2017-18 NHL Contenders & Pretenders

The NHL hockey season can’t get here soon enough.

With the calendar ready to turn to August, we thought this would be a good time to have some fun and friendly debate. There’s plenty of offseason left for teams to make other moves. But we for the most part know what teams will look like come the start of the regular season.

This begs the question, is your team a true contender for 2017-18? We don’t care about future seasons or your level of optimism in 5-10 years. All we care about is this season. If futures interest you, check out our recent 1-31 rankings of best farm teams.

Is your team ready to make a serious run at a Stanley Cup now?

Pittsburgh Penguins pose for a group photo with the Stanley Cup. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)

I’ve broken the 31 NHL teams down into four categories for this exercise. They are as follows: Plan for the Lottery, On the Outside Looking In, On the Verge and True Stanley Cup Contenders. Let me take a minute to define what each of these mean here.

Plan for the Lottery is just that. These are teams who despite their level of optimism for the future, things are looking rough for 2017-18. They could have a shot at landing a top pick in a loaded 2018 draft. Six teams made this list.

On the Outside Looking In are teams that could make the playoffs if things go right, but ultimately fall short. These could be young teams who made strides who fell short or older teams that ran out of gas towards the end of the season. Nine teams made this list.

On the Verge are teams that make the playoffs, but get bounced in the first round. These are teams that could win a round, but have something missing that keeps them from being a true contender. Eight teams made this list.

True Contenders are those that not only win a round in the playoffs, but have real dreams of winning a Cup this season. The other eight teams fall into this category.

You’ll notice the teams in the top-two categories are how I feel the conferences end up. As it turns out, there are five Central teams, three Pacific teams, four Metropolitan teams and four Atlantic teams that make up the playoff teams. You have to make the playoffs to win the Cup.

As it turns out in many cases, teams are closely separated. It would not surprise me if two or three teams in the On the Outside Looking In category make the playoffs bumping some of the On the Verge teams out. You can’t predict certain variables such as injuries etc.

One final disclaimer. I am like you. I haven’t the slightest idea how the season will turn out. This is meant to spark a discussion in a fun way. If I put your team out of the playoffs, it means I hate them and want to see them fail (not really.) With that said, let’s have some fun.

Plan for the NHL Lottery

Arizona Coyotes

The hockey in the desert will soon be among the most entertaining in the league. But for this coming season, the Coyotes will have many growing pains mixed in with some fun moments. Even if everything goes right this season, it’s hard to see the Coyotes anywhere in the top of their division. Stay patient Coyotes fans. You’ll add a top talent in the lottery next season.

The Arizona Coyotes are still a year or two away from being a playoff contender. (Matt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports)

Colorado Avalanche

You have to feel for the Avalanche after their dismal season and having to pick fourth in the draft. Plus they have the Matt Duchene thing to possibly deal with. You have to like some of their up and coming talent (Mikko Rantanen, Tyson Jost, Cale Makar.) But it seems another long season is ahead in the Rockies.

Detroit Red Wings

Last season was the Red Wings’ first season out of the playoffs in a long time. Who knows when they’ll return. Although they have some nice pieces (Tatar, Larkin, Athanasiou, Mantha), I expect much of the same this season even in their new building. If they get more from their defense and goaltending, maybe they threaten for a playoff spot. I just don’t see it though.

Vancouver Canucks

I like where the Canucks are going, just not this season. With questions in-goal and on defense, the Canucks seem primed to finish in the bottom half of their conference. A tandem of Bo Horvat and Elias Pettersson looks good in later years. I’m also excited to watch Brock Boeser play an expanded role. Other than that, it could be a long season in British Columbia.

The Canucks are in for a long season, but Brock Boeser will be fun to watch. (Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports)

New Jersey Devils

Landing Nico Hischier absolutely helps the Devils on their road back to respectability. Their forward core looks nice for the future. But for this season, things aren’t looking up. Considering who else is in the division, not sure they can jump over that many teams given where they’re at as a franchise. Buy the Devils long-term outlook, but sell this season.

Vegas Golden Knights

The Golden Knights had a great draft. But their outlook this season appears to lean towards 31st overall and the best chance at the top pick in 2018. Marc-Andre Fleury will win some games, but not enough to keep them from the basement. It will only go up from here after this season.

On the Outside Looking In

Buffalo Sabres

The Sabres are much improved and are on the verge of breaking down the playoff door. I just think they’re one season away from that. I don’t think the goaltending is strong enough to finish in the top-16. The Sabres will be exciting to watch and will compete for the playoffs. I think they fall a few points short in the end.

Robin Lehner, Buffalo Sabres, NHL
Can Robin Lehner help get the Sabres into the playoffs? (Mandatory Credit: Peter Llewellyn-USA TODAY Sports)

Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes are the most improved team in the Eastern Conference. If I had to pick a darkhorse to make the playoffs, it’s Carolina. I think they’re a top-six forward short of breaking down the playoff door. Give it another year or two and we’ll start to see the Hurricanes in the playoff conversation year in and year out.

