10 Questions That Will Decide Who Wins the Stanley Cup
The salary cap and free agency have brought about an era of parity in the NHL which results in exciting seasons where the margin of winning it all and falling just short is pretty thin. There are roughly ten franchises this season who can legitimately claim they are Stanley Cup contenders.
You could make compelling arguments for each one.
In the end it will come down to which team has the best health, good timing and lucky bounces of the puck. Of course there is always the tinfoil hat brigade that will tell you it all comes down to which team Gary Bettman likes at the time.
For the fans this is great but for us self-proclaimed know-it-all blowhards it makes predicting the champion tougher. We like to be right.
There are many unknowns that will either lift a team up or ultimately spell their doom this coming season. What will they be? How great or how damaging will they be?
Pondering these things is what makes this time of year great…or at least it is what passes the time while we wait for the actual games to start. We can only watch so many playoff reruns after all.
Here are ten burning questions that will most likely decide who lifts that big cup above their head in June of 2012.
1. How Healthy Will the Pittsburgh Penguins Be?
Sidney Crosby’s health has been pretty hot news these past few weeks. The topic has spawned a lot of arm chair brain trauma experts who seemingly can diagnose someone they’ve never met.
While Crosby’s health will have a lot to do with how far Pittsburgh goes this year, they should be worried about their other key players as well.
With Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal on the roster they could still make a deep playoff run, even without Crosby. With all three they have to be considered among the favorites to win it all again.
Last year Crosby missed 41 games, Malkin missed 39 and Staal missed 40. That’s a lot for your big three guns. It was also the second year in a row that Malkin has missed significant games.
The Penguins will need all three of these guys healthy if they wish to return to the cup finals.
As good as Crosby is he needs a supporting cast, and the East is too stacked for the Penguins to do it without him.
Pittsburgh team doctors could turn out to be the league MVP if they can get all three on the ice for the majority of the season.
2. Will the Vancouver Canucks Stand Up to Bullies?
From a pure talent standpoint the Vancouver Canucks can make a claim as one of the best teams in the league.
Last season they were on their way to backing that up on the ice until they ran into the Boston Bruins in the finals.
On paper the Canucks should have been able to skate circles around the slower Bruins. However, the Bruins were able to push the Canucks around with little to no push back and ended up winning the Stanley Cup.
In all of Vancouver’s last four playoff defeats they were treated similarly. Boston, Chicago twice and the Anaheim Ducks. The pattern is there.
The Canucks need to find some grit and some heart to stand up to teams that feel they can bully them and win.
To make matters worse, two of the guys who could provide some of that grit, Tanner Glass and Raffi Torres, signed elsewhere this offseason. The Canucks search for some toughness has led them to sign a bunch of marginal NHL players and Todd Fedoruk.
If they don’t figure out a way to stand tall, and get Kesler a scoring winger, then Vancouver will come up short again this season.
3. Will the Boston Bruins Recover from the Stanley Cup Hangover?
Winning the Stanley Cup may be the toughest thing to do in team sports. After months of a grueling season and even fiercer playoffs it makes sense that the champions would want to exhale.
The Bruins have done their rightful share of celebrating and now have a quick turn around to get ready to do it all again.
Will they overcome the dreaded Stanley Cup hangover? It’s not impossible. It was only a couple of seasons ago when both the Penguins and Red Wings made return trips to the finals.
Boston has not seen a Chicago Blackhawks type of player exodus this offseason so they will still be in the thick of things. The Bruins survived three seven game series last spring and it will be interesting to see what, if any, affect that has on their health this season.
The Bruins have the guys on their roster to make another run, the big question is do they have the juice?
4. Can Tomas Vokoun Win Big Games?
Tomas Vokoun in many ways resembles his new team. Like the Washington Capitals, he has tremendous talent and is an upper echelon player, but has yet to win.
The Capitals signed the veteran goalie to a one year contract hoping he will be the missing piece to their almost complete puzzle.
Vokoun has been toiling in the NHL since 1998 and has appeared in over 600 games. His career goals against is an impressive 2.56 with a .917 save percentage.
Despite that impressive resume he has been on the losing end of more games than he has won and only has 11 playoff games under his belt. He lost eight of those.
It’s safe to say that as a Capital Vokoun will play in the biggest games of his long career. The Capitals are banking on the 35 year old to come up big in those games.
If he can’t it will be another summer of soul searching, and most likely a head coach search, for Washington and their fans.
5. Will the Philadelphia Flyers New Pieces Fit?
The Philadelphia Flyers have been one of the most consistent NHL teams the past few years.
They seemed to have a great mix that included a stingy defensive presence in Chris Pronger along with some big scoring forwards.
That combination got them to within a couple of games of winning the Stanley Cup two years ago. It looked like a tweak here, a solid goaltender there was all that was needed.
Instead the Flyers blew the whole thing up.
