Every NHL team’s goal is to win the Stanley Cup. But is it really every team’s goal to win the Stanley Cup every season? That’s highly debatable. Any given season, some teams have loaded up in hopes of winning a championship immediately, some have docked their ships in states of multi-year contention, and other teams are rebuilding, stockpiling assets for future title runs rather than trying to win anything this year.
Understanding a team’s annual forecast, then, is a matter of understanding whether that team sits in a Stanley Cup contention window. Where does your team fall entering the 2019-20 season? Our Stanley Cup Windows series continues with the Central.
WIN-NOW WINDOW: Dallas Stars, Nashville Predators
When you sign Joe Pavelski, 35, and Corey Perry, 34, to contracts of three years and one year, respectively, months after coming one goal way from reaching the Western Conference final, your intentions are obvious. The Stars are parading around town wearing a sandwich board with ‘WIN NOW’ etched on it in Sharpie.
And why not? Their starting goaltender, Ben Bishop, just finished the best season of his career but is 32 and has a long injury history. He’s not built to age like Roberto Luongo or Ed Belfour. Bishop only has so many elite seasons left. Looking at the Stars’ forward corps, Pavelski and Perry provide the depth it has sorely lacked for several seasons, but they’re clearly past their primes, while Alexander Radulov is 33. Even captain Jamie Benn is 30 now and just endured his worst season since he was a rookie. Given his heavy style of play, he might age faster than other types of stars do. Tyler Seguin, 27, is the only prime-year forward among the Stars’ top tier. Their D-corps is set for years, anchored by Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg and Esa Lindell, but the next generation of forwards lacks guaranteed-star factor, so Dallas is taking a shot for a championship in the present.
So is Nashville, who just inked Matt Duchene on a long-term deal. The farm system has yielded some high-potential youngsters in sniper Eeli Tolvanen and defenseman Dante Fabbro, but this is very much a veteran team. Duchene, Viktor Arvidsson, Ryan Johansen, Filip Forsberg and Mikael Granlund all remain in their 20s, suggesting the Predators should remain a strong contender for a while, but look closer. Goaltender Pekka Rinne turns 37 this season, and while Juuse Saros has excelled as a backup, he’s unproven under a starter-sized workload. Captain Roman is 29 and a UFA next summer. He’ll likely re-sign but, like we’ve seen with Anze Kopitar in L.A., will get a long-term contract rewarding him for what he’s done rather than what he’s going to do. Stalwart blueliner Mattias Ekholm turns 30 in May.
The Predators aren’t in go-for broke mode the way the Stars are but have a core of late-20s veterans who are inching toward their decline years. Nashville may not have to win a Cup this season, but it will want to in the next year or two. Otherwise, it will miss the window.
WINDOW WIDE OPEN: Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues, Winnipeg Jets
These Central big-dog teams look like major Stanley Cup contenders for 2019-20. The Avalanche are possibly the Western Conference’s buzziest team of the summer after steamrolling top-seeded Calgary in Round 1 of the playoffs and pushing the San Jose Sharks to the brink in Round 2.
They have the West’s best line in Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen. They’ve solidified their secondary scoring after acquiring center Nazem Kadri. Dazzling offensive defenseman Cale Makar turned pro in the playoffs and enters this season as a Calder Trophy frontrunner. Philipp Grubauer cemented himself as the unquestioned starting goalie in the second half of last season. And what do all these core players have in common? They’re twentysomethings in their prime years or, in the case of Makar and Rantanen, not even there yet. The Avs have an exciting class of prospects on the way, too – Bowen Byram and Conor Timmins on defense, Martin Kaut, Shane Bowers and Alex Newhook up front – so GM Joe Sakic has positioned this team to stay competitive for a long time. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Avs become the Central’s ruling power as soon as this season.
The Blues are obviously enjoying good times as the reigning Cup champs, but that doesn’t mean they’re purely a win-now operation. Breakout star goalie Jordan Binnington just finished his rookie year. Foundational blueliners Colton Parayko and Vince Dunn are 26 and 22. Selke and Conn Smythe Trophy-winning pivot Ryan O’Reilly is 28. Top goal-scorer Vladimir Tarasenko is 27.
