Minnesota Wild: Veteran know-how
The Wild have long been the epitome of an average team. They’ve consistently had enough to make the playoffs with the Zach Parise-Eric Staal-Ryan Suter core, but not quite enough to win multiple rounds.
Despite the difficult Central Division and the severe struggles of goaltender Devan Dubnyk (who needs to figure it out for the Wild to slip into the top eight again), their veteran big three and others like Mikko Koivu and Jared Spurgeon could send Minnesota back to the postseason. Their curious trade of Nino Niederreiter to the Hurricanes for Victor Rask likely won’t help, though.
Nashville Predators: The defenseman
The Preds are undoubtedly one of the best teams in the NHL, as expected. Their first line of Filip Forsberg, Viktor Arvidsson and Ryan Johansen is dominant when healthy. They have the forward depth and goaltending to win games against elite teams, though injuries remain an issue — the likes of Kyle Turris and PK Subban, in addition to members of that first line, have missed significant time.
The defenseman still their best asset. Two of their top three scorers are d-men (Mattias Ekholm and Roman Josi), and while that would sound pretty sad for a lot of teams, it’s only an indication of Nashville’s top-tier defensive six.
San Jose Sharks: Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson
Rumors of Karlsson’s demise are greatly exaggerated. Though the Norris Trophy race seems restricted to Mark Giordano and Kris Letang at this point in the season, Karlsson has lived up to expectations in San Jose. His 40 assists are second only to Burns’s 43 among NHL d-men.
Burns, for his part, leads NHL defenseman with 52 points. The Sharks have work to do to catch up to the surprising Flames in the Pacific Division, but Burns and Karlsson can take them far.
Pittsburgh Penguins: The superstars
With top-tier players across the lineup, the Penguins are always in contention. Sidney Crosby has looked as fantastic as ever leading a dominant first line alongside team-leading scorer Jake Guentzel. Evgeni Malkin is teetering on the verge of going on a tear, which he often does around this time of the season. Phil Kessel is back on the second line with Malkin after spending much of the season trying to jumpstart Derick Brassard’s third line.
The underperforming Brassard will likely be traded, as will one of their extra defensemen once Justin Schultz returns from a broken leg. Adding another scoring forward (ideally, a third line center) could help push this team over the top. Then again, everyone said that last year when they traded for Brassard.
Vegas Golden Knights: Marc-Andre Fleury’s Vezina season
Somewhat quietly, the Golden Knights are still winning games in their sophomore campaign. They’ve hit the 60 point benchmark and will almost certainly make the playoffs again. They’re scoring by committee and even getting points from Ryan Reaves.
Fleury, in an overall down year for top-tier NHL goaltenders, leads the NHL in wins and could challenge John Gibson, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Carey Price for the Vezina Trophy. The Knights can safely rely on the veteran former Penguin as they look to repeat last year’s magical run.