The Capitals seem ready to finally shed their “chokers” tag with improved defense and the Blackhawks are ready to return to prominence with added toughness as we look at Stanley Cup Futures.
The 2011 NHL season is now less than a week away, so here is our annual preseason look at Stanley Cup Futures for this upcoming year.
In the East, look for the Washington Capitals to finally shed their reputation of choking in the playoffs now that they have added some true defenders in the off-season and made probably the most important free agent signing in goaltender Tomas Vokoun. Speaking of defense, do not be surprised if the Buffalo Sabres make a surprising run to the conference finals at long odds with their deep corps of defensemen.
In the West, the Chicago Blackhawks won the Stanley Cup two years ago, but they made some cost saving moves last year and just barely made the playoffs. They look tougher this year and are our upset choices to win the conference over the other mostly finesse teams in the West.
Here are our final four projections for each conference, along with the current odds to win the Stanley Cup for each team, courtesy of Pinnacle Sports.
Washington Capitals (+734): The Capitals actually improved defensively last season, in fact leading the NHL in going ‘under’ by lower their goals against to a very respectable 2.33 goals per game. However, they did that at the expense of less scoring, as even their normally offensive-mined players committed to Coach Bruce Boudreau’s defensive system. For example, superstar Alex Ovechkin saw his scoring slip from 50 goals and 109 points two years ago to 32 goals and 85 points last season. However, in addition to signing a consistent goaltender in Vokoun, who may end up being the most valuable player in the NHL in terms of true value to his team, the Caps also added some physicality by acquiring Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward and they helped the defensemen corps by adding Roman Hamrlik. Now that Washington has some true defensive players and a top-flight goalie, they are in a position to turn its offensive players loose without harming the defense all that much. If they can make that balance work, the Capitals may have the most talent in the league, and not only could that result in their first ever Stanley Cup Finals appearance, but we actually see them raising the Cup at the end.
Buffalo Sabres (+1617): The Sabres are our choice this season to be the biggest Cinderella story in the league, going from a third-place finish in the Northeast Division last year to an Eastern Conference Finals berth this season. Buffalo has been rather tight in the wallet in the past, but it is a new regime under new owner Terry Pegula, who spent $67 million combined to land defenseman Christian Ehrhoff and forward Ville Leino this off-season, as well as trading for defenseman Robyn Regehr, who has eight million dollars left on his contract. Leino gives Buffalo the center that it did not have when it could not match up with the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the playoffs last season, and with Ehrhoff and Regehr joining incumbents Tyler Myers and Jordan Leopold, and with young Marc-Andre Gragnani busting out in the playoffs, the Sabres now have the deepest and arguably the best corps of defensemen in the NHL.
Pittsburgh Penguins (+993): This choice is contingent on Sidney Crosby rejoining the club this season after his concussion problems, and we do think that will happen. The Penguins have the best group of centers in the NHL with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, who would be a starter for most teams but is on Pittsburgh’s third line. However, the Penguins had all three centers available at the same time for just two games all of last season, so it is a minor miracle that they finished with 106 points. It helped that 26-year old goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury developed into one of the premier netminders in the league, finishing with a 2.32 GAA and a .918 save percentage.
Boston Bruins (+1236): The Bruins are the defending Stanley Cup Champions, and they do deserve a lot of respect, as they basically stood pat in the off-season and return essentially the same Cup-winning team this year, However, we are not sure if that is a blessing or a curse, as 37-year-old goalie Tim Thomas stood on his head while having a season for the ages last year, and we are not so sure he can repeat that kind of success at his advanced age. Also, with the apparent improvement of the Buffalo Sabres, the Bruins are not even a clear cut favorite to win their own Northeast Division this year, so they will probably use up more energy and not coast into the playoffs like they more or less did last season.
Chicago Blackhawks (+1595): The Blackhawks had a rough season last year after winning the Stanley Cup two years ago, in fact just barely qualifying for the playoffs as the eighth and final seed in the West. Much of that had to do with a salary dump just days after they won the Cup, and it was actually a nice achievement just making the playoffs considering all the talent that they unloaded. The core of this team remains very strong though, as its stars Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Patrick Sharp, Marian Hossa and Duncan Keith kept the team afloat last year even with precious little depth. Well, the Blackhawks had no such salary concerns this past off-season, They signed veteran Andrew Brunette, a six-time 20-goal scorer who will probably play left wing on the line with Toews and Kane, and they added some much needed toughness up front by signing Daniel Carcillo and Jamal Mayers, and those additions may be the most important of all as it will prevent opposing teams from beating up on the scoring types like Toews, Kane and Hossa, who has missed 43 games in the last two years. If Hossa can regain his 40-goal form while staying healthy and goaltender Corey Crawford can match his fine, rookie season last year, then we like Chicago to win the West, and the Hawks offer nice value at this price.
San Jose Sharks (+1269): We actually had a tough time splitting the other three teams in our final four in the West to be Chicago’s opponent in the Western Conference Finals before settling on San Jose. The Sharks are one of those teams that have always performed well in the regular season, in fact topping over 100 points in each of the last five years, and then underachieving in the playoffs. They did make a nice run to the conference finals last season though, and we see a repeat of that this year. This team is still loaded on both sides of the ice, as it can score with any team in the league and it improved its defense by trading for Brent Burns. Also, do not forget that the Sharks have a Stanley Cup winning goaltenders in Antti Niemi, formerly of the Blackhawks, and Niemi was great over the second half of last year after a rather slow start, earning himself a huge contract extension from the Sharks.
Vancouver Canucks (+828): The Canucks finished with the best record in the NHL last season, but having home ice advantage for Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals did not help as they were unable to hold off the Bruins. This team is also under enormous pressure from the Vancouver fan base, as great regular seasons have become old hat and only winning the Cup would now be considered a successful season. Vancouver should be able to beat up on a rather weak Northwest Division again, but how far this team goes in the playoffs may wrest entirely on the inconsistent Roberto Luongo in net. Luongo is capable of being the best goaltender in the league when he is on and the worst when he is off and his past failings in pressure situations do not help.
Detroit Red Wings (+1477): It may be tempting to take the Red Wings to win the Cup at these uncharacteristically nice odds, but this is the oldest team in the NHL and that remains true even after the retirements of Chris Osgood and Brian Rafalski. Their best defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom is 41 years old and their frontline continues to get older, with Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg now both in their 30s after being part of a Detroit youth movement several years ago. They will still make the playoffs and we see them reaching the conference semifinals just on playoff experience and guile alone, but we do not see them going any further.
NHL Pick: Washington Capitals (+734) over Chicago Blackhawks (+1595) in Stanley Cup Finals