NHL Season Preview: 7 Early Favorites to Skate for the Stanley Cup

John Bain@John_BainCorrespondent IISeptember 21, 2011

NHL Season Preview: 7 Early Favorites to Skate for the Stanley Cup

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    It's that time of year again folks; training camp is underway, and the excitement for the drop of the puck that will open the 2011-12 NHL season is upon us. So, of course, there are the preseason predictions for the top Stanley Cup contenders coming into the season. 

    There will be some teams in here that are obvious contenders that have been on the list year in, year out for the past few seasons, but there will also be some new up-and-coming teams that are poised to burst onto the contender scene this season.

Los Angeles Kings

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    Coming into the 2011-12 season, the Los Angeles Kings could potentially be the most dangerous team in the NHL. With the additions of Mike Richards and Simon Gagne, the Kings' offense has become even more potent, and, with their defense and goaltending among the best in the league, the Kings have a very good shot at the Stanley Cup this season.

    Coming off an early exit in the 2011 playoffs, mostly due to injuries to top offensive players Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams, the Kings are seeking redemption this season. They believe they have the team needed to win a cup, and it is just a matter of time until they do it.

    When the Kings traded for Mike Richards in the offseason, they had one thing in mind: winning a cup. They gave up Wayne Simmonds and highly touted prospect Brayden Schenn in an effort to land Richards, one of the best two-way players in the game today. To ensure Richards' success, the Kings went out and signed his former Philadelphia linemate Simon Gagne—who had success with Richards as a Flyer. With Richards and Gagne in the lineup, accompanied by the likes of Williams, Kopitar and Dustin Penner providing most of the offense, opposition should struggle to match up defensemen against the Kings' top two lines.

    The Kings' defense hasn't changed, and it shouldn't going into the season. Though they are struggling to sign Drew Doughty to a long-term extension, they will still retain his services this season. Willie Mitchell, Rob Scuderi and Matt Greene proved last season that they still have what it takes to be top defensemen in the NHL. Jack Johnson is expected to finally have a breakout season in 2011-12 as well, rounding out the core defense of a seemingly endless defensive roster.

    At goaltender, Jonathan Quick returns for another season of keeping the rubber out of the Kings' net in 2011-12. Over the past two seasons, Quick has won an astounding 74 games and has yet to have a losing season in the NHL. Quick won't be counted on to steal many games this season, but when he does need to win a game on his own, it shouldn't be much of a problem. Quick could even be in the Vezina conversation when we reach the end of the season.

    The Kings look to be dominant in all facets of the game going into 2011-12. Only time will tell whether or not the likes of Richards, Gagne and Colin Fraser have the proper chemistry to fit into the Kings' lineup, but, on paper, the Kings look like a solid Stanley Cup contender entering the season. 

Tampa Bay Lightning

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    The Tampa Bay Lightning are entering the 2011-12 season looking for retribution. The Lightning lost in seven games to last year's eventual Stanley Cup champion, the Boston Bruins, in the Eastern Conference finals. It was a heartbreaking loss to a team that no one thought could go all the way.

    The Lightning enter the season without two key pieces in their winning puzzle, as they allowed Sean Bergenheim and Simon Gagne to walk into free agency. Bergenheim put up big points for the Lightning during their run and ended up being one of the major reasons they were able to do so well in the postseason, as he led the team with nine goals in 16 games. 

    Despite losing key components of their team from last season, the Lightning re-upped veteran goaltender Dwayne Roloson to one more year with the team, in the hopes that he can repeat his 2010-11 season and steal some more games for them en route to a Stanley Cup. Roloson posted a stellar 18-12-4 record with four shutouts in his short time with the club at the end of last year, and was 10-6 in the playoffs with a GAA below three. The Lightning will be very dependent on the play of Dwayne Roloson in 2011-12, as he could make or break their season. Backup Mathieu Garon has the experience, but he is not a starter, and the Lightning cannot rely on him to split time with Roloson throughout the season.

    On defense, the Lightning return with the same core lineup, led by Marc-Andre Bergeron, Victor Hedman and Mattias Ohlund. The Lightning's defense allowed 240 goals last season, putting them 22nd out of 30 teams in the league. The Lightning had an off year defensively, until Roloson arrived, so expect them to be better in 2011-12 and less dependent on the offense to win those games. The Lightning's defense as a whole is much better than most of the other Eastern teams, and should help propel them to a solid postseason run.

    Offensively in 2010-11, the Lighting ranked seventh overall with 247 goals for. Despite losing secondary scorers in Sean Bergenheim and Simon Gagne, the Lightning are confident in their top players, along with new forward Ryan Shannon, to pick up the slack.

