Last Friday, my buddy Chicago Joe and I were driving to the Joe Louis Arena to watch the Wings/Blackhawks rivalry game for the last time ever in that fabled barn, and on the way there, the discussion switched to football, and inevitably the Detroit Lions came up and his hatred for them. As we talked about the upcoming season, Joe mentioned how he thought the Lions were closer to winning the Super Bowl than not winning it. That observation made me think about which NHL teams are actually closer to winning the Cup than not winning it, and which non-playoff teams would win the Cup before teams currently in the playoff picture.
There are a few teams that will make the playoffs this season that I don’t see winning the Cup for awhile regardless of where they are sitting at the end of each season, barring a miracle like the signing of John Tavares as a UFA, for starters. I think the Arizona Coyotes are closer to winning a Stanley Cup than the Rangers are. New York is almost dead last in prospects ratings and have a bunch of good players on their team, but no great players except for goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and his window is closing each day as age creeps into the mix.
Arizona, on the other hand, may be taking their lumps right now, but some of their young players are up with the big team earning their lumps and learning as they go, and the Coyotes cupboards are stacked with prime prospects such as Boston University standout Clayton Keller and super scorer on the Ontario Hockey League’s Erie Otters Dylan Strome. At 6’3” and 198 pounds, Strome already has an NHL body, and he can score in bunches. The Coyotes also feature six studs all under the age of 21 who are already earning their paychecks on the big club: Max Domi, Anthony Duclair, Christian Dvorak, Jakob Chychrun, Logan Crouse and Brenden Perlini. So, if you hate the Coyote howl as the team’s goal-scoring horn, get used to it because it’s going to be getting overtime very soon.
The Winnipeg Jets are another team much closer to winning a Cup than not winning one, and may be just a stellar net minder away from being a consistent playoff team. With four studs under 21 already on the Jets, including rookie goal-scoring phenom Patrik Laine, and two top prospects in The Hockey News Top 50 Prospects issue, things for Winnipeg look to be heading in a way more successful direction with this Jets team, as opposed to the one that headed to Phoenix 21 years ago.
We could have a literal Border War on our hands with the Jets and the Minnesota Wild, as the Wild have five of the top 45 prospects from the Hockey News list in their system right now. That mix of injected youth with the young leaders currently on the team, like Mikael Granlund, Charlie Coyle, Matthew Dumba and Nino Niederreiter, ensures that the Central Division will very soon have a power struggle that doesn’t include Chicago.
The Carolina Hurricanes are another team that I feel is closer to winning a Cup. Regardless of their youth, Carolina has been stockpiling high-end draft picks for years, and it may not be next season, but in maybe five years or less, this team will be going deep into the playoffs. The Hurricanes are currently second in the league when on the Penalty Kill, and special teams will be a huge key to their regular season and postseason success. Learning to defend your keep is key, and youth is abundant on this squad. Jordan Staal is the elder statesman of this forward group at the ripe old age of 28, while rookie Sebastian Aho is only 19 and already a leader on this team both on the ice and in the locker room.
Carolina is going to be an exciting team to watch very soon, so be patient Hurricane faithful, your time is coming. Last season, the Canes landed Québec Major-Junior League scoring stud Julien Gauthier 21st overall, and Calgary Hitmen offensive defenseman Jake Bean at 13th overall. This season has been an improvement over last season, but it will yield another relatively high first round pick. With three picks in the second and third rounds this year, it’s going to be raining prospects for Ron Francis and the Canes nation.
As I look at the league standings after last night’s slate of games, I really only see five true Cup contenders. Chicago is lights out, the San Jose Sharks' window is closing fast and this may be their last year with this group as age and free agency hit next year. The Eastern Conference has the defending Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins, President Cup winner Washington Capitals and the explosive and young Columbus Blue Jackets, who will be doing this 100-point thing for the next five to ten seasons. I will add the Minnesota Wild to the mix as well with their new defensive philosophy brought on by Assistant Coach Scott Stevens, a man who knows a few things about playing D and winning Stanley Cups.
You can always reach me @PolkaPat.