While 16 teams remain in the running for the Stanley Cup, those eliminated in the best-of-five qualifiers are now considering changes and so we can start talking about what comes next for each of them.
Whether it’s a team that would have been on the outside of the playoffs anyway in March (see the New York Rangers, who now have the first-overall pick) or a Cup hopeful experiencing crushing disappointment (ahem, Toronto Maple Leafs), each of them has at least one big question to face in the off-season.
From our most recent NHL newsletter, here is the big question facing each team eliminated in qualifying.
Pittsburgh Penguins: What, exactly, needs to change?
In his season-ending press conference, Penguins GM Jim Rutherford reaffirmed a commitment to the current core, meaning the yearly tradition of Evgeni Malkin trade rumours should end there. But Rutherford also mentioned that the way the Penguins went out, with just one win against Montreal and zero pushback in the deciding game, was “very disappointing and changes need to be made.” Sidney Crosby is 33 now and Malkin 34: How much longer will the window stay open?
Toronto Maple Leafs: What kind of defenceman will they add?
Like Rutherford, Leafs GM Kyle Dubas also noted plans to move ahead without altering his four star forwards, despite struggling to score against Columbus and with a clear need for improved defensive play. In an off-season where the cap stays flat and free agency will be difficult to wade into, it would seem trade is the only way for Toronto to really get what it needs, short of banking on Rasmus Sandin or Timothy Liljegren taking a big step up. So does that mean Kasperi Kapanen or Alexander Kerfoot could be available? What sort of player would either return?
Florida Panthers: Who will the new GM be and what will he do?
If you were to rank the most disappointing seasons, the Panthers would have to be way up there as they were clearly outmatched by the Islanders in qualifying. Now, GM Dale Tallon is out and a search is on the way for his replacement, who will have a lot to sort out. Florida’s top two goal scorers, Evgenii Dadonov and Mike Hoffman, are UFAs, and there’s some buzz the team may want to shed salary. Will they just be replaced by rookies? The trouble, too, is that team defence was a sore spot and contributed to Sergei Bobrovsky’s horrendous showing. There’s a lot to fix here.
New York Rangers: What happens to Henrik Lundqvist?
“I had a good chat with him when we got off the plane out of Toronto,” Rangers president John Davidson said. “We will talk and see where we go. We made it clear that we aren’t carrying three goalies next year. We gotta figure out what we are going to do.”
Lundqvist has one year remaining on his contract, but two younger goalies are outperforming him and are better long-term fits for the emerging team. A trade, a buyout, or, heck, a return are all possibilities, but it does seem most likely that Lundqvist’s time with the Rangers is over. But just how will this relationship end?
Winnipeg Jets: Do they look for more size again?
It’s hard to get too down on the way Winnipeg’s season ended. They fought all year despite losing some key players from the roster, and in the playoffs injuries to Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine proved too much.
Prior to this year the Jets could thrive in any kind of style: fast and skilled, or slow and big. However, the losses of Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Dustin Byfuglien and Ben Chiarot from last year’s blue line left them a smaller team that just couldn’t play the same as before. So, will GM Kevin Cheveldayoff try to restore some of that this off-season?
Minnesota Wild: Who will be their starting goalie next season?
At GM Bill Guerin’s end-of-season conference, he touched on a lot of the teams’ problems, including a need for a No. 1 centre and more skill up front. While those are fine upgrades to seek out (and the Wild do have defencemen other teams would want to trade for), most teams are looking for those elements and they’re hard to acquire outside of the draft.
The Wild also need goalies, and there could be a few options there in the off-season. “I was disappointed in the goaltending this year,” Guerin said. “Al (Stalock) had a tremendous year and Devan (Dubnyk) had an off-year, and it needs to be better. That’s just the way it is. And if I told you anything different I’d be lying to you. It was not a strong point for us.”
Could it be that 23-year-old Kaapo Kahkonen, the AHL’s goalie of the year, simply slides in as the No. 1, or will the Wild explore a free agent market that includes a couple of starters and tandem options?
Edmonton Oilers: How do they find improved depth?
There are a lot of things being criticized in Edmonton after the team was knocked out by the 12th seed in the West. From Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl needing to be better defensively to inconsistent goaltending and more, the team just didn’t look “there” yet.
To me, quality depth was the biggest concern. Sure, McDavid and Draisaitl could buy in more on defence, but there was so little production and impact outside of those top two lines that it’s an obvious need. A veteran presence would be useful there along with a little scoring upside. This isn’t too surprising and GM Ken Holland will take time to sculpt this team, but expectations are going to heighten and the worst thing would be for Edmonton to take a step back next regular season.
Nashville Predators: How will they regain momentum?
The Preds are getting dangerously close to becoming another Minnesota Wild. The Wild, on paper, look like a pretty good team — lots of recognizable names, some players with upside, and strong defence. But the Wild have been spinning their tires with just two series wins in eight years. They’re good enough to get in, but not close to breaking through.
Now, the Predators reached the Stanley Cup Final just three years ago, but this is not the same team. They backed into the playoffs last year and were knocked out in Round 1. This year they couldn’t get past Arizona. The Predators are good enough to get into the playoffs, but not to have an impact anymore despite a roster that looks like it should never be an easy out. How can GM David Poile reinvigorate the core and at least make the Preds a tough out once again?