Stanley Cup Windows 2020-21: Central Division

Which teams are going for broke? Which can comfortably contend for years? Which are watching their chances slip away? The Stanley Cup Windows series continues with the Central Division.
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It’s finally time to resume my annual Stanley Cup Windows series. It opened with the All-Canadian Division, since renamed the North, since renamed the Scotia NHL North. We can continue now that we know the breakdowns of each temporarily realigned division. Next up: the Central, er, the Discover NHL Central. We can just stick with the Central.

Where does each team fall on its contention timeline? Some are going for a do-or-die championship right now. Others are sliding into extended windows of dominance. Others are aging out of contention. And some sit very early in their rebuilding processes.

Disclaimer for Twitter ragers: These. Are. Not. Projected. Standings.

WINDOW WIDE OPEN: Tampa Bay Lightning 

Following Tampa’s 2020 Stanley Cup victory, GM Julien BriseBois needed a miracle to force his stacked team under an $81.5-million salary cap for 2020-21. Crucial RFAs Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev needed new contracts. There wasn’t enough money for one of them, let alone both. But the Bolts “lucked out” with superstar right winger Nikita Kucherov requiring hip surgery that landed him on LTIR. Obviously, Tampa would rather have its best player for the 2020-21 regular season, but with his cap hit removed from the equation, BriseBois was able to kick the can down the road with three-year bridge deals for Cirelli and Sergachev, similar to the one Kucherov signed a few years back before landing his big pay day.

Tampa, then, will be compliant for the 2020-21 season and remains a top threat to win a championship, loaded at every position. Andrei Vasilevskiy has finished no worse than third in the Vezina Trophy vote three years running. Conn Smythe Trophy winner Victor Hedman remains one of the five best blueliners in the game. Brayden Point and Cirelli give the Bolts a tremendous tandem of two-way centers up the middle. Sniper Steven Stamkos reportedly will open camp healthy, with no limitations. Adding penalty-killing mavens Blake Coleman and Barclay Goodrow at the trade deadline last year helped the Bolts become a team that can win with grit on top of finesse, against any type of opponent. We could go on forever about how good this team still is – and it appears Kucherov will return in time for the playoffs when cap compliance doesn’t matter anymore.

Tampa is also set up to remain an alpha-dog Stanley Cup threat for several seasons after this one. Hedman and Stamkos are 30, but all the other Lightning stars remain in their 20s. Tampa doesn’t have a single current NHLer becoming an RFA next off-season, and its pending UFAs are role players rather than foundational cogs: Coleman, Goodrow, Luke Schenn, Curtis McElhinney. It still has too much money committed for next year to be cap compliant, but some salary will come off the books thanks to the expansion draft. Tyler Johnson, who hails from Washington State, would be a fan-friendly fit in Seattle, who could strike a side deal to do Tampa a solid and eat his $5-million cap hit.

WINDOW OPENING: Carolina Hurricanes

The Hurricanes are close to pushing for a Stanley Cup. They know it. They possess arguably the best and deepest collection of blueline talent in the NHL, with more viable starters than there are starting roster spots available. Any team would kill to have Dougie Hamilton, Jaccob Slavin, Brady Skjei, Brett Pesce, Haydn Fleury, Jake Gardiner, Jake Bean and Joakim Ryan 1 through 8. The Canes also own one of the truly elite lines in hockey with Sebastian Aho centering Andrei Svechnikov and Teuvo Teravainen. That line combines with the extremely mobile D-corps to make Carolina one of the NHL’s most dominant teams in shot-attempt share.

So can Carolina break trough to the elite tier of Stanley Cup contenders this season? A couple things have to go right. The secondary scoring must emerge at the forward position. The Canes need 2017 first-round pick Martin Necas to continue his ascension and become a trustworthy top-six forward year round. They also need second-line center Vincent Trocheck to rediscover the scoring touch he had before breaking his leg with the Florida Panthers in 2018. There’s still time to recapture it. He’s only 27. Most importantly, the Canes need one of Petr Mrazek and James Reimer to hold down the crease with consistent play for the entire season. If neither looks trustworthy by the trade deadline, GM Don Waddell has to consider chasing an upgrade. Carolina can’t waste this season – not while Hamilton remains a pending UFA and Svechnikov wraps up his entry-level contract, putting him line for a major raise, even if it’s just an intermediary jump on a bridge deal.

