Down Goes Brown: 12 NHL teams facing high-pressure off-seasons

NHL analyst Jeff Marek discusses the unpopular deals of both Hjalmarsson and Panarin out of Chicago due to salary cap issues, but says the bigger burning question, is whether Joel Quenneville is happy with it?

• Will Leafs cash in trade chips?
• Isles’ off-season hinges on Tavares
• Bergevin still searching for No. 1 centre

We’re well into the off-season, with expansion a memory and the entry draft weekend now over. But for NHL teams, the work has barely started. We’ve still got free agency on the horizon — not to mention buyouts, qualifying offers and arbitration. And of course, the week after the draft has been known to produce a trade or two. It’s going to be a busy summer.

Some teams already have a big chunk of their off-season work done. The Stars finally dealt for a goaltender in Ben Bishop. The Flames did too, landing Mike Smith, and added Travis Hamonic over the weekend. The Blue Jackets, Hurricanes, Flyers and Rangers have all been swinging deals, and the Blackhawks’ annual salary-cap escape is well under way. The Lightning have cleared some space and resolved the long-running Jonathan Drouin drama, and the Oilers finally pulled the trigger on Jordan Eberle. Even the Penguins addressed a perceived need, although they raised a few eyebrows in doing so.

Other teams still have work to do. That’s a group that includes teams like the Blues, Jets and Bruins. The Sharks are still facing the possibility of two veteran franchise players, Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, leaving as free agents. The Wild and Ducks both need to figure out what to do with their blue lines.

Meanwhile, rebuilding teams like the Canucks and Devils are trying to stay patient, and nobody’s quite sure what lane the Red Wings think they’re in.

But while all those teams are under varying degrees of pressure to have a successful off-season, certain teams stand out as facing an especially bright spotlight. So today, let’s count down a dozen teams who have the most at stake over the next few days and weeks, just how much they have left to do, and their odds of living up to those expectations.

12. Ottawa Senators

Already done: Nothing significant, apart from losing a top-pairing defenceman in the expansion draft. Which is probably not an optimal way to start an off-season.

The job ahead: After coming within a goal of playing for the Stanley Cup, the Senators head into the off-season trying to figure out how to repeat that success, if not exceed it. Losing Marc Methot was a blow, although one softened somewhat by the imminent arrival of top prospect Thomas Chabot. But in recent days, the possibility of a Dion Phaneuf trade has taken centre stage. Maybe that’s lingering bad feelings over his expansion draft culpability, or maybe it’s just a low-budget team being smart about its spending.

Then again, maybe it’s neither, and nothing comes of the rumours. Either way, if the Senators really think they’re contenders, Pierre Dorion has some work to do on the blue line.

Hot-seat factor: Virtually non-existent. One year into the job, Dorion has a trip to the final four and a spot as a GM of the Year finalist. He’s about as safe as they come.

Bottom line: One the one hand, last year’s playoff run bought everyone some good will in a town where patience was wearing thin. On the other, it also raised expectations, and with one more season before Erik Karlsson needs an extension, there’s pressure to take advantage of an open window. Dorion may be willing to hand himself top grades just for trying; we’ll see if Senators fans are feeling quite as generous.

 
Recapping the 2017 NHL Draft with Jeff Marek
June 26 2017

11. Los Angeles Kings

Already done: They stunned much of the hockey world by firing both Darryl Sutter and Dean Lombardi, replacing them with a leadership group of coach John Stevens, GM Rob Blake and team president Luc Robitaille.

The job ahead: It’s a big one. The Kings don’t feel like a team headed for a full-scale rebuild, but this group clearly needs some changes. That’s a tricky path to weave, especially for Blake and Robitaille, two guys stepping into their respective roles for the first time. There’d been some hope that the expansion draft could somehow bail them out of an albatross contract like Dustin Brown or Marian Gaborik, but that was probably a pipe dream. Instead, the focus will be on juicing the teams’ sagging offence. In a league where goals are tough to come by, that’s a tall order.

Hot-seat factor: Blake and Robitaille just got here, so they’ll get some time to chart their course.

Bottom line: The Kings have won just one playoff game in three years, which makes them a team headed in the wrong direction. A tweak here or there isn’t going to cut it, so Blake has his work cut out for him.

10. Toronto Maple Leafs

Already done: Nothing of significance yet.

The job ahead: The Leafs are in a weird place. They’re still rebuilding in a sense, so they could stay the course and probably escape the off-season without too much criticism. But they’ve also got a unique window opening up, with lots of bad contracts coming off the books and plenty of cap room over the next two years before Auston Matthews needs a new deal. Coming off a 95-point season, there’s a good case to be made that the time to strike is right now, and the rumour mill has linked them to just about every big-name defenceman, available or otherwise.

Hot-seat factor: There’s always pressure in Toronto, but Lou Lamoriello and friends have earned some breathing room with last year’s success.

Bottom line: The Leafs have the assets, cap space and opportunity to do something big. But will they? And should they? As always when it comes to Toronto, they’ll end up being a divisive team even if they don’t do much of anything.

