The Boston Bruins won the Stanley Cup last night, but it is not too early to look at the contenders for next season.
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 2011/12 campaign…
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
Of course, this hinges on the health of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin; any setbacks for the duo would obviously be detrimental to the Pens. But for the sake of this conservation, we are assuming they will be healthy. Though James Neal struggled in Pittsburgh, he has yet to play alongside Sid or Geno. Neal has the potential to be a 30-goal scorer next to one of those uber-talented centers. The back end will be strong once again, while Marc-Andre Fleury is coming off his best season.
Before Crosby and Malkin went down, this was the best team in the league – and that was without Jordan Staal in the lineup. If Dan Bylsma’s Pens can stay away from the injury bug, they are certainly a top contender for next season.
2. Vancouver Canucks
The Game 7 loss and coming up one win short is going to sting the Canucks for a while. However, it could motivate them to get back to the final. There’s no reason why the Canucks can’t go deep in next year’s playoffs. There won’t be many personnel changes and all of the main pieces will be back. They have incredible depth down the middle; what do they do with youngster Cody Hodgson? Vancouver’s blue-line may lose Christian Ehrhoff or Kevin Bieksa (or both), but they are already deep in that area.
The one thing I worry about is how long their loss to Boston will linger. With that said, the core of the Presidents’ Trophy-winning team is coming back and they should challenge for the Cup again.
3. San Jose Sharks
If you haven’t by now, it’s time to shed the label from San Jose as being chokers in the playoffs. They’ve beaten Detroit in back-to-back postseasons to get to the conference final. The next step is to win the whole thing. Led by Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, the Sharks possess as good of a top-six up front as any around the league and Antti Niemi has proven to be a winner come playoff time.
GM Doug Wilson has some work to do with the blue-line; but if he can find a top-pair defenseman to go with Dan Boyle, you can expect San Jose to be a contender in the West for the seventh straight season.
4. Boston Bruins
It is so hard to repeat as Cup Champions in this league; it hasn’t been done since Detroit did it in 1997 and 1998. Boston may be better equipped to go for the Cup than other champions in the past. It didn’t appear that they took a physical toll – instead, they dished it out. A lot of the same crew will return, not including the possible comeback from Marc Savard. Also, rookie Tyler Seguin is on the cusp of stardom as he flashed his potential in the conference final. Not to mention the great goaltending duo of Tim Thomas and Tuukka Rask.
The ‘Cup Hangover’ is real. And the Bruins are going to enjoy this victory. But look for them to deal with it better than most as they’ll be poised to compete for hockey’s Holy Grail once again.
5. Chicago Blackhawks
After taking a step back in 2010-11, I think we can expect the Blackhawks to come close to being that dangerous team that won the Cup just last June. GM Stan Bowman has been able to keep the main parts of the core together, while the youngsters who replaced the Dustin Byfugliens and Andrew Ladds now have some playoff experience under their belts. One of the biggest reasons why they appear in the top five is Corey Crawford, who shined against the Canucks in his first taste of the playoffs.
The hangover clearly affected the ‘Hawks this year. With almost a full off-season to recover, I really like their chances of making some noise in the West in 2011-12.
Honorable Mention: Philadelphia, Tampa Bay, Detroit, Washington, Nashville
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.