Written by: Perry Lefko

Published: October 14, 2021

Who will win the Stanley Cup this year?

Because the divisions are returning to basically what they were after the COVID-19 related shift last year that included one division with exclusively Canadian-based teams, combined with some significant off-season player moves, it really is a guessing game.

Or is it?

The last franchise to win three in a row was the New York Islanders in their quad from 1980-83. There’s been many repeat winners since then, including Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017. Before that it was Detroit in 1997-98. Pittsburgh did the repeat in 1991-92.

But the salary cap and free agency has essentially made it difficult to keep players. The key to success has been drafting players and developing them and locking them into long-term contracts before they become unrestricted free agents or free agents.

Draftkings has the Colorado Avalanche at +500, followed by the Vegas Golden Knights at +600, Tampa at +700, Toronto +1200 and Boston at +1500.

Personally, I don’t get it. Tampa has won the last two Cups and have retained their core group of Steven Stamkos, Andrei Vasilevskiy, Victor Hedman, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov. There are also secondary players such as Ondrej Palat and Alex Killorn.

Yes, the Lightning have lost some players, but that was the case after losing in the finals in 2019 and the last two wins. They’ve done a great job of managing the salary cap, which in some respects helps that Florida does not have state taxes. The Lightning have also developed a winning culture.

The Lightning are also returning to the Atlantic Division after they were shifted to the Central Division last season because of COVID. The main contenders, in my opinion, in the Atlantic are Florida, Toronto and Boston.

Toronto has budgeted four players at $40-plus million of the $82.5 million cap on John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander. The fact the Leafs have failed to make it beyond the first round of the playoffs four of the past five season has been an issue that has been well documented. If they don’t show considerable progress, it could result in GM Kyle Dubas losing his job. He’s been the GM since 2018 and has tied his future to the Big Four.

I think Florida has tremendous value at +2400. This is an organization that has been gradually improving under coach Joel Quenneville, who signed a long-term deal two years ago after a long and successful run with Chicago. The Panthers’ roster includes star players such as forwards Alexander Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Sam Reinhart, defenceman Aaron Ekblad and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky, who has been underwhelming since joining the team as a free agent in 2019 with a seven-year contract and an average annual value of $9.5 million.  

And what about Edmonton at +2600? The Oilers are another team that has not performed to their star capability with studs Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. They’ve made two solid additions in defenceman Duncan Keith and forward Zach Hyman. Darnell Nurse is one of the best young defenceman in the league. The Oilers issue continues to be goaltending. Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith. Koskinen has had an average goals-against average of .907 the last three years, including .899 last year. He has won 56 of 110 games he has started. Smith has won 40 of 67 games he has started in two years with the Oilers. He has an average GAA of almost .913. The Oilers play firewagon hockey, but they need better goaltending. Maybe a player such as Keith, acquired from Chicago, can add his Cup-winning pedigree, but he is nearing age 40 and has played a lot of hard minutes in his career. Hyman will add the grit he showed with Toronto and is capable of playing with McDavid.

The Avalanche won the Presidents’ Trophy last year registering the most points in the league, but lost to Las Vegas in six games in the second round. But that may work in their favour. It might be an ounce of reality the team needs. I would rank the Avs’ talent on par with Tampa, with forwards such as Nathan McKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog. I think their defencemen overall are the best in the league, led by Norris Trophy winner Cale Makar, Samuel Girard and Devon Toews, though he will miss some time to start the season with off-season surgery. Look for former Canadian junior star Bowen Byram to be a good addition in his first full season.

In net, Pavel Francouz and Darcy Kuemper are a solid pair, either one capable of starting. Francouz stepped it up to years ago in his first full season, winning 21 of 31 games he started, but missed all of last season with a lower body injury. But the Avalanche thought enough of the duo to let number one Philip Grubauer go to free agency. He signed a six-year deal with the Seattle Kraken. Essentially, the Avs did not have enough money to keep Grubauer because of cap concerns. He won 30 of 40 regular-season games and had a .922 GAA and was a Vezina Trophy finalist. He won six of 10 games in the playoffs and .914 GAA.

I think a good long shot play at +6500 is the Chicago Blackhawks. Captain Jonathan Toews is back after missing all of last season with an undisclosed ailment. That is a huge plus, almost like having a free agent. Along with Patrick Kane and Alex Debrincat they have a decent forward group. On defence they added key players, notably brothers Caleb Jones and Seth Jones. Perhaps their biggest addition was Marc-Andre Fleury, acquired in a trade from Vegas. He has a year left on his contract, and after considering retirement he decided to join the Hawks. He is still at the top of his game, having won 26 of 36 starts last year and posting a .928 GAA. He won nine of 16 games and had a .918 GAA. and the only reason he was traded was because he had a cap hit of $7 million and the Golden Knights felt they had a quality starting goaltender in Robin Lehner. He won 13 of 19 starts last year and had a .913 GAA. He played in only three playoff games, posting a 1-2 record and 3.62 GAA.

October 14, 2021 — Julia Burcar

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