Stanley Cup Prospects, Part 2: The Parity PatrolKevin C. Cox/Getty Images
In Part 2 of a three-part series, we continue attempting to answer the seemingly simple question: Which NHL teams have the best odds of winning at least one Stanley Cup in the next five years?
In Part 1, we counted down from nos. 30 to 21, covering the 10 teams with the worst odds of getting their hands on a Cup in the foreseeable future. If you missed that article, you can find the basic ground rules of what we’re trying to do there.1
The reaction to Tuesday’s article was interesting. I don’t think I heard from a single Devils fan who had any problem with them being ranked no. 30, and for the most part, fans of the Canucks (no. 28), Leafs (no. 26), and Senators (no. 24) kept the outrage to a minimum. On the other hand, some felt like the Panthers (no. 27) and Coyotes (no. 25) deserved better, and that I had too much faith in the Flyers, even down at no. 23.
The most controversial team listed was the Predators, at no. 21. I see a team that needs to take another step but will have to do it with an aging franchise goaltender, an underwhelming group of forwards, and a good but not great prospect pipeline. Others see a strong, young blue line and more than enough upside to catch the league’s elite. Either way, if there’s a team in the bottom 10 that could prove me wrong with a Cup win this season, the Preds are probably it.
Today, we’re onto the mushy middle — 10 teams that each have a realistic chance at glory but wouldn’t necessarily be considered the favorites. There’s not much to choose from among this group, as the narrow gap in their odds shows. If you want a catchy subtitle to go with today’s article, I’d suggest “parity.”
No. 20 — Boston Bruins
Does Don Sweeney have a plan? That’s the big question in Boston, and nobody’s figured out the answer yet. Sweeney took over the GM’s chair from Peter Chiarelli this summer, and he went on to guide the Bruins to one of the most confusing offseasons of any NHL team. His moves ranged from “this guy is incompetent” to “he might be a misunderstood genius,” without many stops in between.
The end result is that the Bruins are old and expensive, and the farm system is merely OK. But they still have one of the game’s best two-way players in Patrice Bergeron and one of the best goaltenders in Tuukka Rask, which makes for a pretty solid foundation. They’ve also got Zdeno Chara, who may not have much gas left in the tank but isn’t ready to move into the “washed-up” column quite yet. They had three first-round picks this year and still have Malcolm Subban as a future starter/trade bait. And they’ve still got most of the core that formed a championship team just a few years ago. And we haven’t even mentioned future Norris winner Dougie Hamilton, who can be the team’s franchise player once …
Oh, right. We’re back to that oddball summer again. Maybe all of those changes will help a team that was reportedly divided last year, but the bottom line is that the Bruins seem to be headed in the wrong direction. They’re no sure thing to make the playoffs this season. But if they do make it, at least for now, I’m not sure I’d want to play them.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 12 percent
No. 19 — Colorado Avalanche
There may not be a more polarizing team on today’s list than the Avalanche, who are absolutely stacked with young talent after spending a few years racking up top-five picks. Their farm system dried up after that haul, but they replenished some of it with this summer’s Ryan O’Reilly trade. And they’re still just one season removed from a 112-point season.
Of course, that 2013-14 year had every analytics guy screaming “fraud.” and nobody who paid attention to the numbers was remotely surprised when the Avs plummeted all the way out of the playoffs last season. And there’s a bigger issue hanging over the club’s future: the nagging feeling that team management might not know what it’s doing. Patrick Roy and Joe Sakic know a thing or two about winning Cups in Colorado, but in an era in which every team seems to be moving toward a more modern approach to thinking about the game, the Avs are still defiantly old school. If the analytics movement is wrong, the Avalanche will be in great shape. But the analytics movement isn’t wrong, so … yeah.
And yet, in a league where strength down the middle is key, it’s not hard to imagine a team led by Matt Duchene and Nathan MacKinnon doing some damage. There’s enough talent here to make a run or two. And if and when they eventually smarten up, maybe even more than that.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 13 percent
No. 18 — Columbus Blue Jackets
OK, maybe we spoke too soon when handing the Avalanche today’s “most polarizing” crown. On the one hand, the Blue Jackets weren’t very good last year, finishing 11th in the East. On the other, they had atrocious luck, and almost everyone agrees they were probably a better team than their record indicated. On the one hand, any talk of a Stanley Cup seems awfully ambitious for a franchise that has still never won so much as a playoff round. On the other, this is a look at the next five years, not the previous 15. On the one hand, there’s a solid case being made that they’ve screwed up their long-term cap by overpaying mediocre players. On the other, there’s a solid case that their young stars and strong prospect pipeline could make them one of the very best teams in the league within three years.
All of this is to say that plenty of readers won’t think the Jackets belong on today’s list at all. They should obviously have been on yesterday’s, with the other also-rans. Or maybe they should obviously be on tomorrow’s, with the other elites.
