By Craig Custance Aug 20, 2019
And now, we move East. In Part 1 of the Stanley Cup blueprint series, Blues GM Doug Armstrong helped identify five characteristics that made St. Louis a championship team. Then, we compared every team in the Central to see how they stacked up. If you missed it, here’s a quick refresher of those five characteristics (on top of the usual necessities, like goaltending and luck) with comments from Armstrong: 1. Strong contract efficiency: “(Before the cap) you could pay a player for past performance, you could give a thank you and carry a guy. In a cap system, the thank you contracts are very difficult to maintain.” 2. Playoff scar tissue: “We always felt we were close. This year’s team had that scar tissue built up. That resiliency. The veteran players understood how fleeting these moments can be.” 3. A balance of ages: “I think you need a balance of veteran players, middle age players and younger players.” 4. Skill and size on defense: “Where we’ve stayed true is trying to have size on the back end. Size is difficult to play against. I say it’s like going through a car wash, there’s arms and legs all over the place.” 5. A game-breaker: “Most playoff games come down to one shot. (Vladimir) Tarasenko puts fear into the opposition. Whether he’s scoring or not, there’s so much focus on him not getting his shot. You play closer to him defensively, opening up ice for someone else. Those star players, by doing less, do more for the teams sometimes. They open up ice.” Comparing the Metropolitan Division to the Blues is a fascinating exercise because in some cases, they’re very similar to the previous champion Washington Capitals. There was a long history of playoff struggle before the breakthrough. Both teams considered their size at certain positions an advantage. Yet the Blues are much different than the champ before that in Pittsburgh. It’s just a reminder that different styles of building a team can lead to success, an important caveat to this exercise. So with that in mind, let’s take a look at each of the teams in the Metro: Washington Capitals 1. Strong contract efficiency: The Capitals are at a bit of a crossroads with their contract structure. Nicklas Backstrom and Braden Holtby are entering the final years of their current deals. Somehow, Alex Ovechkin’s contract is down to its last couple years, another sign that we’re all getting old. So this may be one of the last seasons the Capitals get any value out of their veteran deals. Guys like John Carlson, Evgeny Kuznetsov and T.J. Oshie are paid market rates. There aren’t a lot of entry-level contracts to be excited about, but there isn’t much dead money either. We’re giving a check mark here for efficiency. 2. Playoff scar tissue: Yep. 3. A balance of ages: Ovechkin, Backstrom and Oshie are all in their early 30s, with Carlson knocking on the door. There aren’t a ton of high-end players in that mid-20s range. Nor are there players on entry-level deals expected to make huge contributions. This is a roster that is aging a bit. 4. Size and skill on defense: At 6-foot-3, Carlson is the perfect blend. And Radko Gudas certainly plays bigger than his size. But this is essentially a smallish defense. Gudas, Nick Jensen, Michal Kempny and Dmitry Orlov are all six-foot or smaller. We’ll go half credit. 5. A game-breaker: Only one of the best to ever play. Total: 3.5 out of 5. The Capitals are one year removed from a Stanley Cup so they’re certainly capable of going on another run. But there are growing reminders that the clock is ticking. New York Islanders 1. Strong contract efficiency: The Islanders have some good contracts on the books, especially on defense. The Ryan Pulock deal, for instance, is a good one. But it’s hard to look at the contract structure and suggest, outside of Mathew Barzal on an entry level, that the Islanders are getting strong efficiency. The contracts for Andrew Ladd, Leo Komarov and Cal Clutterbuck really weigh things down. 2. Playoff scar tissue: The Islanders have a couple trips to the second round on their recent record but not quite enough to qualify in this category. 3. A balance of ages: There’s a pretty good balance in this lineup. There are veteran depth players and guys like Anders Lee and Jordan Eberle joining that experienced tier. There are mid-range guys, especially on defense, like Pulock. And there’s more young talent coming behind Barzal. We’ll give a check here. 4. Size and skill on defense: There’s definitely some size on the Islanders defense. The top four in ice time on defense last year were Pulock (6-foot-2), Nick Leddy (6-foot), Johnny Boychuk (6-foot-2) and Scott Mayfield (6-foot-5). That’s good enough for a check. 