ETA for Every NHL Team to Contend for the Stanley Cup
With the battle between the Chicago Blackhawks and Tampa Bay Lightning for the Stanley Cup on centre stage, the 28 other NHL teams are plotting their own routes to a championship.
Some are older clubs in need of extensive renovations or younger clubs still years away from seriously contending. There are other teams trapped somewhere in the middle that need to decide whether to make a last run with their current groups or if they need a year or two longer to put the finishing touches on their rosters. Finally, there are teams that had a realistic shot to win it all this year and might once again next season.
Where does your favourite team fall on that spectrum? Starting with those the furthest away from championship contention, the following slideshow provides our assessment on when each franchise aside from the two 2015 finalists should be a realistic Cup contender.
Where they are now: Oliver Ekman-Larsson is a franchise cornerstone, but after him things get sketchy. The old, expensive starting goaltender is coming off a disastrous season. Management butchered the rest of the defence at the trade deadline. The forward corps aspires to mediocrity. This roster is in the running for the title of weakest in the NHL.
Where they are going: There are some encouraging prospects in the system, and the Coyotes will end up with another excellent one at the 2015 draft. Whether a tepid fanbase will continue to show up as the team rebuilds is a vital question; it may well be that the answer to where the Coyotes are going is "out of state."
Reasons to hope: General manager Don Maloney and head coach Dave Tippett are among the best in the business. Maloney can be counted on to improve the roster; Tippett can be counted on to get the most out of it.
New Jersey Devils
Where they are now: The Devils are in relatively good shape in a few areas. The team has an enviable collection of young defencemen and a franchise goaltender in Cory Schneider. Unfortunately, the forward group is in need of a total overhaul, and until it gets one, New Jersey won't be a threat.
Where they are going: Nowhere for a while. The prospect system lacks impact forwards; new general manager Ray Shero will be almost starting from scratch up front.
Reasons to hope: The development curve for forwards tends to be a lot longer than for defencemen or goaltenders, which means that if the Devils spend the next few seasons recharging up front, they could find that their developing forwards will be hitting their stride just as their young defencemen reach their peak seasons.
Where they are now: The worst team in the league, the Sabres are in the early stages of a planned tear-down and rebuild. Key young pieces are in place, and general manager Tim Murray has made a point of bringing in veterans to speed the process along, but they looked more like an expansion team than anything else in 2014-15.
Where they are going: The Sabres are loaded with high draft picks and top prospects, and they have a half-dozen impressive young NHLers, too. There's nowhere to go but up, and the players on the team and in the system have an extremely high ceiling.
Reasons to hope: New head coach Dan Bylsma knows his business, and with the Sabres likely looking at adding both Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart to their roster next season, the club could take off in a big way.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Where they are now: The Leafs imploded down the stretch. An expensive forward corps, much of it signed long term, struggled to get the job done. Dion Phaneuf leads an underwhelming defence. It's possible that we've seen the worst, as a lot went wrong over the back half of the season, but it's also possible we're only at the start of a lengthy rebuild.
Where they are going: The Leafs are a team that might be able to reset in short order. The system is about to be restocked in a major way if Toronto decides to move veterans such as star winger Phil Kessel, and already the team has some significant young NHLers, prospects and draft picks.
Reasons to hope: Toronto's new management group seems to be progressive and competent, and new coach Mike Babcock gives the team a major upgrade behind the bench and the potential to get a lot more out of the current roster.
Where they are now: The Hurricanes went a reasonable 20-18-7 after a disastrous first half, with the obvious implication being that there just might be more to the team than it showed after injuries decimated it in 2014-15. There are good young players up front and on the back end; they provide general manager Ron Francis a lot of primary pieces to build around.
Where they are going: Internal growth should improve the team, but that observation comes with a caveat. Franchise forward Eric Staal is entering the final season of his contract, and while a trade would set the team back in the present by a significant amount, it would also bring back a mother lode of young assets.
Reasons to hope: A lot of players underachieved in 2014-15, including Jeff Skinner and Alex Semin. With good health from the injured, good play from the underwhelming and maturation from the young, the Hurricanes could take a quick step forward.
Where they are now: Colorado has a spectacular collection of young forwards; after a few years near the bottom of the NHL standings, there is an abundance of offensive talent up front. Semyon Varlamov had another good year, reconfirming that he's a legitimate No. 1 goaltender. The trouble is on the blue line, where outside of Erik Johnson and Tyson Barrie, there really isn't much going on.
Where they are going: If they can figure out the defence, the Avs could be primed for a breakthrough, much like the New York Islanders managed this past season. If they can't, it'll be another year of spinning wheels.
