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So, let's start with this declaration: The Phoenix Coyotes will win the 2014 Stanley Cup.
It is a statement that I can defend and will and with only the slightest trepidation. But it's also a statement that speaks volumes about where the NHL is when it comes to elite teams and the daunting task of sorting through, what? The 10 or 12 teams for which a legitimate case can be made to win a Stanley Cup this season.
It's been a long time since there were only a handful of teams one could identify at the start of a season and say, it must be one of these teams, and it would be so. Since the lockout that scuttled the 2004-05 season, only the Chicago Blackhawks have managed to repeat as champions, winning in 2010 and 2013. Between 2006 and 2013, 12 different teams have appeared in the finals with only Chicago, Boston, Detroit and Pittsburgh managing to make it that far twice.
Would it surprise anyone if the number rose to 14 by next spring? Not with the New York Rangers, San Jose Sharks, St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals in the hunt, all of which have not advanced to the finals in this span.
In short, it's a crap shoot and, as such, we're going to put our chips behind the Phoenix Coyotes.
Why not? The Coyotes have put behind them four long years of league ownership, a situation that stunted the development of the fan base but did not in any meaningful way stunt the evolution of the club itself. New ownership has allowed GM Don Maloney to lock up key pieces, including coach Dave Tippett and netminder Mike Smith, and to sign top free-agent center Mike Ribeiro.
Under Tippett, the Coyotes play a playoff style of hockey from the get-go. They're not afraid to grind out low-scoring, close games. If Smith can rebound to the form that saw him backstop the Coyotes to the 2012 Western Conference finals, posting a remarkable 1.99 goals-against average and .944 save percentage in 16 postseason games, the Coyotes should return to the postseason for the fourth time in five seasons after missing in 2013.
Ribeiro will take some of the pressure off the rest of the forward corps and add oomph to the power play (he tied for first in power-play points last season in Washington).
The Coyotes' strength is along the blue line, with Oliver Ekman-Larsson ready to assume a spot among the league's elite defenders and Keith Yandle maturing into a top-end puck mover.
The fact this team has been to the brink of a Cup final, losing in five games in a tight, often bitter Western Conference final series to the Kings in 2012, should only reinforce the understanding of what it takes to advance those final steps to a championship. Will it happen? Will there be an improbable parade around the Westgate City Center and Jobing.com Arena next June? Who knows. But at this stage of the game, I ask the question, why not?