Welcome to part 3 of Stanley Cup Windows, an annual blog series in which I (attempt to) assess where each NHL team sits on its road to Stanley Cup contention. Some are squarely in their glory years, others have approached desperate win-now junctures, others are watching their Cup hopes slip away and some are obvious rebuilders.
So how does the Cup-window landscape look for 2021-22? Give the snow globe a vigorous shake. That’ll give you a fair sense of what to expect from the NHL’s standings: chaos. For the first time since March 2020, the NHL’s divisions will align under their traditional structures: Atlantic, Central, Metropolitan and Pacific. Which teams will emerge as the alphas? It’s difficult to know when so many haven’t faced each other in a year and a half. The Seattle Kraken also join the fray as the league’s 32nd franchise.
This year’s Stanley Cup Windows exercise should prove particularly challenging, then. But that’s part of the fun. We’ll continue with the always-competitive Central Division, in which more teams than not have ambitious aspirations for 2021-22.
WINDOW WIDE OPEN
(In position to contend for multiple seasons)
Sure, losing starting goaltender Philipp Grubauer, middle-six wingers Brandon Saad and Joonas Donskoi and defenseman Ryan Graves wasn’t ideal this off-season. Last season was the last window to field a juggernaut before top-line left winger Gabriel Landeskog and star defenseman Cale Makar needed fat new contracts, so it was a missed opportunity when Colorado fell to the Vegas Golden Knights in Round 2 of the playoffs. Now, Colorado enters the top-heavy cap-crunch roster formation that plagues star-studded teams. That’s why it had to let Grubauer walk as a UFA. Going forward, GM Joe Sakic will have to be increasingly wily in finding bargains to fill out the depth roles in his roster, just as Stan Bowman, Jim Rutherford and Julien BriseBois have.
No biggie, though. The Avs still have a core of superstars in center Nathan MacKinnon, right winger Mikko Rantanen and Makar. They have two more excellent two-way defensemen in Devon Toews and Samuel Girard. They have useful second-line support from center Nazem Kadri and Andre Burakovsky. They also haven’t finished feeding their lineup with high-end prospects. Center Alex Newhook and defenseman Bowen Byram cut their teeth last season and represent the next wave. The Avs, then, still have many years left of elite-tier contention…as long as they can get MacKinnon’s next contract figured out. He’s a steal at $6.3 million for two more seasons. He’ll double that AAV on his next pact.
(Badly need to win now, big consequences if team falls short)
I was tempted to put the Stars, who just missed the playoffs and have the oldest average age of any Western Conference team, in ‘Window Wide Open’ tier because their most important players are in their primes or not even there yet. This team belongs to defenseman Miro Heiskanen, center Roope Hintz and left winger Jason Robertson now, and Jake Oettinger looks like a sturdy bet as Dallas’ goalie of the future. On the other hand, signing Ryan Suter, 36, sent a message that the Stars want to take a big swing before previous core-regime members Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov, not to mention ageless wonder Joe Pavelski, age out. Key puck-moving defenseman John Klingberg is also on the final season of his deal.
Another hint that Dallas feels a sense of urgency: with Ben Bishop possibly missing the entire season due to knee surgery, the Stars easily could’ve handed the net to Jake Oettinger, who looked like he belonged in his rookie year. Instead, they crowded their crease by signing Braden Holtby, 32, to pair with Anton Khudobin, 35. General manager Jim Nill seems determined to get this team back to the playoffs and deep into the playoffs immediately. Given Pavelski, Radulov and Holtby are pending UFAs, the 2022-23 Stars roster might look radically different than this one, and it’s not a given that Nill will be able to spend wildly to replace the departures. Robertson and Gurianov will need new contracts as RFAs, while Hintz will be eligible to sign an extension a year out from his next RFA year.
No more excuses. The Jets have a chance to make noise with their most balanced roster since they reached the 2017-18 Western Conference final. Their high-end forward corps remains appealing, with center Mark Scheifele, left winger Kyle Connor and right winger Nikolaj Ehlers smack in their primes. In Connor Hellebuyck, they have one of the top few goaltenders on the planet. And, finally, they fortified their blueline this past off-season by trading for Nate Schmidt and Brendan Dillon. Across the past two seasons, the Jets owned the third-highest expected goals against per 60 and allowed the second-most high-danger scoring chances per 60 at 5-on-5. If they can remedy their defensive woes, they’ll be dangerous. It also wouldn’t be a surprise to see young center Pierre-Luc Dubois bounce back significantly after a turbulent 2020-21 in which he was traded during the season and endured a long quarantine period.
There’s urgency in Winnipeg, however, following consecutive playoff disappointments. Captain Blake Wheeler, 35, is running out of good years, while middle-six fixtures Paul Stastny and Andrew Copp are UFAs. If the Jets don’t make a deeper run this season, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff might have to consider a jarring roster shakeup.
