NHL Power Rankings: B/R Experts' Preseason Poll

Jonathan Willis@jonathanwillisNHL National ColumnistOctober 10, 2016

NHL Power Rankings: B/R Experts' Preseason Poll

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    Let’s be honest about something right off the bat: Hockey is unpredictable.

    That’s mostly a good thing, because if it weren't, there wouldn’t be much point in watching the games. But it also means that lists like this one need to be sprinkled with a healthy dose of humility, because it’s a virtual certainty that at least one or two teams are going to defy any attempt at prediction.

    Even so, this sort of exercise can be useful, because it provides a benchmark of expectation entering the season. More importantly, it’s a lot of fun putting the ranking together and even more fun arguing about who is overrating or underrating which team. 

    That takes me to the contributors to this list, which represents the consensus view of a panel of B/R hockey writers. Adrian Dater, Steve Macfarlane, Allan Mitchell, Lyle Richardson, Carol Schram and yours truly all took the time to go through the league and rank teams based on our perception of their various strengths.

    With that out of the way, let’s get to the fun stuff: The NHL’s 30 teams, ranked from lowest in our expectations to highest.

       

    Statistics courtesy of Hockey-Reference.com and Stats.HockeyAnalysis.com

30-26: Vancouver Canucks-Colorado Avalanche

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    30. Vancouver Canucks (2015-16 record: 31-38-13, sixth in the Pacific)

    The Canucks suffer from being a franchise in transition. The team isn’t rebuilding, as it has two solid goaltenders and an old but still effective top line. Yet, at the same time, there’s clearly an effort underway to transfer responsibility from the shoulders of Daniel and Henrik Sedin and Alex Edler over to Bo Horvat, Chris Tanev and the rest of the emerging pack.

    For what it’s worth, teams that finish at the bottom of the league generally need to have some sort of goaltending implosion. Ryan Miller and Jacob Markstrom covered for a lot of other sins last season and are likely to do so again in 2016-17.

    29. Arizona Coyotes (2015-16 record: 35-39-8, fourth in the Pacific)

    The Coyotes are a hard team to gauge, both because of the changes the club made in the offseason and the degree to which progressing youth is going to drive results for the franchise. Alex Goligoski was a big addition on the blue line, Jamie McGinn should help up front and Radim Vrbata is a contender to have the best value contract in the league this season ($1 million).

    Nevertheless, the real question for Arizona is how quickly Dave Tippett can bring along Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Tobias Rieder, Dylan Strome and the rest. The Coyotes have long been an impeccably disciplined team chronically lacking in firepower, but if those kids take steps forward, the team may surprise.

    28. Toronto Maple Leafs (2015-16 record: 29-42-11, eighth in the Atlantic)

    The Maple Leafs are going to be a fascinating team to watch. The club started to turn things over to its formidable group of prospects late last season, and that process is going to accelerate this season. First overall selection Auston Matthews is going to be in the spotlight, but it would be a mistake to overlook the club’s other young stars, starting with William Nylander and working on down the list.

    Another big difference will come in net. Last year’s tandem is gone, replaced by proven starter Frederik Andersen and underrated backup Jhonas Enroth, who was one of the cagier signings of the offseason.  

    27. Ottawa Senators (2015-16 record: 38-35-9, fifth in the Atlantic)

    Ottawa is pegged for a significant drop in the standings in our group consensus, and this was done despite some positive indicators on the roster. The Sens lean heavily on a group of players in their early to mid-20s, and it is almost entirely back.

    New coach Guy Boucher has a strong resume, and while things in Tampa Bay ended poorly with the Lightning, he got spectacular results in his first year with the Bolts. The goaltending is solid, and blueliner Erik Karlsson remains the pre-eminent offensive defenceman in the NHL today.

    26. Colorado Avalanche (2015-16 record: 39-39-4, sixth in the Central)

    As with the Senators, our panel is predicting a pretty significant drop-off for the Avs, placing them seven spots lower overall than their finish last season. In my view, this ranking should mostly be regarded as a reflection of how competitive things are even at the bottom of the league these days.

