With the puck dropped on the NHL pre-season we are just a few weeks away from the start of the 2011-12 NHL campaign. Once that happens each team will play a full 82 game schedule. Following that the top 16 teams will go through a grueling 2 month tournament to try and get their names on Lord Stanley's coveted silver mug. That is a lot of hockey between now and then, and injuries to key players, the surprise breakthrough of a previously unheralded player, or just plain good or back luck can obviously change the fortunes of any of the 30 NHL franchises. Still, it is fun to look ahead to June and prognosticate with club will be hoisting the Stanley Cup 9 months from now.
In today's NHL there is a lot more parity than in days gone by. Part of this is due to the implementation of the salary cap (and salary floor) in the last Collective Bargaining Agreement. However, another big reason for the narrowing of the gap between teams - particularly on any given night - is the massive improvement in individual player training, fitness and the implementation of modern technology to help with player development and coaching. As such, picking the top 5 Stanley Cup contenders for 2012 is an even tougher task than it has been in past years. I love a challenge though, so here are my picks for the top Stanley Cup contenders for 2012:
5 - San Jose Sharks
Yes, it seems like the San Jose Sharks are an annual inclusion on this list, and year after year they let the hockey pundits, their fans and themselves down with an early playoff exit. However, last year they made a pretty good run, making it as far as they've ever been (the Western Conference semi-finals) before finally bowing out to the Vancouver Canucks. They've got a Stanley Cup winning goaltender in Antti Niemi and their solid core of talented veteran forwards - particularly Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau, Joe Pavelski and Ryan Clowe - will be thirstier than ever for a sip out of the cup. They've got one of the NHL's best young players in Logan Couture. If he can improve upon last season's impressive point totals the Sharks will certainly be laughing in the goal-scoring department. The Sharks also, have some new faces this year. It is too early to say if trading any Dany Heatley for Martin Havlat was a step forwards, back or sideways, but Heatley was roundly criticized for his poor season last year, so a fresh face in the lineup should be a good thing. Colin White and Michal Handzus bring in some veteran leadership both at the blueline and forward positions. The biggest addition to the Sharks' roster, however, is versatile defenseman Brent Burns. Burns is coming off a career year where he had career highs in goals (17) and points (46). He will be a huge asset on the man advantage and should take some of the offensive pressure off of Dan Boyle. He has also played forward in the past, so if the Sharks happen to run into injury trouble at the forward position Burns is capable of moving up front as well.
I believe the Sharks are a stronger team than last year. Still, it will be very tough for them to come out of the competitive Western Conference, but with their strength throughout their lineup it certainly wouldn't be an upset if they did end up representing the west in the Stanley Cup Finals.
4 - Pittsburgh Penguins
This pick comes with a very strong caveat: Sidney Crosby's health. Crosby looks to be close to a full recovery from a concussion he suffered in the NHL's Winter Classic Game last January. Before that injury happened he was absolutely tearing the league apart, leading the stats sheet in both goals and points by a wide margin. If he can come back at 100% and (knock on wood) he doesn't suffer any setbacks or new injuries this season he should walk away with the Rocket Richard, Art Ross and Hart Trophies this season.
Of course, no man, not even one as talented as Crosby, wins the Stanley Cup by himself. Sid has plenty of help though. Evgeni Malkin plays in Crosby's shadow, but if he was anywhere but Pittsburgh he would get top billing. He already has an Art Ross and a Conn Smythe of his own under his belt, and if he can stay healthy for a full season he won't have any problem eclipsing the 100 point mark. Expect a big year from newcomer James Neal as he becomes comfortable in the Pens' system, particularly if he gets to play with Crosby.
Kris Letang had a breakout year last year and should only get better. He and Brooks Orpik will anchor the blueline once again, and Marc-Andre Fleury should be one of the top 5 goalies in the NHL this season. With their roster and their previous playoff experience (2 Stanley Cup Finals appearance with 1 Stanley Cup victory) the Pens will once again to win it all come this spring.
3 - Boston Bruins
Sorry Bruins fans. Your defending champs only get the #3 seed. Still, that's not too shabby considering the competition. Balance is the key word when it comes to the Bruins's chances for success. Yes, they boast a pair of superstars in Conn Smythe and Vezina Trophy winning goalie Tim Thomas and perennial Norris Trophy threat Zdeno Chara, but it is their balanced attack at the forward position that will be key for them if they want to repeat. Players like David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron, Nathan Horton, Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand will all have to repeat their performance of last year's playoffs if the Bruins are going to win again. If last year's #2 overall draft pick - Tyler Seguin - can bust out in his sophomore year, it will go a long ways to improve the Bruins' chances.
Bruins' fans should keep in mind the potential of a Stanley Cup hangover. The Bruins were pushed to seven games in three of the four series they played last spring, and haven't had much time to rest and recover. Fatigue and injuries could have an impact if they make a deep playoff run in 2012.
2 - Vancouver Canucks
Last year's President's Trophy winners should again be in the mix as the NHL's best regular season team this year. Yes, the loss of Christian Ehrhoff hurts, and Ryan Kesler is probably looking at November until he returns to the team, but other than that the team is looking good starting the 2011-12 campaign. With two of the league's most talented players in the Sedin twins, one of the best goalies in Roberto Luongo and unparalleled depth throughout their lineup the Canucks should soar to the top of the Western Conference standings this year.
Like the Bruins, the Canucks will have to deal with the short turnaround time between last spring's playoffs and the start of the regular season. However, their game 7 loss in the Stanley Cup Finals should leave them hungrier than any other team to get their mitts on the cup, and that hunger should help sustain them against the inevitable fatigue they are sure to face this year.
1 - Washington Capitals
Like the San Jose Sharks, the playoff runs of the Washington Capitals have been fraught with disappointment. Year after year they are among the NHL's best regular season teams, but come playoff time they just haven't been able to find the grit and determination to progress beyond the second round of the playoffs. In my opinion, this is the year that changes. The Caps are scary good, with Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green all among the top players in the league at their respective positions. All four of those players had disappointing years last year, so look for all of them to have bounceback years this season.
The Caps have also had more time to adjust to coach Bruce Boudreau's new defensive system. With all their talent the offense should take care of itself. If they can get on the same page and play good defense the Caps are going to be a nightmare for any opposing team in a seven game series.
Perhaps the greatest reason for my opinion that this will be the Caps' year is the acquisition of veteran tender Tomas Vokoun. Vokoun has been one of the best goalies in the league over the past five years. Unfortunately, playing for Nashville and then Florida he hasn't had a lot of offensive help. Vokoun signed with the Caps at a huge discount ($1.5 million for 1 year) over what he could have commanded as an unrestricted free agent. It is clear he wants to win and he will definitely get that chance with the Caps.
The additions of Troy Brouwer, Jeff Halpern and Roman Hamrlik also give the Caps more experience and grit, two traits that should serve them well come playoff time.