Reasons to hope: Those young forwards are going to be the key for Colorado. Most have more to give; 2013 No. 1 selection Nathan MacKinnon in particular is a brilliant talent with a bright future.
Where they are now: The Oilers are in rough shape. There's a good group of young forwards in place, but the defence corps is a disaster, and the club's goaltending has imploded two years in a row. The team has been a punchline for a half-decade now.
Where they are going: Those young forwards are rapidly being joined by some young defencemen (Oscar Klefbom, Darnell Nurse) and it was obvious from the moment Edmonton won the NHL Draft Lottery that franchise talent Connor McDavid would be joining the team.
Reasons to hope: Edmonton has been selling hope for a long time, but the people running the show are different now. Gone are the Oilers' old boys; new CEO Bob Nicholson, ex-Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli and ex-San Jose Sharks coach Todd McLellan are in. With competent management and coaching in place, all that young talent may start putting up some wins.
Where they are now: Trapped in a self-inflicted salary-cap nightmare. The Flyers have a lot of good talent, but the trouble is the works are gummed up with wretched contracts, from R.J. Umberger to Vincent Lecavalier to Andrew MacDonald. That makes it hard to support starter Steve Mason with a strong defence and tough to upgrade the secondary forward group behind Claude Giroux and Jakub Voracek.
Where they are going: Nowhere fast. As long as Mason holds, the Flyers won't be that bad of a team—firepower and goaltending guarantee they won't fall too far—but unless they can free up some money, there's just no way to make necessary improvements.
Reasons to hope: The Flyers have some good young defensive prospects, and reclamation projects Nick Schultz and Michael Del Zotto worked well this year. General manager Ron Hextall has shown some ability to fix the back end on the cheap; if he can get that sorted out, the team could make headway in a hurry.
San Jose Sharks
Where they are now: The Sharks' 2014-15 campaign, starting right from the summer when the team's makeup was tweaked by general manager Doug Wilson, was an utter disaster. A 111-point team one game away from beating the (eventual champion) Los Angeles Kings was knocked down to 89 points and the No. 12 position in the West. The club still has top stars at forward and on defence but managed to gut its depth with catastrophic results.
Where they are going: Things are going to get worse before they get better. The team's highest-scoring young forward (Tomas Hertl) managed just 31 points; the club leaders are generally older and near the end of their contracts. Even Logan Couture, an exception at age 26, is past the point where he's likely to take big strides forward as a player. The defence is mostly a veteran group; only rookie Mirco Mueller really stands out there. The current core appears finished; the next one hasn't been assembled yet.
Reasons to hope: The current group might start looking a lot better if the Sharks' management group went back to actively trying to win; the window looks closed, but that isn't necessarily the case.
Where they are now: The current Panthers are a weird conglomeration of old warhorses and young up-and-comers, featuring five regulars over the age of 36 and four under the age of 23. The forward group is unimpressive at present, but the defence is solid, and goaltender Roberto Luongo continues to be one of the better starters in the majors.
Where they are going: That unimpressive forward group could look a lot better in short order. Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad are eventual tent-pole pieces but at present are still growing into their responsibilities. Aaron Ekblad, Dmitry Kulikov and Erik Gudbranson should eventually provide the club with a top-end defensive group, too. One key question is how the Luongo contract affects that growth; he has seven years left on his deal and is already 36.
Reasons to hope: There is a really solid framework of young skaters to build on. General manager Dale Tallon has had mixed success adding veterans to the group, but eventually, the kids should excel in their leading roles and those veterans will matter less.
Where they are now: The Canucks still have a deep and capable defensive group—and a pair of quality goaltenders behind it. The club's forwards are a lot less formidable than they once were as the Sedins and their supporting cast enter their twilight years. The result is a team that can still contend for a playoff berth but doesn't look capable of winning multiple series against the best teams in the West.
Where they are going: General manager Jim Benning has taken steps to rejuvenate the club, bringing in younger forwards Nick Bonino, Linden Vey and Sven Baertschi to revitalize an aging core. Simultaneously, he has improved the team's prospect depth pool to the point where it's quite good. It's still quite valid, however, to ask if these players can possibly fill the void left as the team's key veterans start to decline.
Reasons to hope: Vancouver is in a very interesting position and could go in two plausible directions. The Canucks could try to get the most out of their current veterans, bolstering the current core with some high-end additions and try to contend immediately. Alternatively, the club could turn over some of those veterans for future picks, do a rapid rebuild and potentially never even fall out of playoff contention in a weak Pacific Division.
