The calendar has flipped to September. The weather has turned to that delightful ‘shorts and a hockey sweater’ temperature. (Or for Kevin Smith, “Tuesday.”) NHL training camps are now days away from starting, while NHL fantasy leagues are days away from drafting. (Sign up here!)
All of this means that it’s also time for some dart-chucking prognostications based on gut feelings, a blind eye towards injuries and the ravages (and benefits) of player age, as well as a modicum of hockey knowledge.
As of the end of summer, here are the Stanley Cup Contender Rankings for the 2017-18 season, in which we place all 31 teams in different tiers and let the deity of your choosing sort them out. Enjoy!
Actual Stanley Cup Contenders
The rest of these lists are going to be in alphabetical order, but this is what we’re feeling right now as far as potential Stanley Cup champion rankings.
Can the Penguins three-peat? This all comes down to three factors: Whether their defensemen will have the legs for another run, after the work they put into last season’s title; whether Jim Rutherford can adequately address the third-line center spot vacated by Nick Bonino; and what Matt Murray gives you, again, as a playoff goalie. But while the Tampa Bay Lightning should be nipping at their skates, they’re still atop the Eastern Conference mountain.
(And said skate-nipping is wholly reliant on Andrei Vasilevskiy being ready to be The Man in Tampa, as well as the health of Steven Stamkos.)
The Oilers can win the West this season, mainly because Connor McDavid is on the Sidney Crosby Career Arc and that means he should play for the Stanley Cup in Year 3. But also because we believe in Cam Talbot in goal, Leon Draisaitl as a No. 2 center and that they can skate better than nearly every team in the West.
Now that the expansion draft hullaballoo is over, would you look at that: The Ducks have an outstanding defense (save for a couple of dinosaurs) and go three quality lines deep. Age is obviously the biggest obstacle, but there’s no way you can’t slot a team that was a Western Conference bridesmaid anywhere but the Stanley Cup Final picture. (Let’s also assume Corey Perry doesn’t have the lowest goals-per-game average since 2007 again.)
The Predators rode Pekka Rinne through some rough waters in the early part of the playoffs, and it’s impossible to predict they’re going to get that type of performance again. But a full season of one of the most productive lines in hockey – and, god willing, without an early season stumble – and this is at the very least a playoff team again. And then we’ll see if Nick Bonino has told them all the Penguins’ “how to win a Stanley Cup” secrets.
The Wild have an exciting roster that blends youth with veteran stars and a coach that can’t find the conference final with a road map and a Sherpa. But a 106-point team is a 106-point team.
Boom Or Bust
St. Louis Blues
Toronto Maple Leafs
We don’t know if you want to call these “bubble teams” or what. The preferred nomenclature might be “powder kegs” because they could explode this season or their fuses could simply fizzle and go out in a puff of disappointing smoke.
Lambert chronicled the Stars and whether we can believe in Ken Hitchcock and Ben Bishop papering over their lack of quality defensemen. The Flames are a team we really, really like, whose success if contingent on a career renaissance from Mike Smith. The Blue Jackets have an all-world goalie and actually weren’t as reliant on that torrid power play as many are led to believe (78.9 percent of their goals were at EV, ahead of the league average). We’re more boom than bust here, despite Tortorella.
The Blues … are about a year or two away from really seeing what they have in some of these younger players filling out the roster.
The Canadiens have an all-world goalie and this weird obsession with trying to win without addressing their gaping holes at center. (Did Julien tell them about Patrice Bergeron?)
The Leafs, honestly, were this close to being in that first tier of Cup contenders. Seriously. Why not? A supremely talented forward group in front of an improving blueline backed by a goalie who showed his worth in 66 games last season. The Eastern Conference is a land of opportunity for a team on the rise, with the hopes that the Penguins are just too damn tired to do this again.
The Flyers’ forward group is improved, but that might not matter if they can’t figure out their 5-on-5 scoring woes. Does Brian Elliott steady the goaltending or is he another body for The Mangler that is the Flyers net?
Alex Ovechkin is fit and trim heading into camp. Perhaps that’s because the weight is finally off: The Capitals took their best shot at winning a Stanley Cup last season, including the Shattenkirk trade, and the Penguins (again) blocked it. We’re not sure how you bounce back from an all-in season, unless it’s with a nihilistic view that no matter what the team does, they’re going to fall short. Maybe that’s the necessary mindset.
Los Angeles Kings
New York Rangers
The hope in LA is that John Stevens finds a new grip to squeeze more water out of that stone, but there are depth questions all over that roster.
The Rangers add Kevin Shattenkirk, lose Derek Stepan and still have Henrik Lundqvist.
The Bruins are in that nebulous space of having a 40-year-old anchoring their defense, a top line that can devastate opponents and a lineup dotted with burgeoning young standouts. And David Backes. There’s something here, but we’re not entirely sure what it is.
On The Upswing
New Jersey Devils
The Jets and Hurricanes have legit claims at the playoff this season, with Carolina having the better shot given their conference. In the Jets’ case, say what you will about Steve Mason, but he’s not Ondrej Pavelec.
The Devils and Sabres are here because it’s hard to imagine they’re going to continue to be total dog excrement: Buffalo, because we like the Phil Housley addition, and Jersey because Cory Schneider presumably has a bounce-back year and Ray Shero had a great summer. Neither is a playoff team.
On The Downswing
San Jose Sharks
This isn’t to say that these teams can’t make the playoffs – hell, they both could. But the general feeling is that they swung for the fences already, and are going to take a step back.
In the Blackhawks’ case, they connected three times – that’s great! But perhaps no Stan Bowman team has felt like this: a scrambling patchwork of young players and cheap labor around an expensive core, in a desperate attempt to maintain an increasingly fleeting level of success.
The Sharks have eight players over the age of 30, and that’s after Patrick Marleau left. This is going to be a good team, but ‘sniffing distance to 100 points’ good again? For the love of Joe Thornton, we hope they’re a contender, but we have doubts.
You Figure It Out, Because We Have No Idea
New York Islanders
The Panthers are, on paper, a playoff team. The Senators, on paper, are not a playoff team. The Islanders … well, they feel like someone wrote a bunch of names on strips of paper and then drew them and then tacked them to a corkboard under the banner “HOCKEY TEAM.”
The real questions here: Are the Panthers deep enough, and can Bob Boughner get a bit more structure from that blue line? Are the Islanders going to be crushed under the weight of off-ice concerns? And can Guy Boucher really get another 98-point season out of this group?
We have no idea where these teams are going. (Hopefully, in two cases, not Quebec City.)
Detroit Red Wings
Vegas Golden Knights
The Red Wings’ fall has been well-documented, as they’ve been mismanaged into what should be a rebuild, but one that appears to be delayed because of a new building.
We’re on record that the Vegas Golden Knights are going to challenge for the playoffs this season for longer than anyone expects. So if that happens, you heard it here first. And if it doesn’t, it’s a [expletive] expansion team, so what did you expect?
The rest of the this collection includes a team that had a good offseason (Arizona), a team that had offseason paralysis (Colorado) and a team that should be trying to lose with such gusto that the Sedins should be locked in a room somewhere in the bowels of the arena to ensure they don’t, like, play well and screw up the Canucks’ chances at Rasmus Dahlin.
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