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Stanley Cup Prospects, Part 3: The Contenders

In the final part of our breakdown of NHL teams’ title chances, we look at the 10 franchises that have the best shot at raising Lord Stanley’s Cup within the next five years.

And then there were 10 …

This is Part 3 of our attempt to rank all 30 NHL teams based on their odds of winning at least one Stanley Cup in the next five years. Part 1, which covered the bottom 10 (and contains a more detailed explanation of the ground rules), can be found here. Part 2, featuring the league’s mushy middle, is here.

The 10 teams on yesterday’s list didn’t provoke all that much in the way of howling outrage, although I heard from fans of teams like the Stars (no. 13), Flames (no. 15), and even Blue Jackets (no. 18) who felt they deserved a spot in the top 10. And nobody agreed with the Kings at no. 11 — they’re either an active dynasty that should be way higher or a washed-up shell of themselves who should be far lower. But the biggest pushback came for a few of the teams that didn’t make yesterday’s post at all, or the one before that, meaning they’ve found a spot somewhere on today’s. Hey, no point doing a list like this without taking a few big swings, right?

And that brings us to the top 10. A reminder: We’re trying to rank teams based on their chances of winning a Cup at any point in our five-year window, which means that this is not a list of the teams with the best chance at winning during the 2015-16 season.1 In fact, a few of the teams on this list will probably miss the playoffs entirely this year. The future is hazy and hard to predict, but for our purposes it counts every bit as much as what happens this season.


1.

For that, check next week’s four-part season preview.

The 10 teams on today’s list won’t be a surprise, at least to anyone who understands the process of elimination, but the order in which they appear probably will be. Yesterday’s middle-of-the-pack rankings were noticeably tight, with only a few percentage points separating the teams. That’s life in the age of parity, and it continues through the first half of today’s list. But we’ll see a little more separation as we get near the top, as current powerhouses try to defend their turf from teams on the verge of joining the elite, not to mention a pair of rebuilding teams looking toward the future.

No. 10 — Montreal Canadiens

Led by an MVP goaltender and one of the league’s best defensemen, both still in their prime, the Habs just slip into the top 10. The current roster is very good, their cap has been reasonably well managed, and the farm system is solid if not spectacular. Even assuming Carey Price regresses a bit back to mere mortal status, they should be contenders for years to come.

Can that translate to the franchise’s first trip to the final in 23 years?2 They’ve been close in recent years, and may have been there in 2014 if Price hadn’t gotten hurt in the conference final. And while they’re not what you’d call a young team, they have enough youth at the NHL level or close to it that you could see them getting better with time — if Alex Galchenyuk can be the player he’s shown flashes of becoming, the Habs could have a future star just entering his prime.


2.

Wait, 23 years? That can’t be right. [Double-checks.] Wow.

As odd as it seems to suggest it, the one major hurdle to Montreal’s return to glory may be behind the bench. There may not be a coach in the league who’s combined for more on-ice success and off-ice criticism than Michel Therrien, and there are plenty of Montreal fans who don’t think the team can take the next step until he’s gone. That may be true, but it’s far from a fatal flaw — it’s a lot easier to change coaches than it is to find a franchise goaltender or build up a blue line.

There’s no sign that a change behind the bench is imminent in Montreal, but it’s worth remembering that the last team to fire Therrien was the 2008-09 Penguins, who did so midway through a disappointing regular season. They went on to win the Stanley Cup a few months later. Hmm …

Odds of a Cup in five years: 20 percent

No. 9 — New York Rangers

Here’s the good news if you’re a Rangers fan: They have plenty of talent, they can always spend to the cap, they have arguably the best goaltender in the world,3 they play in a division that’s very much up for grabs, and they’re bringing back largely the same core that’s been to at least the conference final three times in four seasons. They’ve spent years knocking on the door. There’s no good reason to think this won’t be the year they finally kick it down.


3.

Settle down, Habs fans, I just finished saying nice things about your guy.

Here’s the bad news: If it’s not this year, then when? This is a veteran team — not old, but veteran, in the sense that most of these guys are what they are by now — with lots of cap space tied up in long-term deals, many of which are questionable. The prospect pipeline is mostly barren thanks to a recent series of trades that have sent picks and young players elsewhere. And that all-world goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, is now 33, right around the age when goalies often start to see a sharp decline in performance.

