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. 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.
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? 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.
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, 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.
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