Ranking the Top Stanley Cup Contenders After the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline

Carol Schram@pool88Featured ColumnistMarch 4, 2017

Ranking the Top Stanley Cup Contenders After the 2017 NHL Trade Deadline

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    The 2017 NHL trade deadline is now in the rearview mirror. That means the time has come to start looking at which teams have set themselves up for a serious run at this year's Stanley Cup championship.

    Much of the season has been defined by jammed-up standings, but the playoff picture is now starting to come into focus in both conferences. According to SportsClubStats, 15 teams held at least a 70 percent likelihood of reaching the postseason after games on Thursday, March 2. There will be a bit more shifting up and down, but we won't see more than a few teams make big moves over the last month of the season.

    The trade deadline is the last opportunity for wheeling and dealing for the general managers that think their club has a legitimate chance of making a serious run or winning it all this year.

    The days of the standard second-round draft pick for a rental player on his way to becoming an unrestricted free agent are over. Rentals can still be important trade chips but once the salary cap and the impending expansion draft were factored in this year, teams needed to account for more moving parts than ever before when making their player personnel decisions at the deadline.

    Now that the dust has settled, here's a look at this year's top contenders for the Stanley Cup. Already in the conversation, each team made moves to try to get even stronger as the clock winds down toward the beginning of playoffs.

6. Montreal Canadiens

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    Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

    2016-17 Record: 65 GP, 36-21-8, 80 pts, first in Atlantic Division, fifth in Eastern Conference

    Impact of Trade-Deadline Moves

    Montreal Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin was not content to simply disrupt the 2016 offseason with the blockbuster trade that saw P.K. Subban head to the Nashville Predators in exchange for Shea Weber.

    Bergevin was also one of the NHL's most active general managers in the week leading up to the trade deadline. He pulled off deals that made his team bigger, tougher and, he hoped, would snap them out of the funk that had resulted in a 7-12-2 record between January 9 and February 23.

    So far, so good. The Habs are on a four-game winning streak and comfortably back in control of top spot in the Atlantic Division after Bergevin's moves brought in defensemen Jordie Benn and Brandon Davidson as well as forwards Steve Ott, Dwight King and Andreas Martinsen.

    Projected Playoff Finish: The new acquisitions aren't expected to score many goals, but their agitation factor should give Montreal's offensive stars like Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov a little more room to work on the ice. 

    Those players will also be a deterrent for opponents looking to make life difficult for Carey Price—who's circling back around to his usual high levels of goaltending. Price has allowed two goals or less in each of his last six games and recorded his first shutout since November 12 on February 28 against the Columbus Blue Jackets.

    A hot goalie who peaks at the right time and who is protected by an army of defenders in front of him is a goalie who can steal a Stanley Cup. Bergevin's moves could look genius once the emotions flare up in the playoffs.

5. Chicago Blackhawks

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    2016-17 Record: 64 GP, 41-18-5, 87 pts, second in Central Division, second in Western Conference

    Impact of Trade-Deadline Moves

    Last year, the defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks went all-in at the trade deadline, giving up a first-round draft choice as part of a complex trade that brought back former Blackhawk Andrew Ladd. It was all for naught, as Chicago didn't get out of the first round.

    This year, general manager Stan Bowman once again reacquired a familiar face, but in a much more low-key transaction. Veteran defenseman Johnny Oduya, 35, was a member of both the 2013 and 2015 Cup-winning Hawks teams but has spent the last two years in Dallas. His veteran experience should be valuable on a Chicago blue line that has lacked reliable depth players.

    Bowman also sent a third-round draft pick to the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for Tomas Jurco, who has good size and speed but has struggled with consistency at the NHL level. Jurco was also hampered by a back injury during the first half of this season.

    Projected Playoff Finish: The Blackhawks have worked young forwards like Ryan Hartman, Nick Schmaltz and Vinnie Hinostroza into their forward group this year. That trio, plus Jurco, should make up for the departure of both Andrew Ladd and pesky Andrew Shaw.

    With help from Oduya on the back end and more steady work from the goaltending tandem of Corey Crawford and Scott Darling, the Blackhawks look like they're poised to continue their pattern of moving back into Stanley Cup contention after a year on the sidelines. 

    The Blackhawks are now rounding into playoff form—they are the hottest team in the league thanks to their six-game winning streak and 9-1-0 record in their last 10 games.

4. Minnesota Wild

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    2016-17 Record: 62 GP, 41-15-6, 88 pts, first in Central Division, first in Western Conference

    Impact of Trade-Deadline Moves

    The Minnesota Wild paid a steep price to bring in big center Martin Hanzal and pesky winger Ryan White from the Arizona Coyotes, but new coach Bruce Boudreau is in the process of guiding the 17-year-old franchise to its best regular-season finish in its history. The Wild have only cracked the 100-point mark twice before—in 2015-16, when they finished with exactly 100 points, and in 2007-08, when they hit 104.

    This year, they're on pace for 116 points and hold down first place in the Western Conference. The Wild have been to the second round of the playoffs just three times in their franchise history—but two of those came in the last three years. They're also riding a four-year streak of playoff appearances for the first time in franchise history.

