Updated: Sep 14, 2021
The Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup last year. Who will win the Stanley Cup this year?
Stanley Cup Winner- New York Islanders
Outside of Tampa's back to back Stanley Cups, no team has had more recent playoff success than the Islanders, with five rounds won in the last three years. The Islanders dominate opponents in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with depth, coaching, dominant defensive play, a great goalie, and solid but not elite offensive production from all four lines. The Islanders have only lost to the eventual Stanley Cup Winner the last two years (Tampa), and last year lost a heartbreaking game 7 to the Tampa Bay Lightning by just one goal.
The Islanders, like the Tampa Bay Lightning the last two years, have no flaws. The Islanders are currently the deepest team in hockey, and depth in the playoffs is the most important thing. The Islanders are masters at playing the playoff style game: grinding out their opponents and shutting down the opposition's best players. The Islanders have some star power in Matt Barzal, have incredible depth, and dominant coaching, defensive play, and goaltending.
The Tampa Bay Lightning probably still might be the best team, but they lost their entire third line, a shutdown defenseman, and a shutdown fourth line center. The Vegas Golden Knights have everything but a top line center, and the betting favorite, the Colorado Avalanche, aren't an incredibly deep team.
But wait, don't the Tampa Bay Lightning have a major advantage with Nikita Kucherov, the Avalanche with Nathan McKinnon, the Toronto Maple Leafs with Auston Matthews, the Florida Panthers with Barkov, and the Edmonton Oilers with Connor McDavid? Nope. Not in the playoffs.
In the Playoffs, the top players can be shut down. Just ask Connor McDavid. Teams focus all of their energy in the playoffs on shutting down elite players, and then the rest of the team has to step up offensively to win. It's much harder to gameplan against a team with four lines that can score, because the opposition would lose if they focused all of their energy shutting down Matt Barzal. Once teams effectively shut down the Avalanche's top two lines, the Avalanche are vulnerable. This is why the Avalanche, Oilers, and Maple Leafs struggle come playoff time, despite being the favorites in the series they lose.
This is why there are so many underdog Stanley Cup Final runs in recent years. Those teams don't have superstar players but do have depth, they have grinders who shut down the opposition's top line, and have great goaltending. The game favors the superstars in the regular season, and the game favors the grinders in the playoffs.
A team can't show up to the playoffs with an obvious flaw, for example, goaltending. Ask Pittsburgh Penguins fans how they feel about Tristan Jarry's playoff performance. It is easy to gameplan against a team with obvious holes in their lineup, and those flaws will be exposed by a team talented enough. Vegas was the heavy favorites in their semi-final losses for two years in a row, against the underdog Dallas Stars and the underdog Montreal Canadiens. Both teams had great coaching and exploited Vegas's lack of a top center to win.
The Islanders might be the only team that checks all the boxes. The Lightning have the last two years. However, there are young players on the Lightning who will have to step up big time. Do the Lightning have fatigue from eight playoff rounds in the last two years? Do the Lightning have the motivation in a grueling season to win again? The Lightning can definitely win, but there are questions to be asked.
The Islanders have no questions about their team, and are my pick to finally break through and win the Stanley Cup this year. The Islanders could be a wild card team, but come playoff time, the game favors the Islanders because the Islanders are currently the deepest team in the NHL, motivated and hungry to defeat the competition.