Welcome to part 2 of Stanley Cup Windows, an annual blog series in which I (attempt to) assess where each NHL team sits on its road to Stanley Cup contention. Some are squarely in their glory years, others have approached desperate win-now junctures, others are watching their Cup hopes slip away and some are obvious rebuilders.
So how does the Cup-window landscape look for 2021-22? Give the snow globe a vigorous shake. That’ll give you a fair sense of what to expect from the NHL’s standings: chaos. For the first time since March 2020, the NHL’s divisions will align under their traditional structures: Atlantic, Central, Metropolitan and Pacific. Which teams will emerge as the alphas? It’s difficult to know when so many haven’t faced each other in a year and a half. The Seattle Kraken also join the fray as the league’s 32nd franchise.
This year’s Stanley Cup Windows exercise should prove particularly challenging, then. But that’s part of the fun. We’ll continue with the Metropolitan Division, which underwent significant player turnover this off-season.
WINDOW WIDE OPEN
(In position to contend for multiple seasons)
New York Islanders
The Isles did almost nothing all off-season before announcing the simultaneous re-signings of UFAs Casey Cizikas and Kyle Palmieri and RFAs Ilya Sorokin and Anthony Beauvillier Sept. 1. The telegraphed Zach Parise contract was finally made official Friday, too.
For a team that hasn’t cleared the conference-final hump in consecutive seasons, Parise doesn’t qualify as a major upgrade, but the Tampa Bay Lightning seem to be the only team New York can’t handle, and those Lightning lost multiple important players this off-season. The Isles may thus be in the driver’s seat as top contenders in the East. They own the best shutdown defense pair in the game right now in Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock; a versatile, speedy No. 1 center in Matt Barzal; an elite goaltending tandem in Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin; a deep forward group top to bottom; and a peerless coach in Barry Trotz. They also get captain Anders Lee back from his ACL tear to patrol the left wing on their top line. With most of their key players still in their primes, the Isles appear to have plenty of runway left in their quest for a championship.
(Aging perennial contender team, running out of years to make a deep playoff run)
Washington Capitals, Pittsburgh Penguins
We very much know who the Caps are at this point. They’re a veteran team, still extremely deadly on the power play, armed with an enviable top-six forward group including Alex Ovechkin, Tom Wilson, Anthony Mantha and T.J. Oshie on the wings and Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov at center, though it remains to be seen if the Caps deliver on trade rumors and deal Kuznetsov. Elite offensive defenseman John Carlson adds to the firepower. The Caps played decent defensive hockey at 5-on-5 last season and had a great penalty kill, but they allowed a lot of goals because they didn’t get consistent season-long goaltending from Ilya Samsonov and Vitek Vanecek. With key penalty-killing D-man Brendan Dillon traded to the Winnipeg Jets, there’s more pressure on Washington’s netminders to elevate their play. The Caps had the league’s 17th-best save percentage and second-worst high-danger SP at 5-on-5 last season.
With a depleted D-corps and an effective but aging forward group, the Caps seem likely to remain a comfortably competitive playoff team, maybe even a division winner, but it feels like their Stanley Cup trajectory peaked with their 2018 win – unless prospect Connor McMichael makes the team and becomes a high-impact rookie.
As for the Penguins…eek. It was already a head-scratching off-season in which GM Ron Hextall (a) doubled down on Tristan Jarry as Pittsburgh’s starting goaltender despite Jarry’s playoff meltdown; (b) lost wingers Jared McCann (indirectly) and Brandon Tanev to the expansion draft; and (c) made no major upgrades unless you count signing checking left winger Brock McGinn. Center Evgeni Malkin’s balky knee is slated to keep him out of training camp, and now center Sidney Crosby will miss at least six weeks after wrist surgery. That means the Pens’ opening-night center will probably be 36-year-old Jeff Carter. It really feels like we’re at the edge of the cliff in the fruitful Crosby-Malkin era, especially when Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang are in their final years of their contracts.
