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 Metropolitan.
WIN-NOW WINDOW: Washington Capitals
This is a veteran team, one year removed from a Stanley Cup, determined to win another on the backs of established veterans. Superstar Alex Ovechkin turns 34 in September. Right winger T.J. Oshie is 32. Center Nicklas Backstrom is 31. Stalwart blueliner John Carlson and goaltender Braden Holtby are 29. The core of this roster is exiting its collective prime, and even the “younger” key contributors, from Evgeny Kuznetsov to Dmitry Orlov, are in their mid-to-late 20s. Because of the Caps’ recent run of success, they haven’t picked inside the draft’s top 20 since 2014, so their prospect pipeline doesn’t ooze future star power aside from goaltending phenom Ilya Samsonov. The Caps thus can’t count on guaranteed success in the near future from their next wave.
Complicating matters: Backstrom and Holtby enter the final seasons of their contracts. Backstrom will likely re-sign but, after a decade of excellent playmaking, will command a raise toward an AAV likely in the $8-million range at minimum. Things get interesting with Holtby, who will likely use Sergei Bobrovsky’s seven-year, $70-million pact as a comparable in negotiations. Samsonov’s opportunity awaits, so do the Capitals want to retain Holtby for his 30s? With an aging roster and a lot of contract uncertainly looming, Washington and GM Brian MacLellan should go all-in to win another championship this year.
WINDOW WIDE OPEN: Carolina Hurricanes
The Canes boast an exciting blend of established success and ascending youth. We already saw last season that this team, armed with a dominant D-corps and strong possession play, was good enough to upset the Capitals and reach the Eastern Conference final. The blueline should remain strong as ever, built around Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, Dougie Hamilton and Justin Faulk, with Haydn Fleury and Jake Bean, two first-round picks, starting to earn more responsibility over time. Up front, center Sebastian Aho broke the 80-point barrier in just this third season. He’s still just 22, and his key support includes Teuvo Teravainen, 24, Nino Niederreiter, 26, and sophomore sniper Andrei Svechnikov, 19. Center Jordan Staal feels like a fossil because he debuted in the NHL so young, but he's quietly just 30. In his elder-statesman shutdown role, he has some useful years left.
Also keep in mind that Carolina’s farm club, the Charlotte Checkers, just won the AHL Calder Cup, so help is on the way. The most intriguing contributor on that team was Martin Necas, Carolina’s first-round pick in the 2017 draft, who has potential to grow into the Canes’ long-term No. 2 center. Carolina has to hope it gets more consistency from goaltender Petr Mrazek, who didn’t wake up until after the all-star break last season, and it needs its youngest defensemen to develop in anticipation of losing Faulk as a UFA next summer. Still, this is a fast, intelligent, well-coached group of players. The Storm Surges should be plentiful for the next several seasons.
WINDOW OPENING: Philadelphia Flyers
Admittedly, I’m projecting a bit here. But we already know the Flyers have a useful veteran forward corps including Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek and James van Riemsdyk, and let's stop and think about their additions and ascending assets. Even though they overpaid Kevin Hayes, he obviously strengthens them at center, and veteran defenders Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun can handle some dirty-work assignments while mentoring the youth crop on defense.
Now let’s discuss that youth crop further. The Flyers boast Ivan Provorov, coming off a down year but still just 22 and oozing all-star potential. Travis Sanheim broke through last season, while puck-mover Shayne Gostisbehere, albeit a bit one-dimensional, is in his prime at 26. Now factor in rising first-line right winger Travis Konecny, owner of consecutive 24-goal seasons before his 23rd birthday; center Nolan Patrick, who has been a bust as 2017’s No. 2 overall pick thus far but is just 20 and should get insulated matchups now with Hayes in town; and the fact Philly has some exciting forward prospects knocking on the door in Morgan Frost and Joel Farabee, not to mention another blue-chipper on defense in Cam York. Oh, and some young kid name Carter Hart stops pucks for them. He was hyped as “the first legit long-term Flyers goalie since Ron Hextall” and looked the part as a 20-year-old rookie.
Toss in Philly’s hiring of the experienced Alain Vigneault as head coach, and the arrow points skyward – immediately and for the next several seasons. The Flyers’ time is coming.
WINDOW FOGGED UP: New York Islanders
The Isles are difficult to project in the near and distant future. They’re fresh off a highly successful season in which they made the playoffs despite losing John Tavares as a UFA and swept the Pittsburgh Penguins in Round 1. The Isles, though, outperformed their peripherals. They were one of the league’s worst possession teams but sported the “best defense in the league” according to the goals-against column because they led the NHL in save percentage. One half of their stellar tandem, Robin Lehner, signed with Chicago, so goalie guru Mitch Korn will attempt to work another miracle with Semyon Varlamov.
The Islanders’ roster core includes a strong first line centered by sublimely talented Mathew Barzal, with captain Anders Lee and playoff performer Jordan Eberle on the wings. The rest of New York’s lineup doesn’t have a sky-high ceiling, however, and this team isn’t all that young aside from Barzal, left winger Anthony Beauvillier and defenseman Ryan Pulock. The majority of the impact forwards fall in the late 20s/early 30s range, while minute munchers Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy are 35 and 28, respectively. Collectively, the existing Isles core isn’t likely to get much better than it is right now, and it was a pretty lucky group in 2018-19, leading the NHL in PDO.
