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Three Periods: Rating the Stanley Cup contenders, from the favorites to the forgotten

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column will appear on Thursdays. This week’s column is a special post-trade deadline edition, breaking down Stanley Cup contenders into four categories: the favorites, the hangers-on, the up-and-comers and the would-be Kings. Also, notes on the need for hybrid icing, a silver lining for the Predators, Blue Jackets GM snubbed, and the pathos of Roberto Luongo.

FIRST PERIOD: The Favorites

Thanks to the salary cap and loser point, the NHL is a league of parity. Thanks to the lockout and shortened schedule, the standings are tight as the playoffs approach. But that doesn’t mean every team is the same. There is still a lot of stratification, and there is still a lot of intrigue within each clump of Stanley Cup contenders, especially now that the trade deadline has passed. Let’s start with the teams who have the best shot at a championship:

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The Penguins loaded up, but Jarome Iginla & Co. still have a few hurdles to clear. (USA Today)

— Pittsburgh Penguins: They are the most fascinating team in the league, because they had a ton of talent and added more, because they had high expectations and increased them, because they could win it all fairly easily or fail spectacularly. We know what could go right. We also know what could go wrong: Sidney Crosby could come back from a broken jaw at a lesser level, the chemistry could be discombobulated by the changes, the team speed could be slowed by more old guys, the defense could still be porous, the goaltending could crumble.

— Chicago Blackhawks: While the top team in the East added Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow, Douglas Murray and Jussi Jokinen, the top team in the West added … uh, Michal Handzus? A depth center with one goal who can help on faceoffs? Yep. But the Blackhawks didn’t need to mess with a good thing. They know if they’re healthy they can dominate. They went the entire first half of this shortened season without a regulation loss. They have superstars and the best supporting cast since they gutted their 2010 Cup team because of cap issues. They have impressive speed and skill, and the goaltending looks good. Do they have enough grit?

— Boston Bruins: They haven’t played well the past few weeks. They need Milan Lucic to get his feet moving. They need Patrice Bergeron to come back strong from his concussion, Chris Kelly from his broken leg. But at their best, these Bruins are every bit as good as the ones who won the 2011 Cup. This is a balanced, deep, tough team. There is virtually no drop-off in net going from Tim Thomas to Tuukka Rask, a Vezina Trophy candidate in his own right. They won the Cup without a power play, pretty much, and now they have Jaromir Jagr to strengthen their weakness.

— Los Angeles Kings: We doubted the Kings last year. Now we give them the benefit of the doubt. They won the Cup as the No. 8 seed in the West because they put their game together at the right time, and there is no reason to think they can’t do it again. They have the same firepower up front. They have the same depth on defense. Matt Greene might return from injury. Willie Mitchell might not, but they have added Robyn Regehr. Jonathan Quick still has a month to keep rounding into form after off-season back surgery.

— Anaheim Ducks: Just when it seemed the Ducks were coming back to earth on a three-game losing streak, they went on a 3-0-1 run, including a 2-1 victory at Chicago. They are one of the best defensive teams in the league, with two good goalies in Jonas Hiller and Viktor Fasth, two great stories on the blue line in Francois Beauchemin and Sheldon Souray, and that formidable top six with Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, Bobby Ryan, Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne. Do they have enough depth?

SECOND PERIOD: The Hangers-On

These teams are trying to keep windows from closing. The Detroit Red Wings have won four Cups since 1997 and have made the playoffs for 21 consecutive seasons, but they have defied gravity far longer than expected already. The New Jersey Devils have won three Cups since 1995 and went to the final last season. The Vancouver Canucks, San Jose Sharks and Washington Capitals have never won the Cup despite great success in the regular season and varying success in the playoffs. Can anyone go deep?

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The Canucks have been a top team for several years, but the Cup continues to elude them. (USA Today)

— Vancouver Canucks: Because the Canucks could not trade Roberto Luongo, the goaltending issue will linger no matter how well Luongo and Cory Schneider handle it. The Canucks have to hope Schneider seizes the job, and they have to hope Ryan Kesler comes back from injury and plays at least close to how he did in 2011, when they came within a game of winning the Cup. Now that they have added center Derek Roy, Kesler can play wing with Roy on the second line, or the Canucks can have Henrik Sedin, Kesler and Roy down the middle. Not bad.

