The Chicago Blackhawks are the team to beat. Loaded with talent at every position, bursting with playoff experience and they’ve already won twice since 2010. Some of the lesser core pieces have been moved (and some brought back) but the big five remain. They took a bit to get going at the start of this year, but stellar performances from Patrick Kane and Corey Crawford kept them winning at a reasonable clip. Once the team gelled they were near unstoppable. This is practically the same squad as the 2013 Cup winners, though now featuring a bona-fide second-line center in Brad Richards as well as two more years experience/growth for superstars Kane and Toews.
While looking strong in last year's playoff, they lost a heart breaker to eventual cup winners Los Angeles. Chicago must be looking on with glee as the Kings have struggled throughout this year with player controversy and currently sit outside the playoffs in an incredibly competitive Western Conference. Chicago’s toughest competition in the West should come from Anaheim, St. Louis and Nashville. Nashville and St. Louis are both deeply talented, but lack both the abundance of top-end all-star talent and playoff experience of Chicago. Anaheim looks to give a great fight, but suffer from an average defence and young, unproven goaltending.
The East is in major transition. Detroit is always competitive, and has quietly reeled off an impressive season. While they consistently restock their team with their unparalleled drafting and development, they still remain outclassed by Chicago per position, and you’d have to give Chicago the nod in a seven game series. Boston is not the team they once were. Tampa Bay and the Islanders are newcomers to the top, and the Canadiens are their usual unpredictable selves, as Carey Price currently has his squad punching above their weight. Pittsburgh hasn’t added enough to expect any more success, and Washington still has a lot to prove. The Rangers have a similar core to last year's Cup Final squad, but lost a few quality depth pieces to Tampa over the offseason. They do however have a resurgent Rick Nash, and have looked like the most dangerous Eastern team so far. I'm personally hoping for Pittsburgh, purely from an entertainment perspective, as Chicago/Pittsburgh has been the most elusive Cup Final matchup of this era.
On paper and on the ice, Chicago looks to be the most dominant team in the NHL. This core has already done it, and with their new and improved pieces, they just have to go out and do it again. Here are the 10 top reasons they will be crowned champions for the third time in the modern era.
10 Duncan Keith
9 Nik Hjalmarsson, Depth on Defence
Defence wins championships. Chicago not only boasts two all-star Olympians in Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, but also Hjalmarsson to round out the top four. He plays a reliable, quiet game, and could crack the top pairing of many NHL rosters. A big bonus is his modest cap hit of just $4.1 million.
8 Kris Versteeg, Depth up front
7 Corey Crawford
Antti Niemi and Crawford usually get about as much credit as Chris Osgood when it comes to Stanley Cup winning goaltenders. While Chicago walked away from paying $2.75 million to Niemi, they went the opposite direction with Crawford, awarding him $6 million annually. With his new salary, elite play is now consistently expected. While he will probably never get the proper accolades while playing for the Hawks, Crawford has nonetheless provided some stellar play this season.
6 Their Biggest Threat is in Disarray
Winning a Stanley Cup can really take a lot out of you. It’s four rounds of gruelling playoff hockey, followed by a shortened offseason filled with celebration. L.A. definitely looks exhausted. While the Kings were never at the top of the standings in both of their Stanley Cup seasons, they look to be in genuine disarray this year. Slava Voynov’s domestic violence charges and the subsequent $100K fine the Kings received after he practiced with the team during his indefinite suspension not only stripped them of a quality d-man but has perhaps been a significant distraction.
5 Jonathan Toews
Another prevailing ingredient of a Stanley Cup winner is a dominant center who can shut down as well as score. Steve Yzerman, Peter Forsberg, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar and Jonathan Toews were all absolutely integral to their team's win. They all embodied the will to win, neutralizing the best weapons of the opposition and providing game-breaking offence. Toews is a pure leader and winner. At 26, he’s already won two Stanley Cups (Conn Smythe 2010), two Olympic Gold medals (Best Forward 2010), World Championship Gold (while still in college!) as well as two straight World Junior golds.
4 Goal Differential
3 Second Line
2 Patrick Kane
1 End of the Window
When this core won their first Stanley Cup they had to immediately jettison some big pieces that were integral to the win. Dustin Byfuglien, Andrew Ladd, Kris Versteeg, and even their number one goaltender Antti Niemi had to go. Chicago is facing an even tougher cap crunch at the end of this season. With Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane's cap hits jumping from $6.3 to $10.5 million, Chicago will already be at $64.9 million with only 14 players signed!
The team is well aware of the upcoming changes and as a group must know that anyone outside of Toews, Kane, and Keith could be playing somewhere else next year. With that hanging over their heads, this current group should be plenty motivated to win one last time.
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