Yes, the Blues are in danger of getting weaker in another year or two, as captain Alex Pietrangelo, a 2020 UFA, doesn’t have a new deal yet, nor does pending UFA pivot Brayden Schenn, and left winger Jaden Schwartz’s contract ends after 2020-21. But defenseman Pietrangelo is highly likely to re-sign, and the Blues have some exciting reinforcements coming at forward. Jordan Kyrou has major offensive upside, Klim Kostin brings a big power-forward body, and sophomore Robert Thomas has the two-way smarts to become another O’Reilly someday. The Blues are thus better built to last than they may appear.
The Jets have gotten worse on paper this off-season after trading top shutdown D-man Jacob Trouba and losing veteran blueliner Tyler Myers to free agency. Star defenseman Dustin Byfuglien has shown signs of breaking down entering his age-34 season. Top-line right winger Blake Wheeler hasn’t, but decline could sneak up any time now given he turns 33 this month. Still, look at the core – Mark Scheifele, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, Josh Morrissey, Connor Hellebuyck – and you breathe easy if you’re Jets fans, assuming RFA forwards Connor and Laine can get sorted out by October.
The Jets have the right mix of veterans and prime-year youngsters to survive losing bodies and remain a Stanley Cup threat for the next several seasons. If they get good progression from young center Jack Roslovic and left winger Kristian Vesalainen, they’ll add yet another layer of enviable star talent. Their defense needs work, as Neal Pionk faces a lot of pressure to replace Trouba and the Jets are depending on next-wave contributors like Sami Niku to be NHL ready. But this is a talent-rich organization nonetheless.
WINDOW FOGGED UP: Chicago Blackhawks
Hmm. The Hawks won Cups in 2010, 2013 and 2015, justifiably mortgaged years of picks and prospects in the process, then bottomed out with playoff misses in 2017-18 and 2018-19. Marian Hossa retired, while fellow mini-dynasty pieces Duncan Keith, Corey Crawford and Brent Seabrook crept toward their twilight seasons. But something happened last year. Alex DeBrincat progressed into a legitimate NHL star, and the Dylan Strome trade was a coup. Suddenly, those two gave Chicago a real second line, allowing Patrick Kane to make magic with old buddy Jonathan Toews.
With an offense on the rise and a defense that has some first-round prospects on the way, most notably Adam Boqvist, the Blackhawks seem to be attempting a slingshot rebuild, flinging themselves back into relevance before Kane and Toews age out of stardom, blending that older generation with the new wave led by DeBrincat, Strome and Boqvist. Keep a close eye on Robin Lehner, too, who, on a one-year deal, is likely auditioning to become the Blackhawks’ long-term successor to Crawford in goal. The Hawks are one of the more difficult teams to forecast going forward. Half their roster is decaying, while the other half is ascending. This probably isn’t a playoff team yet, but if Boqvist sticks with the big club this season…who knows?
WINDOW SMASHED: Minnesota Wild
The Stanley Cup window can’t really exist when you don’t even have a GM and resort to trying to poach one from another team. The Wild were long defined by the massive contracts they gave Ryan Suter and Zach Parise in 2012, as their combined cap hits, exceeding $15 million across 13 years, have prevented the Wild from chasing any other top-tier UFAs. Suter remains a highly effective ice-time vacuum, and Parise bounced back with a healthy season last year, but they’re 34 and 35. The window for them to bring Minnesota a championship passed long ago.
General manager Paul Fenton appeared to understand that when he traded veterans Charlie Coyle and Mikael Granlund at the 2019 deadline to Boston and Nashville, bringing in Ryan Donato and Kevin Fiala, who were younger and had more years of control left on their contracts. Fenton appeared to understand that the Wild were a high-floor team but too old to have a high ceiling. He was making the team younger, and missing the playoffs for the first time in six years was actually a good thing, as it finally ended a run of murky-middle mediocrity in which the Wild won two playoff series and never escaped the second round. But then, this summer, Fenton went out and signed 31-year-old Mats Zuccarello to a five-year contract at a $6-million AAV, completely contradicting what had appeared to be a shift in philosophy. A month later, Fenton was out of a job.
So now the Wild are stuck in neutral again, low on A-grade prospects aside from still-signed-in-the-KHL Kirill Kaprizov, saddled with a bunch of decent-but-past-their-prime veterans such as Eric Staal and Mikko Koivu. They’re too good to be really bad but too bad to be really good, meaning they could stay stuck in purgatory for a few more seasons. That’s a bad place to be. To reach the top of the league, you need to bottom out first. The Wild are eons away from their Stanley Cup window.
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