The last two weeks we have worked our way up through the NHL rankings and slotting teams according to their likelihood of Stanley Cup glory and grouping teams into our made up divisions.
Part III is our last installment, focusing in on the true contenders for the upcoming season.
The Former Elites Division
These teams have been winning consistently for years, but their window seems to be shutting.
11. New York Rangers
Henrik Lundqvist still keeps creating postseason magic. After a rough regular season he was back to his old self in the playoffs, almost single handedly carrying the Rangers to the Conference Final. The Rangers lack elite play down the middle of the ice but thrive with a copious amount of skilled wing play. Pavel Buchnevich could be the next great young winger, while Rick Nash seems to have lost a step. The Rangers will lean heavily on their defense core which now boasts a top five unit. Shattenkirk will finally play with a capable partner in McDonagh, Brady Skjei is growing into a legit two way player, while Brendan Smith was perhaps the most underrated deadline pickup last spring.
Chill out. The Blackhawks had perhaps the worst offseason in the league, but I am highly skeptical it spells doom for one of the model franchises in the NHL. Jonathan Toews needs to raise his level, and do not be surprised if he puts up career best numbers next year. Patrick Kane will be relied on more than ever to score, but he is fully capable. They will not win the Central, but the Blackhawks still might have what it takes come April if younger forward prospects such as Nick Schmaltz, Alex Debrincat, and Ryan Hartman produce.
No team has disappointed more in the postseason over the past few years, and last season was maybe their biggest chance at holding Lord Stanley. But make no mistake, the Capitals will still be around come playoff team, and this team still has enough elite talent to make noise. The development of forwards Andre Burkovsky and Jakub Vrana is crucial, while defenseman John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov are entering their prime years and must provide top line stability. With Braden Holtby in net you know your going to have a solid regular season, but can he match that play in the postseason? To this point he has not.
The 1 Piece Away Division
These teams are very close to contending for the Cup, but most likely need another key piece to the puzzle.
No team but the Oilers will have more "hype" before the season, but the Leafs are just not ready yet to contend for a Cup. The forwards are incredible. Matthews, Kadri, and Bozak form arguably the best Center group in the league. Marner and Nylander are an inch away from stardom. Van Riemsydyk and Komorov are steady. And that’s not even mentioning the other set of young prospects on the cusp. Whether the Marleau signing works out or not, this offense will be explosive. The defense is where they will live and die however, and the unit truly lacks a number one option that Cup teams always seem to posses.
The Flames seem set on making the same mistake as last year when they signed veteran goalie Mike Smith, who in actuality has only had two solid seasons in Arizona, after the Brian Elliot era tore the whole season apart last year. The Flames need Johnny Gaudreau back to normal form, while center Sean Monahan keeps growing his game and is close to joining elite status. Matthew Tkachuk is the next great power forward, and if Sam Bennett can progress they have solid depth. The D-corps is perhaps the best in the league with Travis Hamonic joining the unit led by rearguards Mark Giordano and Dougie Hamilton. Find a real goalie and the Flames can talk about Cups.
6. Dallas Stars
Championship teams have a few commonalities throughout all sports: star players. Dallas has two star players that have been hampered by a weak supporting cast, young defenders, and awful goaltending. This year it is set to change with Alex Radulov, Martin Hanzal joining stars Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn at forward, Marc Methot on defense, and Ben Bishop in net to hopefully bring stability on the back end. The depth will hold back the Stars from greatness this season, but perhaps a trade could satisfy this need and catapult them into contention.
The Contenders Division
These teams are the closest to glory in the 2017-2018 season.
Championship teams also have a signature identity, and the Predators certainly have that. The defense is unlike any other, and it will once again be counted on to produce offense. The team as a whole is built for the modern NHL with pure speed all over the ice. But it is weak down the middle, even the Bonino addition, and Pekka Rinne at this point is an average goaltender. Does he have another post season run left? Can young depth forwards such as Kevin Fiala, Pontus Aberg, and Colton Sissons take the next step in development? If the answer is yes to these questions, the Predators will have another opportunity at winning the Cup.
There is nothing left to write about Sidney Crosby and Evegni Malkin. Sure fire Hall of Famers playing at a top level when it matters most. But a three-peat? It has not happened since the early 1980's with the New York Islanders. If there ever was a team to do it, it would be the Penguins, right? It is scary to think Kris Letang was not even a part of last season's run. It’s scarier to think Jake Guentzel is 22 and Matt Murray is 23. Are you betting against the Penguins come April?
The Ducks have been flirting with Lord Stanley for a while now, but just cannot seem to break through. The Predators have been their Achilles heel, knocking off Anaheim 3 times since 2010. The defense is top five in the league, with Hampus Lindholm a top 10 player at the position and emerging forces Josh Manson and Brandon Montour. Nick Ritchie and Ondrej Kase are both very young, promising scoring wingers, while Rickard Rakell was one of last seasons breakout players. But what makes the Ducks close to glory this time around is John Gibson. He is the next elite goalie in the league, and he could have the Ducks hoisting a cup in the near future.
These two teams are most likely to hold the Stanley Cup next year.
Tampa Bay is your Eastern Conference favorite. Steven Stamkos is going to destroy the NHL this season with the NHL's deepest forward core by his side and the motivation of another lost season to injuries. Nikita Kucherov has become a superstar, while a healthy season from second line center Tyler Johnson will stabilize the lineup. Of course those injuries to Johnson and Stamkos opened the door to the Brayden Point experience who last season looked like a superstar himself in moments. Viktor Hedman may cash in his first Norris trophy next season while a plethora of talented prospects could rise into prominent defensive roles next season. Andrie Vasilevskiy is the key for a Cup run. As talented as any young netminder, Vasilevskiy's numbers do not yet reflect elite play, but the potential is there.
- Edmonton Oilers
Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl are the new Crosby/Malkin, and at this point a Stanley Cup seems inevitable. The roster is filled with a balance of pure speed (McDavid, Draisaitl, Nugent-Hopkins) and power (Milan Lucic, Patrick Maroon, Zach Kassian). Jesse Puljujarvi is another potential star scorer thrown into the mix, if he develops. I expect league-wide recognition next season of analytics darling and defenseman Oskar Klefbom, while his partner Adam Larsson should also join him as a household name. Goaltender Cam Talbot is the underrated piece to this puzzle, who played great all season to keep the Oilers in it when their defense was not. At the end of the day you buy into McDavid. Entering his third season, their is still room for improvement, which will be the ultimate deciding edge.
Who is your Stanley Cup favorite for the 2017-2018 season?
This poll is closed
Tampa Bay Lightning