St. Louis Blues
The Blues are a veteran team a couple seasons removed from winning a Cup. They’re positioned to stay competitive for several more seasons because so much of their core is signed long term. Defensemen Colton Parayko, Torey Krug and Justin Faulk are signed for nine, six and six more seasons, respectively. Center Brayden Schenn has seven years remaining on his deal, while off-season additions Brandon Saad and Pavel Buchnevich signed five- and four-year contracts, respectively. Even starting goaltender Jordan Binnington signed a six-year extension that commences this season. Their next generation of impact players is beginning to percolate, too. Speedy right winger Jordan Kyrou made a major leap last season, while brainy two-way forward Robert Thomas still has plenty of time to get back on track if he can stay healthy.
That’s the good news. The bad news: many of those contracts are set up to age poorly. Given their big bodies and physical games, how effective will the likes of Schenn, already 30, and Parayko, 28, be six or seven years from now? Binnington was a phenomenal rookie but has been merely average in two seasons since. The Blues have no idea what they’ll get from right winger Vladimir Tarasenko, who has requested a trade, and top center Ryan O’Reilly has just two seasons left on his contract, so it’s possible this incarnation of the Blues has actually peaked. They remind me of the Los Angeles Kings around 2015 or 2016, having rewarded their veteran players with long, lucrative contracts after winning Stanley Cups but setting themselves up for gradual decline.
The Hawks? Urgency to win now? But they just signed Seth Jones to an eight-year contract. True, but they sacrificed two first-round picks plus high-pedigree blueliner Adam Boqvist in the process. Star right winger Patrick Kane is two years away from unrestricted free agency and at some point will presumably begin to decline, while center Jonathan Toews’ health is a question mark even if he successfully returns from chronic immune response syndrome. The splashy trade for reigning Vezina Trophy winning goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury could also be a one-off, as he’s in the final season of his contract.
If the Hawks flop this season, then, they may have to take a step back and resume their rebuild. At least they have pieces to build around in Jones, left wingers Alex DeBrincat and Dominik Kubalik and center Kirby Dach.
(Commencing new phase of playoff contention, low pressure, modest expectations from fans)
Obviously, placing the Wild in this category presumes Calder Trophy winning left winger Kirill Kaprizov signs in time for the season. His scintillating debut signalled an exciting shift in Minnesota’s identity. The Wild are still deep on defense and excellent at limiting high-danger chances, and they possess a core of responsible two-way forwards led by Joel Eriksson Ek, but they’re becoming a more exciting and dangerous offensive club, too. Left winger Kevin Fiala broke out in 2019-20, Kaprizov did last season, and perhaps left winger Matt Boldy and center Marco Rossi, the Wild’s first-round selections in 2019 and 2020, make the team and continue the influx of young, dynamic talent.
The Wild already were effective last season thanks to their strong goaltending and depth, but the prospect of the kids taking over gives their long-term outlook some helium.
(Showing some rebuilder behavior while still trying to remain competitive)
The Preds’ off-season decisions indicated they want to get younger, no doubt. They traded right winger Viktor Arvidsson for draft picks and traded top-pair defenseman Ryan Ellis in a three-team deal that netted them defenseman Philippe Myers and center Cody Glass. By not adding a direct replacement for Arvidsson, they leave their depth chart open for Eeli Tolvanen and perhaps prospect Phil Tomasino to climb.
That said, the Preds aren’t exactly rebuilders, either. They still have stud defenseman Roman Josi anchoring their D-corps. Juuse Saros was one of the NHL’s best goaltenders last season. Because of their massive cap hits and chunky remaining terms, centers Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen aren’t going anywhere. Nashville, then, is positioned for more of a competitive rebuild. If the season goes south quickly, the Preds will attract a feeding frenzy of offers for left winger Filip Forsberg and defenseman Mattias Ekholm. Moving either of them would signal a transition to a true rebuild in Music City.
(Laying foundation for the future, not interested in pursuing a Cup right now)
You know a rebuild is unabashed when you trade a top-six forward, who led your team in minutes and faceoffs taken last season, purely for futures just weeks before training camp. That’s what GM Bill Armstrong did when he dealt Christian Dvorak to the Montreal Canadiens for a 2022 first-rounder and 2024 second-rounder Sept. 4. Armstrong punted starting netminder Darcy Kuemper to the Colorado Avalanche for draft picks this summer, too. He also traded one of his top-two defensemen, Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and his best goal-scorer, Conor Garland, to the Vancouver Canucks as part of a long-term salary dump trade that landed Arizona a first-round pick. They used it to draft a legitimately exciting prospect in right winger Dylan Guenther.
The Coyotes, who don’t even have an arena to play in for 2022-23 right now, care less about winning than any team in the NHL at the moment. Armstrong recognizes that, aside from emerging star defenseman Jakob Chychrun, this team has few components of a long-term contender. It’s an ideal time for a roster teardown given the breathtaking talent available early in the first round of the 2022 and 2023 draft classes. Arizona owns a staggering eight picks across rounds 1 and 2 in next year’s draft, including three-first rounders.