With September almost upon us and the thoughts of hockey fans once more turning to their beloved frozen sport I thought I’d look ahead and try to predict which teams would be the greatest threat to win the Stanley Cup in 2011. Though, because of the salary cap, there is more parity in the NHL than ever before there are a few teams that have separated themselves from the pack. In no particular order here are my picks for the best bets to win next year’s Stanley Cup championship:
Though they lost out in the quarterfinals last year to the Chicago Blackhawks, the Nucks actually might have been one mental lapse away from taking home the cup themselves last year. After beating the Blackhawks handily in Chicago in game one of last year’s playoff series, they also flirted with victory in game two. A breakdown on a Vancouver powerplay led to a momentum-swinging shorthanded goal for the Hawks, who would go on to win the game. As it turned out that momentum swing was bigger than it first seemed. Had the Nucks held on to win that game, there is a strong possibility they would have held on to win the series. San Jose and Philadelphia both would have presented challenges, but I believe last year’s Vancouver Canucks were good enough to beat both those teams.
This year they may be even stronger. With the off-season acquisitions of Dan Hamhuis and Keith Ballard the Canucks now boast the deepest blueline in the league. Henrik Sedin should against challenge for the Art Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer, and one of his main challengers may very well be his brother Daniel, who would have been up near the top last year if not for a long layoff due to injury.
Ryan Kesler and Alex Burrows should provide plenty of secondary scoring punch, and if Mikael Samuelsson can continue to score at the surprising clip he did last year then offense should be no problem for the Canucks.
The biggest key to whether or not the Canucks hoist the Stanley Cup next year lies between the pipes. Roberto Luongo has been one of the NHL’s premier goaltenders through much of the past decade. If he can find his top form during next spring’s playoff run the Canucks will be a very tough team for anyone to beat. It is a make or break year for Luongo. If he has another average performance in the post-season he may find himself in greener pastures, with back-up Cory Schneider stepping up to the number one job.
Will this finally be Ovie’s year? Ovechkin has been a regular season dynamo, tearing up the league with his pedal to the medal physical style and his superlative shooting ability. He has been arguably the most dominant player in the league over the past five years, and his supporting cast of Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green, and Alexander Semin hasn’t been too shabby either. However, despite the fact that the Caps are laden with all that talent, they’ve failed to advance beyond the second round of the playoffs during Ovechkin’s tenure there.
Three times they’ve bowed out in game sevens over the past three seasons, losing to the Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens respectively. In all fairness to the Caps they deserved a better fate against the Habs last year. They dominated them from start to finish in the series, but a goaltending performance for the ages by Jaroslav Halak kept them from ushering the Canadiens out of the playoffs in short order, and when the dust settled on game seven, the Habs were moving on to face the Penguins and the Caps were cleaning out their lockers for the season.
It is said that every great team must first face adversity before becoming champions. The Capitals have faced their fair share and then some. A year older, wiser and hungrier the Capitals are going to be a force to be reckoned with this season. They should roll through the Eastern Conference, and will be a handful for whichever Western Conference team meets them in the finals.
When they take to the ice for the 2010-11 season the Chicago Blackhawks will be a vastly different team than the one that hoisted the Stanley Cup a few short months ago. Because of salary cap issues the club has been forced to deal key cogs of last year’s playoff run. Gone are Dustin Byfuglien, Kris Versteeg, Andrew Ladd, and goaltender Antti Niemi. The absence of these players has left a huge void in the Chicago lineup. Still, despite their departure the Blackhawks still have plenty of star power to contend for a Stanley Cup.
Captain Jonathan Toews, last year’s Conn Smythe winner, is still just 22 years old. With another year of experience under his belt look for him to start to challenge guys like Crosby and Ovechkin as one of the elite players in the game.
Slick winger Patrick Kane is even younger. Kane won’t celebrate his 22nd birthday until November, and at his tender young age he already possesses a skill-set that is the envy of most other NHL players. Though he lacks size, his speed, shiftiness and intelligence more than make up for it. Don’t be surprised if he eclipses the 100 point plateau this year.
On defense the Hawks will once again boast the best number one pairing in the league. Norris Trophy winner Duncan Keith, and Team Canada Olympic teammate Brent Seabrook are a near perfect blend of speed, skill and physicality. They will play huge minutes, shutting down opposing teams’ best players while putting up strong offensive numbers of their own.
The biggest question for the Hawks will be in goal. As I mentioned above Antti Niemi is gone. Filling his skates will be veteran netminder Marty Turco. In years gone by Turco was one of the best goalies in the game, but his play has slipped over the past couple of seasons with the Dallas Stars. If the change in scenery is enough to reinvigorate him then the Hawks have a decent chance of repeating as Stanley Cup champions.
I will be very surprised if one of those three teams don’t win the cup this coming season. Sure there are dark horses like the San Jose Sharks, Pittsburgh Penguins, New Jersey Devils, Philadelphia Flyers and Detroit Red Wings, but if I were a betting man my money would be on the Canucks, Hawks or Capitals.