Kukla's Korner Hockey
by Johnny Hasson on 06/07/12 at 10:10 AM ET
With the Stanley Cup Finals winding down, most of us are beginning to shift our focus towards next season. The Entry Draft, free agency and, this summer, the CBA will be the main topics of discussion in the hockey world. The speculation and suspense will continue to build until the puck drops once again in October.
Though a lot can (and likely will) change between now and the start of the 2012-13 season, it’s pretty clear which teams are set to contend for a championship and which are simply not quite there.
Here are eight squads (four from each conference) who have a shot to win it all next year:
(1) Los Angeles Kings
The Kings vastly underachieved this past season. That is, until the playoffs began, at which point they proceeded to steamroll past the competition and propel themselves into the Stanley Cup Finals. LA finds itself just one win away from their first title in franchise history. Looking ahead to 2012-13, the Kings are in good position to do significant damage once again.
Drew Doughty had quite a few rough stretches this season, but judging by his performance in these playoffs, he’s back at top-form. Jeff Carter, who was brought in later on, will be with the team all season, which should definitely give them a much-needed boost. The emergence of Slava Voynov on the blue line has and should continue to help.
Combine those factors with the core of Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, Mike Richards, and Justin Williams that is already in place, and there’s a lot to like about this group.
If that weren’t enough, Jonathan Quick’s been an impenetrable force between the pipes and when you’ve got a goaltender that’s sharp on a consistent basis, you’re going to be a serious threat to win every night. The Kings should be contenders not just next season but for the next half-decade or so, if not longer.
(2) Nashville Predators
The Preds had an excellent chance to go deep this year, but a lack of focus in the second round hampered any such aspirations. Still, this is a team that has a lot going for them headed into next season.
Of course, the biggest question surrounding this organization is whether or not Ryan Suter will be back in Nashville. I would venture to say that, even if they were to lose Suter to free agency, the Predators would still be contenders. Most teams don’t have the luxury of two franchise defensemen, which is what Nashville’s had recently. Don’t forget, there’s also this guy named Shea Weber on their blue line. Apparently, he’s a pretty decent hockey player.
Roman Josi improved as the season went on and Ryan Ellis should be with the big club for most of the year, so the Predators will still be a strong defensive team no matter what happens come July 1. The Preds also have the luxury of a tremendous goalie in Pekka Rinne. If Rinne’s not a franchise goalie, I’m not sure who is. If Suter does opt to return to Nashville, the Preds become that much more dangerous.
Contrary to popular belief, the Predators have plenty of offensive punch. They were in the top ten in goals, and that was before Alex Radulov (who is not expected to return) showed up. If the Predators are unable to re-sign Suter, look for them to try to sign a scoring forward or two.
Lastly, this is a team that’s very well-coached. Barry Trotz has been robbed of the Jack Adams Award for quite a few years now, this past season being no exception. He knows how to motivate his players and get the most out of them, which is why the Predators have been a playoff team for a while now. He’s instilled a winning culture, and it shows in the standings.
(3) St. Louis Blues
The Blues surpassed most, if not all of our expectations in 2011-12. We may not have seen ‘em coming back in October, but come next year, we’ll be prepared.
Offensively, this team is going to be better than they were the previous year. T.J. Oshie continues to improve and there’s no reason to expect that to stop. You know what you’re getting out of David Backes, who by all accounts is the heart and soul of the Blues. Andy McDonald played some of his best hockey in years and, if that carries over to next season, it’s cherry on top for the squad from St. Louis. Patrik Berglund, Alex Steen and Chris Stewart can all contribute as well.
Jaden Schwartz, who joined the Blues late in the season, could help bolster this team’s offense with a productive rookie year, something he’s entirely capable of. Vladimir Tarasenko, another top prospect, is also expected to join the Blues next year. GM David Poile and the coaching staff have high expectations for the young Russian.
Alex Pietrangelo and Kevin Shattenkirk lead a solid defensive corps in front of Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott between the pipes. I think at some point the Blues will have to decide which goaltender is “the man” in St. Louis. That will give the winner the confidence to go on a hot streak which can get the team on a roll when it matters. I’m not sure the Blues had a clear picture of who that was in 2011-12.
(4) Chicago Blackhawks
The Blackhawks are a deep team which was unfortunate when it ran into a Phoenix Coyotes squad that gave them fits. Of course, losing Marian Hossa in that series didn’t help, either.
A healthy Hossa and Jonathan Toews should give Chicago a lift next year, as should Patrick Kane. The supporting cast, one of the best in the business, is still intact as well. Patrick Sharp, David Bolland, Viktor Stalberg, and Andrew Shaw are all strong offensive players.