    Colorado has to deal with uncertainty, but there are bright spots. The majority of the team’s core is still young and improving, new head coach Jared Bednar guided the Lake Erie Monsters to an AHL title last season and the goaltending duo of Semyon Varlamov and Calvin Pickard is an enviable one.

25-21: Buffalo Sabres-Calgary Flames

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    25. Buffalo Sabres (2015-16 record: 35-36-11, seventh in the Atlantic)

    The Sabres were one of the most improved teams in hockey last year, going from an NHL-worst 54 points in 2014-15 up to 81 in 2015-16. The change in the club’s goal differential was even more remarkable, as Buffalo scored an additional 40 goals and cut its goals-against total by 52.

    It doesn’t need to make up that kind of ground this year to make the playoffs. Growth from incumbents such as Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart, along with contributions from newcomers Kyle Okposo and Dmitry Kulikov, may be enough to bridge the small remaining gap between the Sabres and the postseason.

    24. Columbus Blue Jackets (2015-16 record: 34-40-8, eighth in the Metropolitan)

    Sportswriters like teams that have a clear identity, because that makes it easy to speak in generalities. The Blue Jackets are not one of those teams; they defy pigeon-holing.

    The head coach, John Tortorella, is a colourful and divisive figure. He oversees a roster that is an odd mix of fading veterans with no-move clauses and fresh faces still finding their way in the league. The whole group is backstopped by a starting goaltender (Sergei Bobrovsky) who could win the Vezina or spend most of the season on injured reserve.

    The Jackets could draft first overall, make the playoffs or finish anywhere in between. The only certainty is that their progress this season will be fascinating to watch.

    23. Edmonton Oilers (2015-16 record: 31-43-8, seventh in the Pacific)

    The eternally rebuilding Edmonton Oilers have, once again, reason for optimism. Connor McDavid should be exceptional. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Oscar Klefbom should be healthy. Adam Larsson gives the defence an element it hasn’t had in at least a half-decade. Cam Talbot is the team’s first returning starting goalie since Devan Dubnyk, while Todd McLellan has a chance to be the first Oilers bench boss to coach two full consecutive seasons since the team canned Tom Renney in 2012.

    On the other hand, the never-ending nature of the rebuild lends itself to cynicism. The back end, starting at the blue line and encompassing the goaltending, is shallow; one or two serious injuries could blow massive holes in the team’s roster. Taylor Hall is gone, and for all the flash of Edmonton’s young guns, this roster has struggled to score.

    22. Winnipeg Jets (2015-16 record: 35-39-8, seventh in the Central)

    It’s difficult to know how optimistic to be about the Jets, a reasonably deep NHL team with a strong group of young players pushing its way onto the roster and up the depth chart. Mark Scheifele proved last season he is able to take on first-line centre duties, and forwards such as Nikolaj Ehlers, Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor all figure to play some sort of role this season.

    Yet there’s also uncertainty. The team’s three-headed goaltending monster is of dubious ability, the left side of the defence is a weak point and if the team doesn’t either sign or trade Jacob Trouba, it’s likely to pay a price on the ice. We’ve opted here for modest improvement.

    21. Calgary Flames (2015-16 record: 35-40-7, fifth in the Pacific)

    Calgary enters 2016-17 with something it didn’t have last season: strong goaltending. Brian Elliott and Chad Johnson are both coming off strong seasons, and either would likely be an upgrade over last year’s mess. The team hasn’t made a lot of changes to an already strong defence and opted only to tinker with a forward corps that will be relying on youth to drive most of its improvements.

    New head coach Glen Gulutzan is still mostly unproven at the NHL level, which could hurt Calgary's playoff push. 

20-16: New Jersey Devils-Minnesota Wild

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    20. New Jersey Devils (2015-16 record: 38-36-8, seventh in the Metropolitan)

    The Devils were at the centre of one of the biggest trades of the summer, and while it hurt to lose Adam Larsson, in Taylor Hall they brought in exactly what the team needed: a creative, puck-possession forward who can drive results at even strength. New Jersey has a strong top six and a bunch of decent mid-20s forwards for the first time in a while.

