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 concludes with the Pacific.
WINDOW WIDE OPEN: Calgary Flames, Vegas Golden Knights
Not surprisingly, we start with the Flames, fresh off finishing last season with the Western Conference’s best record and the NHL’s second-highest goal total. The faster, tougher Colorado Avalanche exposed the Flames with a five-game upset in Round 1, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean last season was Calgary’s only chance to compete for a Cup. The dynamite top line of Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan and Elias Lindholm sits in the middle of its prime-year glory days. They’re 26, 24 and 24, under contract for three, four and five more seasons, respectively.
The Flames also have a star-caliber secondary scorer anchoring their second line in left winger Matthew Tkachuk, still just 21, with shutdown center Mikael Backlund, 30, still capable of handling his role admirably for several more seasons.
That core of young forwards is enough to keep Calgary in the contender mix for several years to come. Not that the franchise is without its warts, however. Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano anchors a top four that includes respectable prime-year contributors Travis Hamonic and T.J. Brodie, plus just-entering-his-prime Noah Hanifin, and while Giordano just completed an all-time age-35 season, he will start aging one of these years. The Flames’ prospect pipeline isn’t the deepest or strongest, and they’ve just lost a crucial year of NHL teeth-cutting for their top prospect: puck-moving blueliner Juuso Valimaki, who tore his ACL this week. With the long-term uncertainty on defense and short-term uncertainty in goal, where David Rittich will try to hold off Cam Talbot this season, it’s tempting to call the Flames a win-now team. But they have just enough promise up front to still have multiple years of contention left in my mind.
The Golden Knights likely have a few more years in the sun, too. They were so shockingly good over their first two seasons of existence that they went into go-for-broke contender mode and traded away two of their top three prospects, Nick Suzuki and Erik Brannstrom, but they still have center Cody Glass, a Mark Scheifele type, ready to contribute as early as season, plus a nice buffet of prime-year players at every skater position. Big power forward Alex Tuch is just entering his prime at 23, while Mark Stone, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith all fall between 26 and 28 and have many seasons left of team control.
At 24, 28 and 28, respectively, Shea Theodore, Nate Schmidt and Brayden McNabb should keep Vegas’ D-corps steady for the next several seasons as well. Goaltending is a long-term question mark with Marc-Andre Fleury turning 35 in November, but his athleticism hasn’t eluded him yet. The Golden Knights lack a superstar, but this is a deep roster mostly comprised of players still in their peak windows. We can thus expect two or three more seasons of legitimate Cup contention in Sin City.
WINDOW OPENING: Vancouver Canucks
There’s a case for the Canucks belonging in the ‘Rebuilders’ category, but I’m predicting they graduate into real playoff contention this season. They’ve paid their dues with five playoff misses in six seasons. Over that stretch, they’ve stockpiled young, high-ceiling talent and have reached a critical mass big enough to call a “core.” Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat will anchor the middle for years to come. Pettersson, the reigning Calder Trophy winner, has the all-around ability to become a superstar in this league and challenge for all the major individual awards within a couple seasons, while Horvat is ready to assume Vancouver’s captaincy. Brock Boeser, like seemingly half the young stars in the league right now, has to get his RFA contract sorted out but, assuming he does, will be locked up long-term as Vancouver’s go-to goal scorer.
The Canucks have scintillating puck-mover Quinn Hughes to build around on defense, and goalie of the future Thatcher Demko might become goalie of the present this season, as he’ll start the year in the NHL and push Jacob Markstrom. So Vancouver has an interesting core, and that doesn’t even factor in beastly Vasili Podkolzin once his KHL contract ends plus possible leaps in long-term development for the likes of Adam Gaudette and Kole Lind up front and Olli Juolevi on defense in seasons to come. General manager Jim Benning didn’t necessarily earn glowing reviews when he shelled out big money for defenseman Tyler Myers and power forward Micheal Ferland, not to mention trading for J.T. Miller this summer, but there’s no question they make the team better in the short term. And maybe Benning took a look at his youth core, and the fact the Pacific Division looks so weak this year, and figured it wouldn’t take too much to grow Vancouver into a top-four team in the division as early as this season. The playoffs aren’t a must, but it wouldn’t be a shock if Vancouver snagged the final wildcard spot.
WINDOW CLOSING: San Jose Sharks
Even if the reports are true and Joe Thornton is about to re-sign, the Sharks lost Joe Pavelski, Gustav Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi from their forward group this summer. It’s tough to beat Logan Couture, Tomas Hertl, Timo Meier and Evander Kane as your top two centers and left wingers, but San Jose looks awfully top heavy right now. The Sharks aren’t too young, either. Defensive superstar Brent Burns is 34. Blanketing shutdown artist Marc-Edouard Vlasic is 32 and already showing signs of decline. Erik Karlsson, 29, just signed an eight-year, $92-million contract to remain a Shark. He’s a Hall of Fame talent, but he’s battled major health problems in recent seasons, so it’s debatable how many elite years he last left.
If Thornton returns, the Sharks will be asking him to get by on his considerable guile again at 40. Even Couture has quietly turned 30. San Jose still has plenty of savvy, defensively responsible players and has reached the Western Conference final or better twice in the past four seasons, but it lost some major pieces this summer and could not afford to replace them, so this team is (a) older and (b) weaker on paper. Still competitive: yes. Still a major Cup threat: I don’t think so, though I’ve been wrong before when it comes to the ageless Sharks.
