The Washington Capitals weren't exactly a popular pick to win the Stanley Cup last season, because they kept falling short of expectations when it came to the playoffs. But because sports are great, Alexander Ovechkin and co. managed to win it all when the NHL world began to count them out.
Entering 2018-19, the Nashville Predators, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs and Winnipeg Jets appear to be the best bets to win it all. But every now and then, a darkhorse team emerges to win it all.
Consider the five teams listed above as the top contenders, but there are a handful sleeper teams who have the potential and necessary skill set to win it all. Here are five darkhorse Stanley Cup contenders entering 2018-19.
5. Colorado Avalanche
The Avalanche were hockey's worst team in 2016-17, but they followed it up with a shocking 95-point season, nabbing the final wild card spot in the Western Conference. Colorado would lose to the top-seeded Nashville Predators in five games, but making the playoffs was more than enough to begin with.
Nathan MacKinnon took his game to another level with 39 goals and 97 points, finally showing why he was the first overall pick in 2013. Mikko Rantanen enjoyed a breakout year with 84 points, while captain Gabriel Landeskog bounced back with 25 goals and 62 points.
But don't think the talent pool stops there. Young forwards Tyson Jost and Alex Kerfoot should enjoy big sophomore seasons, while 2017 first-round pick Cale Makar could make a major impact on defense.
The Avalanche are loaded with young talent and have just enough established veterans to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup. They aren't a trendy pick to win it all, but don't be surprised if the Avalanche are in the discussions come playoff time.
4. Edmonton Oilers
The Oilers entered 2017-18 as the team to beat in the Western Conference. Experts all over the web picked this team to at least reach the Stanley Cup Final, after the Oilers ended their 11-year playoff drought in 2017.
But everything that could go wrong for the Oilers last season went wrong, unless your name is Connor McDavid. He won himself another scoring title with 108 points, but that was the only bright spot in Edmonton.
Goalie Cam Talbot regressed big time after a 42-win season. Injuries to the blue line didn't help, as Oscar Klefbom (16 games), Adam Larsson (19), and Andrej Sekera (46), missed ample time due to injury.
But the Oilers have more than enough to talent to regain the 2016-17 form. When you have a generational player in McDavid and other stars like Leon Draisaitl and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, you should be a playoff contender.
Milan Lucic is primed for a bounce-back year, and 2016 first-rounder Jesse Puljujarvi has the chance to play a big role up front. So no, McDavid isn't a one-man team entering 2018-19.
If the defense stays somewhat healthy, Talbot doesn't play absolutely horribly and McDavid gets just enough scoring help, the Oilers should be a top team in the Western Conference once again.
3. Carolina Hurricanes
It's safe to say that new owner Thomas Dundon knows the definition of insanity: Trying the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
No team underwent a more drastic offseason than the 'Canes. Franchise legend Ron Francis was removed as general manager, and replaced by Don Waddell. Fellow Hurricane icon Rod Brind'Amour is the new head coach, after Bill Peters opted out to take on the Flames' bench boss vacancy.
In order to shake the core up, the Hurricanes dealt 30-goal man Jeff Skinner to the Buffalo Sabres. They traded defenceman Noah Hanifin and forward Elias Lindholm to the Calgary Flames in exchange for stud blueliner Dougie Hamilton, 20-goal man Michael Ferland and prospect Adam Fox. They also signed blueliner Calvin de Haan to fix up the defense.
Carolina's defense should be one of the NHL's best i 2018-19, with Hamilton, De Haan, Jaccob Slavin, Haydn Fleury and Justin Faulk. And with Victor Rask, Sebastian Aho, Ferland and Jordan Staal up front, the Hurricanes shouldn't have many problems scoring goals.
This is a legitimate playoff-looking team, and perhaps a sleeper Stanley Cup contender. Do not overlook this Calgary team.
2. Florida Panthers
The Panthers missed out on the postseason by a single point, but head coach Bob Boughner did a wonderful job in his first NHL bench boss gig. Now, we wait and see what he can do for an encore.
Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck had 78 and 75 points last season, respectively. Jonathan Huberdeau chipped in with 69 points, while Evgenii Dadonov scored 28 goals and 65 points. Keith Yandle and Aaron Ekblad are among the top offensive-minded blueliners in the game, and they should lead another formidable power play unit in 2018-19.
There's a lot of speed and all-around skill on this Florida team. Roberto Luongo and James Reimer get the job done as a goaltending duo. They're not exactly flashy, but good enough to get this team to the playoffs.
Keep in mind that the Atlantic Division will feature four bottom feeders: The Buffalo Sabres, Detroit Red Wings, Montreal Canadiens and Ottawa Senators. Florida should easily feast off those teams, take a playoff spot and potentially make a serious major run.
1. Calgary Flames
The Flames had a playoff spot all but assured until a late-season slump cost them the prime chance at making a run in the Western Conference. Head coach Glen Gulutzan was fired, and GM Brad Treliving decided to make some tweaks.
In comes perennial 20-goal man James Neal, who was signed in free agency. Treliving also made the aforementioned blockbuster deal with Carolina, landing defenceman Noah Hanifin and play-making forward Elias Lindholm. The former should solidify Calgary's elite defensive group even more, while Lindholm may have a career year if he plays on the Johnny Gaudreau-Sean Monahan line.
Calgary has too much talent to be this mediocre again. Head coach Bill Peters should make the most out of this group, which boasts two superstars in Gaudreau and Monahan.
We know Neal will get 20-30 goals, and third-year power forward Matthew Tkachuk should score close to 60 points. With Hanifin, Travis Hamonic, T.J. Brodie and Mark Giordano leading the defense, Calgary should provide plenty of support for goalie Mike Smith.
With so much talent everywhere on the ice, the Flames are a lock to make the playoffs. And considering they have more speed, skill and youth than most other Western Conference contenders, Calgary has the chance to surprise many and make a deep playoff run. Consider them the team to beat in the Pacific Division, too.