The Stanley Cup contenders, ranked: red-hot Capitals can go all the way

Alex Ovechkin’s Capitals, having won their second straight Presidents’ Trophy, are favorites for the title. Josh Kloke runs down the NHL’s 16 postseason teams

The NHL’s second season begins tonight with the playoffs featuring a (mostly) wide open field. It’s been said that the Stanley Cup is the toughest trophy to win in all of sport, and often picking a winner is equally tough. Frankly, save for a handful, any one of these teams could win it all come June. There are a few common themes in this year’s playoffs: the injection of young stars getting their first postseason experience, the number of incredible goaltenders who could carry their team and, of course, the tragedy that is the playoff setup.

But as you’ll see, we’re only slightly really bothered by that.

1) Washington Capitals

Current form Scary good. Winners of 11 of their past 14, with eight of those wins coming against playoff teams.

How they can win Keep on keepin’ on. They’re coming into the playoffs hot, have an easy first-round matchup against the Maple Leafs and will look to use their combination of a loaded offence and one of the best goalies in the game in Braden Holtby.

How they can lose The pressure to win with such a talented lineup gets to them. Just take a quick look at how this largely similar core has done in the playoffs recently.

The Capitals finished with the most points in the league for the second consecutive season.
The Capitals finished with the most points in the league for the second consecutive season. Photograph: David Zalubowski/AP

Player to watch Alex Ovechkin. Other Capitals are having better seasons, such as NichlasNicklas Backstrom. But that might help the captain: his job isn’t just to score goals, but help guide this team towards their first ever Stanley Cup. It’s the one blemish on an already Hall of Fame-worthy résumé.

Fun fact Their penalty kill and power play are both two of the league’s best and no team allowed less goals this season per 60 minutes at even-strength. If there are tight games, the Capitals can win them.

Why should you care? So we can end the debate about Ovechkin and place him exactly where he ought to go: amongst the best ever to play the game.

2) Chicago Blackhawks

Current form It’s the Blackhawks. What happens in the regular season is kind of irrelevant now, even if that includes winning the Central Division. The postseason is when they shine.

How they can win With three Stanley Cups in the last seven seasons, the Blackhawks can rely on the players that have gotten them to the promised land previously and be just fine.

How they can lose Their age begins to show, with the core of those aforementioned players all over 30.

Player to watch Duncan Keith. Not because he’ll do anything flashy, but because he does the little things, often away from the puck, better than almost any defenceman still in the playoffs.

Fun fact The Hawks have only won the Central Division twice before. Both of those seasons they went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Why should you care? They’re a safe bet, a modern-day dynasty and a pillar of how to turn a franchise around.

3) Minnesota Wild

Current form One hundred and six points in today’s NHL is nothing to sneeze at. They gained a point in seven of their last eight games, but mostly against inferior opponents.

How they can win Goaltender Devan Dubnyk, who has enjoyed a career resurgence in Minnesota, carries them.

How they can lose They could run into their old foes, the Chicago Blackhawks, in the second round. They were eliminated by the Hawks in 2014 and 2015.

Player to watch Eric Staal. At 32, Staal has flipped the script in his first year in Minnesota after being signed as a free agent in the summer. With 65 points, Staal was second in team scoring and registered his highest point total since 2012. He’s a member of the triple gold club, having won a Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal and a world championship. The Wild will lean on that kind of leadership.

Eric Staal, No 12, middle, is second in scoring – and he doesn’t mind a scrap, either.
Eric Staal, No 12, middle, is second in Wild scoring – and he doesn’t mind a scrap, either. Photograph: Brace Hemmelgarn/USA Today Sports

Fun fact The Wild finished first in the Western Conference in goals scored, which is a sentence I never thought I’d type.

Why should you care? There’s generally one team you wouldn’t expect that gets into the later rounds of the playoffs. The Wild have the accolades but don’t have the recognition yet. Perhaps now is their time.

