The arms race is over. Aside from AHL call-ups or late-season additions from other leagues, every NHL team has finished making or not making its significant upgrades for the stretch run. It’s thus an appropriate time to handicap the Stanley Cup race. Which teams are the favorites now, and how many have legitimate chances to win a championship?
Here are my five alpha-dog teams, ranked, with two bonus teams, as I believe the 2018 champion will come from this group of seven.
1. TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
No need to overthink this pick. The only thing potentially blocking the Bolts from No. 1 contender status was Nikita Kucherov’s upper-body injury – but it’s since been revealed to be minor. He’s merely day to day. Meanwhile, the Lightning’s top Atlantic Division rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins, are missing their top players in Auston Matthews and Patrice Bergeron, respectively.
The Bolts were already the NHL’s best, most talent-rich team before the trade deadline. Goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy is the Vezina Trophy frontrunner. Kucherov leads the league in scoring. Victor Hedman is in the thick of the Norris Trophy hunt. The Lightning are on pace to finish the year with three 30-goal scorers, and rookie Yanni Gourde projects to 29. This team can hurt you with three legitimate scoring lines. On top of that: a D-corps that already boasted Hedman, Anton Stralman and dynamite rookie Mikhail Sergachev adds Ryan McDonagh. The Rangers’ ex-captain brings great skating and the ability to play big minutes against the opposition’s best players. He further improves what was already the NHL’s deadliest team, and while losing Vlad Namestnikov in the blockbuster deadline-day deal with the Rangers hurts, J.T. Miller gives coach Jon Cooper a different look, as Miller plays a heavier game than Namestnikov and has experience at center and wing.
Tampa leads the league in points percentage and goals per game. It has the No. 3 power play, allows the fifth-fewest goals per game and ranks sixth in adjusted 5-on-5 Corsi. You have to look hard to find flaws on this team.
Potential weakness: The Lightning have one of the league’s weakest penalty kills at 77.8 percent and did not acquire any help for that department at the deadline. The league’s No. 1, 2 and 4 power plays belong to the second, third and fourth teams on this list of Cup contenders, meaning the teams most likely to challenge the Bolts also happen to be equipped with the weapon that can hurt them most.
2. NASHVILLE PREDATORS
Remember when the Pittsburgh Penguins came within two wins of the 2007-08 Cup? It felt like unfinished business, and they delivered a championship in a rematch with the Detroit Red Wings the next season. The modern-day Preds look like a team determined to reach the final again, going 16-2-3 in their past 21 games. They still have hockey’s best defensive quartet in Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and P.K. Subban. They’ve added Kyle Turris and Nick Bonino at center, not to mention Mike Fisher on a mid-season return from retirement, meaning this team can roll four effective lines. Nashville even has a fun X-factor in mega-prospect right winger Eeli Tolvanen, who has destroyed the KHL and should join the Predators for the playoffs. He could have a sudden impact similar to what Chris Kreider did as a rookie for the New York Rangers in the 2012 post-season. Even goaltender Pekka Rinne, a favorite whipping boy of the analytics crowd, has been legitimately good even by advanced-stats standards compared to other recent seasons of his. He’s also dramatically bucked his career trend of being far worse on the road than at home, posting a .937 save percentage away from Bridgestone Arena this season.
Potential weakness: The Preds’ top two scorers are blueliners. That partially reflects just how good Subban and Josi are, and Filip Forsberg has lost time to injury, but it’s a reminder that Nashville doesn’t have elite firepower up front compared to other top contenders. It lacks anything close to a Kucherov or Steven Stamkos or Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin or Phil Kessel or Auston Matthews or Blake Wheeler or Patrik Laine.
3. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
The Penguins just know how to position themselves as Cup contenders when it matters. They sat 19-18-3 when the calendar switched to 2018 and are 17-6-1 since. No team can compare to Crosby and Malkin as a 1-2 punch down the middle, and putting Phil Kessel on his own line makes it impossible for teams to match their shutdown lines against the Pens. Pittsburgh’s clear hole was the one left by Bonino at third-line center last summer in free agency, and GM Jim Rutherford, so reliably aggressive, went out and snatched Derick Brassard on the trade market last week. Brassard is arguably a more talented player than Bonino, so the Pens look that much deadlier. They still field somewhat of a ragtag D-corps, but coach Mike Sullivan likes his blueliners to keep things simple and move the puck quickly up ice. That strategy has been a hallmark of the past two Cup champion squads and, hey, last year’s group did it without Kris Letang. He’s healthy for now, so that makes the 2017-18 group of skaters even better than last year’s on paper.