On the back end, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are two of the better players at their position. Nick Leddy emerged as an offensive dynamo on the blue line, while Niklas Hjalmarsson and Steve Montador have done a solid job as well. Jhonny Oduya was recently re-signed and I expect a stronger performance from him next season.
The main questions in Chicago revolve around this team’s goaltending. If the ‘Hawks can rectify that situation, either by acquiring a better goalie or by getting Corey Crawford to step it up a notch, they’re in business.
(5) New York Rangers
The Rangers came awfully close to reaching the Stanley Cup Finals in 2011-12. But the Devils had something to say about that and sent the Blueshirts home earlier than they would have liked. Fortunately for the Rangers, they’re young and talented, and they’ll be back for more in future years.
This team is strong from the goal out. With Henrik Lundqvist guarding the crease, the Rangers are usually able to stay alive in hockey games. That allows them to do what they do best; find ways to win those contests. They do it with will power and a blue-collar effort. It’s never pretty, but it produces results.
The Rangers generally struggle offensively and will likely do so again, especially now that Marian Gaborik’s out until December with an injury. Chris Kreider showed some brilliant flashes of potential during the playoffs. A full season of continued excellence from Kreider and Carl Hagelin should give New York the spark that they need. If this team can get some more scoring punch, they could definitely make the Finals.
The emergence of Ryan McDonagh on the blue line makes an already-potent Ranger defense corps that much stronger. Michael Del Zotto had a much better year in 2011-12 and it’s expected that he’ll continue to improve.
(6) Pittsburgh Penguins
Pittsburgh’s depth down the middle is what will always keep them in contention. There isn’t a single team that can match the Penguins in that department. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal are all well-rounded hockey players, each with their own set of skills and specialties. The Pens were dangerous even when Crosby’s future hung in the balance, and now that he’ll (hopefully) be in the lineup full-time, they’ll be an absolute powder keg.
Additionally, James Neal’s emergence as a goal-scoring sensation has made this Penguins squad even more explosive. Pascal Dupuis quietly continues to be a productive forward as well.
Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik are as reliable as they come on defense and youngster Simon Despres has shown a lot of promise as well. Paul Martin has to be better, and if he can turn things around, it’ll pay off for Dan Bylsma and his Penguins.
Marc-Andre Fleury has won playoff games before and has been to two Stanley Cup Finals. He has the talent and experience to help the Pens get back there, but not if he plays the way he did against Philly this past Spring.
(7) Boston Bruins
Tim Thomas might be taking the year off, but that doesn’t mean the Bruins aren’t going to contend for a championship. After all, Tuuka Rask is really just a starting goaltender who happened to play a backup role. He’s the real deal, as he’s shown on several occasions.
Boston’s still as deep a hockey club as they’ve been over the last few years. Not much needs to be said about a lineup that features Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Tyler Seguin, Patrice Bergeron, Milan Lucic, David Krecji and Brad Marchand, among others.
The Bruins are strong at both ends of the ice, and whether it’s Rask or Thomas, they get excellent goaltending. There isn’t much (if anything) to dislike about Boston, and they’ve certainly got what it takes to reach the Finals again if they get hot at the right time.
(8) Washington Capitals
Yes, the Caps faltered in the playoffs again, but there was something about this team that just seemed different. Everyone bought into Dale Hunter’s approach and, though they were eliminated in seven games by the Rangers in the second round, they really impressed me in that series. Washington’s gutsy series victory over Boston in the first round was no small feat, either.
It remains to be seen who will coach the Capitals next season but, in terms of personnel, there’s no question they’ve got the talent and depth to go the distance. It’s just a matter of execution.
A fully-recovered Mike Green should help, as should the continued development of Dmitri Orlov and Marcus Johansson. Green and Orlov, along with John Carlson and Karl Alzner (the best rearguard on the team in my opinion) comprise a formidable defense corps, the deepest Washington’s had in quite some time.
The key for Washington could be Braden Holtby, who was a revelation in the playoffs and made Tomas Vokoun expendable (he was traded to the Penguins this week). I’d be shocked if Holtby wasn’t the starting goaltender on opening night. A full season (and a good one) from Holtby could be a huge plus for a Caps team that hasn’t really seen stellar goaltending since the days of Olaf Kolzig.
As you can see, the 2013 Stanley Cup winner will (as usual) be the team that gets hot at the right time. Multiple teams have the pieces in place to make a run. If you think I missed one, let me know in the comments below. Either way, it’ll certainly be a blast to watch. For now, enjoy the Finals and the offseason with the knowledge that there’s always next year.
Johnny Hasson is a writer for Smart Live Casino. He is an fan of all four American sports, loves to travel, and plays lots of online games in his spare time.
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Paul Kukla founded Kukla’s Korner in 2005 and the site has since become the must-read site on the ‘net for all the latest happenings around the NHL.
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