WINDOW CLOSING: Dallas Stars

You could see the anguish on Tyler Seguin’s and Jamie Benn’s faces after the Stars lost to Tampa in the 2020 Cup final. Tampa was built to get many more cracks at the Cup. The Stars? Not necessarily. Too many crucial contributors are past their primes. Captain Benn is 31. Veteran leader Joe Pavelski is 36. Alexander Radulov is 34. Goaltender Ben Bishop, who won’t play until late March or early April thanks to knee surgery, is 34. His replacement, stellar backup Anton Khudobin, is 34.

The Stars’ identity is obviously built around their tremendous defensemen Miro Heiskanen, John Klingberg and Esa Lindell, with Thomas Harley likely ready to join the mix as an NHL regular this season. And they’ve gotten some exciting contributions from emerging young forwards such as Roope Hintz, Radek Faksa and most notably Denis Gurianov of late. But with a somewhat underwhelming farm crop, the Stars aren’t currently awaiting any can’t-miss star forwards to take the mantle from Benn and Seguin as franchise cornerstones.

So you have an aging forward group, major injuries to top forward Seguin and top goalie Bishop and a roster that couldn’t add any noteworthy veterans because GM Jim Nill had to devote Dallas’ cap space to re-signing RFAs Hintz, Faksa and Gurianov. The Stars should still be competitive, but deductive reasoning suggests they have nowhere to go but down. They haven’t added anything to last year’s team, and they will play most of 2020-21 without two of their most important players.

WINDOW FOGGED UP: Columbus Blue Jackets, Florida Panthers, Nashville Predators

A week ago, I would’ve placed the Blue Jackets in a ‘Window Opening’ section. But reports that top center Pierre-Luc Dubois may want a trade out of town turn our vision opaque when assessing the franchise’s long-term future. At the moment, the Jackets look like a fringe contender who are best built for playoff wars. They have two horses on defense in Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. They’re set in net regardless of who plays between Elvis Merzlikins and Joonas Korpisalo. Trading for Max Domi adds some badly needed secondary scoring. Their forward group blends physicality from the likes of Nick Foligno and Boone Jenner and scoring touch from Cam Atkinson and Oliver Bjorkstrand, with youngsters Liam Foudy, Emil Bemstrom and Alexandre Texier bringing upside to the top nine. Columbus may not have a slam-dunk superstar in the making coming up the pipeline, but there’s plenty to like.

That said – there’s no telling how a Dubois trade would alter the roster makeup, especially if Columbus didn’t receive a top-line center in the deal. The franchise core’s long-term future looks a bit muddy, too. Bjorkstrand just signed a five-year, $27-million extension, announced Wednesday, but most of Columbus’ key veterans – Jones, Domi, Foligno, Jenner, both goaltenders – have one or two seasons left before becoming UFAs. So we can only really evaluate the team’s potential one year at a time at this stage.

The Panthers possess plenty of high-pedigree talent on paper – Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, and with Owen Tippett and Grigori Denisenko on the verge of debuting – but continue to underachieve. While Tippett, Denisenko, Alexander Wennberg, Patric Hornqvist and Anthony Duclair transform the forward group’s identity in Year 1 under new GM Bill Zito, it’s possible the Panthers just break even on offense after letting reliable top-sixers Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov walk in free agency. Fortifying the defensive depth with Radko Gudas and Markus Nutivaara doesn’t address the hole in the top four, created when Mike Matheson flamed out in his first (and last) year under coach Joel Quenneville. Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, the $10-million man, endured a disastrous first season with the Panthers and has six remaining on his contract.

