The 2016-17 NHL season is two months old, and it's definitely been one of the more exciting ones in recent memory. As of this writing, four Canadian teams hold playoff spots. That alone should give the league some much better ratings throughout the season after seemingly everybody stopped watching north of the border during the playoffs.
The Metropolitan Division features five powerhouses - the division is so strong that the Washington Capitals are a Wild Card team. Think about that for an instant. The legend of Connor McDavid has arrived, as he's already in great position to run away with the scoring title. And for once, we have a wide open field when it comes to Stanley Cup contenders. Gone are the days when Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston, and Pittsburgh were the only four contenders. The 2017 NHL playoffs are bound to be one of the most epic in recent times.
Before I reveal my top eight contenders and one reason why they each can/can't win the Cup, you'll notice how the San Jose Sharks, Philadelphia Flyers, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Los Angeles Kings aren't on here. For San Jose, I just don't see an aging core getting through the West with so much ease. The improved Oilers and Flames could make the postseason a lot tougher. I'm just not buying Philly or Columbus to maintain their hot starts, and they'll lack the experience to go deep in the playoffs. For now, the Kings playoff hopes are in jeopardy with Jonathan Quick out until March.
And now, to the top Elite Eight Mobile!
Note: All stats courtesy of ESPN.com
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16 Minnesota Wild: Why They Can
The Wild have qualified for the playoffs in each of the last four seasons, but a lack of starpower has limited them to just two playoff series wins in those seasons. However, they are a much different team in 2016-17 under new head coach Bruce Boudreau, and the State of Hockey could become the State of Stanley in June.
Minnesota is allowing the fewest goals-per-game at 1.96. The Columbus Blue Jackets are the next closest at 2.07. Devan Dubnyk is giving Carey Price a run for his money as the league's top goaltender with a 14-6-3 record, 1.60 goals against average, .947 save percentage and four shutouts. He's simply putting up a monstrous season.
And so much for not being able to score. Eric Staal has enjoyed a resurgent year while Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle are enjoying breakout years. Defence wins championships, and Minny has that. Plus, they can score for once!
15 Minnesota Wild: Why They Can't
The Wild's roster hasn't changed dramatically since 2013. The Chicago Blackhawks have far more star power and eliminated them three-years in a row from 2013-2015. Outside of Ryan Suter, the Wild have plenty of depth, but no starpower. Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Artem Anisimov, Artemi Panarin, Marian Hossa, Brent Seabrook, and Duncan Keith easily overwhelm guys like Staal, Coyle, Zucker, Zach Parise ,and Suter.
The Dallas Stars have one of the worst goaltending tandems in the NHL, but their scoring was too many for Minny in last year's opening round (21 goals in six games).
Sure, the Wild have great defence, but a team that has a ton of scoring can wear out the defence, and Dubnyk can only do so much. Like I said, Minny hasn't been able to stop teams with more talent. Could they really get by Chicago or St. Louis before reaching the Stanley Cup? Recent history suggests it'll be tough.
14 Anaheim Ducks: Why They Can
For the last five years, the Anaheim Ducks have been bonafide Stanley Cup contenders. They have the talent to win every year, but their last four seasons have ended on home ice in Game 7. After so many playoff meltdowns, they fired head coach Bruce Boudreau in 2016 and brought back Randy Carlyle, who coached them to a championship in 2007.
There's not a whole lot different about the 2016 Ducks. Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Cam Fowler, Sami Vatanen, Hampus Lindholm, and John Gibson give them a full roster from top-to-bottom. The only reason to really think this could be their year is the fact they have Carlyle back. He knows what it takes to win a title, and Boudreau is known for having minimal playoff success.
13 Anaheim Ducks: Why They Can't
There are a few factors working against the Ducks here.
First off, we see it year-in and year-out. The playoffs are dominated by younger and faster players. The Ducks' backend is full of young guys who can cruise from end-to-end, but their top forwards have lost a step.
Getzlaf (31), Perry (31), and Kesler (32) aren't in their prime years any more. They remain great players, but they're not the once great postseason performers, either. They've been very limited in scoring during the playoffs, and Anaheim lacks depth outside of their top three forwards to keep up with high-scoring teams.
Also, the Western Conference is stacked with great teams. Even if Anaheim wins the Pacific Division, they'll have to play physical and speedy teams like Nashville, Los Angeles and possibly Edmonton. There are no more cakewalk first round matchups like they had in 2014 against Dallas or 2015 against Winnipeg.
12 St. Louis Blues: Why They Can
The Blues had a reputation as constant playoff failures, but they reached the Western Conference Final and fell just two games short of meeting Pittsburgh for the Stanley Cup. This team is locked and loaded up front and on the back end.
