Which Central teams have years of championship contention ahead? Which are under the gun to win now? Which have missed their shot?
A common question as we assess teams’ hopes for the upcoming season every summer: is your team in its Stanley Cup window? The answer is complicated. Some teams enter glorious, extended periods of contention. Others enter their now-or-never seasons, while some have missed their windows or seen them closed after years of success. And other teams still are rebuilding, preparing to contend later, and thus haven’t opened their windows yet.
Which category does each NHL team fit into for 2018-19? We commence a new series of team-by-team examinations, starting with the Central Division.
WINDOW WIDE OPEN: Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators
It’s no secret Winnipeg is our brand’s consensus Stanley Cup selection. Most exciting for the franchise and its fans, however, is that the window has only just opened and stands to stay agape for many years to come.
Look at the structure of the Jets’ roster. Patrik Laine, Kyle Connor and Nikolaj Ehlers are 20, 21 and 22 and under team control for many years to come. Ehlers commences his seven-year extension this year. Laine and Connor are eligible to sign their RFA extensions any time now. Top center Mark Scheifele, 26, and Vezina-finalist goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, 24, have six years left on their contracts apiece. Blueliner Josh Morrissey needs a bridge contract or an extension as an RFA but is still expected to remain a Jet long-term as long as the Jets can avoid a nasty holdout situation.
Even powerhouse blueliner Dustin Byfuglien, yet to show signs of decline at 33, has three seasons left on his deal. The only question marks for Winnipeg financially are captain Blake Wheeler’s next contract in his UFA walk year and the ever-contentious Jacob Trouba negotiations, which went to arbitration this year. Still, the Jets are loaded with ascending talent, most of which is locked up long-term, and they are already a powerhouse, having just posted a franchise-best 114 points and reached the Western Conference final. No West team has a bigger, wider Stanley Cup window than Winnipeg’s right now.
The Predators are close behind, however. Every member of their elite top four on defense – Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, P.K. Subban and Mattias Ekholm – is younger than 30. With Ryan Ellis signing an eight-year extension last week, Josi is the next D-man to hit free agency. That won’t happen until summer 2020, and with goalie Pekka Rinne’s $7-million cap hit likely to come off the books next summer, the Preds should have room to re-sign Josi.
Much of their forward corps, from Filip Forsberg to Ryan Johansen to Viktor Arvidsson to Kyle Turris, is under contract for many more years. The challenges facing GM David Poile will be deciding whether Juuse Saros is Nashville’s long-term answer in net and whether the team can afford any other upgrades at forward to compete with the other contenders’ star power. The ideal scenario would be Kevin Fiala and Eeli Tolvanen blossoming into go-to players from within. Fiala already started doing that last year. Whatever happens, this team just won the Presidents’ Trophy and counts mostly on twentysomethings. The Preds have several seasons left as an elite team.
WIN-NOW WINDOW: Dallas Stars
This season has a real urgency to it for a Stars team yet to re-sign Tyler Seguin, slated for 2019 UFA status. Even if they do get a deal done – and they should – he and captain Jamie Benn only have so many prime years left. Benn is 29. Alexander Radulov is 32. The Stars don’t have any 10-bell forward prospects in the pipeline right now, unless you count 2013 first-rounder Valeri Nichushkin, 23, returning from a two-year KHL hiatus. Even their perfectly respectable top 2018 pick, Ty Dellandrea, doesn’t carry the ceiling of peers such as Filip Zadina or Andrei Svechnikov.
The D-corps, led by John Klingberg and soon by mega-prospect Miro Heiskanen, oozes young talent, suggesting the Stars are fortified on the back end for the near and distant future. That may be true, but the aging forward corps and injury-prone goaltender Ben Bishop, 31, need to maximize the next season or two. Otherwise, Dallas may have to take a couple steps backward to go forward.