    The loss of Larsson will undermine the defence to some degree, but Andy Greene continues to be the NHL’s most underrated rearguard, and Cory Schneider is one of the five best goaltenders in hockey, so it’s hard to call this a "weakness." John Hynes had a fantastic head coaching debut, and this team should make progress this season.

    19. Carolina Hurricanes (2015-16 record: 35-31-16, sixth in the Metropolitan)

    Optimistically, the Hurricanes could be better this season. The team had excellent shot metrics last year and has what might be the best collection of young defensive talent in the league. Youth is also featured up front, where with the exception of a handful of veterans, the team is going to rely extensively on its young talent.

    Pessimistically, though, Carolina has lottery potential. The club underperformed in no small part because of its lack of finishers and its iffy goaltending tandem. The questionable goaltending is back for a return engagement, and outside of Jeff Skinner, it isn’t clear where the scoring is going to come from. 

    18. Detroit Red Wings (2015-16 record: 41-30-11, third in the Atlantic)

    Red Wings fans who are sick of hearing about the team’s 25 consecutive playoff appearances may as well tune out this season, because it looks like the club is going to be on the playoff bubble once again.

    The loss of Pavel Datsyuk is going to hurt more than one might think, too; Detroit was 16 shot attempts better per hour when he was on the ice than it was when he wasn’t. Frans Nielsen and Dylan Larkin are good players, but those are big shoes to fill.

    17. Boston Bruins (2015-16 record: 42-31-9, fourth in the Atlantic)

    For a team with an older core that spent last season on the playoff bubble, the Bruins were surprisingly passive this summer. They brought in David Backes while losing Loui Eriksson, upgraded the backup goaltender position and failed to do much of significance to address a blue line that leans far too heavily on Zdeno Chara’s broad but 39-year-old shoulders.

    Tuukka Rask’s save percentage will probably trend up, and in most years, a team with last season’s plus-10 goal differential would have made the playoffs, but even so, there isn’t a compelling reason to expect more from Boston’s roster. 

    16. Minnesota Wild (2015-16 record: 38-33-11, fifth in the Central)

    Last season was a disappointment for the Wild. Minnesota's upward trajectory stalled, its coach got fired and it failed to win a playoff round for the first time since 2013.

    General manager Chuck Fletcher didn’t take a hammer to the roster in the offseason, but he did hire the talented Bruce Boudreau to coach and also took a flyer on Eric Staal, who should be able to partially address the club’s lack of offence down the middle. Boudreau’s ability to get more out of what remains a fairly young roster is largely going to dictate whether the club moves up or down the standings this season.

15-11: Philadelphia Flyers-Los Angeles Kings

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    15. Philadelphia Flyers (2015-16 record: 41-27-14, fifth in the Metropolitan)

    General manager Ron Hextall has brilliantly managed the Flyers' transition from a fading team handcuffed by the salary cap to one that’s on its way up and has enough flexibility to operate. That transformation goes a long way toward explaining why the club took a minimalist approach to the offseason, adding a couple of depth pieces but mostly leaving the team’s fate in the hands of head coach Dave Hakstol and a talented roster almost entirely on the right side of 30.

    The team hit its stride in the back half of the season, and if it can play that way for the entirety of next season, it will outperform this projection.

    14. New York Rangers (2015-16 record: 46-27-9, third in the Metropolitan)

    After two deep playoff runs, last season’s embarrassing five-game exit at the hands of the Penguins was a massive disappointment. The question is whether it was a one-off or the beginning of the end for an always competitive Rangers team.

    Up front, there’s little reason to worry. With the exception of Rick Nash, the forward corps is young, and the team boasts a surplus of depth and skill. The trade of Derick Brassard for Mika Zibanejad merely underlined that truth. The back end is where the questions are. New York needs at least one of Marc Staal or Dan Girardi to rebound after awful campaigns, while Henrik Lundqvist must continue to play like a franchise goaltender.  

