It is around this time of the season — the 10-game mark — that NHL general managers have seen enough to begin assessing what they have and what they lack.
The sample size isn’t expansive by any means, but there’s enough evidence to begin plotting the next course of action.
Are we a couple tweaks away from being a playoff team? Should I try to lock up my free agent before he explodes for a career season? Do I have the right coach for this group?
Of course, the next true pressure point for GMs won’t arrive until the trade deadline, but with a few teams trying to wrap up important business early — be it New Jersey re-signing Nico Hischier, Chicago locking up Alex DeBrincat, or St. Louis rewarding Brayden Schenn — we thought it worthwhile to preview the next big to-do item on each front office’s list.
In our NHL Power Rankings: Your General Manager’s Next Critical Move Edition, we highlight the next significant decision, trade or signing that will shape the future of your favourite club.
All 31 teams are ranked in order of their current power, while the write-ups zero in on a burning bit of unfinished business.
The right side of the Sabres’ blue line continues to be a deep source of speculation. When Brandon Montour (RFA) returns from injured reserve, things get crowded. The curiosity surrounding the future of Rasmus Ristolainen — the Sabres’ most-used skater is off to a much more responsible start — won’t go anywhere. Is he clawing back into the organization’s good graces, or just upping his own trade value?
The still-dangerous Bruins are speeding toward another fascinating summer of decisions, with key components at every position due for a raise. With all due respect to a young spark plug like Jake DeBrusk (RFA), Torey Krug’s impending UFA status is the story we’re most intrigued about. The player loves the team; the team loves the player. But does an electric, 28-year-old puck-mover fall in line with Boston’s under-market-for-the-greater-good cap structure or does he test an open market starving for his skill-set?
As the hot-start Avalanche reasserts its position atop our Power Rankings, Joe Sakic must be contemplating how soon he’ll need to re-sign impending RFAs Andre Burakovsky, 24, and Tyson Jost, 21. Each is off to a scorching beginning to his platform year, providing Colorado with the secondary scoring it needed.
Backup goalie Ilya Samsonov is outperforming impending UFA Braden Holtby in October. The latter is set to become the most marquee free agent at hockey’s most important position. GM Brian MacLellan must use the next few months to decide whether to give the keys to the kid, or reward a Cup champion who could use Sergei Bobrovsky’s outrageous $70-million windfall as a comparable.
The next two big challenges staring at Jim Benning will be to decide whether Jacob Markstrom is a franchise goaltender and whether his group — as hoped — is a legit playoff team. The good news is, those decisions should be tightly intertwined.
Compared to his peers, John Chayka has a solid track record of getting ahead of his important contract extensions. He also can be counted on for a mid-season shake-up trade. The improved Coyotes appear like a group that will be in a crowded mix to secure a playoff spot. Just making the dance would do wonders for that market and that young core. Chayka must decide how aggressive he’ll be to give this roster an added push.
The Golden Knights have done a solid job of identifying the players they want to keep and the ones they’re willing to let go. An original VGK, Cody Eakin, is next up. Kelly McCrimmon must determine whether to make Eakin, who’s off to a sluggish start, his seventh $5-million forward or walk away.
Of all of the 14(!) players on Ken Holland’s roster who are on expiring contracts, Darnell Nurse must be the priority. The RFA-to-be bet on himself, taking a bridge deal in the summer of 2018. Now he’s eating up 24 minutes a night and has contributed seven points despite not seeing much power-play usage.
Carolina set the world on fire through the first two weeks but has quietly receded back to the pack. We’re still not ruling out a Don Waddell mid-season recruitment of the well-rested Justin Williams to join the Jerks and give one of the league’s deepest blue lines another bit of support up front.
Can you name a better defenceman on track to hit the open market than Predators captain Roman Josi, who’s almost done with being the league’s biggest bargain at $4 million? We’ll wait.
11. St. Louis Blues
In a perfect world, Doug Armstrong will be able to satisfy the contract demands of both Vince Dunn, 22, and Alex Pietrangelo, 29. So, does the GM prioritize loyalty and leadership, or youth and promise? Or, with the 2020 cap expected to be stagnant, can he find a way to keep everybody happy?
Once again, the Lightning have the roster depth to go all the way. Once again, Julien BriseBois’s cap is about to get tested, with critical RFAs Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev on deck. The GM surely will be tempted to spend his extra first-round pick (via Vancouver) to bolster his already-strong roster.
The Penguins’ Jim Rutherford is facing a conundrum where he’d like to patch up his injured forward group while knowing that he’ll soon need to dish out raises on the back end. Three of his starting six defencemen — Justin Schultz, Marcus Pettersson and Juuso Riikola — could come knocking for pay bumps, and both goalies — Matt Murray, Tristan Jarry — absolutely will.