There’s plenty to get excited about when assessing the roster’s current talent and even the long-term future with center Anton Lundell and goaltender Spencer Knight on the way, but the Panthers have become an annual question mark. The result in the standings doesn’t often match the prediction, and that didn’t change much even with the arrival of Quenneville and Bobrovsky last year. Could Florida finally figure it out this year? Sure. But it could also underachieve yet again.

The Predators made plenty of changes this off-season. But the changes were just so…Nashville, weren’t they? In the past half decade, the most successful run in franchise history, the Predators’ identity has been elite defensemen, good goaltending and a plucky committee-style forward group that lacks an elite star. So GM David Poile adds Erik Haula, Luke Kunin, Nick Cousins and Brad Richardson to the forward corps. Poile deepens an already-great defense corps with Mark Borowiecki and Matt Benning as safety nets behind the dominant top four of Roman Josi, Ryan Ellis, Mattias Ekholm and Dante Fabbro. This looks like an extremely deep hockey team now. It also looks like the same version of the Preds we’ve seen several seasons in a row – a team good enough to make the playoffs but not win a championship.

Unless Eeli Tolvanen finally shows he can be a goal-scorer at the NHL level and/or Phil Tomasino makes the team and flourishes as a rookie, it’s difficult to see Nashville escaping the murky middle in the Central. After this season, Poile will have some interesting decisions to make in net as well. All-time franchise great Pekka Rinne becomes a UFA and may retire. Emerging starter Juuse Saros is an RFA. And Nashville also picked ultra-prospect Yaroslav Askarov in the 2020 draft’s first round.

WINDOW SMASHED: Chicago Blackhawks

Were the Blackhawks rebuilding entering 2020-21? Sort of, according to GM Stan Bowman when we spoke a couple months back. In Bowman’s mind, the Hawks were rebuilders but they were multiple years into the rebuild, having drafted potential future stars in center Kirby Dach and defenseman Adam Boqvist while breaking in top-six fixtures up front in Alex DeBrincat and Dominik Kubalik. Bowman understood his remaining veteran core of Cup-winners – Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith, Brent Seabrook – didn’t want to be part of a phase-one rebuild, and his pitch to them was that phase one was already over. The hope was that Chicago would start showing tangible improvement this season.

But we can toss all prognostications and plans in the trash. The Hawks are a cursed franchise in recent weeks. Left winger Alex Nylander requires season-ending knee surgery. Dach broke his wrist at the world juniors after Chicago was kind enough to loan him to Canada knowing he’d have to miss the start of camp. The third dagger: the announcement of a mystery illness that will keep Toews out indefinitely.

It’s thus extremely difficult to forecast where the Hawks will land in their rebuild timeline this season. But maybe all the maladies become a blessing for a franchise that really wasn’t ready to contend. After all, the Hawks were the worst defensive team in the NHL by a significant margin last season and then bid farewell to goaltender Corey Crawford, who kept them in games last year, in favor of an obscure battery featuring Malcolm Subban, Collin Delia and Kevin Lankinen. Wins would’ve been hard to come by anyway. Now, Chicago might sink to the bottom of the Central and secure another marquee draft pick for 2021. And hey, maybe Bowman unearths yet another surprise European gem, with Pius Suter walking in the footsteps of Artemi Panarin and Kubalik.

REBUILDING: Detroit Red Wings

Steve Yzerman continues to lay low and subtly tank. Don’t let the slew of respectable veteran roster additions fool you. It’s true that Bobby Ryan, Vladislav Namestnikov, Troy Stecher, Thomas Greiss and so on will help the Wings be less of an embarrassment after posting the lowest points percentage by any team in 20 years last season. But they were all signed to one- or two- year deals. The one-year additions are set up to be trade-deadline rental flips. The two-year additions are expansion-draft bait. And the veteran presences are also there to block Detroit’s youngsters from earning roster spots by default.

Speaking of the youth movement: defenseman Moritz Seider, center Joe Veleno and left winger Lucas Raymond will remain in Europe this season. None is even attending camp. The Wings aren’t rushing their top prospects and clearly have no plans to make a run for the playoffs this year. If they did, they’d at the very least be giving Seider a long look. So we can bet on another run at the draft lottery in Motown.

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