    13. New York Islanders (2015-16 record: 45-27-10, fourth in the Metropolitan)

    The Islanders made some advancement last season, winning a playoff round for the first time since 1993. However, there were also worrisome signs. The club finished one point off its total from 2014-15, and the changes this summer don’t inspire confidence. Andrew Ladd and PA Parenteau are solid players, but they aren’t likely to match the contribution of Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo.

    New York will have to look internally for noticeable improvement. The Islanders have a half-dozen forwards between the ages of 23 and 27, and if gains are to be made, they will need to be driven by those skaters. We’ll have to wait and see if it’s enough to offset this summer’s losses.

    12. Montreal Canadiens (2015-16 record: 38-38-6, sixth in the Atlantic)

    We expect Montreal to rebound in a big way this season, and there isn’t any question as to why. Perennial Hart Trophy candidate Carey Price played just 12 games last season, meaning that instead of a starter with a .934 save percentage, the Canadiens had to lean on Mike Condon (.904 save percentage). Price looked good in backstopping Canada to a World Cup win this fall, and with his return to the net, the Habs should be in decent shape.

    Price’s return isn’t the only change, but the nature of the others is less unambiguously positive. The Canadiens lost Lars Eller and P.K. Subban over the offseason while adding Andrew Shaw, Shea Weber and Alex Radulov, and it remains to be seen whether the former two are upgrades on their predecessors and how much the latter can contribute over an 82-game NHL season.

    11. Los Angeles Kings (2015-16 record: 48-28-6, second in the Pacific)

    In each of the last seven seasons, the Kings have either finished with between 95 and 102 points in the regular season or been on pace for that amount (as in 2012-13). There isn’t much reason to expect deviation from that pattern, as the core group is intact and, for the most part, still young enough that we don’t expect massive declines.

    General manager Dean Lombardi contented himself this summer with minor additions, and while the loss of Milan Lucic will hurt, he shouldn’t be irreplaceable. 

10. Anaheim Ducks

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    2015-16 record: 46-25-11, first in the Pacific

    Reason for excitement

    This is an established team with a long track record of success. For four straight years, the Ducks have won their division and pushed their playoff opponents to the brink, ultimately losing in seven games. A Game 7 loss to a conference rival isn’t a cry for help; it’s an indication the gap between good and great is narrow.

    With a formidable top nine up front and an up-and-coming defence corps, Anaheim only needs to be the tiniest bit better.

    Reason for worry

    The impasse between the Ducks and restricted free agent Hampus Lindholm is a problem. He’s easily the club’s best defenceman, and despite Anaheim’s depth on the blue line, he’ll be missed if he isn’t re-signed quickly. The age of the forward corps is concerning as well, with most of the team’s key players up front well into the back halves of their respective careers.

    Finally, there’s Randy Carlyle, who has won just one playoff round as head coach since the Ducks’ 2007 championship.

    Why they could win the Stanley Cup

    This is still mostly the same lineup that came within a win of knocking out the Chicago Blackhawks in the Western Conference Final in 2015. Assuming good health and a resolution to the Lindholm situation, Anaheim has the necessary talent at all positions to compete with anyone.

9. Nashville Predators

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    2015-16 record: 41-27-14, fourth in the Central

    Reason for excitement

    This was an awfully good team a year ago, and it got better when it acquired P.K. Subban from Montreal in exchange for Shea Weber. Few teams are going to be able to match Nashville’s top four on defence, particularly in terms of puck-moving ability. The acquisition of Ryan Johansen last season also gave the club a much-needed first-line centre; he should find things easier with a full camp with the team under his belt.

    Reason for worry

    It comes down to Pekka Rinne. Only once since 2012 has he had a healthy, effective season. His mid-round meltdown against Anaheim nearly cost the Predators in the first round last year, and his collapse in the final three games against San Jose guaranteed they wouldn’t advance. Running the untested Marek Mazanec as his backup only intensifies the problem.