    The building blocks are in place in the State of Hockey. It's time to win. Now.

    Projected Playoff Finish: The Wild have had trouble gaining playoff traction, and Boudreau's an excellent regular-season coach who was unable to deliver a Cup in his previous stints with the Washington Capitals and Anaheim Ducks.

    This year, the scene might be set to turn two negatives into a positive. Hanzal was the focal point of Minnesota's trade-deadline activity and will give the Wild good depth down the middle, but the agitating White is the kind of player who tends to make playoff headlines. 

    Both are off to a good start in their first three games in their new home. Hanzal has two assists while White has chipped in two goals and an assist in wins over the Los Angeles Kings and Winnipeg Jets, then a 1-0 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets.

    Don't be surprised to see Minnesota fighting it out in this year's Western Conference Final.

3. San Jose Sharks

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    2016-17 Record: 63 GP, 38-18-7, 83 pts, first in Pacific Division, third in Western Conference

    Impact of Trade-Deadline Moves

    The San Jose Sharks' makeover during the summer of 2015 paid immediate dividends. Led by new coach Peter DeBoer, new starting netminder Martin Jones and the bearded wonders Joe Thornton and Brent Burns, the Sharks reached the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their 25-year franchise history.

    After that kind of success, it's no wonder the Sharks have basically maintained the status quo.

    Backup netminder Aaron Dell was promoted from the AHL San Jose Barracuda and has impressed with a 1.88 goals-against average and .935 save percentage in 13 appearances, which saved Sharks management from shopping for a backup goaltender at the trade deadline.

    General manager Doug Wilson did make one trade-deadline move, acquiring versatile winger Jannik Hansen from the Vancouver Canucks. Hansen's a dependable two-way player who can chip in offensively in a top-six role. He's also a tenacious defensive player and penalty killer. Best of all, Hansen brings plenty of speed—an area where the Sharks were exposed against the Pittsburgh Penguins in last year's Stanley Cup Final.

    Projected Playoff Finish: Wilson was able to add Hansen without giving up a rostered player, so the Sharks will be a little bit deeper going into this year's postseason. Add in the experience they gained last spring and they're well positioned for another long run. The Sharks could very well be the team that comes out of the West for the second straight year.

2. Washington Capitals

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    2016-17 Record: 63 GP, 43-13-7, 93 pts, first in Pacific Division, third in Western Conference

    Impact of Trade-Deadline Moves

    Here we go again. Is this the year the Washington Capitals finally put it all together and capture their franchise's first Stanley Cup?

    Last season, the Caps captured the Presidents' Trophy with 120 points. Though they got off to a bit of a slow start this year, through 63 games they're once again leading the league standings—and on pace for 121 points.

    It's understandable that the team has made only a couple of changes since getting bounced by the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round last season. Lars Eller was acquired during the offseason to boost the team's depth at center but Washington scored big in the Kevin Shattenkirk sweepstakes, bringing in the coveted scoring defenseman from the St. Louis Blues to add offensive punch to the blue line.

    Projected Playoff Finish: It's always a battle to get out of the Metropolitan Division, and this year won't be any different. Washington is virtually assured of a first-place finish, which could mean a relatively easy first round against a wild-card team from the Atlantic Division like the Toronto Maple Leafs or Florida Panthers.

    The rest of the Metro is still in flux, so Washington will almost certainly need to find a way to get past at least one of the Pittsburgh Penguins or New York Rangers if they hope to get past the second round for the first time since the 1997-98 season.

    If the Capitals can conquer that challenge, they'll be serious Stanley Cup contenders through the rest of the playoffs.

1. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

    2016-17 Record: 63 GP, 38-16-8, 86 pts, third in Metropolitan Division, third in Eastern Conference

    Impact of Trade-Deadline Moves

    A run of injuries to defensemen led Pittsburgh Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford to load up at that position at the trade deadline. It's a decision that could serve him well if the defending Stanley Cup champions are able to go on another deep postseason run.

    Per Rotoworld, Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley is looking at an early April return after undergoing knee surgery. Olli Maatta should also be back around the same time after a hand injury and Kris Letang is day-to-day with an upper-body injury. Justin Schultz also suffered a concussion on February 17 that left him sidelined for three games leading up to the trade deadline.

    Rutherford filled his short-term holes with veteran steadiness, bringing in 35-year-old Ron Hainsey from the Carolina Hurricanes and 39-year-old Mark Streit from the Philadelphia Flyers, via the Tampa Bay Lightning. Journeyman Frankie Corrado was also added from the Toronto Maple Leafs organization as extra insurance.

    Projected Playoff Finish: Maatta and Daley should be back from their injuries before the beginning of the playoffs, hopefully refreshed and ready for two more months of hockey. But the Stanley Cup playoffs are a war of attrition. Teams that can successfully fill holes when injuries strike are often the last ones standing.

    Rutherford's defensive acquisitions will fill the holes on the Pittsburgh blue line in the last 20 games of the season. They'll also be excellent insurance as the Penguins strive to become the first repeat Stanley Cup champions since the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

       

    Stats from NHL.com, current through games Mar. 3. Trade details from the Sportsnet Trade Tracker.

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