Dark-Horse Contenders for the 2016-17 Stanley Cup

Steve Macfarlane@@MacfarlaneHKYFeatured ColumnistDecember 23, 2016

Dark-Horse Contenders for the 2016-17 Stanley Cup

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    Jose Juarez/Associated Press

    The NHL standings as we hit the Christmas break have some familiar names at the top. There are constant contenders when it comes to the Stanley Cup—teams able to perennially put a squad together that fans just know is going to be making a push for a championship. 

    The Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals are all in playoff spots as of Dec. 22 and are the class of the Eastern Conference. In the West, the Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks and Los Angeles Kings are the usual suspects. 

    As for the others filling out the playoff spots and contending for wild-card berths, there are plenty of surprises. There are also some disappointments who are falling short of those spots, for various reasons. 

    Mixed in with the bona fide Cup candidates are some dark horses who may beat the odds and battle for the title come this spring. 

    Read ahead to see if your team is among them. 

Ottawa Senators

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    What makes them a Cup candidate

    This statement will probably be as polarizing as the "eye test" is to those who swear by things like advanced stats and metrics, but there is something about this team of relatively average players that has led to them playing extremely well as a group. It might have something to do with the emotional bond formed through hardship—in this case, the illness goaltender Craig Anderson's wife is battling. 

    Why they are a dark horse

    Statistically, the Senators don't look like a legitimate threat. They're middle-of-the-road on special teams, and they're in the bottom third in average shots per game and in shots against. Yet, they find ways to win with timely goals and goaltending. They beat the Blackhawks in Chicago for the first time in 15 years on Dec. 20 and seem to be convincing people their work ethic may actually give them a shot at sustaining their winning ways.

    What has to happen

    The Sens will need their backup goaltender Mike Condon to continue his impressive performances in relief of Anderson. More importantly, the forwards need to offer more support in the way of goal-scoring. The Senators rank 19th with a 2.52 goals-per-game average this season, forcing the netminders to be the difference-makers far too often.

Boston Bruins

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    What makes them a Cup candidate

    Goaltender Tuukka Rask has returned to his all-star form this year after a down season, and the Boston Bruins' commitment to defense has them ranked third-best in the league at keeping shots on goal down. They're getting strong offensive production from young sniper David Pastrnak and boast a lot of veteran depth that could pay off in the playoffs.

    Why they are a dark horse

    The Bruins have missed the playoffs for two straight years and have seen a big drop in production from defenseman Zdeno Chara. The window looked to be closed for the 2011 Stanley Cup champs. Making their odds tougher this year is the surprising lack of scoring from top center Patrice Bergeron, which is one of the reasons the team ranks sixth-worst in goals per game. 

    What has to happen

    Bergeron has to rediscover the touch that helped him score 32 goals and 68 points last season. The team needs to find a way to ignite the stale power play that ranks second-last in the league, which would help with the overall scoring woes. They may need to make a nice scoring addition at the trade deadline. 

Edmonton Oilers

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    What makes them a Cup candidate

    Team captain, super sophomore and NHL scoring leader Connor McDavid is a heck of a game-breaker and leads an Edmonton Oilers offense that is clicking among the top eight in the league so far this season with 2.88 goals per game. They've improved a historically putrid defense and have also found some stability in goal, and are among the top dozen teams when it comes to goals against. 

    Why they are a dark horse

    The Oilers have missed the playoffs for 10 straight seasons and had the first overall draft pick in four of the past seven NHL drafts—and even traded away two of those No. 1 picks this summer in Taylor Hall and Nail Yakupov. Fans have been waiting for them to turn a corner, and it looks like they finally have, challenging for one of the top three spots in the Pacific Division. 

    What has to happen

    McDavid has to stay healthy, for one. His impressive showing as a rookie last season was mostly for naught when a broken collarbone kept him out of half the year. The Oilers predictably landed among the league's worst clubs again. Workhorse goalie Cam Talbot has to prove he can keep his save percentage up and his goals-against down without fading down the stretch. They could still add some depth on defense or look for an impact player at the trade deadline. 