Where they are now: The Jets are an admirable team in a lot of ways. They have a deep and capable forward group, a deep and capable defensive group and two goaltenders who can play. It's a competitive team assembled on a budget, a club loaded with veterans in the prime of their careers and with a strong group of prospects in the system. What it lacks is elite talent; Winnipeg simply doesn't have the horses to go head-to-head with the best lines in the West.
Where they are going: There are two likely directions. Winnipeg is a team begging for a blockbuster move; the base is there, and with one or two high-end players, the current edition of the team could really take off (pardon the pun). Alternatively, it could keep living the responsible small-budget dream, grooming its impressive young players to step in and replace its current in-their-prime pieces as they are moved on down the line.
Reasons to hope: General manager Kevin Cheveldayoff proved he isn't afraid to make big moves, and with an aggressive offseason, this could be a very dangerous club.
Where they are now: The Senators went on a crazy late-season run, much of it fueled by ridiculous goaltending from the previously unknown Andrew Hammond, and that served to mask some of the team's shortcomings. The defence tapers off noticeably after Erik Karlsson, and the forward group lacks a top-end star despite strong depth.
Where they are going: The good news is that the team is on the upswing. Karlsson just turned 25 and is one of four regular defencemen that age or younger. Kyle Turris is still a few months away from his 26th birthday; he is one of seven forwards aged 25 or younger. All of that talent is maturing together, and once everyone has reached their prime, it's going to be a scary group.
Reasons to hope: Ottawa is, of necessity a budget team, but one of the best things about good young players is they tend to sign value contracts. The Senators stand a decent chance of keeping this group together long enough to make some real noise in the East.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Where they are now: The Jackets stumbled badly out of the gate, partially as a result of injuries, but they finished the year 35-20-3 thanks in large part to a 15-1-1 outburst over their final 17 games. The club has significant forward depth and a genuine star in Ryan Johansen, the defence is largely a capable but no-frills type of group and goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky is one of the best starters in hockey.
Where they are going: It's easy to miss how young a team this is. In 2014-15, Columbus employed 15 different players born after January 1, 1990. That list of players includes Johansen, Boone Jenner, Alex Wennberg, Marko Dano, Ryan Murray and David Savard, and the crazy thing is that the pipeline has more top prospects en route.
Reasons to hope: The cupboard is stocked. This is a pretty decent team by NHL standards in the here and now when everyone's healthy, but there's lots more quality on the way, and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen's background in amateur procurement virtually guarantees that won't change any time soon.
Where they are now: There's a secret to the Flames. A mediocre team at even strength (1.04 goals scored to every one against) and on both special teams units (a tiny bit above average on the power play, just below it on the penalty kill), Calgary managed to parlay a massive disparity between penalties taken and penalties drawn into a big goal differential and a postseason berth. The thing is that despite an impressive defence corps, the team is shallow up front and not particularly strong in net, and until its current young forwards mature and are joined by others, that one trick simply isn't going to do it.
Where they are going: With all the negative stuff out of the way, the future looks awfully bright. Sean Monahan, Johnny Gaudreau are T.J. Brodie are already leading lights and haven't reached their prime yet. The prospect system is full, with Sam Bennett serving as the headliner for an impressive cast of young players. This is a team very much on the way up.
Reasons to hope: If those young players arrive quickly, the combination of them and Calgary's established veterans—most notably franchise defenceman Mark Giordano—could result in a big step forward immediately.
Where they are now: This is a better team than people think. The Stars actually gained a point on a reasonably impressive 2013-14 campaign and finished an impressive 32-19-5 in 2014-15, but a slow start in a tough conference doomed them. Their forward corps is extremely impressive, a strong contingent of defencemen give hope on the back end and starter Kari Lehtonen stands a good chance of rebounding after a poor season.
Where they are going: There's work to be done, and the Stars may need to find cap space to add a quality defenceman or two. But with young rearguards such as John Klingberg in the majors and prospects Julius Honka and Patrik Nemeth bubbling under, there's a lot of room for internal growth. This should be a team on the rise.
Reasons to hope: Jim Nill has been an active and aggressive GM, bringing in players such as Tyler Seguin and Jason Spezza to improve this team. If anyone can overhaul the defence in a hurry, it's probably him.
Where they are now: Boston missed the playoffs by all of two points after salary cap-inflicted cuts and a wretched 4-10 record in shootouts. This is a well-coached team with quality depth, high-end stars both up front and on the back end and one of the league's best goalies in net.