Boston Bruins

This one was hard for me. The Bruins made the playoffs last season before getting knocked out by Ottawa. When you look at the team, they have good pieces in place. Tuukka Rask is great in net. Brandon Carlo and Charlie McAvoy are promising defenders. David Pastrnak is a rising star. But the rest of their core is aging. I admit this pick could bite me later. When it’s said and done, I think the Bruins are the first team out of the playoffs in the East.

Winnipeg Jets

I’m just not quite sold on the defense in Winnipeg. There are stars on this team (Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers) The Jets will have great moments and stay in the race most of the season. Steve Mason is a nice upgrade in-goal from what they had. They’re close. I just think they fall a little short.

The Jets are close. Can they get over the playoff hump? (Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports)

Philadelphia Flyers

This team will be scary good starting in 2-3 years. This is the last season I’ll put the Flyers out of the playoffs preseason. They’re close. Their prospects are among the best in hockey. But that’s just it. They’re young and still learning the NHL game. While they’ll make tremendous strides this season, I think they fall a few points short of a wildcard. If Brian Elliott returns to St. Louis form, the Flyers could make the playoffs. I don’t see it happening though.

New York Islanders

They did add Jordan Eberle which will help. Matthew Barzal could make this roster and give them a boost. That said, I still think the Islanders fall short of the playoffs. The Metro Division is no joke. Losing Travis Hamonic does hurt the defense. The Islanders need everything to go right to make the playoffs. They’ll make it interesting, but just miss out. Will it be enough to keep John Tavares around? Personally, I think he stays, but we’ll see.

LA Kings

This one could bite me too. The Kings have nice pieces all over (Anze Kopitar, Jeff Carter, Drew Doughty, Jonathan Quick.) But combine that with an aging roster in spots (see Gaborik, Marian) and their youth. I just think there are better teams in the West than the Kings. This could look like a silly pick in April, but that depends on the health of Quick among other things.

Jonathan Quick
Will Jonathan Quick help the Kings return to the playoffs? (Photo By: Andy Martin Jr)

Calgary Flames

Someone had to miss out. This is probably my least confident pick of all in this exercise. But I’m just not sure Mike Smith is the answer over 82 games. If he plays well, the other pieces are there. The last spot for me came down to Calgary and Dallas. The Flames are the first team out of the West playoffs. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Flames did make it. If they make a move to bolster themselves by the deadline, then this is a silly pick. I just like Dallas’ upside better.

Florida Panthers

Man this is not easy. The Panthers are primed to crash the playoff party. They’re healthy and are ready to make a run. Again somebody has to miss. I just like the situations of the eight playoff teams a little better. I love the forwards. I love Aaron Ekblad. I just think they fall a little short in the end. Like many of the other picks before, this could look silly.

On the Verge

Ottawa Senators

What a run the Senators had last season. It took double overtime of game seven to finally knock them out. Can they repeat that performance? Hard to say. But with Erik Karlsson leading the way, this team should be good enough to make the playoffs. How Craig Anderson does will decide how far they go.

Craig Anderson and Erik Karlsson led the Senators to the Conference Finals last season. Can they do it again? (Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports)

Minnesota Wild

Many expected the Wild to get out of the first round last season. Nope. They’re good enough to get to the playoffs, but did they get any better this offseason? I’m not so sure about that. As long as Devan Dubnyk stops pucks and Ryan Suter is there leading the defense, the Wild should have no issues getting to the playoffs. Getting to round two and beyond might be a challenge though. Getting Tyler Ennis and Marcus Foligno helps up front. But Marco Scandella is a big loss. If the Wild want to go far, their core must step up.

Columbus Blue Jackets

The Blue Jackets are on the rise, but another fourth-overall finish is hard for me to fathom. They lost William Karlsson, Brandon Saad and Scott Hartnell while gaining Artemi Panarin and Tyler Motte. They have cap space and could make some improvements, but if this is the team they go into the season with, playoffs are a real possibility but beyond that is up in the air. Sergei Bobrovsky holds those cards. It’ll help if they avoid the Penguins early in the playoffs.

Dallas Stars

The Stars had the best offseason of anyone in my sight. Ben Bishop patrols the net. They added Alexander Radulov to boost the offense and power play. They added Martin Hanzal for much-needed center depth. They also got better on defense by adding Marc Methot. Radek Faksa is primed for a huge breakout season. The pieces are there for the Stars to return to the playoffs. I think they do it.

