Down Goes Brown: 10 NHL teams facing toughest off-season decisions

NHL insider Elliotte Friedman discusses how the reported Oliver Ekman-Larsson 8-year deal in Arizona will affect the trade market for Senators' defenceman Erik Karlsson.

We’re several days into the off-season, and so far it’s been a slow start. That’s to be expected. After all, we’re 10 days away from the draft, which is when business tends to pick up. We’re still waiting on a final number for next year’s salary cap, which is important. Also, and we’re not naming any names here, certain teams are still drunk right now.

So as we wait for the action to start, let’s figure out which teams are facing the toughest decisions as we head into the off-season. Everybody has a lot on their to-do list at this time of year, and some GMs will need a strong showing over the next few weeks to ensure they still have a job this time next year. But some teams are facing more pressure than others, so let’s count down 10 that will be under a spotlight over the coming days.

10. Calgary Flames

Already done: They changed coaches, clearing out Glen Gulutzan to make room for former Hurricanes’ boss Bill Peters. The bench will also feature two new assistants, including Geoff Ward, who’ll be tasked with fixing the anemic power play. And the team parted ways with team president Brian Burke.

The job ahead: The Flames don’t need a massive overhaul. But something clearly isn’t clicking in Calgary, where a talented young roster hasn’t won a playoff game in three years. There have been rumbling that the effort level isn’t where it needs to be, which Peters will have to address. And Brad Treliving will be looking to add offence, ideally a top-line winger to slot in with Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau.

GM hot-seat factor: Treliving signed an extension last year, so he’s relatively safe for now. But the team is underperforming and he’s just played his coaching card, so another underwhelming season will turn up the temperature. How high? He’d probably rather not find out.

Bottom line: Treliving will have to walk the line of worrying about right now while keeping an eye on the future; the Flames only have four picks in this year’s draft, none of which are in the first three rounds.


9. Washington Capitals

Already done: They drank the alcohol. All of it. It’s gone now; we have no more alcohol.

The job ahead: Once he’s done celebrating, Brian MacLellan is faced with the possibility of losing two of the league’s top free agents. The first is John Carlson, who’ll likely prove too rich for the Caps and land elsewhere. The second is Barry Trotz, which should be a fascinating situation to watch. MacLellan was apparently close to firing Trotz during the season, and it was only a few weeks ago that the coach himself seemed to think he was all but gone. But with a Cup win and an expiring contract, now it’s Trotz who holds the power. He’ll likely be back with a hefty raise, but there’s at least a chance he becomes the first coach since Mike Keenan to leave a Cup winner for work elsewhere. The question is how hard MacLellan wants to work to prevent that.

GM hot-seat factor: None.

Bottom line: Heavy is the head that wears the crown. MacLellan also needs to re-sign Tom Wilson and figure out what to do with Philipp Grubauer. This will be a challenging off-season in Washington, but it will be a lot more fun than the last few.

8. Edmonton Oilers

Already done: They traded for Nolan Vesey and got the big Keegan Lowe extension done. So, not much.

The job ahead: The first task for Peter Chiarelli is to figure out just how big a change this team needs. It sounds like he’s leaning towards staying conservative, and treating 2017–18 like a bad year that doesn’t reflect what the roster can do. That’s fair, but it’s risky, because patience is wearing thin in Edmonton.

Even if the Oilers largely stay the course, it sounds like we could see a significant deal or two. Oscar Klefbom is rumoured to be in play, for reasons nobody is quite clear on. And recently there have been reports that the team is trying to wriggle out of the five years left on Milan Lucic‘s deal.

GM hot-seat factor: High. Chiarelli was on thin ice during the season, and managed to survive. But you’d have to figure that the clock is ticking.

Bottom line: Oilers fans don’t seem to have much confidence in Chiarelli’s ability to trade his way out of a hole, so no news may be good news in Edmonton. But after last year, the status quo could be a tough sell.

7. Toronto Maple Leafs

Already done: The Leafs went into their off-season with major questions around the future of their front office. Those questions have been answered, although the results were messy. Kyle Dubas is the new GM, while Lou Lamoriello and Mark Hunter have moved on. Beyond that, the roster is the same apart from one very minor trade.