    Why they could win the Stanley Cup

    This is a well-coached team with underrated talent up front and undeniable ability on the back end. If the goaltending holds up, the Predators could be as good as anybody in the league.

8. Dallas Stars

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    2015-16 record: 50-23-9, first in the Central

    Reason for excitement

    Oh, those forwards. Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn are as good a duo that exists on one line in the NHL today. Nominal second-line centre Jason Spezza scored 33 goals last season. Radek Faksa and Ales Hemsky found ridiculous chemistry when put together on the team’s third line at midseason. Those are just the highlights; the Stars are four lines deep, and the top three units are glorious.

    Reason for worry

    Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi. Neither goaltender seized the starting job last year, and both struggled in the Stars’ second-round exit against the Blues. Combine the uncertain goaltending with a somewhat green blue line, and Dallas should be exciting at both ends of the rink.

    Why they could win the Stanley Cup

    The Stars finished second in the NHL in points a year ago, so the talent is there. Give them better goaltending, and they win more than one playoff round, too. It all comes down to finding a goalie—either an incumbent or an external option—who can steal games for the team.

7. Florida Panthers

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    2015-16 record: 47-26-9, first in the Atlantic

    Reason for excitement

    Last season, for only the second time since 2000, the Panthers made the playoffs. The team’s ownership and management weren't content to rest on their laurels, either.

    The defence was completely reworked, with Keith Yandle, Jason Demers and Mark Pysyk added to the group, while the team brought in James Reimer in to support and eventually supplant Roberto Luongo. Those veteran additions are married to a young and improving roster, and the combination could be very good.

    Reason for worry

    Jaromir Jagr led last season’s team in scoring in his 40s, and a drop-off in performance feels somewhat inevitable, though with Jagr, one never knows. On the blue line, Florida will be replacing Brian Campbell, who is still a tremendous player and was a pillar for the team. It isn’t certain Yandle can fill the same role as competently. And, as always, young teams tend to trend upward in fits and starts, so linear growth cannot be assumed.

    Why they could win the Stanley Cup

    This feels like an ambitious goal for a team that hasn’t won a playoff round outside of 1996. The key argument in the Panthers’ favour is that 12 regulars are 25 years of age or younger, and collective improvement could push the franchise along further and faster than most expect.

6. St. Louis Blues

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    2015-16 record: 49-24-9, second in the Central

    Reason for excitement

    For better or worse, the Blues as we know them are changing. David Backes and Brian Elliott left over the summer, and Ken Hitchcock’s final season behind the bench coincides with the last year on the contract of Kevin Shattenkirk.

    In many ways, this is a transition year, as responsibilities are passed down the line to the next generation of St. Louis players. It’s a chance to celebrate the old, embrace the new and watch one of the NHL’s better teams in recent years reinvent itself.

    Reason for worry

    The Blues are a dependable regular-season team, and that probably won’t change this year. The one nagging worry is that this will be Jake Allen’s first season as a starter, and his safety net is career backup Carter Hutton. It’s unlikely, but goaltending could let this club down.

    Why they could win the Stanley Cup

    The next wave of players is awfully good. Combine creators such as Vladimir Tarasenko, Jaden Schwartz and Robby Fabbri with a core of mid-career veterans and a few remnants of the old guard such as Alex Steen, and this could be a deep, capable team.

5. San Jose Sharks

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    2015-16 record: 46-30-6, third in the Pacific

    Reason for excitement

    The Sharks have taken a lot of criticism over the years for not winning a Cup, but despite the lack of ultimate success, San Jose has been one of the league’s better teams for a long time.

    This, though, is likely to be the last hurrah for the team as currently constructed, with Joe Thornton, Patrick Marleau and Brent Burns all bound for free agency at the end of the year. That makes it a special season for Sharks fans—one last chance to appreciate this core and see it try to nab that elusive championship.

    Reason for worry

    Marleau and Thornton are 37. Joe Pavelski is 32, Joel Ward and Paul Martin are both 35, and Brent Burns is 31. The Sharks are relying heavily on old players, all of whom put on a lot of miles in the postseason last year. It’s reasonable to be concerned about a drop-off from one or more of them.

