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The Hockey News 2018-19 Season Preview: Winnipeg for the win

The NHL has a clutch of elite Cup contenders, but we’re picking the Jets to finally soar when it matters most.

The NHL’s past decade has been defined by extreme parity, a sense that any team, literally any team, can compete for the Stanley Cup every year. Last season, our bottom three picks in championship odds were the Vegas Golden Knights, Colorado Avalanche and New Jersey Devils. Oops. The league saw seven new playoff teams in 2017-18. That’s 43.8-percent turnover. The Vancouver Canucks, Detroit Red Wings and Ottawa Senators should thus shrug off our 2018-19 prognostications.

That said, the parity era hasn’t included championships. From 2008-09 to 2016-17, the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings snagged eight of nine Stanley Cups, with the Washington Capitals breaking the pattern last season. What the Penguins, Blackhawks and Kings had in common: dominant centers, elite puck-moving defensemen and good-to-great goaltending. The Kings and Blackhawks have aged out of their glory days, while the Pens only have so many chances at the Cup before Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin exit their primes. But we see a few new franchises seemingly mimicking the formula that gave the Big Three a decade-long championship monopoly.

The Winnipeg Jets are our Stanley Cup pick this season, built around center Mark Scheifele, flanked by dominant wingers Patrik Laine and Blake Wheeler, anchored by mobile D-men Dustin Byfuglien, Josh Morrissey and Jacob Trouba, backstopped by Vezina Trophy runner-up Connor Hellebuyck. The Tampa Bay Lightning boast Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point up the middle, plus Norris Trophy winner Victor Hedman and star netminder Andrei Vasilevskiy between the pipes. The Toronto Maple Leafs hope they have the new Crosby-Malkin combination in Auston Matthews and John Tavares, while Morgan Rielly enters his prime years as a No. 1 blueliner and Frederik Andersen is a workhorse in goal.

Can we say with certainty these three franchises will pile up Cups for the next decade? No, especially with the Nashville Predators and Boston Bruins lurking as top-tier contenders. But the Jets, Lightning and Leafs have the same top-heavy, star-studded roster structure that so many recent champions enjoyed. We thus see 2018-19 as a “haves and have-nots” season, with a handful of stacked super-teams lording above the rest of the league, NBA-style.

The defending champion Caps and still-not-dead Pens remain threats, as do the underrated Columbus Blue Jackets and retooled Calgary Flames. But don’t be surprised if we witness the coronation of a new mini-dynasty this June. Our money is on the Jets, strong and talented at every position with a nice mix of ascending young talent and elite veterans.

This story appears in the Season Preview 2018-19 issue of The Hockey News magazine.

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