In the NHL, it is all about the Stanley Cup. Yes, building a champion takes time, and there can be moral victories along the way. Yes, sometimes a great team just never gets over the hump. Yes, there’s a ton of luck involved, way more than any of us want to admit. And yes, because of all that, smart teams (and fans) will learn to trust the big-picture process over one focused on short-term results.
That’s all well and good. But eventually, all anybody wants to know is: Did you win the big one?
So as we gear up for the 2015-16 season, let’s take a shot at answering a simple question: Which NHL teams have the best odds of winning at least one Stanley Cup in the next five years?
On the surface, that sounds like it should be an easy enough exercise. We just take all 30 teams and look at both their current roster and their prospect pipeline. That should tell us just about all we need to know about if and when they’ll be ready to contend. Well, unless they have cap issues. Or financial problems. Or complications in the front office or behind the bench or in the owner’s box or … you know, maybe our simple question turns out not to be so simple after all.
But that’s no reason not to try, so here we go. Why five years? It seems like a reasonable window to work with — long enough that today’s rebuilding teams have a shot, but not so long that what’s already an exercise in crystal-ball gazing turns into an outright guessing game. But remember, we’re not exclusively focused on the future here; a Stanley Cup won next season counts every bit as much as one won years down the road, so you’ll see a mix of young and old teams at the top of the list. In fact, as we’ll see, it’s probably true that the absolute worst place to be in the NHL is stuck in the middle — not elite today, but not pushing aggressively enough toward tomorrow.
Finally, a little warning before we get started: As we make our way down from no. 30 to no. 1, you’re going to find yourself thinking that the odds for many of these teams seem way too low. But do the math — with five years to cover, we’ve only got a pool of 500 percentage points to work with1 and 30 teams to spread them out across. If you want to yell at me that Team X is 10 percent too low, make sure you also tell me which team is 10 percent too high.
And even that’s a bit of a cheat, since it assumes that nobody repeats.
This will be a three-part series. Today, we start from the bottom, with the 10 teams facing the longest odds to capture a Cup. Today’s list features some predictable entries, along with a few that I suspect will be met with objections from the fan bases involved. Let’s start the countdown with no. 30.2
No. 30 — New Jersey Devils
For what it’s worth, we’re not including the two or more expansion teams that the league seems almost certain to add at some point during our five-year window. While we don’t know how those teams will be built, history tells us that we’re probably safe in just rounding their Cup chances down to zero.
Inevitably, the fan base of whichever team gets stuck in the 30 spot will scream loudly that they can’t possibly be the worst of the worst. So let’s pause to concede that there’s not all that much separating the bottom half-dozen or so teams that rank in the low single digits. If it would make you feel better to nudge the Devils up a percentage point or two and into a better slot, go right ahead.
But the result remains the same: This team is old and not very good, and there’s little in the way of encouraging prospects on the way beyond Pavel Zacha. The Devils have also just begun the transition from the Lou Lamoriello era to whatever it is that comes next. They’ve got a very good GM in Ray Shero driving that, which is good news, because the job ahead is massive.
Teams can be rebuilt; it happens all the time. And the Devils do appear to have an elite goaltender, which makes ranking them here a bit risky — if they somehow managed to squeeze into the playoffs, who knows how far a hot Cory Schneider could carry them. But right now, even squeezing into the playoffs seems like a dream for down the road. Today, the team is bad and the cupboard is bare, and there’s no quick fix for that. The Devils are a smart organization that will get back on track, but it will probably take most of our five years for that happen.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 1 percent
No. 29 — Carolina Hurricanes
Are the Hurricanes rebuilding? They finish toward the bottom of the league every season, and they’re amassing young talent, so that would point to a “yes.” But they haven’t moved veteran stars like Eric Staal or Cam Ward yet, so maybe not. New GM Ron Francis has sent mixed signals about where the team is headed, and how much (if any) focus on short-term success that strategy includes.
