Our Stanley Cup Windows series concludes with the Metropolitan Division. The Central and Atlantic have superpowers ruling at the top, while the Pacific Division has no shoo-in title threat. As for the Metro: let’s call it hockey’s most desperate division, with more teams in win-now mode than any other.
WIN-NOW WINDOW: Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals, Columbus Blue Jackets
No team rests more comfortably on the Stanley Cup windowsill than the Penguins, who have no eye on the future and are simply in go-for-broke mode. And why not? They have to maximize their championship hopes as long as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin remain in their primes. They’ve used one first-round pick in their past five drafts, and they traded that selection, Kasperi Kapanen, in the Phil Kessel deal. Their farm system is as barren as any team’s in the league. And that’s totally OK. The Pens and GM Jim Rutherford know who they are. They still have the high-end talent to push for a third title in four seasons, especially if goalie Matt Murray has a healthier, more effective season in net.
The only worry for the Pens: as soon as Malkin, Crosby, Kessel and blueliner Kris Letang show signs of serious decline, the bottom will fall out. The top-heavy roster model works great for building championship teams, but as soon as the elite guys age out, the support system around them isn’t enough to sustain a winner. That’s exactly what happened to the slowly decaying Chicago Blackhawks over the past three seasons. It’ll happen eventually to Pittsburgh.
Some of the Capitals’ best assets have many prime years ahead of them, from center Evgeny Kuznetsov to blueliner Dmitry Orlov. For the most part, the defending Cup champs are founded on players in their primes, including top defenseman John Carlson and goaltender Braden Holtby. Living legend Alex Ovechkin and fellow stalwarts Nicklas Backstrom and T.J. Oshie are 32, 30 and 31, respectively, so they’ve reached the end of their primes. The Caps can enjoy life as a win-now team for a couple seasons, however, before worrying about the end of an era.
The Blue Jackets may look more like a “window opening” team than a “win-now” team at first glance. They boast the league’s best under-25 blueline tandem in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. They have a budding No. 1 center in Pierre-Luc Dubois, drafted just two years ago. But the Jackets have as much on the line as any team in the NHL this coming season. Two-time Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky and leading scorer Artemi Panarin are UFAs next summer, and trade rumors continue to swirl around Panarin. Unless the Blue Jackets extend these two vital cogs, it’s absolutely imperative they win it all this season or at least go deep enough in the playoffs to convince ‘Bob’ and ‘The Bread Man’ to stay.
WINDOW OPENING: Philadelphia Flyers, New Jersey Devils
The Philadelphia Flyers have an intriguing blend of high-end veteran talent and ascending youngsters. Claude Giroux just finished second in the NHL scoring race and forms an elite first-line tandem with two-way maven Sean Couturier, and veterans James Van Riemsdyk, Jakub Voracek and Wayne Simmonds add to a loaded forward group. Travis Konecny has flashed first-line scoring ability when given the chance and should only get better, as should Nolan Patrick, who had a quiet rookie season after being chosen second overall in the 2017 draft. The Flyers have a stellar stable of good young defensemen, led by Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere, who are stars already, and with Travis Sanheim and Philippe Myers on their way.
Goaltending is, as always, the Flyers’ hang-up, and it’s currently the only thing keeping them from immediate Cup contention and “window wide open” status. The minute prospect Carter Hart gets his NHL chance, though, Philly should enter its prime years. He’s that good. Don’t be surprised if this is the Metro’s alpha-dog team by 2019-20.
I almost put the Devils in the rebuilder category. Even though they made great progress last season, led by Taylor Hall in an MVP effort, it’s telling that GM Ray Shero made virtually no roster upgrades this summer. It was a prudent decision. He’s thinking long-term, not swayed by one good year and not deviating from the plan to build a winner with multiple high-end homegrown assets. With Nico Hischier and Will Butcher coming off promising rookie debuts, it’s fair to say the Devils are rising, but it’s more of a simmer than a boil for now. They’re a competitive club but a few years away from joining the powerhouses.
WINDOW FOGGED UP: Carolina Hurricanes
Tom Dundon took over as owner, has a new GM and coach and acquired Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland and Adam Fox in a blockbuster trade with the Flames. Then, the Hurricanes nabbed coveted shutdown D-man Calvin de Haan with lucrative free-agent contract. Those decisions and public talk of a culture change suggested Carolina wanted to aggressively change its fate after nine consecutive playoff misses. Then came the Jeff Skinner trade, which returned prospect Cliff Pu, a 2019 second-rounder, a 2020 third-rounder and a 2020 sixth-rounder. Skinner had 34 more goals than any other Hurricanes player over the past three seasons, and he’s been replaced with…futures. Rebuilding is a perfectly fine strategy, but it contradicts the message Dundon had been sending so far this off-season. The Canes got older, not younger, swapping Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm for Hamilton and Ferland. But now they’re seemingly punting the 2018-19 season by shipping out their best goal-scorer? It’s anyone’s guess what the short-term vision is for this franchise. No team better embodies the shrug emoji right now.
REBUILDING: New York Islanders, New York Rangers
The Islanders wish they weren’t rebuilders, but John Tavares’ and de Haan’s departures in free agency crushed any dreams of immediate contention. Adding stopgaps Leo Komarov, Matt Martin and Valtteri Filppula reek of new GM Lou Lamoriello priming his roster to tank, just as he did so effectively in Toronto.
Even though Isles fans may feel too demoralized to listen right now, this team does have some exciting players with whom to restart, including Calder Trophy winner Mathew Barzal, fresh off the best rookie year since Malkin’s 2006-07. By pretty much all accounts the Islanders had a great draft, adding goal scorer Oliver Wahlstrom and puck-moving blueliner Noah Dobson to a prospect group already boasting Kieffer Bellows, with Ryan Pulock ready to play big minutes on defense after a breakout 2017-18. The Isles have some great goaltending prospects, too, soon to be mentored by the legendary guru Mitch Korn, who joins the team with new coach Barry Trotz, fresh off his Cup win with Washington. All hope is not lost, though the Isles remain many years away from Cup contention.
Same goes for the Rangers, who have flipped the script on their usual win-now strategy since GM Jeff Gorton and team president Glen Sather promised a commitment to youth in a letter to their fans last winter. So far, so good, with no ill-advised veteran signings. The Blueshirts are content to keep roster spots open for young centers Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil. They enjoyed an unheard-of three picks in the 2018 draft’s first round, nabbing a nifty scorer in Vitali Kravstov plus defensemen K’Andre Miller and Nils Lundkvist. None profiles as a franchise-altering superstar in the mold of Rasmus Dahlin or Connor McDavid, though. The Rangers would be wise to clutch their first-round picks and hoard some more high-end talent to build a true juggernaut down the road. A basement finish and lottery pick in 2018-19 would actually be great news. But is future Hall of Fame goaltender Henrik Lundqvist willing to stomach that?