At the halfway point of the season, teams have shown what they can do, what they're made of and if they have what it takes to win it all. Anaheim, Nashville, Montreal, and Tampa Bay currently sit at the top of their respective Conferences. Recent champs Los Angeles and Chicago have worked out the early-season kinks and regained their previous elite form. Who will win it all?
Nashville and Tampa are new to the top of the standings. They both have the pieces in place to make a significant run and have proven so far they can win in the regular season. However history has shown that usually a team must make it far in the playoffs and lose before they know what it takes to win it all. Tampa in particular could make a serious push in the next few years, as GM Steve Yzerman has quietly assembled some very nice pieces around his superstar Steve Stamkos.
Montreal is a total wild card; not in the standings, but in their Stanley Cup chances. They can beat or lose to anyone, and it's always exciting. They too seem a few years off as current-top center Alex Galchenyuk is still just 20 and they could use another quality piece on the defensive side of things (good luck with that).
Most recent winners L.A. and Chicago still have most of their championship team intact and are always a threat. Both teams had slow starts before returning to elite form, but honestly, it must feel like they're just trying to get through the regular season without getting injured before they can start the 'real' fun.
Anaheim has been there, but it seems like a lifetime ago. Getzlaf even had hair back then! Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry were not the front-runners of Anaheim's Stanley Cup win in 2007. That championship was won thanks to Scott Niedermayer and Chris Pronger anchoring the blue line. Andy McDonald was the team's no.1 centre and the legendary Teemu Selanne was still going strong in his mid 30's. As we move ahead into 2015, the Ducks have the roster and desire it takes to win it all. Here are 10 reasons why.
10 10. Their dominance of a tough division
Anaheim has dealt with heavy injuries to key players while competing in the NHL's toughest division. How tough is the Pacific? Well, the team with the fewest wins is current Stanley Cup Champion Los Angeles. The Ducks have emerged through the fiery Pacific Rim to sit atop the entire league! With Corey Perry returning to the lineup and the team continuing to roll, the Ducks show no signs of slowing down. They've fought the best, and so far, look the best.
9 Youth Movement
The "Kid Line" of Getzlaf, Perry, and Penner helped the Ducks to their first Stanley Cup in 2007. GM Bob Murray shrewdly drafted the two superstars at 19th and 28th in a very deep 2003 draft. The current era in Anaheim has it's own youth movement. Cam Fowler leads the blue line at 23. Sami Vatanen, Devante Smith-Pelly, Jakob Silfverberg, and Frederik Andersen are all significant contributors aged 25 or younger. In the salary cap era of today, it's vital to receive standout contributions from young players still on cheap contracts. The retirements of Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne saw this team get even younger coming into the 2014-15 season. The young core have opposing teams struggle to catch up to their energy level in a long playoff series.
The Ducks have an excellent mix of veteran experience and young hunger. Perry and Getzlaf are still in their prime but have already been to the promised land. The underrated Francois Beauchemin was a part of the 2007 squad as well, and lends his leadership to the younger defencemen around him. Ryan Kesler wants a cup so bad he demanded a trade from the struggling Canucks to a cup contender, landing in Anaheim. New coach Bruce Boudreau has also suffered many frustrating playoff exits in Washington and is chomping at the bit for a Stanley Cup Ring.
7 They're Fresh
The two Western teams that will most likely stand between Anaheim and their ultimate goal have also played more playoff hockey than anyone else in the past two seasons. Exhaustion, complacency, injuries, and shortened off-seasons all work against L.A. and Chicago. Seriously, think about the amount of hockey the Kings and Blackhawks have played over the last few years. They've accounted for four of the last five Stanley Cups, with both teams having played each other in the Western Conference Final in back to back years. That's going to catch up to them at some point. Not only that, but Anaheim's top sniper Corey Perry has missed significant time this season, which could leave him fresher for the playoff battle. Not to mention, talented young netminder John Gibson is biding his time in the AHL, ready to provide a goaltending boost if needed as the playoffs approach.
The playoffs are the exact opposite of an All-Star game. Everyone hits, people get hurt, and goals are scored ugly. L.A. and Boston won their cups with smash-mouth hockey, rarely scoring pretty goals. Anaheim's greatest strength is that their two best players set the tone with their physical play and nasty edge. When your first line can hit like a checking line, the whole squad follows, and that's what it takes to win a Cup. The whole lineup has some size and strength, to go along with an explosive offence, boding well for a Cup run.
5 Frederik Andersen
Coming into this season, Anaheim had two of the top goaltending prospects on their roster in Frederik Andersen and John Gibson. This is great news of course, but goalie development is a tricky process, and nothing is for certain. Andersen stormed out of the gate this season, his play so strong that Gibson himself requested a demotion to the AHL. Young Andersen has proven he can carry the load with an incredible streak of 20 straight NHL starts. If he's that reliable in the playoffs, a series with say, the Kings could have a much different result than last year.
4 Close Games
Teams like the Leafs win big and lose big. It's much easier to pound on a team that's down and out or fold up your own tent when the going gets tough. Teams like the Ducks are able to pull a win out of the fire when the game tightens up. Which would you rather be? When the playoffs begin and every goal counts, Anaheim will be quite comfortable winning one-goal games, all the way to the cup. They'll likely need it, especially in the Western Conference where they'll likely have to go through teams like San Jose, Los Angeles, and possibly Chicago, Nashville or St. Louis.
Recent Stanley Cup teams Boston, L.A. and Chicago all had a top-notch defence, led by a dominant number one, who can eat up minutes. Recent disappointing teams like Colorado and Dallas for example, have their knees cut out by their severely lacking back end. Today's game is about speed and transition. If you are unable to get the puck out of your own end, you waste the energy that could be spent scoring goals.
Quality defencemen have never been so important to a team's success. Anaheim may not have the deepest defensive core, but they are definitely above average. Cam Fowler is an emerging stud, able to heavily influence a game on his own. Ben Lovejoy is the type of gem a winning team needs to find. Beauchemin is his reliable and underrated self, while Clayton Stoner rounds out the squad with hard-hitting physicality.
2 Depth at Centre
When the Ducks won their first cup, all the stars aligned and they were stacked down the middle. Andy McDonald was playing the best hockey of his career, Ryan Getzlaf was playing the best hockey a $500K cap hit could buy, and Samuel Pahlsson made checking look sexy. Last season, the Ducks second-best centre was Mathieu Perreault and they lost in seven games to the eventual champions.
The Ducks upgraded the position in a massive way bringing in Ryan Kesler. They got Kesler for what was perceived to be below market value, trading Nick Bonino, Luca Sbisa, a 1st-round pick and a 3rd round pick for Kesler and a 3rd rounder. Just check out "Kesler beast mode Nashville" on Youtube to see a man single-handedly tear a team apart in the playoffs. Kesler has proven he can still produce and is currently on pace for 25 goals.
1 Ryan Getzlaf
The 80's Oilers traded away Gretzky and still won a cup with hard-nosed Messier. Steve Yzerman started winning Cups when he transitioned from a points machine to an elite two-way centre. Anze Kopitar, Jonathan Toews, Patrice Bergeron and Ryan Getzlaf all have won more Stanley Cups than Art Ross trophies. Ryan Getzlaf not only has the Messier Hairline, but he also puts the team first, hates to lose, and will do whatever it takes to win. That is the kind of player you need to win, and at 29, the Ducks have him for several years to come. He has a chance to lead them to not only the 2015 Stanley Cup, but for several more before his career is over.