The Stanley Cup is the toughest trophy to win in sports. While Brian Burke has said there is no exact formula to a winner, we can see some trends that exist. Most Cup teams possess dominant players at centre and defence, surrounding them with grit and scoring depth. We also have the lengthy 82-game regular season to gauge who has what it takes. The playoffs however are a slightly different animal. The play is rougher, tighter, and the refs tend to call less the closer they get to the final.
The East has been set for some time now, as Florida sits four points out of the last playoff spot. While that may not seem like a lot, it's hard to see them overtake Boston. Among the great eight however, it’s tough to find a consistent standout. Montreal is always unpredictable and capable of big upsets with Carey Price carrying them. Pittsburgh has already won with their core, but that was six years ago. Tampa Bay is deep but unproven and the Islanders are in the same boat. Detroit quietly wins, while Washington is undergoing a transformation with Barry Trotz but still cling to the same core that has never got it done. Former playoff titans the Bruins have struggled all year and the Rangers have looked dangerous, but it's tough to repeat as a conference champion.
The West is showing off a new look as well. Nashville and St. Louis have emerged from Chicago’s Central Division shadow to reel off impressive win records, showcasing their playoff ready rosters. Chicago still looks to be the team to beat considering their insanely deep team has already won two Cups with an almost identical core. Anaheim can flex their muscles with a top heavy team and newly added Ryan Kesler, though their goaltending remains unproven. San Jose always wins enough, but regular season success is completely meaningless for them now. The bottom is rounded out with the Canadian trio of Vancouver, Calgary and Winnipeg.
And now we take a more detailed look at who has what it takes, and who still has a few more moves to make.
11 Tampa Bay Lightning
Steve Yzerman has done an amazing job in Tampa Bay. He has steadily cut the dead weight, and brought in winning pieces. He quickly moved on from troubled players like Ryan Malone, and brought in quality performers like Valtteri Filppula, Ryan Callahan, Ondrej Palat, Tyler Johnson, and Ben Bishop. While there is talent up and down the lineup, Tampa suffers from inexperience and a slightly thin defence. The Lightning are relying heavily on contributions from youngsters Palat and Johnson, and while they may be the real deal, history has shown us that the NHL season is long, and the playoffs are even longer. Give this core another year of seasoning and they should be in the thick of Cup contention, but this isn’t their time.
10 Pittsburgh Penguins
Much the same as the Sharks, the Penguins refuse to make any big changes despite constant shortcomings in the playoffs. The near $30 million tied up in their big four mean they have little wiggle room to make any meaningful changes. The overpayment of Rob Scuderi complicates things further. The Penguins split one player into two when they traded James Neal for Patric Hornqvist and Nick Spaling, and also brought in another genuine top six forward in David Perron.
But this is a four-line league, and Penguins are incredibly thin in the bottom six. They also need another shutdown defender if they are serious about containing the top teams. If the salary cap can continue to rise, Malkin and Crosby will become a bargain for what they produce, and that should allow Pittsburgh to surround the dynamic duo with the proper talent. But until then, they are pretenders.
9 Nashville Predators
The Predators have been tearing up the NHL this season. It’s a welcome gift to the modest, but extremely loyal fan base in Nashville, who have supported their team through the many boring seasons of defensive hockey. Shea Weber, Pekka Rinne, and a deep defensive core are the major strengths of this club. They have somehow found a way to score with Mike Ribiero back from the dead and Filip Forsberg’s coming out party.
However, they simply don’t have enough scoring depth to overcome four rounds of intense playoff checking. Until they add some serious secondary scoring, they won’t be able to get over the hump.
8 Montreal Canadiens
The unbelievable play of Carey Price has the Canadiens punching above their weight yet again. They've remained in contention for the top spot in the East all season, but definitely don’t boast the best talent. Pacioretty is a genuine threat, Galchenyuk is emerging, but they could really use another legitimate threat in their top six.
