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Favorites For Next Season

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.

Filed in: NHL Teams, | KK Hockey | Permalink
 

Comments

phillyd's avatar

Nice list but I would’ve put the Flyers there above Washington (until know the next coach), Nashville (too much uncertainty around UFAs/FAs) or Boston. The younger players just got more experience and the veterans apparently had a lot of injuries/illnesses in the playoffs that slowed them.

Posted by phillyd from Southern New Jersey on 06/07/12 at 11:31 AM ET

redxblack's avatar

Three of the four teams in the West have been “the next big thing” for as long as “the Red Wings are too old to pull it off.” I’m not discounting your reasons, but there is an almost intangible culture of winning that just isn’t in St. Louis or Nashville, and possibly isn’t in Chicago either. If any of the three, St Louis has a really good shot at overcoming themselves and being a serious hockey team. And it isn’t with homer glasses I’d say not to discount the Red Wings. Ken Holland has done more with less and he’s got the wallet open. Expect big things. I’d LOVE to see your rankings at the start of preseason (once FA moves change rosters). This was a solid blog entry. Well done.

Posted by redxblack from Akron Ohio on 06/07/12 at 12:38 PM ET

Avatar

Not the Red Wings?
Find a another sport to cover!

Posted by ollie from Trail b.c on 06/07/12 at 01:06 PM ET

awould's avatar

I think all of these teams have a shot at winning the Cup. But I don’t think they’re the top 8 in the league to be called “set to contend”. For one, you can’t say a team is “set” and then include caveats on what must happen for them to be set.

I would take Nashville out because if they lose Suter, their team just got a lot worse. Losing Radulov doesn’t help either - yeah he’s a dbag but he has real talent.

I would also take Chicago out because of “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.” - kind of a huge deal to gloss over and a lot to hope for from the GM that thought Marty Turco was an answer to anything. You might just as well include the Red Wings “if they can sign Parise and/or Suter”.

I wouldn’t include the Capitals either. They’ll lose Semin and still appear to have whatever issues kept them from trying much all season. And let’s not fall all over ourselves over Holtby until the kid has about 60 games behind him. Columbus was all ga ga about Mason once too.

As far as really being set, I’d say the rest of the teams listed qualify. I’d also include Philly and Vancouver.

Posted by awould on 06/07/12 at 01:49 PM ET

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I wouldn’t put the Red Wings on that list right now either.

  We can’t assume that the Wings will sign Sutter and Parise.

Posted by wingsnut25 from Cheboygan, MI on 06/07/12 at 02:03 PM ET

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Let’s be honest here—if we’re basing this on today’s rosters, assuming the RFAs stay but the UFAs are gone, Detroit is probably not in the West top four. They could very well be the West favorite by the end of the offseason, but it’ll depend on who ends up where in free agency.

However, I will quibble about selecting Chicago over Vancouver. How on earth do you not include the two-time defending President’s Trophy champions—with all their key players either still under contract or RFAs—as not in the top four contenders in their own conference?

Going by my own rule of basing the choices on today’s rosters, Chicago’s not in it because they have by far the worst goaltending of the NHL’s most skilled teams.

Posted by Sven22 from Grand Rapids on 06/07/12 at 02:31 PM ET

redxblack's avatar

Those two assumptions are too big to gloss over. None of the teams’ rosters will be the same next year as they are right now.  The blog is interesting and well reasoned, but I’d like to see a revision once the rosters become stable.

Posted by redxblack from Akron Ohio on 06/07/12 at 02:39 PM ET

Vladimir16's avatar

Posted by awould on 06/07/12 at 11:49 AM ET

What he said ^^^^

Posted by Vladimir16 from Grand River Valley on 06/07/12 at 02:46 PM ET

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Posted by redxblack from Akron Ohio on 06/07/12 at 12:39 PM ET

Certainly it’s a little early to make these sorts of calls, and I too would like to see this blog revisited by the end of training camp.

My assumptions (RFAs stay, UFAs leave) are obviously not going to align with whatever actually happens, but if we’re going to play this game before we even get to July 1, we have to set some really basic ground rules. You can reasonably assume you’ll resign your RFAs, but your UFAs can’t be counted on.

Put it this way—if you could only count the players still under contract for next year, plus RFAs, who has the best set right now? Who is the closest to having a contender already assembled? That’s really all I’m asking.

Posted by Sven22 from Grand Rapids on 06/07/12 at 02:53 PM ET

Nathan's avatar

I’m not sure how the Flyers aren’t rated ahead of the Caps in the east, and how any two of the Canucks, Coyotes, and Sharks aren’t rated ahead of the Preds and Hawks.