The job ahead: It’s a big one. The Leafs’ rebuild has largely been a success so far, with two straight trips to the playoffs after their last-place finish in 2015–16, and they just set a franchise record for points in a season. But now they need to take the next step, and based on this year’s playoff loss to the Bruins, they may have more ground to cover than they thought. Dubas will need to find a top-three center, and Leaf fans will be hoping he can land a top-tier blueliner. There will be John Tavares talk, although that feels like a longshot, and this being Toronto the Leafs will be linked to any big name who could be available.

But the three biggest jobs all involve players who are already here, as the team’s trio of young forwards are all ready for new contracts. William Nylander is an RFA and needs a new deal, while Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner are eligible for extensions. There’s enough cap room to sign all three, but the final numbers will go a long way towards determining how much flexibility the team has going forward.

GM hot-seat factor: Dubas was Brendan Shanahan’s pick for the job and he’ll be given time to do it, so job security isn’t an issue. But in terms of having his every move analyzed, debated and nit-picked, the 31-year-old Dubas will be under a microscope.

Bottom line: There are worse problems to have than being an overachieving team with too many good young players. But the job isn’t anywhere close to being done in Toronto, and plenty of teams have stalled on the path from good to great. Fair or not, the pressure is on Dubas to make a big first impression.

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6. Vegas Golden Knights

Already done: Not much. I guess they were doing something else in May and June.

The job ahead: The Knights just finished a season that bordered on the miraculous, and will go down in history as the greatest expansion team in pro sports history. OK, now what?

In theory, a team that falls three wins shy of a Stanley Cup should be looking to add the final pieces that will get it over the finish line next year. If so, George McPhee has a ton of cap space to play with. New deals for William Karlsson and (maybe) James Neal and David Perron will eat up some of that, but there’s still enough room to add at least one big name and maybe more. Remember, the Knights were reportedly very close to an Erik Karlsson trade at the deadline. They could revisit that, woo John Tavares, chase Joe Thornton, or maybe even all three.

One other thing to keep an eye on: Marc-Andre Fleury has one year left on his deal and could sign an extension this summer.

GM hot-seat factor: Right now, McPhee could walk through every casino on the Strip flipping over blackjack tables and nobody would do a thing other than high-five him.

Bottom line: McPhee could always play it safe, and resume the slow-and-steady approach that the Knights were telling us was the plan last summer. That might even be the right play. But with so much momentum after this season, it will be hard to resist the temptation to push hard for a big move or two. That’s pressure, even if it’s the sort that most teams would love to have.

5. Buffalo Sabres

Already done: They won the draft lottery. Honestly, that was the one thing they really needed to figure out a way to do.

The job ahead: They’ll draft Rasmus Dahlin, and then get to work on finding out just how much of the hype he can live up to. That’s the easy part. They’ll also have to figure out what to do with Ryan O’Reilly, which is a tricky situation. Then there’s the goaltending, where neither Robin Lehner nor Chad Johnson has a contract for next season. Then they have to fix a roster that finished dead last in the league.

GM hot-seat factor: Jason Botterill’s been on the job for only a year, so he’s safe for now. But after watching other rebuilding teams sprint past them and an expansion team play for the Cup, it’s fair to say that Buffalo isn’t exactly a haven of patience right now.

Bottom line: We’ve seen teams make big jumps in recent years, and if a team like the Avalanche can shoot up the standings then maybe the Sabres can, too. But, man, there’s a ton to do in Buffalo.

4. Ottawa Senators

Already done: It’s been fairly quiet, with the biggest decision being the one to keep head coach Guy Boucher.

The job ahead: It’s big. The Senators were a disaster last year, so there are plenty of holes in the roster for GM Pierre Dorion to work on. Mark Stone needs a new deal, as does Cody Ceci. Matt Duchene can sign an extension this summer, and there’s persistent talk that Mike Hoffman is available.

But of course, all of that pales in comparison to the Erik Karlsson situation. The Norris winner has one year left on his deal, meaning he could sign an extension in July. That would be great for the Senators, assuming they could fit him under their notoriously tight budget. But a trade still seems like the more likely option, and it would be the kind of deal that can define a team’s short and long-term future.

GM hot-seat factor: In Ottawa, who knows? You’d think it would be high, given how the season just went. But while the Senators are known for churning through coaches, they’ve had only three GMs since 2002. If Dorion has found a way to work with Eugene Melnyk, he’s probably safe.