    Steven Stamkos had another great year with 91 points and 45 goals last season, to go along with Marty St. Louis' 99 points and Vinny Lecavlier's 25 goals. The only notable key to Tampa's success in 2011-12 that could expose the offense will be scoring in the playoffs from secondary sources. They didn't really improve during the offseason on their depth, and it could potentially be their Achilles heel.

    It is hard to keep a team like the Lightning out of the conversation for the Stanley Cup in 2011-12, but they will only win the cup if it is a complete team effort and not solely dependent on the top line and Dwayne Roloson.

Buffalo Sabres

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    This past offseason, the Buffalo Sabres went out and improved themselves in a big way.

    Trying to improve on a 43-29-10 record in 2010-11, a season that saw them lose out to the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs, the Sabres have a very realistic chance to bring the cup back to Buffalo for the first time in their 41-year history.

    The Sabres only lost one key player this offseason, when Tim Connolly signed with the Toronto Maple Leafs. 

Detroit Red Wings

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    The Detroit Red Wings are back.

    Not back in the sense that there was any serious drop in their play, but back in the sense that they are healthy and, once again, a danger to win the cup. The Wings are coming off a 104-point campaign that saw them finish third in the West, losing in the second round of the playoffs to the San Jose Sharks. The only reason Detroit had issues last year was because of injuries plaguing the team and disrupting their chemistry. However, Detroit is a serious threat to win the Stanley Cup this season, which would be the 12th cup in the history of Hockey Town, USA.

    The Red Wings enter the 2011-12 campaign with almost all of their players from last year—with the exception of Chris Osgood, Kris Draper and Brian Rafalski, all of whom retired following the 2010-11 season. All-Stars Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk and the seemingly timeless Nick Lidstrom are all returning to try and help the Wings to another Stanley Cup.

    The Wings' offense, led by Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Johan Franzen, Dan Cleary and Todd Bertuzzi, ranked second in the league last year in goals scored—and there shouldn't be much of a drop off in that category this season. Flat out, the Wings are just more skilled at every offensive position than any other team in the NHL. The Wings also enter the year with highly talented prospect forward Tomas Tatar, hoping to help the team put the puck in the net. Tatar put up 24 goals for 57 points in the AHL last season, and is one of a handful of the Wings' future elite players hoping to help the big club this season.

    Defensively, we have one thing to say: Nicklas Lidstrom.

    Lidstrom seems to be immortal. At the tender age of 41, Lidstrom is coming off a 62-point season, and won the Norris Trophy as the league's top defenseman for the seventh time in his career. Although Lidstrom was a minus player for the first time in his career last season, he should be able to bounce back in 2011-12, in what could be his last in a Wings uniform.

    Of course, Lidstrom isn't the only reason the Wings are able to keep the puck in their own possession for so long during games. The Wings have plenty of forwards who are extremely skilled defensively. Darren Helm enters the season with the opportunity to fill the void Kris Draper left in the team and shut down top lines around the league for years to come. In addition to Helm, Datsyuk and Justin Abdelkader are very skilled in keeping the puck out of their own end.

    The one man in Detroit with the most pressure going into the season—although he won't be the reason the Wings win or lose the cup—is goaltender Jimmy Howard. Howard, who posted a 37-17-5 record last season with 2.79 GAA, will definitely feel the pressure, as goaltending is the one position where there are still question marks. The question marks shouldn't be there, but they are, and will be until Howard helps the Wings past the second round of the playoffs. It is time for the former Rookie of the Year to show his worth to the Detroit faithful.

    Overall, Detroit is the team with the most elite, proven talent on this list, and has some of the highest potential of any team to return to glory with a Cup victory in 2011-12.

Vancouver Canucks

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    The Vancouver Canucks are still feeling the pain of losing in seven games in the 2011 Stanley Cup finals to the Boston Bruins, and are entering the final year of their ever-closing window to win the Cup with their core group of players. The Canucks are coming off their best regular season in history, where they put up 117 points and 54 victories en route to the Presidents' Trophy. 

    One thing plaguing the Canucks' chances of returning to the finals, other than the extreme parity in the NHL, is the fact that they didn't do a whole lot in the offseason. Despite losing Christian Ehrhoff, a big name on the blue line, along with grinders like Raffi Torres and Tanner Glass, the Canucks' biggest signing of the offseason was Marco Sturm, who is expected to split his time between the second and third lines until Ryan Kesler and Mason Raymond return to the lineup. 

    Other than their lack of big signings, the Canucks are pretty much the same team as they were a year ago—which could be a blessing in disguise. Defenseman Keith Ballard can finally get some playing time with the departure of Ehrhoff, and although he is no Ehrhoff, he should be able to do his job successfully. Chris Tanev, the rookie defenseman, who impressed at the end of last season, will slide into the lineup and help the already deep defensive core to another No. 1 defense ranking among the league.

