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, others 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 begins with the Atlantic.
WIN-NOW WINDOW: Boston Bruins
When you lose Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final on home ice and, months later, your team is virtually unchanged, it’s a pretty safe bet you remain squarely in a win-now window. The question for Boston is how long that window remains open.
This team clearly has the goods to contend again. It’s armed with hockey’s best line in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, a steady No. 1 goaltender in Tuukka Rask and a well-rounded defense corps built around Charlie McAvoy, Brandon Carlo and Torey Krug. But captain Zdeno Chara will be 43 by the 2020 post-season. Bergeron is 34 and has missed 35 games over his past two seasons. David Krejci is 33. Marchand, fresh off his first 100-point effort, is 31. So the decline years loom for Boston’s key veterans left over from the 2011 championship squad. This team still has an excellent foundation for the next generation in McAvoy, Pastrnak and net-crashing winger Jake DeBrusk, but the prospect pipeline isn’t bursting with future superstars. That’s to be expected for any perennial contender that rarely picks in the top half of the draft.
The Bruins, then, enter 2019-20 with more urgency than rivals Tampa and Toronto, whose star players are on the right side of 30.
WINDOW WIDE OPEN: Tampa Bay Lightning, Toronto Maple Leafs
In a shocking twist, a team that won an NHL record-tying 62 games last season remains a strong bet to compete for the Stanley Cup. The Lightning were victims of an upset for the ages, swept by the Columbus Blue Jackets in Round 1, but remain a lock to tear up the regular season and position themselves at the top of the league again. Looking at their prime pieces – goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, centers Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, right winger Nikita Kucherov and defenseman Victor Hedman – every one of them remains in his 20s. Kucherov is the reigning league MVP and scoring champ, and Vasilevskiy is the reigning Vezina winner, while Point is just commencing his prime and young blueliner Mikhail Sergachev hasn’t entered his. Assuming they can sort out RFA Point’s contract, they still have years and years of contention left. Keep in mind all their stars are signed to long-term pacts, with Stamkos’ ending the “soonest” in 2023-24.
The Leafs are structured similarly, right down to the RFA as the lone fly in the ointment. Assuming they can sort out the Mitch Marner situation, they, too, have a young group of star-caliber players signed for multiple seasons and in their primes: Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander and John Tavares up front, Morgan Rielly on defense, Frederik Andersen in net.
The Leafs arguably have a bit more pressure on them than the Lightning, however, because (a) the Leafs have bombed out in Round 1 of the playoffs three straight seasons, (b) Andersen has just two years left on his contract and (c) Rielly will literally be their lone defenseman signed after 2019-20. Newly acquired Tyson Barrie is a UFA, as are Jake Muzzin, Cody Ceci, Justin Holl and Martin Marincin, while Travis Dermott, Ben Harpur and Jordan Schmaltz go RFA. It would thus be nice to see significant progress in Toronto’s Cup quest with a lot of uncertainty over next summer. Still, the base of stars should keep Toronto relevant for the next half decade.
WINDOW OPENING: Florida Panthers
Is this finally Florida’s year? Signing Sergei Bobrovsky should do wonders for a team that finished 30th in save percentage last season. Hiring Joel Quenneville as head coach should do wonders for, well, everything. And he has some nice clay to mold. Look at Florida’s projected top-nine forward corps: Jonathan Huberdeau, Aleksander Barkov, Evgenii Dadonov, Mike Hoffman, Vincent Trocheck, Owen Tippett, Frank Vatrano, Henrik Borgstrom, Brett Connolly. Dadonov and Hoffman are the graybeards of the group at 30 and 29, and both go UFA next summer, but Barkov has arrived in his prime as an elite two-way center. Borgstrom is just getting started, and the Panthers have quite an impressive prospect pipeline at forward including Tippett, Aleksi Heponiemi and Grigori Denisenko.
Considering Aaron Ekblad and Mike Matheson have years of tread left on their tires at 23 and 25, respectively, and Bobrovsky is young in goalie years at 30, this team is built to threaten the other Atlantic alpha dogs for many seasons to come. We’ve arguably never gotten to enjoy a true ‘Battle of Florida’ rivalry, but that may change soon with both teams looking loaded.
WINDOW FOGGED UP: Buffalo Sabres, Montreal Canadiens
These two teams befuddle prognosticators for different reasons. We keep expecting the big rise from Buffalo, and it teased by vaulting into first overall before Christmas last season before regressing into the sad-sack Sabres in the second half. Still, Jack Eichel and Rasmus Dahlin will keep getting better, especially the teen wunderkind Dahlin, whose 44 points last season where the second most all-time by an 18-year-old defenseman. Sam Reinhart is starting to look more like the prospect who warranted a No. 2 overall pick in 2014, and the Sabres smartly overpaid to keep 40-goal man Jeff Skinner and round out that top line. General manager Jason Botterill further repaired his blueline by trading for righties Colin Miller and Henri Jokiharju this summer. Charismatic Ralph Krueger, most famous in hockey circles for guiding ragtag Team Europe to the 2016 World Cup final, makes for an interesting boom/bust hire. Also factoring in the Marcus Johansson signing, the Sabres should improve to the point of flirting with the post-season bubble.
The Canadiens defied expectations last season by looking more competitive than expected. They got a breakout effort from center Max Domi, a healthy season from goalie Carey Price, a return to vintage form from defenseman Shea Weber and feisty, speedy team play under coach Claude Julien. They’d arguably be better off bottoming out but can’t really do that with Price and Weber aboard, so the franchise seems committed to a hybrid approach, keeping some vets while developing a youth generation behind them. Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Ryan Poehling debuted last season, while Nick Suzuki has a chance to make the big club for 2019-20, and draft-day steal Cole Caufield is a pretty strong bet to turn pro after one season at Wisconsin. The future is thus interesting for Montreal thanks to that quartet of forwards, but the current hybrid team structure makes the Stanley Cup forecast extremely murky. We really don’t know this team’s identity.
REBUILDERS: Detroit Red Wings, Ottawa Senators
The Wings and Senators know who they are at this point. New Detroit GM Steve Yzerman played things conservatively this off-season. He likely knows he’s hamstrung by the collection of ugly leftover veteran contracts he inherited and didn’t make the mistake of believing his team is ready to contend yet. Detroit has begun doing something it never got to do during its 25-year playoff streak: hoard high-end prospects. Recent first-rounders Filip Zadina, Joe Veleno and Moritz Seider will eventually elevate the team’s talent level to support leader Dylan Larkin and project Michael Rasmussen but, aside from Zadina, won’t be making an NHL impact this season. Detroit remains years away from contention.
The Senators have gone full scorched-earth. After trading Erik Karlsson, Matt Duchene and Mark Stone within the past calendar year, they’ve officially hit bottom, and that’s a good thing in that the most painful phase is complete. Now, Ottawa hands the keys to defenseman Thomas Chabot and left winger Brady Tkachuk and, with the roster’s bones picked clean, there’s room for a new generation of high-ceiling prospects to earn NHL jobs this season: Drake Batherson, Logan Brown and Alex Formenton at forward and Erik Brannstrom on defense. The Sens actually have a promising prospect harvest right now and could be a bit better than expected in 2019-20, but there’s no question they’re true rebuilders. The Stanley Cup could not be further from their minds at the moment.
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