Any NHL executive or player worth their weight in cliches will tell you their goal is to win the Stanley Cup. It doesn't matter how likely or unlikely it is for that to happen.

That's especially true early in the season before the haves and have-nots settle into their respective places in the standings.

Winning a championship is a realistic expectation for only a small number of teams. Anything can (and will) happen during the playoffs, but hoping for a miracle run will lead to poor decision-making.

Understanding a team's Stanley Cup window might be the most important part of running an NHL team. For example, could Steve Yzerman trade a trove of the Detroit Red Wings' top prospects and picks to the Buffalo Sabres for Jack Eichel?

Probably, but it would make zero sense to do so. Detroit is years away from contention and needs several pieces besides a No. 1 center. Yzerman understands that adding Eichel wouldn't fit the Red Wings' trajectory.

Wise managers shoot their shots when they see them, though. Look at what Max Pacioretty has meant to the Vegas Golden Knights since arriving in 2018. He's scored 80 goals in 187 regular-season contests for the club and has been worth the futures Vegas gave up.

Every team in the NHL has a big-picture goal: a Stanley Cup banner. Earning that takes a long series of smaller goals, though, and we'll identify important next steps for each team in the league.

 

Anaheim Ducks: Let the Trevor Zegras Show Begin

The Anaheim Ducks were once one of the toughest outs in the Western Conference. Those days feel like ancient history for an organization that hasn't made the playoffs in three consecutive seasons and finished sixth in the Pacific Division in back-to-back campaigns.

The road back into the postseason picture in the Pacific isn't treacherous, however, and the Ducks have a few key pieces that could help them get there sooner than later.

Trevor Zegras is poised for a breakout campaign. Anaheim's offense was awful last year. No team in the league scored fewer goals, and its power-play conversion rate of 8.9 percent was putrid.

Despite that, Zegras scored at a clip that would have seen him finish an 82-game season with more than 40 points. While he wouldn't have challenged for the Calder Trophy, it was a respectable output for a new player skating for a bad team.

At 20 years old, the 2019 ninth overall pick will make some mistakes in Anaheim this year. Head coach Dallas Eakins has a tough line to walk in getting Zegras to play in all three zones. The forward can't be allowed to ignore defense.

He does need room to grow, though. The Ducks aren't a threat to make the playoffs, so they have nothing to lose by letting Zegras skate in a top-six role while running the power play.

 

Arizona Coyotes: Trade Pending UFAs for Futures

This is what it looks like when a franchise decides to let the bottom drop out. Forget building a winning culture. The Arizona Coyotes are looking to start from scratch and have been trading as much talent as possible.

It's hard to blame them. Last year's group didn't get it done, and the Coyotes have made the playoffs once in nine years.

Heading into 2021-22, only seven skaters are on contracts beyond the season. Two are making less than $1 million, while Andrew Ladd and Shayne Gostisbehere are reclamation projects.

The Coyotes could get up to a lot of wheeling and dealing. Teams looking for depth scoring as the March 21 deadline approaches could do worse than Phil Kessel. Could a playoff team that wants to add an insurance defenseman be interested in Anton Stralman?

Arizona's roster is riddled with forwards who make $3 million or less. If any of them outperform expectations, the Coyotes could ship them out for draft picks and lower-end prospects—exactly what this organization should try to do (and has been doing).

 

Boston Bruins: Don't Expect Jeremy Swayman to Be Tuukka Rask

Stepping in for a legendary position player is never an easy task. Trying to do so in a market like Boston, where fandom is measured in generations and not years, is even tougher.

Yet that's what 22-year-old Jeremy Swayman is taking on in 2021-22. Of course, it isn't his first foray into the NHL's regular season. A year ago, he went 7-3-0 for Boston, tantalizing the team with his high-end skill.

(He was so good, we can't help but wonder why he's not getting much love as a potential Calder Trophy finalist. But that's neither here nor there.)