In either case, the Hurricanes have been bad for years (they haven’t been to the playoffs since 2009), and there’s little hope that that will change this season. The future is somewhat brighter, with a solid prospect pipeline that’s heavy on defensemen although short on blue-chip stars. That cupboard will get a boost if the team does move Staal or Ward, both of whom are on the final year of their deals; but remember that Ward may not have any value left and Staal has a no-trade clause.
Forget about championships; a path back to the playoffs seems murky at this point. This franchise certainly knows how to make the most of its playoff berths — they’ve missed the postseason in 10 of the past 13 seasons, but won nine rounds in the three years they did make it — so we can’t rule them out entirely. But it’s close.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 2 percent
No. 28 — Vancouver Canucks
On the surface, this rating seems low for a team coming off a 101-point season. The Canucks are led by two first-ballot Hall of Famers in the Sedin brothers, and they have a star goaltender in Ryan Miller, at least based on name value if not actual performance. You could do worse than trying to chase a Cup with that sort of foundation.
But the Canucks aren’t like most 101-point teams. The core is old — in addition to the Sedins and Miller being 35 on opening night, Alexandre Burrows and Radim Vrbata are both 34. After an offseason that could charitably be described as puzzling, the roster seems worse than last season’s, with Kevin Bieksa and Eddie Lack exiting without the team bringing in any immediate help in return. And there’s plenty of evidence that last season’s team just wasn’t as good as its point total would suggest.
Add it all up and it’s hard not to look at the current-day Canucks as a team that needs a rebuild but doesn’t know it yet — just about the worst place to be in a salary-cap league. The Canucks’ prospect pipeline isn’t strong, and the work of GM Jim Benning on moves like the Lack trade and the Brandon Sutter acquisition and subsequent signing has been widely panned. And to make matters worse, the Canucks could find it uniquely challenging to embark on a rebuild even if they wanted to, since their two best veterans happen to be twin brothers who’ve always insisted on playing together. Getting good future assets for a player who’s about to turn 35 and carries a $7 million cap hit through 2018 in today’s league is tough; trading two as a package deal might be near impossible.
It’s certainly conceivable that this season’s Canucks could come close to a repeat of last season, overachieving on their way to a spot in the playoffs, where anything can happen. But it seems far more likely that they’ll be also-rans this season, the cracks in the foundation will soon become impossible to ignore, and the team will finally decide to hit the reset button and start a multiyear rebuilding project. If so, that doesn’t leave much time in our five-year window.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 2 percent
No. 27 — Florida Panthers
Right now, the Panthers may be the most forgettable team in the NHL. That’s not always a bad thing — after all, forgettable means you’re never trainwreck bad. But this season will mark the 20-year anniversary of their last playoff series win, and they’ve only even made the postseason once since 2000.
All that failure should add up to a rich prospect pool, and to some degree it has. There’s not a ton of talent waiting in the minor leagues, but that’s because most of their best young players have already cracked the NHL, led by Calder-winning blue-line stud Aaron Ekblad. Still, the current team needs to take another solid step or two forward just to make the playoffs. (And to make matters even worse, by the time our five-year window expires in 2020, a 48-year-old Jaromir Jagr might finally be slowing down.)
Maybe it’ll all come together quickly, and with Roberto Luongo now 36, they’d better hope so. But right now, their realistic best-case scenario is less about winning titles, and more about reminding us that they exist.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 3 percent
No. 26 — Toronto Maple Leafs
The Maple Leafs have had one of the more newsworthy offseasons in recent memory, clearing out much of their front office and scouting staff and then adding future and current Hall of Famers like Mike Babcock, Lou Lamoriello, and Jacques Lemaire to the organization. They’ve also drafted smartly and built a very good prospect pipeline that includes future studs like Mitch Marner and William Nylander.3 Brendan Shanahan and friends just keep making smart decisions. What’s even left to improve on?
Although there’s a wide range of opinions on just how good the Leafs’ system is; ESPN’s Corey Pronman ranks the Leafs’ system second in the NHL, while The Hockey News says they’re just 27th.
