With the Toronto Maple Leafs-Tampa Bay Lightning and Winnipeg Jets-Nashville Predators games streaming live on ESPN+ on Thursday night, we figured it was a good time to update our picks on who will be representing each conference in the Stanley Cup Final, given that these four clubs all have a strong Cup case. Plus, some other big lingering questions on each team.
What is your Stanley Cup Final matchup right now?
Greg Wyshynski, senior NHL writer: My preseason picks are both embedded in playoff seeds, so I'm going to keep riding this horse: the Tampa Bay Lightning out of the East, and the San Jose Sharks out of the West.
Tampa is demonstrably the best team in the NHL, with a plus-58 goal differential and incomparable depth. They were built to win this season, and so far their foundation is sturdy. The Sharks are a shakier proposition. I love them as a tournament team, mostly because Erik Karlsson and Brent Burns will play 55 minutes combined per game, and because Logan Couture is one of my favorite "win at all costs" gamers. But their goaltending is ... not on a championship level, with a .896 team save percentage. But I'm still on the Bolts vs. the Sharks, with Steve Yzerman's grand scheme culminating in a Stanley Cup win for Steven Stamkos & Co.
Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: Before the season, I picked Winnipeg over Tampa Bay, and I see no reason to pivot. I fear Tampa Bay is entering the old Washington Capitals territory: an uber-talented team with incredible regular-season dominance that won't win the Cup ... until we least expect them to do so.
The Jets are plucky, complete and haven't hit their potential this season. The Central Division isn't quite as treacherous as we expected, clearing a path for second-half domination. Playoff hockey is all about finding stride at the right time.
Dimitri Filipovic, hockey analytics writer: Fair warning: Take what I say here with a grain of salt, since I'm the person who literally picked against the Capitals in every single round during their Stanley Cup run last postseason (after having prematurely and incorrectly picked them to win it all the previous season). There are roughly five teams in each conference that could very plausibly make it to the Final if things break right for them, but I'll go with the Lightning and the Predators just to slightly differentiate myself from my astute colleagues.
Whereas things are almost too tight to call out West between the Predators, Jets and Sharks, the Lightning are clearly the class of the NHL at the moment. They'll surely slow down at some point if only out of sheer pity for the rest of the league, but for now they're on pace to finish the season with a truly absurd 130 points and plus-100 goal differential. They have four offensive lines that can come at you in waves and beat you, an absolutely lethal power play and possibly the most prolific young goalie in the game in Andrei Vasilevskiy. Oh, and Nikita Kucherov is currently in the midst of the type of season that we've only ever really seen in video games and bygone eras, having ripped off 63 points in his past 35 games since the start of November. Because they have no real identifiable weakness, they have to be the pick right now, past playoff demons notwithstanding.
Sachin Chandan, ESPN the Magazine researcher: As dominant as Tampa Bay has been, their biggest obstacle could be getting a dangerous matchup against an experienced Pittsburgh Penguins or Boston Bruins team in the first round, followed by a brutal matchup with the Toronto Maple Leafs in the second round. To me, this opens up a chance for the Capitals to get to another Final, and I see Nashville coming out of the West.
Despite the injuries, they can still throw waves of talented defensemen at you, an elite top line when healthy, and goalie Pekka Rinne has led the league in high-danger save percentage, at .898. There could be difficult matchups ahead, especially if they see Winnipeg in the second round, but the Predators are a team on the hunt. They're my pick.
Who is the most indispensable non-goalie among the Leafs, Lightning, Preds and Jets?
Wyshynski: For the Maple Leafs, there's Morgan Rielly and then there's everyone else on their defense corps. He has 47 points in 45 games, including 15 on the power play. He leads the Leafs in average ice time and has a plus-25 goal differential at 5-on-5. He can drive the offense and skate the Leafs out of trouble in their own zone, having really come into his own as a defender. And he does most of this while partnered with Ron Hainsey. The Leafs' ultimate failing will likely be their blue line; I shudder to think what it would look like if you removed Rielly from that group this season.
Kaplan: Top-line center Ryan Johansen has played without his two star wingers for the bulk of the season; the trio of Johansen, Viktor Arvidsson (thumb injury) and Filip Forsberg (hand) has played less than 200 minutes together. And still, Johansen is at a career-high scoring pace of 0.88 points per game, his highest clip since 2014-15. That's while playing with guys like Austin Watson, whom Johansen has helped elevate. The Predators don't have terrific center depth and have struggled scoring this season; Nashville is only 11th in the league in goals per game this season, largely due to said injuries.
