The Coyotes and Avalanche are the first two teams officially eliminated from the playoffs, but both teams have already started to carve their path to contention. The same can’t be said for some middling teams.
The Arizona Coyotes and Colorado Avalanche are closer to winning a Stanley Cup than the Detroit Red Wings, Los Angeles Kings, Vancouver Canucks or New Jersey Devils.
That’s what our latest THN Roundtable concluded, at least. Asked which team was furthest from the Stanley Cup, the Coyotes and Avalanche, the league’s two lowest-ranking teams, weren’t listed. Instead, four teams spanning from 19th to 28th in the standings took the top spots.
Comments on the Roundtable varied across social media. Some were receptive to the idea of any of the four teams listed being far away, and for any of the multitude reasons given, with everything from lack of prospect depth to salary cap issues as the reasoning. Some thought it made sense that teams who’ve just started their decline could have further years of struggle on the horizon, and that the inevitable rebuild would make it years, maybe even a decade, before any of those four would be able to really, truly compete.
Others, however, thought it foolish not to include the Coyotes or Avalanche. After all, Colorado has been almost historically futile this season and things in Arizona keep looking ready to turn around at any moment without the faintest in-season suggestion that the Coyotes are actually heading down that road. But our decisions to select the Red Wings, Kings, Canucks and Devils were obviously not without reason, and, equally, there’s reason why the Coyotes and Avalanche escaped mention.
Let’s start with Arizona. The Coyotes have consistently been among the league’s worst team over the past three seasons, and since the start of 2014-15, Arizona’s 195 points are a dozen fewer than the next-worst franchise, the Buffalo Sabres. Almost everything has gone against the Coyotes over the past three seasons. They have the third-fewest goals for, a solid foothold on the most goals against, no team is all that close in regulation losses and it should go without saying that no team has won fewer games.
It’s even hard to cherrypick a favorable statistic when it comes to the Coyotes. Their power play has been the 22nd-best over the past three seasons, while their penalty kill is dead last at a dreadful 77.2 percent. Maybe the best thing you can say about Arizona on a base statistical level is that the Coyotes do one heck of a job winning faceoffs. Their 51.7 percent rate is fifth-best in the league.
So, why not list the Coyotes as a team far away from Stanley Cup glory? Well, it’s because we’re three years into a rebuild that has seemingly been done the right way. Arizona struggled mightily, used those struggles to acquire picks and prospects and have built a stock of youngsters that is almost second to none. Only the Winnipeg Jets’ prospect ranking was better in THN’s Future Watch 2017, and the group of prospects the Coyotes have assembled is fantastic.
That’s exactly why Arizona has a better path to the Stanley Cup right now, too. Up front, the Coyotes have Clayton Keller and Dylan Strome on the way, and that adds to an already stellar group of young forwards that includes Max Domi, Brendan Perlini, Christian Dvorak and Christian Fischer, each of whom has gotten at least a taste of the NHL this season. On the back end, Jakob Chychrun has been steady in his rookie year, Oliver Ekman-Larsson is already a savvy veteran at 25 and Anthony Deangelo shows promise as a puck-moving rearguard.
The issue, of course, will be finding the Coyotes’ goaltender of the future. Mike Smith has been the go-to guy in the Arizona crease for the past several seasons, but the 34-year-old’s deal is up in three years. The likelihood he remains the starter much longer is slim. Louis Domingue has regressed after a promising rookie season, but that doesn’t mean he’s a write-off. There’s no bluechip No. 1 in the system, but you can never count out the possibility of finding a starter via trade or free agency.
Getting to a place where all the pieces click is a different story, sure, but having the pieces to work with is the ever-important first step. Arizona has those pieces, and that puts them ahead of the teams with weak prospect depth. None of the four teams listed in the Roundtable have a prospect pool that was ranked in the top half of the league in Future Watch, and the Kings had the misfortune of landing 30th on the list.
Which brings us to the Avalanche. It’s not as if Colorado has an absolutely stunning prospect pool, either, but what the Avalanche do boast is an opportunity to speed up a rebuild that teams rarely have. Some difficult years in Denver have led the Avalanche to build a talented core group that includes Matt Duchene, Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon, but chances are only one of those three would necessarily be considered untouchable. That’s MacKinnon. And there’s been rumblings for the better part of the season that Duchene, Landeskog or both could be on the move.
With that in mind, it’s worth considering what could happen if the Avalanche decide to move one of the two, or find a way to ship out both. Two big trades — and they would be headline-making deals — that send out Duchene and Landeskog could bring back one or a pair of defensemen. In addition, if the Avalanche further bolster their roster with any picks received in such a deal, it could transform a bad situation into one that’s not so hard to stomach in a hurry. In fact, it was this very reasoning that led colleague Ryan Kennedy to have second thoughts about how far off the Avalanche could be.
If Colorado can manage to add a few top-four calibre defensemen to a group that includes Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie, as well as someone with the potential of Nikita Zadorov, it immediately turns a shaky core into one that’s suddenly all the more ready to compete for a playoff spot, at the very least. Better yet, the core only stands to get stronger with a few fresh faces coming in and some youngsters already in the ranks.
Already, MacKinnon has the game-breaking ability that Colorado needs to compete. He’s the cornerstone star up front and arguably more offensively gifted than any other Avalanche player. He’s about to get some company in the lineup, too, and it could come as soon as, say, the 2018-19 campaign. Tyson Jost was one of the standouts at the World Junior Championship, and the 2016 10th-overall pick stands to be part of the future core in Colorado. That gives the Avalanche a nice one-two punch down the middle, and with Mikko Rantanen proving he’s NHL ready, there’s potential for a high-scoring winger to hit his stride alongside youthful pivots.
Like Arizona, the question in Colorado has to be goaltending, but it’d be interesting to see what Calvin Pickard could produce with a more sound defense in front of him. The 24-year-old has struggled at times this season, to be sure, but his .909 save percentage and 2.87 goals-against average are leaps and bounds better than that of oft-injured veteran starter Semyon Varlamov. Pickard has a chance to establish himself as the future in goal if he can improve on this season’s performance when 2017-18 comes around.
Will either the Avalanche or Coyotes be winning the Stanley Cup in the next few seasons? Even the staunchest supporter of either team would be remiss to say that. However, unlike other teams who are only beginning their declines, Colorado and Arizona have already seen their dark days and there’s a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel. It could take another five-plus seasons before either team’s recent futility bears the fruit of post-season contention, but the Avalanche and Coyotes are headed in the right direction. That puts them ahead of a few of the league’s other franchises.
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