The Isles do have quite a strong crop of prospects, of course, including scorers Kiefer Bellows and Oliver Wahlstrom and defensemen Noah Dobson and Bode Wilde. But the organization has struggled developing its kids in recent seasons, from Griffin Reinhart to Michael Dal Colle to Josh Ho-Sang, and Bellows scuffled as an AHL rookie last year. Theoretically, there’s an exciting pack of reinforcements coming, but we’ve learned to take a wait-and-see approach with this franchise’s kids. That said, things should continue to improve under GM Lou Lamoriello’s watch. As a whole, though, the Isles’ future is cloudy. Maybe this is a future Cup contender. Maybe not.
WINDOW CLOSING: Pittsburgh Penguins
The process has been slow and steady. The Pens win two straight Cups. The Pens lose in the second round. The Pens get swept in Round 1. The next rung on the ladder suggests a playoff miss and the crumbling of an empire. And GM Jim Rutherford found himself painted into a corner this off-season with a deadly combination of maxed-out cap space and little to no help rising up from the farm since the Penguins’ prospect group was the NHL’s shallowest and weakest. He did do something, trading Phil Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes for Alex Galchenyuk and an actual prospect in defenseman Pierre-Olivier Joseph. Unless Joseph surprisingly makes the Pens this year, however, swapping Kessel for pending UFA Galchenyuk makes Pittsburgh worse in the short term.
As for the long term, franchise legends Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are 32 and 33. Crosby shows no signs of aging yet, but Malkin is good to miss double-digit games almost every season now, while No. 1 blueliner Kris Letang, 32, considers 70 games a healthy year. We know who the Pens are: a proud franchise that has produced three championships since 2009 but is watching its pillars exit their prime years. This team obviously has too much talent to be a pushover but is clearly trending away from Cup contention, not toward it. The glory days are likely finished.
WINDOW SMASHED: Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets are in pieces after losing all three of their big-ticket UFAs: Bobrovsky, Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene. They have to start over in net with a who-knows tandem of Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins. They'll hope UFA signee Gustav Nyquist can be 75 percent of what Panarin was on line 1 with Pierre-Luc Dubois and Cam Atkinson. And maybe young center Alexandre Texier, who quickly earned coach John Tortorella's trust in the playoffs, makes a meaningful contribution as a rookie.
It feels like the Jackets have slipped into a rebuild situation, but they still have Seth Jones and Zach Werenski patrolling their blueline, and Tortorella-coached teams are always strong bets for hustle and defense, so we can't say for certain this team will be terrible. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen taped together what was left of his roster. We'll have a better sense of its new direction a year from now.
REBUILDERS: New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers
The hype for the Devils and Rangers makes me want to graduate them from rebuilders to contenders, as they really have done great things this summer. But neither team is in a rush. General managers Ray Shero and Jeff Gorton have exercised good patience over the past couple years, and these franchises seem wired to peak in another year or two just as the longtime juggernauts Pittsburgh and Washington step down.
The Devils made the playoffs in 2017-18, carried by MVP Taylor Hall, but it was noteworthy when Shero did so little the ensuing off-season. His confidence wasn’t artificially inflated. He understood his team needed to bottom out a bit more to score the critical prospect mass necessary for long-term contention, and he got rewarded in the best way possible when the Devils missed the playoffs, won the draft lottery for the second time in three years and drafted Jack Hughes first overall. Now, Shero can start building around Hughes, Hischier and, eventually, blueliner Ty Smith. At least for now, Taylor Hall remains in tow, Nikita Gusev brings intriguing upside after setting a KHL single-season record for assists, and P.K. Subban anchors the defense corps.
There’s a case to be made that the Devils intend to contend right now, as Hall is a pending UFA, Subban was very much a win-now addition and Shero also signed Wayne Simmonds, but the overall identity of this team is still very young. Keep in mind the Simmonds signing was for one year, which means he can be sold off as a trade-deadline chip if the Devils aren’t good enough to make the playoffs in Hughes’ first season. New Jersey’s future hasn’t been this exciting in many years, but it’s not an utter failure if the team needs an extra season to get playoff-ready.
The Rangers only penned their fan letter, in which they committed to a youth-oriented rebuild, in 2018, so they don’t have to race back toward contention. Still, Gorton has made so many slick moves that this team may start winning games ahead of schedule. He made six first-round picks over the past three drafts, the most important of which was projected franchise player Kaapo Kakko at No. 2 overall this June. Gorton used a seventh first-rounder in a coup of a trade to acquire 25-year-old shutdown D-man Jacob Trouba. Gorton then caught the top UFA fish, left winger Panarin.
It’s possible Panarin forms a deadly first line with Mika Zibanejad and Pavel Buchnevich on Day 1, that power forward Vitali Kravtsov makes the team, that Trouba significantly improves the D-corps and that Rangers are surprisingly relevant this season. But there truly is no need to hurry. This team is loaded with youth, with a lot more coming up the pipeline. The goal is a decade or more of contention, and if that starts in 2019-20, it’s merely gravy.
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