The Preds have been able to withstand adversity so far. If Johansen went down, I'm not sure they could be as resourceful.
Filipovic: A large part of what makes these teams so special is that they're so deep and so well-rounded, capable of beating you in any number of ways on a given night. They're about as well-prepared to weather an injury to a key contributor as you can be in the NHL, which makes it tricky to isolate just one individual as the determining factor for their overall team success. That said, I'll go with Mark Scheifele here simply because there's such a large gap between himself and the next best option the Jets have at what's a pivotal position.
Scheifele was a monster during Winnipeg's playoff run last season, scoring 14 goals in 17 postseason games, and he's continued that torrid pace with 25 in 46 this regular season. At nearly 16 percent for his career, he's one of the most effective one-shot scorers we have in the league, which makes him a match made in heaven next to Blake Wheeler's pinpoint passing. Last season, we saw the Jets go out and pay up big for Paul Stastny as a rental at the trade deadline to help solidify that center position, and it wouldn't be remotely surprising to see them do something similar again in the coming weeks. If they don't, this team takes a substantial hit if Scheifele falls injured.
Chandan: Yes, I realize that the Lightning are loaded with scoring talent, but I'm going with Nikita Kucherov. Kucherov is a favorite for the Hart Trophy and currently leads the league with 75 points. Kucherov's shot chart may as well be Jackson Pollock of the offensive zone, as he's shot from all over the zone. He also creates chances for his teammates, as he's assisted on 67 percent of Tyler Johnson's goals, 59 percent of Brayden Point's goals, and 67 percent of Steven Stamkos' goals. They wouldn't be totally cooked without him, but their Cup chances would fall significantly.
What is a fatal flaw that could derail one of the four teams' quest for the Cup?
Wyshynski: The Predators have one of the best goalies in all of hockey in 36-year-old veteran Pekka Rinne ... well, in the regular season at least. I'm legitimately concerned about Rinne in big spots in the postseason. Three of his four losses to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final were embarrassing. At the time, the thought was that Rinne just couldn't perform in Pittsburgh, and then he got yanked at home twice in their 2018 series against the Jets, including their Game 7 loss, when he lasted 10 minutes and 31 seconds.
I know he's a competitor, and he told me earlier this season that the disasters from the last two playoffs are motivation for him. But my trust just isn't there for Rinne in the playoffs. As good as Juuse Saros is going to be, he doesn't have the reps to carry this team if Pekka falters.
Kaplan: It's a bit unfair to judge considering the bulk of injuries they've had to endure, but I am worried about the Predators' special teams. Nashville has the league's 28th-ranked power play (14.2 percent, which is actually an improvement from some early-season figures) as well as an 18th-ranked penalty kill (79.2 percent). Neither of those marks will fly in playoff hockey. Last season, only three teams survived past the first round with a power play below 20 percent.
Filipovic: It's a bit of a cop-out, but the biggest thing working against these top teams right now is the preposterous playoff system the league is still insisting on using. While it's certainly always fun watching best-on-best compete at the highest level, it's a disservice to these four great teams that they will have to play each other in the second round of the postseason simply because they happen to be playing in the same division.
It's especially brutal for a team like the Maple Leafs, who are arguably the second-best team in the entire Eastern Conference, because their playoff path looks like it's once again headed toward a first-round meeting against the Bruins (who could conceivably be the third-best team in the East when fully healthy). Even if they finally get over the hump and slay those demons, they'll presumably have emptied the tank before they even get to Tampa Bay to face the Lightning in the second round, a team that will likely have come off a short series against the second wild card. If they somehow manage to do the unthinkable and get by them as well, they'll be ripe for the taking for whoever manages to come out of a much more forgiving Metropolitan Division bracket. No one will shed a tear for them, but it's still an unjust way for the NHL to be going about conducting its business. Any number of other potential seeding formats would do a better job of determining who the best team really is.
Chandan: The Lightning are far and away the best team in the league so far, but losing Andrei Vasilevskiy to injury could undermine the team's mission, as great of a story as Louis Domingue has been. As we've all mentioned, they have the talent and the firepower to win anyway, but in the playoffs, a streaking team may be able to pull an upset. He has been dominant since returning after missing 14 games due to a foot injury, but the Lightning do not want to have to deal with goalie questions in May.