Early Top Contenders for Next Year’s Stanley Cup

Early Top Contenders for Next Year’s Stanley Cup

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The Tampa Bay Lightning are Stanley Cup champions.

    For the next 74 days at least.

    But when the clock strikes midnight on Dec. 31, though their reign won’t technically be over, they’re just another 0-0 team trying to hang a 2021 banner.

    Presuming next season gets going when commissioner Gary Bettman hopes, the race to take the next celebratory lap with a big silver trophy begins on New Year’s Day, though the field of contenders with a truly legitimate shot at carrying it probably doesn’t extend to all corners of the 31-team map.

    Faced with that reality, the B/R ice hockey team got down to the business of separating the contenders from the pretenders and came up with a list of teams—along with a handful of honorable mentions—most likely to be posing for a center-ice picture sometime next summer.

    Read on to see if your favorites made the cut and drop a line in the comments to tell us how we did.

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    Dallas Stars

    No offense to Lone Star State hockey fans, but it was a short line of people who expected the Stars to get within two games of a championship last season. And though they took out the second-seeded Colorado Avalanche and top-seeded Vegas Golden Knights along the way, they’re still more of an outsider than an insider when it comes to next season’s title talk. Experience helps, but a repeat seems a long shot.

    New York Islanders

    Tied for 14th in the regular season, the Islanders were among the big boys in the playoffs, defeating the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference semifinals before pushing the eventual champion Tampa Bay Lightning to six games. They’re young, fast and girded with postseason experience, and if their goaltending holds up, they’ll at the very least be a tough out in the next tournament. 

    Pittsburgh Penguins

    Call it an emeritus selection, but any team with the Penguins’ championship experience, not to mention 30-something studs like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, will be a factor when the games matter again. There’s stability, albeit unproven stability, in the net with Tristan Jarry signed and a lot of dead salary weight culled from the roster. If they’re healthy when playoff time rolls around, keep an eye on them.

    St. Louis Blues

    The Blues were champs in 2018-19 and second overall in the regular season last last time around, but they seem farther away now than they were at this stage before 2019-20. Exchanging free agent Alex Pietrangelo for Torey Krug presumably adds offensive pop to the blue line but it could come at the expense of defensive prowess and overall team toughness. Would it be a shock if they were in the Cup Final next year? Maybe not. But it’s a reach.

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    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    2019-20 Standings

    44-14-12, 100 points (first overall)

    Playoff Results

    Lost in Eastern Conference semifinals (Tampa Bay, 4-1)

    What Will it Take?

    The Bruins were the best team in the NHL through March, so even though things didn’t click after the resumption of play, it’s clearly within reason to include them here.

    Losing point-getting defenseman Torey Krug won’t help matters on the power play, but there’s enough returning talent in David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand and others, assuming they’re healthy, to maintain a certain level of production night in and night out.

    Adding Mike Hoffman in a late free-agency grab would boost spirits for a fanbase that hasn’t been rewarded with any big-splash signings.

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    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    2019-20 Standings

    37-28-5, 79 points (16th overall)

    Playoff Results

    Lost in Eastern Conference qualifying round (Carolina, 3-0)

    What Will it Take?

    Just how much you buy in on the Rangers depends on how highly you value a roster full of youngsters, including this year’s No. 1 overall draft pick Alexis Lafreniere.

    Let’s just say we see a lot of good. If Lafreniere is anything near what is suggested he’ll be, and if Artemi Panarin repeats an MVP-caliber performance in his second year in New York, it’ll be interesting.

    The goalies are unproven, so that’s a question mark.

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    2019-20 Standings

    36-25-9, 81 points (tied for 11th overall)

    Playoff Results

    Lost in Eastern Conference qualifying round (Columbus, 3-2)

    What Will it Take?

    If you like the Rangers and their collection of young offensive talent, you’ll probably like the Maple Leafs, too, considering their collection of high-end (and high-salaried) weaponry up front.

    Toronto boasts three players—Auston Matthews (47), William Nylander (31) and John Tavares (26)—who scored 26 or more goals in 2019-20, and another, Mitchell Marner, who was among the league leaders in assists with 51. All but Tavares are 23 years old or younger.

    A midseason coaching change jumbled things across the board last season, but if veteran goaltender Frederik Andersen can get back to the 30-win threshold he’s reached four times, then Toronto’s stay in the postseason should go way beyond five games next time around.

