So yesterday we examined the teams that did not battle for the cup, and aside from the top few teams in each conference, there’s no reason to believe there’ll be a lot of breakthrough from those bottom teams. That leaves the 16 playoff teams from this year. But what do they need to do to drink from the cup?
Starting with the lowest seeded teams regardless of conference, we’ll work our way up to the best of the best: the Boston Bruins.
16. New York Rangers: It seems that for the last few years the final seed in the East has come down to the last game or two, and this year was no exception. The Rangers squeeked in, only to be put to bed by the high powered Washington Capitals. As I said last year, this team has a ton of talent, but is relying too heavily on players without a playoff pedigree. Marian Gaborik is an all world talent, but his health will be the difference between this team fighting for the cup, or fighting for the 8th seed. That being said, they’ll taste the playoffs again baring major injury to their catalyst in Henrik Lundqvist.
15. Buffalo Sabres: This team, to me anyways, is an enigma. One superstar in Tomas Vanek, followed by a lot of middling forwards and some on-again off-again defensemen. This team reminds me a lot of my own beloved Boston Bruins with a few pieces missing. The Boyes deal could work out to be a great one, but they’re one dish man away from elite status.
14. Montreal Canadiens: As usual, the Canadiens seemed to be nipping at the Bruins heels in the Northeast division until they faded slightly at the end of the regular season. A little more consistency out of their big name players, and the addition of one or two more gritty guys who can help Travis Moen patrol the ice would go help their goal of a deep playoff run.
13. Chicago Blackhawks: It seems strange to me that a team with such depth and talent could be the 13th place team, but alas, there were times it seemed they may not make the playoffs. The cap issues they dealt with last season isn’t nearly as dire, but even with the cap numbers increasing, they have to sign 6 or 7 guys with approxamitly 7-8 million. Doesn’t speak to much improvement. If they can move a salary like Sharp, and sign or trade for a real goalie, this team could find itself back in the hunt. Otherwise, they could struggle to make the playoffs again.
12. L.A. Kings: This was a disappointing end to a great momentum building season. With young studs Anze Kopitar up front, and Drew Doughty on the blue line, as well as the youthful yet talented roster, this team will be a force this year. If Anze returns to full health that is. A nice mix of veteran leaders (Smyth, Penner) and some blue-chip prospects, this team is poised for great things.
11. Pheonix Coyotes: Knowing you’re not going to have to move is going to only help this team. Still, this team is in need of a superstar identity. There’s so many teams courting Brad Richards that the scenario is becoming cliche, but a player like Richards is what this team needs. He’s won the cup, he can play at both ends of the ice, and he’s thrived in smaller markets. I don’t think it’ll happen, but until they can land themselves their franchise player, they’ll toil in the middle of the field (and probably lose to the Red Wings come playoff time).
10. Nashville Predators: If you’re asking me my opinion, this team overachieved immensely, and will probably crash back down to earth. The saving grace here? Pekka Rinne, is still young, and seems to have established himself as a stud between the pipes. Get this team a little speed on offense and maybe they can do a bit more against the better playoff teams.
9. Anaheim Ducks: Is it just me, or did we witness the beginning of a dangerous Western Conference team? In what universe does the scenario occur that Ryan Getzlaf is the third best player on your team? This is indeed the case with Bobby Ryan and Corey Perry having a coming out last year. Aside from resigning or replacing Teemu Selanne, and adding a bit of 3rd and 4th line depth, this team is set for a deep playoff run as the big guns in the West are declining or rebuilding to an extent.
8. Tampa Bay Lightning: A team with great offense will score a lot of goals, but watching them in a 7 game series made me wonder if they have what it takes with this current roster to win 16 playoff games. A superstar talent in Stamkos needs to be better in clutch time if they want to have a chance. That being said, defensively their system works, but I don’t trust the sum of their parts.
7. See: Champions
6. Detroit Red Wings: Age is beginning to catch up to the Wings as the core of their team continues to inch past its prime. The key to a revival is to use some of that cap space (17 million +) to find some young guys who can play the hybrid European style they play. Datsyuk and Zetterberg will be good as usual, but there’s no garuntee that Franzen returns to his previous glory, and Lindstrom IS 4 million years old. If they can’t begin to put into place some young talent, this team could fade down the stretch.
5. San Jose Sharks: Is there any real way to predict how this team will perform? A perenial regular season monster, this team seems to flip the switch OFF when it costs the most. Whether you believe it’s Joe Thorntons legacy as a guy who couldn’t get it done or not, this team is too soft to compete with the likes of the West. Ultra talented, this team’s identy needs an overhaul, and I expect it to come this off season. Whether it’s Marleau, Heatley, or someone else, expect this team to look VERY different next year.
4. Pittsburg Penguins: A team built to compete, their walls came crashing down when Crosby got himself hurt. If he can come back 100%, this team will find itself near the top of the East, but without him, they’re a bit bottom heavy and don’t really have the depth to compete. They’re still near to the cap, so they won’t have much to spend with, but a savvy veteran pick up, similar to the Bill Guerin one a few years ago, and this team could get that push it needs.
3. Philadelphia Flyers: This is, and will be, the Eastern Conferences proverbial “nemesis”. Built to be a 4 line powerhouse, they probably had to feel they’d have won the cup if they showed up against the Bruins in the second round this year. With a good young group of forwards, and a stud led defensive core, this team is a goalie away from hockey glory. But everyone knows that… except it seems Paul Holmgren. With a stud goalie in Tomas Vokoun as a UFA, it’ll be interesting if they can or want to clear up cap space to make a serious run.
2. Washington Capitals: I’d like to introduce you to the Eastern Conference version of the San Jose Sharks. Despite the incredible offensive force this team is, their weak from the blue-line back. I’ve been a big advocate of trading one of the top guns (Semin anyone?) and investing it in an elite defenseman. Still, I feel this team has probably hit a wall, and with the current lineup won’t break through.
1. Vancouver Canucks: I’m sure it was devastating to be a ‘Nucks fan and to watch them collapse against the Bruins after such a strong march to the cup, but the word Character is something that no one would accuse them of exhibiting. Had Burrows not bit a finger and Aaron Rome not knowingly ran a helpless player, this series may have gone their way, but giving a team incentive, and then trying to dive your way to a championship is a clear path to destruction. There are a lot of guys on that team I respect, I think Malhotra is a great hockey player, I like Raymond, and despite his mouth Bieksa. That being said, Coach Vignault needs to get a handle on this team or be replaced. With talent like they have, he should have had them fired up and firing back instead of the embarrassing turtle job the whole team did.
Stanley Cup Champions (7th). Boston Bruins: It’s easy to say “they’re the best team, and they’ll repeat” and I certainly hope this is true, but to be honest, there’s a lot of talented teams out there, and it’s never easy to play 82 games and be as healthy as the Bruins were right to the end. That being said, looking at this team, realizing only 3 players are hitting free agency and with close to 15 million in cap space to sign them (Marchand, Ryder and Kaberle) I can’t see a scenario where this team doesn’t compete for a few seasons. With so much youth already contributing, this team has contender written all over it.