Oh, right, the roster. That would be the one coming off an embarrassing season that had even Shanahan admitting a shake-up was needed. That shake-up didn’t come, at least not yet, with only Phil Kessel being subtracted from the core. Trading the best player from a 27th-place team while keeping the rest of the roster largely intact is certainly an interesting strategy, and it’s possible that Babcock can coach some of these guys up to the point where they at least carry some trade value. But the Leafs should be awful this season, and probably for a year or two beyond that.
That should result in even more top-tier prospects joining the organization, and it’s no longer all that hard to envision a best-case scenario in which this franchise is on the verge of building something truly special. Remember, nobody has more money to play with — we all joke about the “every star wants to play for the Leafs” mentality in Toronto, but if the Leafs ever started to generate some positive momentum, we might find out that there’s some truth to it.
But that assumes they can properly develop at least some of that young talent into bona fide NHL stars, which is no sure thing for this organization. And even if that happens, they’re still at least three years or more away from true contention. The Leafs are doing lots of good things these days, but they’ll spend most of our five-year window in transition mode.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 4 percent
No. 25 — Arizona Coyotes
The short term looks bleak in Arizona. After finishing second to last in 2014-15, and with fellow bottom-dwellers like the Sabres and Oilers expected to improve rapidly, the Coyotes look like the odds-on favorite to be the worst team in the NHL next season.
From a long-term perspective, that may not be a bad thing. The no. 1 pick in the 2016 draft is expected to be Auston Matthews, an Arizona native who’d be the perfect fit for a Coyotes team looking to finally gain some stability. If they earn the no. 1 pick and draft Matthews, he’d join an already impressive group of prospects that could eventually form the core of a contender.
But there’s a problem with that plan – the NHL’s new draft lottery rules make it much harder to tank for the top pick, with the three top choices all now available to the whims of the pingpong balls. Maybe the Coyotes land Matthews and the future looks bright; more likely, the odds tell us, they wind up settling for a later pick in a draft that doesn’t yet have a Jack Eichel-style consolation prize.
That leaves us with a team that’s almost guaranteed to be bad for the next year or two, and would need their (very good) young prospects to develop well to have any hope of contending beyond that. That’s not even getting into the question of the team’s ongoing ownership and arena lease woes, and whether the Coyotes can ever realistically be anything more than a cap-floor team that develops good players, then watches them flee for bigger markets once it’s time to get paid.
Maybe Matthews and the lottery gods will change all that. But, much like their Cup chances, the odds aren’t great.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 5 percent
No. 24 — Ottawa Senators
The Senators have developed a reputation as one of the league’s smarter organizations, consistently hitting on draft picks and developing young players into useful NHL performers. That’s paid off with a roster that features two-time Norris winner Erik Karlsson along with Mark Stone, Mika Zibanejad, and Mike Hoffman, all of whom are 25 or younger. That’s a solid core, one that made a thrilling late-season playoff push last season, and with veteran goalie Craig Anderson still going strong, there seems to be a real opportunity to build a winner here.
The question with Ottawa, as always, is how much building it can really do. The Senators consistently spend far closer to the league’s salary floor than to its cap. That’s exceedingly unusual for a Canadian market, and it makes it hard to see a path to long-term contention unless the team can keep striking gold with its youth.4 Spending to the cap is certainly no guarantee of success in today’s NHL, but recent history is clear: It’s awfully hard to truly contend for a Stanley Cup if you’re not willing to pay for the privilege.
To make matters worse, the team’s biggest contract, a deal for 18-goal scorer Bobby Ryan that runs through 2022 with a $7.25 million cap hit, may be one of the league’s worst.
