As the 2020-21 Stanley Cup playoffs get closer we are starting to get a sense for which teams are capable of seriously competing for a championship (the contenders), and which teams are not (the pretenders). Today we are going to take a look at each team that still has a realistic chance of making the Stanley Cup Playoffs and examining which category they fit in to. The criteria is simple: To be a contender you have to be a team that looks to have a legitimate chance to win a championship. Star power, depth, getting results with a strong process to back it up, having a manageable path through the playoffs with the right matchups. All of that is taken into account. See where your team sits.
This is an easy call. The defending Stanley Cup champions have the same core of players that won it all a year ago and have been the best team in the league for over six seasons now.
They have one of the best records in the league three-quarters of the way through the season, have great forward depth, an outstanding defense, and the best goalie in the league playing some of the best hockey of his career.
If that is not enough they added David Savard to their defense at the trade deadline and have yet to get a single game from their best offensive player, Nikita Kucherov, this season. He will be back for the playoffs. Easy contender. Definitely one of the top two or three contenders.
This is one of the best rosters in the league from top to bottom. They have three superstars at the top (Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen, Gabriel Landeskog), really good secondary scoring, and a young defense that has already become the NHL's best. It is only going to get better.
The big question for the Avalanche will be whether or not the goaltending perhaps up to par. Starting goalie Philipp Grubauer is currently on the COVID list, meaning Devan Dubnyk and Jonas Johansson will have to take over the starting job in the short term. How Grubauer plays when he returns will be a big factor for the Avalanche. This is still an extremely impressive roster that is set to compete for the Stanley Cup for the foreseeable future.
Simply one of the most consistent organizations in the NHL. Always at the top of their division, always near the top of the league standings. Adding Anthony Mantha at the trade deadline is a significant move to add another big, strong, skilled forward to a lineup that is already full of them. The big question will be the goaltending where Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have been solid but at times a little inconsistent. The fact they are as good as they are with that level of goaltending should worry every team they encounter. If they get goaltending, look out.
The Hurricanes have been building something special for a couple of years now and are one of the league's best teams. They have top-line star power at forward with Sebastian Aho, Andrei Svechnikov, and Teuvo Teravainen, an outstanding defense led by Dougie Hamilton and Jaccob Slavin, and they even have the goaltending this season.
That has always been a struggle in Carolina, but Alex Nedeljkovic and Petr Mrazek have done a great job playing the crease this season. Together, they have one of the top-five team save percentages in hockey.
It remains remarkable that the Vegas Golden Knights have been a Stanley Cup contender from Day One of the organization's existence. They are now in year four and might have their best team yet. Mark Stone is an MVP candidate at forward, they have two fantastic defensemen in Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore to lead their blue line, and Marc-Andre Fleury and Robin Lehner give them the best goaltending duo in the league.
They are every bit as dominant this season as Colorado at the top of the league. The problem: One of them is guaranteed to be eliminated by at least the second round given the divisional playoff format. The winner of that series might end up being THE Stanley Cup favorite.
I might have had them in the Pretender category before the trade deadline given some of their struggles, especially offensively, but things are starting to turn around.
The arrival of Taylor Hall, as well as the turnaround of free-agent addition Craig Smith, has given them a second dynamic scoring line to complement their top line of David Pastrnak, Brad Marchand, and Patrice Bergeron. That is significant because until those two developments the Bruins were one of the most top-heavy, one-line teams in the league. Those teams do not tend to win. But they are starting to get on a roll and play like a contender.
Add in a Norris Trophy contender in Charlie McAvoy on defense and deep goaltending and they have a lot of the key ingredients to win it all.
Probably would not have thought this at the beginning of the season, but the way this team is playing right now is very impressive and they still have the returns for Evgeni Malkin, Brandon Tanev, and Kasperi Kapanen ahead.
Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang are still high-level players, the forward depth is as good as it has been since the 2017 Stanley Cup season, and they are mostly playing the right way defensively. As long as the goaltending keeps going the way it has since the beginning of February this will be a tough team to beat.
If the Toronto Maple Leafs are going to make a run at the Stanley Cup, this sure seems to be the year for it to happen. They have the roster, and in the North Division would not have to play one of the league's top teams in the playoffs until at least the semifinals. Honestly, there is no excuse this season.
Their star forwards are playing like they are expected to play, they improved the depth, and the defense is better than it gets credit for being (though I am still not sure it is great). The big question will be if the goaltending can hold out for them. Lately, it has not.
I am kind of in-between on the Islanders in this discussion. On one hand, I do not think they have the star power and impact players that Stanley Cup-winning teams tend to have.
They are not going to score a lot of goals and outside of Mathew Barzal, there are not many difference-makers here. Can they match up with the top teams in the league in a best-of-seven series and win it all? Not sure. They have also struggled with the better teams in the East Division this season.
Having said that, they can defend. They have goaltending. They have also won three playoff series over the past two seasons and were in the Eastern Conference Final a year ago. They are perfectly capable of frustrating any team they play and going on another deep postseason run.