Vladimir Tarasenko should be on his way to another 40-goal season, while Paul Stastny, Alexander Steen, Jaden Schwartz, David Perron, and Robby Fabbri give them so much depth. But it's their defence that also makes them scary. Alex Pietrangelo, Kevin Shattenkirk, Jay Bouwmeester, and Colton Parayko give the Blues a very solid top-four.
You need depth to win in the playoffs, and the Blues have three lines who can score the big goal and they have two great pairings that can hang in there against the best forwards. They did beat the Blackhawks in last year's playoffs, afterall.
11 St. Louis Blues: Why They Can't
The Blues lost a pair of playoff performers in David Backes and Troy Brouwer this past offseason. Backes was a great leader and fantastic at shutting down the opposition's top line. Brouwer brought a ton of grit and toughness to a smaller-sized Blues team.
Backes and Brouwer combined for 15 goals and 28 points in last season's playoffs, and the Blues didn't find suitable replacements. Also, starter Brian Elliot was traded to the Calgary Flames at the Draft, leaving Jake Allen as the undisputed starter. Allen was lackluster at best during the 2015 playoffs, posting a 2-4 record, 2.20 goals against average and porous .904 save percentage. That was against the seventh-seeded Wild who barely got into the playoffs.
So in short, the Blues don't have a number of their key players that helped them win two playoff matchups a year ago. Keep in mind they needed seven games to eliminate both Chicago and Dallas. Can a less-skilled team really get through again in 2017? Hard to like their chances.
10 Washington Capitals: Why They Can
The Capitals have been by far the biggest playoff underachievers since 2008. That dishonur would probably go to San Jose or Vancouver, but at least each of them have recently reached the Stanley Cup Final.
We don't need to discuss Alexander Ovechkin, who is the NHL's premier goal-scorer. Braden Holtby won the Vezina a year ago and could single-handedly carry this team in the playoffs. But Washington also has great depth with Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Brooks Orpik, and Matt Niskanen on the backend.
We know Washington has the talent, and you can't help but think they're simply due for a deep playoff run. They have the hot goalie, the top-notch defence and the goal-scorers. They're bound to break through - that's all we can really say.
9 Washington Capitals: Why They Can't
Despite all of those talents the Capitals have, they could have an extremely tough time reaching the postseason. Let's just assume that Pittsburgh wins the Metro, followed by the Rangers and the Capitals. Here is a look at Washington's possible road to reaching the Stanley Cup Final (they'd possibly have to start all series on the road).
-New York Rangers: Henrik Lundqvist has outdueled Braden Holtby in the 2012, 2013, and 2015 playoffs. He can definitely do it again. Plus, the Rangers are loaded with top-six forwards: Derek Stepan, Jimmy Vesey, Mats Zuccarello, Michael Grabner, Rick Nash, and Mika Zibanejad.
-Pittsburgh Penguins: The team that beat them in the 2016 Playoffs? Pittsburgh has more skill up front and beat Washington with their speed. No reason they can't do it again.
-Montreal Canadiens: You don't want to have to beat Carey Price four times with a trip to the Stanley Cup Final on the line. You just don't.
In short, the Capitals were the top team in a pretty weak Eastern Conference a year ago. The East has a handful of elite squads, and it's going to be tough for Washington to be the last one's standing.
8 New York Rangers: Why They Can
The Rangers Stanley Cup window was deemed close after an embarrassing elimination at the hands of the Penguins in last year's playoffs. They were worn out, looked very slow and it appeared as though they would need to rebuild. The Rangers instead brought in more youth and speed. Now, they're one of the NHL's best and most complete teams.
Henrik Lundqvist is one of the NHL's most clutch performers, so you know he's going to do his part in April. The Rangers added young phenom Jimmy Vesey and world-class skater Michael Grabner to an offence that already has Stepan, Nash, Zuccarello, Chris Kreider, and others. New York has seven guys who could easily score 20 goals this season. Look at last season's Pens: Depth always win.
The Rangers also have one of the NHL's most loaded defensive groups: Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Kevin Klein. Really, there's no reason to think the Rangers can't win the Cup other than the fact they have a tough road in the East. All of the necessities to go on a deep run are there. They did reach the Eastern Conference Final in 2014 and 2015, by the way.
7 New York Rangers: Why They Can't
The Rangers may have lots of depth, but you just need to take a look at their most recent playoff eliminations. The Los Angeles Kings threw their weight around the Rangers in the 2014 Stanley Cup. The Tampa Bay Lightning were simply a lot faster and more skilled in the 2015 Eastern Conference Final - ditto for last season's Penguins.
The Blueshirts have an excellent group all over the ice, but they'll struggle with teams like Montreal, Washington and Pittsburgh in the playoffs. Those teams are just all-around faster and have more skill upfront. The Rangers haven't been able to counter that much in the playoffs. Also, Lundqvist is 34 years of age and his body is carrying a ton of mileage. It's quite possible his body isn't built to last another long playoff run.