They surprised everyone with their draft day trades of Mike Richards and Jeff Carter apparently feeling that they no longer needed those 60 goals they combined for.
Philadelphia then went out and signed goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov to help solidify their goalie by numbers system they were stuck with. To make things more interesting they threw money at Jaromir Jagr and convinced him to shun their rivals in Pittsburgh.
In short, the Flyers have made a minor overhaul of their roster.
These are some big changes and if the new guys gel, if James Van Riemsdyk and Claude Giroux can take over and lead this club the Flyers will be in the thick of things this spring.
6. Did the San Jose Sharks Make the Right Moves to Put Them on Top?
The San Jose Sharks have been the favorite whipping boy for many fans the past few years. The perception is that they are a team full of chokers.
While they have yet to bust through into the finals they have been pretty darn close the past two seasons. Reaching two consecutive conference finals is no small feat. Chokers no more.
But how do they make that last step?
Last year against Vancouver their need for a puck moving defenseman was apparent.
The Canucks stifled the Sharks with an aggressive fore check that resulted in neutral zone turnover after turnover, which Vancouver used to turn into instant offense.
To remedy that the Sharks went out and acquired Brent Burns from Minnesota. Burns is that puck moving defenseman they needed. They also shipped out playoff ghost Dany Heatley to the Wild for Martin Havlat hoping for better post season returns.
The Sharks believe that these moves have put them in a position to not only make the finals but win. With the roster they already had it’s hard to argue with that.
7. Do the Detroit Red Wings Have the Legs for Another Run?
You have to start wondering if the Red Wings were designed by Sky Net. Just when you think they are done, they pull themselves up and contend for a Stanley Cup.
Have they become older? Yes, but you would be a fool to think they aren’t dangerous still.
Pavel Datsyuk is still a top player in the NHL and with ageless Nicklas Lidstrom coming back for one more year you can bet the Red Wings would love to give him a last shot at the cup.
While the team’s core may be aging they still have a fine batch of guys in their prime. Guys like Henrik Zetterberg, Johan Franzen, and Niklas Kronwall are proven winners and can still bring it.
Down 3-0 in their second round series with the Sharks last year, the Red Wings showed that they still have that hard to kill characteristic by fighting back to force a Game 7.
Until we see it with our own eyes, it’s best not to count the Red Wings out of anything.
8. Can Tampa Bay Take the Next Step?
When former Detroit great Steve Yzerman took over as General Manager of the Lightning everyone in the hockey world assumed he would be successful.
How could he not? He had been one of the greatest players in maybe the best modern franchise. It only made sense that he would be a great executive as well.
Yzerman and his Lightning did not disappoint as they pushed Boston to seven games in the Eastern Conference Finals before losing Game 7 by a 1-0 score. Not bad for Yzerman’s first year.
Can they come back just as strong and get to the finals? That remains to be seen.
Yzerman was able to lock up his young super star sniper Steve Stamkos and that will certainly help. Stamkos returns as does Martin St. Louis and Vincent LeCavalier and the ever youthful goalie Dwayne Roloson.
Tampa has a great roster but their leaders are getting up there in years and you have to think that they will have to take that next step soon.
Will it be this year?
9. Have the Chicago Blackhawks Recovered from Their Cap Hell?
Chicago broke the bank to win the Stanley Cup two years ago and it’s doubtful you will find one Blackhawks fan who is complaining about the resulting salary cap issues too much.
Last year they had to get rid of key players like Brent Sopel, Andrew Ladd and Antti Niemi to stay under the cap. They replaced those guys with younger, and greener, players.
The Blackhawks had an up and down season, backed into the playoffs and were eliminated in the first round.
Make no mistake though, this team is still stacked. Anytime you can throw Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane and Duncan Keith on the ice you are a contender. The playoffs then presented them with another young star in goalie Corey Crawford.
This off season Chicago decided to bring in some more grit and age by picking up Jamal Mayers, Andrew Brunette, Sean O’Donnel, Dan Carcillo, and Steve Montador.
Will this injection of experience help the Blackhawks overcome some of the youthful inconsistency from last year, or will it make them slower and beatable?
The answer will likely determine how far they go in the playoffs.
10. Is Mike Richards Enough to Win the West for the Los Angeles Kings?
Out west the Los Angeles Kings have quietly been stockpiling talent and building a contending team.
They have made the playoffs the past two years but have failed to get out of the first round each time. They have a lot of extremely talented young players and were in need of some veteran depth.
They accomplished that this off season by picking up veterans Mike Richards and Simon Gagne.
Richards and Gagne join a team that already boasts super stars in the making Anze Kopitar and Drew Doughty (assuming he signs) to make the Kings a very potent team.
In net Jonathan Quick has looked good, but has yet to put it together in the playoffs. In 12 career playoff games Quick has a goals against over three and a save percentage barely over.900. He will need to show he can step it up in the post season.
Although, with the added fire power the Kings may not need Quick to carry them this year.