Prime Time Sports
Auston Matthews on Vegas, off-season plans
June 23 2017

9. Arizona Coyotes

Already done: The Coyotes have made more headlines than any other team since the end of the Cup final. They parted ways with two longtime franchise pillars, coach Dave Tippett and captain Shane Doan. They traded Mike Smith, and added a new goalie and No. 1 centre in a deal with the Rangers. For most teams, that would be enough to call it a summer and head for the cottage. But the Coyotes aren’t most teams.

The job ahead: Get better… a lot better. The Coyotes haven’t made the playoffs in five years, and haven’t cracked 80 points in three. The system is stacked with young talent, but at some point you have to start winning. The Coyotes are starting to give off a circa-2011 Oilers vibe, and nobody wants that. Least of all an owner who just took over the team and started booting out rivals.

Hot-seat factor: John Chayka survived Andrew Barroway’s initial purge, so he appears to be on solid ground. But if the team keeps spinning its wheels, especially after Doan and Tippett were ousted, it’s not hard to see where the bullseye will land next.

Bottom line: The Rangers trade seemed to signal a change in course into, if not “win-now” mode, at least something resembling “win soon.” With two years left on Oliver Ekman-Larsson‘s deal, there should be a sense of urgency in Arizona.

8. Vegas Golden Knights

Already done: They began to exist, made a dozen trades, drafted three times in the first round and have already been talking to free agents. Other than that, not much.

The job ahead: It’s massive, as you’d expect with an expansion team. George McPhee loaded up on veterans, especially defencemen, with the intention of trading a bunch. He’s already started, but there are plenty of names left on his list. Mix in free agency, and there won’t be much summer downtime in Vegas.

Hot-seat factor: None. Not to torture the Vegas metaphor, but for now at least, McPhee is playing with house money.

Bottom line: No team has more work left to do. That doesn’t necessarily translate to more pressure, but history has shown that the stakes are high for expansion teams to not stumble out of the gate.

7. Nashville Predators

Already done: Nothing yet, which is understandable given how long their season ran. They reportedly tried to work a deal with the Knights to avoid losing James Neal, but came up empty.

The job ahead: Take a team that was two wins away form a Cup and find a way to push them over the edge to a title. For the Predators, that means focusing on the forwards, especially a top centre. Matt Duchene might be a fit, and he’s been linked to Nashville in the rumour mill frequently.

Hot-seat factor: David Poile could bite the head off a live catfish on Broadway and Predators fans would give him a standing ovation, then offer to pay for his Listerine.

Bottom line: Poile swung a monster deal right around this time last year. He won’t need one quite as big this time, but finding a top-six forward (or two) won’t be easy. Given how close the Predators are right now, and how quickly windows can close in today’s NHL, failure isn’t an option.

6. Buffalo Sabres

Already done: After a disappointing season in which the Sabres stalled while other rebuilding teams zoomed past, the Sabres cleaned house by firing Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma. They replaced them with a pair of first-timers, hiring Jason Botterill as GM and Phil Housley as coach. But so far the roster hasn’t changed much, apart from a nice trade to pick up Nathan Beaulieu on the cheap.

The job ahead: There’s lots to do. The blue line was already a mess, and they could lose Cody Franson and Dmitry Kulikov to free agency. Jack Eichel and Sam Reinhart need extensions. And there’s still a potential Evander Kane trade to get done. The good news is that the Sabres have plenty of cap space, so all options should be on the table.

Hot-seat factor: As a new GM, Botterill will be given time to make his mark. But make no mistake, patience is running out in Buffalo, and the pressure to show some progress right now is high.

Bottom line: Botterill will get a honeymoon period, but it may be a short one. Owner Terry Pegula is already burning through good will in Buffalo with the way he’s handled the NFL’s Bills, so this town needs some good news. The Sabres are reasonably well positioned to deliver it, but the spotlight will be a bright one.

5. Florida Panthers

Already done: They made a bizarre deal with the Knights that cost them two-thirds of a scoring line, hired Bob Boughner as coach, and added Chris Pronger to a front office that seems intent on undoing everything they did last summer.

The job ahead: The Panthers followed a dream 2015-16 season with a disastrous year that ranked among the league’s most disappointing. The bizarre front-office power shuffle away from, and then right back to, Dale Tallon and friends turned into a punchline. On paper, this is still a good team, but there’s a lot of work to be done to wash away the debacle of the last 12 months or so. Oh, and they still need to figure out what to do about Jaromir Jagr, their blue line, and all those goals that went to Vegas.

Hot-seat factor: After winning a year-long power struggle, Tallon is as safe as anyone in the league. At least for now.

Bottom line: After losing Reilly Smith and (especially) Jonathan Marchessault, the Panthers seem in worse shape now than they were in April. But they have a good young core, cap room to work with, and have been showing up in all sorts of off-season rumours. They’re not done making headlines.