There's no denying what Tuukka Rask has meant to the Bruins. He's their all-time wins leader and has been nothing short of an All-Star talent for a majority of his time in Boston. Offseason hip surgery has him sidelined, however. And while a return to the team isn't entirely out of the question, for now, this team belongs to Swayman.

Sure, the Bruins inked Linus Ullmark to a four-year deal over the summer. Still, the reality is that Swayman is the goalie most folks in this organization are excited about.

And they should be stoked. He has all the tools needed to be the next great goalie for Boston. There just shouldn't be pressure on him to be the next Rask right away. There will likely be hiccups in goal as the season unfolds. Swayman may even lose the starting role to Ullmark for a time. That kind of internal competition is healthy, however, and we can see it pushing both netminders to levels of play that we haven't seen before.

There's a big difference between stepping into an unexpected role and having success and taking on a legit starting goaltender job, though. And Swayman will experience growing pains. They may even last for extended periods of time.

That won't mean that he's washed. Not by a long shot. It can be tough to have patience as younger goalies establish their footing in the NHL, but Bruins fans would be wise not to turn on Swayman if his season heads south for a bit.

 

Buffalo Sabres: Move On from Jack Eichel

Moving on from a player of Jack Eichel's caliber isn't easy. Yet that's the reality the Buffalo Sabres face. The situation will hang over this club like the raincloud that follows Eeyore until the inevitable trade.

The Sabres reportedly almost found a new home for their disgruntled all-world center last week. We've heard this song and dance, though, as recently as mid-September and as far back as July when the player's agents thought a deal was close.

Sabres general manager Kevyn Adams is filibustering Buffalo's 2021-22 campaign by dragging the Eichel situation into the regular season. We don't expect the Sabres to be any good, but this isn't fair to the player or the fans.

The market for an All-Star center who may never be the same after neck surgery won't change overnight. Adams has already seen the best offer he's going to see.

Pull the trigger and move on. It's the only ending that makes sense to this doomed relationship.

 

Calgary Flames: Let Darryl Sutter See This Approach Through

The NHL is a copycat league. Every year, well-run teams win the Stanley Cup by executing their visions for their players. And every offseason, not-so-well-run organizations scramble to copy that championship blueprint.

So first, we offer some kudos for the Calgary Flames for marching to their own drummer. It's refreshing to see an organization buck common sentiment for their idea of what a champion looks like.

The league is moving toward skill and speed and has been for some time. What's proved most difficult about team building in the NHL is that skill is rewarded during the regular season. But when the referees put their whistles away during the playoffs, the way players are valued dramatically shifts.

We'd still rather have Connor McDavid than Ryan Reaves, yet size matters more as the games get more important. The Flames took this idea and ran with it, seemingly aware they don't have to be a stellar regular-season team to get to the playoffs out of the Pacific Division.

Calgary got bigger, stronger and tougher this offseason, and it has the perfect coach for this roster in Darryl Sutter. Will it work? We don't know, but the Flames gave their skilled core plenty of time to get over the hump.

Johnny Gaudreau and Co. haven't gotten it done. The Flames are trying something else, and how it unfolds in Calgary will be fascinating.

 

Carolina Hurricanes: Treat Jesperi Kotkaniemi Like He's Making Half as Much

Jesperi Kotkaniemi has little chance of living up to the $6.1 million offer sheet he signed with the Carolina Hurricanes. Maybe the 2018 third overall pick morphs into prime Evgeni Malkin, but it's more likely that this will look like a reach by general manager Don Waddell by January.

That's perfectly fine.

How many teams in the NHL would move mountains to add a top-six center? The Red Wings need at least one of those before we can call their rebuild a success. One could argue the Columbus Blue Jackets only have one (maybe two) proven NHL-caliber pivots.

This isn't to take anything away from Columbus or Detroit, but bad teams always need centers, and good teams always have them.

The Hurricanes saw a player they thought could help them take a run at the Stanley Cup, and they went out and got him. At worst, this is a single-season overpay. It's not like the 'Canes walked down the aisle with Kotkaniemi.

