2011 Stanley Cup Contenders – Western Conference
During this last off-season, the NHL has seen a large quantity of quality players migrate to potential cup-contending teams. The Western Conference has seen more than its fair share of trades and interesting decisions made by GM’s. But these decisions have lead to some teams standing out above the others, as potential candidates for winning the Stanley Cup. Here are three teams from the Western Conference that seem to have the best chance of hoisting the Cup at the end of this season.
Western Conference Cup Contenders
San Jose Sharks
Despite being swept by the Chicago Blackhawks in last years’ playoffs, look for the San Jose Sharks to come back strong and remain one of the major threats in contention for the Stanley Cup. The past 5-6 years has seen them consistently underperform in the playoffs, but after their solid outing last year and some fresh new faces in the lineup, this could be their year. Probably the biggest change in their team chemistry would be the addition of new goaltenders, Antti Niemi and Antero Niittymaki, with the loss of Evgeni Nabokov who moved on to the KHL. Although he showed strong numbers in the regular season, Nabokov has always been at least partially to blame for their Sharks’ lack of consistency in playoff performance. Coming off a successful Stanley Cup run with the Chicago Blackhawks, and a backup goalie with an opportunity to play on a high caliber team, look for the Sharks to do better in the GAA department this year. The loss of some key players like Rob Blake and Manny Malhotra could hurt the Sharks’ overall performance, but with the addition of the gritty Jamal Mayers, don’t be surprised if the sharks take home the cup this year.
Achilles Heel: Despite a much stronger performance by Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau last year, the Sharks will need their big 3 to perform again this year. We’re looking at you Dany Heatley.
Much like the Sharks, the Vancouver Canucks have had difficulty performing in the playoffs, which has also been tied to multiple dealings with the Chicago Blackhawks. Nonetheless, the quantity of high-end players the Canucks have managed to obtain while staying under the salary cap has enabled them to field a very dangerous squad this year. After an incredible output by the Sedins last year, the Canucks will look to take a step further this year towards the cup, with the addition of Keith Ballard, Dan Hamhuis, and Manny Malhotra. A gritty player like Malhotra will be a welcome addition to an already deep offensive squad, which could use the extra grit to fill some holes. With their defensive parings being the Canucks’ achilles heel all last season due to injuries and mitigating circumstances, Ballard and Hamhuis will look to complete the final piece of the puzzle to a well-rounded team.
Achilles Heel: The only thing that might stop the Canucks from performing to their potential this year will be the always questionable, Roberto Luongo, who has consistently seen pucks pile up behind him in the playoffs.
Los Angeles Kings
The third cup contender in the Western Conference was a difficult choice for me. Naturally, it would seem appropriate to default to the Detroit Red Wings or the Chicago Blackawks, simply due to their success in past seasons. But seeing as Detroit has an aging squad and Chicago has lost some key players, I believe that the Los Angeles Kings are a much more likely contender this year.
Unlike other teams in the NHL, L.A. can’t rely on experience to perform well. From the ground up, almost their entire team is green behind the ears. But this lack of experience doesn’t take anything away from their potential skill level or ability to perform. With players like Norris candidate Drew Doughty controlling the defence and Dustin Brown helming the team, the kings are capable of building on their 6th place regular season performance last year, and also taking a run at the cup. The Kings also have a very capable Jonathan Quick in net, with a strong Jonathan Bernier as a backup. Look for these goalies to improve upon last year and become even more effective in keeping pucks out of the net. The loss of playmaker, Alexander Frolov could prove to be a setback, but with a young team that only get better, this could be a surmountable obstacle. Don’t look for the Kings’ to be the best team out there this year, but they could very well make it to the higher rounds of the playoffs, if not make a run for the cup itself.
Achilles Heel: Although they continue to improve and gain experience, the Kings will need more of their 25+ players to act as inspiration for the younger ones. Without this they may see another first round exit.