WINDOW FOGGED UP
(Unpredictable outcome and differing opinions on whether team is a contender or pretender)
Carolina Hurricanes, Philadelphia Flyers, New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils
I’m shocking myself by placing the Hurricanes in this category. They should be up with the New York Islanders in the Window Wide Open section coming off a dominant season in which coach Rod Brind’Amour won the Jack Adams Award. Alas, GM Don Waddell’s off-season decisions have eroded my confidence. Haggling over money, he traded starting goaltender and Calder Trophy finalist Alex Nedeljkovic to the Detroit Red Wings. Replacing ‘Ned’ and Petr Mrazek are the high-risk duo of Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta. The Canes also let No. 1 defenseman Dougie Hamilton walk as a UFA. Most of the forward group remains intact, and the Canes still have Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce thwarting chances on defense, so it’s entirely possible this team remains a top-tier contender. Given the significance of their player losses, however, they’re difficult to forecast.
Same goes for the Flyers, who were extremely aggressive in overhauling their roster this off-season. They traded center and 2017 No. 2 overall draft bust Nolan Patrick as part of a three-team trade bringing stellar puck-moving defenseman Ryan Ellis to Philadelphia; swapped Jakub Voracek for Cam Atkinson in a hockey trade of right wingers; and broke the maligned but physically promising Rasmus Ristolainen out of prison, a.k.a the Buffalo Sabres blueline. Does that mean the Flyers return to Stanley Cup contention after it felt like they were right there a year ago? It depends on goaltending. Carter Hart mysteriously imploded last season, and his new backup, Martin Jones, is statistically the worst NHL netminder of the past three years if we measure by goals saved above average per 60 at 5-on-5. If no one can stop the puck, all the Flyers’ other transactions might not matter. It all comes down to Hart and whether he can get his highly intelligent brain back on track.
The Rangers’ current roster breakdown represents two conflicting philosophies colliding head on. Holdovers from Jeff Gorton’s time as GM include top-end homegrown talents such as Igor Shesterkin in net, K’Andre Miller on defense and lottery picks Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere on the wings, with blueliners Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba and Ryan Lindgren and center Mika Zibanejad having arrived via trades made by Gorton. Superstar left winger Artemi Panarin was also a Gorton-era signing. That core represents the promise of ‘The Letter’ the Rangers brass sent to their fans in 2018: a mix of pure skill and youthful upside.
The new additions represent owner James Dolan’s impatience, which culminated in firing Gorton last season and replacing him with Chris Drury as GM. Attempting to inject the franchise with competitive fire, Drury overpaid massively for two-time Stanley Cup winning checker Barclay Goodrow, traded for rugged right winger Ryan Reaves and picked up hitting machine Sammy Blais from St. Louis. If Drury has the cocktail mixed correctly, we could see the Rangers bust out as a first-place team with sandpaper to complement their talent. If not, this group might be slower and less skilled than last year’s. The Rangers will be a fun watch in 2021-22 because their range of outcomes is incredibly wide.
Another team whose fate could spin in many directions: the New Jersey Devils, a rebuilding team that has behaved this off-season as if it’s done rebuilding. The Devils landed the top UFA on the market in Hamilton and traded for defenseman Ryan Graves while also fortifying their goaltending with Jonathan Bernier to work with Mackenzie Blackwood and adding Tomas Tatar as a scoring-line left winger. Given the Devils were unlucky last season, ravaged by COVID-19 early on and losing top center Nico Hischier to injury, there’s potential for growth here. Don’t sleep on Jack Hughes, either. It didn’t look like he improved as a sophomore, but his under-the-hood stats say he did.
(Laying foundation for the future, not interested in pursuing a Cup right now)
Columbus Blue Jackets
Gone are several pillars of a Columbus team that had fringe-contender potential as recently as the 2020 post-season: right winger Josh Anderson, then top center Pierre-Luc Dubois, then coach John Tortorella, then top defenseman Seth Jones. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen understands that he’s been cornered into a reset. He used the Jones trade to net a package of picks and young blueliner Adam Boqvist, and the Jackets had three first-round picks at this year’s draft. Getting Boqvist and Jake Bean in separate trades signified a shift toward targeting players who haven’t approached their primes yet. Columbus should contend for a lottery pick in 2022.