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Stanley Cup contender checklist: What is each non-playoff team missing?


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There’s no perfect way to build a contender, but there’s a general path to follow — one set by previous championship teams.

Based on a decade of championshipsThe Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn found 10 common elements most winners tend to have.

• Elite first-line center that’s among the very best players in the world.
• Elite first-line winger to support the elite center.
• Two other top-line wingers on each of the top two lines.
• Top-line center to play behind the elite center.
• Two more top-six forwards for depth in the middle six.
• Elite No. 1 defenseman.
• A second No. 1 defenseman to play behind him.
• A top-pairing defenseman to help anchor a strong second pair with the No. 2.
• Another top-pairing caliber defender to crush soft minutes on the third pair.
• A top-10 caliber starting goaltender.


*Actual values pictured for each Stanley Cup winner

Ideally, a team is so stacked that they have every ingredient needed to make a five-star meal. Sometimes they can manage with a few substitutions, other times those absences are glaring. And that’s something general managers outside the playoff picture can study, so they can perfect their own recipes.

That’s what we’re going to look at — the 16 teams who are currently outside a playoff spot, after running through the teams currently in the mix last month. The idea is to spot the missing ingredients, of these 10 elements, on those squads to help picture what these general managers need to add to next year’s recipe.

As a quick refresher: actual data is based on this season so far, on a per-82 game basis. Projected data features three years’ worth of data, weighed for recency and adjusted for age. The legend for the visuals is as follows:

Red X: Falls below the range entirely

Grey checkmark: Passable, but below the average champion

Black checkmark: Above average relative to the average Cup winner

Gold checkmark: Exceeds the range entirely


Running out of time

Florida Panthers


The Panthers weren’t able to properly add the pinch of salt they were missing at the deadline after last year’s shopping spree. This team now has Anthony Duclair back in the fold, who can be seen as their own rental, but they still fall short and are facing a ticking clock to get back into a playoff spot. Aaron Ekblad’s struggles are the biggest standout on this checklist, while many of their shortcomings are from the roster outside of those listed.

Florida has the makings to match up to past champions, but the chances it’s among the final 16 actually contending for the Cup are slim at this point.

Buffalo Sabres


While the Sabres are facing the same ticking clock on the season as Florida, the pressure isn’t as high given where they are in their timeline. This team wasn’t projected to be as close to the playoff picture as they currently are, and much of that has to do with standout performances from the top — from Tage Thompson’s electric season and Rasmus Dahlin’s Norris-caliber year, to Dylan Cozen’s breakout paired with Jeff Skinner’s resurgence. Buffalo is getting there, the core ingredients are in place. Now it needs a few secondary pieces and a bit more time to cook.


A few tough losses have diminished the Senators’ chances, and that’s only further strained by a challenging schedule ahead. But Ottawa has some of the building blocks in place to become a legitimate threat next year if it misses out on the playoffs next month. After addressing key forward positions last summer, and adding an elite defenseman at the deadline, the Senators have taken strides. Tim Stützte’s having an outstanding season, Claude Giroux has been the perfect veteran presence and Thomas Chabot just got a ton of support on the blue line with Jakob Chychrun. Adding back a healthy Josh Norris next year and strengthening their net will only kick this team up a notch.

Calgary Flames


Are the Flames burnt out or can they be reignited? It depends on whether Calgary can finally take advantage of its opportunities, and if the sliding Jets will open the door to a team knocking them out of a wild-card spot. Both are big asks at this point, especially with the Flames missing a spark at the top of their lineup. Jonathan Huberdeau’s faded in Calgary, and while he’s picked it up recently, Jacob Markstrom’s level hasn’t been where the team needs it to be, either. Was last year’s inspiring recipe changed too much? Would another powerful ingredient help? Or does a new chef need to come in and put their own spin on what’s already here?

Nashville Predators


The Predators are in a different position than the four aforementioned teams, but if the Flames still have a chance then technically so does Nashville, who is right there in the standings with Calgary with three games in hand. This team actually has elite talent at the top of their lineup in Roman Josi and Juuse Saros, who is doing the most to drag his team along. But they’re lacking everywhere else, and were before they started to sell at the deadline. This won’t be an easy meal for Barry Trotz to prepare once he takes over, but the new direction he could take sure brings some intrigue.

Better luck next year

Washington Capitals


Speaking of teams who traded out key ingredients at the deadline, there’s the Capitals. Washington’s in a really interesting position because it brought back assets and has already started flipping some for pieces that will help now and in the future. Rasmus Sandin was an excellent addition because he’s ready for a greater role than he could have played in Toronto. The question is what management has in store next. Will this team keep moving some of those recently added pieces for a bigger fish this summer? Will they find new and fresh ingredients to revitalize this aging core? If anyone was proactive about their future this year, it was the Capitals. And that makes them a team to watch this summer.

