CHICAGO -- It’s a celebration that is going to last all summer long. Chicago will once again be party central while the Blackhawks pass along the Stanley Cup each day for another unique celebration.
The price the Blackhawks paid to win it all is a big one. They’re banged up. Their offseason is going to be ridiculously short when compared to teams that have been golfing for months -- but it’s going to be a fantastic one.
The small downside is that teams simply don’t repeat in the salary-cap era. Parity is so widespread in the NHL that even the slightest difference in energy level, health and hunger to win can swing a series. The Blackhawks have shown that they’re a special group, and if anyone can do it, they can. But history suggests otherwise, which makes these five teams the early favorites to win the 2016 Stanley Cup:
As Katie Strang articulated so well in her fantastic story on the Kings' rough season, their attempt at a repeat was an absolute failure on multiple levels. If the Kings can somehow turn the page and put it behind them, missing the playoffs might have been the best thing for their long-term success.
Until this season, the Kings and Blackhawks were teams loaded down with mileage. It takes a special group to extend each season into June year after year.
That the Kings got a full summer off makes them the most dangerous team in the league heading into next season, because at the core, this is still a highly talented, well-constructed powerhouse loaded with experience. As much as the hockey world has admired Duncan Keith’s stamina and Victor Hedman’s arrival on the big stage, Drew Doughty still had the best regular season of nearly any defenseman. He’s still just 25 years old.
Anze Kopitar is one of the three best two-way centers in the league. He’s 27 years old and will sign a monster contract extension this summer. There’s youth in Tyler Toffoli and Tanner Pearson along with a team in the AHL that won the Calder Cup in large part because of the production of 18-year-old, 2014 first-round pick Adrian Kempe, who had eight goals. Jordan Weal, a 23-year-old third-round pick, was the playoff MVP.
Jonathan Quick had his best regular season since 2012, posting a .918 save percentage. GM Dean Lombardi has work to do. There needs to be some closure on the Slava Voynov situation and the Kings also have to replace Voynov if he’s not coming back, ideally with a new contract for potential free agent Andrej Sekera. Justin Williams, the 2014 Conn Smythe winner, is also expected to move on. But the core is set and eager to prove last season was a fluke.
It’s not easy for the runner-up to return to the Stanley Cup finals the next year -- one reason Tampa Bay isn’t the favorite despite a young roster that will return everybody of note. The Penguins were the last team to lose in the Stanley Cup finals and then return the following season and win it all when they beat the Red Wings in seven games during the 2009 classic. Even that team struggled at times, firing its coach, Michel Therrien, in February 2009 before rallying behind an inexperienced coach named Dan Bylsma.
This Lightning team definitely has a Penguins-like feel to it and even in coming so close and losing gained irreplaceable experience during this postseason run, although that was hard for the team to grasp after losing on Monday night.
“It’s tough to look at it right now,” Hedman said. “But we have a lot of good things to look forward to.”
GM Steve Yzerman has already done the heavy lifting in building this team. The priority this summer will be to get Steven Stamkos signed to a long-term extension so that his contract status doesn’t become a distraction next season, the final year of his current deal.
There may also be a push to get talented goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy more starts in a rotation with Ben Bishop, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. He’s not the only young player in the depth chart who will be pushing for playing time. Jonathan Drouin has the talent to play a bigger role next season and the Lightning have prospects like Adam Erne, Anthony DeAngelo and Slater Koekkoek on the way who will be pushing for playing time. This is a great, young team that is only trending upward.
This past season might have been the best opportunity for a Ducks breakthrough. Their California rivals, the Kings and Sharks, had down years, which set up a beautiful path out of the Pacific to the Western Conference finals. That won’t be the case next season. The Sharks are poised to return to the playoffs with GM Doug Wilson shifting his rebuild back into one in which he’ll be more aggressive in making offseason additions, especially on defense and in goal.
The Kings' downturn won’t last.
But this is now a battle-tested Ducks team that gained both confidence and experience this spring, and GM Bob Murray has structured the Ducks in a way that they are set up to win for a long time.
They have two championship-caliber centers in Ryan Getzlaf and Ryan Kesler. Their defense is young and loaded, with Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen and Simon Despres all making significant contributions and all under the age of 25.
Murray needs to re-sign Francois Beauchemin, but like the Lightning, the Ducks have done a fantastic job of stockpiling young talent for the time the veterans depart. Shea Theodore will eventually be a contributor on that defense and big winger Nick Ritchie will be knocking on the door to join the Ducks' top six soon.
It will be fascinating to see how Murray handles goalie John Gibson. He has the potential to be a franchise goalie, but Frederik Andersen was great for the Ducks in the playoffs. Murray should be completely comfortable bringing that goaltending duo back next season, but there may be the temptation to move Gibson for a huge return, further strengthening the Ducks' chances in the short term.
The margin between the Rangers and other East contenders like the Penguins, Red Wings, Islanders, Capitals and Canadiens is paper thin. The difference between them is luck, health and perhaps offseason moves to build in a gap. With the Penguins it always seems to be a matter of health, but you can’t count out Sidney Crosby. Red Wings GM Ken Holland may ratchet up the aggression this offseason, and if the Wings land a high-end talent through the trade route to go with all that young talent, plus pick up a defenseman in free agency, they’re right there. They nearly beat the Lightning in the first round, so that’s how small the gap is now.
The Rangers make this list because of their goalie, defense and experience. The Lightning found a way to beat them, but it’s hard to bet against Henrik Lundqvist in a big game. Keith Yandle will have the proper time to acclimate himself to a defense that already has Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi.
Another Western Conference power is going to emerge to join the Blackhawks, Kings and Ducks as the top contenders. That team could very well be the Minnesota Wild, but until the goaltending issues are resolved it’s hard to pick them. The Blues have the skill, but the pressure of the playoffs has been overwhelming for this group at times and it only keeps building every time they fail to get out of the first round. The Jets? Not yet, but talent is coming. The Stars? Maybe. Expect a real bounce-back season in Dallas. The Predators are a strong sleeper pick. For one, they have a high-end goaltender in Pekka Rinne who can steal a series. This Predators' defense is an absolute weapon for coach Peter Laviolette. The Predators controlled 52.7 percent of the even-strength shot attempts against opponents this season in part because they had so much skill on the back end, it was hard to pin them in their own zone.
The concern with the Predators is down the middle. Mike Fisher is an unrestricted free agent but will return. Mike Ribeiro was a great fit on a short-term deal but now will want a raise. You need centers in the West when you’re going against Jonathan Toews, Anze Kopitar, Ryan Getzlaf and everyone else, so if it’s not Ribeiro, GM David Poile has his work cut out. If he can do a little magic like he did last summer, the Predators are poised to join the West’s legitimate Cup contenders.