Maybe new GM Jeff Gorton will work some magic, some unexpected prospects will burst through, and Lundqvist will turn out to be another Martin Brodeur or Dominik Hasek and have five more years of All-Star magic ahead of him. But much like the next team on our list, it sure seems like the Rangers’ window may be closed after another season or two. Two years of realistic contention is still two more than most teams in this league have, though.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 21 percent

No. 8 — Pittsburgh Penguins

All the warning signs on the dashboard are flashing in Pittsburgh. The farm system is bare, quite possibly the worst in the NHL. The salary cap is jammed with big-dollar, long-term contracts, including four that last until 2022 or longer and carry a combined annual average cap hit of more than $32 million. The roster isn’t old, but it’s not young either, and again, there’s little in the way of help on the horizon.

The bottom line: This team better win now, because it’s going to get ugly real soon.

So, can they win now? It sure looks like it, thanks to a stacked top six highlighted by the arrival of Phil Kessel. The Penguins are going to be an awfully tough team to keep off the scoreboard. They’ll need to be, because the blue line isn’t good and Marc-Andre Fleury is always a question mark in goal. But for all the hockey world’s talk about grit and heart and character, this is increasingly a league where elite talent carries the day, and the Penguins have tons of it — maybe more than anyone else.

If it’s not enough to win this year or next, it will be fascinating to see what their next move looks like. You can’t really go into a full-scale, multi-season rebuild when you’re riding the last years of Sidney Crosby’s prime, but something would have to give. Would it be the long-rumored Evgeni Malkin trade? That’s a possibility, but it’s one for another day. The Penguins’ calendar is squarely focused on right now. And for now, they’re a very good team that has as good a shot as just about anyone. For now.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 21 percent

No. 7 — Edmonton Oilers

If we’d done this list six months ago, the Oilers would have ranked somewhere around the mid-30s. That’s because we’d have covered the entire NHL and dipped into the minors and European leagues before it occurred to us that the Stanley Cup could ever return to Edmonton.

What a difference a half-year can make. Everything changed for the long-suffering Oilers when they won the Connor McDavid lottery, landing the right to draft the best prospect to enter the league since Sidney Crosby. They followed that up by doing the unthinkable and cleaning house off the ice, bringing in Peter Chiarelli and Todd McLellan even though neither had ever been teammates with Kevin Lowe.

But will it translate to a Cup? The history of generational franchise players says it probably will — but it also says that it could take longer than you’d think. The Penguins took four years to win a Cup with Crosby (and Evgeni Malkin), and seven with Mario Lemieux. The Gretzky-era Oilers needed five years to win a title. Steve Yzerman needed a mind-boggling 14 seasons to get his ring. And, of course, the Cup never arrived for one heavily hyped franchise player, Eric Lindros, and hasn’t so far for another, Alexander Ovechkin.

There’s simply no precedent in NHL history for a superstar rookie arriving and turning his team into a contender overnight. (And that assumes that McDavid really will be a Crosby-like franchise player, which seems like a safe enough bet but is no sure thing.) Even given some of the talent the Oilers already have — these guys aren’t the ’85 Penguins by a long shot — they’re unlikely to emerge as a truly elite team for at least two or three more years. But unless McDavid is a bust, or the new management team finds a way to screw up a sure thing, they’ll almost certainly get there well before our five-year window expires. And when that happens, look out.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 25 percent

No. 6 — Washington Capitals

I can’t decide if the Capitals are about to make The Leap from pretender to true elite or if they already did. After last year’s 101-point season and playoff win over the Islanders, the Caps may already be there.

I’m not quite convinced, but it’s close. With arguably the best young goaltender in the league in Braden Holtby,4 the Caps are set at the position for years. Three-time Hart Trophy winner Ovechkin shows no signs of slowing down, and Nicklas Backstrom should still have several years of elite play left. With a top coach in Barry Trotz and a roster that’s finally starting to fill out with the sort of supporting cast that can win a championship, the Caps are in excellent shape to emerge as the Metro’s best team.


4.

Where we define “young” as “anyone born after Carey Price.”

Of course, you can’t mention the Capitals without invoking their decades of playoff disappointment. Shouldn’t that track record get factored in somehow? I don’t think it should. The past is in the past, and it’s hard to see how what happened in the days of Peter Bondra and Pete Peeters has much to do with Ovechkin or Holtby. And remember, just six short years ago the Kings and Blackhawks were each riding Cupless streaks of more than four decades. Reputations can change quickly in the NHL.

