One question every non-playoff NHL team must answer this off-season

Gary Bettman updated fans on the NHL's Return to Play Plan, including the 24-team playoff format and the fact that two hub cities will host the games.

The 2019-20 NHL season officially came to a close for seven teams last week when commissioner Gary Bettman announced the league’s plan for returning from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Those seven teams now face a very long off-season, which will give them plenty of time to assess what went wrong and to plan for ways to improve. Some of those teams are deep into rebuilds while others are just starting that process, but all of them have questions that need to be answered in order to turn things around.

Here is the most important question facing each non-playoff team now that the off-season is officially underway.

Detroit Red Wings: 17-49-5
How many free agents will be brought back?

The Red Wings just completed one of the worst seasons this century, but with five unrestricted free agents and 12 restricted free agents, general manager Steve Yzerman has set himself up well to clean house and upgrade every position.

Yzerman made eight trades in his first year on the job and almost all of the players he acquired are on expiring contracts. Some of them, like Robby Fabbri and Alex Biega, made enough of an impact to earn extensions. Others, like Brendan Perlini and Adam Erne, aren’t expected to return. None of the unrestricted free agents are expected back either, including long-time Red Wings Jonathan Ericsson and Jimmy Howard.

The most important negotiations Yzerman faces this off-season will be with top-line wingers Tyler Bertuzzi and Anthony Mantha, both RFAs. The term length and cap hits for both these contracts will be important down the road as younger talent pushes for more important roster spots.

Turnover is expected when teams are deep into a rebuild but with so many expiring contracts, the 2020-21 Red Wings could look very different.

“I think we need to improve in every area,” Yzerman said in his season-ending press conference. “We need help in every area. We need to score more goals, we need to improve defensively, we need to improve in net. I think we need to get better in every aspect and it’s going to take time to do that.”

Ottawa Senators: 25-34-12
What should they do with all these draft picks?

The Ottawa Senators are now in the third year of their rebuild but this off-season might be the most important one yet. The Senators have potentially 13 draft picks in 2020, including two in the top six and potentially nine in the first three rounds. If the Islanders don’t win the lottery, the Senators will have three first-round picks this year.

The Erik Karlsson trade continues to pay off with prospect Josh Norris winning AHL rookie of the year and the Sharks’ first-round pick carrying the third-best odds in the draft lottery. The club also collected picks in the first two rounds by trading Mark Stone, Jean-Gabriel Pageau and Ryan Dzingel.

While having a large pool of picks is important for any rebuild, at some point those picks need to turn into players. So the pressure is now on general manager Pierre Dorion to get the picks right and begin building a competitive roster.

“We are going to follow that plan, we are not going to rush things, we are going to do things properly,” general manager Pierre Dorion said in his end-of-season press conference. “And that is part of having long term success and building a championship calibre team in Ottawa if we do the right thing here with this draft.”

San Jose Sharks: 29-36-5
Is this the end of an era?

This is only the second time in the salary cap era that the Sharks have missed the playoffs but the team has no Stanley Cups to show for it. One year after making the Western Conference Final general manager Doug Wilson now has to make a decision: should he blow up the roster he’s spent years making or give this group another shot next season?

The Sharks have expensive long-term contracts tied to Erik Karlsson, Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Logan Couture, Evander Kane and Martin Jones. Most of these players took steps back or had major injuries this season but they also have contracts that will be difficult to move in order to improve the roster in the short term.

One long-time Shark who might not return is soon-to-be 41-year-old Joe Thornton, an unrestricted free agent. The Sharks tried to move the future Hall of Famer at the deadline and he may have to find a new home if he wants to play a 23rd season.

For now, Wilson seems more intent on keeping the group together with the hope that they will figure out why things didn’t work this year. But nothing from Wilson would be surprising and he has a long history of blockbuster trades.

“What you have to do is collectively you say, OK, that didn’t work. Now let’s pull it all together,” Wilson said in his end of season press conference. “When you try and do too much, sometimes you end up doing too little. And we didn’t play as well. We weren’t as well connected as a team. Strategically, tactically… but also as a group.

“These guys care and we believe in them.”