    Why they could win the Stanley Cup

    Last year’s run proved that there’s still some gas in the tank for this group. A team that can come within two games of winning the Cup doesn’t need to improve by much to take the title.

4. Chicago Blackhawks

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    2015-16 record: 47-26-9, third in the Central

    Reason for excitement

    For the Chicago Blackhawks, every year is a chance to win the Stanley Cup. Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane drive two of the best forward lines in the NHL. The Big Three on defence will be aided this year by the exceptional Brian Campbell, who signed a sweetheart deal for a shot at another Cup. Corey Crawford backstops the whole group.

    Reason for worry

    The Blackhawks are an older team, and cracks are starting to show. At five-on-five last season, the team’s shot metrics were a shadow of what they had been in years prior. Two years ago, Brent Seabrook had a 56 percent Fenwick rating; last season, it was just 47 percent. Chicago has been good at coming out of its occasional salary cap-induced downturns, but now it needs to do so again with many key players in their 30s.

    Why they could win the Stanley Cup

    This group has proved over and over and over again that it’s capable of winning everything, even after a (relatively) poor season or two. There’s no questioning the fundamental building blocks of this club.

3. Tampa Bay Lightning

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    2015-16 record: 46-31-5, second in the Atlantic

    Reason for excitement

    General manager Steve Yzerman has done a masterful job of retaining top talent, getting Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman re-signed on new contracts. That means the core of one of the NHL’s most talented young teams has been (mostly) locked up. The Lightning are knocking at the door of a championship, and with several key players still on the upswing of their careers, this may be the season the club makes it over the top.  

    Reason for worry

    The salary cap is starting to be a problem. Restricted free-agent Nikita Kucherov remains unsigned; he led the team in scoring last year. Starting goaltender Ben Bishop is a year away from free agency and seems certain to be replaced by the younger, cheaper Andrei Vasilevskiy in the near future. Yzerman is juggling well, but sacrifices are unavoidable.

    Why they could win the Stanley Cup

    In each of the last two seasons, the Lightning have lost in the playoffs to the eventual champion. They took Chicago to six games in the 2015 Cup Final and took Pittsburgh to seven contests in last year’s Eastern Final. As I wrote earlier, the gap between good and great is a small one, and that’s the last step Tampa Bay needs to take.

2. Pittsburgh Penguins

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    2015-16 record: 48-26-8, second in the Metropolitan

    Reason for excitement

    For the first time since 2009-10, the Penguins enter the season as Stanley Cup champions. A three-line approach up front with one of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel on every unit proved irresistible in the postseason, and all of those players are back. Few clubs have the ability to match the Pittsburgh attack or even hold it in check.

    Reason for worry

    Few teams in recent years have repeated as Stanley Cup champions. Randomness plays a bigger role in the outcome of games and series than most would like to acknowledge, and additionally, the wear and tear of playing four postseason rounds can be difficult to overcome in an abbreviated summer.

    Why they could win the Stanley Cup

    With Ben Lovejoy the biggest subtraction from the roster, this is essentially the same team as last year's. 

1. Washington Capitals

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    2015-16 record: 56-18-8, first in the Metropolitan

    Reason for excitement

    Just look at last season. The second-round series against the Penguins had the feel of a Stanley Cup Final, and it may have been the most challenging series Pittsburgh played on its road to the Cup.

    At all positions the Capitals excelled—most notably at goaltender, where Braden Holtby took home the Vezina Trophy. 

    This summer they worked hard to address nitpicky weaknesses like the bottom six. This version of the team is arguably better than the one that took to the ice last season.

    Reason for worry

    The Alex Ovechkin-led Caps have had some stellar regular seasons, but they have never advanced beyond the second round of the playoffs. Some suggest this has something to do with Ovechkin’s leadership, though evidence of the link between supposed cause and effect is virtually never on offer.

    Why they could win the Stanley Cup

    At all positions, this is a phenomenal team, a club that combines elite talent with exceptional depth.

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