Every off-season 29 NHL teams try and figure out what went wrong, and what they need to do in order to inch their teams closer to capturing the Stanley Cup, while one team tries to figure out how to bottle lightning and keep the magic from their cup win alive in an attempt to repeat the following season. After this off-season, it again appears as though we’re going to have a Western Conference team capturing Lord Stanley, showcasing the discrepancy in talent between conferences for yet another year. With honourable mention to the Dallas Stars, who may make this list next year, here are the five teams that are most likely going to win the Stanley Cup in 2014-15.
5 Minnesota Wild
Maybe a slight long shot to some pundits, the Wild, on paper at least, have a really good team. Their group of top six forwards, which includes Zach Parise, Mikko Koivu, Mikael Granlund, Jason Pominville and the newly acquired Thomas Vanek, can compete with almost anybody in the Western Conference, and can handle most in the Eastern Conference on any given night. There are plenty of goals to be scored by this group.
Beyond the top six, the controversial Matt Cooke leads the depth chart that, while not filled with household names, has some ability to shut other teams down. The Wild’s biggest strength beyond its core group of forwards however, is juggernaut defenseman Ryan Suter. Arguably one of the top three best defensemen in the game, Suter stabilizes the Wild’s blue line on his own, making the cast of the lesser-known players who surround him better by proxy. The Wild’s blue line, and Stanley Cup chances live and die with Suter more than anyone other individual on the team.
Perhaps the biggest "wild" card for Minnesota, and perhaps the reason they are only ranked fifth on this list, is due to goaltending. A healthy Wild net is a dangerous proposition; unfortunately, the Wild’s net hasn’t been healthy in a few years. Starter Niklas Backstrom, when healthy, has been one of the best and most consistent goalies in the league, capable of backstopping a good team to a Stanley Cup victory, and Josh Harding has been the consummate back up for Backstrom.
However, at 36 years of age, time has caught up to Backstrom as he has been injured more often than not the past two seasons, while tragically Harding was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis a few years ago. Miraculously he has still been able to play, and play very well, but only for short periods of time before his illness forces him off the ice. Add to the fact that the Wild and third goalie Darcy Kuemper are still at an impasse in contract negotiations and a very precarious situation in net awaits the team in a month.
The team announced that both Backstrom and Harding are healthy and ready for the season, so for the Wild’s sake let us hope. If the team can stay healthy in net, and make a move for a defenseman and a bottom six forward during the season, a Stanley Cup is not out of the question.
4 Pittsburgh Penguins
The only team in the Eastern Conference with even remotely enough talent to contend with the top five teams from the West (no, Boston is not a cup contender anymore), the Penguins are in a precarious situation as a group. Any other year and the Penguins would be on this list for talent alone, but this year, maybe the year they don’t deserve to be considered Stanley Cup contenders, may be the year they actually live up to the massive potential that this talented team can fulfil.
After years of playoff failures following their Stanley Cup win in 2009, the Penguins finally overhauled their front office and coaching staff, bringing in veteran General Manager Jim Rutherford to replace Ray Shero, and hiring newcomer Mike Johnston to coach the team.
Clearly, whether you love or hate the Penguins, it’s obvious that the team posses a great deal of talent. Sidney Crosby is the best player in the world, and Evgeni Malkin is probably the second best, when he chooses to be. The supporting cast around these two superstars is as deep as anybody else has in the East, and on the blue line the Penguins boast major offensive threats from the likes of Kris Letang and newcomer Christian Erhoff, while Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi offer a more shutdown style of defensive play.
In net, much maligned Marc-Andre Fleury will return as starter, hoping to play well enough to earn himself a new contract as he’s set to become a UFA at season's end. Thomas Greiss will more than likely be Fleury’s back up and if Fleury can’t hack it during the regular season, or has a meltdown in the playoffs as he’s prone to do, the former San Jose Shark Greiss will fill in more than admirably.
Maybe the Penguins really don’t have any reason to be on this list. But with all the talent on this team, the amount of playoff letdowns they’ve incurred and the resulting front office and coaching staff culling, this season might be the last time the talent on this team gets a free pass before it’s not just G.M.’s and coaches Mario Lemieux and co. are getting rid of. This team has something to prove this year, which could make them quite dangerous.