Stanley Cup Contenders
Can Ben Bishop lead the Dallas Stars back to the playoffs? (Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports)

New York Rangers

I almost put the Rangers on the outside looking in. But I like where they’re at even despite some of their losses. Adding Kevin Shattenkirk to the power play will only help. Although losing Derek Stepan hurts, others should step up like Pavel Buchnevich, J.T. Miller, Mika Zibanejad and Kevin Hayes. Adding Brendan Smith was a sneaky good pickup to add depth to their defense. Brady Skjei is the real deal. Henrik Lundqvist can still get the Rangers to the playoffs. I’m expecting another fourth in the Metro finish putting them in a wildcard spot.

Toronto Maple Leafs

What’s not to love about the Maple Leafs? Does it get any better than Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and William Nylander for young studs? How about adding Patrick Marleau? This team is legit but they do have questions. Is Fredrik Andersen good enough to carry this team in the playoffs? Is this defense good enough to contend now? Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner are good defenders. Their playoff success will decide how far the Leafs can go. After this season, it only goes up for them.

San José Sharks

Despite losing Marleau, the Sharks are still a playoff team. How far they go depends on how their youngsters do. Can the likes of Melker Karlsson, Joonas Donskoi and Tomas Hertl offset the loss of Marleau? With the likes of Joe Pavelski, Logan Couture, Joe Thornton, Brent Burns and Martin Jones around, I feel safe in saying the Sharks will be just fine.

Joe Pavelski Sharks
As long as Joe Pavelski and company are around, the San Jose Sharks should return to the playoffs. (John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports)

St. Louis Blues

Don’t forget that the Blues got to the second round last season before losing a tough series to the Nashville Predators. This is a team on the rise, especially after the draft. Klim Kostin could make this roster and immediately boost the offense. He has fellow countryman Vladimir Tarasenko to mentor him. Colton Parayko is a superstar in the making. Robby Fabbri should be back from his brutal leg injury. This is a playoff team.

True Contenders

Anaheim Ducks

The Ducks’ window is still open. Their core of Corey Perry, Ryan Getzlaf, Ryan Kesler, Rickard Rakell and Patrick Eaves are under contract together for three more seasons. Jakob Silfverberg has two years left. Couple that with their defense led by Hampus Lindholm, Sami Vatanen and Cam Fowler and goaltending led by John Gibson. This is as complete a team as there is in the league. They must be considered a contender for the Stanley Cup.

Can John Gibson get the Ducks to a Cup Final? (Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Chicago Blackhawks

The band is back together, somewhat. Both Brandon Saad and Patrick Sharp return to Chicago in the hopes of rekindling some magic. Any team that has Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane could go far in the playoffs. If the Blackhawks hope to get back to the promised land, they must find their offense that left them in the Nashville series. Given their recent disappointment, I expect a huge turnaround for this team.

Edmonton Oilers

Connor McDavid. That simple. They took the Ducks to the verge last season before losing a tough game seven. There are questions the Oilers must answer, but any team that has the eventual best player in the world (once Crosby retires) is in the contender conversation. If the Oilers want to win a Cup, their defense and depth must answer the call. As is, they’re good enough to win a round or two.

Nashville Predators

This is my pick for the winner of the Stanley Cup this season. They’ll be healthy again with Kevin Fiala and Ryan Johansen back in the fold. They have the best group of defensemen in the league. Pekka Rinne regained his form last season. This team is on the verge of something special. Oh, and they also added Nick Bonino and Scott Hartnell to their depth chart. This is a scary good team.

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Pittsburgh Penguins

They have a legit shot at winning their third Cup in a row. That’s what happens when you have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on your team. Kris Letang will be back. Matt Murray has the net to himself. Until someone proves otherwise, the Penguins are the best in the East and could make some history in the process.

Montreal Canadiens

Montreal is absolutely in the contender conversation. Two words. Carey Price. Adding a sniper in Jonathan Drouin certainly helps. Having a full offseason of Claude Julien to help prepare them will do wonders. Adding Karl Alzner to the defense is a nice addition. I have them winning the Atlantic by just a hair over this next team.

Tampa Bay Lightning

Don’t look now, but the Lightning are healthy. Steven Stamkos will be back. Steve Yzerman did a masterful job in signing his core players within the cap. This is just a solid team that will make noise this season. I do think the Canadiens win the division, but the Lightning have a deep playoff run in them. That said, they must be in the Cup conversation.

He’s back! Can Steven Stamkos bring the Lightning back to the Final? (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Washington Capitals

This team got gutted during the offseason thanks to the cap. Marcus Johansson is gone. Karl Alzner is gone. Kevin Shattenkirk is gone. But a lot of the core is still there and good enough to win at least a playoff round. How much game does Ovechkin have left? Can players like T.J Oshie and André Burakovsky help offset their offseason losses? In my mind, as long as Braden Holtby is in the crease, the Capitals are a contender. But can they get past the second round?

There you have it, my list of contenders and pretenders. It’s time to hear from you. Which teams are true contenders in your mind? Which teams make the playoffs? Which ones are on the outside looking in? Which predictions are crazy in your opinion. Feel free to comment.

The one thing I think we can all agree upon, is it October yet?