Top 10 Stanley Cup contenders

One point. One point won on the final day of the regular season. One point won in a shootout on the final day of the regular season. The Philadelphia Flyers made the playoffs by the thinnest of margins in 2009-10 and then went all the way to the Stanley Cup final, coming within two victories of a championship.

The effect is still being felt around the NHL and has become a not-so-subtle theme as the 2010-11 season opens. Thanks to the salary cap and parity, the league is as unpredictable as ever and hockey people of all stripes have been pointing to the Flyers and the Montreal Canadiens as evidence of it. The Habs were the East’s eighth seed in last season’s playoffs. They upset the Washington Capitals, the Presidents’ Trophy winners as the top regular-season team, and then the Pittsburgh Penguins, the defending Cup champs, before falling in the conference final to the Flyers, the East’s seventh seed.

To those just hoping to make the playoffs, it’s an inspiration. Every point is precious in the regular season. Scratch and claw and find a way to squeak into the tournament, and you just might find yourself contending for the Cup.

“Once you’re in there – Philly proved that if you get hot, or even Montreal – things can happen,” said goaltender Henrik Lundqvist(notes), whose New York Rangers were on the wrong end of the Flyers’ 2-1 shootout victory on April 11 and missed the playoffs by one point. “You just need to come in with good confidence and get things going for you.”

But to those for whom the playoffs is the only measure of success, it’s a warning. The playoffs don’t start for six months. Dominate in the regular season and lose your edge in April or May, and it could be all for naught in a flash.

“Look, Philadelphia goes to playoffs,” said Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin(notes). “It was last game, and they beat Rangers, and they go to playoffs, and they were in the Stanley Cup final. You never know what is going to happen. It doesn’t matter how good you play in the season. The playoffs, it’s much different hockey and much different situation.”

No wonder the Capitals had T-shirts printed for training camp: “Stay angry … believe in yourselves.” The best teams can find it difficult to stay focused throughout the 82-game warm-up. But for all the unpredictability, parity should go only so far in the end. The cream will rise, and the top 10 Stanley Cup contenders – identified and categorized below – need to find deeper meaning in the regular season as they jockey for playoff positioning so they can be ready for anything come spring.

“I wish playoffs started right away,” said Capitals defenseman Mike Green(notes). “But it’s always good. It takes almost 82 games to prepare yourself as a team to get ready for the playoffs. It’ll be a long haul, but we’ll be prepared.”

Overdue to break through:

San Jose Sharks

No team has been more of a tease than the Sharks. The past six regular seasons, they have posted between 99 and 117 points, but they have never made it to the Stanley Cup final. We know about the talent of Patrick Marleau(notes), Joe Thornton(notes) and Dany Heatley(notes). The Sharks need more development from their next wave of forwards, starting with Joe Pavelski(notes), Devin Setoguchi(notes) and Ryane Clowe(notes). They need to fill the void left by the retirement of future Hall of Fame defenseman Rob Blake(notes) with contributions from youngsters Marc-Edouard Vlasic(notes) and Jason Demers(notes). And they need to find their man in goal after the departure of Evgeni Nabokov(notes). They nabbed Antti Niemi(notes), whose Chicago Blackhawks swept them in the Eastern Conference final and went on to win the Cup last season. But Niemi has played all of 42 NHL regular-seasons games, while the other new net arrival, Antero Niittymaki(notes), has played all of two NHL playoff games.

Vancouver Canucks

Will a 'C' change lead to a sea change for the Canucks, who have posted more than 100 points five times in the past seven regular seasons but never escaped the second round of the playoffs? Roberto Luongo(notes) relinquished the captaincy and, freed of that burden, the theory is that he can get back to doing what goaltenders do: stop the puck. But for all the handwringing about Luongo and the devaluing of goaltending in recent years, Luongo was never the real problem and remains one of the best men to have in net. The problem was that the Canucks didn’t have enough defense to go with their offensive stars – led by twins Henrik and Daniel Sedin(notes) – and now we’ll find out if the additions of checking center Manny Malhotra(notes) and defensemen Dan Hamhuis(notes) and Keith Ballard(notes) can make the difference.

Due to break through:

Washington Capitals

After raising their regular-season point totals from 70 to 94 to 108, after going from out of the playoffs to the first round to the second round, the Capitals thought it was their time in 2009-10. “Coming in after the ’08-09 season, I think they felt like they made another step forward, ‘Let’s go for the big one. We’re ready for the big one,’ ” said winger Mike Knuble(notes), who joined the Caps last season. “And maybe that wasn’t necessarily the case.” The Capitals posted a league-high 121 points last season, but took a step backward in the playoffs with a first-round loss. They had no reason to mess with the roster, which returns virtually intact. But they need to break in goaltenders Semyon Varlamov(notes) and Michal Neuvirth(notes) – two 22-year-olds who combine for 54 games of regular-season experience – and develop a killer instinct. “Every series we was in playoffs, we played seven games,” Ovechkin said. “We have to make it shorter. We have to cut it off right away.”

