One of the most enjoyable aspects of the past two Stanley Cup championships was the fact a franchise that has never won the title before got to lift the trophy. The Washington Capitals and St. Louis Blues had toiled for decades until their day in the sun came, making it all the more exhilarating for their long-suffering fan bases.
Of the current 31 NHL franchises, only 11 have yet to win the Cup. Arizona, Buffalo, Columbus, Florida, Minnesota, Ottawa (the old Sens don’t count – they moved to St. Louis before folding entirely in 1935), Nashville, San Jose, Vancouver, Vegas and Winnipeg are the current members of ‘The Sad Club’ (a term I credit to Vancouver writer Jason Brough).
While the Blues proved last year that all you have to do is get into the field to make a championship run, we can already eliminate Ottawa and San Jose because those teams are not making the playoffs. In all likelihood, Buffalo is also toast. So who’s looking the best right now?
1. Vegas Golden Knights – The newest NHL team has seen nothing but sustained success from the get-go and while the Pacific Division has been a wild roller-coaster this season, the Golden Knights are now on top, having won eight of their past 10 games. Injuries to the Canucks and Oilers helped the Vegas run, but give the Golden Knights credit: they’re getting hot at the right time. Given how little playoff experience there is elsewhere in the Pacific, the Golden Knights are in the best position to get out of their own division before facing a Central opponent that had to take the hard route – the Blues, Avalanche and Stars will all have to play each other beforehand and those will not be easy series.
2. Vancouver Canucks – The kids are for real in Vancouver and though the Canucks have run into injury problems (Brock Boeser, Jacob Markstrom), the team has games in hand on every division opponent nearby. In the short-term, it’s going to be up to Thatcher Demko to hold down the crease until Markstrom returns. Tyler Toffoli gives the team Cup rings from his L.A. days, though the Canucks will likely have to tangle with Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl’s Edmonton Oilers in the first round.
3. Nashville Predators – This may seem like an atypical answer, but the Predators have been playing better of late, winning six of their past 10. Many of Nashville’s major guys have already been to a Cup final thanks to the team’s run back in 2017, so the experience is there. Coach John Hynes has been experimenting with some pretty unorthodox line combinations up front, but if he’s getting wins you have to give him credit. We know the defense corps is stacked, so that’s a strength. Having said all that, the Predators could have a murderous path through the Central – assuming they can hold onto a wild card spot.
4. Florida Panthers – The only Sad Club team in the East that looks tangible is Florida, where the Panthers merely need to pass a wounded Toronto team for the third seed in the Atlantic Division. Now, the Cats would have to get past Boston and Tampa most likely en route to the conference final, but if this team can finally come together, they’ve got some interesting parts. Dare I ask if Sergei Bobrovsky can help in net? He has won three of his past four starts…
5. Winnipeg Jets – Winnipeg gets the nod over Arizona although the margin is nil – but the Jets have a game in hand and a slightly better record in the past 10 games. Winnipeg also has Connor Hellebuyck in net and a bunch of underachieving forwards who are starting to heat up, so the timing might be there. On the other hand, the defense corps is still depleted and the Jets would have a harsh path through the West. At least we know the atmosphere at home games will be electric.
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