Bottom line: Moving Karlsson could go down as the biggest trade in franchise history. But look on the bright side, Sens fans — when it comes to trading an unhappy superstar, it’s worked out pretty well in the past.

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3. Montreal Canadiens

Already done: They locked up Antti Niemi. Mission accomplished, am I right, Habs fans?

The job ahead: Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but Marc Bergevin should really try to find a top-line centre. That search has been going on for years, of course, but there are some options available this year. Bergevin will probably take a run at Tavares and maybe O’Reilly, and he can dangle trade bait like Alex Galchenyuk or his four second-round picks. Does he also move Max Pacioretty? It seemed inevitable for much of last season, but a deal never came, so it’s possible the two sides agree that it can still work in Montreal.

GM hot-seat factor: You’d have to figure it’s near-nuclear by now, and yet Bergevin is still on the job. We had him ranked No. 1 on last off-season’s pressure index, and No. 1 again at last year’s trade deadline. He didn’t do much in either case, but apparently it was enough. At some point Montreal fans may have to accept that Bergevin’s job might be safer than logic says it should be.

Bottom line: Montreal is a tough town even when things are going well. It’s fair to say that right now, things are not going well. Bergevin gets at least one more chance to fix that.

2. Carolina Hurricanes

Already done: They held a GM search, kind of, before settling on promoting Don Waddell. They also replaced Peters with Rod Brind’Amour, and managed to make a trade when they didn’t have a GM, which was admittedly kind of impressive.

Also, their new owner spent months studying how the NHL works and then figured out that they just have to try harder and everything will be fine.

The job ahead: When you’re facing an NHL-high eight straight years and counting without a playoff appearance, there’s going to be lots to do, and the Hurricanes have been rumoured to be discussing some fairly big names off the roster, including Jeff Skinner and Justin Faulk. They need major help in goal, and the rest of the lineup could use improvement, too. And they hold the second-overall pick in a draft with one surefire franchise player, which gives them a ton of options.

GM hot-seat factor: Waddell was just given the job so he’s safe for a while, although Dundon seems like the sort of owner who could make “a while” hard to define.

Bottom line: Dundon is the wild card here. He arrived on the scene sounding like someone who was open to new ideas, then went relatively conservative on his first hires. That may be either comforting or disappointing depending on your perspective, but it certainly sounds like Dundon plans to take a hands-on approach to his new team. That’s worked a few times in pro sports and failed miserably in others, but it’s never dull.

1. New York Islanders

Already done: Lou Lamoriello has arrived, and he didn’t take long to start making changes. GM Garth Snow and coach Doug Weight were both relieved of their duties; Weight’s dismissal leaves the Islanders as the only team in the league with a coaching vacancy right now.

The job ahead: Re-sign John Tavares. That’s not the only job, but it’s the only one that matters right now. The 27-year-old centre has been the Islanders’ franchise for almost a decade, but now sits just weeks away from reaching unrestricted free agency. He’s been eligible for an extension since last summer, so the fact that the situation remains unresolved is clearly a bad sign for the Isles. Losing Tavares for nothing (or for some pittance of draft picks in a late-June trade of his rights) would be a disaster. They need to get this done.

So can they do it? It didn’t seem likely with Snow at the helm, but Lamoriello’s arrival may change that. It’s hard to imagine that Tavares would have been all that eager to buy into the status quo, so promises of a new direction can’t do anything but help. But with less than three weeks until July 1, the question is whether the Islanders just left this all too late.

GM hot-seat factor: Non-existent. Lamoriello wouldn’t be here if he hadn’t been given total control.

Bottom line: In addition to either signing or somehow replacing Tavares, Lamoriello needs to find a new coach and probably a new starting goaltender. It’s going to be a busy summer.

Near-misses: The Kings have to sort out the Drew Doughty situation, the Jets and Predators will be staring down an arms race in the Central, the Blackhawks need to figure out which way they’re headed, and Paul Fenton is a first-time GM looking to make an impression in Minnesota. Mix in some of the GMs on hot seats, teams facing cap crunches and the fallout from disappointing seasons, and there’s at least some pressure on [checks list] everyone.

Enjoy your summer, NHL GMs. Nobody said it would be an easy job.

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