Philadelphia Flyers

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    Derik Hamilton/Associated Press

    What makes them a Cup candidate

    The Philadelphia Flyers won 10 straight games from the end of November through mid-December and rocketed up the Eastern Conference standings as a result. Claude Giroux and Wayne Simmonds are both among the league's top 20 point producers, and goalie Steve Mason has shown again he can be among the league's elite netminders when he's on a hot streak. 

    Why they are a dark horse

    NHL.com's Tom Gulitti points out the Flyers have overcome a deficit of at least one goal in 14 of their 20 wins, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. That's a difficult thing to sustain over the course of a season. They've missed the playoffs in two of the last four seasons and had first-round exits in both of those appearances. 

    What has to happen

    The offense, which is averaging more than three goals a game, has to stay potent. And there can be no setbacks from Mason, who was benched in the first round of the playoffs against the Washington Capitals last spring.  

Minnesota Wild

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    What makes them a Cup candidate

    The Minnesota Wild have the best goal differential in the Western Conference and are a legitimate threat to the Chicago Blackhawks for the Central Division title. Devan Dubnyk leads the NHL in both save percentage and goals-against average. Their addition of free agent Eric Staal is paying off; he leads the team in scoring. He's not alone, however, as the entire group of forwards is extremely balanced. Four defensemen also have hit double digits in points. 

    Why they are a dark horse

    The Wild have been a playoff presence, but they've been unable to get over a hump over the past few seasons. They've had two first-round exits and a pair of second-round losses the past four years but have yet to appear in the Western Conference Final. The Wild have one of the highest shooting percentages in the league, according to Sporting Charts, which doesn't pair well with their average of fewer than 30 shots in the league.  

    What has to happen

    First-year Wild head coach Bruce Boudreau has to ensure he keeps getting the most out of his collective group. Dubnyk will have to remain healthy as he is key to their success. When it comes to the playoffs, they'll need Staal and fellow veteran sniper Zach Parise to be fresh and motivated to help the team finally get to the next level. 

Tampa Bay Lightning

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    What makes them a Cup candidate

    The Tampa Bay Lightning have been to the Eastern Conference Final three times in the past six years and the Stanley Cup Final just two seasons ago. They still have a collection of some of the best young players in the game, led by Nikita Kucherov, and a solid one-two punch at goaltender with veteran Ben Bishop and starter-in-waiting Andrei Vasilevskiy. They've got a top-10 offense and the third-best power play. 

    Why they are a dark horse

    At the moment, the Lightning sit fourth in the Atlantic Division standings and outside the wild-card race in the Eastern Conference, far below their projected spot at this point of the season. Captain Steven Stamkos and starting goalie Ben Bishop are both injured, but it's the group's defensive play that has the Lightning faltering this year. 

    What has to happen

    The Lightning were without Stamkos and Bishop in years past and still had success, so the key is more production from the rest of the top nine forwards and better defensive play. General manager Steve Yzerman would be wise to improve his group of defensemen, which relies heavily on its top two of Victor Hedman and Anton Stralman. 

Columbus Blue Jackets

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    What makes them a Cup candidate

    Former Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky is having a big bounce-back season after a disappointing 2015-16. Rookie defenseman Zach Werenski has been a revelation on the Columbus Blue Jackets' blue line. They have six players who have already hit the 20-point mark and rank top three in the NHL in wins, first in goals-per-game average and second in goals-against average. They also own the league's best power-play rating.

    They whipped the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins 7-1 on Thursday to win their 11th straight game and take over first place in the Metropolitan Division. 

    Why they are a dark horse

    The Blue Jackets have been to the postseason exactly twice in their 15 years of existence and lost out in the first round in both appearances. They're not battle-tested enough to be considered a favorite, yet they've played so well this season that it's possible they'll make some real noise in the playoffs. Their top offense is capitalizing on a ridiculously effective power play that should level out at some point, so they may not be as powerful as they appear. 

    What has to happen

    The work ethic has to remain high under head coach John Tortorella for the Blue Jackets to keep their momentum going. And Bobrovsky is a key piece—he's the kind of goalie who can steal games and playoff series if he's at his best, and he has been since the start of the World Cup of Hockey in the fall. 

       

    Stats via NHL.com unless otherwise mentioned.