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NHL season preview: Parity at the top

Capitals, Lightning, Golden Knights among favorites for Stanley Cup

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

Let's play a game. To win, you don't have to name the player who said the quote below, just his team. asked the player if his team could have a successful season without winning the Stanley Cup.

"I think you can have a good season, but at the end, it's all about winning, right?" he said. "It's all about the Cup."

The Washington Capitals? No, but it could have been. They're the defending champions, returning mostly intact and brimming with confidence. Forward T.J. Oshie said they had to be the favorites. Center Evgeny Kuznetsov said he thought they'd repeat.

Asked to name a favorite other than Washington, Kuznetsov said, "Nobody."

Video: NHL Tonight previews the 2018-19 Washington Capitals

The Pittsburgh Penguins? No, but it could have been. They won the Cup in 2016 and 2017 and lost to the Captials in the Eastern Conference Second Round last season. They still have two of the best players in the NHL in centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, not to mention forward Phil Kessel, defenseman Kris Letang and a strong supporting cast. They don't just want the Cup back.

"We need it back," Malkin said.

The Tampa Bay Lightning? No, but it could have been. They have made the Eastern Conference Final three times in four years, losing twice in a Game 7 and making the Cup Final in 2015. This group is loaded but hasn't broken through. Yet.

"I think we have everything, and we should win," forward Nikita Kucherov said.

Video: NHL Tonight previews the 2018-19 Tampa Bay Lightning

The Nashville Predators? No, but it could have been. They made the Final in 2017. They won the Presidents' Trophy as the top regular-season team in the NHL but lost to the Winnipeg Jets in the Western Conference Second Round last season.

"There's just been a sour taste in our mouths this offseason," center Ryan Johansen said. "And we're pretty anxious to get back out there and set ourselves up to be in [the Stanley Cup Playoffs] again and prove that we can get it done."

The San Jose Sharks? No, but it could have been. They have had the best record in the League since 2003-04 and made the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 13 of those 14 seasons, advancing as far as the Final in 2016. They acquired Erik Karlsson, the best offensive defenseman in the League, and expectations are sky high again.

"We're excited in here," center Joe Thornton said. "Our fan base is excited. We're going to give it a good shot this year, for sure."

Video: NHL Tonight previews the 2018-19 San Jose Sharks

The Vegas Golden Knights? Yep. The quote came from goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Vegas blew away expectations as an expansion team last season, winning the Pacific Division, finishing fifth in the NHL and making the Final. But when you take a 1-0 lead in the Final and lose four straight, it's unsatisfying. And when you add center Paul Stastny and forward Max Pacioretty in the offseason, well, it's clear only the Cup would be enough.

"That's what makes it a successful season," Fleury said.

Video: Previewing the Golden Knights' second season

The point is, you can't identify who is in Cup-or-bust mode by expectations alone. It's six teams by this count, almost 20 percent of the NHL. Vegas has increased the competition significantly.

Right behind are teams that might not be ready to say they should win the Cup, but think they can.

The Jets are firmly in that category. After making the Western Conference Final last season, they're being careful not to take anything for granted, talking about how difficult it will be to make the playoffs. But the Final should be their bar, and they are a popular pick to win it all.

The Toronto Maple Leafs are a popular pick to win it all, too, even though they haven't won a playoff round under coach Mike Babcock. They added center John Tavares to a team with young stars like center Auston Matthews and forward Mitchell Marner. If they don't progress in the playoffs, it will be a disappointment.

Video: NHL Tonight previews the 2018-19 Toronto Maple Leafs

What about the Boston Bruins? They won the Cup in 2011 and went to the Final in 2013. They defeated the Maple Leafs in seven games in the Eastern Conference First Round last season and have a mix of veterans and young players.

Asked if they can win the Cup or if they should, center Patrice Bergeron said, "That's a tough question." Then he talked about short-term goals and improving as a team. As it is with almost every other remaining team, the focus is on making the playoffs, where anything can happen. How many picked the Capitals to win the Cup last season?

What makes the NHL incredible is how many teams think they have a chance, how many of them think they have a good chance and how many of them think they should win the Cup, when, in the end, one will.

"By no means is it going to be easy," Fleury said. "I think the parity around the League is so good that there's no easy night. There's no easy game. It's going to be tough."

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