The Stanley Cup playoffs are just around the corner, and by this point in the season we have a pretty good idea as to which teams are good, which teams are bad, and which teams are starting to separate themselves as the favorites to win the Stanley Cup.
So let's take a look at the potential playoff teams (all of them) and try to separate them into the favorites, the teams that might have a chance, and the teams that probably need to start thinking about next season.
We will start with Part one and the top-five favorites to win the Cup.
(It's a good bet that one of these five teams will hoist the Stanley Cup after the season.)
The Blackhawks have the best of both worlds.
They have established stars that are still in the meaty part of their prime (Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Patrick Sharp) and up-and-coming young players giving them big-time production on cheap, entry level contracts (Brandon Saad, Andrew Shaw, Nick Leddy).
The latter part cannot be understated, either.
In a salary cap world you not only need your high level stars (and Chicago is loaded with them) you also need a steady pipeline of young talent to round out and complement your roster.
The only point of concern with this team is that Corey Crawford is a question mark in net (then again, goaltending has been a weakness on each of its last two Stanley Cup teams) and the NHL hasn't seen a repeat champion in more than a decade-and-a-half. You need a lot of luck to win in the playoffs and it's not only hard for that to repeat itself two years in a row, but that's also a lot of hockey games to play in two years.
If there is a team capable of it, these guys might be it.
San Jose Sharks
This might be most impressive team in the NHL.
Their combination of skill, size and speed is truly something to behold, and they can be downright dominant at times. Until they actually win the Stanley Cup there will still be a segment of hockey fans and hockey media that will hold their past postseason performances against them. And even that lack of success is sometimes overstated -- they've been in the NHL's final four in two of the past four years, and for as much heat as Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau take for their postseason performances they have been two of the most productive playoff scorers of their era. Since he entered the NHL in 1997 no player has scored more playoff goals over that stretch than Patrick Marleau (57), while Thornton is 18th on that list in total points.
Their Stanley Cup window is still wide open, and this might be their best team yet.
St. Louis Blues
If the Blues had a weakness this season general manager Doug Armstrong addressed it at the trade deadline when he acquired Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres.
Some might question whether or not they gave up too much for what could be a rental player that may not even be that significant of an upgrade, but there are a few factors worth keeping in mind. For one, even if Miller isn't a huge upgrade over Jaroslav Halak, he is still an upgrade. And while it may seem like a lot to give up Chris Stewart and a first-round pick as part of the deal, it probably isn't.
Late first-round picks aren't that valuable of a trade chip, and while Stewart can score a few goals, he's a frustrating player that can take too many penalties and he's a liability defensively. When he's not in the middle of one of his goal-scoring binges he isn't doing a thing to help your team. He was probably the seventh or eight best forward in St. Louis before the trade.
Other than that, this team has it all. They can score, they're a great possession team, and they managed to upgrade their biggest weakness before the deadline.
How does a team trade three super star talents in less than a decade (Joe Thornton, Phil Kessel and Tyler Seguin) and still remain as one of the NHL's super powers?
Having the holy trinity of goal prevention (that is a nickname that ... will probably not catch on) with Patrice Bergeron, Zdeno Chara and Tuukka Rask certainly helps. A lot. There is perhaps no more dominant duo in the NHL right now than Bergeron and Chara, as they not only go up against the best players in the league every single night, they more often than not render them completely useless and ineffective.
Look at it this way: Since the start of the 2010 season when Bergeron and Chara are on the ice-together during 5-on-5 play Boston has attempted 60 percent of the shot attempts and scored 75 percent of the goals.
They don't have an elite scorer anywhere on the roster, but they are deep, balanced, and have one of the best goalies in the NHL to clean things up on the rare occasion that everything breaks down in front of him.
Los Angeles Kings
They are pretty much a mirror image of the 2011-12 team that won the Stanley Cup, right down to swinging a trade deadline deal to land a top-line scorer from the Columbus Blue Jackets (This time it was Marian Gaborik, two years ago it was Jeff Carter).
They don't score a lot, but they never give up the puck (perhaps the most important skill in the modern-day NHL) and they are the toughest team in the league to generate offense against. Anze Kopitar is one of the best players in the world and can elevate the performance of any team, while Jonathan Quick can be almost unbeatable when he gets into one of his zones (as he has done in each of the past two postseasons).