P.K. Subban is a stud, but Gonchar is asked to do too much at this point in his career. Alexei Emelin has been a big disappointment this season. Another top-four defender is needed. The Habs are not awful by any means but no one is predicting the 25th Stanley Cup win for the historic franchise. They lack a few pieces to be seriously considered, although they seem to make a habit of playoff upsets. The only way they're winning a Cup at this point is if Price steals them multiple series.
7 San Jose Sharks
San Jose has suffered more crushing playoff losses than anyone deserves. How they respond to each loss is the real tragedy. By continuing to rotate the bottom six, they ignore the real problem with the team. Patrick Marleau and Joe Thornton have shown annually what they can provide, and as long as they are leading this team, they can’t be taken seriously. The defence core also lacks a strong shutdown presence. Fans in San Jose will have to enjoy the regular season success and hit the beach over the summer instead of watching Stanley Cup hockey.
6 Top 5 Contenders
5 Detroit Red Wings
The Wings are so consistently good that you almost forget about them. Their unparalleled drafting and development has allowed them to remain highly competitive. They have reached an interesting point in their cycle now, as top players Datsyuk and Zetterberg are still able to contribute and the young talent has emerged enough to make a difference. Though with Datsyuk being 36 and Zetterberg 34, their window is starting to close. This could have the squad highly motivated to “win now”, potentially picking up a piece or two at the deadline.
4 Anaheim Ducks
The Ducks can definitely play gritty tough playoff hockey. They can also obviously play regular season hockey as they sit near the top of the NHL. The impressive part is that they’ve racked up so many wins with superstar Corey Perry injured for part of the season. Now at full strength, they look to be stronger than they’ve been since their last Stanley Cup win.
The acquisition of Ryan Kesler is a massive upgrade for the second line, and he is the type of player Stanley Cup teams need to survive. Their defence isn’t as deep as some, but Cam Fowler has emerged as a high level two-way defender. If their young goaltending can hold up, they should be able to make a big push.
3 St. Louis Blues
The Blues finally look to be legitimate contenders. They have built up an incredibly deep roster, flush with grit and skill. Rather than relying on a superstar, they play an excellent team game with Ken Hitchcock behind the bench. But speaking of superstars, Vladimir Tarasenko has officially arrived this season, and gives them a talent that can bust open a game. Their defence is just as deep and the goaltending hasn’t put up any red flags. The Blues look to be right at home in the playoffs as Minnesota Wild forward Zach Parise recently complained that “they try to bully you around the ice”, this is exactly what the St. Louis fanbase wants to hear.
2 New York Rangers
The Rangers seem to be a team built for the playoffs. They’re a gritty bunch that can grind out defensive wins. They have an elite goaltender and a superstar in Rick Nash who seems to have finally found a way to bring his previous scoring skill to Broadway. Losing in a close five-game Cup Final (three OT games) gives the whole squad a crash course in playoff experience, and the motivation to make it right.
After a slow start to the season, the Blueshirts have found their game and at times have looked to be the most dangerous team in the league. Although they lost quality depth players Brian Boyle and Anton Stralman, if Rick Nash can emerge as a playoff game breaker, the Rangers should be in great shape.
1 Chicago Blackhawks
This is a no brainer. They’ve already proven a near identical lineup can win in 2013, and Kane and Toews are still only 26, still having room to grow. Although the cap-gods forced them to sacrifice quality defender Nick Leddy, the bargain-priced addition of Brad Richards arguably leaves them better overall. Losing in seven to the eventual champions last year is a great motivator as well as taking advantage of Kane and Toews’ last year before their much higher cap hits kick in.
They’re currently blasting away the competition this year with a league-leading +39 goal differential, jockeying with Winnipeg for the last division spot or a wild card position. With L.A. struggling heavily, Chicago looks to be the favourite. Never mind where they finish for the regular season. They have the winning pedigree and they're the top dogs until someone knocks them off.