6 Montreal Canadiens: Why They Can
We saw the Canadiens in 2014-15 with Carey Price. They could barely score and their puck possession numbers were among the NHL's worst that season. Still, they won the Atlantic Division and were just two games short of reaching the Eastern Conference Final. In short, the Habs have the world's best goalie. Price is on the level of Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur: He can single-handedly carry a team far.
But the Habs are also among the NHL's best in scoring: They are fifth in goals-per-game (3.14) and are the fourth-hardest team to score against (allowing just 2.17 goals-per-game). The Shea Weber trade has been a massive success for the Habs. Also, Alex Galchenyuk has enjoyed a breakout year and Alexander Radulov is the flashy scorer that this team's lacked since the Alexei Kovalev days.
All told, Montreal is elite in all three areas: In goal, on defence and on offence. They have the complete team to go all the way.
5 Montreal Canadiens: Why They Can't
You just need to take a look at some of the Canadiens' playoff exits over the last few seasons: The Ottawa Senators (2013), New York Rangers (2014), and Tampa Bay Lightning (2015), were all more skilled and much faster. As we've touched base on earlier, that's the recipe to winning in the playoffs.
The Canadiens have plenty of talent, sure. But Carey Price has still been hung out to dry far too often at times this season. Could he really win a series by himself against a team like the Penguins? Not a chance. The Habs have to prove they can go up against the elite of the elite in the playoffs.
That hasn't happened for some time, because they just haven't been able to keep up with the best.
4 Pittsburgh Penguins: Why They Can
It's not hard to explain why the defending champions can win again, given how their core roster remains intact. But we're going to go ahead, anyway.
Sidney Crosby is on pace to score over 60 goals this year. He's far from slowing down. Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel have stayed healthy and are putting up their usual point totals. Speedy youngsters Connor Sheary and Bryan Rust are also on pace to score over 20 goals this season.
The Penguins have an unfair amount of scoring depth, and up until now, I didn't bring up slick puck-moving blueliner Kris Letang. Pittsburgh can get plenty of offence from their nine best forwards. After all, scoring does win hockey games, right? Hard to see a lot of teams stopping this juggernaut right now.
3 Pittsburgh Penguins: Why They Can't
Everyone has known for the past few years that the Penguins can score a ridiculous amount. Everyone loves watching Pens games because there's so much high-scoring. But you can't forget the other half of the picture: Pittsburgh plays in high-scoring games because they also give up a lot of goals.
Last season's run to the playoffs was different: They allowed just 2.29 goals per game, as Mike Sullivan's system made it impossible for opponents to skate through the Pens zone. You had to dump and chase, and there was no beating that speedy team to the puck.
But the Penguins defence and goaltending has been lackluster once again in 2016-17, allowing 2.87 goals-per-game (10th worst in the NHL), after allowing just 2.43 per game last season (sixth-best).
Defence wins championships, and Pittsburgh doesn't have it last year. Given how this has been a problem for many years, it's safe to assume last season's showing in the postseason was one magical run - not a long-term solution.
2 Chicago Blackhawks: Why They Can
There are two primary reasons why you can pencil in Chicago as the Stanley Cup favorites:
1. This team has won three Stanley Cups since 2010. They have shown the championship toughness, pedigree and willingness to go all the way. They're simply a dominant machine in the postseason, and their core players compete like no other squad to get their hands on the Stanley Cup.
Also keep in mind, they reached the 2009 and 2014 Western Conference Final.
2. The core players from the Blackhawks championship runs remain in tact: Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook, Niklas Hjalmarsson, and Corey Crawford.
You can also add the likes of Artemi Panarin and Artem Anisimov to the list. Chicago has a ridiculous amount of scoring depth all over the roster. Kane and Toews are forces defensively as well. If they're more focused on playing D than scoring, you ain't gonna stop the rest of the offence.
1 Chicago Blackhawks: Why They Can't
No matter how great a team is, winning the Stanley Cup is the hardest thing to do in professional sports. That's why it's remarkable that Chicago has managed to win three since 2010. That's enough to warrant dynasty status.
Thing is, the Blackhawks looked out of energy for much of the opening round playoffs against the St. Louis Blues last year - which led to their early exit in the postseason.
Look at the Los Angeles Kings - they won the Cup in 2012 and 2014, but missed out in 2015 and lost in the first round in 2016. These long playoff runs take a ton of toll on the body.
These Hawks have carved out five lengthy playoff runs since 2009, and with Toews (29 in April), Kane (28), Keith (33), and Seabrook (31), all putting so much miles on their bodies, we wouldn't be surprised if a fast team like Minnesota or Calgary wore them out and sent them packing early.
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