WINDOW FOGGED UP: Arizona Coyotes
What do you call GM John Chayka’s operation at this point? The Coyotes have fallen under the rebuilder label seemingly forever but finally made some strides in 2018-19, gelling in coach Rich Tocchet’s second season and coming within four points of a playoff spot. By trading left winger Alex Galchenyuk and prospect D-man Pierre-Olivier Joseph to the Pittsburgh Penguins for right winger Phil Kessel this off-season, Chayka indicated emphatically he wants this team to take the next step. You don’t bring in Kessel, a two-time Cup champ who turns 32 in October, as the shepherd of a rebuild. The Desert Dogs hope Kessel and a full season of Nick Schmaltz, returning from an ACL tear, can give cornerstone forward Clayton Keller the support he needs. Keller is just 21, Schmaltz is 23, and Barrett Hayton, 2018’s fifth-overall pick, could challenge for a roster spot at 19.
The Coyotes should get good goaltending regardless of who wins the battle between Antti Raanta and Darcy Kuemper, and they still have the tremendous Oliver-Ekman-Larsson ruling the defense corps. So this team has a chance to get over the hump and make the playoffs. But what does the future hold? Arizona has a collection of promising youngsters, sure, but it pales in comparison to Vancouver’s or what we saw from Winnipeg and Toronto when they burst into contender status after they spent half-decades stockpiling. The Coyotes are pushing forward without necessarily boasting that aforementioned critical mass of young talent needed for sustained dominance in the NHL, so it’s too early to say their contention window is opening up. They’re caught in purgatory, not identifying as a rebuilder anymore but not looking like a juggernaut in the making, either.
WINDOW SMASHED: Edmonton Oilers
“Ugh.” When a team’s depth chart evokes that reaction, we can only describe the Stanley Cup window as smashed. As new GM, Ken Holland inherited a difficult salary-cap configuration, including the extension for goalie Mikko Koskinen, which Peter Chiarelli somehow was allowed to finalize a couple days before the Oilers fired him. Holland thus didn’t have much flexibility to chase big game this off-season. The most significant decisions included swapping James Neal for Milan Lucic, which, if nothing else, brought the team more goal-scoring upside, and inking 37-year-old Mike Smith to push Koskinen for starts. Shrug emoji.
We can’t call the Oilers completely doomed, of course. They have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl, two of the world’s elite players. McDavid, 22, already has two scoring titles, an MVP, two Ted Lindsays and three straight 100-point campaigns to his name, so he’s every bit the generational talent he was hyped to become. But it’s telling that the Oilers have wrung one playoff berth and one series win out of that all-world production. Not even the best player on Earth can lift this team into contender status.
At least Darnell Nurse, 24, has developed into a viable two-way defender who blends offense, physicality and minute-munching ability, and there’s a strong chance we see intelligent puck-mover Evan Bouchard begin what should be a long run as Edmonton’s best option on the right side. Still, can we look at Edmonton’s developmental class and declare this team a shoo-in to become a superpower in a few years? Defenseman Philip Broberg, this year’s first-round pick, won’t be ready for a couple seasons, and we haven’t seen anyone break through yet from the forward group that includes Kailer Yamamoto and Tyler Benson. There’s still time, but it hasn’t happened so far, and Jesse Puljujarvi, a massive bust at No. 4 overall in 2016, says he won’t return to the NHL unless Edmonton trades him.
The Oil have two all-world players, a couple promising defensemen and…yeah. It’s anyone’s guess what new coach Dave Tippett can do with this group. There’s too much youth to call this a veteran win-now operation but, with McDavid’s best years arriving, too much urgency to sit back and fully rebuild. This franchise is in a state of turmoil.
REBUILDER: Anaheim Ducks
It was an identity-changing summer for Anaheim. Buying out Corey Perry spoke volumes. It told us GM Bob Murray was ready to move on from what had been quite a successful core over the past decade. Ryan Kesler’s hip injury, which might be career-ending, helped make the decision for Murray. Two veteran pillars were gone, with captain Ryan Getzlaf practically the lone holdover from that generation. The Ducks promoted coach Dallas Eakins from their farm club, which sent another message: they want to go young, and it makes sense to do so with the man who has already coached a bunch of their prospects.
The Ducks are relatively fine from the net out. John Gibson is arguably the game’s most talented goaltender. He had no help last season, but if the team around him improves, he’ll start challenging for Vezina Trophies. At 26, he’s young for a goalie. He has tons of time left, as do blueliners Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Cam Fowler in front of him. At forward, Getzlaf and goal-scorer Rickard Rakell remain the focal points, but the next generation will get its shot this season. That includes Troy Terry, Sam Steel, Max Comtois and likely Max Jones, with Isac Lundestrom and, eventually, Trevor Zegras on the way. The Ducks have transitioned from team in decline to rebuilder. The goal this season is progress for the kids, not necessarily playoff hockey.
WINDOW CLOSED: Los Angeles Kings
Aren’t the Kings rebuilding? They’ve missed the playoffs three of the past four years, after all, and they’ve used first-round picks to pad their forward pipeline with players like Gabe Vilardi, Rasmus Kupari and Alex Turcotte. But this team still has center Anze Kopitar, 31, and defenseman Drew Doughty, 29, early in their rich long-term contracts. It still has multiple seasons of Jonathan Quick, (33), Dustin Brown (34), Jeff Carter (34) and Ilya Kovalchuk (36) remaining. The Kings have a beefy veteran contingent, most of which comes from the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup years and remains sewn deep into the franchise’s identity.
That means this team is constructed to limp along in mediocrity, still too slow to follow the current NHL blueprint for success. It’s thus tough to see a way out – because L.A. isn’t really built to bottom out. It’s a great tank year with Alexis Lafrienere headlining the 2020 draft class, but try telling that to Doughty or Kopitar or Quick. With many unmovable contracts, the Kings can’t rapid-fire rebuild the way, for instance, the New York Rangers have over the past couple seasons. Instead, L.A. has to follow Detroit’s current path, which, because of all the veteran contracts, moves slowly and painfully.
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