Where they are going: There are internal replacements for many of the team's key players, but the low cap and the advanced ages of defensemen Zdeno Chara (38) and Dennis Seidenberg (33) suggest that things may briefly get worse before they get better. 2014-15 was a bit of a reset year for the Bruins; it seems likely that 2015-16 will be, too.
Reasons to hope: Dougie Hamilton is the heir apparent on the blue line; if Boston can get him signed long term at reasonable dollars, it will make the team's cap situation easier. If he and Chara (who has already established that he isn't bound by the same career arc as lesser mortals) have strong seasons, the Bruins could surprise.
Detroit Red Wings
Where they are now: The Red Wings are still quite an opponent. They took the Lightning to seven games in the first round; it wouldn't have taken much going differently for them to win that series, and after that, who knows? Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg are sublime players with an excellent supporting cast, the back end has real depth and the organization is probably the best-run outfit in the NHL.
Where they are going: Head coach Mike Babcock's defection was a tell. Detroit does have young talent on the way, but are they the kind of players who can step in for Zetterberg and Datsyuk? What about the top end of the defensive group? The Red Wings have shown it's exceedingly dangerous to write them off, but there are signs that the current era is coming to an end.
Reasons to hope: Those young players, for one. Tomas Tatar, Gustav Nyquist and Riley Sheahan are already good players, and Dylan Larkin and Anthony Mantha are in the system. General manager Ken Holland has overseen an intelligent organization that has defied expectations many times before.
Where they are now: Despite a first-round exit, the Penguins are in decent shape. Injuries devastated he team entering the postseason, and while the situation isn't perfect, it's not bad either. The offence is built around two of the game's best players, and the depth has improved. The defence could go either way, but if key free agents are retained, Pittsburgh should be in good shape. Marc-Andre Fleury is a serviceable No. 1 coming off a good year.
Where they are going: With the Penguins going up for sale, as per Mark Belko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, it's possible some expensive free-agent defencemen (Paul Martin, Christian Ehrhoff) will be allowed to walk rather than retained on pricey new contracts. Those departures would hurt Pittsburgh's ability to contend next season.
Reasons to hope: The Penguins should be healthier entering next year's playoffs. This year's failure fits a pattern, but the extenuating circumstances absolutely should not be overlooked.
Where they are now: The Wild had a disappointing second round against the Chicago Blackhawks, bowing out in four games after entering the series upgraded from previous years. However, there's still a lot to like about this team. Devan Dubnyk seems to have fixed the club's issues in net, and both the forward and defensive groups are a nice blend of quality veterans and young talent (the Wild had 10 regulars last year born in the 1990s).
Where they are going: Minnesota will be relying primarily on internal growth, as the team simply doesn't have the cap space to make the kind of splashy acquisitions it has in recent years.
Reasons to hope: Age. Most of the team's core is still young and improving, and even its key veterans (Ryan Suter and Zach Parise) aren't at the point where we'd really expect to see their skills take a dive off a cliff. Internal growth is the key here.
New York Islanders
Where they are now: The Islanders are a team on the rise after what was in many ways a spectacularly successful 2014-15 campaign. New starting goaltender Jaroslav Halak and a totally revamped defence went a long way toward stabilizing the home front, while New York's improving young forwards stack up well against pretty much any team in the league.
Where they are going: The heart of the team is only just now coming into its prime years, meaning that, for the most part, the club is on a decidedly upward trajectory.
Reasons to hope: This is a team with no obvious flaws, one that made massive strides forward in 2014-15 and has the young talent to keep improving. After years in the wilderness, there's every reason to believe this club has found its way.
Where they are now: Goaltender Carey Price might be the best player at his position in the NHL, and he'll give the Canadiens a chance to win any game and any series. In front of him, P.K. Subban is the leading man for a strong blue-line crew, a group that got stronger with the trade-deadline addition of the long-underrated Jeff Petry. The front end is the team's biggest weakness, with the lack of a top centre a clear issue. Regardless, this is still a solid team.
Where they are going: General manager Marc Bergevin maneuvered expertly to put his team in the optimal salary-cap position for 2015-16, and while re-signing Petry ate up much of that space, he still has some room to make modest upgrades to his roster. Improving the forwards is a clear priority.
Reasons to hope: Bergevin's performance over the course of 2014-15 lends itself to confidence, and it's generally easier to address issues up front than it is on the back end. Plus, Carey Price.
Where they are now: The Capitals put together a solid regular season under new head coach Barry Trotz, then fought their way through one tough seven-game series before coming up short in a second. The strong play of goaltender Braden Holtby, a revamped defence and a team-wide focus on its own end helped the Capitals to the best team goals-against average in the postseason.