— San Jose Sharks: No one’s gonna pick ’em. No one should. They have let people down too many times before, and they have been wildly inconsistent this season. They won seven straight to start. They struggled so badly that they fell out of a playoff spot. Now they have won six straight and sit comfortably in the middle of the playoff pack. GM Doug Wilson made some savvy moves, shipping out Handzus, Murray and Ryane Clowe while bringing in Raffi Torres and Scott Hannan and stockpiling picks for the future. That should make the Sharks quicker right now, but not softer or shallower. Could they overachieve this time, knowing there will be more changes if they don’t?

— Detroit Red Wings: GM Ken Holland is in a delicate position. He’s still trying to win now, because the Wings have always tried to win now. But all that trying to win now has made it awfully difficult to set a foundation for the future, because the Wings never get to draft early. Holland was in no position to sell before the deadline with the Wings in a playoff spot, but he was in no position to pay high prices with the Wings not among the top contenders and his assets so precious. The Wings need to get healthy and do the best they can now with what they’ve got, and they have to hope the U.S. college free agent they just signed, hometown boy Dan DeKeyser, develops into a solid shutdown defenseman.

— Washington Capitals: It’s admirable that owner Ted Leonsis and GM George McPhee want to win now, but if they would be more patient, they might have a better chance to win the Cup someday. They gave up on their offensive identity. They changed styles and coaches and players, scrambling everything. Finally, coach Adam Oates is getting through to Alex Ovechkin, and the team is playing better, and the playoffs are achievable – even a No. 3 seed, if only because of the weak Southeast Division. But trading top prospect Filip Forsberg in a package for Martin Erat? Why? Are the playoffs so important right now? Why not keep Forsberg and take a longer-term view? Let’s see this team when Oates has a full training camp and a full season.

— New Jersey Devils: It’s hard to see the Devils returning to the Cup final. It was hard to see them making the final last year as a sixth seed, frankly, but they did it, anyway. They lost captain Zach Parise in free agency, and now they have lost Ilya Kovalchuk to injury. Old vet Steve Sullivan isn’t going to make the difference. If the Devils do anything, it will because of strong coaching and a little magic left in 40-year-old Martin Brodeur.

THIRD PERIOD: The Up-And-Comers

These teams are on the rise. They might not win the Cup now. But making the playoffs would be an important step, just for the experience alone, and who says you have to lose before you can win? OK, I do, generally. But so what?

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Led by Carey Price, the Canadiens have been one of the NHL's biggest surprise teams this season (AP)

— Montreal Canadiens: The Habs made only one minor move at the deadline, adding depth defenseman Davis Drewiske. That’s fine. They had changed everything already – hiring GM Marc Bergevin, hiring coach Michel Therrien, installing a more aggressive system, shipping out Scott Gomez, promoting rookies Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk, swapping Erik Cole for Michael Ryder. Andrei Markov is healthy, and P.K. Subban is taking off. Carey Price is Carey Price. The Habs have gone from last to second in the East.

— Minnesota Wild: It’s starting to come together. After years of drafting well and waiting for the right time to strike, the Wild has spent big money on free agents (Zach Parise and Ryan Suter) and big assets on a deadline acquisition (Jason Pominville). Now the team is competing for a division title and its first playoff berth since 2008. Parise and Suter have been as advertised, leaders and difference-makers on an improving team, and rookie Jonas Brodin looks special. Pominville should help.

— Toronto Maple Leafs: The Centre of the Hockey Universe owns the longest Cup drought (since 1967) and the longest playoff drought (since 2004). At least the playoff drought is about to come to an end. This is still a team missing some significant pieces, like a true No. 1 center, but it has firepower with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. It has the truculence Brian Burke always wanted. And James Reimer and Ben Scrivens have been so good, the Leafs did not need a goaltender at the deadline. Yes, they lack experience. Only one way to get it.

