The NHL off-season always brings its share of big questions. Of course, the rather large wrinkle this time out is not knowing when the off-season itself will actually happen.
We know the draft — originally slated for Montreal in late June — will not occur in its usual form. If it’s decided in the next eight-to-10 weeks there won’t be a Stanley Cup handed out this year, maybe free agency starts on July 1 as scheduled. If we’re still holding out hope for a playoffs that could happen during the hottest months of the year, perhaps the free-agent frenzy will be a Labour Day Weekend thing in 2020 instead of a Canada Day happening.
Truly, who knows.
Regardless, at some point the book will be closed on 2019-20 and we’ll begin to shift our focus to 2020-21. Whenever that occurs, the page-turning will trigger significant events, from big-time stars hitting the open market, to teams looking to shake things up via trade to Hall-of-Famers in waiting deciding if it’s time to hang ’em up.
With that in mind, here are some storylines to watch out for whenever the NHL off-season arrives.
Free Agents and Flat Caps
A month ago, the NHL general managers meetings in Florida ended with news the salary cap could rise anywhere between $3 million and $6 million. Now, a flat cap of $81.5 million would seem like the best-case scenario.
That will have an impact on the number of suitors who can chase after Taylor Hall, the 2018 Hart Trophy winner and head of the 2020 UFA class. Hall, who turns 29 in November, is a marvellous player, but I’m not sure — even if the cap was spiking — it would be wise to give him the blank cheque treatment. Take away his stellar 2017-18 showing and you’ll see a guy who has never been a first- or second-team all-star, is no stranger to the injury bug and, as a winger, plays the least-valued position on the ice. Just sayin’.
Besides Hall, there isn’t much in the way of desirable forwards available to the highest bidder. It’s a little juicier on the back end, where Blues captain Alex Pietrangelo and offence-minded Torey Krug of Boston and Maple Leaf Tyson Barrie are all eligible to test the market.
(The goalie scene is interesting enough to merit its own space a little later on.)
Toronto’s troubles, Colorado’s surge
The Leafs had to be doing backflips when they thought there might be some breathing room coming with a rising cap. That’s not going to happen anymore. And unless we get some kind of playoff tournament that sees Toronto suddenly turn into a new team, this club will enter the off-season wondering what the heck happened during a frustrating — and, to be fair — injury-filled campaign that saw the squad fail to consistently find its best self.
Could GM Kyle Dubas dive headlong into the trade market in the hopes of finding a formula that better works for his club?
At the other end of the cap spectrum, the Colorado Avalanche are a contender right now and have salary space to weaponize (remember, they took a run at Artemi Panarin last summer) and prospects to dangle if so inclined. General manager Joe Sakic scored Nazem Kadri last off-season and could easily snap another zinger like that off his blade.
Curtains for ‘The King?’
The New York Rangers seem to have the perfect young goalie battery to start a new season in 24-year-old Igor Shesterkin and 23-year-old Alexandar Georgiev. The only issue is, franchise icon Henrik Lundqvist still has one more season to go on his contract that counts for $8.5 million annually against the cap.
Could the two parties coordinate a graceful buyout-and-retire exit? Does Lundqvist, 38, value continuing his NHL career more than being a Ranger for life? The Blueshirts could theoretically move Georgiev — the rumours were certainly out there all season — and set up a one-year arrangement where Lundqvist mentors Shesterkin. That said, for a rebuilding club, does it make any sense to give up on any young goalie given how volatile the position is? Afterall, Lundqvist was a seventh-round pick who went on to be one of the best of his generation and carve his handsome face on the Rangers Mount Rushmore.
How will the UFA goalie carousel shake out?
Had Braden Holtby hit the open market even two years ago, he might have been in line for a Sergei Bobrovsky-style megadeal. (Unless, of course, Bobrovsky’s $10-million pact with Florida last summer is the cautionary tale that ends all big-time goalie pay days.) As it stands, it will be very intriguing to see what kind of interest the career Washington Capital generates — especially with a pair of other guys out there teams could view as superior starter options.
In three seasons from October, 2014 through April, 2017, only two goalies — Carey Price and Devan Dubnyk — had a better cumulative save percentage than Holtby’s .923. In the three seasons since, that number has risen to 30 as Holtby produced a .906 mark in 161 games. Jacob Markstrom, by contrast, has posted a .914 save percentage in that time and while Holtby was putting up some of the worst numbers of his career this year in 2019-20, Markstrom was recording some of his best in Vancouver. (The late-blooming Markstrom, it should be noted, is actually only four months younger than Holtby, who turns 31 in September.) Markstrom’s fellow Swede, Robin Lehner, is also eligible to become a UFA for the second straight summer and will be seeking a long-term deal after doing a one-year contract with Chicago last time out. In the past two seasons, only three goalies have laid down a better save percentage than the .925 Lehner has recorded with the Islanders, Hawks and Vegas Golden Knights.
One of those guys happens to be Dallas Star Anton Khudobin (.926). If you’re a squad looking for a UFA stopper who can play 30-35 quality games, Khudobin, Islander Thomas Greiss and Boston’s Jaroslav Halak should all hold appeal. And if two-time Cup-winners are your thing, 35-year-old Corey Crawford quietly had a nice bounce-back in Chicago and needs a new contract, too.
How will the coaching carousel shake out?
Two years ago, during the 2017-18 campaign, not a single coach was fired in-season. This year, seven bench bosses were given their walking papers for a wide variety of reasons. When Bill Peters’ racist remarks came to light, the Calgary Flames had to act. Jim Montgomery’s sudden dismissal in Dallas was shocking, but we subsequently learned he had an alcohol-abuse problem and sought treatment after being given his walking papers.
Even the changes made for conventional reasons were jarring, with high-profile men like Mike Babcock, Bruce Boudreau and Gerard Gallant being shown the door. Some of the coaches who were dropped found new gigs very quickly, as was the case with Pete DeBoer moving from San Jose to Vegas and John Hynes landing in Nashville after being removed in New Jersey.
We don’t yet know what other vacancies might open up in the next few months, but any club looking to make a change has to know there are intriguing options available. Gallant was coach of the year in 2018; Boudreau’s career points percentage is .635 and surely Babcock is willing to reform his more old-school ways if that’s what it takes to have a final act in his storied career.