Contenders and Pretenders Part 1: Eastern Conference
Now that the trade deadline has passed, we can make some assumptions on who will be a real playoff threat going forward. Beginning with the Eastern Conference, I will add my thoughts as to which teams are Pretenders and which team are Contenders to win the Stanley Cup.
First, we look at the Pretenders:
The obvious teams here are Toronto, Buffalo and Columbus. Toronto basically sold off any bad contracts in the past week and has clearly mailed it in. It will be interesting to see what Babcock can do with a fresh slate. Buffalo continued to be a bottom dweller this year. With a young core and an owner willing to invest money in his franchise, Buffalo fans will have something to look forward to, just not this year. The final bottom-tier team is Columbus. Hot as of late, but there is too much noise in the standings ahead of them to have a legitimate chance at a cup run.
Ottawa and Carolina are next. Carolina, being a seller at the deadline is looking ahead to next year. The young d-core is impressive to watch and will be a building block going forward. Ottawa’s hot offensive start cooled off, and the team has found itself near the bottom third of the east.
Moving into the more “relevant” names, next on my list of pretenders is Philadelphia. The team has struggled on the road, and you can argue their offense has not lived up to expectations this year. For instance, fresh off three consecutive 20+ goal seasons, Voracek’s production has regressed. Twenty-second in the league in scoring, I do not see this team being able to work its way through the elite goaltending in the east.
Slightly ahead of Philly is the club from Montreal. Regardless of Price’s status the remainder of the year, this team has some serious flaws, both on the ice and off. With the tone portrayed by the front office, this is not a team that even considers itself to be a competitor this year.
New Jersey was a major surprise in the east this year. Top-notch goaltending and great special teams are bright spots for our rivals from Newark. However, averaging 2.2 goals per game which is good for 30th in the league is not something to hold your hat on. Injury plagued, and trading away your top point-scorer is not a recipe for success.
Getting ever-so-closer to our contender list is Pittsburgh. I will continue to stand by the theory that top-weighted teams cannot be successful in the playoffs. The Pens added to their marque players in the offseason, but their third and fourth line are weak and can be easily exposed (as they have in recent playoff series). Moreover, this unbalance rolls over into their d-men, as the lack of depth at this position leaves opposing teams with solid bottom six production licking their chops.
Florida. Despite being third in the conference, Florida is a team which is in-over-their-head. Put yourself in the eyes of a team looking at the 5-8 seed in the playoffs. Out of your potential foes, Florida has to be the most attractive. As sorry as it is to say, Jagr’s days in this league are dwindling down, and Florida is looking at a prolonged season led by a 44-year-old. This is the same man who wished to not be voted into the all-star game because he is too old. Their goaltending is on point. But aside from a select few, Florida is a team of many young players who will have future success when their time comes.
My last pretender is the NY Islanders. This is the team which gave me the most trouble in terms of where they fall. The Isles had the potential to make a substantial move at the deadline with $5.6 million in cap space. Yet, they sat on their hands and watched the world go by without making a move to better their team. Suspect goaltending is something which is also worrisome should the team find themselves in the postseason.
Now, on to the cream of the crop in the East. The below teams are those which I feel have the best chance of making a Cup run.
This has to be one of the biggest surprises of the year. Boston, which unloaded any asset they could for a first round pick has found itself back in the playoff mix. The B’s were horrendous to start the year at home, but figured it out and would be a scary team to face in the playoffs. Third in the league in goals per game, and with arguably one of the best goalies in the world (at times) possess a real threat to any team in their way. Plenty of names at the top of this roster who have been there before and know what it takes. Watch out if they stay healthy and Tuuka turns it on at the right time.
Another championship city which produced a cup contender is Detroit. This team is seemingly average across the board in many metrics. However, this is another team with a goalie situation many teams would dread to face. Mrazek was a name thrown around as a top goalie in the league at points this year, despite sharing time with Howard. After a slow start to the year, Howard has recently looked true-to-form, and will seek to carry that momentum into the playoffs. When Mrazek returns, Detroit will have a [good] problem deciding who to put between the pipes. Match this with the leadership up front and you have the makings for deep playoff potential. Lastly, a common theme in the East for playoff success has been speed, and Detroit has plenty of it.
Tampa Bay finds itself third on the list. Now, some may view this as inflated, as the team has not lived up to expectations in the 15-16 season. However, playoffs are a different game. This team is built on the back of a monster tender, a solid defense, and a well-built offense. I know I speak for Rangers fans when I say I want to avoid this team at all costs. Tampa has the sour taste of Cup defeat in their mouths, and you better believe they will come out hungry in the playoffs. Top-10 in both goals per game and goals allowed, there are few teams more balanced across the board.
Now comes the Rangers. Another team with the sour taste of defeat two-years running. The Rangers are committed to winning NOW. As exemplified in all the trades the last few years, the Rangers view it to be their time sooner than later. World class goaltending, explosive forwards up front, and a d-core balanced with experience and skill add up to Cup contention. Now, with another added piece in Staal, the Rangers added some much needed forward depth. A main flaw this team holds is their special teams. The power play has not been our forte in recent memory. However, we have always relied on a shut-down PK, and this is essential to our success going forward. Third period penalties cannot consistently result in blown leads. If and when Nash returns, the lineup will do nothing but improve and will be flat out relentless to face at full strength. As we saw last year, health is extremely important in making a deep run. If the team can stay healthy and continue its pace of recent success, sit back and enjoy yet another quest for the cup.
It would be foolish of me to not list Washington as the top dog in the East. Even more so than the Rangers, this team is balanced throughout. First in the league in goals and third in goals allowed is impressive to say the least. Ovechkin is the most electric player in hockey, and he wants his turn at the cup. One knock on this team (which was hard to find) was the frequency in which they give up the first goal in the game. At one point, the Caps gave up the first goal in 14 of 17 contests. In the playoffs, where goals are hard to come by, this will not be as easy to overcome. One thing I am certainly glad for is that the Rangers will likely not face the Caps early on.
There you have it, the definitive list of who is a Contender and who is a Pretender in the East. Coverage of the West is soon to come.
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