We resume the 2020-21 Stanley Cup Windows series with the West, a.k.a. the Honda NHL West Division.
Where does each team fall on its contention timeline? Some are going for a do-or-die championship right now. Others are sliding into extended windows of dominance. Others are aging out of contention. And some sit very early in their rebuilding processes.
Disclaimer for Twitter ragers: These. Are. Not. Projected. Standings.
WINDOW WIDE OPEN: Colorado Avalanche, Vegas Golden Knights
The Avalanche are the envy of the NHL, equipped with every possible advantage a franchise could want for its present and future. In the moment, the Avs are an elite Stanley Cup contender. As defenseman Ian Cole put it this week, anything less than a championship is a disappointment in the team’s eyes. In Nathan MacKinnon, the Avs boast, in the eyes of many, the best all-around player in the world today, and he’s flanked by the stellar Gabriel Landeskog and Mikko Rantanen to form an all-world top line. What changed, of course, about the Avs last season was that GM Joe Sakic corrected the one-line team identity by adding Nazem Kadri, Andre Burakovsky and Joonas Donskoi. Sakic deepened the forward group further by landing Brandon Saad this off-season. Calder Trophy winner Cale Makar, who has the look of generational offensive talent on defense, anchors a young, mobile blueline along with Samuel Girard and another good puck-moving addition in Devon Toews.
So we know the Avs have speed and scoring for days – but the scary thing is they haven’t hit their ceiling yet. In The Hockey News’ Future Watch 2020, our panel of active NHL executives and scouts graded Colorado’s 21-and-younger farm crop the best in the NHL – with prospect blueliner Bowen Byram ranking first among all NHL-affiliated prospects. With him and other potential future stars like center Alex Newhook en route, Colorado will keep improving from within. Better yet if you’re a Colorado fan: this team has a ton of cap space for next season, more than $26 million, which means there’s more than enough money to re-sign UFA Landeskog and start working on a Makar extension for 2022-23 and chase another high-end veteran acquisition.
Am I gushing? Good. The Avs’ situation is gush-worthy. They’re a major Cup threat right now but are also just beginning their window of tier-1 contention. Their best shot comes over the next three seasons, a.k.a. the last three seasons of MacKinnon’s comical bargain of a contract at a $6.3-million AAV. He’ll double that number on his next deal.
The Golden Knights are right there, too. They have designs on a Stanley Cup and looked like the class of the bubble field for much of the 2020 post-season before their offense dried up against two sizzling goalies: Vancouver’s Thatcher Demko and Dallas’ Anton Khudobin. They were the NHL’s most dominant possession team last season, tilting the ice with Shea Theodore leading a puck-pushing D-corps and outstanding two-way forwards Mark Stone and Max Pacioretty seemingly having the puck all game. Vegas held a league-best 54.42 percent of the shot share against all opponents at 5-on-5 last season.
Vegas is set up to stay powerful for several more seasons. Thanks to Bill Foley, an owner utterly committed to going all-in, the Golden Knights paid up for prized UFA defenseman Alex Pietrangelo and even locked up new No. 1 goaltender Robin Lehner on a five-year deal. The core of this roster is signed long term: Lehner, Stone, Theodore, Pacioretty, William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault, Alex Tuch and so on. The Golden Knights already have 18 players under contract for next season. So they can stay strong for multiple years with this group.
The problem comes if this group isn’t good enough to get over the hump, as all the big-money contracts will start to take on water in a few years. Paying up for ‘Petro’ meant letting several key veterans walk in free agency – and also meant trading No. 2 center Paul Stastny and No. 2 blueliner Nate Schmidt. Vegas has a hole at center. It really needs Cody Glass to meet his projected ceiling and become a star in the next couple seasons. If that doesn’t happen, we may see the window start to close by around 2023-24.
WIN-NOW WINDOW: St. Louis Blues
The Blues are comfortable Cup contenders even after losing Pietrangelo as a UFA and even though top goal-scorer Vladimir Tarasenko remains out after a third surgery on the same shoulder. This incarnation of the Blues might not get any better, but St. Louis should remain the dominant team it’s been for a few seasons now under coach Craig Berube. Torey Krug is about as talented a replacement as the Blues could’ve hoped to find for Pietrangelo. Same goes for Mike Hoffman filling Tarasenko’s sniping void. The Blues remain a big, strong, structured team that does a tremendous job limiting shots. They’re blessed with well-rounded centers to drive their top two lines in Brayden Schenn and Ryan O’Reilly. Towering Colton Parayko leads a deep and versatile defense corps.
