Identifying Stanley Cup long shots that could shock everybody in 2019-20

NHL insider Andrew Berkshire is scratching his head over the Senators acquisition of "dead asset" Ryan Callahan, wondering why teams like Ottawa aren't asking for more "sweetener" for bailing the Lightning out here.

There was a time last season when you would have looked foolish picking the St. Louis Blues to win the Stanley Cup — who’s laughing now?

With so much parity in the NHL, it is true that if you can just get into the playoffs you have as good a chance as anyone to win it all come June. So if you want to shy away from going the easy route and choosing among the favourites — Tampa Bay, Toronto, Vegas, Boston — to win the 2020 Stanley Cup, the key to finding a diamond in the rough isn’t to see a contending roster in August, it’s identifying playoff potential and prognosticating how things could favourably come together.

We don’t want to be boring here and tell you why the Lightning remain next year’s favourite (and they are without a doubt). Rather, using the early Stanley Cup odds set by Sports Interaction, we’re looking outside of the top-15 clubs to identify teams with the potential to overachieve. These teams aren’t going to make anyone feel good about picking them in August, but with some luck, there’s a world where everything hits.

So before training camps open, RFAs sign, and the NHL odds picture changes again on the eve of the regular season, here are some teams you can perhaps get in early on now.

Anaheim Ducks: +8100
With two Western Conference Final appearances in the past five years, the Ducks just never got anything going last season. They started very poorly, but were buoyed by John Gibson’s stellar play that eventually led to an all-star selection. They were the lowest-scoring team in the league with 196 goals and Ryan Getzlaf had the fewest points for a team leader with just 48 in 67 games. He scored more than that in the lockout-shortened 2013 season.

At 34, Getzlaf’s best seasons are behind him, but he’s still a good bet to rebound to some degree. The Ducks still have a lot of skill on their blue line and in Gibson they have a goalie who, if healthy, could take a run at the Vezina any time now. But if you want to take a big cut at the Ducks as a pre-season long shot Stanley Cup pick, you’re banking on some of their kids having an impact.

Sam Steel will make this team out of camp. He scored eight points in his last nine games in 2018-19 playing with Rickard Rakell and Jakob Silfverberg, which means Steel could be in the conversation for the team’s first-line centre spot. Troy Terry will be 22 by opening night and was a point per game AHL player last season. Power forward Max Jones, Swedish centre/winger Isac Lundestrom and Max Comtois, who all got at least a cup of coffee last season, could make pushes.

Rakell, 26, is a great bounce-back candidate after his shooting percentage dipped to a four-year low. Ondrej Kase, 23, remains a huge breakout candidate after injury got in the way of it happening in 2018-19. The potential is there for the Ducks. Sure, the rosier pieces of this picture may not come true, but Anaheim also had the most man-games lost to injury last season, which is unlikely to happen again. That alone makes it a bit outrageous that the Ottawa Senators are the only team with longer Stanley Cup odds right now.

Chicago Blackhawks: +3600
The Hawks must become a better defensive team in 2019-20 to have any hope of getting into the playoffs, let alone winning the Stanley Cup. They allowed 34.8 shots against per game last season, better than only Ottawa, and were the worst defensive outfit from the hiring of Jeremy Colliton on. A lot of that improvement will have to come systemically, but after adding defencemen Olli Maatta and Calvin De Haan for cheap this summer the depth of personnel is already improved.

Don’t be shocked if Jonathan Toews takes a step back in point output from the career-high 81 he just posted — if the team’s defence is better, that’s all but guaranteed to happen. Alex DeBrincat and Dylan Strome need to keep up their production as emerging talents, though.

If the shots against drop to even the middle of the league, Chicago’s goalies should help cut down on goals against. Corey Crawford remains the key guy here, but his workload has to be cut back to less than 50 games. The signing of Robin Lehner signals that is a priority. Lehner just earned a Vezina finalist nod playing with the New York Islanders, who went from the worst defence in 2017-18 to a middle of the pack one by shots against in 2018-19.

The other thing to consider is Chicago’s potential path to surprise. Some still view the Central as the division of death, but most aren’t as high on Nashville or Winnipeg as they once were. St. Louis is the defending champions, but repeating is a tall task. Dallas added, Minnesota added (and changed their GM), but there’s no clear favourite in the group. The Hawks don’t need to win the division to lift the Cup and could quietly step up as a dangerous team among all this.

