The chase for an NHL championship is increasingly defined by unfavourable math in that, while there remains only one Stanley Cup, the number of clubs that appear title-worthy seems to grow by the season.
Even 10 years ago, when you really drilled down, you could usually count the number of teams that had a legit chance to win it all with five fingers. Now, with ever-creeping parity driven by the salary cap and young players making more of an immediate impact than ever, you need both hands to catch all the contenders.
As such, the purpose of today’s exercise is to identify the teams that could conceivably skate off with the 2021 Cup. We’ve highlighted three no-doubters, six clubs that could catch a wave to do it and a bunch more that — no matter how hard you squint — don’t have an in-focus path to a parade.
With puck-drop on the season just a week away, the hard question for every contender out there is, can we really be the last team standing?
Tier One: Hard Yes
Colorado Avalanche: Locked and loaded. Questions about a crunch-time goalie duo of Philipp Grubauer and Pavel Francouz are fair, but not nearly enough to besmirch this club’s standing as one of the very best in the league.
Tampa Bay Lightning: The salary cap clouds have cleared and even with recent scoring champ Nikita Kucherov shelved for the regular season, there’s more than enough torque here to land a cushy Central Division playoff spot. This team won the Cup without Steven Stamkos in the lineup; if Kucherov comes back from hip surgery at some point in the post-season, the 2021 Bolts could be a superior squad to the one that lifted the Cup three months ago.
Vegas Golden Knights: While the Knights belong in the top tier, we’ll draw a faint line between them and the two clubs listed above only because Vegas’s centre depth doesn’t match up with Tampa or Colorado. That said, the Golden Knights landed the biggest UFA fish in Alex Pietrangelo and are getting after the ’21 Cup as hard as anyone.
Tier Two: Soft Yes
St. Louis Blues: The 2019 champs lost their captain to Vegas in the off-season, but new additions Torey Krug and Mike Hoffman are going to help create goals. Still, the Blues’ path to the Cup final goes through Colorado and Vegas in the West Division. Goalie Jordan Binnington will have to be the version of himself we saw during St. Louis’s magical run two years ago.
Boston Bruins: Speaking of 2019, you really wonder if this iteration of the Bruins missed their chance by losing Game 7 at home to the Blues. Nobody is going to bet against the leadership and infrastructure here. At some point, though, members of the secondary cast have to slide to centre stage and thrive.
Toronto Maple Leafs: This is about looking six months into the future, not dwelling on four years of springtime disappointment. Collectively, the Leafs are like a slumping sniper that just needs to bag one (in this case, one playoff round win) to bust the dam and hope a flood follows.
Philadelphia Flyers: Like the Leafs, there’s grow-an-inch potential for this crew. Some of the young guys struggled in the bubble, but there’s nice balance throughout the lineup and an emerging stud goalie in Carter Hart.
Pittsburgh Penguins: It was really tempting to bump this club down to the just-can’t-see-it tier. Pittsburgh has won a single playoff series since taking the 2017 Cup. But this won’t be the space where we close the book on a motivated Sidney Crosby.
Washington Capitals: See above. The Caps have been one-and-done each of the past two years after celebrating a long-time-coming championship in 2018. Ovechkin and Co. come with questions, but another summer-long party can’t be ruled out yet.
Tier 3: Winning Four Rounds is Out of Reach
Dallas Stars: Tyler Seguin is likely out until April and Ben Bishop is probably on the shelf until mid-March. There’s a chance the defending Western Conference champs will just be hitting their stride when the playoffs begin, but I think it’s more likely this is a down year after last summer’s march to the final.
Carolina Hurricanes: This is about substandard goaltending and nothing else. Carolina’s roster in front of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer is Cup-worthy. If they can improve the crease between now and the April 12 trade deadline, they could do this thing.
Calgary Flames: Like a few teams in this block, a deep run absolutely feels in play. But this group has disappointed enough times to question whether winning four rounds is a real possibility.
Nashville Predators: The defence corps remains a huge strength and it will be interesting to see what Juuse Saros can do as a starter. The forward mix, though, just isn’t inspiring.
Vancouver Canucks: Last summer’s playoff success was a wonderful start for a team that will probably be a tier or two higher very soon. That said, it’s still a work in progress.
New York Islanders: The definition of a tough out, just not enough talent to do anything more than make the top contenders really work for it.
Winnipeg Jets: The top of the lineup is loaded with great forwards and the crease is locked down by reigning Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck. The blue line, though, is going to take a while to rebuild after losing Jacob Trouba, Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot in the summer of 2019.
Edmonton Oilers: The Oilers are doing a nice job of filling things out around Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, but losing Oscar Klefbom for the season really stings and the goaltending is just too big of a question mark.
New York Rangers: The darlings of the NHL Draft Lottery surely have big things ahead, but we’re not there yet.
Montreal Canadiens: The Habs haven’t qualified for the playoffs under a 16-team format since 2017, so this is a walk-before-you-run situation.