When it comes to Stanley Cup futures, understanding the distinction between being skilled enough and strong enough is important.
At the two-thirds mark of the regular season, Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals are atop both the standings and the 2017 Stanley Cup futures board. The Capitals are the +550 favorite at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com.
Goaltending likely isn’t going to be stumbling block for Washington, since goalie Braden Holtby is an all-star. However, teams built around a scoring winger such as Ovechkin often don’t get far.
Also of note, the team with the best regular-season record has won the Stanley Cup only four of 19 times in years when the NHL played an 82-game season. Only one of those instances has occurred during the salary cap era, which began in 2005-06.
The Minnesota Wild, the Western Conference leader, are listed at +700, and the time might be now to back them before their value drops. Minnesota might be better built for the playoffs than Washington with their top-two center-ice tandem of rejuvenated veteran Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu.
The Wild have one of the deepest forward groups in the league and could sail through the Central Division portion of the playoffs, given that the Chicago Blackhawks (+750) and St. Louis Blues (+3300) are underachieving.
No team has gone back-to-back during the cap era, but with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the middle, the Pittsburgh Penguins (+1000) will be heard from in the postseason. The Penguins also have a very good price at this point.
While there hasn’t been a repeat in nearly two decades, one deep playoff run does tend to begat another. Last season’s runner-up, the San Jose Sharks (+1400), could go deep again, especially with Brent Burns as their workhorse shutdown defenseman.
The Montreal Canadiens (+1400) are the highest Canadian team on the board. The Habs have regressed since they won 13 of their first 15 games this season. They rate a strong chance of advancing out of the Atlantic Division, where the second- and third-place teams consist of the overachieving, goalie-dependent Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have extraordinary young talent with Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner but are probably too inexperienced to go deep this season.
Three of the last eight champions, including the 2016 Penguins, made a coaching change during the season. That means the way-off-the-board pick would be the Boston Bruins (+4000). Boston fired coach Claude Julien this week and replaced him with Bruce Cassidy. Their chances of making the playoffs were trending upward at the time of the coaching change and all-star goalie Tuukka Rask can be a difference-maker.