It remains to be seen whether we get a 2020-21 NHL season beginning in January, February or at all. But labor talks hit a stalemate before the bubble tournament launched last summer, too, and things got resolved. It’s thus justifiable to remain optimistic about a 2020-21 campaign even if the NHL and NHL Players’ Association are at an impasse for now.
That means we can start forecasting teams’ fates for the coming season. It also means I can fire up my annual Stanley Cup Windows series, in which I project where teams fall on their contention timelines. 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.
Typically, I divide the Cup Windows series by the Atlantic, Central, Metropolitan and Pacific Divisions, but it’s highly unlikely we see NHL teams play in their traditional divisions this season. We’ll thus start the series with the one division that appears locked in based on the status of the Canadian and American borders: The ‘All-Canadian Division.’ Disclaimer for Twitter ragers: These. Are. Not. Projected. Standings.
WIN-NOW WINDOW: Calgary Flames, Toronto Maple Leafs
Both teams have underachieved, failing to make any significant playoff runs, over the past several seasons despite icing some of the game’s purest talents. Both teams have GMs several years into their tenures, facing extreme pressure to deliver in 2020-21 after making significant roster changes.
Is any GM’s seat hotter than that of Calgary’s Brad Treliving? He enters his seventh season in the job. Since he took over the role in 2014, the Flames have made the playoffs four times in six seasons, winning a single playoff series – two if you count the play-in victory over the Winnipeg Jets in 2020. In 2018-19, they finished with the Western Conference’s best record and a .652 points percentage, their highest since winning the Stanley Cup in 1988-89, but things haven’t been the same since they crumbled in the first round of the 2019 playoffs against No. 8 seed Colorado. Calgary slipped to a .564 points percentage in 2019-20; changed coaches mid-season following Bill Peters’ resignation after news of his past racist behavior surfaced; and watched their stars, most notably left winger Johnny Gaudreau and Sean Monahan, endure terrible years.
It feels like a make-or-break season for Gaudreau, 27, and Monahan, 26. Considering 2019 Norris Trophy winner Mark Giordano is 37 and second-line center Mikael Backlund is 31, Calgary has to make this season count. The Flames’ next generation will be built around cornerstone left winger Matthew Tkachuk and blueliners Rasmus Andersson and Juuso Valimaki, but this team doesn’t have a high-ceiling prospect pool at the moment, so it’s possible Calgary will have to go backward to go forward if the current veteran group doesn’t do damage soon.
Treliving appeared to realize that – and went to work bringing in veteran help this off-season. He made a big UFA splash signing goaltender Jacob Markstrom for six years at a $6-million AAV. Markstrom has established one of the most consistent floors of any stopper in the game, but Calgary is paying him for the ceiling he flashed in 2019-20 with a career year in which he finished fourth in the Vezina Trophy vote. Adding heart-and-soul blueliner Chris Tanev, who has a lot of wear on his tires for a 30-year-old, is the epitome of a win-now move. The Flames yearn to succeed in the present.
Same goes for the Maple Leafs, a team loaded with offensive talent that has somehow failed to win a single playoff series since the Auston Matthews/Mitch Marner era began in 2016-17. After Toronto bowed out to the Columbus Blue Jackets during the play-in round, GM Kyle Dubas decided to shape his all-skill outfit into a group that should, in theory, be more difficult to play against in 2020-21. Out went speedy, skilled forwards such as Andreas Johnsson and Kasperi Kapanen. In came big, physical veteran leaders to fill depth roles such as Wayne Simmonds and Joe Thornton. In T.J. Brodie, the Leafs landed a new partner to play big minutes in a shutdown role on Morgan Rielly’s right side. Puck-moving blueliner Tyson Barrie walked, replaced with bruising veteran Zach Bogosian.
The Leafs made themselves different this off-season. But are we sure they made themselves better? It’s debatable how much Simmonds and Thornton have left. To Dubas’ credit, however, what the Leafs were doing wasn’t working, so he had to try something. There’s no denying the talent level on this top-heavy team, which still has the ceiling to produce a Rocket Richard winner in Matthews and maybe even an Art Ross winner someday in Marner. But even as Matthews, Marner and William Nylander remain early in their primes and intriguing rookie left winger Nick Robertson gets a tremendous opportunity to crack the top nine, there’s an urgency in Leaf land because of their payroll woes in a flat-cap universe. Left winger Zach Hyman and starting goaltender Frederik Andersen enter the final seasons of their contracts, while Rielly has two years left. Toronto already has $67.95 million committed to just 13 players for next season. It has to go deep in the playoffs before it can no longer afford the depth to surround its young core forwards.
WINDOW WIDE OPEN: Vancouver Canucks
The Canucks aren’t merely exciting because they boast some of the most dynamic young players in the game to watch, from center Elias Pettersson to defenseman Quinn Hughes to shooter Brock Boeser. What makes Vancouver’s future so promising is the top to bottom roster balance. Bo Horvat brings leadership and two-away acumen. Jake Virtanen is finally starting to unlock his potential as a crash-and-bang power forward. J.T. Miller has discovered tremendous chemistry with Pettersson. Thatcher Demko’s future as the Canucks’ star No. 1 netminder inches closer to the present even as he shares the net with UFA addition Braden Holtby going forward.
Best yet for the Canucks: their next generation of promising kids isn’t even done breaking through yet. Vasili Podkolzin’s time is coming. He projects to be a true game breaker, a feisty scoring winger, and his KHL contract expires at the end of the 2020-21 season, meaning he might join Vancouver for the stretch run and/or playoffs, albeit his contract doesn’t technically end until after the World Championship, which may or may not be played because of COVID-19.