5. A game-breaker: Barzal has elite skill and Lee is an accomplished goal-scorer. But to stay true to this category, you want someone you feel confident can put in 35-40 goals this season and single-handedly change games on their own. Since Lee is one year removed from a 40-goal season, we’ll go half. Total: 2.5 out of 5. There are some nice pieces in place with the Islanders, but it’s hard to label them a Cup contender. Pittsburgh Penguins 1. Strong contract efficiency: Sidney Crosby has an $8.7 million cap hit. That alone makes up for some of the questionable deals at the other side of the equation. Not only that, Kris Letang is worth more than his $7.3 million AAV, as is Evgeni Malkin. Even if you’re not crazy about the length of the Brandon Tanev deal, and you probably shouldn’t be, this season at $3.5 million isn’t unreasonable. Check. 2. Playoff scar tissue: Yep. 3. A balance of ages: There are certainly veterans. So the Penguins have that covered. And GM Jim Rutherford has done a nice job assembling strong players in their mid(ish)-20s like Jake Guentzel, Alex Galchenyuk and Jared McCann. But there isn’t a ton of young talent knocking on the door. Dominik Kahun is on his entry-level deal but that’s not enough from the early 20s crowd to get a check. 4. Size and skill on defense: After conceding off the bat that the Penguins defense isn’t perfect, in terms of one that fits this blueprint and has some muscle to go with skill, the Penguins qualify. Marcus Pettersson, Brian Dumoulin and Erik Gudbranson are all over 6-foot-3. Letang is a stud. Pittsburgh gets the check here. 5. A game-breaker: Crosby still qualifies. Total: 4 out of 5. There may be some flaws in Pittsburgh but this is still a team capable of winning it all. Carolina Hurricanes 1. Strong contract efficiency: Carolina gets its money’s worth out of the deals on its books. And the longer all these RFA stalemates last, the better that Sebastian Aho deal looks. On defense, Brett Pesce and Jaccob Slavin coming in for less than $10 million total this season is a steal. Check. 2. Playoff scar tissue: Carolina broke its playoff drought in a big way in advancing to the conference finals last year. That said, this group doesn’t have the long history of playoff experience needed for a check mark. 3. A balance of ages: This is still a really young team. It may seem like Jordan Staal has been around forever but he’s still just 30. And he’s the old guy, depending on what Justin Williams does. You’ve got players in their mid-to-late 20s in Dougie Hamilton, Slavin, Nino Niederreiter and Erik Haula. You’ve got young stars like Aho and Andrei Svechnikov. Martin Necas should be contributing on his entry level. Even if it skews young, you have to like the age assortment enough for a check. 4. Size and skill on defense: Check. I love this defense and there is certainly size in 6-foot-6 Hamilton, 6-foot-3 Pesce and 6-foot-3 Slavin. It’s really good. 5. A game-breaker: Svechnikov may one day emerge into the category of a legitimate game-breaker but he’s not quite there yet. If he has a breakthrough season this year, Carolina could be really, really good. Total: 3 out of 5. This is a good young team that is probably a couple ingredients away from being a legit Cup contender. Columbus Blue Jackets 1. Strong contract efficiency: The Blue Jackets are a tough one because the Alex Wennberg and Brandon Dubinsky contracts aren’t great. But Josh Anderson provides a lot of value. Seth Jones has a fantastic deal for Columbus. Whatever Zach Werenski signs for, he’s going to be worth it. Columbus is currently spending like $2 million in goal. I’ll go with an admittedly generous check here. 2. Playoff scar tissue: You need more than one second-round appearance to qualify for this category. Still, with three consecutive playoff appearances, it’s building in Columbus. 3. A balance of ages: I like the age range of this team. The captain Nick Foligno is 31 and there are veterans on this roster. But it’s got a nice mix of veterans, players in their prime, like Jones, and young, emerging players like Werenski and Pierre-Luc Dubois. Check. 