So we know the Blues remain quite good at the moment, especially in a realigned division loaded with pushovers in 2020-21. But it’s unclear how long St. Louis stays this good. Goaltender Jordan Binnington was a rookie revelation but merely decent as a sophomore. He has a lot to prove now in his UFA walk year. Left winger Jaden Schwartz is a UFA next summer, too. Parayko and right winger David Perron only have two seasons left apiece on their contracts, while promising puck-mover Vince Dunn is an RFA next off-season. So the Blues’ roster could look a lot different, for better or worse, in one to two years.
It’s also unclear how excited we should be about the next wave of help. Is it going to happen for right winger Jordan Kyrou? The skill is there, but he hasn’t earned Berube’s trust. Even this week, he challenged Kyrou to battle harder for pucks. We’re still waiting on the Klim Kostin arrival, too. Since the Blues’ somewhat-near future looks cloudy, it’s best to think of them as a contender in the present and a question mark after that.
WINDOW FOGGED UP: Los Angeles Kings, Minnesota Wild
The Kings are rebuilders. General manager Rob Blake has played things quite conservatively since taking over the gig in 2017. In four drafts since then, the Kings have picked 11 times in the first or second round, and they’ve been extremely conservative with free-agent spending. But at some point, after a team stockpiles prospects for several years, the talent reaches a critical mass and the team starts to ascend. Could that start happening for the Kings as early as this season?
We know their developmental pool is special. In Future Watch 2020, they owned a whopping seven players ranked among our scouting panel’s overall top 100 prospects – and that was before they drafted Quinton Byfield second overall in 2020. We could see the kids break down the door as soon as this season. Forwards Byfield, Alex Turcotte, Arthur Kaliyev and defenseman Tobias Bjornfot should each get long looks after completing their post-world-junior quarantines.
If they make the Kings, they’ll be joining a team that was among the league’s weakest last year, yes. But that was primarily because L.A. couldn’t score. It was a strong possession team that lacked finish. What happens if the kids infuse an already-disciplned team with scoring touch? The Kings still have some Cup-winning holdovers including center Anze Kopitar and defenseman Drew Doughty to lead the younger, faster generation, too. The Kings probably need another year of seasoning but, in a thin West Division, they have a reasonable shot of challenging for the top four if a couple of the kids make the team.
The Wild were going nowhere a year ago. In the 2019-20 Stanley Cup Windows breakdown, I listed them under ‘Window Smashed’ and claimed they were “eons away from their Stanley Cup window.” So much has changed since then under new GM Bill Guerin and new coach Dean Evason. Kevin Fiala went from a maybe to a legitimate star scorer last season, exploding for 53 points in his final 56 games. The Wild used a top-10 draft pick on an exciting young center who draws Claude Giroux comparisons in Marco Rossi. They finally brought left winger Kirill Kaprizov, considered best player in the world outside the NHL, over from Russia. They traded struggling goaltender Devan Dubnyk and will roll with newly signed Cam Talbot and prospect Kaapo Kahkonen this season. On top of that, the Wild have been the No. 1 shot-and-scoring-chance suppression team in hockey for two years running thanks to a sturdy D-corps led by the top four of Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and Matt Dumba.
So is it possible Minnesota has something growing here, especially with another intriguing prospect on the way in goal-scoring left winger Matthew Boldy? Maybe. This team still needs a lot of help up the middle after trading Eric Staal and not re-signing Mikko Koivu, but there’s at least potential for ascension in the present. If Kaprizov is as good as everyone believes he is and Rossi makes an immediate impact, the Wild will become a much more well-rounded team in a hurry. With Nick Bonino and Marcus Johansson coming off the books next summer, too, Minnesota will have a notable amount of cap space for the first time since handing out the monstrous twin contracts to Suter and Zach Parise in 2012.