WINDOW OPENING: Colorado Avalanche, St. Louis Blues
Joe Sakic was wise to play the 2018 off-season somewhat conservatively. The Avs count their projected platoon goalie Phillip Grubauer, grinding winger Matt Calvert and depth defenseman Ian Cole as their top acquisitions. Sakic didn’t let last season’s ahead-of-schedule playoff berth cloud his judgement. The line of Gabriel Landeskog, Nathan MacKinnon and Mikko Rantanen was absolutely dynamite. It also carried the team a bit too much, scoring 36.5 percent of its goals. The Avs still have to build their forward depth to become a big-time threat in the Central. Tyson Jost and Alexander Kerfoot are coming along, while Vladislav Kamenev has potential as a two-way center, and the Avs took well-rounded Martin Kaut in 2018’s first round.
Things get especially exciting on the blueline, where Colorado has Cale Makar and Conor Timmins, two of the sport’s very best prospects at their position, on the way, while puck-mover Samuel Girard acquitted himself nicely as a rookie. The Avs haven’t entered their true contention window yet, but the window is starting to creak open and should continue widening in the next few seasons.
The Blues are a fascinating case, having suddenly snatched a crowbar and cranked open their contention window when GM Doug Armstrong added Ryan O’Reilly, Tyler Bozak, David Perron and Patrick Maroon to the forward group this summer, providing badly needed support to the prime-year trio of Jaden Schwartz, Brayden Schenn and Vladimir Tarasenko. St. Louis also has some exciting forward prospects knocking on the door in Robert Thomas, Klim Kostin and Jordan Kyrou, with still-young Robby Fabbri back from major knee problems that cost him the past season and a half.
The Blues’ most important defensemen, Alex Pietrangelo, Colton Parayko, Joel Edmundson and Vince Dunn, are in their 20s, so the Blues suddenly look like they’re trending upward as a team. So much will depend on goaltender Jake Allen, of course, especially with Carter Hutton off to Buffalo. The Blues won’t become a true championship threat unless Allen finds some consistency.
WINDOW CLOSING: Minnesota Wild
The Wild have made the playoffs six straight seasons. They’ve also bowed out in the first round four times and the second twice. Their existing veteran core isn’t good enough to clear the proverbial hump. The 2016-17 season, in which they set franchise bests with 49 wins and 106 points, was their best shot, and they missed. Now their workhorse blueliner Ryan Suter is 33 and fresh off ankle surgery. Captain Mikko Koivu is 35. Eric Staal, after a 42-goal explosion, is 33. Perpetually banged-up Zach Parise? 34. Starting netminder Devan Dubnyk: 32.
The Wild have some core players still in their primes – Mathew Dumba on defense, Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker and Nino Niederreiter at forward. Monster power forward Jordan Greenway should be a full-time NHLer this season, too, while sniper Kirill Kaprizov should generate a ton of excitement once his KHL contract expires after 2019-20. But with too many of their top veteran contributors exiting their peak years, the Wild seem stuck in purgatory. They may be good enough to sustain their current success but seem unlikely to improve.
WINDOW CLOSED: Chicago Blackhawks
Give GM Stan Bowman a round of applause. He navigated angry salary-cap seas for years and helped the Hawks win three Stanley Cups in the Patrick Kane/Jonathan Toews/Duncan Keith/Brent Seabrook/Marian Hossa era. Chicago propped its Cup window open for longer than most teams do. But Hossa is retired, Keith is in his mid-30s, Seabrook was a healthy scratch at one point last year, and goalie Corey Crawford has career-threatening concussion concerns. The Blackhawks, their depth on defense stripped bare, missed the playoffs for the first time since Joel Quenneville took over as coach in 2008-09.
The Blackhawks will now look to build around Alex DeBrincat, who led them in goals as a rookie, while preparing for a new era on defense with Adam Boqvist and Henri Jokiharju. They’d probably be better off missing the playoffs than making them this year, as they could use another top-end prospect to form their next foundation. That would get them on track to reopening the Cup window a few years from now.