Who do you think will be cup contenders this year? Say all the teams re-signed their important players(Staal, Niskanen, Neal, Ryan, etc.), who would you expect to battle for the cup? I'm not asking for predictions of how the divisions or how the seeds will look, I'm just wondering who do you think has a good chance of going to the Stanley Cup from each conference? Check out my input after the jump.
Pittsburgh Penguins - With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, and newly acquired Mike Comrie in the middle of their line-up, the Pens have a good chance I think. That arguably has to be the best core of centers any team in the NHL can offer. It also doesn't hurt having a good, solid defense with Brooks Orpik and Zybnek Michalek as the two shut down defenseman and also one of the best American puck moving defenseman in Paul Martin, as well as Kris Letang and Alex Goligoski providing lots of offense from the backline. With that defense and a good goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury, they should be a tough team to beat. The only real weakness I can see on that team is the lack of proven scoring wingers. But, I can see them in the mix for the cup.
Philadelphia Flyers - The Flyers have bolstered their defense a lot this offseason. Although they lost Gagne, they in return received Andrej Meszaros who isn't exactly a top pairing defenseman, but is a great 3rd pairing defenseman. Chris Pronger, Kimmo Timmonen, Matt Carle, Braydon Coburn, Andrej Meszaros, Sean O'Donnell, and Matt Walker should be the starting defense with an extra defenseman as a scratch, and any of those players would most likely be a top 4 defenseman on most teams, especially the Rangers. With a good balanced offense including top players Mike Richards, Jeff Carter, Danny Briere. But if Claude Giroux and James Van Riemsdyk can improve to what their projected to be, then the Flyers would be a scary team, plus having Scott Hartnell and Nikolai Zherdev shouldn't hurt. Although their goalies aren't exactly the best, their spectacular defense should help out Brian Boucher and Michael Leighton. Fresh off a Stanley Cup defeat, expect the Flyers to contend again.
New Jersey Devils - I didn't want to put them here, but I think they have too good of a team to not contend. With Kovalchuk and Parise possibly scoring 40+ goals, Zajac, Arnott, Elias, and Rolston all being able to net at least 20. And although their defense is suspect, they've added a good shut down guy in Henrik Tallinder and one of the best in Anton Volchenkov. Colin White, Bryce Salvador, and Mark Fraser are also guys that can hit and play solid defense with Andy Greene being the offensive one on the backline. And of course we can't forget that fatso, he still has not slowed down or shown his age in past seasons, you know what to expect from Marty, plus with Johan Hedberg as a steady backup, expect Brodeur to get some more rest this year, which should keep him fresher and ready come playoff time.
Washington Capitals - The favorite team out of the east last year had an early exit to a surging Montreal team. A team with a stacked offense offers the best forward with Alex Ovechkin, one of the best playmakers in the league with Nicklas Backstrom, a dangerous winger in Alex Semin, and also Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich, Tomas Fleishmann, and Eric Fehr. Mike Green is arguably the best offensive defenseman in the league, but he is clearly a defensive liability. He didn't show up in the Montreal series (as many Caps did not) as he was exposed and undressed at defense. But with up-coming offensive defensemen in John Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Josh Godfrey, the Caps offense should probably increase this year. And although Jeff Schultz, Tom Poti, and John Erskine are their shutdown guys, their overall defense is still suspect. Plus, with inexperienced goaltender Semyon Varlamov, that could be a problem, but we have all seen Varlamov's brilliance at times and now is his chance to flourish.
Boston Bruins - Although some people might not think of the Bruins as a cup contender, I think they can be a dangerous team that should win the Northeast. Whether they trade Marc Savard or not, they still have a potent offense with Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, Milan Lucic, Mark Recchi, and newly acquired Nathan Horton. Blake Wheeler also has another year under the belt and can only improve, plus the 2nd overall pick in the draft, Tyler Seguin, should be a stud in the future and is talented enough to produce now. Tuukka Rask was phenomenal in net last season and he also has much potential to improve. Their defense led by Zdeno Chara, who won the Norris Trophy in 2009. But other than Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, their defense isn't exactly top end. Andrew Ference, Johnny Boychuk, and Matt Hunwick aren't bad at all, they're all have room for improvement, but Rask seems like the goalie that can pick the defense up. Besides Chara and Seidenberg, their defense won't put up many points, but they are solid defensively.