Ownership always claims that they’ll spend big when the time is right, and maybe they will, but we’ll believe it when we see it. With no top-tier talents left in the pipeline and a front-office transition coming — veteran GM Bryan Murray has announced plans to step aside at the end of the current season — it remains to be seen whether the team can continue to find those much-needed bargains in the draft and beyond. If the Sens can, they should be well positioned to continue their recent history of consistently contending for the playoffs. But the playoffs aren’t a Cup.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 7 percent
No. 23 — Philadelphia Flyers
Viewed through one lens, the Flyers could be seen as an optimistic case study for some of the teams we’ve covered earlier in this list. Two years ago, they’d just lost in the first round, weren’t all that good, didn’t have much of a farm system, and didn’t seem to have a strategy beyond “throw money at anyone with a pulse.” Today … well, they may not be much better and missed the playoffs. But with new GM Ron Hextall in place, the farm system is much improved and there finally seems to be a plan. The lesson: Even when things start to look bleak, a smart move or two and some time can make a difference.
But while the Flyers are on the right track, that track still has some distance to go. The Metro has gone from being a punch line to one of the league’s better divisions, so getting back to the playoffs will be a tough task. That farm system is improved, but far from stacked. And the salary cap will continue to be an issue; bad deals to Andrew MacDonald and Vincent Lecavalier are still clogging the books, and it wouldn’t take much of a drop-off to make Jakub Voracek’s recent eight-year, $66 million extension look bad.
Still, the Flyers have some elite talent, money (if not cap room) to spend, and a blueprint. That’s not enough to move up to the next tier, but it’s something.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 8 percent
No. 22 — San Jose Sharks
This is where the rankings start to get tricky, since the Sharks may be on the cusp of being a legitimate Cup contender this season. Not everyone would agree, and after last season’s mediocre showing and a long history of playoff failures, the dissenters may be right. But the current Sharks have a nice mix of youth and veteran skill, and in a weak Pacific it’s not hard to see them pushing for a division title, or at least making the Ducks sweat a bit.
The team gave UFA deals to a pair of veterans in Joel Ward and Paul Martin, which would seem to signal a win-now mentality. That probably makes sense, because after this year and maybe next, it feels like a drop-off is coming. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau are both on the wrong side of 35, and each has a contract that expires in 2017, as does All-Star defenseman Brent Burns. There’s enough youth on the team and in the system to prevent a total collapse, but a big step back seems inevitable.
The Sharks could be a surprisingly good team this season. But if not, GM Doug Wilson (or, more likely, whoever replaces him) will probably want to start eyeing the future. That could mean a reload, not a full-scale rebuild, but it really does feel like the Sharks’ window as a true contender is closing rapidly. Maybe it already has.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 9 percent
No. 21 — Nashville Predators
The Predators were one of last season’s biggest surprises, putting up a 104-point season and nearly winning a division title.5 While a first-round loss to the Hawks was disappointing, the year was a positive sign for a franchise that’s never been out of the second round in its 17-year history.
Neither of which I remotely saw coming, so if any Predators fans want to disregard everything I say about the team, I’ll understand.
Can it continue? The Predators will return largely the same roster next season. And while most of the key players are past what we’d typically think of as their primes — Pekka Rinne will be 33 in November, and Shea Weber just turned 30 — it’s not so old that you’d expect an imminent crash. And there’s youth in the system, including last year’s breakout star, winger Filip Forsberg.
So the Preds are in decent shape. In fact, they’re right in the league’s squishy middle of teams that wouldn’t be shocking Cup winners, but don’t seem like favorites. If a few things go right, the Predators could join the league’s top tier. Even if they don’t, Rinne could always get hot in May and take them on a ride. It’s neither likely nor impossible, and there’s not much to choose from between the Predators and a bunch of teams who’ll be on the first half of tomorrow’s list. But somebody had to drop to 21, and Nashville gets that honor.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 10 percent
That wraps up our first, and worst, 10 franchises. A quick note to those of you furiously bookmarking this page for future “Nice call, idiot” emails when Gary Bettman is handing the Cup to one of these 10 teams: Our future odds are already up to a cumulative 51 percent, which by my math means it’s more likely than not that at least one of these teams will indeed win a championship during our five-year window. So there’s still hope to be found. Just not quite as much as we’ll find in tomorrow’s group.