NHL experts predict: stealth Cup contenders, which coach will be fired, Erik Karlsson's next team

Nathan MacKinnon and the Avalanche are on pace to double their point total from a year ago, from 48 to 96. Will it be enough to outpace the Blues and reach the playoffs? Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Our NHL Insiders weigh in on some pressing topics, including which playoff team would be the biggest shock if it won the Stanley Cup, where Erik Karlsson is headed next and which coaches will be fired when the season ends.

Which playoff team would shock you the most if it won the Stanley Cup?

Emily Kaplan, national NHL reporter: The Colorado Avalanche. They're clinging to the second Western Conference wild-card spot, so it might be moot. The Avalanche's first line -- specifically, center Nathan MacKinnon -- willed it into playoff contention. Colorado recorded a franchise-low 48 points in 2016-17, then shipped its best player, Matt Duchene, to the Ottawa Senators as part of a megatrade in November. A flurry of injuries, especially the late-season loss of top defenseman Erik Johnson, should have been the dagger for the Avs. If they somehow pull off a Cup run, it would be stunning.

Greg Wyshynski, senior writer: The Toronto Maple Leafs, for two reasons. First, because it just doesn't seem like they're fully formed yet, especially on the blueline, where it feels like they're two upgrades away from being a team that doesn't surrender 33.8 shots per game. Second, because of 1967. Whenever they do win another Stanley Cup, and it should happen with Auston Matthews as the franchise cornerstone, it's going to be a Chicago Cubs-level shock.

Chris Peters, NHL prospects analyst: The Minnesota Wild. Losing Ryan Suter for the season because of a fractured ankle is crushing -- so much so that I don't think Minnesota can overcome it. Suter had been averaging nearly 27 minutes a game this season. But in the playoffs, Suter has routinely logged closer to 30 a night. Replacing him is impossible, made worse by the fact that fellow defenseman Jared Spurgeon has also been hobbled by injury. It increases the pressure on Minnesota goalie Devan Dubnyk, who has a career .903 postseason save percentage.

Travel back in time. Which Stanley Cup winner of the past 30 years would you love to see compete in this year's playoffs, under 2018 rules?

Wyshynski: If it's 30 years, that means the last of the Wayne Gretzky Edmonton Oilers Cup winners is eligible. So give me The Great One, Mark Messier, Jarri Kurri, Glenn Anderson, Esa Tikkanen, Craig MacTavish, Kevin Lowe and Grant Fuhr. It wasn't the most talented of Gretzky's Oilers, but these players were in their prime, and I'd love to see how they'd navigate the speed of today's game -- where guys like Marty McSorley and Jeff Beukeboom would look as out of place as Milan Lucic does.

Kaplan: Give me the 1991-92 Pittsburgh Penguins. Even better if they somehow are able to face off against the 2017-18 Pittsburgh Penguins. Both teams found a way to repeat as champions, but only one could make it three in a row. Sidney Crosby vs. Mario Lemieux, both in their primes. Heck, I'm also here for the subplot of Jaromir Jagr dueling Phil Kessel in complementary roles. Tell me you would not be entertained.

Peters: The first team that popped into my head was the 2001-02 Detroit Red Wings. The roster had nine Hall of Famers on the ice and one behind the bench, in Scotty Bowman. In the salary-cap era, building this team would be impossible. Also, because of the collective age of the Red Wings' roster at the time, I wonder how that group would survive in today's faster, younger NHL. Would all of that experience be enough to counter?

If Erik Karlsson has played his last game for Ottawa, where is he headed next -- and for how long?

Wyshynski: The Vegas Golden Knights were in on Karlsson until the final moments of the trade deadline this season, so one has to assume they're going to revisit him this summer. No team in the Karlsson derby will be able to match Vegas' combination of cap space and available draft picks. The Golden Knights can trade for Karlsson, afford to keep him for eight additional years and even take that Bobby Ryan contract off the Senators' hands too.