The Preds will, as always, find a way to compete for a playoff spot. That I don’t deny. But there’s squad is facing a lot more than concerns of keeping Suter.

From the team that played great down the stretch and won a playoff series for the first time ever in the club’s history, they are due to either give raises to, or replace the offense of Radulov, Kostitsyn, and Wilson, who are RFAs.

On defense, it isn’t just Suter, or even Weber that they have to be concerned with. Two good #5/6 D in Gill and Buillon are UFAs. Johnathan Blum is also a fairly highly-regarded D prospect that is hitting RFA and will likely be due for a raise, albeit, the plan has to be that the raise will be well worth it and that he’s ready to be a full-time NHLer and anchor one of the three D pairings.

And that’s before we get to the Suter and Weber issues. I don’t think they can afford to pay Suter what some other teams will be willing to as of July 1st. So, Suter will have to decide he’s willing to leave money on the table to stay with the organization that drafted him. Which he may well be willing to do, I don’t know Ryan Suter and can’t/won’t try to analyze his psyche. But the point here is, unless he does decide to take a hometown discount, the Predators almost CAN’T re-ink Suter until they come to terms with Weber, because they have to be financially willing and able to protect against offer sheets. I know offer sheets haven’t been utilized much, but we have seen a couple of notable ones for Penner and Vanek, and given A) Weber’s skill level/age/position, and B) the fact that he is in a non-traditional market with financial concerns, team’s with a lot of money to spend and the willingness to do so have a lot of reason to force Nashville’s hand.

And I know that the ownership situation is more stable, and I know there have been quotes from Poile saying they are ready to be at least a close-to-the-cap team now, but let’s be reasonable… we can’t believe that until we see it. And even then, we’ve seen it before in other non-traditional markets, and we’ve seen how quickly it can sour if the team doesn’t perform well enough to keep fans interested and spending money.

Posted by Nathan from the scoresheet! on 06/07/12 at 03:43 PM ET

Chris in Hockey Hell's avatar

Slow clap @ Nathan.

Posted by Chris in Hockey Hell from Ann Arbor, MI but LIVING in Columbia, TN on 06/07/12 at 03:46 PM ET

Vladimir16's avatar

I don’t think they can afford to pay Suter what some other teams will be willing to as of July 1st. So, Suter will have to decide he’s willing to leave money on the table to stay with the organization that drafted him.

This is why Poile HAS to sign him before July 1st and is saying all the right things to calm all 200 of the real Preds fans. He knows teams are gonna offer big $ and he’ll have to match, which he won’t because he’s got Weber on deck waiting for his big payday. This is also why Suter hasn’t re-signed yet. He knows he can try to force their hand when, not if, other teams offer him mad caysh. I’ve been wrong before (just ask my exwife. oofff….) but I’m pretty confident in this.

Posted by Vladimir16 from Grand River Valley on 06/07/12 at 03:51 PM ET

awould's avatar

Suter won’t sign with Nashville before July 1. And I seriously doubt he’ll be living in Nashville come September 1.

The idea of him staying with Nashville for his career, from most sources, has basically boiled down to whether he believes Nashville is ready to compete with the big boys for a Cup every year, and can they pay him market (or close to). Can they physically pay him? Yes, they have the technically have the cap space. Should they pay him? No.  Are they a perennial contender, even with Suter? No.

This season saw their best team ever and they didn’t even sniff the conference finals. And this team, their best ever (imo), is better than the team they will ice next year. And as Nathan very competently reasoned, they have serious financial concerns beyond just Suter/Weber, though those two are enough to warrant concern for their future. Sign Suter AND Weber, kiss offense goodbye in the long-term. In my opinion, Suter staying in Nashville harms their future as a team because too much payroll will be allocated to the G and top pair D. It’s a poor allocation of resources. Or sign Suter and trade Weber pre-UFA.

Posted by awould on 06/07/12 at 03:59 PM ET

jimp19's avatar

Nashville is not a Cup Contender, never was and the press need to get off the jock of a team that’s never made it past the second round.  Even if they somehow sell their soul to the devil and resign both Suter and Weber, they will have little room to do anything else.

Posted by jimp19 from Nashville on 06/07/12 at 09:28 PM ET

Avatar

Eh. Too much can change before next year. If the red wings D is anchored by kronwall they’re screwed. If they swing suter and, hell, Weber they’re solid. Ditto the flyers. If pronger makes a full recovery, they’re on more solid ground than the caps.

Posted by Larry on 06/07/12 at 11:29 PM ET

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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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