With the dust from Tuesday’s whirlwind trade deadline now settled, the push for the NHL playoffs kicks into its highest gear.
It was a more wild trade deadline than normal. Heading into Monday the league, for seemingly the first time in years, didn’t have a handful of truly elite, powerhouse teams that were significantly ahead of the pack in terms of their playoff chances. This parity, with almost every team that’s currently in a playoff spot possessing a very strong chance at making a deep run, created a proverbial arms race as most of these teams added one or two veteran rentals to help their cause.
With the deadline now in the past and trading frozen until the summer, the rosters that teams have now will be the ones that they have to head into the playoffs with (not including minor league call-ups, of course). Taking that into account, which two teams currently have the best odds at going the distance and playing for hockey’s ultimate prize, the Stanley Cup?
Eastern Conference: New York Rangers
Deadline Additions: Keith Yandle, James Sheppard
Before the deadline the only dramatic weakness on the New York Rangers’ roster was the need for an offensive, puck-moving defenseman that could quarterback the powerplay.
Enter Keith Yandle.
Yandle, regularly one of the NHL’s highest-scoring blueliners, cost the Rangers a very hefty package (John Moore, prospect Anthony Duclair, a 1st round pick and a 2nd round pick) but is arguably the final piece of the puzzle that the organization needs to make a serious playoff push.
New York is currently second in the league in terms of goals-per-game with 3.11, so their forward group is doing fantastic, and adding Yandle to a back end that already has Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Girardi, Kevin Klein and Dan Boyle also gives them one of, if not the best, defenses in the league. Add in all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist behind the 18 skaters and the Rangers are a team that’s built for success from top to bottom.
The Rangers came painstakingly close to winning it all last year, losing in the Cup finals to the Los Angeles Kings. With their strong play all season, bolstered now by the addition of Yandle, a shot at redemption is firmly within their grasp.
Western Conference: St. Louis Blues
Deadline Additions: Zbynek Michalek, Olli Jokinen
The Blues didn’t make a blockbuster move before the deadline, but really, they didn’t need to. They were legitimate contenders before, and the acquisitions of veteran depth in Zbynek Michalek and Olli Jokinen only cement that fact.
The Western Conference is, once again, completely brutal this year, but the Blues’ balance pushes them slightly ahead of the pack. With Anaheim having young goalies, Nashville lacking a game-breaking offensive talent, and Patrick Kane out injured for Chicago, the Blues are the only major player in the West without a big, exploitable weakness.
Offense and goaltending have hurt St. Louis in recent years, but with Vladamir Tarasenko bursting into superstar territory and Brian Elliott putting up good numbers all season long, those issues seem to be a thing of the past. They’re sitting 3rd in the conference right now, but boast the best goal differential at a +38.
It’s going to be another long, arduous road to escape the Western Conference, but right now the Blues are the team that’s most primed to do it.
Derek Neumeier primarily covers the Dallas Stars, but also other various topics related to the sport of hockey. A Journalism graduate of Mount Royal University, Derek also writes for Defending Big D, and has done previous work with the Edmonton Oilers as a communications intern and Hockey Canada as a freelance writer. You can follow him on Twitter at @Derek_N_NHL