It’s not all smooth sailing in Washington. GM Brian MacLellan still has his doubters, the farm system is uninspiring, and the Metro is going to be tough, placing four teams in our top 10. But this team is probably good enough to win it all right now, and should be at least as strong for the next few years.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 26 percent

No. 5 — Buffalo Sabres

They say that in the modern NHL, you have to be bad before you can be good. “They” are Buffalo fans. And they’re saying it because, over the past few years, no team has been as bad as the Sabres.

But they may be right, because the Sabres sure seem set for a Cup run. Not yet — just making the playoffs in 2016 would be considered a success. But this isn’t some long-term rebuild that still needs a few years of pain before it starts to flower. Call it tanking if you want, but Sabres GM Tim Murray basically kept this car in park for the past two years, even while he was revving the engine. And now it’s time to squeal the tires.

In the last year, the Sabres have added a future franchise player in Jack Eichel, a top two-way center in Ryan O’Reilly, and a good young power forward in Evander Kane. They also upgraded in goal by trading for Robin Lehner, although it’s true that they could have also upgraded in goal by throwing a wad of wet paper towels into the crease. All of those moves cost them some of their stockpile of picks and prospects. But they still have plenty left over; ESPN named them the league’s best-positioned team for future success. And remember, they’re owned by a billionaire who loves hockey. Money is going to be no object.

Does that mean it’s a sure thing? Obviously not. For one, this is a pro sports team from Buffalo, so something horrible is going to happen eventually. And there are still plenty of question marks; Lehner is unproven, and the blue line still needs lots of work. But the Sabres are a team that’s been rebuilt from the ground up with both eyes fixed exclusively on the future, and that future is almost here. The only question is how quickly it gets here, and how much of our five-year window that wait eats up.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 28 percent

No. 4 — New York Islanders

Is this wishful thinking? It might be wishful thinking. After 23 years and counting without so much as a playoff series win, it’s almost impossible for anyone to not cheer for the Islanders.5 That’s been only mildly rewarding over the past few years, as the Islanders have gone from laughingstock to quasi-contender without actually breaking through to the league’s top tier.


5.

Rangers fans excepted, obviously.

There’s reason to think that they’ll get there soon. They’re coming off their first 100-plus-point season since their Cup dynasty years, and GM Garth Snow has built a strong young roster backed up by a very good prospect pipeline. In John Tavares, the Islanders have one of the league’s best players on what’s quite possibly the league’s very best contract. The nucleus is in place. If the goaltending holds — and that is an if — then the Islanders are all set to stake a claim to the league’s top tier.

Of course, just getting to the top of the league doesn’t guarantee a Cup, and plenty could still go wrong. But the Islanders are quite possibly the one team in the league whose sweet spot for contention best lines up with our five-year window, which is why they rank as high as they do.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 29 percent

No. 3 — Chicago Blackhawks

There’s a good case to be made for the Blackhawks holding the no. 1 spot on this list, and the argument goes like this: scoreboard. They have three Cups in the last six years, and while they just finished their now annual roster slice-and-dice thanks to the salary cap, the core of that mini-dynasty is still in place. Can you win with a team built around Jonathan Toews, Patrick Kane, and Duncan Keith? Yeah, three times. And counting.

So why aren’t the Hawks holding down the top spot?6 A few reasons. Their cap situation is still tight. Goaltender Corey Crawford has his doubters. The farm system isn’t great, as you’d expect from a team that drafts late every year. All these things were true last year, too, of course, and we know how that turned out, but they’re worth remembering when the Hawks start to seem unbeatable.


6.

I mean, other than the fact that going through this whole exercise only to give the reigning champs the top spot would feel kind of lame.

Then there’s the ongoing uncertainty around Kane, who is the subject of a sexual assault investigation that could possibly take him out of the lineup at some point. As of this writing, the situation is very much up in the air, but it goes without saying that losing Kane for an extended period would change the Hawks’ outlook drastically.7


7.

It always feel wrong to discuss a situation like this as if its impact on a sports team’s wins and losses is somehow the most important consideration. For a far better take on Kane’s case and how it’s been handled, I highly recommend this post.