Boomer in the Morning
Friedman: gutsy Treliving not afraid to deal
June 26 2017

4. New York Islanders

Already done: Plenty, including adding Eberle, moving Hamonic and aggressively dealing with the Knights at the expansion draft. The Islanders have been busier than some of those teams we listed as having most of their moves already made. And they’re not done.

The job ahead: After missing the playoffs, there’s still plenty of room to improve the roster. The blueline needs some help after Hamonic’s departure, and Garth Snow has to figure out what to do with Jaroslav Halak. But the big piece is getting John Tavares re-signed.

Hot-seat factor: In theory, Snow should be in all sorts of trouble; he’s been on the job for over a decade with just one playoff series win to show for it. Then again, there’s been talk that he’s locked in for the long term and his job is safe.

Bottom line: It’s all about Tavares. Even the deals the team has already made, like bringing in former Team Canada teammate Eberle, feel like they’re about keeping the Islanders’ franchise player happy. If Snow gets a reasonable extension nailed down relatively quickly, the summer will feel like a success. If not, get ready for what could be a season-long drama.

3. Colorado Avalanche

Already done: Not much. Other than losing their cheapest (and arguably best) goaltender in the expansion draft, the Avalanche have been largely silent. That’s not going to cut it when you’re coming off what may have been the single worst season of the salary-cap era.

The job ahead: As you’d expect based on their record, there are holes all through the Avalanche roster. But the elephant in the room is the Matt Duchene trade. At the deadline, GM Joe Sakic didn’t like the offers he was getting, and decided to kick the can down the road to the off-season. That may have been the right move, but now the off-season is here. The draft came and went with little in the way of Duchene buzz, and now Sakic sounds like he’s leaving the door open to not moving him at all. That feels like posturing to drive up prices, since it’s hard to imagine Duchene being back after how the last year played out.

Hot-seat factor: Red hot, you’d have to think. Sakic is an Avalanche legend, which helps. But he already had former GMs lobbying for his job last season, and that whole Kyle Dubas thing sure didn’t seem like a team that was satisfied with its front office.

Bottom line: Sakic maneuvered himself into a scenario where he needs to hit a home run on something, with Duchene representing his best shot. To keep the baseball metaphor going, so far he’s been patient while he waits for the right pitch. But at some point, you have to take a swing at something or risk getting punched out without ever taking your bat off your shoulder.

 
Peter McNabb on lack of Colorado activity
June 25 2017

2. Washington Capitals

Already done: They lost Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft and re-signed T.J. Oshie to a mammoth eight-year deal. Neither of those are good things.

The job ahead: Do… well, something. Of all the teams on the list, expectations for the Capitals’ goals are the least defined. The team is coming off back-to-back Presidents’ Trophy seasons, which usually would mean a giant flashing sign reading “Don’t change a thing.” But after losing in the second round to the Penguins both years, the fan base is despondent and something has to give. That’s why they absolutely must do… something.

Hot-seat factor: High. Brian MacLellan has only been on the job for three years, but the Capitals feel like a team that’s one more wasted season away from imploding.

Bottom line: Do you trade Ovechkin? Don’t be silly. Some other major piece? Maybe, but that hardly makes you better. Fire Barry Trotz? No, and surely they would have already done that by now. Stay the course? You won’t get past the Penguins that way. As we’ve covered before, the Capitals just don’t seem to have any good answers. Even if he decides to do nothing, MacLellan might have the toughest job of any NHL GM right now.

1. Montreal Canadiens

Already done: They made perhaps the biggest trade of the off-season by landing Jonathan Drouin. For most teams, that would be plenty. In Montreal, it feels like the start of a long summer.

The job ahead: Marc Bergevin has three big jobs on his plate, and maybe four. The first is to get Carey Price re-signed, preferably a few minutes after the new league year starts on July 1. The second is to re-sign Alexander Radulov, if possible, and maybe Andrei Markov, too. The third is to finally acquire a No. 1 centre. The fourth would be to find a new home for Alex Galchenyuk, and while that one isn’t necessarily a sure thing, it would seem to be Bergevin’s best option for landing that centre, especially now that he’s already played his Mikhail Sergachev card.

Hot-seat factor: Scorching. That’s par for the course in Montreal, granted, but Bergevin has had a rough year. Last summer’s P.K. Subban trade was panned at the time, at least from some corners, and the reaction didn’t get any better when Subban took the Predators to the Cup final while Montreal made a first-round exit. We also had a busy trade deadline that saw Montreal load up on size and sandpaper, only to lose in the playoffs because they couldn’t score.

Bottom line: The Drouin deal was generally well-received, but unless the plan is to move the young winger over, the hole in the middle remains. Whether it’s Duchene or someone else, Bergevin feels like a guy who needs a big win here. But as countless teams could tell you, top pivots are hard to come by. On its own, that would leave Bergevin with lots of work to do; combined with everything else he needs to get done, and a frustrated fan base that expects him to deliver, he’s staring down a long summer indeed.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.