4) Edmonton Oilers

Current form White hot. Going back to mid-March, the Oilers have won 12 of their last 14 games. This is not the team anyone wants to face right now.

How they can win Connor McDavid transitions from the regular season into his first NHL playoffs with ease and goaltender Cam Talbot handles the workload as he has all season.

How they can lose The opposite of the above. But there’s little reason to believe that will happen.

Player to watch Eric Gryba. At 6ft 4in and 225lbs Gryba is exactly the type of physical force that’s needed in the playoffs. Wow, I kept that up for a lot longer than even I thought I could.

Edmonton’s Connor McDavid: he really is that good.
Edmonton’s Connor McDavid: he really is that good. Photograph: Candice Ward/USA Today Sports

Connor McDavid is without the doubt the most electrifying player in the NHL today. Nobody can create offence every single shift the way he does. There’s little that opposing teams can do to contain him. The hockey world is literally watching history unfold as the best young player begins his ascent into playoff lore.

Fun fact McDavid notched his 100th point this season assisting on Leon Draisaitl’s third-period goal. That’s a nice, even number for McDavid to hit for his first ever Art Ross Trophy and gave Draisaitl 77 points on the year, nothing to sneeze at either. The loser in all this? Jack Eichel, selected second overall behind McDavid in 2015. Eichel was set to receive a $2m contract bonus if he finished in the top 10 in NHL points per game. That Draisaitl goal knocked Eichel out of 10th into 11th, finishing with 0.93 PPG to Draisaitl’s 0.94. Ouch.

Why should you care? McDavid is that good. These Oilers could go deeper in the playoffs than you think.

5) Pittsburgh Penguins

Current form Not all that great. They’ve won six of their last 12 games, but only two of those wins came against playoff teams and one was in a shootout.

How they can win The defending Stanley Cup champions will be in for a tougher road this time around. But with Sidney Crosby in your lineup, you always have a chance. Having arguably the best 1-2 goaltending tandem in the league doesn’t hurt either.

How they can lose Kris Letang will undergo surgery on his neck and will miss the entirety of the playoffs. He is the Penguins’ No 1 defenceman and you can’t win a Stanley Cup without a horse on the back end.

Player to watch Evgeni Malkin. Everyone will have their eyes on Crosby anyway, and Malkin is still one of the most gifted players in the game. His 1.16 PPG this season was just a shade behind Crosby’s 1.19.

The Penguins celebrate beating the Sharks to win the Stanley Cup last year.
The Penguins celebrate beating the Sharks to win the Stanley Cup last year. Photograph: Rocky Widner/Getty Images

Fun fact The Penguins had the second-most points in the NHL. That’s a fact. That they’re playing the team with the fourth-most points in the first round is a travesty.

Why should you care? There has not been a team win back-to-back Stanley Cups in almost 20 years.

6) Columbus Blue Jackets

Current form Yikes. The Blue Jackets finished the season on a dismal note, losing six of their last seven games. Their mid-season 16-game win streak, the second-longest in NHL season, certainly put them over the top this year.

How they can win Goalie Sergei Bobrovsky continues his Vezina-worthy season. Are you noticing a trend yet?

How they can lose Bobrovsky’s poor playoff history speaks to a player that needs to perform better in the postseason, and fast. He has an .890 save percentage in his 13 games of playoff experience.

Can Sergei Bobrovsky continue his hot form?
Can Sergei Bobrovsky continue his hot form? Photograph: Tom Mihalek/AP

Player to watch Brandon Dubinsky. He has a history of physically testing Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby in the past, whom the Blue Jackets will face in the first round. The two engaged in a rare fight in 2015 and in his 11 playoff games against Dubinsky, Crosby has never scored a goal. For this season’s Rocket Richard Trophy winner, that’s saying something.

Fun fact Since entering the league in 2000, the Blue Jackets have never won a playoff series.

Why should you care? Their first round series against the Penguins features two of the best teams in the NHL. This playoff format is stupid, but you already knew that. The Blue Jackets have a genuine shot at toppling the defending Stanley Cup champions in the first round.

