With a 6-3 win over the Anaheim Ducks in Game 6 of the Western Conference Final last night, the Nashville Predators punched their ticket to the franchise’s first ever Stanley Cup appearance. In fact, Nashville had never even advanced beyond the conference semifinals until this heroic run and now stand just four wins away from hosting the greatest trophy in sports.
A Stanley Cup berth has certainly been a long time coming for the NHL’s 27th franchise whose inaugural season took place in 1998. GM David Poile, who has been the man in charge through it all, did not qualify for the postseason for the team’s first five seasons of existence, but since 2003 the Predators have only missed the playoffs three times. With other 1990’s expansion or relocation teams having made the Final before, like the San Jose Sharks, Ottawa Senators, and Florida Panthers, and even more having won a Stanley Cup, including the Tampa Bay Lightning, Anaheim Ducks, Colorado Avalanche, and Carolina Hurricanes, many would expect that the Predators may be the last team to accomplish the feat. However, there are four teams who have yet to make it to Stanley Cup Final, the Expansion Class of 2000 – the Minnesota Wild and Columbus Blue Jackets, the current Winnipeg Jets, and the original Winnipeg Jets, now the Arizona Coyotes. Which of these teams will be the next to realize their dreams of playing in June?
The Minnesota Wild certainly seemed to be heading in that direction for much of this season as they had their way with the Western Conference. Although in a tough Central Division with the Cup-bound Predators, Chicago Blackhawks, St. Louis Blues, and Winnipeg Jets, Minnesota is armed with a depth and talent at every position and showed (in the regular season) that they can fight through a tough schedule. The team was able to turn goaltender Devan Dubnyk into a star, has one of the strongest defensive cores in the NHL, and has a combination up front of strong veterans like Mikko Koivu, Zach Parise, and Eric Staal and exciting young players like Mikael Granlund, Jason Zucker and Charlie Coyle. However, everything fell apart when it mattered most, as the Wild were easily bounced in the first round by the Blues. Can the Wild bounce back and, with the aid of top prospects such as Joel Eriksson Ek and Luke Kunin, make a Stanley Cup appearance in the next few years?
The Columbus Blue Jackets will be racing them for that honor. Almost mirror images of each other in 2016-17, the Blue Jackets also surprised many by dominating the Eastern Conference early in the year. At the time, the New Year’s Eve match-up between Columbus and Minnesota, both on historic winning streaks, was even touted as the game of the year. The Blue Jackets too have a stellar goalie in Sergei Bobrovsky and deep group of talented defenseman, like young game-changers Zach Werenski and Seth Jones. However, where Columbus may edge out Minnesota is in their youth up front. Although similarly successful, the Jackets were able to reach 108 points to the Wild’s 106 with a much younger forward corps. The likes of Brandon Saad, Alexander Wennberg, Boone Jenner, and Josh Anderson, plus incoming talent like Pierre-Luc Dubois and Oliver Bjorkstrand could keep Columbus in the running for a Cup longer than the Wild.
Speaking of youth, the Arizona Coyotes seem to be building something special in the desert. Question marks abound throughout the roster, such as starting goalie and a long-term partner for Oliver Ekman-Larsson, and many don’t expect the Coyotes to be contenders for several more years. However, after the rapid ascent of the Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs this season, fueled largely by under-21 talent, Arizona may be relevant sooner rather than later. Their best players are also their top prospects – Max Domi, Christian Dvorak, Brendan Perlini, Jakob Chychrun – and that’s just the beginning, as even better young talent is on its way in Clayton Keller and Dylan Strome, not to mention whoever they select with the 7th and 23rd overall picks this year. It seems inevitable that the Coyotes will be good down the road, and, regardless of whether it’s in Arizona or not, have a strong chance to host a Stanley Cup final. However, will that day come before the likes of Minnesota or Columbus can take advantage of their current success?
Finally, there’s the Winnipeg Jets. They weren’t a playoff team this year like Columbus or Minnesota and they aren’t armed with years worth of high draft picks like Arizona either. Yet, the Jets may actually be the dark horse to reach the Stanley Cup first. Winnipeg finished ninth in the Western Conference in 2016-17, tenth in 2015-16, and eighth in 2014-15, consistently hanging around as a fringe team, not truly competing for a title. That seems like it is about to change. The Jets have one of the more dangerous forward groups in the NHL with Mark Scheifele, Patrik Laine, Nikolaj Ehlers, and captain Blake Wheeler leading the charge. They also have talented defenseman in Dustin Byfuglien, Tyler Myers, and Jacob Trouba. The Jets are a deeper team than many know and this season did not have a single player over the age of 32. Next year, they’ll add ace forwards Kyle Connor and Jack Roslovic to the mix, and possibly goaltender Eric Comrie as well, all part of what The Hockey News called the top prospect system in the NHL. Given the wealth of talent on this team already, it seems strange they haven’t performed better. Throw some dynamic young players in and use some of the team’s ample cap space, and the Winnipeg Jets could be a breakout team in 2017-18.
What do you think?