There is a lot to like about this team, and if we are being honest it might be the best team the Panthers have ever had. The concern though is whether or not they can get enough from Sergei Bobrovsky, and if they are willing to turn to Chris Driedger (or even Spencer Knight?) if he struggles in the playoffs.
Also, for as good as this team is, can it beat Carolina and Tampa Bay in a best-of-seven series? It may have to beat both just to get to the semifinals. That is a daunting task for any team.
After being one of the best teams in the league over the past two seasons the Blues have taken a massive step backward this season, to the point where just even making the playoffs is going to be a fight. Losing Alex Pietrangelo has hurt, but not as much as a constant run of injuries throughout the season and sub-par goaltending.
The latter point is a fascinating development because the Blues gave Jordan Binnington a massive contract extension (prematurely?) and did nothing to address the questionable depth behind him.
Kirill Kaprizov has helped completely transform the team into something exciting, and they have exceeded every expectation that may have existed for them at the start of the season.
The problem is going to be the same one they have experienced for much of the past decade: Even when they are really good, they are stuck playing in the wrong division. Literally, the two best teams in the league play in their division, and Minnesota's reward for such a strong year will be a first-round matchup with the Vegas Golden Knights. It is just like all those years they would finish with a top-10 record and they get stuck playing Chicago in the first or second round. Bad timing.
Anytime you have two players as good as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, in their prime, at the same time, and you are NOT a contender it is a pretty good sign that your organization overall has failed.
The Oilers are good, mostly because of the aforementioned duo. They are exciting, again because of the aforementioned duo. But the rest of the team just seems sub-par when compared to the other top contenders in the league. I could see them winning a round given the likely first-round matchups. But I do not know if they have enough to beat Toronto or any other top contender in a best-of-seven series.
The Jets have an outstanding collection of forwards and great goaltending. That could easily get them through a round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially against whatever flawed team they play in the 2-3 matchup. They might even be able to pull off an upset of Toronto if Connor Hellebucyk gets hot or Toronto's goalies crumble. Or at least scare the Maple Leafs a little.
The defense, though, leaves a lot to be desired and that is going to hold them back when it comes to being a true championship-caliber team.
No team has won more playoff games than the Dallas Stars over the past two seasons, but I am not sure if we are going to see a repeat of that performance this year. The Stars do have the inside track on the fourth playoff spot in the Central Division, which is pretty impressive given the injury situation they have dealt with this season and the fact they were awful for more than two months.
Jason Robertson and Jake Oettinger are exciting rookies, and Joe Pavelski is having an incredible season, but this does not seem like a team that has another lengthy postseason run ahead of it. Though I do think they ultimately get in the playoffs.
They had an amazing start to the season but have fizzled since then. That start is going to be enough to get them in the playoffs, but unless Carey Price or Jake Allen stand on their heads it is hard to imagine them going on any sort of a run.
There is some intriguing talent here and some really good players, but not enough difference makers and not enough depth. Losing Brendan Gallagher for now also hurts. They are a different team with him.
Not quite sure what to make of this team. They have been an outstanding 5-on-5 team the past two years, but have been undone at times by awful special teams and poor goaltending. Around the halfway point of this season, the goaltending bounced back and allowed Nashville to get back into playoff contention, but a playoff spot is far from a guarantee with Dallas (and even Chicago) right on their tails.
Even if they do get in they do not have the roster to compete with the top teams in the league. It just seems like an organization that has reached its ceiling with this current core.
They are one of the most exciting teams in the league right now, as well as one of the teams playing the best hockey. They have an outstanding young core and look like they are building something truly special for the foreseeable future. If they did get in the playoffs they could cause a lot of headaches for their first-round opponent. The biggest problem: Their playoff chances are thin given the gap between them and the Boston Bruins, as well as the fact the Bruins still have two games in hand. If they played in any other division they would be an interesting team to watch. Next season they will be even better.
At the start of the year, the only expectation for the Chicago Blackhawks was for them to be awful, especially when Kirby Dach was injured at the World Junior championships and Jonathan Toews was sidelined due to an unspecified medical issue. They had a thin roster, goalie questions, and were coming off three pretty bad seasons.
They ended up at least making the season interesting and have hung around in the playoff race. Patrick Kane and Alex DeBrincat have carried the offense, while Kevin Lankinen was a huge surprise in goal to keep their playoff chances alive.
Do not see them making the playoffs, and even if they do they are not getting through the top teams.
Another team that has exceeded all expectations this season to put itself right in the thick of the playoff race. Keep in mind, the Coyotes lost Taylor Hall in free agency, played a chunk of the season without their top defenseman (Oliver Ekman-Larsson), and have been down to their third-string goalie for a stretch here in the second half.
Yet they are still in a back-and-forth race with the Blues for the fourth playoff spot in the West. Very good story, a team that has probably overachieved, but even if they do get in it is really difficult to see them winning a best-of-seven in the first round against Colorado or Vegas.