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Philadelphia Flyers: +3400
If the Central has been dethroned as the group of death, the Metro has taken on the mantle. It houses the Stanley Cup champions from three of the past four seasons, the two most surprising teams from 2018-19 (Islanders, Hurricanes), and two other teams on track to improve considerably in 2019-20 (Rangers, Devils). In all this, the Flyers have underwhelmed, missing the playoffs four of the past seven years and not winning a round since 2012. But if a few things break their way, they could take a sudden leap up.

First, the power play has to be better and it’s reasonable to suspect that could happen. In Alain Vigneault’s five seasons as N.Y. Rangers head coach, only once did his team finish outside of the top half of the league in power-play conversion rate. On paper, Philadelphia has the personnel to improve here, and that’s what made last year’s 17.1 power-play percentage so frustrating.

I’m all-in on a big bounce-back year from Ivan Provorov, who could also be an X-Factor in turning this power play around. He’s been an elite 5-on-5 producer in three NHL seasons, but has only made minimal impact on the power play despite having opportunities to play on the man advantage. Provorov is too skilled to not eventually come around there. And if the power play and overall goal scoring rises for the team, Shayne Gostisbehere is another good bet to rise from last year’s 37 points.

Although $7.1 million is a big cap hit to give second-line centre Kevin Hayes, if you forget about the money factor for a second, his playmaking acumen could be a nice fit alongside James van Riemsdyk’s goal-scoring touch. JVR, by the way, was already tracking towards one of the best campaigns of his career in 66 games last season.

Carter Hart is the X-Factor here. He did just have one of the better seasons all-time for an under-21 goalie, but historically those players don’t follow up with the same success in Year 2.

Here’s a look at some of the best save percentage seasons by under-21 NHL goalies (minimum 24 games), and what they did the season after.

GOALIE UNDER 21 SV% FOLLOW-UP SEASON
Carey Price (2007-08) .920 .905
Carter Hart (2018-19) .917 TBD
Steve Mason (2008-09) .916 .901
Jim Carey (1994-95) .913 .906
Jocelyn Thibault (1995-96) .913 .910
Roberto Luongo (1999-2000) .904 .920
John Davidson (1973-74) .902 .887
Grant Fuhr (1981-82) .898 .868

Hart faced the fifth-most 5-on-5 shots against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 action last season but was bottom-12 in high danger chances. If the Flyers can keep those high-quality shots to a minimum again, Hart may be in a favourable position to maintain last season’s level of play.

And then there are the young breakout candidates. Nolan Patrick will be just 21 next month and finished the last two months of 2018-19 on a 41-point pace. Morgan Frost has dominated the OHL for two seasons and, if he makes the team, would be a pre-season Calder Trophy candidate. And how about Travis Konecny? Can the 22-year-old speedster step into the 60-point range? It’s entirely possible Pittsburgh and Washington don’t return as forceful in 2019-20, and that the Islanders and Hurricanes don’t have the same magic. In that sense, there’s a path for the Flyers to surprise next season.

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New Jersey Devils: +2900
Continuing in the Metro Division, if you want to make the Devils your long shot pick, it’d be wise to do it now because their odds may jump into the top 15 before long. We know they’ve made some considerable upgrades (Jack Hughes, P.K. Subban), have the 2018 MVP who was injured most of last season (Taylor Hall) and another first overall pick from 2017 (Nico Hischier). But how is it all going to come together?

Right away, having Hall for more than the 33 games he got in last season will be a huge boost — being in a contract year is a great motivating factor as well. Hughes will be one of the top Calder candidates, but the wild card in terms of finding secondary scoring has to be Nikita Gusev. The reigning KHL scoring champ is in the prime of his career at 27, brings pace and scored more in the Russian league than Florida’s Evgenii Dadonov ever did (on the same team) — and Dadonov tallied 70 points last season. The upside on Gusev is huge.

The one major question most have about the Devils is the goaltending, but it’s actually a good situation there. Cory Schneider’s season-long numbers don’t look strong (6-13-4, .903 SV%, 3.06 GAA), but most of that has to do with his terrible start. From when he returned from injury on Feb. 7 to the end of the regular season, Schneider’s save percentage was a sterling .921 with a 2.41 GAA. Schneider will need to have that kind of presence if the Devils are to win it all, but his workload will be kept in check anyway. With that, 22-year-old MacKenzie Blackwood had a good start to his career in 2018-19 and seems ready to take on an increased role.

The Devils made it to the playoffs with far less two years ago. With a few bounce-back candidates and a number of upgrades to the roster, they could take it a few steps further in 2019-20.

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