— Ottawa Senators: It is incredible what the Senators have done with Jason Spezza, Erik Karlsson and Craig Anderson injured. They were supposed to fall out of the playoffs and sell at the deadline, maybe even moving – gasp! – longtime captain Daniel Alfredsson to Boston. But they hung in there with guts and goaltending. Alfredsson was never going anywhere, and now Anderson is coming back. If he plays anything like he did before he got hurt, he could steal a series on his own.

OVERTIME: The Would-Be Kings

My preseason pick for the Stanley Cup final: Rangers over Blues. So – cough, cough – I got ’em right where I want ’em. Both are on the bubble, which is where the Kings were last season before their historic Cup run. The Kings underachieved in the regular season and overachieved in the playoffs. These two have underachieved in the regular season, so … well, we’ll see.

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The Rangers and Ryane Clowe have struggled to score this season, but not in his NYC debut. (USA Today)

— New York Rangers: The theory was that the Rangers went to the Eastern Conference final and then added Rick Nash, so they should go farther with more firepower. The theory was wrong. The Rangers lost too much grit and depth, lost too much of their identity and lost too much firepower when Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik stopped producing. Though the Rangers have replaced some of that grit and depth with their deadline moves, it remains to be seen if they can recapture their identity and score enough with Gaborik gone. But they still have enough of the guts of last year’s team, and they still have Henrik Lundqvist.

— St. Louis Blues: The theory was that the Blues would be better because they were healthier and had rookie Vladimir Tarasenko, adding more offense to a team that already had structure and top-notch goaltending – not unlike the Rangers. The theory was wrong. Most notably, the goaltending fell apart a year after Jaroslav Halak and Brian Elliott led the league in goals-against average. Now Halak is hurt, and Elliott and rookie Jake Allen are a tandem. At least the Blues fortified the defense in front of them by picking up Jay Bouwmeester and Jordan Leopold before the deadline.

SHOOTOUT: Last shots from around the NHL

— Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Joni Pitkanen broke his heel bone when he slid into the end boards at high speed on an innocent icing play. Injuries like this always rekindle the debate about icing, and they should. They don’t need to happen. When the GMs met March 20 in Toronto, the majority were in favor of hybrid icing – the play blown dead unless the attacker is winning the race at the faceoff dot. The NHL Players’ Association wants the status quo or even no-touch icing, which the GMs won’t touch. It’s time to go to hybrid icing, keeping the race, reducing the risk. It’s past time.

— Last year the Nashville Predators went for it by adding Alexander Radulov, Paul Gaustad, Hal Gill and Andrei Kostitsyn – only to have it blow up in their faces in the playoffs, when Radulov and Kostitsyn broke curfew and Nashville lost in the second round. Then Ryan Suter left and Shea Weber tried to leave. And now Martin Erat – another homegrown, longtime Pred – asked to leave as the team looks like it might miss the playoffs. But landing Filip Forsberg in the Erat deal should soothe the pain and brighten the outlook. This is a team that has been trying to draft and develop up front, after years of doing it on defense and in goal. Even if he isn’t Peter Forsberg, he is a skilled center prospect whom Capitals fans were loathe to lose.

— After the deadline passed Wednesday, TSN started interviewing Columbus Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen by phone, only to interrupt him and switch to the Roberto Luongo press conference live in Vancouver. It was rude – classless even for a Canadian network that had to jump on a hot Canadian story – to cut off the man who made the biggest trade of the day for a goalie who didn’t get traded. It is a reminder of where the Jackets sit in the hockey hierarchy, though with Kekalainen making moves like landing Gaborik, they might not be there for long.

— When Luongo says his contract “sucks,” he isn’t saying it sucks to make millions of dollars or that he shouldn’t suck it up. He has handled the situation about as well as possible. He has been a pro. For that, he does deserve some sympathy. But when he says he would scrap his contract if he could, that’s where the sympathy stops. He cannot renegotiate or annul his deal, per the collective bargaining agreement. But he can choose to scrap one thing – his no-trade clause. If he would let the Canucks shop him to the entire league, instead of a select few teams, Luongo would have a better chance of being traded. If he wants to play that badly, he should.

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