Kaplan: I wouldn't count out the San Jose Sharks. Sharks GM Doug Wilson has a reputation as a big-game hunter. Remember: He once made a reasonable run at Steven Stamkos. The Sharks will have a decent amount of cap space (some of which should probably be used to re-sign Evander Kane). I could see Karlsson accepting a long-term deal with San Jose -- though, if he's willing to bet on himself, a la NFL QB Kirk Cousins, he could take a three- or four-year deal and set himself up for another payday at age 30 or 31.

Peters: I expect Vegas to be the likeliest destination, but I am interested to see what kind of package the Vancouver Canucks could put together. With the cap space afforded them by the Sedin twins' departure, the Canucks have some added flexibility. The question is, which of their young players or prospects would they be willing to part with to make a deal happen? I don't think Vancouver should try to take shortcuts as it builds things up. But how often do you have a chance to add a transformational player like Karlsson? It's worth exploring.

Which coach(es) will be fired once the regular season ends?

Wyshynski: Alain Vigneault and the New York Rangers are a bad fit for what could be a multiple-season rebuild for the franchise. He is not the guy you want around for the reconstruction. He's never done it. He doesn't seem like he has much interest in doing it. It would be better for both parties to have him leave for a team that is closer to contention. And by that, I mean the Calgary Flames.

Kaplan: I don't see the Rangers sticking with Vigneault either. Calgary might part with Glen Gulutzan after another year of disappointment. I can't imagine Ken Hitchcock being a one-and-done during his second stint with the Dallas Stars, but there could be some pressure to find a scapegoat after Dallas' stunning second-half collapse. Bill Peters is likely 50/50 to remain with the Carolina Hurricanes; his fate depends on the new GM. I think the Chicago Blackhawks' Joel Quenneville, the Edmonton Oilers' Todd Mclellan, the New York Islanders' Doug Weight and Ottawa's Guy Boucher will keep their jobs, though I wouldn't be shocked if any of them are relieved.

Peters: Though new Hurricanes owner Tom Dundon has appeared supportive of Bill Peters, I wonder what will happen when Carolina's new general manager is named. Peters is well respected -- and a new GM may value keeping the coach -- but a change would not shock me. Also, Sportsnet's Elliotte Friedman recently reported that Peters has an out-clause in his contract that he could choose to exercise if he has his own ideas about his future. I'd also view Gulutzan, McLellan and Hitchcock as all firmly on the hot seat.

Which current player injury will hurt a Cup contender's playoff fortunes the most?

Kaplan: The Anaheim Ducks are fighting for their playoff lives. Starting goalie John Gibson is day-to-day with an upper-body injury. If he's out for an extended period, I'm worried about the Ducks. Yes, they probably have the most talented goaltending tandem in the league. Ryan Miller is no slumpy backup on which to fall back. But Gibson is being mentioned as a Vezina candidate (2.43 GAA, .926 save percentage) and has been terrific during the second half (14-4-2, 1.95 GAA, .937 save percentage since Jan. 30). Losing a hot goalie this late in the season is never a good sign.

Wyshynski: I'll go with another Ducks injury: Cam Fowler, who is out two to six weeks with a shoulder injury. Fowler is Anaheim's leader in average ice time (24:51) and leads all Ducks defensemen in power-play time (2:36) while ranking fourth in power-play points. Granted, the Ducks are familiar with surviving without him in the lineup, as Fowler has played fewer than 70 games in two of the past three seasons. But in a conference where defensive depth is paramount, the Ducks will now be tested.

Peters: I'm going to stick with the Suter injury here, too. I think the Wild were as well positioned as they've been in recent years to make a run. The reemergence of Eric Staal, a breakout season from Jason Zucker, Zach Parise returning to health and the team's overall scoring depth made Minnesota look like a threat. They're a lot less threatening now without Suter, who was having a career year at 33.