Potential weakness: I hope you’re ready, Tristan Jarry. Injury-prone Matt Murray had Marc-Andre Fleury as a safety net last year, and Fleury was a crucial contributor across the first couple rounds of the playoffs after Murray got hurt in the warmup of Game 1 during the Pens’ first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. Murray is now out indefinitely with a concussion, marking his second injury this season and fifth since the start of last season. Jarry and fellow backup Casey DeSmith will have to keep the Penguins afloat in a highly competitive Metropolitan Division down the stretch, and it seems Murray will be a threat to sustain a mid-playoff injury once he returns – if he returns, as a concussion timeline is completely unpredictable. The good news: Jarry is a legitimate netminding prospect and has been up to the task so far, posting a respectable .916 SP in 20 appearances, while DeSmith has a .925 SP in eight appearances.
4. WINNIPEG JETS
Years of piling up high draft picks has, predictably, stacked the Jets roster. Their development has mirrored that of the Houston Astros in Major League Baseball. Winnipeg landed so may top-end talents, from Laine to Mark Scheifele to Jacob Trouba to Nikolaj Ehlers to Kyle Connor to Connor Hellebuyck, that it was only a matter of time before this group became formidable. Well, here they are. Not only has Hellebuyck’s development into a true No. 1 goalie been instrumental, but Connor’s arrival has solidified Winnipeg’s forward depth. Meanwhile, a deadline-day trade for Paul Stastny signified that GM Kevin Cheveldayoff knows he has a critical mass of good players and is ready to start chasing championships. Stastny brings strong two-way instincts and should help Winnipeg’s penalty kill. Currently deploying a top nine of Connor-Scheifele-Wheeler, Perreault-Little-Roslovic and Ehlers-Stastny-Laine, the Jets have almost-unrivalled forward depth.
Potential weakness: Do you believe in intangibles? Does playoff experience matter, or is that an overrated argument since every team is inexperienced until it’s experienced? Being green didn’t stop Crosby and Malkin or Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews from hoisting Cups in their early 20s. Then again, Crosby and Malkin counted previous Cup winners Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz as teammates. The 2010 Blackhawks had John Madden. Even the youth-fuelled championship teams always seem to have at least someone who had played in the deep waters before.
The Jets have Cup winner Dustin Byfuglien, of course, and Stastny reached the Western Conference final in 2016, but they’re the only two current members of the starting lineup to have played past Round 2 of the post-season. Laine, Ehlers, Connor, Jack Roslovic, Hellebuyck, Joel Armia, Josh Morrissey, Andrew Copp and Brandon Tanev have yet to play their first career playoff games. Will experience factor in if the Jets run into, say, L.A. in Round 1 or Nashville in Round 2?
5. VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
Who knows if it’ll be sustainable year to year. Let’s just enjoy it. Under coach Gerard Gallant, what was supposed to be the team of rejects has become the greatest expansion squad in NHL history by a mile. Vegas has made bona fide stars out of Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson, who were exposed in the expansion draft. This team wins with a fast and furious pace of play that even gets the D involved, and it’s gotten outstanding goaltending, too. The Vegas Flu is real, with the Golden Knights staking out an NHL-best home record of 24-6-2 thus far, and they’d have home ice in rounds 1-3 if the playoff started today. Regular season T-Mobile Arena is electric enough. What will it be like come April?
Potential weakness: It would be lazy to paint Vegas with a broad brush as “inexperienced.” This team has Fleury in net, after all, and James Neal competed all the way to the Cup final last year. But this team has enjoyed the advantage of playing with zero expectations all year. It’ll be interesting to see what happens when Vegas enters the playoffs labelled “Cup contender.” Nate Schmidt leads the team in average ice time with 22:13 and is one of just two Golden Knights D-men even cresting 20 minutes. Will they exposed as a team without a true shutdown element when facing elite scoring lines across a best-of-seven series?
Boston Bruins – Great team, especially in possession play, but Patrice Bergeron’s injury could cost Bruins home ice in Round 1. Road to Cup final projects to be Toronto —> Tampa —> Pittsburgh. Absolutely vicious.
Toronto Maple Leafs – Almost as deep as Winnipeg at forward, with heart-and-soul goaltending from Frederik Andersen, but we all know how leaky the Leafs still are defensively. They are a dangerous team but a flawed team, too.