It seems hard to believe, but the 2020-21 NHL regular season is already near its end. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s season was cut down to just 56 games, meaning the majority of teams have roughly 10 games remaining. This means that we have a pretty good idea of who is making the playoffs, as well as who has a legitimate chance to contend for the Stanley Cup.
There are always teams that surprise in both good and bad ways of course, with a great example being the St. Louis Blues just two short years ago. This was a team who was dead last at nearly the midpoint of the regular season before going on a huge run that resulted in a Stanley Cup. However, the underdog story doesn’t happen as much as we’d like it too. Last year’s playoffs resulted in a Tampa Bay Lightning championship, which they were considered the heavy favorites to win from the start.
Again, anything can happen in any given year. Part of what makes the NHL so great is that there are no guarantees since so many teams are similar in comparison. If you were to make bets on a Stanley Cup winner this season, however, you may want to consider one of these five teams below, who I personally believe are the top five contenders to win it all this year. First, however, let’s go over a few honorable mentions that weren’t quite able to crack this list.
The Carolina Hurricanes are likely the most underrated team in the entire league, and not having them on this list goes to show that. They are currently second in league standings with 68 points and have looked great all year long. However, I don’t believe they are as deep as some other teams on this list.
If they are able to get Teuvo Teravainen back in the near future, that could change my mind on that aspect. The recent injury to Petr Mrazek doesn’t help either, although he is expected back soon.
Despite the Pittsburgh Penguins scorching hot play as of late, they just don’t have enough depth to crack the top five of this list. Betting against Sidney Crosby is never a good idea, but this is a team that, despite sitting third in league standings, has some significant holes. They are also still without Evgeni Malkin, and there remains no timetable for his return. If he is able to come back for the playoffs, the Penguins chances at a deep run would increase tremendously.
The other concern for the Penguins is goaltending. Tristan Jarry has had his fair share of struggles this season, and Casey DeSmith has just 69 career games to his name. Former Pen Matt Murray proved that experience doesn’t always matter in the postseason, though what he was able to do as a young goaltender doesn’t happen often.
The Washington Capitals have been a contender for over a decade now, and while they are yet again this season, they didn’t crack my top five. The reasoning for this mainly comes down to their goaltending. After electing to let Braden Holtby walk this offseason (the right decision, in my opinion) they were planning on entering this year with a duo of Ilya Samsonov and Henrik Lundqvist.
Unfortunately, Lundqvist was unable to play this season due to a heart condition which has left the Caps with two rookies in Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. Neither have been great which makes it hard to have confidence in Washington.
Toronto Maple Leafs
If there was ever a year for the Toronto Maple Leafs to finally win a playoff series, this is it. The Leafs have been haunted by the Boston Bruins over the years, but given the division realignments this season they will likely be facing off against the Montreal Canadiens in the first round. Their lineup, especially up front, is stacked with talent and should be able to come out of the North Division.
The question regarding the Leafs, as well as the teams above, is goaltending. Jack Campbell has slowly come back down to life after starting the season with a ridiculous 12-0-0 record. While he hasn’t been bad by any means, he is also very inexperienced, having played in just 80 career games. David Rittich on the other hand has had a poor season and has not impressed much in his two starts with the Leafs. What this team needs is a healthy Frederik Andersen, but his injury continues to remain a mystery at this point.
Now, here are the top 5 contenders:
5. Boston Bruins
This selection will likely be scrutinized as they sit 11th in league standings, but this Boston Bruins team is not one you’d want to meet up with in the playoffs. While they are an aging team, their veterans are still very elite level players with plenty of playoff experience. Factor that in with a goaltender in Tuukka Rask who likely has a massive chip on his shoulder after having to leave the playoff bubble last year, they are a very dangerous team.
The one thing the Bruins struggled with this season was scoring goals. General manager Don Sweeney helped fix that problem in a big way at the trade deadline, adding former Hart Trophy winner Taylor Hall to the lineup. While some were beginning to question Hall as he had only two goals in 37 games with the Sabres, he is quickly proving it was a slump more than anything. Through eight games with his new team he has three goals and six points.
4. Florida Panthers
Many expected the 2019-20 season to be a big one for the Florida Panthers after adding goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky as well as head coach Joel Quenneville to the mix, but it never panned out. This season has been a completely different story as the Panthers have been near the top of the league standings all year long.
An unfortunate injury to Aaron Ekblad certainly hurts their chances, but they still have tons of talent in their lineup, in particular up front with both Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau. In net, Bobrovsky has finally started to turn things around and is giving them the goaltending they expected from him all along, while backup Chris Driedger has some of the better numbers in the entire NHL. The one concern here is their lack of playoff experience, but there is no denying the talent of this roster.
3. Vegas Golden Knights
The Vegas Golden Knights are a team who truly has no holes in their lineup. Up front, they have some unbelievable talent in players like Mark Stone, Max Pacioretty, and Jonathan Marchessault, while having studs like Shea Theodore and Alex Pietrangelo on the back end. This roster top to bottom is absolutely lethal and gives them a tremendous shot at the Stanley Cup this year.
Perhaps the best part of this Golden Knights roster however comes in between the pipes. After a 2020 trade deadline that saw them trade for and shortly after sign Robin Lehner to a lengthy extension, most expected Marc-Andre Fleury to be moved. However, the Knights elected to keep them both around and it is paying off in a big way. Lehner is an incredible 12-1-2 on the season, while Fleury is a potential Vezina Trophy candidate. This is without a doubt the best current goalie duo in the league and it will be fascinating to see how head coach Peter DeBoer uses them in the playoffs.
2. Colorado Avalanche
The Colorado Avalanche are a fascinating young team who is only going to continue getting better and better. Though their lineup top to bottom may not be quite as deep as the Golden Knights, it is close. What gives them the slight upper hand, in my opinion, is the fact they have a player who most see as the top player in the NHL aside from Connor McDavid in Nathan MacKinnon. While the 25-year-old started the season slow for his lofty standards, he is on fire as of late and has 59 points in just 41 games.
Aside from MacKinnon, the Avs have other fantastic talents in players like Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog, and Cale Makar, just to name a few. The one question mark surrounding this team is in net. Phillip Grubauer was without a doubt in the Vezina Trophy conversation, but has been forced to miss time recently due to being placed on the COVID-19 Protocol List. He has since been removed, but has yet to play as he is now working on his conditioning. If he is able to get back to 100 per cent, the Avalanche have a fantastic shot at winning the Stanley Cup, something they haven’t done since 2001.
1. Tampa Bay Lightning
Though the chances of teams winning back to back Stanley Cups are extremely rare, this Tampa Bay Lightning team may be an exception. The amount of superstar talent they possess in players like Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point, and Andrei Vasilevskiy truly doesn’t seem fair. As if those names weren’t enough, they are also expecting Nikita Kucherov, who has been out all season with a hip injury, to be ready for the playoffs.
This team on paper is simply not fair. In the past, there had been some concerns regarding playoff performance, especially after being swept in the first round of the 2019 playoffs by the Columbus Blue Jackets. However, as we all know now, they were able to prove their detractors wrong and won it all the very next season. They are once again the favorites heading into the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Year of Unknowns
While I believe these five teams have the best chance at winning it all this season, at the end of the day no one knows for sure. As mentioned earlier, sometimes an underdog comes in and surprises everybody. With the last year being as strange as it has been, perhaps something similar happens with the NHL playoffs. Regardless, we will all be in for some exciting hockey.
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