Vancouver Canucks


While some teams, like the Capitals, seem to have a clear vision of how to move forward, the Canucks are still struggling to find their way around the kitchen. What helps is that they have the star of their next dish: Elias Pettersson, who is having a fantastic season. And they’ve found someone to complement him in Andrei Kuzmenko, and even Anthony Beauvillier. But this team is on a very tight budget, and clearly has some needs. The defense still needs work, even after adding Filip Hronek, and the center position below their star is lacking. J.T. Miller’s playing there a bit now, but it’s a role he’s struggled with in the past. So Vancouver needs to get creative in how it can exchange some pieces when the market reopens this summer, to avoid having to start this meal again from scratch.

Detroit Red Wings


The Red Wings’ current makeup looks bleak, with just one player boasting checkmarks. That one player, Jake Walman, has had such a positive impact in a short time alongside Moritz Seider who currently falls short of his projections after a really rough start to the year.

Elsewhere, though, this doesn’t look like a recipe nearly ready for the oven. Steve Yzerman moved out some expiring ingredients after it was clear the current combination wasn’t going to cut it. Now, Detroit’s poised to make a big move this summer, whether it’s refilling on defense after the Hronek trade, or adding another difference-making forward to help slot the rest of the lineup more appropriately based on its true caliber play. Between developing players already in Detroit’s system and some help elsewhere, there’s potential for this team to spice it up considering their cap space and trade assets at the ready.

St. Louis Blues


Similar to the Capitals, the Blues are trying to turn their team around quickly. Most players in St. Louis performed below expectations this season, which forced management to finally face the music and start retooling. Now management has the budget and the assets to be aggressive this summer, but it’s going to depend on how many defining ingredients will even be available to them. The Blues clearly are missing some key components at the top of this recipe on both defense and offense, so it won’t be easy. But if they find a way to do this quickly and successfully, it could start a trend that other managers try to replicate on their own.

It’s going to be a process

Montreal Canadiens


While the Blues and Capitals want to turn their teams around quickly, the Canadiens have committed to the long haul. Unlike the teams pictured so far, this lineup includes players (Cole Caufield, specifically) who are already done for the season. That’s because their vision is on the long term, and not just the remainder of the year. For now, the coaches are just working on maximizing the up-and-coming players on this roster and taking risks with reclamation projects. Already, there’s been progress with Kirby Dach and now they’re hoping Denis Gurianov is the next bright spot who just needed a change in scenery to reach his potential.

One standout, in this sea of red Xs, is Rafael Harvey-Pinard in gold. The tricky thing is that he has very limited NHL experience, which is what his entire projection and actual play is based on. Montreal just has to hope this sample is a preview of what’s to come, and that he can build on it.

Columbus Blue Jackets


When an ingredient as star-worthy as Johnny Gaudreau wants to join a team, management of course has to act. Columbus probably couldn’t anticipate just how much its season would sour with injuries this year, but expectations probably were overhyped too soon. Considering where this recipe legitimately was at the time of the Gaudreau signing, there should have been a greater effort to bring in supporting ingredients that would help elevate the star of their dish — especially down the middle. Given the way the year has gone, the Blue Jackets are now probably hoping this year’s disappointments lead to another special on their menu alongside the winger in Connor Bedard. If not, their work is cut out for them from both player-acquisition and development standpoints. 

How long do you have?

San Jose Sharks


By trading Timo Meier, the Sharks have really kickstarted a necessary process to turn this team around. Now, this summer brings the next challenge: figuring out how to manage their other remaining star, Erik Karlsson. San Jose has a tough road to navigate because there are some overpriced dishes on the menu that haven’t aged all too well. And as it stands, it doesn’t seem that this team has a cornerstone of their next window yet either. Maybe that changes at the draft this summer.

Chicago Blackhawks


The Blackhawks probably hoped they’d swing huge returns on their franchise players this past deadline, and that didn’t quite happen. This rebuilding team doesn’t have an easy path forward, and deserves credit for committing to this process — maybe too much, as they’ve intentionally tanked to the bottom of the standings.

Anaheim Ducks


The Ducks are probably hoping this is the bottom and the only way to go from here is up. But there’s a good question to ask in Anaheim: Can Trevor Zegras truly be the star of their next great dish? Should the meal be centered on Mason McTavish? Or will that be answered at the draft this year with Connor Bedard? Between Zegras, McTavish, Troy Terry and Jamie Drysdale, there are some really strong components already with long futures ahead. But are any of these components the centerpiece of it all?

Philadelphia Flyers


It seemed everyone in the kitchen understood where the dish truly was in Philadelphia, except the head chef. That’s changed, though. Chuck Fletcher’s been let go, and now a new era has started. It seems the Flyers understand what has to happen in order to turn this team around, but it’s unclear who will be leading the way long-term to make it happen. So, the road ahead is just starting when unfortunately it should have started at the deadline a few weeks ago.

Arizona Coyotes


A creative chef can make a five-star meal out of bargain-bin ingredients. But that’s not what’s happening in Arizona. Players have been moved out for less than what they’re worth in an effort to slash costs. Who is next on the chopping block? Nick Schmaltz or Clayton Keller? Until that’s answered, it’s impossible to measure this team up against the contender checklist — the pieces simply aren’t in place, and neither is the vision on how to build this long-term.

“There he goes. One of God's own prototypes.

A high-powered mutant of some kind, never even considered for mass production.

Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”

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