7) New York Rangers

Current form This season, finishing fourth in the Metropolitan Division is an accomplishment. They finished with the best road record in the NHL and that will certainly help them as a wildcard team playing in the oft-imposing Bell Centre in Montreal. They’ve won just three of their last 10.

How they can win Spread the scoring out. With seven players reaching 40 points, the Rangers have a variety of offensive options to use.

How they can lose Carey Price does Carey Price-like things.

Player to watch Chris Kreider. The 25-year old forward ran into Price in his crease in game one of the last series they met in, back in 2014, and Price would not return to the series.

Fun fact While the Rangers finished fourth in the NHL in goals per game, their scoring chances per 60 minutes at even-strength were 25th in the NHL. Their power play was the 11th best in the NHL, which all points to one thing: the Rangers probably got quite lucky with the amount of goals they scored this year. Running into a hot goalie could sink them.

Why should you care? If the Rangers do make it to the Stanley Cup final, those who already hate the NHL’s silly new playoff format will have even more reason to be up in arms. If three of the league’s best regular-season teams, all Metro division teams, beat up on each other and the Rangers just have to walk through the lowly Atlantic Division, you have to believe the NHL will have a long, hard look at the playoff format.

8) Boston Bruins

Current form The Bruins are a better team than their record and playoff seeding would have you believe. Since the beginning of March, due in some part to new coach Bruce Cassidy, the Bruins have continued to be a possession-heavy team with the best even-strength Corsi For % in the NHL.

How they can win Lean as heavily as they have all season on their deadly top line consisting of Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. In terms of generating offense, they’re simply one of the best lines in hockey right now.

How they can lose If Marchand the agitator returns and commits an offense worthy of a suspension (as he has in the past) it’s tough to imagine the Bruins going all the way.

David Pastrnk plays on one of hockey’s best lines.
David Pastrnk plays on one of hockey’s best lines. Photograph: Winslow Townson/USA Today Sports

Player to watch Marchand is the obvious choice just because of the season he’s had. I’d like to see what Tuukka Rask can do in net, though. Between 16 March and 4 April, he lost four in a row before winning four in a row. Curious to see which Rask shows up for the playoffs and if he can get back into that elite goalie conversation.

Fun fact Nineteen-year-old American defenceman Charlie McAvoy, the 14th overall pick of the 2016 NHL entry draft, was signed by the Bruins to a three-year entry level contract on Monday. He’s never played an NHL game but is expected to jump and help a depleted blue line.

Why should you care? Last year’s Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins won it all after hiring a new coach mid-season. The Bruins are looking to do the same.

9) Montreal Canadiens

Current form Winners of nine of their last 12, but the majority of those wins coming against non-playoff teams. In the bigger picture, this team has performed much better since firing Michel Therrien and bringing in Claude Julien in February.

How they can win The more things change, the more they stay the same: the Habs hopes live and die with the all-world goalie, Carey Price.

How they can lose Price goes down with an injury in the playoffs, again.

Player to watch All eyes will naturally be on Price but what about Alex Galchenyuk? The young sniper, meant to be the Canadiens’ centre of the future, often struggled under Therrien, and now he’s set to begin the playoffs on the fourth line. Julien has said this is a move to keep his scoring balanced. Galchenyuk didn’t ask for this, and shouldn’t have to prove himself after the last three seasons, during which he’s scored consistently. A 30-goal scorer on the fourth line seems risky.

Fun fact Canadiens forward Paul Byron surprised the entire hockey world by leading the NHL in shooting percentage with 22.9% among players that played at least 70 games.

Why should you care? The Canadiens are good, and just maybe good enough to emerge out of the Eastern Conference. After zero Canadian teams made the playoffs last year, many believe the Habs are the best bet from north of the border to win it all.

10) Nashville Predators

Current form The Preds won their last three games, all of which were against non-playoff teams. Late March was a strong stretch for them as well, winning six of their last nine games in the month, including four wins against playoff teams.

