The Chicago Blackhawks have been crowned as the 2015 Stanley Cup champions, it’s their third championship in six years and the Jonathan Toews led dynasty was confirmed. It’s way too early to start speculating about the next Stanley Cup, but that won’t stop us. Here’s our way too early list of the 2016 Stanley Cup contenders.
1. Chicago Blackhawks
They are Vegas’ early favorites and who can blame anyone for picking them? They’ll still be led by a core that has now won three championships in Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, debates will probably continue about Corey Crawford’s quality in net, but he’s been a crucial part of two championship runs now.
Of course, keeping the other parts of this Stanley Cup Winning together won’t be easy. Start with Brandon Saad, who will surely be looking for a significant pay rise playing an important role in the regular season and playoff run.
2. Los Angeles Kings
Darryl Sutter is still there, the core of that dominant defensive team with all that postseason experience is also still there. They are probably never going to be the sort of team that charges in the playoffs, but once they qualify, they are an extremely tough out.
They’ve not got a huge amount of cap space, but GM Dean Lombardi has had more time to play with his team this season. The question for LA will always be whether they have enough goals in their line-up to win the games that they need to win.
3. Minnesota Wild
They’re definitely a dark horse selection, but the Wild have recent postseason experience, a couple of quality players in Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, and a cluster of young players that are building up the sort of big game experience that will benefit them down the line.
The Wild have been thrashed in the playoffs by Chicago in three straight seasons and there may be some thinking to do for the organization if they hope to take the next step.
4. Montreal Canadiens
Carey Price has gradually established himself as one of the NHL’s premier netminders and he looks set to just keep getting better. Meanwhile, PK Subban is one of the most electrifying defensemen and all-round players in the league. The Canadiens have speed, balance and depth, and Marc Bergevin still has some room to make some more moves.
The Canadiens were surprised by their playoff eliminations in each of the last two seasons. This team might just be running out of time to get ‘over the hump’ before the salary cap catches up to them.
5. Tampa Bay Lightning
Speaking about salary cap catching up, the Tampa Bay Lightning’s young roster will be threatened by that same phenomena as entry level contracts expire. The Lightning have improved in each of the last two seasons, but they still need to improve their performance by one series victory.
General Manager Steve Yzerman has one more season of relative cap security, but he will know that the margins between success and failure are slim.
It’s arguably more difficult to pull together a bounce back season after losing in the Stanley Cup final than it is to repeat as champions. Very few teams do it.
Still, the Lightning are stacked with talent including Steve Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Jonathan Drouin, Nikita Kucherov and Cedric Paquette. They got the skill, depth and the playing style to enjoy another strong NHL season and to be one of those rare teams that bounces back immediately.
6. New York Islanders
Our Eastern conference dark horse team is the New York Islanders. It’s a long shot, but they are the team with serious potential. They took a step forward this season, but ultimately lost in the first round.
John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, Ryan Strome, Travis Hamonic, Calvin De Haan and a host of other players lead a core with the potential to be one of the most explosive in franchise history.
Of course, it’s a big step to expect this young Islanders team to take that step, but Stanley Cup winning teams can just as easily come out of nowhere.