Los Angeles Kings: 29-35-6
Will familiar faces return next season?

The Kings have been transitioning for a few seasons now and moving Tyler Toffoli at the trade deadline was the latest sign of that. But this off-season more pieces from the Stanley Cup years might have to depart to keep the rebuild rolling.

Three players who could be on the way out are Jeff Carter, Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick. All three carry cap hits over $5.2 million for at least two more seasons and all are in decline, so their values on the trade market won’t be as high as they would have been a few years ago. But with only three expiring UFA contracts on the team, adding to the roster will require a subtraction and these three could bring back some sort of future asset while opening up a roster spot for a younger player.

Like the Senators, the Kings have been accumulating plenty of top prospects in recent years including Akil Thomas, Alex Turcotte and Tyler Madden. All three of those players could push for NHL jobs as soon as next season, so decisions over which spots are actually up for grabs will need to be made.

That could mean heartbreak for fans who still fondly remember the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup wins.

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Anaheim Ducks: 29-33-9
Who’s going to score?

The Ducks missed the playoffs for the second straight year and the goal this off-season should be to upgrade the offence.

The team ranked 26th in the league in total goals with 182, had the 30th ranked power play with a 14.7 success rate and only had five 10-goal scorers, which tied the Sabres and Red Wings for fewest in the league.

The Ducks gave promising young players such as Max Jones, Sam Steel and Troy Terry more ice time in the NHL this season, but none of them scored more than eight goals. Adam Henrique led the way with 26 and Jakob Silfverberg had 21 but they didn’t get much help from anyone else, including captain Ryan Getzlaf who has one year left on his deal.

The Ducks don’t have many contracts coming off the books this year so it will be tough to add scoring in free agency. They do, however, have two first-round picks for the second straight year, which could help them land a high-scoring forward either in the draft or via trade.

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New Jersey Devils: 28-29-12
Who will make roster decisions?

The Devils have an interim head coach and interim general manager so those positions need to be solidified before important decisions can be made about the roster.

Alain Nasreddine took over as head coach on Dec. 3 and had a lot of success in half a season. The Devils went 19-16-8 after the coaching change and their .535 win percentage in that time was 21st in the league, ahead of four teams that will play if the NHL can conclude the season: the Jets, Canadiens, Islanders and Coyotes. According to Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, Nasreddine is being considered to remain in the role but the club is also expected to interview Gerard Gallant, Peter Laviolette and John Stevens.

As for the general manager, Tom Fitzgerald was promoted to replace Ray Shero in January and he hit the ground running. Fitzgerald made five trades in the days leading up to the trade deadline including adding a first-round pick and prized prospect Nolan Foote from the Tampa Bay Lightning for Blake Coleman.

Fitzgerald was asked about his future with the Devils during his end-of-season conference call and said, for now, he’s been given full autonomy to run the team and will continue to do so until told otherwise.

“The organization has been fantastic to me,” he said. “They are allowing me to be the GM of this team, whether it’s an interim tag or not.”

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Buffalo Sabres: 30-31-8
Which players are part of the solution?

The Sabres have now missed the playoffs for nine-straight seasons — the longest active streak in the league — and the players are getting sick of it.

“I’m fed up with the losing and I’m fed up and I’m frustrated,” captain Jack Eichel said on a conference call after his fifth season ended without any extra games. He isn’t the only one.

Head coach Ralph Krueger and general manager Jason Botterill are both staying, meaning changes to the roster are coming. An upgrade in net seems likely after Carter Hutton’s second straight poor showing, as does an upgrade to the forward group. Eichel led the team in scoring by 28 points and should be the club’s only untouchable forward.

Botterill likely only has one more crack at getting this right after three seasons outside the playoffs. That could mean big trades — potentially involving defenceman Rasmus Ristolainen or restricted free agent Sam Reinhart — that would significantly alter the core of this team. At this point, whatever it takes to snap the playoff drought will be on the table.

“I like the anger. I have no problem with people outing frustration on the past,” Krueger said of the comments from his players. “But then let’s move that conversation forward, real quick, and let’s figure out what we’re going to do about it.”

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