WINDOW CLOSING: San Jose Sharks
Losing doesn’t come naturally to the Sharks. It simply isn’t a habit under GM Doug Wilson. Since he became GM for 2003-04, San Jose has missed the playoffs three times in 16 seasons. The Sharks reload again and again largely because they’re so good at retaining the players they acquire. Whether it’s Evander Kane or Erik Karlsson, once you become a Shark, you love it so much in San Jose that you stay.
But year after year of contending and rarely picking in the top half of the first round – or in the first round at all – gradually dries up a team’s farm system, and last year the Sharks reached a point in which they simply had nothing coming to support their veterans. Once they ponied up for Karlsson to re-sign at $11.5 million per year, there wasn’t room to replace the depth they lost when players like Joe Pavelski and Gustav Nyquist left, and the next generation wasn’t good enough to fill the gaps. Then, once a slew of injuries struck their top veterans, from Karlsson to Logan Couture to Tomas Hertl, the roof caved in. The Sharks tumbled out of the playoff picture.
Will anything change this year? The once-elite top three on defense of Karlsson, Brent Burns and Marc-Edouard Vlasic is collectively aging out of its prime, and the Sharks still have major depth issues behind their solid top two lines. They count Ryan Donato as their splashiest skater addition this off-season, and our most recent Future Watch panel graded their prospect group dead last in the NHL, with not a single player ranked in the overall top 100.
The veteran group isn’t elite enough to carry the Sharks to contention anymore, they have had the league’s worst goaltending two years in a row, and they still don’t have any shoo-in star prospects ready to contribute. It’s possible they bottom out with a basement finish in 2020-21 or, worse, limp around the periphery of the playoff picture, not good enough to contend nor bad enough to earn many draft-lottery balls.
REBUILDING: Anaheim Ducks, Arizona Coyotes
The Ducks signalled the end of an era when they bought out Corey Perry in 2019. It sent the message that GM Bob Murray knew it was time to fold his cards and start planning for the team’s next generation. The Ducks had to get worse to get better. Two straight playoff misses have yielded Anaheim’s two highest draft slots since Hampus Lindholm in 2012 and, not surprisingly, have netted by far the two most promising Anaheim prospects in at least a decade: playmaking center Trevor Zegras, the reigning world juniors MVP, and dynamic defenseman Jamie Drysdale.
Zegras may force his way into the lineup for the coming season, but there’s really no rush with his or Drysdale’s timeline. The Ducks’ only major off-season addition was a medium-term contract for defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk to assist their woeful power play, but Murray mostly stayed conservative for a second straight off-season. The Ducks appear to understand that it’s not time to start pushing yet. They may need one more year of development and one more prime first-round draft position. It will also be interesting to see what they do after longtime captain Ryan Getzlaf’s contract expires. Will he stay on for less money as an elder statesman, or will the Ducks walk away from him like they did Perry?
‘Rebuild’ might even be generous to describe the work ahead for new Coyotes GM Bill Armstrong. He’s sifting through rubble at the moment. The Desert Dogs lost top left winger Taylor Hall to free agency after surrendering a package including their 2020 first-rounder to acquire him less than a year earlier. The NHL stripped them of their 2020 second-rounder and 2021 first-rounder as punishment for their scouting-combine testing violations. So a team that finished with the league’s 22nd-best record last season loses its best forward and will now go two straight years unable to pad its pipeline with high-ceiling prospects unless Armstrong recoups some picks via trade.
For the Coyotes to make any noise in the short term, they’ll need right winger Clayton Keller to recapture the star potential he showed in his rookie season. He hasn’t been nearly as productive in two campaigns since, but the Coyotes are paying him to be, committing to him for eight years at a $7.15-million AAV. He’s supported by excellent goaltending from Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta and a deep D-corps led by Oliver Ekman-Larsson and Jakob Chychrun. This team won’t be easy to play against under coach Rick Tocchet, but overall skill remains at a premium in the short term. The Coyotes will become much more interesting if their two top prospects make the team out of camp: center Barrett Hayton and defenseman Victor Soderstrom. But this team appears years away from making a serious championship run. It does have a decent core locked up to long-term contracts in Keller, Ekman-Larsson, Chychrun, Nick Schmaltz and Christian Dvorak.