Whether Podkolzin joins the Canucks this season or not, the point is: this team is young, well-rounded, still getting better and just entering what should be an extended window of contention. You can argue all you want about whether that’s because of or in spite of GM Jim Benning’s decisions. It doesn’t change the fact Vancouver’s arrow points skyward. To take another step forward in 2020-21, however, Vancouver must improve its leaky defense.
WINDOW OPENING: Edmonton Oilers, Montreal Canadiens
The Oilers aren’t perfect. They failed to address a glaring need in goal this off-season, and they’re mediocre defensively. But they arguably own the two greatest offensive weapons in the sport, and their power play converted at the highest rate since the 1978-79 New York Islanders last year. When you have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on a team that has established a make-the-playoffs floor, it’s fair to say winning the Stanley Cup sits in your range of outcomes in the present. The emergence of Kailer Yamamoto as Draisaitl’s regular right winger turned Edmonton into a deadly two-line team rather than a one-line team and altered the team’s identity last season. After signing Dominik Kahun and brining back Jesse Puljujarvi, the Oilers have some new options to mesh with McDavid on the top line, too.
We know the Oilers will score goals in droves again. To break through as a true contender, they’ll have to clean up their play in their own end, especially with a goaltending tandem of Mikko Koskinen and Mike Smith unlikely to steal many wins, as Edmonton ranked in the top third of the league for most shots and scoring chances allowed per 60 at 5-on-5 last year. A step forward from a young D-man such as Evan Bouchard could accelerate the team’s trajectory. Regardless, Edmonton (finally) seems to be heading in the right direction.
Prognosticators can’t seem to agree on the Canadiens’ chances for 2020-21. I get it. They surprised the Pittsburgh Penguins with the play-in upset, but “upset” was the operative word, as Montreal was the tournament’s No. 24 seed, having sat 10 points out of a playoff berth when the NHL paused its season March 12. So it’s understandable if some are skeptical about this team being for real.
I am not skeptical. I’m extremely bullish. For one: even in its down year, the Habs played strong defensive hockey and were a dominant possession team under coach Claude Julien. They were let down by a lack of scoring punch and surprisingly subpar regular-season goaltending from Carey Price. I expect both problems to be rectified or at least improved in 2020-21. Montreal fortified its wings by signing Tyler Toffoli and trading for Josh Anderson. The Habs grossly overpaid Anderson, yes, but it doesn’t change the fact his size and physicality help the team right now. Acquiring Jake Allen as a ‘luxury backup’ should prevent Price from leading all NHL goalies in minutes played a third straight season, which could keep him fresher and improve the quality of his play while the quantity shrinks. Montreal also saw exciting progress from heady young center Nick Suzuki last year, not to mention signs of a rebirth from Jesperi Kotkaniemi in the post-season, and gets mega-prospect defenseman Alexander Romanov for this season now that his KHL tenure is over.
The Habs play sound defensive hockey, GM Marc Bergevin actively addressed key roster needs in the off-season, and this team boasts one of the sport’s best prospect groups. So much to like. I expect a big improvement in 2020-21.
WINDOW FOGGED UP: Winnipeg Jets
The Jets’ identity in this era is pretty much established now. They have one of the deepest, most talented forward groups in the NHL. They have an elite goaltender in reigning Vezina winner Connor Hellebuyck. They leave a bit to be desired on defense after the 2019 calendar year erased their entire right side: Dustin Byfuglien (injury), Jacob Trouba (trade) and Tyler Myers (free agency).
This team’s strengths and weaknesses are fairly apparent. The question is whether there’s room left to improve. The Paul Stastny trade is just a one-year patch-over to address the hole at No. 2 center. The Jets have waited for years for Jack Roslovic to ascend to it, but it just hasn’t happened, whether it’s because he hasn’t earned it or hasn’t received the opportunity or both. Defenseman Josh Morrissey, whose eight-year, $50-million extension kicks in this season, needs to rebound from a down season. On paper, though, the Jets didn’t do much to improve, almost as if GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is simply betting on better injury luck after the Jets were truly cursed last season.
So will we see some improvements from within? Maybe young defenseman Ville Heinola sticks with the big club and changes the face of the D-corps. But, for now, it appears Winnipeg will ice a similar lineup to last season’s – assuming goal-scorer Patrik Laine remains in town. He just completed his most consistent campaign as a pro, but does he want to remain a Jet for another day, let alone another year? With few changes from last season and one key player’s future in flux, the Jets are tough to forecast. They could be trending up, down or simply mired in mediocrity.
REBUILDING: Ottawa Senators
The Sens are gradually harvesting a mighty youth crop. Left winger Brady Tkachuk and defenseman Thomas Chabot are obviously established as long-term pillars. Blueliner Erik Brannstrom will arrive for good soon, as should forwards Josh Norris, Drake Batherson and Alex Formenton, and the 2020 draft yielded the No. 3 and 5 overall picks in center Tim Stuetzle and defenseman Jake Sanderson.
But credit to GM Pierre Dorion for deciding to push the chips forward a bit and support his young lineup. The Matt Murray trade could accelerate Ottawa’s trajectory. He struggled last season in Pittsburgh’s net but has historically fared better when facing more shots, which he’ll do in Ottawa, and he’s young enough to turn his career around at 26. Ottawa also capitalized on the flat-cap landscape to steal right winger Evgenii Dadonov at a discount: three years at a $5-million AAV for a quality first-liner that should make whoever plays with him better.
The Sens, then, sit in a comfortable juncture of their scorched-earth rebuild, unburdened by expectations yet a decent bet to improve and at the very least field an exciting team with upside in 2020-21. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ottawa’s points percentage spike significantly, even if the playoffs remain a long way off.