How they can win Opposing teams have a little too much fun in Music City the night before games.

How they can lose Their goaltending continues to be inconsistent, and you’re not getting far in the playoffs without a goaltender giving you results night-in , night-out. Plus, you never bet against their first-round opponents, the Chicago Blackhawks.

Brad Hunt winds it up for Nashville.
Brad Hunt winds it up for Nashville. Photograph: Christopher Hanewinckel/USA Today Sports

Player to watch Defenceman PK Subban hasn’t had the best season since being traded to the Predators in the off-season, but, boy, do people still love to talk about him. He’s the most aware player in the league in terms of marketing his personality and brand. The general consensus is that (surprisingly) the Canadiens have now won the trade, but a strong performance in the playoffs could change that.

Fun fact Nashville continues to be a strong possession team, having the best even-strength Corsi For % of any Western Conference playoff team. (51.36%) Of course, if you know about Corsi, you’ve probably determined that it doesn’t mean that much any more.

Why should you care? The Predators can be a fun team to watch, have found largely consistent success in a market some hockey people love to call “non-traditional” and there’s reason to believe that next year’s new team, the Vegas Golden Knights, could copy their methods of success.

11) St Louis Blues

Current form They hung tough to snag a divisional playoff spot in a tough conference, but this a team that has underperformed in the playoffs after five generally strong regular seasons.

How they can win Goaltender Jake Allen continues his strong play as of late after midseason struggles.

How they can lose He doesn’t.

Player to watch After leaving the Blues at the end of the 2013-14 season for the KHL, forward Vladimir Sobotka returned to the team last week and signed a three-year extension. He had a goal in the Blues final regular season game. It’s a good late-season injection for the Blues.

Fun fact Blues leading scorer Vladimir Tarasenko finished 10th in league scoring this season and only logged 12 penalty minutes all season. No player in the NHL’s top 40 scorers had less penalty minutes than him. Needless to say, he’s dangerous.

Why should you care? The Blues are featured in one of the least intriguing first round match-ups. That’s admittedly not much of a sell, flying under the radar for the first round could help the team not get bogged down by expectations.

12) Anaheim Ducks

Current form An overtime win on the last day of the season was enough to clinch them top spot in the Pacific Division. Remarkably, the Ducks have gained at least one point from each of their last 14 games.

How they can win Rely on experience and hope their veteran forwards show up.

How they can lose Their unproven goaltending doesn’t get in done. John Gibson, 23, is hasn’t seen much playoff action and has a 2.84 GAA in the postseason games he has played. Their backup, Jonathan Bernier, was spectacular in a late-season run with the team but having spent most of his career with the Maple Leafs, has barely any playoff experience as well.

Ryan Kesler takes on Calgary Flames left wing Matthew Tkachuk.
Ryan Kesler takes on Calgary Flames left wing Matthew Tkachuk. Photograph: Candice Ward/USA Today Sports

Player to watch The duo of Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. We know that the NHL is skewing younger: you wonder how much longer these 30+ vets that have spent their entire careers with the Ducks can remain dominant.

Fun fact Ducks head coach Randy Carlyle won the franchise’s only Stanley Cup in 2007 before being fired in 2011 and hired by the Maple Leafs in 2012. He was then hired back by the Ducks before this season.

Why should you care? The balance of power is shifting in the Pacific Division and this might be the last time we see the Ducks with a chance to go deep.

13) Calgary Flames

Current form There was a time last month when a Battle of Alberta looked possible and the Flames would gain a Pacific Division seed. However, an ugly stretch of games through late March and early April in which they lost four of six games against division opponents put them in a wildcard spot.

How they can win Their stacked defence corps play to their potential and shut down opposing teams at all costs, whether that be physically or on the score sheet.

How they can lose Two losses in three nights last week against the Anaheim Ducks, their first-round opponents, don’t bode well for the Flames’ playoffs aspirations.

