Many teams are excited for the playoffs to begin and make a run for the Stanley Cup. Some teams are right within their Cup window, and some teams are decidedly not.
Here’s a look at four teams that will have to wait a long time before being considered legit contenders.
Detroit Red Wings
The Red Wings are leaving Joe Louis Arena and their outstanding post-season streak behind this season. Making an already tough reality even tougher is that there’s no guarantee the next streak will start in their new home anytime soon. The salary cap is posing problems in Detroit and pricey deals for aging players are already an issue. Henrik Zetterberg is locked up at $6-million-plus for another four seasons. Niklas Kronwall has two more years left on his deal. Nearly $20 million is tied up in Frans Nielsen, Justin Abdelkader, Darren Helm and Danny DeKeyser until 2020-21. Moving out any of those pieces to make space will be difficult, thus making quick improvement incredibly difficult, especially when it comes to landing a top defender. That’s of paramount importance in Detroit, too. The entire defense has struggled this season and there are few top talents on the rise. The only standout defensive prospect is Dennis Cholowski. He’s probably another three seasons away, though, and there’s no guarantee he’s a difference-maker.
Plenty of teams would love to have a young trio that includes Dylan Larkin, Andreas Athanasiou and Anthony Mantha. Any number of teams would love Evgeny Svechnikov, Tyler Bertuzzi and Givani Smith in the system, too. But the Red Wings won’t be winning a 12th Stanley Cup until they can form a solid defense and find the money to build around a younger core. (Jared Clinton)
Los Angeles Kings
The Kings, quite unfortunately, have fallen victim to the fickle trends that seem to rule the NHL these days. Perhaps they can hold out long enough for big, slow, defensive teams that possess the puck but create little offense will come back into vogue, but we doubt it. It doesn’t seem that long ago that the Kings were all the rage and everyone was trying to copy their blueprint. But along came the Pittsburgh Penguins and in a game that is dictated by speed and skill, the Kings now look slow and unproductive. And it’s going to get worse. When the Kings signed Anze Kopitar last summer, did they really think he would be a better player over the next eight years than he was the first 10? In some ways, the Kings are victims of their own success, but unlike the Chicago Blackhawks, were unable to part with some of the players who brought them success. That’s why Marian Gaborik and Dustin Brown are under contract for four and five more years, respectively. The Kings at least have all their picks now, so they should be able to restock an organization that was rated worst in the NHL in terms of prospects in THN’s recent Future Watch edition. But that’s a long climb back. In a game Sunday night that was absolutely crucial to their playoff hopes, the Kings were trailing Calgary 4-1 after the second period and had just six shots in the third. It wasn’t because they didn’t care. It was because they’re a deeply flawed team that can’t hope to keep up with the teams that are successful in today’s NHL. (Ken Campbell)
The Vancouver Canucks finally hinted they’re willing to start a fire sale when they dealt Jannik Hansen and Alexandre Burrows at this year’s trade deadline, but they’re still years away from Cup contention. The main reason: Daniel and Henrik Sedin. The twins are franchise institutions approaching their twilight years but are still good enough that they prevent this team from bottoming out. True Canucks fans should pray the Sedins decide next year that they want to chase glory and are willing to waive their no-movement clauses in the final seasons of their deals. Hearing any talk about wanting to push for the playoffs next year should be alarming. As long as Vancouver keeps its veterans around, including Loui Eriksson’s mega contract, it won’t sink to the very bottom of the standings. Canucks fans need lottery balls before they can even dream about starting a proper rebuild, adding high-ceiling talents to a core including Bo Horvat, Brock Boeser, Olli Juolevi and Thatcher Demko. Once the vets finally leave, we’ll still need to see a couple more years of ‘Bad Vancouver’ before the organization’s arrow can point upward again. I say five years, easy, before this team can dream of championship contention. At least sad-sack Colorado knows what it is and has already landed on the cold, hard basement floor. (Matt Larkin)
New Jersey Devils
My main issue with the Devils is a startling lack of depth right now. Sure, you have some very good players such as Cory Schneider and Taylor Hall, but the defense corps is threadbare – and that’s with the pipeline already tapped pretty hard. Schneider can cover up a lot of holes, but it’s important to realize that even the best goalies in the game have a shelf life. So the challenge for New Jersey is to get up to Schneider’s level before Schneider himself begins to slow down. At 31, he’s still got a few years on top to be sure, but how quickly can the Devils catch up? This is a team that doesn’t have a No. 1 center of the future right now (Pavel Zacha and Mikey McLeod are more likely second-line options), but may be able to draft one this summer. The team ranked 22nd overall in Future Watch, so they obviously have work to do on that account. And they must do so in a harsh division where current down teams such as Philly and Carolina boast amazing young blueline prospects. It’s gonna be a tough road. (Ryan Kennedy)