14. Anaheim Ducks
The stingy Ducks find themselves, surprisingly, in the mix for the Pacific lead, but theirs is a run built solely on keeping the puck out of the net. Finally with a little cap room to wiggle, Bob Murray must determine over the next couple months whether he believes enough in his group to dip into the forward rental market.
Marc Bergevin holds two commodities his peers would love to have: cap space and 10 draft picks in the first five rounds of 2020. If the Habs can stay in the mix in a bear of an Atlantic Division, Bergevin has the purchasing power to add a real difference-maker.
The last time the Islanders’ franchise centre was on an expiring contract it didn’t end so well. Lou Lamoriello needs to secure Mathew Barzal long-term at fair value.
The Blue Jackets’ business challenges will not relent. After a summer of departures, Jarmo Kekalainen must next dole out raises to his No. 1 centre, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and an important power forward, Josh Anderson, both of whom will turn RFA. Also: He does not have a goaltender under contract for 2020-21. On the bright side, he does have cap space to get these deals done.
18. Florida Panthers
With the Panthers looking like a playoff bubble team, it will be fascinating to see how Dale Tallon treats veteran UFA-to-be forwards Mike Hoffman and Evgeni Dadonov. Does he go the “own rental” route, try to extend, or consider a trade to address a sluggish defence?
The great UFA defenceman conundrum — 75 per cent of Toronto’s top four are in the final season of a deal — can wait. Kyle Dubas’s next bit of business is deciding who to cut when Zach Hyman and Travis Dermott return from LTIR as early as next week.
20. Calgary Flames
Brad Treliving’s stressful summer of 2019 will only pave the path to another one in 2020. Four of his six defencemen — T.J. Brodie, Travis Hamonic, Rasmus Andersson, Michael Stone — do not have contracts for 2020-21. The GM must use this time to ensure he bets on the proper players.
Managing the Philadelphia Flyers entails more than just sorting through Gritty’s restraining orders. Chuck Fletcher must also make the proper call on RFA-in-waiting Nolan Patrick, who hasn’t produced at the rate of new multi-millionaire Nico Hischier but is a talented 21-year-old centre in a league that covets such a commodity.
22. Winnipeg Jets
The Jets are giving up more than three goals a night. The need for an answer from Dustin Byfuglien on whether he wishes to play NHL hockey again grows by the game. If Big Buff is retiring, Kevin Cheveldayoff would probably like to spend the $6 million he’s saving to patch up a blue line in shambles.
As tempting as it might be for Rob Blake to strive for a wild-card spot, the GM must take the more prudent course and maximize returns this winter for tradable assets like Tyler Toffoli and Kyle Clifford.
24. San Jose Sharks
Kevin Labanc bet on himself by taking arguably the biggest team-friendly deal of the summer ($1 million for one year). Does Doug Wilson have a juicy, long-term extension in a drawer, just waiting to be signed after Jan. 1? Or is Lebanc’s mediocre start to this season (minus-9, called out by captain Logan Couture Tuesday) hurting his pocketbook?
Like most GMs, Stan Bowman will need to make a call on an intriguing RFA (Dylan Strome), but the more important decision will be deciding his goaltender of the future. Robin Lehner (UFA 2020) has handily outperformed Corey Crawford (UFA 2020) to this point, but Crawford has been granted more starts and Bowman has a history of rewarding the players that brought championships to the city.
26. Dallas Stars
Don’t look now, but Jim Montgomery has coached his stars to a two-game winning streak, cooling his seat if only temporarily. Montgomery’s boss, Jim Nill, was aggressive (again) over the past summer and must be just crossing his fingers that his players can turn this thing around. He’s not the type to sit idle, however. If struggles mount, he’ll need to address the mess in-season.
27. Minnesota Wild
Bill Guerin is gazing at a Herculean task and has vowed patience. The next step is assessing which of his veterans can be moved so Minnesota can finally begin stocking its prospect pool. Pain is coming.
Priority 1 for Ray Shero is extending Taylor Hall. Priority 1A is maximizing Hall’s trade value if the superstar is unwilling to put pen to paper before Feb. 24.
29. New York Rangers
The Rangers’ four-game losing slump shoves them right back in a familiar spot, toward the Metropolitan basement, and reminds us of a familiar decision for Jeff Gorton: to hang on to power winger Chris Kreider or consider selling him off at some point to a playoff team.
30. Ottawa Senators
Pierre Dorion knows his mission — the Senators are rebuilding, if you haven’t heard — but the challenge now will be sorting through his 15(!) impending free agents and determining whom to build around. Godspeed.
Steve Yzerman is wisely taking a patient approach in Detroit, but the tone of the rebuild will kick into gear when half of his top six — Anthony Mantha, Andreas Athanasiou and Tyler Bertuzzi — require significant raises.