3 Anaheim Ducks
Anaheim could be higher on this list. Maybe they should be, but not this year. In a year’s time, after goaltender John Gibson has won rookie of the year, and the Ducks head office goes out and makes a tough trade to land a top two defenseman, the Ducks may very well be higher on this list. If their young trio of defensemen, Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen and Hampus Lindholm mature their game the way they quietly did last year, Gibson proves to be the real deal in net and G.M. Tim Murray can land a major defenseman, the way Brian Burke’s addition of Chris Pronger put the 2007 Ducks over the edge, Anaheim is my shoe in pick for 2016 Stanley Cup champion. But, as it stands, the likelihood of all three of those must have scenarios happening next year are slim.
With Jonas Hiller left to walk via free agency, the Ducks have rookie prospect Gibson in net, as well as Frederick Andersen who was equal parts great and awful last season. The Ducks actually went through three different starters in net in last season’s playoffs, and had three separate starters during the regular season as well. The Ducks need stability in net first and foremost, and how much of the upheaval in the crease is due to coach Bruce Budreau and his bad reputation with goalies will remain to be seen.
On defence, the team is still quite young. Sure Francois Beauchemin has won a cup, and is about as reliable as they come, but beyond that and aging veteran Sheldon Souray, it’s either a kid’s or a journeyman’s blue line. The Ducks are going to need to pick up a big time piece on the blue line, or see a massive leap in maturity from their young guys, preferably both, if they are to compete with the powerhouses in the west.
Up front however, this great group of forwards got even better over the summer. Ryan Kesler, one of the best two-way forwards in the game, joins superstars Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry, as well as young talents Devante Smith-Pelly and Jakob Silfverberg to form a deadly top six. In all honesty, the addition of Dany Heatley, even with such a dramatic decline in production, doesn’t hurt either, because he will either reignite some of his old scoring touch playing on the top line, or he’ll be effective as a bottom six player and on the power play without eating up any real cap space.
It’ll be interesting to see what 2014-15 holds for the Anaheim Ducks. If everything aligns properly, and they find themselves with weaker opponents in the playoffs they may be hoisting the cup next June, surely they can beat any team in the east; if they face either Chicago or L.A. than they may need to wait on planning a parade another year or two.
2 Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks made a few bold and expensive moves this summer, but none of them made the team any better. The matching eight-year, $84 million contract extensions awarded to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane solidified the team’s long term commitment to their two superstars, as well as salary cap anathema, but management did little to address the current status of the team's roster.
Losing game seven at home to Los Angeles, giving up not one, but two two-goal leads in the process, should have been cause for concern for a team with two Stanley Cup victories on their resume since 2010. But the Blackhawks didn’t panic and blow anything up; that’s what playoff success will afford you, some time.
Let’s also not forget that the Blackhawks still have a great team. In 2013 they met Los Angeles in the Western Conference Finals and the winner would have gone on to win the cup. That year it was Chicago, and in a rematch, last year Los Angeles defeated the Blackhawks and won the cup. The NHL may see this trend continue for another year or two before the rest of the league catches up.
Chicago still boasts the best two-way centre man and captain in the league in Jonathan Toews, some of the most dynamic offensive threats in the league in Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp, and arguably the best defenseman in the game, Duncan Keith. Add to the fact that goaltender Corey Crawford is improving yearly, and the signing of centre man Brad Richards adds to the team's power play prowess and defensive responsibility and it could very well be another Chicago vs. Los Angeles rematch in the Western Conference Finals.
1 Los Angeles Kings
Even after all of the moves that the 29 other teams made during the off-season, it is this writer’s opinion that the Los Angeles Kings are the best team in the NHL. They may not be the best regular season team in the league, nor the highest scoring; they may not even be the best on paper (that may go to Chicago), but the Kings are the best playoff team in the league. They are the team no one else wants to play a best-of-seven series against, they are the team that can get into your head better than any other (ask San Jose), and they are the team with the most dynamic game breakers in the playoffs.
With two Stanley Cups won in two entirely different fashions in three seasons, the Kings are on top of the hockey world. Moreover, many of their players are just now coming into their prime. Only five players on the Kings roster are 30 or older, and the majority of the team's superstars, like Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar aren’t even 27 yet. Add to that youth with so much experience in victory already a very healthy dose of veteran leadership in Conne Smythe winner Justin Williams and playoff point leader Marian Gaborik, who signed a long-term deal with the team this summer. Also remember L.A. possesses the best goalie in league in Jonathan Quick and it becomes clear the Kings are poised for a repeat. A repeat in the modern NHL is near impossible, and three Stanley Cups in four years seems absurd, but if any team can do it, it’s the Los Angeles Kings.