I still think they’re closer to the former than the latter, as their ranking indicates. But after years of being cannon fodder for the rest of the league, the Blue Jackets have a chance to start making some noise of their own very soon.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 15 percent
No. 17 — Minnesota Wild
With 30 teams and five years to cover, an “average” score on our scale would work out to roughly 16 percent. That’s where the Wild wind up, and it feels like it fits — in terms of their Cup chances, the Wild are just about the perfect embodiment of an average team at this point.
That’s not an insult, although Wild fans may take it that way. This is a good team, one that’s hovered around 100 points each of the last two years. They’ve won a playoff round in each of those seasons, and last year’s second-half surge showed there could be something more here. But they’re stuck in the league’s toughest division and won’t be seen as real contenders until they show they can beat the Blackhawks.
That could certainly happen, but the clock is ticking. The farm system doesn’t have much help on the way, and the team’s best players are on the wrong side of 30. That includes Zach Parise and Ryan Suter, both of whom still have a decade left on those ridiculous free-agent deals they signed in 2012. Eventually, those contracts will almost certainly carry a hefty cap recapture penalty, and while that’s a storm that’s unlikely to hit during our five-year window, at some point it’s going to start affecting the front office’s ability to make moves.
Mix in at least some uncertainty about goalie Devan Dubnyk, who’s definitely better than he seemed during a disastrous stint with the Oilers but may not be the surefire stud he looked like in half a season last year, and you’ve got a good team with question marks. They’re talented enough to make a deep run or two, but if it happens it probably has to happen soon. Maybe this year is the year. But right now, their chances are just … average
Odds of a Cup in five years: 16 percent
No. 16 — Detroit Red Wings
Despite the longest playoff streak in the league (now at 24 years and counting), the Red Wings have fallen out of the league’s top tier in recent years. They haven’t won a Cup since 2008, haven’t finished higher than third in their division since 2011, and haven’t won a playoff round since 2013. That’s hardly a disaster — plenty of teams would happily take Detroit’s last few years and call it a resounding success — but it’s not what a generation of fans has grown used to from the Wings.
It’s tempting to say the downward trend will continue. Pavel Datsyuk is 37, Henrik Zetterberg turns 35 on opening night, and Niklas Kronwall is 34. Mix in Johan Franzen (still battling back from a concussion) and free-agent acquisition Brad Richards, and the Wings look like an old team. And even with Mike Green on the blue line, they may not be remarkably better than the squad that made an early exit last year.
But, of course, these are the Red Wings, so reinforcements are on the way. The prospect cupboard is well-stocked, and they own one of the better young goalies in the league in Petr Mrazek. Mike Babcock’s departure made headlines, but Jeff Blashill’s fresh voice may be an improvement at this point. And it’s worth remembering that last year’s first-round exit was one game away from being a first-round upset of the powerhouse Lightning. For Ken Holland and an organization that knows plenty about winning, that should all add up to a team that can climb back into contention, if not to the very top tier.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 17 percent
No. 15 — Calgary Flames
The Flames were last year’s surprise team; they’d been expected to contend for Connor McDavid yet ended up making the second round of the playoffs. That makes them a prime candidate to regress, and some of the same stats that correctly predicted doom for last year’s Avs are sending up warning flares here. But after one of the best offseasons in the league, the Flames really do look like a team set up for long-term success.
The question is what kind of “success” that’s going to be. The Flames have made the jump from bottom-feeder to legitimate playoff contender, sure. But is there a path to a Stanley Cup here?
There could be. The team has one of the best blue lines in the league, and it’s one that’s locked up long-term. The forwards are young and could be very good. The farm system is reasonably strong. Goaltending is the one obvious issue, and it’s one that likely keeps them from any kind of serious Cup contention this season. But as we saw this summer, goaltenders can be found on the trade market, and they often come cheap.
So the future looks bright in Calgary. But again … how bright? It’s not hard to imagine the Flames making the playoffs in each season of our five-year window. But they’ll need to add more before they make that next step to Cup contender.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 17 percent
No. 14 — St. Louis Blues
With most of the teams on this list, there’s plenty of uncertainty about where exactly their floor and ceiling lies. But at this point, the Blues don’t give off that vibe. It feels like we know what they are: a very good regular-season team that’s stalled out just short of joining the league’s elite.
That might be what they are, but it’s not what they want to be. They made changes over the summer, although not as many as some had expected, and it feels like more may be on the way — coach Ken Hitchcock only got a one-year extension, so it’s not hard to read the writing on the wall. If the Blues can’t push through to the top tier this year, it’s probably time to hit reset.
So why rank them even this high? Two reasons. For one, they absolutely could make that leap this year — they’ve been about a 110-point team for the last four years,2 and playoff failures aside, that’s pretty darn good. It only takes one deep run to turn that whole “can’t win the big one” narrative into “they’ve finally figured out what it takes.”
