You know when experts and analysts on networks like ESPN have their top title contenders for the next season right after a championship is won? Well, here is our version of that. Before the dominoes fall and moves are made in the coming weeks, here are my top five Stanley Cup contenders for the 2010/11 campaign…
1. Detroit Red Wings I know I stated a month ago that the Wings’ run had to come to an end… but that was wrongly assuming that Nicklas Lidstrom was about to retire. The future Hall of Fame defenseman and team captain is back for another year, which means Detroit will be right there in the end. This past year was an unusual campaign in the Motor City with the numerous injuries. Assuming they stay healthy, and if Jimmy Howard can avoid the sophomore slump, the Red Wings could once again be the team to beat in the NHL. 2. Washington Capitals You can bet your left arm that the Capitals are going to be a team on a mission in 2010/11. Not to say Alex Ovechkin and company weren’t this past season, but losing Game 7 on home-ice three years in a row should act as a wake-up call to this rather young team. GM George McPhee will need to restructure the blueline, which simply wasn’t built for the playoffs. If McPhee can nab a guy like Dan Hamhuis or Paul Martin (along with more depth), the Caps will be in position to be a (true) Cup favorite when April rolls around. 3. Vancouver Canucks The Canucks were the highest-scoring team in the Western Conference last year, but didn’t have the defensive structure to last in the playoffs. It will surely be a high priority for GM Mike Gillis to upgrade the back end; Anton Volchenkov and Hamhuis are two names the Canucks may go after. Also, possibly bringing in top prospect Cody Hodgson to add to their center depth will pay dividends. If Roberto Luongo improves his consistency, and the Sedins keep up their high level of play, Vancouver will cruise to another Northwest Division title. 4. Pittsburgh Penguins Any team that has Crosby, Malkin, and Staal down the middle is considered a Stanley Cup contender. The Pens will be determined to return deep into the playoffs after getting bounced in round two. But they have some work to do if they wish to get past that point. The wings flanking the three aforementioned stud centers is an issue, and the back end will have some new faces. Depending on what they do in that area, Dan Bylsma’s crew could be higher on this list. In the end, though, the Penguins will be a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference. 5. Boston Bruins You may be surprised to see the Bruins here – but don’t be. Claude Julien’s gang was affected by injuries last year, but has most of its core returning. The blueline corps is really solid, while the offense is more than serviceable when all three centers are healthy and producing. Tuukka Rask should be getting more than just 39 starts, which will bode well for the team. Also, there’s a possibility they could be adding Taylor Hall in the draft, who would help right away. Boston has the pieces in place to return to their 2008/09 form.
The next five: Philadelphia, San Jose, Los Angeles, Chicago, Anaheim
Why Chicago isn’t in the top five: The defending champs are not one of my Cup contenders because of all the pieces they’ll have to part with this summer. They could very easily be losing a whole offensive line (maybe Sharp, Versteeg, and Byfuglien), which was a big part of their depth this postseason. The ‘Hawks will be ripe for the annual Cup hangover, and their stars will be put to the test in a difficult and deep Western Conference.
This is a preliminary list, and will be updated in July!
Our podcast 'RLD Hockey Talk' is LIVE every Wednesday afternoon at 1:00 ET/Noon CT. Some of our notable guests in past episodes have been Dustin Brown, Doc Emrick, John Buccigross, Dave Strader, E.J. Hradek, Elliotte Friedman and Jay Grossman.