Los Angeles Kings

Do the Kings belong among the elite yet? They’re being included in that company now, but they still have to prove it. They jumped from 79 points in 2008-09 to 101 points last season and made the playoffs for the first time in eight years, bowing out in the first round. The pressure is on Anze Kopitar(notes) to live up to his new billing as a top centerman, and it’s on Drew Doughty(notes) to live up to the hype as a favorite for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s top defenseman. Jonathan Bernier(notes) must take some of the burden off goaltender Jonathan Quick(notes), who played 72 games last season. And the Kings, who failed to land free agent sniper Ilya Kovalchuk(notes), need Dustin Brown(notes), Wayne Simmonds(notes) and Justin Williams(notes) to grow offensively.

Looking for more:

Detroit Red Wings

They have made the playoffs 19 straight seasons and have won four of the past 13 Stanley Cups, and they are as deep as ever, especially up front. By bringing back Jiri Hudler(notes) and signing Mike Modano(notes), the Wings gave themselves three legit scoring lines and two potent power play units, while strengthening the fourth line by default. “The Red Wings, they always seem to be a strong team year after year,” said Blackhawks GM Stan Bowman. “They haven’t really lost anybody from last year. They’ve added a few pieces, so I expect them to be a test for us.” The biggest question – other than staying healthy, which the Wings didn’t last season – is whether Jimmy Howard(notes), the runner-up for the Calder Trophy as rookie of the year in 2009-10, can avoid the sophomore slump common among goaltenders.

Pittsburgh Penguins

For the first time in the Sidney Crosby(notes) era, the Penguins took a step backward in the playoffs. The defending Cup champs lost to the Habs in Round 2, and they won’t blame it on the heroics of Jaroslav Halak(notes). “While we think we played well enough to win – and you can talk about a hot goaltender or anything can happen in Game 7 – we don’t feel like we got to our 'A' game and played that with a relentless tenacity and played it night in and night out,” said coach Dan Bylsma. “That’s something we feel we left on the table. I know a lot of our players feel that way.” Sergei Gonchar(notes) is gone, but the Penguins believe they have enough offense with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin(notes) & Co., so they bolstered the blue line with Paul Martin(notes) and Zbynek Michalek(notes). Cutting the goals against during the regular season would be good preparation for the playoffs.

On the rebound:

Chicago Blackhawks

Are the Blackhawks favorites? Or are they underdogs? On one hand, they are the defending Stanley Cup champions, and winger Troy Brouwer(notes) said: “Our biggest concern is that we know we’re a good team. We don’t want to get overconfident. We don’t want to go into the season thinking that it’s going to be easy again because we all know how big of a battle it was last year.” But on the other hand, they lost 10 regulars from their championship team thanks to a salary-cap crunch, and while their core is intact, they need the new players to find and fill their roles as well as the old guys did. The ’Hawks could be looking to last year’s Flyers and Habs as inspiration as much as anyone. “Our No. 1 goal is to get back to the playoffs,” said captain Jonathan Toews(notes). “As you see, it doesn’t matter where you finish No. 1 through 8. As long as you make the playoffs, you’ve got a chance.”

Boston Bruins

After one of the biggest playoff chokes in NHL history – blowing a 3-0 series lead, then blowing a 3-0 lead in Game 7 to the Flyers in the second round – the Bruins need to catch their breath before they can redeem themselves. David Krejci(notes) (broken wrist) is back, but Marc Savard(notes) (concussion) and Marco Sturm(notes) (knee) are not yet ready. In the meantime, the Bruins must incorporate winger Nathan Horton(notes), who has put up solid numbers in the NHL, and rookie Tyler Seguin(notes), who has the potential to immediately contribute. The Bruins have the roster to make a Cup run, but they need to heal their wounds – both physical and mental.

Wild cards:

New Jersey Devils

Are the Devils adjusting to the times? Or are they just losing their identity? They haven’t been past the second round of the playoffs since 2003, when they won their third Cup in nine years and were known for their suffocating neutral-zone trap, and they have gone through coach after coach. Now they have yet another new coach in John MacLean, who intends to open up the offense with weapons like Ilya Kovalchuk, Patrik Elias(notes) and Zach Parise(notes). Especially considering the way the Devils went all-in on Kovalchuk – who cost them $100 million over 15 years in the end, plus a $3-million fine and two high draft picks after an arbitrator ruled their original 17-year, $102 million deal circumvented the salary cap – this seems to be a boom-or-bust gamble.

Philadelphia Flyers

The Cinderella story of the shootout-to-the-Cup-final Flyers is a little bit misleading. The truth is that the Flyers never should have put themselves in that position. They were much better than your typical squeak-into-the-playoffs club. (Would the Rangers have gone to the final had they won that shootout instead? No.) The Flyers return with a deep, talented, veteran group. But there are still questions: How will the Flyers respond in their first full season under coach Peter Laviolette? Will goaltender Michael Leighton(notes) play his best, which was good enough to make the final; his worst, which has been bad enough to send him to the minors; or somewhere in between? The Flyers must perform during the regular season like they did in the playoffs …

Or not.

“Philly showed you just have to get in there,” Knuble said. “It doesn’t have to be pretty. Just get in.”