It's a one-season tryout to see if the 21-year-old has the chops to be a core member. Even after a weird summer, fans have faith in this leadership group. Treat Kotkaniemi like he's making $3 million instead of his actual cap hit and you'll better appreciate what he brings to the ice.

 

Chicago Blackhawks: Live in a Perfect World

When we say the goal for the Chicago Blackhawks is to live in a perfect world, we mean it on the micro level of this organization only. World peace (probably?) doesn't hang in the balance of Chicago's 2021-22 season.

If the Blackhawks don't make the playoffs, so be it. They haven't won a postseason round since 2014-15. It's clear general manager Stan Bowman aimed to change that this offseason, though.

He'll need everything to go right for the Blackhawks to make the playoffs and do any damage. That it's a possibility is a testament to Bowman and the work he did over the summer. If things don't work out, though, it could be a nightmare season in the Windy City.

Keys to this Perfect World scenario:

Jonathan Toews comes back after a year away and looks like his old self. Asking a 33-year-old with more than 1,000 regular-season and playoff games under his belt to play like he's 26 again is tough enough. After missing a whole season, though, it's fair to wonder what Captain Serious has left.

Some think Seth Jones will revive his career in Chicago, while others wonder if the ship has sailed on him as an elite No. 1. He's better than Duncan Keith, but that isn't saying much.

If Jones can't stabilize the defense, that could be the end of the Blackhawks' playoff hopes.

Then we come to 36-year-old Marc-Andre Fleury. Bowman added him for nothing, and the netminder is a beloved and known commodity. We just aren't sure what was real: his 2021 Vezina Trophy season or the two years prior where he wasn't great.

The Blackhawks need every bounce to go in their favor in 2021-22, and that'll happen only in a perfect world.

 

Colorado Avalanche: Win the Stanley Cup

Take a big swig of cold water every time you hear "it's Stanley Cup or bust" for the Colorado Avalanche this season.

It won't be the last opportunity this Avalanche team has to win the Stanley Cup. They've drafted too well, added complementary pieces via trades and free agency and don't have much dead money on their cap sheet.

This may be the only opportunity Colorado has to win a championship with a team this loaded, though.

The roster comprises all-world talent at every position. Nathan MacKinnon is entrenched in the "best player in the world" conversation. Cale Makar is involved in the "best defenseman in the world" discussion too. Darcy Kuemper has been listed as a Vezina Trophy challenger. Head coach Jared Bednar knows what this season means to the Avalanche, and general manager Joe Sakic might be the best executive in the NHL.

Toss in an inspiring comeback story in Jack Johnson and one of the best forward lines in the league, and take a long drink of cool water. It's Stanley Cup or bust for the Avalanche in 2021-22.

 

Columbus Blue Jackets: Prove Doubters Wrong

The Columbus Blue Jackets have to answer the same questions every few years. They've bled talent that didn't want to be there seemingly since they played their first game in 2000.

That was over two decades ago, yet they can't seem to shake the "no one wants to play there" reputation. We blame Jeff Carter for starting this perception in 2012, but players like Pierre-Luc Dubois, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky have also wanted out.

That leaves the Blue Jackets with an Island of Misfit Toys vibe, which the team could build around in 2021-22. The team is chock-full of players with things to prove.

Zach Werenski is excited about moving out of Seth Jones' shadow. Patrik Laine has a lot to prove after bottoming out last year in Ohio. After missing an entire season and not playing a pro hockey game for more than 400 days, Gustav Nyquist is trying to show he can still be a middle-six contributor.

Then there's the team's 2021 first-round pick, Cole Sillinger, who is out to prove that starting him in the NHL as a teenager isn't an awful idea. We could go on, but the linchpin of this group's mentality will be proving people wrong.

The Blue Jackets aren't likely to will themselves into a playoff position, but 2021-22 shouldn't be a write-off. They have an opportunity to rebuild their culture after moving on from much of the veteran leadership group. Their goal should be simple: Play hard, stay in games and prove doubters wrong.