What does it say about the NHL that there doesn’t seem to be a wide range of Stanley Cup contenders? Sorry, what’s that? ... a pandemic? Which is severely impacting teams’ abilities to add talent, plug holes and refresh their rosters? Must be it! Anyway, here’s how the 31 teams stack up entering the league’s 56-game sprint to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
If you’re willing to overlook the fact the Tampa Bay Lightning had to essentially sacrifice Nikita Kucherov’s regular season, scheduling a surgical procedure so that his return timeline would line up exactly with the beginning of the Stanley Cup playoffs, then it really wasn’t a bad offseason for the supposedly capped-out champs. If it can again manage the loss of a star player — enough so to take a top-four seed in one of the least talented divisions under the NHL’s reorganization — Tampa Bay will have a chance to ice an even better, far more expensive roster than it used en route to the bubble title. Steven Stamkos is healthy, and Kucherov is expected to be when it matters most for a team that, after jumping several hoops, is expected to return every meaningful postseason contributor, save for maybe Kevin Shattenkirk. They are still the ones to beat.
Understanding the window is wide open, both the Colorado Avalanche and Vegas Golden Knights aggressively pursued improvements to their rosters in the offseason. Colorado was in a far more advantageous position, using what’s now worth its weight in gold — cap space — to bring in two solid pieces in defender Devon Toews and forward Brandon Saad. And yet, despite significant financial hurdles, the Golden Knights moved mountains, it seemed, to land the offseason’s biggest free agent prize, star defender and Stanley Cup winning captain Alex Pietrangelo. These immensely talented teams, both of which do still have question marks (for the Avs, goaltending, and Vegas, goal scoring), must go through each other just to make the final four, something which seems wholly unfair in this one-off season.
Still in the fight
Write off the Boston Bruins at your own peril. It’s certainly not the same defensive core in the categories of leadership, character, presence and quarterbacking on the power play, but the strength of this team remains, with Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak still capable of being the best line in hockey. It’s an exceedingly tough division, but the Bruins should be considered favourites over Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Washington. Avoiding Tampa Bay for at least the first two rounds come playoff time is a benefit, too.
Not to be taken lightly
Neither the Dallas Stars, Carolina Hurricanes or St. Louis Blues will be considered favourites in their divisions, but all three have the capabilities to spoil the plans of those listed above. The Stars will return virtually the exact same roster that pushed the Lightning to six games in the Stanley Cup Final, though still suffering some bumps and bruises picked up in the long postseason run. St. Louis is one to watch after turning over a new leaf since winning the Stanley Cup almost two years ago, replacing Alex Pietrangelo with Torey Krug and most recently adding a potential game changer up front in Mike Hoffman. And finally, the Hurricanes remain one of the most talented and balanced teams in the league, and just seem poised for that breakthrough we’ve been waiting on.
Rest from the best
The Group of Death? Well that’s the East Division. There is little margin for error for the Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals and Philadelphia Flyers, all of whom could either dethrone the Bruins for the No. 1 seed of the division, or fall victim to its depth and miss the postseason entirely. More on that in a bit.
Kings of the North?
The Toronto Maple Leafs are the biggest favourites to win their division in the entire NHL — not because their performance has demanded such, but because they are one of the few teams to benefit tremendously from the divisional realignment. Forget winning one round; merely proving they are the best team in Canada will ensure the Maple Leafs a spot in the conference finals. No longer looking up at the Lightning and Bruins is a huge opportunity for a franchise that is starving for some postseason success, but it never has been easy, and likely won’t be this time around either.
The East Division isn’t actually that much stronger than the normal eight-team Metropolitan Division, but the task does seem a little more difficult for the New York Islanders and New York Rangers — two teams that will be in the mix for a postseason spot. Though on opposite ends of the entertainment perspective, it’s possible that very little separated the NHL’s two borough-based clubs. The Islanders have just simply found a way under Barry Trotz, surviving the Metropolitan Division in last summer’s playoffs, while the Rangers are one of those teams circled in red pen with the addition of No. 1 selection Alexis Lafreniere.
Not so fast
Pundits might be leaning Toronto, but the Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Winnipeg Jets and Montreal Canadiens all have reason to believe that they are the class of Canada. It’s a Canadian hockey fan’s dream to finally find out for certain which Canadian team is the best, and the competition couldn’t be any closer in the one year it will play out.
Glimmer of hope
There are three clear front runners in the divisions in which the Minnesota Wild, Arizona Coyotes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Nashville Predators and Florida Panthers reside. So there’s reason to believe we’ll see one or several of these teams make the postseason, but only perhaps due to the fact that they are competing in one of the leaner divisions.
Flicker of hope
The same sort of thing applies for the Anaheim Ducks, Los Angeles Kings and San Jose Sharks, only the rebuilding California clubs have less chance of parlaying that success into a postseason run.
That’s a shame
The Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils may honestly be vastly improved, but earning a postseason berth in the East Division seems like an impossibility with the Bruins, Caps, Pens, Flyers, Islanders and Rangers in the mix. You can’t contend if you can’t get there.
With Jonathan Toews and Kirby Dach unavailable as the Chicago Blackhawks descend into a rebuild, they join the Ottawa Senators and Detroit Red Wings in the NHL’s basement, contending for poll position for the No. 1 overall pick in 2021.
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