Welcome back to 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 start with the Pacific Division, which is arguably the toughest to project.
(Badly need to win now, big consequences if team falls short)
Vegas Golden Knights, Edmonton Oilers, Vancouver Canucks
Placing Vegas, Edmonton and Vancouver in the same tier does not mean they sit on equal footing. It means they all have similar goals in the present, as suggested by their financial behavior.
The Golden Knights are obviously an elite-tier Stanley Cup contender. If they can find a way to fill their glaring hole at No. 1 center, they’re positioned as well as any team in the league to win the Stanley Cup. Alex Pietrangelo and Shea Theodore anchor an excellent D-corps. Top-line wingers Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone make Vegas a consistently dominant play-driving team. If Robin Lehner’s body co-operates, he can perform at an all-star level as Vegas’ No. 1 goaltender. But owner Bill Foley’s consistent, hands-on commitment to aggressive pursuit of the Stanley Cup has made Vegas’ management cavalier about trading away picks and prospects. This team is not young, especially when it comes to its core performers. Five of Vegas’ top six forwards are between 28 and 32. Three of Vegas’ top four blueliners are 30 or older. The Golden Knights are far from rickety, but they need to win a Cup in the next year or two.
The Oilers are clearly behaving with a similar mindset, desperate to stop wasting the peak years of superstar centers Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. It’s why GM Ken Holland was wiling to sign UFA left winger Zach Hyman to a seven-year contract at a $5.5-million AAV. Hyman, 29, plays a physically taxing style and might begin declining rapidly by the third season of that deal, but the Oilers don’t care. They need to make a serious championship run sooner than that. That’s also why they grossly overpaid for two seasons of 38-year-old Duncan Keith at his full AAV of $5.54 million and why they brought back 39-year-old goaltender Mike Smith. The Oilers believe experienced veterans like these will help get them over the hump and win in the present. It’s debatable how much they’ve actually improved, but they undoubtedly believe they have.
The Canucks showed a lot of promise in 2019-20 and endured a nightmarish 2020-21 that included a devastating COVID-19 outbreak and a playoff miss. General manager Jim Benning throttled up to the max this off-season, acquiring defenseman Oliver Ekman-Larsson and his gargantuan contract along with goal-scorer Conor Garland. The ‘OEL’ acquisition in particular tells us the Canucks don’t care what the consequences will be a few seasons from now. They believe OEL can make the team better in the short term. With a talented core led by centers Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat, right winger Brock Boeser, defenseman Quinn Hughes and goaltender Thatcher Demko, and with promising prospect right winger Vasili Podkolzin expected to make a splash this season, the Canucks have potential to rebound significantly in 2021-22, especially in such a weak division. If their play in their own end doesn’t improve, however, they could flop again miserably. The Canucks were the worst defensive team in hockey last season, allowing the most scoring chances and shot attempts at 5-on-5. This feels like a make-or-break season for Benning and coach Travis Green.
(Commencing new phase of playoff contention, low pressure, modest expectations from fans)
Los Angeles Kings
Here’s another case of a team’s transactions telegraphing its intentions. The Kings were extremely conservative in the 2019 and 2020 off-seasons, quietly continuing to amass an enviable prospect pipeline. This off-season? They traded multiple draft picks for right winger Viktor Arvidsson, signed center Phillip Danault for six years at a $5.5-mllion AAV and even picked up a twilight-years veteran on defense in Alexander Edler. The Kings are ready to reload while top center Anze Kopitar still has useful years left. They believe they’re reached a critical mass of excellent prospects, led by forwards Quinton Byfield, Alex Turcotte and Arthur Kaliyev. They think they’ve found Jonathan Quick’s successor in goal in Cal Petersen. The Kings are ready to push for a playoff spot in a soft division.
WINDOW FOGGED UP
(Unpredictable outcome and differing opinions on whether team is a contender or pretender)
Calgary Flames, Seattle Kraken
The Calgary Flames fell on their faces in 2020-21 to the point they fired coach Geoff Ward mid-season and replaced him with a high-profile retread in Darryl Sutter despite the fact Sutter’s style clashed with the Flames’ needs. Sutter won a Stanley Cup coaching heavy, grinding Kings teams, and he inherited a scoring-starved Flames roster relatively low on size and grit. The Flames and GM Brad Treliving, however, refuse to go backward to go forward. They held onto left winger Johnny Gaudreau and center Sean Monahan this summer despite the trade rumors. After spending big last off-season on goaltender Jacob Markstrom and defenseman Chris Tanev, Treliving dipped into the free-agent waters this year for another splashy signing: Blake Coleman, who can play all three forward positions and brings a heart-and-soul game highly suited to Sutter hockey. Star left winger Matthew Tkachuk has been open about the urgency in Calgary, the need to accomplish something significant, but are we sure this team is better than it was a year ago? Coleman will help in the short term, but how much does he move the needle? And what will become of the Flames dressing-room culture after the Kraken swiped captain Mark Giordano in the expansion draft? Calgary’s range of outcomes this season feels wide.
The Kraken’s fate, understandably, is anyone’s guess. The helium left the balloon on expansion-draft night when GM Ron Francis extorted shockingly little pick-and-prospect capital from other teams in side deals, but the implication at the time was that Seattle would do more damage in free agency, and that proved true. After using expansion-draft picks in UFA deals for defensemen Adam Larsson and Jamie Oleksiak and goaltender Chris Driedger, the Kraken stayed aggressive when the market opened July 28, nabbing left winger Jaden Schwartz and, most notably, top UFA goaltender Philipp Grubauer. The latter signing, which carries a $5.9-mllion AAV for the next six seasons, signified that Francis believes this team can contend for the playoffs in Year 1. In net and on defense, Seattle looks the part, but the underwhelming forward group might have trouble scoring, so we can’t consider this team a surefire playoff contender.
(Little hope for success in the present or the near future)
San Jose Sharks
The Sharks were so consistently competitive for so long in the Doug Wilson era. Similar to what we saw in the waning days of Holland’s time as Red Wings GM, however, being so good for so long brings repercussions. You end up with very few high-end picks and prospects because you’ve traded some away or rarely finished low enough to land high draft slots. You end up chasing the idea of always being in the hunt, which leads to handing out a lot of money for veteran UFAs. Once the Stanley Cup window closes, you’re saddled with past-their prime veterans.
That’s roughly where the Sharks sit right now, having missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons for the first time since Wilson became GM in 2003. Because they handed out such chunky contracts to their core members, from Erik Karlsson to Brent Burns, they’ve become increasingly top-heavy in recent seasons, which is a difficult configuration for a team that has a depleted prospect group and thus can’t fill depth roster spots with high-pedigree players. The probable season-long loss of left winger Evander Kane erodes San Jose’s depth even further, and center Tomas Hertl’s name has begun populating trade-rumor mills. Prediction: 2021-22 is the season San Jose bottoms out and finally accepts its fate as a team that must rebuild.
(Laying foundation for the future, not interested in pursuing a Cup right now)
The Ducks’ intentions are clear. They made 0.0 high-impact additions this off-season. They understand that they’re not done their rock-bottom phase yet and that they need to keep rebuilding their pipeline. Center Trevor Zegras and defenseman Jamie Drysdale, both Calder Trophy candidates, are the Ducks’ best prospects since Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. It took playoff misses and top-10 draft slots to land Zegras and Drysdale, and the Ducks nabbed another key cornerstone in center Mason McTavish third overall in the 2021 draft. He’s the franchise's first top-three selection since Bobby Ryan in 2005. The Ducks are locked into rebuild mode.