Hard to believe we’re almost a quarter of the way into the season. Many teams have surpassed or are fast approaching the 20-game mark and the standings are starting to take a more continuous shape; no longer can a team jump 10 spots overnight.
That said, we’re not deep enough to completely discount any squad. Even the bottom-feeding Islanders and Oilers are only a five-game winning streak away from jumping right back into the playoff race. And, as optimists are apt to say, once you make the playoffs, anything can happen.
That’s the hat I’m wearing today, one of the eternal optimist. Every last club still has a chance to win the Cup this year, here’s why:
Jonas Hiller has rediscovered his game after a shaky start and the Ducks have the best 25-and-under line (Ryan-Getzlaf-Perry) in the NHL.
In the hunt even now, the Thrashers’ youth will get better as the season progresses; Tobias Enstrom and Dustin Byfuglien are sleeper Norris contenders.
Tim Thomas. He’s been absolutely lights out; and eventually the team will learn how to consistently win at home.
Tyler Myers has to curb his regression soon, doesn’t he? And Ryan Miller will be better once the ‘D’ gels as long as his health concerns don’t drag on all season.
Even if just half of their talented skaters play up to expectations it’ll still be enough; and no Miikka Kiprusoff-backed squad can be counted out.
Has one of the league’s most underrated defense corps…and one of the league’s most underrated GMs, so another sly upgrade trade isn’t out of the question.
Hey, did you hear they’re the defending champs and still have bucket-loads of talent? And Marty Turco gets better in the playoffs.
The Avs are hanging on despite missing No. 1 Craig Anderson; Milan Hejduk is reborn; and Chris Stewart, at age 23, is the league’s best pure power forward.
Columbus Blue Jackets
A summer of off-season workouts means Steve Mason is in better shape and better suited for a return to Calder form.
The sale of the team looks to be a sooner-rather-than-later thing and $8 million in cap space means improvements should come.
Detroit Red Wings
A perennial contender that hardly needs a sanguine boost; Detroit’s home to the world’s best two-way player and the world’s best defenseman (still, at age 40).
Taylor Hall and Jordan Eberle have been far from lights out, but a third-period benching against Carolina got their attention…sort of: they have six points combined in the five games since.
There are worse things than scoring by committee – the Cats don’t have a player averaging even 0.75 points per game, but still sit 19th in offense.
Los Angeles Kings
Jonathan Quick is again flashing the form that made him an elite goalie last season (top six in GAA, SP and wins) and this year he won’t fade down the stretch.
The ability to score still eludes Todd Richards’ bunch, but the team ‘D’ has returned and, in turn, will keep games close and the Wild in the hunt all year long.
Losing Andrei Markov hurts, but P.K. Subban will pick up some of the slack; and clearly Carey Price is a better goalie when not challenged for No. 1.
De facto top-line center Matthew Lombardi’s been on the shelf with a concussion for all but two games, but could return as early as next week.
New Jersey Devils
Where to start? Ilya Kovalchuk, Martin Brodeur and Travis Zajac have to get better (either that or the whole team will get a bump when John MacLean is fired; and Zach Parise will eventually return.
New York Islanders
It’s hard to take a glass-half-full approach here, but there are some things to like – it’s just too bad two of them (Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo) are on the IR long term. Here’s to hoping Jack Capuano has the magic elixir.
New York Rangers
The Blueshirts held on nicely with Marian Gaborik out of the lineup for 12 games and if that’s the last of his injury woes it’ll make THN’s prediction look silly.
Jason Spezza looks inspired once again and having two capable goalies (though they haven’t always played as such so far) is better than one.
What’s not to like? Arguably the league’s deepest team; and Sergei Bobrovsky looks like the answer to the only question surrounding the team.
If the Coyotes had won their five overtime or shootout losses, they’d be in first place in the West.
M-A Fleury once again has his house in order; and with all the individual talent, the woeful PP will improve.
San Jose Sharks
Maybe a mediocre regular season will finally lead to ultimate playoff success?
St. Louis Blues
All the injuries will eventually heal and Jaro Halak between the pipes will provide a post-season confidence the size of the arch.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Dec. 6 cover boy Steven Stamkos may very well be the league’s best player and Martin St-Louis, Vinny Lecavalier and Pavel Kubina know what it takes come playoff time.
Toronto Maple Leafs
If the man-advantage keeps clicking as it has of late (six for 11 heading into the weekend), the Buds will be in the hunt when captain Dion Phaneuf returns in early December.
THN’s pre-season Cup pick has all the right pieces in all the right places. What else can you ask for?
If one goalie falters, there are two more bona fide NHL keepers in waiting; and lessons on how to win in the playoffs have surely been learned.
Edward Fraser is the managing editor of The Hockey News. His blog appears regularly.
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