By Chris Nosek
Last, but certainly not least, everyone wants to know, who’s going to take home the hardest trophy to win in all of sports – the Stanley Cup? Obviously this is a season in which anything can happen at any time and any player could miss a game with little to no notice. Universally, no one is hoping for any game – especially a playoff series deciding game – to have any of the best players miss out on playing. So, assuming everyone stays healthy and no one misses any crucial games, who will be taking home the lightest 34.5 pound trophy someone can win?
Colorado Avalanche, Tampa Bay Lightning, Vegas Golden Knights lead the pack in Vegas as anyone would guess. Star-studded teams with some of the best scorers in the league, it is no surprise that these teams are the highest rated here at the start of the season. The Lightning and Golden Knights also have really high-end goaltending and multiple players who have at least one Stanley Cup to their name. All three of these teams will be fun to watch all season and because of how they are constructed, the bumps and bruises of the regular season shouldn’t hamper them too much going into the playoffs.
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Similar to the Colorado Avalanche, the Hurricanes have solid scoring from young players up front and a very strong defensive unit. The goaltending of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer is certainly a little bit more questionable than that of Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz in Colorado, so understandably the questions are being asked, but make no mistake, the ceiling of the Hurricanes is very high for this season and the experience the youngsters got in the bubble last season will definitely pay dividends for this team very soon.
Last season the Flyers took the #1 seed from the Bruins in the play-in round up in the Toronto playoff bubble and with that they went to the 7th game of the 2nd round, where they ultimately lost to the New York Islanders. Having gotten as far as they did last season and having both Oskar Lindblom and Nolan Patrick back after missing the entire year last year, this team is primed to upset someone in the playoffs. Carter Hart is one of the best up and coming goaltenders in the game of hockey and is more than capable of playing well enough to steal not just a game, but an entire series. While everyone within their division will beat each other up all season, Philly has the fewest question marks about their roster (other than health) from top to bottom and with the right bounce or two in their favor, Gary Bettman could easily find himself handing the Stanley Cup over to Claude Giroux at the end of the season.
Toronto Maple Leafs
The Leafs have been loaded up front for a few years now and have yet to get past the first round in the playoffs. Tavares, Matthews, and Marner combine for over $30 million of their cap space and a lot will be made if this group can’t get past the first round very soon. They’ve spent some time adding to their defensive unit with guys like TJ Brodie and Zach Bogosian, while also adding the likes of Wayne Simmonds, Jimmy Vesey, and Joe Thornton up front. With little space to maneuver any moves at the trading deadline, if the Maple Leafs don’t take home the Stanley Cup this season, many believe that some big changes will be coming to this organization – especially when it comes to the highest-paid players.
Last year, the Jets were eliminated in the qualifying round by the Calgary Flames in 4 games, however the Jets ended the series with injuries to both Mark Scheifele and Patrick Laine. With 2 top-6 forwards knocked out in the first game, the Jets still managed to play well and their Vezina-winning goaltender Connor Hellebuyck kept them in each game. The 56-game schedule bodes well for the Jets 27-year-old net minder since he started at least 56 games for each of the past 3 seasons and 53 in 2016-17. Already proven to step his game up in the playoffs, if Winnipeg is able to find their way into the top 4 spots in the North division (which they should be able to do) Hellebuyck would enter this season’s playoffs the most rested he’s ever been. There is no reason the Jets can’t be competitive for a cup championship this season under head coach Paul Maurice in his 9th season with the team.
New York Rangers
Entering his 3rd season with the Rangers, head coach Dave Quinn has a roster with one of the highest potential ceilings entering this season. The biggest question facing the Rangers is all around their youngest players. While they showed a LOT of promise last season, Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil only posted 23 points a piece over 60 plus games last year in the regular season – keeping in mind they are only 18 and 20 years old respectively, there is nothing to overly worry about with these two guys. If they can take a bigger than expected jump forward and they get some decent play out of their number one overall pick in Alexis Lafreniere, the only question remaining is whether or not their two young netminders can play well enough to backstop them far enough – based on their short sample sizes so far though, both are capable. With no one on the team having won a Cup before, the Rangers will truly be able to show if ignorance is in fact bliss.
Columbus Blue Jackets
With the Pierre-Luc DuBois business settled, the real question for this team is will they be able to score enough to compete with the rest top teams in the league. Dubois was their leading point scorer last season and he didn’t even crack the 50 point mark. If the Blue Jackets are able to find a better scoring touch this season, or find ways to pull out 1-0 and 2-1 victories, then they will be able to remain competitive not only in their division, but for a cup as well. Defensively, they are solid being led by Seth Jones and Zach Werenski but the strength in their own zone is their goaltending. Everyone was worried how the play in their crease would look when two-time Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky left for Florida as an unrestricted free agent. Their two 25-year-old netminders Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins quickly made it known that the crease would be taken care of. With a record of 395-210-142 since taking over on the bench in Columbus, John Tortorella has kept this team competitive – can he help their scoring find the next gear to push them to a cup victory?