Top 5 Stanley Cup Contenders Through Halfway Point of 2021-22 Season

It is hard to believe, but we are already almost at the halfway point of the 2021-22 season. There has been plenty of action thus far, from highlight-reel goals, saves, hits, and much more. Some rosters are different via trades, and some players are having breakout campaigns while others are caught in slumps.

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While there is still plenty of hockey to be played, the truly elite teams are beginning to establish themselves and look a step above the rest of the league at this current time. Of course, injuries and other factors can come into effect and change things through the remainder of the season, but as of now, here are the top five Stanley Cup contenders in the NHL.

Tampa Bay Lightning

It is impossible not to include the Tampa Bay Lightning on this list, a team that could very well become the first team since the New York Islanders back in the early 80s to win three straight Stanley Cups (the Isles won 4).

Tampa Bay Lightning 2021 Stanley Cup Champions
Tampa Bay Lightning, 2021 Stanley Cup Champions (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

Despite being without Nikita Kucherov and Brayden Point for a stretch of this season, the Lightning were able to continue racking up wins, proving just how great their depth is, along with their other superstar talents in Steven Stamkos, Victor Hedman and Andrei Vasilevskiy. Now that they have both Kucherov and Point back, they will be downright scary for opposing teams for the remainder of 2021-22.

The one concern with this group will be the number of miles on them, given that they have played more hockey than any other team over the past few seasons. The good news, however, is that their best player in Kucherov is well-rested and has the ability to singlehandedly win games. This is a truly incredible roster put together by former general manager (GM) Steve Yzerman as well as the current GM in Julien BriseBois.

Carolina Hurricanes

After letting Dougie Hamilton walk in free agency, as well as trading goaltender Alex Nedeljkovic to the Detroit Red Wings, many questioned the direction the Carolina Hurricanes were heading and whether or not they would be as good of a team as they had been over the previous few seasons.

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Fast forward to where we are now, and they appear to not only be as good of a team but an even better one. They took a gamble with their goaltending, choosing to sign both Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta, and so far, that has been a great decision. Andersen is currently in the hunt for the Vezina Trophy, while Raanta has been able to stay healthy and has performed well in a backup role.

Up front, they have several solid offensive producers, all while having arguably the best blue line in the league. As good as management’s decision to switch things up between the pipes looks, choosing to let Hamilton walk and replace him with a much cheaper Tony DeAngelo may have been their best move of the offseason. This team won’t be an easy out for anyone who comes across them in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Vegas Golden Knights

It took the Vegas Golden Knights some time to get going this season, but it appears they are on the right track as of late as they find themselves sitting first in the Pacific Division. There are still some question marks surrounding this team, particularly between the pipes, as Robin Lehner has been very inconsistent thus far.

While their play to this point of the season may not have earned them a top-five contender status, what elevates them to exactly that is the fact that they will improve in a major way come February. For those unaware, forward Jack Eichel, who they acquired from the Buffalo Sabres earlier this season, is expected to return at some point next month. Assuming he is able to regain his elite form, the Golden Knights will have an incredible one-two punch at the center position with him and Chandler Stephenson.

Evgenii Dadonov Mattias Janmark Nicolas Roy Vegas Golden Knights
Evgenii Dadonov, Mattias Janmark, and Nicolas Roy of the Vegas Golden Knights celebrate a goal (Jess Starr/The Hockey Writers)

Of course, adding Eichel’s $10 million cap hit off of long-term injured reserve will mean the Golden Knights will have to move a player from their current roster, with the most likely option being Reilly Smith. Losing his great two-way play isn’t ideal, but it is worth it to add a player with Eichel’s talent. Assuming they are fully healthy come the playoffs, they stand as good of a chance as any to hoist the Cup this year.

Colorado Avalanche

Much like the Golden Knights, the Colorado Avalanche struggled early on this season due to injuries and inconsistent play in net from Darcy Kuemper. However, the 30-year-old netminder has picked things up as of late, and his team is beginning to get back to full health, which is a big reason why they have gone 8-1-1 over their last 10 games.

Heading into the 2021-22 season, many viewed this Avalanche roster as the number one Cup contender in the entire league, and for good reason. They possess two of the game’s best stars up front in Nathan MacKinnon, who is currently on a 13 game point streak, and Mikko Rantanen. On the back end, they have arguably the best defenceman in the entire game in Cale Makar. However, one player who could be the X factor for this team come playoff time is Nazem Kadri.

Everyone is aware that Kadri has a reputation in the postseason. The 31-year-old has had a tough time staying disciplined in years past and has had many costly suspensions for both the Avalanche and the Toronto Maple Leafs. This season, however, he appears to have changed his ways and is having by far the best offensive season of his career with a team-leading 42 points in just 27 games. If he is able to produce anywhere close to that level in the playoffs, there’s an argument that this team is the league’s number one Cup contender.

Washington Capitals

For a long time during the Alex Ovechkin era, this Washington Capitals team was one that nobody took seriously come the playoffs due to the fact they were constantly getting eliminated in the early rounds despite great regular-season success. That all changed when they were able to win it all in 2018, and given their start to the 2021-22 season, they stand a good chance at doing so once again.

The Capitals’ success this season is impressive on its own, but even more so given the fact that Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Anthony Mantha have played very little due to injuries. The big reason for their great start to the 2021-22 campaign is the play of Ovechkin, who has a ridiculous 24 goals and 50 points in just 34 games. If he is able to continue at his torrid play come the postseason, and his supporting cast in players like Evgeny Kuznetsov, John Carlson and Tom Wilson are able to continue doing what they’ve done to this point, this team, like the others on this list, will be very dangerous.

Head coach Peter Laviolette, Washington Capitals
Head coach Peter Laviolette, Washington Capitals (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

The one concern for this team, and one that almost left them off this list, is their goaltending. Both Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek have been inconsistent this season, and neither has taken over the number one role. The hope is that one can elevate their play prior to the playoffs beginning. But with the way Ovechkin is scoring right now, it may not be as big an issue as some think.

Contenders Not Always a Sure Thing

While the five teams above will be heavy favorites come playoff time, we have seen on many occasions in the past that the team who wins it all isn’t always viewed as a contender. The most recent example of that would be the St. Louis Blues, who won the Cup in 2019 despite being at the bottom of the standings at this point during the 2018-19 season. With that said, if you’re placing bets, you’d be wise to go with one of the five on this list.

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