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    2019-20 Standings

    41-21-7, 89 points (sixth overall)

    Playoff Results

    Lost in Eastern Conference semifinals (New York Islanders, 4-3)

    What Will it Take?

    It’s been 45 years since the Flyers’ last parade down Broad Street, but that drought seemed on its last legs when they emerged from the postseason play-in round as the No. 1 Eastern Conference seed.

    Goaltender Carter Hart was brilliant in carrying Philadelphia through that gauntlet and a subsequent first-round series with the Montreal Canadiens, but he couldn’t do it alone. When New York Islanders goalie Semyon Varlamov matched him save for save in the conference semis, the Flyers were doomed.

    The offseason hasn’t yielded many transaction headlines, so the Flyers will go into next season as roughly the same team that finished sixth in the regular season last year. The offense went cold at precisely the wrong time in the playoffs, so even a slight uptick there alongside a standout Hart means they’ll be in the mix. They’re not the best team, but they are closer to the top than the bottom.

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    2019-20 Standings

    41-20-8, 90 points

    Playoff Results

    Lost in Eastern Conference first round (New York Islanders, 4-1)

    What Will it Take?

    The Eastern Conference boasts the Stanley Cup champions, but it seems a wide-open bunch beyond the Tampa Bay Lightning, and there’s no reason to suggest the Capitals can’t be a significant player.

    Ageless Alexander Ovechkin is still the league’s premier goal scorer, and John Carlson is its most offensive defenseman, so filling nets shouldn’t be an issue. Goaltender Braden Holtby left in free agency and handed the full-time job to 23-year-old Russian Ilya Samsonov, who played well across 26 games last season.

    Incoming coach Peter Laviolette is a proven winner in the NHL and a former Stanley Cup champion behind the bench, so he’ll likely get the team back into prime winning position next postseason. Having another parade in D.C. should surprise precisely no one in 2021.

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    Ray Carlin/Associated Press

    2019-20 Standings

    43-21-6, 92 points (tied for third overall)

    Playoff Results

    Won Stanley Cup (Dallas, 4-2) 

    What Will it Take?

    As Ric Flair used to say, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.” And when it comes to the NHL, the Tampa Bay Lightning are that team.

    The Lightning rolled through three rounds of Eastern Conference opponents with a 12-4 record, then dusted the Dallas Stars in six games to win the second title in franchise history, 16 years after the first. So it’s an exercise in folly to claim outright that they won’t be repeating the feat in 2021.

    But one win does not guarantee another. Tampa Bay was pressed perilously close to the salary cap as free agency arrived and lost a handful of core players (D Kevin Shattenkirk, C Tyler Johnson, C Carter Verhaeghe) who were impactful on the road to the title. The highest of the high-enders will be back, but no one knows if the locker-room mix will stay the same and if the team will have the same run of good fortune it had this summer. They’ll be relevant, though. Book it.

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    2019-20 Standings

    42-20-8, 92 points (tied for third overall)

    Playoff Results

    Lost in Western Conference semifinals (Dallas, 4-3) 

    What Will it Take?

    The Avalanche headed into the Western Conference playoffs with momentum and looked primed for the long haul when they rolled the Arizona Coyotes, but injuries in the net and a hot goalie at the other end for the Dallas Stars buried them.

    They didn’t land any big-time free agents, but they kept their own talent in-house and their young core is as good as anyone’s in the league.

    It’s Western finals or bust, at the very least.

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    2019-20 Standings

    39-24-8, 86 points (tied for seventh overall)

    Playoff Results

    Lost in Western Conference finals (Dallas, 4-1) 

    What Will it Take?

    When they headed into the Western Conference playoffs as the No. 1 seed, the Golden Knights thought this was the year they’d get their first Stanley Cup. It didn’t happen, but it’s clear the team didn’t stand pat.

    Instead, it re-signed goaltender Robin Lehner to a five-year, $25 million deal before he became an unrestricted free agent and then went out and signed the most expensive player on the market in defenseman Alex Pietrangelo. The ex-Blues captain is in the fold for seven years at $61.6 million, and Vegas is clearly back among the elite.

    As far as we’re concerned, the road to the Stanley Cup goes through the Nevada desert.

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