Ousted NHL Contenders Face Summer Upheaval

This year's Stanley Cup playoffs produced a huge range of both surprises and comebacks. In the end, there will be some debate as to whether the Montreal Canadiens and New York Rangers truly represent the best out of the Eastern Conference. In the Western Conference, though, there's little doubt that the Los Angeles Kings and Chicago Blackhawks are anything but the cream of the crop. Winners of the last two Stanley Cups, both teams faced their share of opponents thinking they could topple the west. In the end, the championship mettle of L.A. and Chicago won out.

Where does this leave the rest of the league? While the final four focus on the task at hand, 26 other teams are looking ahead. For teams that faced disappointing early exits, it's time to ponder what went wrong and how to meet that championship caliber of play established by the remaining teams.

In the West, no team hit the ground harder than the San Jose Sharks. With arguably their best roster in team history, losing in seven to the Kings wasn't exactly embarrassing in itself — but the manner in which the team folded and failed to adapt to the Kings' counterattack left many observers shaking their heads. The loss exposed San Jose's biggest flaw: an alarmingly thin on the blueline, in addition to questionable goaltending and a lack of consistent physical play.

The St. Louis Blues faced similar disappointment, though their issues seemed clearer to grasp. Caught against Chicago's high-powered offense, the Blues lacked the firepower to make a difference when needed. They also gambled on Ryan Miller, who saw his free agent stock drop after a disappointing performance in the first round.

Out East, the two teams facing an identity crisis are the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Boston Bruins. Boston isn't in as much of a state of panic; losing against their hated rivals while blowing a series lead is certainly significant. However, it doesn't require the team's brass to consider the type of sweeping changes faced by the other squads. Boston does have to cope with an aging Zdeno Chara, as well as the fact that the team lost focus in the series against Montreal. Of the major contenders who've fallen, though,Boston is facing more of a natural evolution.

On the other hand, the Pittsburgh Penguins are in full reshuffle mode from the GM down. Nearly every aspect of the Penguins squad is in question, and considering the fact that Pittsburgh was often outplayed by Columbus and blew a large lead against the Rangers, numerous problems surfaced. For years, the Penguins had an abundance of riches, but a roster comparison between their Cup-winning squad and the current team showed that the forward depth had thinned out, leaving a top-heavy team. In addition, the defense proved to be slow and immobile, leaving many questioning former GM Ray Shero’s roster moves over recent years.

When the NHL returns for the start of the 2014-15 season, there’s a good chance that these teams could still be among the leaders in their conferences. Will they be Cup contenders? Or will they merely be in that above-average pack that makes the playoffs but doesn’t really pose a threat?

Time will tell, but one thing’s for sure — for San Jose, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, and Boston, stunning losses have showed the need to rethink the big picture. While there’s still a good three or four weeks left in this NHL season, disappointment may soon fuel a fairly wild offseason trade/free agency market.

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