Where they are going: A lot of older secondary pieces (including defenceman Mike Green, the team's No. 5 option for much of the year) are bound for free agency, but the core group remains intact. With a good summer from management, there shouldn't be any decline here.
Reasons to hope: The Capitals have always been able to score, but Trotz helped the team button down the defensive zone. Unfortunately, much of Washington's offence disappeared in the process, but with Alex Ovechkin and some emerging young options, the team should be able to get things figured out.
Where they are now: The Predators have long had an impressive defensive group; it's been the hallmark of the team virtually from the moment it entered the NHL. In 2014-15, a healthy Pekka Rinne finally reinforced that group by providing the team with top-flight goaltending. The forward group isn't overpowering but has great depth, and Mike Ribeiro was a welcome addition. Put it all together, and Nashville was one of the surprise teams of the season.
Where they are going: The defence and the goaltending is locked up long term, though general manager David Poile will need to do some juggling to deal with his forwards' expiring contracts. This isn't an especially young team, but young NHLer Filip Forsberg and prospect Kevin Fiala offer some hope for internal improvement up front.
Reasons to hope: A first-round exit wasn't what Nashville was hoping for, but there were a lot of reasons it happened, and so much good took place during the year that the playoff letdown shouldn't be weighed too heavily. Had Shea Weber been healthy throughout the series, it's entirely possible the Predators would be where Chicago is now.
St. Louis Blues
Where they are now: The Blues have been a regular-season powerhouse over four campaigns now. They're blessed with a deep and responsible forward corps and a strong defence, headlined by franchise cornerstone Alex Pietrangelo. Yet three seasons in a row, St. Louis has been bounced in the first round.
Where they are going: That's a question that won't be answered until we see the team's summer moves. The Blues really aren't far off, but for some reason, they just haven't been able to get the job done in the postseason. The best bet is that we see the team tweak its personnel as it searches for a winning combination, though an overhaul isn't out of the question.
Reasons to hope: For 82 games a year, the Blues can go head-to-head with pretty much anyone and come out on top. Surely at some point this streak of playoff losses is going to come to an end.
Where they are now: The Ducks had their way with a weak Pacific Division in 2014-15, knocked off a pair of outmatched opponents in short order over the first two rounds of the playoffs and then came within a single game of advancing to the Stanley Cup Final. For most teams, that's an awfully successful season and the kind of thing that breeds optimism about the future.
Where they are going: The team has some significant free agents in Francois Beauchemin and Matt Beleskey, but for the most part, the core is locked down and should make the Ducks a threat again next season. We'll have a better idea of whether this summer represents a step forward or a step back after we see what moves Anaheim makes to fill those holes.
Reasons to hope: Internal growth on defence is a real possibility; four rearguards who played 20-plus minutes per game in the postseason were born in 1991 or later. There's youth in net, too (Frederik Andersen is 25), so the Ducks' back end could be significantly more formidable next year than it is right now.
New York Rangers
Where they are now: The Rangers are oh-so-close. They won the Presidents' Trophy and came within a game of winning the East in 2015 after doing so in 2014. They have an elite goaltender, a solid blue line and a deep set of forwards. This is a really good team a sliver away from being a great one.
Where they are going: Like many of the teams near the top of this list, New York has to contend with some salary-cap issues over the summer. The club also has to try to upgrade, to bridge the narrow span separating it from a Stanley Cup. This suggests change in the offseason, though no certainty that the change will bring the Blueshirts closer to a championship.
Reasons to hope: New York has a brilliant coach, a very good roster and two deep runs in the last two years under its belt.
Los Angeles Kings
Where they are now: It was a disappointing year for the Kings, a team that missed out on a playoff spot by all of two points (and a tiebreaker) after winning the Stanley Cup in 2014. Normally, this could be taken as a sign of the team taking a step back, but the reality is the Kings only had five fewer points in 2015 than the 2014 Cup-winning edition and the same point total as the 2012 Cup-winning team. The Kings never put up gaudy regular-season point totals, but nobody ever looks forward to facing them in the postseason.
Where they are going: Los Angeles has some problematic contracts, mostly as a result of a little too much loyalty on the part of general manager Dean Lombardi to players he won with. But the core of the team that won two of the last three Cups remains and will make the Kings a threat once again.
Reasons to hope: This can't be repeated enough: There is virtually no difference between the regular-season work and roster of the disappointing 2015 Kings and the Cup-winning 2012 and 2014 Kings. If they'd had three more points in the regular season, this might be a very different discussion.