great news for the Penguins, but there are still questions to be answered.
If those two can return to their pre-injury forms, the Penguins could be primed for a serious Stanley Cup run. If either suffers major setbacks or performance declines, Pittsburgh could be primed for an early round playoff exit.
The Canucks finally made it to the big dance in 2011, only to lose in seven games to the Stanley Cup Champion Bruins. Despite that, the team did take several big steps forward: They finally bested the Blackhawks in the postseason and they managed to hold off an upstart Predators team and a veteran Sharks team.
During the 2011 offseason, the Canucks managed to only lose one major piece from last year's team in Christian Ehrhoff, who was traded to the Islanders after negotiations broke down. The team also lost third-line winger Raffi Torres to the Coyotes, but immediately signed the talented but inconsistent Marco Sturm to a one-year pact. If Sturm is able to return to form, he should prove to be an economical offensive upgrade over Torres.
The Canucks also return Hart Trophy finalists Henrik and Daniel Sedin, as well as 40-plus goal scorer Ryan Kesler, playmaker Alex Burrows and all-around talent Mason Raymond on the offensive end. Needless to say, scoring shouldn't be a problem for the reigning Western Conference Champions in 2011-2012.
On the defensive end, the Canucks boast one of the better blueline groups in the NHL. Dan Hamhuis, Kevin Bieska, Sammi Salo, Alex Edler and Keith Ballard all figure to continue their solid production. In particular, look for Ballard to step up and help fill the void left by the departure of Ehrhoff.
In goal, Vancouver has one of the NHL's primiere tandems in Corey Schneider and Vezina finalist Roberto Luongo. Despite his inconsistent play in the 2011 playoffs, Luongo remains one of the best goaltenders in the world. His stock may have fallen, but it's still higher than just about every netminder's in the league.
The biggest obstacle for the Canucks is the Stanley Cup Final hangover. On paper, the Canucks are one of the most complete teams in the NHL. But almost every team in recent memory has suffered a "down" season following a loss in the Finals (the exception being the Penguins). They have the offense, the defense and the goaltending to win a Cup. But do they have what it takes mentally to rebound from a heartbreaking Game 7 defeat in the Stanley Cup Finals?