The bottom line is that the Hawks are still a juggernaut. They probably won’t win again this year — a long playoff run takes something out of you, as the Kings showed last year, and no team has repeated in the cap era. But they’ll be back, and an eventual fourth Cup wouldn’t surprise anyone.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 33 percent

No. 2 — Anaheim Ducks

Hi, Ducks fans. Come on in. Pull up a seat. The last time we spent quality time together, I was breaking down Ryan Kesler’s contract extension using words like “awful” and “terrible” and “none of it makes any sense.” Now here we are, in the no. 2 slot. We’re friends again, right?

Let’s be clear: Kesler’s contract is still awful. But it does underline a key fact about this current iteration of the Ducks: They’re going for it. Between Kesler’s deal, and the even bigger ones belonging to Corey Perry and Ryan Getzlaf, the Ducks are all in. All those players are at least 30 and will almost certainly see their play decline sharply before their contracts have expired. Legend says that in 1519, Hernan Cortes ordered his men to burn their boats so that they’d have no choice but to conquer Mexico. In modern times, the Anaheim Ducks burned their salary cap to ensure a Stanley Cup. There’s no way back now.

And it just might work, because the Ducks are very good. They nearly beat Chicago last year, and with apologies to that Hawks team, Anaheim will probably go into this year as the Western favorite. And as much as the Ducks might love to feed off an “all or nothing” sense of urgency, that’s probably at least a little bit overstated — this is not a team that’s staring down one last shot at a title before the wrecking balls come. It’s always tough to predict how star players will age, and it’s all but certain that the Ducks will find themselves in a world of cap pain well before all those big contracts expire, but it’s not unreasonable to think that they’ve got at least another two or three swings before that happens.

In fact, if we were looking at a three-year window instead of five, the Ducks would probably lay claim to no. 1. We’re not, and those fourth and fifth years could be when the bill comes due. But there’s a good chance that by then the Ducks will have a banner hanging to show for it all.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 35 percent

No. 1 — Tampa Bay Lightning

Lists like this one are supposed to build suspense as they go, leading up to the big reveal of no. 1. But in this case, I’m not sure there was much suspense to be had. From the first explanation of the five-year concept, everyone figured it was the Lightning all the way, right?

It’s certainly not a hard case to make. The Lightning are young, they have two franchise players in their prime in Steven Stamkos and Victor Hedman, and on top of that they’ve got an entire other line made up of young players who probably haven’t even reached their peak yet in the Triplets.8 Their goaltending is good with Ben Bishop, and might get better (and cheaper) if 21-year-old Andrei Vasilevskiy recovers from a blood clot to regain his status as the best goaltending prospect in the world. They’re smartly managed and well coached. And, oh yeah, they already came within two games of winning the Stanley Cup last season.


8.

Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, and Nikita Kucherov.

So instead of defending a ranking that few will disagree with, I’ll defend the odds that I suspect some might. With all of that going for them, how is it possible that the Lightning don’t even crack 50 percent? Are they really more likely than not to come up empty over the next five years?

History tells us that just might be the case. For every Blackhawks or Penguins championship that you look back on as inevitable, there’s a team like the 2011 Canucks or 2006 Senators — dominant, well-constructed teams that just never managed to get their hands on the big prize. I’m really not sure you could justify ranking any team higher than 50 percent in a parity-driven cap league like the NHL. The gap between sure thing and also-ran is just too small.

But the Lightning may be even more vulnerable than they seem on the surface. The elephant in the room is the Stamkos extension, which as of today still isn’t done. If he were to leave via trade — or even worse, as a free agent who results in no compensation for Tampa Bay — it would lower the Lightning’s odds significantly.

Even beyond Stamkos, there’s a looming cap crunch on the horizon. Hedman needs a new deal after next season, and the Triplets will be due big raises soon. Switching from Bishop to Vasilevskiy could help mitigate that, but Steve Yzerman will have his work cut out to keep this team together.

Of course, keeping an elite roster intact is an awfully nice problem to have. And assuming Stamkos and Hedman stay on board, it’s hard to imagine the Lightning dropping all the way out of contention. Even in the very worst case, they should be well positioned to rebuild quickly.

But that’s for tomorrow. Today, the Lightning have done just about everything right, and that translates into being just shy of a coin flip to take home a Stanley Cup.

It may not be much, but it’s the best shot in the league.

Odds of a Cup in five years: 45 percent