The NHL regular season starts Wednesday night, and every team will tell you that they’re going in with one goal: They want to win the Stanley Cup.
Of course, that goal is more realistic for some teams that for others. Some teams are just paying lip service early one, and it won’t be long before they’ve already shifted to mumbling about the future. But others will stay focused on the big prize all year long. And for some of those teams, this season looms larger than others.
That’s because the window to win a championship can slam shut quickly in today’s NHL. Thanks to aging players, salary cap pressures and other factors, some teams head into a given season knowing that they’re running out of chances to win it all.
Here are five teams who head into the season knowing that their window to win a title may be slamming shut.
San Jose Sharks
Watching the Sharks fall just two wins shy of a Stanley Cup last spring, it was easy to forget that it wasn’t that long ago that GM Doug Wilson was openly promising to rebuild while calling the Sharks “a tomorrow team.” That came in the wake of the Sharks’ epic collapse against the Kings in the 2014 playoffs, a time when the team looked old and in need of some new blood.
Two years later, the Sharks core certainly isn’t any younger. But Wilson’s decision to pass on a rebuild – or, depending on your perspective, his failure to make one happen – led to last year’s run, and today the Sharks are viewed much differently than they were back then.
Still, it’s not hard to look at the current roster and see the writing on the wall. Brent Burns, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are all headed for UFA status at the end of this season. Burns will get a deal, but Thornton and Marleau are question marks. For better or worse, those two players have been the face of the franchise for a decade, and they’re likely facing down their last chance to win a Cup together in San Jose.
Meanwhile, Joe Pavelski is 32 and even Logan Couture will turn 28 before the end of the season. The Sharks pipeline prospect isn’t strong, ranking 25th in THN’s Future Watch. At some point, something has to give.
This season may not represent the last chance for the Sharks to win the Cup. But it seems like the last chance this version of the Sharks, the one we’ve come to know over a decade of playoff ups and downs. If this isn’t the year, it sure looks like Wilson is going to get his rebuild wish two years after he made it, whether he still wants it or not.
The Metro Division offers up a few candidates to make our list. It feels like we’ve all been writing “window slamming shut” stories about the Rangers for three years now, and you could make good case that the Penguins’ cap crunch makes them a candidate too, as long as you ignore the part about how they already won.
But instead, let’s shine a spotlight on the Capitals, who are coming off a 120-point season and are among this year’s Stanley Cup favorites. They’re up tight against the cap, and have T.J. Oshie, Karl Anzer and Justin Williams all hitting UFA status after this season. They’ll also have up to a half-dozen RFAs to figure out, most notably Evgeny Kuznetsov, who could be in a position for a massive deal.
And then there’s Alex Ovechkin, because these are the Capitals and it always comes down to Ovechkin. He’s signed through 2021, and he hasn’t exactly shown signs of slowing down in recent years, racking up three straight 50-goal seasons. But he just turned 31, and at some point the clock starts ticking for everyone. For every Jaromir Jagr, there’s a Mike Bossy, and we don’t yet know which side of that scale Ovechkin’s career curve will end up closest too.
There’s a chance that GM Brian MacLellan can keep most of this team together, and that Ovechkin’s prime extends for another few years. But Caps fans would feel a lot better if the team could finally get that long-awaited Stanley Cup under its belt right now, when all the pieces seem to be in place.
The Ducks’ core of Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler is relatively old (all are over 30) and signed long-term (all through at least 2021). It’s hard to imagine the team being able to trade any of them, even if they wanted to. So in one sense, this group is going to be together for a while no matter what happens. And there are some young pieces in place, including goalie John Gibson and a blueline that features future Norris candidate Hampus Lindholm.
On the other hand, you look at this team as current constructed and you wonder: If not now, then when? GM Bob Murray has already called out his stars. He’s already played his coaching card, firing Bruce Boudreau and bringing back Randy Carlyle. The prospect pipeline isn’t empty, but it’s certainly not great (18th in Future Watch).
The bottom line is that the Ducks are built to win a Cup right now, and on paper they’re good enough to do it. But if they’re not, there’s not much reason to think they’ll get better over the next few years.
Tampa Bay Lightning
When you think of a typical team with a closing window, you tend to assume you’re talking about an aging roster. By contract, the Lightning have one of the youngest cores of any contender out there. Nikita Kucherov is 23, Victor Hedman is 25 and Ondrej Palat are 25, and guys like Jonathan Drouin (21) and Andrei Vasilevskiy (22) appear ready to step into larger roles. When the “old” guy among the star players is 26-year-old Steven Stamkos, you’ve got yourself a young core.
So it sounds like the Lightning should be set for years to come. But then we get to that salary cap crunch, and the outlook starts to change. The team lucked out by getting Kucherov under contract for three years at a very reasonable number, but Palat and Tyler Johnson will need new deals next year. Steve Yzerman had to go full Jedi just to keep his group together this season; in 2017 and beyond, and it feels inevitable that change is coming.
Ben Bishop will come off the books, either by mid-season trade or at the end of the year in free agency. And maybe the team lucks out and loses a big veteran contract in the expansion draft. But at some point, Yzerman will either need to move one of his young pieces, or be left with so little room to fill out the roster around his core that depth will become an issue. Either way, the Lightning aren’t facing a freefall anytime soon. But it feels like this season may be the Lightning’s best shot to win before things get awfully complicated.
St. Louis Blues
For the other teams on this page, we have to couch our predictions with conditionals: if this happens, then probably that will too. But not with the Blues. We already know that change is coming after this season, because they’ve told us.
The Blues’ coaching situation is, to put it mildly, unusual. After years of being on the hot seat, Ken Hitchcock has announced that he won’t be returning next season. And the team has already hired his replacement, bringing on Mike Yeo as coach-in-waiting.
So it’s the end of an era in St. Louis, one way or another. And this is the same team that already said goodbye to its captain and top goaltender over the off-season. With Kevin Shattenkirk also rumored to be on the way out and Paul Stastny, Alex Steen and Jay Bouwmeester all on the wrong side of 30, it’s clear that the time is now for this version of the Blues to get it done.
In recent years, GM Doug Armstrong has talked about having two cores: one of older veterans, and one of up-and-comers. So it’s not like he has all his eggs in one basket, and it’s not that the Blues will crater if and when it’s time to reload. But with Hitchcock on the way out, a new era is on the way, and it may not be long before more veterans are shipped out and this truly becomes Vladimir Tarasenko’s team.
(You know, if the Blues haven’t run him out of town too.)
Sean McIndoe has been writing about the NHL since 2008, most recently for ESPN and Grantland. He spends most of his time making jokes on twitter, where you may know him as @downgoesbrown. He appears weekly on TheHockeyNews.com.