Contenders and Pretenders in the NHL
The Tampa Bay Lightning are the best team in the league with guys lined up to be Hart, Vezina, and Norris trophy finalists. The Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs are also locks to make the playoffs with recent hot stretches as Boston has had the best record in the league in 2018. Both these teams are contenders likely to face each other in the first round of the playoffs.
The rest of the division includes disappointing seasons from the Montreal Canadiens and the Ottawa Senators, who both made the playoffs last year. They have fallen off a cliff and their priorities have shifted to the draft and possibly trading away some big pieces. The Florida Panthers have had injury problems and management ideology conflicts to prevent them from sniffing the playoffs. The Detroit Red Wings and the Buffalo Sabres both had bleak outlooks for the season and have lived up to that low billing so far.
This is easily the toughest division in the league with pretty much all teams having a legitimate shot at the playoffs not so long ago. The Washington Capitals are leading the division and are on their way to another playoff series as strong contenders. The Pittsburgh Penguins can be considered contenders because they are always flying high.
The other sIx teams in the division are separated by just seven points. It’s hard to rule out any team but the New York Rangers are last and sliding. They seem to be committed to a rebuild despite being just two points out of a playoff spot.
The New Jersey Devils are 4th in the division but they are falling fast. The Devils have the worst record in the league since the new year and I believe they are truly pretenders.
The New York Islanders are 7th in the division and have the worst goal differential in the division. Despite an elite offense, their defense and goaltending relegate them to being pretenders.
The Columbus Blue Jackets have played very poorly in the past month but with their balanced lineup and star goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, they look like they still are a formidable contender.
The Philadelphia Flyers have surprised many as they have the 3rd best record in 2018 and have won four straight games since the Eagles won the Super Bowl. They could very well make the playoffs but the goaltending just isn’t strong enough for me to label them as contenders.
The Carolina Hurricanes are the most intriguing team in that division. They have a young, skilled core on offense and defense with terrible goaltending holding them back. Much like the Flyers, they are on the bubble but I just can’t see them getting it done.
The strongest division in the West has had some surprising developments. The only team out of the hunt is the Chicago Blackhawks. Getting three cups in nine years is something all other fanbases would dream of, but now the heavy contracts are taking their toll on the team, along with the Crawford injury.
The Nashville Predators are on a mission to get back to the Final and come home with the glory this year. The Preds have the best chance in the West.
The Winnipeg Jets have the best record among Canadian teams, which is a little shocking but they’ve always had a potent offense and stable defense. Connor Hellebuyck has taken the next step to lead the Jets into high end contention.
The St. Louis Blues have another balanced team with the added kick of Carter Hutton holding the league’s best stats for Goals Against Average and Save Percentage despite just being the backup. They’ve had experience on the big stage and are poised to take the next step as contenders this year.
The Dallas Stars have done their work on offense but the key lies in if they can rely on Ben Bishop between the pipes. However, he has done well this season and the team is a contender.
The Minnesota Wild have taken a step back this year and despite having the 2nd best home record in the league, their road play has been abysmal and prevents them from being contenders.
The Colorado Avalanche are two points out of a playoff spot, which is completely unexpected given their rebuild status, but their young firepower has propelled them into the hunt. Their leader Nathan MacKinnon will be back soon but I believe that this team just isn’t ready yet and a poor road record reflects that.
A lot of surprises this year but none bigger than the Vegas Golden Knights. They have the best record in the west and rank in the top 10 for goals scored and against. I don’t think they match up well against the Central teams, but it’s hard to argue that they can dominate their division winning 13 of 15 games against Pacific opponents.
The San Jose Sharks have been the 4th best team in the league since January 1st and with their stable, albeit aging core, they are determined to push through their division as contenders.
The Calgary Flames have two great lines, arguably the best top 4 defense core and resurgent goaltending from Mike Smith but they are still on the brink of making the playoffs. I have the Flames as a contender but they need to do better than .500 in home games.
The LA Kings have done well defensively, but offensive issues are holding them back from taking over the division. It’s not wise to rule out this clutch team but this year, they seem like pretenders. The Anaheim Ducks window appears to have closed. The veteran forward group is getting older and slower and the high number of loser points has hurt them in the standings to the point of them being pretenders.
The Edmonton Oilers must be the most disappointing team this year as they have fallen back to draft lottery hopes despite having the best player in the league in Connor McDavid. The Vancouver Canucks and the Arizona Coyotes are meeting their expectations of basement level teams hoping for a high draft pick to aid their rebuilds.