Monday, April 8, 2013

NHL 2013 Contenders and Pretenders

By Andrew Jones

It's hard to believe the NHL playoffs begin in only a few weeks. The shortened season leaves a lot more questions than a typical season. Some teams seemed to benefit from the shotgun start to the season. Others were a bit sluggish in coming together, but are starting to show signs of greatness.

Add to this reality the moves made (or not made) at the trade deadline and there are plenty of teams who have turned heads this season in order to win Lord Stanley's Cup. But who are the contenders and the pretenders amidst the trendy teams?

Chicago Blackhawks — Contenders

The Blackhawks went on an amazing run to start the season, recording points in 24 straight games. They've dealt with a few injuries recently, but it seems like Marian Hossa and Patrick Sharp should be fully ready for the playoffs. The Blackhawks were so good to begin the season that they've been able to provide ample recovery time for their injured stars without worrying about falling out of contention.

Chicago looks to be the front runner for the President's Trophy, which isn't exactly good news, looking at the recent President's Trophy Winners and their playoff (lack of) success.

2012 — Vancouver Canucks: Lost in opening round
2011 — Vancouver Canucks: Lost in Stanley Cup Final
2010 — San Jose Sharks: Lost in Western Conference Final
2009 — San Jose Sharks: Lost in opening round
2008 — Detroit Red Wings: Won Stanley Cup
2007 — Buffalo Sabres: Lost in Eastern Conference Final
2006 — Detroit Red Wings: Lost in opening round
2004 — Detroit Red Wings: Lost in Western Conference Semifinal
2003 — Ottawa Senators: Lost in Eastern Conference Final
2002 — Detroit Red Wings: Won Stanley Cup

So the last 10 times Lord Stanley's Cup was awarded in the NHL, only the Red Wings also had that year's President's Trophy already on the shelf at home. Can the Blackhawks overcome the curse? I'd say they certainly have the tools to do so. They are currently ranked first in goals scored and second in goals against. They have two solid goalies. All the makings of a solid playoff run.

Anaheim Ducks — Contenders

The Ducks look good. I know. How profound of me? But seriously, they do. Ryan Getzlaf has blossomed this season and the team has fantastic balance. As of Friday, their top four centers (Gelzlaf, Andrew Cogliano, Daniel Winnik, and Sake Koivo) were +15, +15, +15 and +10. That's impressive. If they keep doing what they're doing, the Ducks are going to be hard to beat in a best of seven series.

Pittsburgh Penguins — Pretenders

I would not have written this a few weeks ago, but I think the Penguins are in trouble. The NHL does a far better job than any other professional sports league of being vague about injuries and Crosby's injured jaw is no exception. He is out indefinitely. He just got out of the hospital a few days ago and will likely require another dental procedure, but who knows when he'll be back. In time for the playoffs? Maybe.

The reality is this: after a perfect month of March, the Penguins are experiencing a post-win streak crash. They'll have no problem winning the Atlantic Division and being one of the top three teams in the Eastern Conference, but the NHL playoffs can spell disaster for a team in Pittsburgh's position — just after a big win streak and with a question mark on their best player. I just don't see the Penguins straightening themselves out in the month of April. They're reeling too much. I think they are going to be spent trying to keep things moving forward in April and be too taxed in May to win. Sorry, Penguins. Not this year.

Edmonton Oilers — Pretenders

I expected the Oilers to be cellar dwellers this season, but they've managed to be on the cusp of a playoff berth. They've been hot lately, but I don't think they have the tools to seriously contend in the playoffs. Unless 40-year-old Nikolai Khabibulin manages to channel the 1999 version of himself.

Minnesota Wild — Contenders

I don't think any team was more hurt by the lockout than the Wild. They made huge offseason moves in signing Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to gigantic deals and then were disallowed from test running their investments. The Wild seem to be piecing things together, as evidenced by their seven game winning streak in late March. But the Wild have needed to rely heavily on goaltender Niklas Backstrom. Backup goalie Josh Harding was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and has only appeared in four games all season — two with disastrous results. While the Wild have tried others in the backup role, it seems obvious that any chance in the playoffs relies on Backstrom getting hot ... and lots of goals. But the Wild have the personnel to do it. Keep your eye on them.

Columbus Blue Jackets — Pretenders

They may not even make the playoffs, but they tried to make a splash by adding Marion Gaborik at the trade deadline. Gaborik could be exactly what the Blue Jackets need considering they were dead last in scoring at the trade deadline. Gaborik has had fantastic production from time to time, yet he only scored 2 goals in the entire month of March. And only 2 goals in February actually. Maybe a change of scenery will do him good, but I think the Blue Jackets may have wasted energy and resources to get Gaborik. But they're better than they were last year.

Boston Bruins — Contenders

I thought the Bruins would have a hard time without Tim Thomas in the net, but Anton Khudobin and Tuukka Rask have both been fantastic. The Bruins also added Jaromir Jagr at the trade deadline, providing even more solid leadership and playoff experience. The Bruins penalty kill is currently the best in the NHL at 91.1%. That's pretty dang good. Continued solid defense should be a fitting recipe for another playoff run in 2013.

Vancouver Canucks — Pretenders

I've gotten my hopes up for the Canucks a few years in a row now, and I won't be doing that again. The Stanley Cup Final in 2011 was fantastic when they lost to the Bruins. A lot of people blame the Canucks lack of success on perennial head-case goaltender Roberto Luongo and the Canucks have been pretty clear about moving forward with Cory Schneider as their number one goalie, but the Canucks have struggled recently in the playoffs for numerous reasons and the lack of production of Henrik and Daniel Sedin is worrying.

Henrik posted a -11 in the 2011 playoffs, while Daniel posted a -9. And that occurred in the Canucks finest playoff run. The Canucks are just a different team in the playoffs than the regular season. And I don't believe they'll make it very far. The West is too tough for them.

Montreal Canadiens — Contenders

Much like the Ducks, not many people expected much out of the Habs this season, but they just seem to keep winning. Only once this season have the Canadiens gone two straight games without recording a point. And they only have two losing streaks (one of two games, one of three games). Sounds like a team that knows how to bounce back, which is a solid quality for the playoffs.

Los Angeles Kings — Contenders

The defending champs have a balanced attack and have seemed to avoid all the pressures of being the defending champs as the Blackhawks and Penguins took much of the spotlight with their respective streaks. The Kings got off to a bit of a slow start losing the seven of their first ten games — which could have been detrimental in a short season, but they've been pretty hot ever since. They are potential noise makers in this year's playoff race. The only thing they'll be fighting is the fact that no team has repeated as Stanley Cup Winners in this millennium. The last team to do that was the Detroit Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

San Jose Sharks — Pretenders

The Sharks have been riding goaltender Antti Niemi and good defense all season long. They're ranked 25 in goals scores, and 2.4 goals per game just isn't going to get it done in the playoffs. They will need a few players to step up big time if they want to advance in the playoffs. Martin Havlat is the most obvious underperformer on this team. If he can return to a guy who records 60-80 points in a season, that would give the Sharks a much needed boost.

If I had to pick now, I'd say look for a Boston vs. Anaheim Stanley Cup Final. What do you think?

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