Player to watch Johnny Gaudreau. The NHL is trending towards skill and speed over size and experience, and the Flames’ 5ft 9in forward is the epitome of that trend. How the bigger, more experienced Ducks contain him will be interesting to watch. He has tremendous skill, even if his point production isn’t where many thought it would be.

Fun fact Not only did Matthew Tkachuk lead NHL rookies in penalty minutes this season, he finished sixth in rookie scoring. He had a recent run-in with perennial playoff powerhouse Drew Doughty and this pesky, relentless forward could be the spark the Flames need to pull off an upset.

Why should you care? More success for the Flames means more camera time for Flames president Brian Burke, still one of the best quotes in hockey.

14) Ottawa Senators

Current form Three wins in their last nine and finished the season near the bottom of all playoff teams in even-strength Corsi For % and Scoring Chances/60 minutes.

How they can win They quietly go about their business and win as many one-goal games as possible.

How they can lose They won’t score enough goals.

Player to watch It goes without saying that all eyes will be on one of, if not the, league’s best defencemen in Erik Karlsson. But goalie Craig Anderson recently returned after missing two months to be with his wife, who was battling cancer. His return was emotional and he’s been in form in the last few weeks as well.

Fun fact The Senators are the only team to qualify for the playoffs with a negative goal differential (-2).

Why should you care? Karlsson is playing at his Norris Trophy-winning best and is one of the most exciting players in hockey to watch. There’s not much else after that, however.

15) San Jose Sharks

Current form The Sharks seem almost immune to momentum of any sort. They’ve had trouble building winning streaks in the second half of the season and now their workhorse, Joe Thornton, is questionable ahead of game one with a lower body injury.

How they can win Pray that Art Ross trophy winner and first-round opponent Connor McDavid of the Edmonton Oilers sleeps through his pre-game alarm.

The bearded Brent Burns.
The bearded Brent Burns. Photograph: Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

How they can lose They might’ve had a chance to score a few goals on the PP were it not for their 16.7% conversion rate, worst of any playoff team.

Player to watch It’s tough to miss Brent Burns, for a variety of reasons. We can talk about his Chewbacca-type beard, but that would be selling his all-world puck moving abilities short.

Fun fact The Sharks were two games away from winning the franchise’s first ever Cup last season. That sort of feels like their year in retrospect, doesn’t it?

Why should you care? The world needs more Brent Burns.

16) Toronto Maple Leafs

Current form These young Leafs never do things the easy way, and won just one of their last four games, in dramatic late-game fashion, to give the team the necessary points to squeak in as the final wildcard team. It looked really dicey for a while there last week.

How they can win The NHL decides on a whim that if you’re legally allowed to consume alcohol in the United States, you’re ineligible to play in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Their rookie trio of Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, three of the league’s top-four rookie scorers, would thrive.

How they can lose These Leafs are driven by their youth. No one can deny their lack of playoff experience, so it’d be really, really bad luck for them to be pitted against a team that has been in the playoffs a lot lately, like the Washington … oh.

Auston Matthews, centre, is one of the NHL’s hottest young stars.
Auston Matthews, centre, is one of the NHL’s hottest young stars. Photograph: Tom Szczerbowski/USA Today Sports

Player to watch William Nylander. On a team with two bona fide Calder Trophy candidates, it took some time for the Leafs’ other rookie forward to garner praise. But as of late, he’s looked like the best rookie in the league, with a shot as dangerous as almost any other and the ability to find open ice with ease. There’s elements of the Capitals’ two leading scorers, Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, in his game.

Fun fact For all their rookies and young players, the Leafs actually have one player with his name engraved on the Stanley Cup: Ben Smith. The 28-year old was called up for one Cup finals game in 2013 for the Blackhawks. Smith, however, is a regular healthy scratch for the Leafs.

Why should you care? If you’re reading this, you either love or hate the NHL’s most popular and most divisive franchise. Even if you don’t want to admit it, you care about how the long-suffering Leafs do in the playoffs.

(All stats courtesy of and


Joshua Kloke

The GuardianTramp

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