Los Angeles Kings - I think this team is one of the best balanced teams in the NHL, they aren't particularly great in anything, but they don't have much of a weakness. Their captain, Dustin Brown, plays the game as hard as he can and punishes players while adding a good amount of offense in his game. Anze Kopitar will be entering his 5th NHL season, and he turned 23 not even 2 weeks ago, he has a tremendous upside in offense and has already produced at a high level, he can only get better. Their offense also features experienced players who can still produce with Michal Handzus, Ryan Smyth, Justin Williams, Jarret Stoll, and newly acquired Alexei Ponikarovsky. They also have Wayne Simmonds who should be a good player for years to come, and also one of the best prospects in Brayden Schenn who could make their team this year. Their goaltending is good with Jonathan Quick and also Jonathan Bernier, who are both young but can be great in the future, especially Bernier. What makes this team great though, is their defense in my opinion. One of the best defenseman in the league, Drew Doughty, is sensational. Jack Johnson is a great offensive defenseman who also plays solid defense. Thomas Hickey is also one of the Kings top prospects that could make the team this year, he is much like Jack Johnson and could be used in powerplay situations if he makes the team. The Kings also have great shutdown defensemen that can hit hard and block tons of shots with Rob Scuderi, Matt Greene, and the recently signed Willie Mitchell.
Vancouver Canucks - Probably the best overall team in the league in my opinion. They feature a high powered offense with Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Alex Burrows, Ryan Kesler, Mason Raymond, Mikael Samuelsson and newly acquired Manny Malhotra and Raffi Torres should provide a good toughness while also being capable of scoring 15+ goals. They also have former 1st rounders Cody Hodgson and Jordan Schroeder who are expected to be top line players in the future. Their defense is also amazing with Christian Ehrhoff(44 points), Sami Salo(28 points), Alex Edler(42 points), Kevin Bieska(22 points) who can shut down other teams top lines and also provide a good amount of offense. Also, acquiring top defenseman Keith Ballard(28 points) and Dan Hamhuis(24 points) makes their defense outstandingly great on both sides of the ice. And as if their defense isn't great enough, they also have arguably the best goalie in the NHL with Roberto Luongo behind that great D. Expect them to seriously contend for the Cup.
San Jose Sharks - They've been in the playoffs the last 9 years and that streak shouldn't stop this year. With the Olympic line(Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau) getting tons of points and one of the best lines in the league, they should contend for the cup this year again. Their 2nd line with Ryane Clowe, who provides a great amount of grit and toughness in front of the net, Joe Pavelski who was terrific in the playoffs, and also Devin Setoguchi who can provide a good amount of offense and that whole lines can easily put up 20+ goals each. Their other 2 lines are mainly checking lines who play responsible defense and they play their roles great. On defense, Dan Boyle creates a lot of offense with his spectacular puck moving and also can put the puck in the net. Marc-Edouard Vlasic is only 23, but he is one of their top defenseman and can play at a high level at both sides of the ice. Douglas Murray and Kent Huskins can also play good defense, block shots, and also punish opposing players. They have a solid defense, but the loss of Rob Blake could leave a big gap on defense. And losing Evgeni Nabokov to the KHL was also a big loss, but he has been replaced by a good pair of Fins, Antero Niittymaki and Antti Niemi. Niemi, who just won the cup last season, played superb in his rookie season, and could be a good replacement for Nabokov, as well as Niittymaki who should split starts with Niemi.
Chicago Blackhawks - The defending Stanley Cup Champs are very much in contention again. Although they have lost many players this offseason due to cap issues, the core of their team is still intact. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, and Marian Hossa are highly skilled players who would play on the 1st line on almost any team and they all have the ability to score 30+ goals. And Dave Bolland, who is also a great defensive forward can score at 20+ along with Troy Brouwer also. Duncan Keith, the Norris Trophy winner can shut down any teams top line, create offense with his puck moving ability, and even fire the puck into the net. His partner, Brent Seabrook is a big punishing defenseman that can block a bunch of shots and make some of the hardest hits. Niklas Hjalmarsson is just 23, but he has proven he can play great at his young age and he will only get better as well as Ivan Vishnevsky, who they received in the Atlanta trade, and he has tremendous upside and should be producing a good amount of points from the blueline when he gets his chance. They also have veteran defensemen Nick Boynton, who can provide solid defense, and Brian Campbell, who can create offense and he has shown that by scoring at least 44+ points since the lockout, excluding last season due to injury, but he would've most likely hit that mark had he not been injured. And they have replaced Antti Niemi, who they couldn't sign also due to cap issues, with verteran Marty Turco. They'll try to see if Turco has any gas left in the tank, and if he wants to win a cup then this is his best chance, if not then most likely Cristobal Huet would take over, who has disappointed since his arrival to Chicago.
Sorry if this post was too long, but hopefully I've provided some good insight on the teams that I think have the best chance to win the Cup. What do you guys think?