With all of the deals leading up to the 2015-16 NHL season trade deadline in the rearview mirror, rosters are set enough to forecast the Stanley Cup playoffs. CBS hockey writer Adam Gretz was among those to rank the contenders Wednesday, March 2.
Before looking at what teams have what chance to win the Stanley Cup, one must examine where each team finishes the 2015-16 NHL season. Gretz obviously did that because he makes reference to opponents his contenders need to go through before citing the importance of the penalty kill, defense in general and full-strength possession in the postseason, but byteclay.com’s analysis of the road there will be laid out this week.
We start with the Western Conference because frankly the picture is clearer. The top-three teams in each division are pretty much only fighting for the order they will finish (with all three potentially finishing in first, second or third place), and the Nashville Predators have practically locked up the top wild card. No moves at the trade deadline change that perspective.
The defending Stanley Cup-champion Chicago Blackhawks loading up as though they were not already the team to beat (no offense to the Washington Capitals, but they absolutely have to prove it) definitely impacts just where those teams finish. They already have half-game and one-game leads on their Central Division contenders and certainly have the best roster over the final 18 games of the 2015-16 NHL season.
The Central Division winner will get an easier road through the Western Conference and Chicago knows that. No team knows how to make it happen in must-win games better and the three-time Stanley Cup champions will do what it takes to finish with the top seed barring injury problems, and that includes adding reinforcements at the trade deadline.
If the Blackhawks stumble for any reason, the Dallas Stars are right there to contend with them. Another team that loaded up at the trade deadline, this high-powered offense will have just enough defensively to earn home-ice advantage by finishing second place in the Central Division.
That leaves the St. Louis Blues in third. They did nothing to upgrade a roster that has only one star, questions in net and one Stanley Cup-playoff series win since 2002. The reality is it will not even be easy to hold off hot Nashville, but a three-game lead should be enough.
In addition to pointing in the right direction and having their trades already settled in, the Predators are the top wild card because they have more than three games over their two closest Central Division rivals. Since both the Minnesota Wild and Colorado Avalanche have more than two games on their closest competitors in the Pacific Division, it is safe to assume fifth place is good to enough to make the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Colorado made moves to improve at the trade deadline but has a tougher schedule (and one game fewer) over the rest of the 2015-16 NHL season than Minnesota. Since every place in Central Division will finish with a better record than the corresponding Pacific Division team (first compared to first, second to second and so on) with the possible exception of St. Louis in third, that sets Chicago up with a very familiar first-round opponent.
Meanwhile, all three top Pacific Division teams bolstered their rosters leading up to the trade deadline. The thing is the two teams that needed to most did the least.
It could be argued that the Los Angeles Kings needed to acquire players most because of injuries and their play cooling after the All-Star break, but they are currently in first place. It could also be argued that the San Jose Sharks needed to most because of being in third place, but they are as hot as almost any team in the league right now.
However, not quite as hot as the Anaheim Ducks—currently sitting just half a game behind Los Angeles. It could be argued they just needed to keep the train going because they are headed in the right direction with a fourth consecutive Pacific Division championship in reach, but they bolstered their roster as much as any team outside of the Central Division.
That is more than enough to push Anaheim over the top, especially with no games against San Jose left. Moves at the trade deadline make this roster better than the one many analysts had as the best before the start of the 2015-16 NHL season, and should lead to hosting Nashville in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
The Kings probably patched enough of their injuries to stop their fall, but their one remaining game against the other rival left vying for second place is on the road. Still, the Sharks are two games back and probably can be held off even if it is simply by one of the tiebreakers that currently lean toward the two-time Stanley Cup champions.