4. Size and skill on defense: Check. The prediction here is that Jones is a Norris finalist this season. He’s 6-foot-4. At 6-foot-1, Ryan Murray is the smallest of the Blue Jackets top four and he’s not someone you’d consider small. They get the check here. 5. A game-breaker: No need to rub it in here for Blue Jackets fans who had to endure an entire season’s worth of speculation regarding their game-breaker. But no. Total: 3 out of 5. Columbus could use some more offense but this is a team with an aggressive front office and cap space. It’ll be interesting to see how this franchise proceeds to address that need. Philadelphia Flyers 1. Strong contract efficiency: You’ve got Nolan Patrick on an entry-level deal. Sean Couturier has a great contract. Claude Giroux is providing value. So is Shayne Gostisbehere. On the other hand, Jakub Voracek is overpaid. The Flyers paid a premium to land Kevin Hayes. There’s some buyout money on the books. It’s not a horrible situation in Philadelphia, but it’s a stretch to say it’s strong contract efficiency. 2. Playoff scar tissue: At this point, the Flyers are too far removed from their previous playoff runs and the roster has too much turnover from those teams to get credit here. 3. A balance of ages: There is actually some interesting balance on this roster. You’ve got the older stars like Giroux and Voracek. Then there’s mid-level standouts like Couturier and Gostisbehere. On the young side, Carter Hart and Patrick represent the next generation. Check. 4. Size and skill on defense: The Flyers two most important defensemen – Ivan Provorov and Gostisbehere – aren’t big but there’s still size back there. Travis Sanheim is 6-foot-3. Sam Morin could push for playing time at 6-foot-6. There’s a nice mix. Check. 5. A game-breaker: There’s skill and balance up front, and Giroux is a great player, but nobody in that 40-goal, change the course of the game by himself mode. Total: 2 out of 5. The Flyers should be better this year but unless Hart wins the Vezina, probably not in the Cup-winner echelon. New York Rangers 1. Strong contract efficiency: Once all the young players start to emerge in New York, the Rangers will be able to capitalize on that. But in the meantime, there’s still some clean up to do from the rebuild. Brendan Smith and Marc Staal’s deals are problematic. There’s Dan Girardi and Kevin Shattenkirk buyout money on the books. No check. 2. Playoff scar tissue: Yes, the Rangers have a recent history of playoff experience and even heartbreak. But if they return as a championship contender, it’s going to be guys like Kaapo Kakko, Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba leading the way. So we can’t give credit here with the previous core gone. 3. A balance of ages: The Rangers have an interesting mix. You still have holdovers from the previous core, with guys like Henrik Lundqvist and Chris Kreider. There are players like Panarin and Mika Zibanejad who should be playing the best hockey of their careers in this window. And the young stars are knocking on the door. The debate is just what to expect from the Rangers’ prospect pool in the short term. Because of that, you have to go half credit. 4. Size and skill on defense: There is some size. There is some skill. But just not to the depth to give them a check mark in a category that’s trying to identify a Cup contender. 5. A game-breaker: Panarin is more of a game-breaker in the Patrick Kane mold than he is the Vladimir Tarasenko mode, but he’s certainly capable of changing the game by himself. Check. Total: 1.5 out of 5. The Rangers are turning the corner, but it’s still not time to raise the expectations too much. New Jersey Devils 1. Strong contract efficiency: Taylor Hall at $6 million, along with Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes on entry-level deals is a real positive for New Jersey. The Kyle Palmieri contract is a good one too. We’ll give the check on the back of the Hall deal. 2. Playoff scar tissue: One playoff appearance in seven seasons doesn’t qualify. 3. A balance of ages: You’ve got P.K. Subban, Cory Schneider and Wayne Simmonds making contributions for the 30-and-over crowd. Hall, Damon Severson, Sami Vatanen and Palmieri are mid-range contributors. Hughes and Hischier highlight the next generation. Check. 4. Size and skill on defense: There’s a lot of skill but this defense is small. I like it, but it’s small. No check. 5. A game-breaker: Check. Hall qualifies right now. Hughes will qualify in three years. Total: 3 out of 5. Good things are happening in New Jersey. They just need to get in the playoffs and build some experience as a group. And also extend Hall’s contract. They need to do that.