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      Which supposed Stanley Cup contender looks more like a pretender?

      Which projected juggernaut(s) are we most worried about?

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      Last week, we donned our optimist hats and predicted which non-playoff teams would claw their way back in before the season was up.

      Now, it’s time for some glass-half-empty thinking. If you look back at the teams expected to contend for the Stanley Cup going into the season: which contender are you most worried about right now?

      MATT LARKIN: I’m not convinced goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy can pull the Tampa Bay Lightning back into the elite tier. This team has the NHL’s leading scorer in Nikita Kucherov yet has a negative goal differential, and it’s not simply because Vasilevskiy missed the first two months. The Bolts remain excellent on special teams but have been weak at 5-on-5 on the defensive side of the puck this season. Shots against, high-danger attempts against, expected goals against – name the per-60 metric and they sit in the bottom half of the league. They probably still have enough talent to make the playoffs, but their Cup-challenging window is almost closed.

      SCOTT MAXWELL: It’s probably because I watch them the most, but I’m going to go with the Toronto Maple Leafs. Say what you will about their lack of playoff success under Kyle Dubas, they were one of the most consistently dominant regular season teams under his management, especially from 2021 onward. Under Brad Treliving, they’ve seen a rapid drop in their play that’s varied from at worst being really bad to at best being mediocre, rarely able to string together wins that show shades of that old team. They’ve looked better when John Klingberg and Ryan Reaves aren’t playing, but they’re still a shadow of previous iterations of this squad. They also only have five regulation wins, which is as many as the 24th placed Seattle Kraken and the three worst teams in the NHL. That’s not good company to be in. There’s plenty of room to turn it around, but it all depends on how quickly they recognize this and take action. If they stay the course, it’s not going to be pretty.

      STEVEN ELLIS: The Toronto Maple Leafs are an excellent choice, but I’m going with the Vancouver Canucks. I’m just not convinced this group’s the real deal. They had an easier start to the season compared to other contenders, and the last stretch has been a bit ugly. They’re lucky teams like Edmonton and Calgary couldn’t figure things out early and that San Jose happens to be in the division, too. I expect the Oilers to turn things around, and Los Angeles is coming. There’s a good chance we might only see three teams make it out of the Pacific, and I don’t think Vancouver is one of them. 

      FRANK SERAVALLI: I didn’t pick them to win the Stanley Cup, but they were a trendy pick this year, so I’m going to say the New Jersey Devils. To be fair, I picked the Devils before Dougie Hamilton’s long-term injury. They are 11-10-1. Yes, they won three in a row before handing the San Jose Sharks their first road win of the season. And yes, a big part of that is getting Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier back from injury. I mean, which team can survive for long without their top two centers in the lineup? The answer is not many, so I don’t fault them much for that. However, there just hasn’t been much of a “crispness” to their season. Even against the Flyers on Thursday night, they seemed rattled for stretches, then blew a lead in the last minute before coming through in OT. I think they’re asking a lot from this defense corps as assembled, and it’s showing up in their goaltending, which has a collective .889 save percentage. Now it’s only going to get harder without Hamilton for a long period of time. They’re a fun team to watch. I still think they’ll make the playoffs. But the Devils are not in my contender category right now.

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