It's the best time of year!
Posted by Ryan Porth Labels: Calgary Flames, Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Tampa Bay Lightning, Windows of opportunity
(Note: Last week we had the original version of this post. The readers have spoken and we have decided to come up with Part 2 of this feature.)
Every team, at one point or another, has a window opportunity to compete for the Stanley Cup. Some of those teams are seeing that window just opening; others are seeing it close right in front of them.
Window opening: Tampa Bay Lightning
This past spring’s impressive postseason run was only the tip of the iceberg for what the future holds in Tampa Bay. Not only do they possess a talented group of youngsters, but an up-and-coming front office and coaching staff should make them one of better teams in the Eastern Conference this decade.
Steven Stamkos is the face (and future) of the franchise, bar none, and is an annual 50-goal threat. Victor Hedman, along with prospects Brett Connolly, Carter Ashton and a slew of goalies, make up for a solid young core in the future. Martin St. Louis, a Hart Trophy nominee last season, and Vincent Lecavalier are on the down-side of their careers, yet still productive and valuable.
Most importantly, however, the Lightning have the right pieces in place behind the bench and up top to succeed in the present and future. Head coach Guy Boucher is arguably the best young coach in the NHL, while GM Steve Yzerman is just beginning to display his potential for calling the shots. Boucher and Yzerman should make for a formidable combo for years to come.
Between the new (and vastly improved) front office regime, along with a solid mix of young players, the ceiling is sky high going forward for Stamkos and company.
Window open: Pittsburgh Penguins
The 2009 Stanley Cup Champions have been one of the NHL’s top contenders for the last four seasons. With their core locked up for the foreseeable future, you can expect more of the same from the Penguins.
The trio of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Marc-Andre Fleury obviously lead the way for Pittsburgh. There is concern as to what kind of player Crosby will be following his severe concussion. If he happens to pick up where he left off, the Pens will once again be dangerous. Malkin hasn’t been the same since his Conn Smythe-winning 2009 postseason, but word is he’s primed for a big year. Fleury carried the team in the second half of 2010-11 when Crosby and Malkin were injured.
Other than those three premier players, the Pens have numerous other important pieces of their core locked up. Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin are all under contract for at least the next three years, while Jordan Staal is overshadowed as the third-line pivot. Not to mention, the potential of James Neal playing alongside a healthy Crosby for the long haul has some hockey pundits giddy.
Assuming Crosby can bounce back from his concussion, the Penguins still have many years of Stanley Cup contention ahead.
Window closing: Detroit Red Wings
As long as Ken Holland and Mike Babcock are steering the ship, the Red Wings will be the Red Wings. With that said, recent postseasons have suggested that time is running out for the current core to win another Stanley Cup together.
Their entire core, minus Jimmy Howard, is on the wrong side of the 30-year-old mark. Future Hall of Fame defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom is 41 with one, at most two, seasons left. Pavel Datsyuk is still extremely talented, but he is 33 years old and has seen his production drop off a bit in the last two years. Henrik Zetterberg (soon to be 31) and Niklas Kronwall (30) aren’t getting any younger, either.
Also, Detroit is no longer the ‘team to beat’ in the Western Conference; Vancouver, San Jose and Chicago have taken over that title with their recent successes. At times the Wings show that dominance from just two or three years ago, but not consistently enough. Opponents aren’t afraid of them anymore, especially in this salary cap era where the Wings organization can’t simply spend more than everybody else.
Don’t get me wrong – the Red Wings are still a great team and a force to be reckoned with. But there’s a different feeling than from years past.
Window closed: Calgary Flames
Once upon a time the Flames were considered to be an elite team in the Western Conference. That time was about three years ago. Just because they still have mainstays Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff on the roster doesn’t mean they’ll be returning to contender status in the near future.
Let’s go back to the 2008-09 season, when the Flames were leading the Northwest Division prior to the trade deadline. Then-GM Darryl Sutter traded for Olli Jokinen, which started a downhill domino effect (including the trade of Dion Phaneuf) that has continued up until this day. Ever since the Flames acquired Jokinen, they haven’t been the same. After five straight playoff appearances, Brent Sutter’s club has fallen short of the postseason two years in a row.
The time is now for GM Jay Feaster to tear it down and build it back up again. The farm system lacks anyone with the kind of talent that can make a difference at the NHL level. Iginla and Kiprusoff, each 34 years old, have seen better days. The roster is filled with overpriced veterans and there’s no easy way out. If Feaster decides to eventually rebuild, he’ll have his hands full.
As for contending for Lord Stanley? That window has been shut for some time.
Photo credit: Getty Images
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