    Offensively, the core group of scorers for the Canucks is still intact, but they will be without Mason Raymond and Ryan Kesler until at least November, which could cost the Canucks big time. Depth players Chris Higgins, Marco Sturm and Jannik Hansen will be counted on to provide much of the secondary scoring early on, to help the Canucks move to a quick start in order to give them any shot of a Cup berth by the end of the season.

    The Sedin brothers and Alex Burrows will obviously support the team for the majority of scoring until the return of Kesler. One player that will have a lot of pressure on him is Mikael Samuelsson. Samuelsson, who had a 12-goal drop off between 2009-11, struggled to stay totally healthy last year, but is currently 100 percent and will be expected to shoulder a big load this season.

    The most important key to a Canucks Stanley Cup victory this season is the play of Roberto Luongo. The Canucks' collapse in the 2011 finals was not completely Luongo's fault, as he let in 21 goals in the seven-game series, including 15 in three games in Boston. If the Canucks want any chance at the cup, they will need to rely on Luongo to put up performances like he did in the 2010 Olympics en route to a gold medal.

San Jose Sharks

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    It appears to be now or never for the San Jose Sharks.

    The Sharks are in the best position they could ever be in to win a cup this season, and if it doesn't happen, expect big changes for the Sharks following the season. Much like the Canucks, the Sharks' window to win is rapidly closing. 

    After losing in the Western Conference finals for two consecutive seasons, the Sharks decided to trade away some key offensive players in an effort to bolster a struggling defense. In the offseason, the Sharks traded sniper Dany Heatley and Devin Setoguchi to Minnesota in two different trades, which brought in the likes of Martin Havlat and shutdown defenseman Brent Burns.

    Burns will help Dan Boyle patrol a blue line that has been out of sorts since the retirement of Rob Blake and the departure of Christian Ehrhoff, but they look to greatly improve in 2011-12. The signing of Colin White, as well as veteran defenseman Jim Vandermeer, will give the Sharks a new look of a shutdown defense that should play a large role in the Sharks' cup chances this season.

    Despite the departure of Heatley and Setoguchi, the Sharks' offense is poised to be deadly again this season. Led by the likes of Patrick Marleau, Logan Couture, Ryan Clowe and Martin Havlat, the Sharks shouldn't have any offensive drop-off this season, and if they don't win a cup, it is unlikely that their offense is to blame.

    In net, the Sharks signed Antti Niemi to a four-year extension last March, and the Finnish goalie should put up at least another 35 wins this season, but will need to return to the magical play he had in Chicago that helped them win a cup two seasons ago.

    The Sharks' players have huge amounts of pressure on each of them this season, as it is a make-or-break year. They have the best chance of any team odds-wise to win a cup this year, and, on paper, it appears that they will end up in that cup final finally—quite possibly taking it home to the Shark Tank in San Jose.

Boston Bruins

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    The Boston Bruins will attempt to do something that has not been done since the Detroit Red Wings in 1996-98, something that has only occurred 16 times in the history of the Stanley Cup: win back-to-back Stanley Cups. The Bruins are the most unchanged team on this list, which gives them an amazing shot at making another run for a cup this season. 

    The Bruins only lost two players, Tomas Kaberle and Michael Ryder, to free agency, neither of which were all that instrumental in the Bruins' winning cup team last season. With Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, Nathan Horton, David Kreijci, Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand all on the roster this season, the Bruins could potentially be the most lethal team in the East this year.

    What the Bruins did last season was nothing short of brilliant, and the same should be expected of the team this year. Not only are the Bruins deep in scoring, but they are also tough and gritty in their bottom two lines. The Bruins' use of role players like Daniel Paille, Chris Kelly and Shawn Thorton was a huge part of their success last season, and mixing and matching their offensive talent with the talents of their two-way players was a huge key to their winning of the cup.

    Despite losing Tomas Kaberle to free agency, the Bruins return with Zdeno Chara, Adam McQuaid, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, Andrew Ference and Shane Hnidy in 2011-12—the same group that helped Boston win big last season.

    The only question mark in the back end would be Hnidy, as he will battle it out with the likes of Joe Corvo and recent draft pick Dougie Hamilton for the sixth slot on the defensive depth chart. The Bruins look poised for another exceptional year, defensively.

    Lastly, the man that made it all happen, Tim Thomas, is coming off a career year in which he posted 35 wins with nine shutouts and a GAA of just 2.00. Thomas seems immortal, and at the age of 37 looks like he is in for another Vezina-winning campaign. Tim Thomas will be the reason the Bruins win again in 2011-12—if he can carry the team on his back once more this season.