Just below the first level of Stanley Cup contenders are four
teams that have more glaring flaws than the definite contenders, but enough strength
that it would hardly be surprising if any of them won the Cup.
The Canucks probably deserve to be listed as a definite
contender, given that they were one game away from winning the Cup last season.
However, the perception still exists that the ‘Nucks have a mental block when
it comes to postseason play, especially the crown jewel of the franchise,
goalie Roberto Luongo.
Left wing Daniel Sedin led the league in points with 104,
while his twin, center Henrik, led the league in assists. However, during the
playoffs it was two-way forward Ryan Kesler who was clearly the team's most
In between the pipes, Luongo led the league in wins, but
failed to erase his rep as a head case. In the first round, Luongo was a sieve
on the road, as Vancouver barely escaped with a game seven win. And in the
finals, Luongo's play was clearly inferior to Boston's Tim Thomas, especially
in the deciding game seven Bruins win.
San Jose Sharks
Speaking of teams that are perceived as having a postseason
mental block, the San Jose Sharks seemed to exorcise some of their demons in
surviving a seven-game series in which the Detroit Red Wings came back from an
0-3 deficit, before bowing out fairly easily against Vancouver in the Western
The Sharks project to once again win the division, thanks to
a significantly upgraded roster. Martin Havlat is the proven playoff performer
that Dany Heatley never was, and Michael Handzus is a physical Presence at
center. Handzus' arrival from the division rival L.A. Kings should improve the
Sharks while weakening a potential division contender.
This is an excellent team with numerous star-level players in
their primes. The only knock against them is that it's the Sharks, and no
matter how good they look we are conditioned to believe they will end up
screwing it up.
In some ways, last season can be looked on as a success for
the 2009-10 Champions, as the Blackhawks outplayed the perception that
management had decided to mail it in after making some tough moves to get under
the salary cap.
Stanley Cup heroe goalie Antti Niemi and monster defenceman
Dustin Byfuglien were among the sacrifices, and the defending champions
suffered the indignity of needing Dallas to either lose or shootout with
Minnesota in order to make the playoffs. Once in, however, Chicago looked right
at home in forcing a game seven against eventual Western Conference champions
Vancouver, after trailing 0-3 in the series.
GM Stan Bowman demonstrated that he has confidence in his
core group of forwards – Captain Jonathon Toews, Patrick Kane, Marian Hossa and
Patrick Sharp – to provide enough scoring to win the Cup again, as he focused
on adding toughness and size in free agency. Forwards Andrew Brunette, Jamal
Mayers and Daniel Carcillo are all fierce hitters, and particularly Carcillo
has been a guy local fans love and opposing fans hate at every stop in his
The Blackhawks are probably not back to the level of the
09-10 squad, but they should hardly see their fate in the hands of another team
on the last day of the season, and in fact ought to host a first-round playoff
Tampa Bay Lightning
The Lightning were the pleasant surprise of the 2011
playoffs, outlasting the Pittsburgh Penguins before sweeping the Washington
Capitols, and taking the Champion Boston Bruins to seven games. The Lightning
displayed an explosive power play and outscored teams in their wins.
The major offseason story was signing Steven Stamkos to a
five-year deal. The Lightning also signed veteran goalie Mathieu Garon, a key
move in light of Dwayne Roloson's advancing age. None of Tampa's other moves
really moved the needle, other than the loss of wings Simon Gagne and Sean
Still, there is still plenty of young talent here, headlined
by the phenomenal Stamkos. Teddy Purcell and Victor Hedman are two young
players who had coming out parties in the 2011 playoffs, but for Tampa to equal
or better their 2011 results, the young guys need to be even better.