And even if it doesn’t happen, the Blues are reasonably well-positioned for a reload. The farm system is decent. Their salary cap looks OK. Their best player, winger Vladimir Tarasenko, is only 23, and their best defenseman, Alex Pietrangelo, is just 25. If 25-year-old Jake Allen becomes the goalie we all seem to think he will, that’s a pretty solid young core to build around. Barring another playoff collapse that drives a nervous front office into total self-destruct mode, even the Blues’ worst-case scenario still seems reasonably good.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 18 percent
No. 13 — Dallas Stars
Man, is it ever tempting to slip the Stars into the top 10. They’ve got the reigning Art Ross winner in Jamie Benn and a young stud center in Tyler Seguin. They’ve got one of the best coach/GM combos in the league with Lindy Ruff and Jim Nill. They just loaded up with a pair of ex-Blackhawks, which is exactly the sort of move that teams on the verge of contending love to make. And on top of that, they’re just so much damn fun to watch.
But we’re not giving bonus points for fun here, so we have to look at facts. And the facts say the Stars still aren’t all that good. They’ve only made the playoffs once in the last seven years, finishing a disappointing sixth in the tough Central last season. Their farm system is just OK, the Jason Spezza contract is going to start looking bad soon, and they’re spending an awful lot on goaltending that still doesn’t figure to be much more than average.
All that said, the Stars look like a team that’s ready to make The Leap, that transition we see every few years where a mediocre team is suddenly in the conference finals one year and a Cup favorite the next. Teams like the Penguins and Blackhawks have done it, and it always seems so obvious in hindsight that it was about to happen. If the Stars are next, nobody will be especially surprised.
That’s a big “if,” though — there’s a world of difference between looking like the next big thing and actually getting there. The Stars have been sitting on the runway for a few years now. It’s time to see if they can actually take off.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 18 percent
No. 12 — Winnipeg Jets
It’s fitting that the Jets land just a few spots after the Flames on our list, since the teams’ bottom lines end up being similar. They’re young, well-built, and look like they’ll contend for the playoffs for years to come. Now how do they get to the Cup?
In the Jets’ case, there’s a looming question mark in the form of two key players who’ll be free agents next summer and have yet to sign extensions. If one (or both) of Andrew Ladd or Dustin Byfuglien were to leave, the team’s short-term prospects would take a major hit. This team barely squeaked into the playoffs last season and didn’t win a game once it was there — subtract a star or two, and it’s not scaring anyone today.
But then you start looking through the team’s prospect list and … wow. This may be one of the best systems in the league, and it features some young players who look ready to move to the NHL right now. There are plenty of talented forwards on the way, and goalie Connor Hellebuyck should eventually spell the end of the Ondrej Pavelec era. The Jets are going to be good for a long time.
But will they be good enough to win it all? No less a publication than The Hockey News thinks so, anointing the Jets as 2019 champs in a recent cover story. Maybe so, but they’re not especially close yet, and as a team that historically struggles to attract top talent — star players often avoid Winnipeg in free agency and include the franchise in no-trade clauses — it will need to hit home runs on most of those top prospects to break through into the league’s top tier.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 20 percent
No. 11 — Los Angeles Kings
Never count out the Kings. While they missed the playoffs last year, there’s little reason to think it will happen again. And if any team should terrify opponents in the postseason, it’s L.A., which has already won two Cups after unimpressive regular seasons. It has an excellent coach, a smart GM, and strong goaltending,3 and it just added a wrecking ball named Milan Lucic to an already stacked lineup.
Still, there are warning signs, and they extend beyond the myriad off-ice problems that have stripped the Kings of their status as one of the best-run teams in the league. The farm system isn’t great, partly due to their success and partly due to trading away picks — they haven’t had a pick better than 29th overall since 2010, and they have already traded away next year’s first-round pick. And while their cap is in good shape for this season, it’s going to get crunchy real quick after that. Anze Kopitar still hasn’t signed an extension — for the purpose of this ranking, we’re assuming he’s not going anywhere, but Kings fans have to be getting at least a little nervous — and Lucic can bolt as a free agent after the year. The team has three players who are already in their thirties and signed through at least 2021, and Jonathan Quick will join that group later this season. Factor in the whole Mike Richards mess, and there could be a reckoning on the way in L.A.
Even if that were to happen, they’d still have the core of Drew Doughty, Quick, and (we’re assuming) Kopitar. But the Kings’ day is coming, and it could happen right about the time coach Darryl Sutter decides to head back to the ranch. That still leaves them a year or two or maybe more to be among the league’s better bets for a Cup, but the clock is ticking.
Odds of a Cup in five years: 20 percent
Two down, one to go. We’re left with 10 NHL teams for tomorrow’s article, and the process of elimination doesn’t leave much suspense as to their identities. But what will be the order? Who’ll be no. 1? And just how good will their odds be?