What Makes a Cup Contender?

Back in February, Oilers General Manager Peter Chiarelli addressed the media regarding his team and plans for the trade deadline. He didn’t anticipate them being big players at the deadline, nor did he have keen interest of diving into the rental market. Now that March 1st has come and gone, his comments turned out to be very accurate.

There were some possibilities on the table, particularly trying to move out Andrew Ference’s salary, but nothing came to fruition. Some Oilers fans were disappointed at the lack of activity, but Chiarelli never made any promises. In fact, he stated that his team isn’t “ready to contend for the Cup.” The question is, what does that really mean?

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The Oilers Stay the Course

In his post-deadline press conference, Chiarelli explained his decision-making process, and re-iterated his view on the team.

“A fortnight ago, Chiarelli said he didn’t view the Oilers as a Cup contender. On Wednesday, he said the Oilers are already ahead of where he thought they’d be this year, but he obviously hasn’t interpreted that rapid progress as the premature cracking open of a time-sensitive playoff window. That seems like an accurate and forward-thinking reading of his team and its chances against some tough, experienced competition in the Western Conference.” – Dan Barnes [National Post]

Chairelli wants to give the guys on the roster a chance, in particular back-up goalie Laurent Brossoit, to show what they’ve got before he brings in outside help. And what better time to prove yourself than during the stretch-drive of a playoff run.

The Oilers have some really good pieces, but they also have a number of players whose potential hasn’t reflected in their production. This year is unique because of the expansion draft, so we may see a lot more movement around the NHL entry draft than we have in a long time.

Does this mean that Chiarelli doesn’t believe in his guys? Not at all. If anything, he gave them a vote of confidence that he believes they could be a playoff team as currently constructed. For a playoff-starved fan base, this explanation may not be good enough. But Chiarelli won’t accelerate a process that he feels is going to plan.

The Oilers are in second place in their division, leading some to wonder that if they aren’t Cup contenders, who is? Division standings aside, if you look at the overall leader-board, the Oilers are the ninth best team in the league. They’re in the upper-echelon of NHL franchises, but in the bottom-half of playoff teams.

The Contenders

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It’s always difficult, at the beginning of the season, to predict a Stanley Cup champion. (Just ask anyone who chose the Tampa Bay Lightning). And that’s because so much can happen over the course of a season. But when we get into crunch time, the contenders begin to separate themselves from the pack.

There are exceptions to every rule. A team can get hot down the stretch and go all the way to the Final. They can ride a hot goalie deep into the postseason. And on the flip side, a strong team can be felled by injuries, or simply under-achieve when it matters most. There will probably be some disagreement on who the true Cup contenders are this season, but here’s a handy checklist to see who meets the criteria:

  • Depth (especially on defence)
  • Experience
  • Strong goaltending
  • Strength down the middle
  • Chemistry

The Washington Capitals

Even before their acquisition of Kevin Shattenkirk, the Capitals were easily on the favorites to win the Cup. Now, with an even stronger defence corp, they almost seem unbeatable. But this is a team who has won the President’s Trophy twice in the past seven years, and the division title six times in the past nine years, and yet didn’t reach the third round.

The Capitals core remains largely the same, and despite some strong additions, the onus will be on them to get the job done. Anything short of a Championship (even a Finals appearance) would be considered a failure.

The Pittsburgh Penguins

The defending Stanley Cup champions remain intact this season, but have been demolished by injuries. Although they hope to be healthy come playoff time, the absence of key players are affecting their place in the standings, and it could come back to haunt them.

But the Penguins have something the Capitals don’t have. They know what it takes to win. Experience at times can be overrated, but when it comes to hockey, learning how to have success is an important factor when judging contenders.

The Chicago Blackhawks

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Even year, the Blackhawks feel like a safe bet to win the Cup. They have all the key ingredients to be a threat, and seem to be heating up as the playoffs approach. It always feels like a cop-out to pick the Hawks, but they deserve the recognition. Their core has won three times together, they have solid goaltending, and one of the best coaches in the league.

The Minnesota Wild

It appears as though this is the year for the Wild to take the next step. But they are also the most risky of picks for Stanley Cup champion. Their coach has a reputation for not being able to win the big one. They’ve been adding a lot of big money players, and putting all their cards on the table, and that isn’t always a formula for success.

Unlike the Blackhawks and Penguins, the Wild haven’t proved they could hang with the best of the best, but their play this season simply can’t be ignored. They have a very balanced scoring attack, Devan Dubnyk is statistically a top-3 goalie, and they play a strong defensive game.

The Best of the Rest

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It’s extremely possible that not even one of the “big four” contenders make the Stanley Cup final. And there are a number of teams just a notch below them who could just as easily be there when all is said and done. The San Jose Sharks, the Montreal Canadiens, the New York Rangers, and maybe even the Columbus Blue Jackets are all in the running to take home the ultimate prize.

There are a few other elements that determine who will win the very last game of the year. Health, consistency, and luck all play a part in a team’s success. That’s why the perceived “best” team doesn’t always necessarily win. If you pit the Oilers in a seven game series against anyone of the aforementioned teams, would they be favored?

Once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen. We’ve seen it happen time and time again. But it appears as though Peter Chiarelli has taken the realistic approach, at least in his mind. Making the postseason will go a long way in the development of this team. Chiarelli will do his work in the offseason, because very rarely is a team drastically improved at the deadline.

If he felt that a few pieces here and there would springboard the Oilers into Cup contention, he would have pulled the trigger. But clearly, there was nothing out there that would have put this team over the top. They’re going to be true contenders some day, and soon. And they still have all their assets and prospects to build into that.