When NHL teams will be able to spring into off-season action remains a mystery. What you can bet on, though, is front office members on every club living a Zoom-heavy existence right now as they hatch plans for the most critical time of year in terms of roster construction.
Whether you’re aiming to get over the top or trying to crawl up from the bottom, the summer season affords an opportunity to make big moves and set things in motion for the coming year. With that in mind, we’re looking at a burning off-season question for all 31 squads in the league. Today, we explore the Eastern Conference, to be followed by a look at the Western Conference on Tuesday.
Boston Bruins: When does the next blue-line chapter begin?
Zdeno Chara, who turned 43 last month, has played more minutes in the past three seasons than any other Bruin. We long ago established Chara’s freak-of-nature status when it comes to fitness, but c’mon; the guy has to slow down some time.
While Chara will presumably sign a series of one-year contracts until he hangs ‘em way up, Torey Krug will hit the open market this summer with plenty of suitors. The projected flat salary cap will be no friend of the Bruins, even though the team has plenty of players on astonishingly good deals. If Krug walks, the dynamic of the defence corps could shift significantly in the next 18 months or so.
Buffalo Sabres: What’s the value of stability?
This is Year 3 on the job for GM Jason Botterill and the team was spiralling out of control yet again before the season was paused. Buffalo fans are justifiably out for blood, but you have to wonder if more management change is the way to go. Botterill just hired coach Ralph Krueger last summer to replace Phil Housley, who was let go after two seasons. It’s hard to imagine another shift behind the bench makes sense and though Botterill hasn’t moved this team any closer to its first playoff berth since 2011, I’m not sure a new GM would achieve instant results. Jack Eichel has become a full-blown megastar and, by next season, Rasmus Dahlin could really be coming into his own. My gut says try to solve some goaltending issues on the UFA market, hope centre Dylan Cozens can become a contributor sooner rather than later and give this regime one more season to prove its worth.
Carolina Hurricanes: Is it time to go big-game hunting?
Anybody else kind of forget the Canes were a final-four team last spring? For years, Carolina was the squad with underlying numbers suggesting it should be showing better than it was. Then, 12 months ago, the Hurricanes finally got into the playoffs and won two rounds. General manager Don Waddell was a wizard at the trade deadline two months ago, adding Vincent Trocheck from Florida and Brady Skjei from the Rangers. With a 1-2 down the middle of Sebastian Aho and Trocheck, plus Skjei adding to an already-strong back end, I’d love to see the Canes go out and ink a UFA goalie like Robin Lehner or Jacob Markstrom. And if, say, the Calgary Flames make Johnny Gaudreau available on the trade block, that’s exactly the type of move Carolina — which linked up with Calgary on the Dougie Hamilton trade — has the powder to pull off.
Columbus Blue Jackets: What’s Taylor Hall’s phone number?
Okay, so the Jackets can’t make as good a pitch as the Avalanche, but let’s give some credit to this left-for-dead team. After going all in last season, this was meant to be a lost year for Columbus in the eyes of many. Instead, the Jackets were in a playoff spot when play was halted. Yes, much of that has to do with some all-world goaltending, but the bones of a good-to-great team are here and if the Jackets can get an injection of pure talent — again, Taylor Hall or maybe a Gaudreau trade — they could really be in the Eastern Conference mix.
General manager Jarmo Kekalainen does have some in-house business to sort out because Pierre-Luc Dubois’ entry-level deal is expiring and Josh Anderson — who’s been the subject of trade talk — is a restricted free agent with arbitration rights.
Detroit Red Wings: How much do they like Anthony Mantha?
The Wings moved on from one 25-year-old goal-scorer when they dealt Andreas Athanasiou to the Oilers in February: Now it’s time to make a call on another one in Mantha. The 20th overall pick in 2013 is set to become an RFA with arbitration rights. He’s young enough that if the Wings believe the best is yet to come for a guy who scored at a 30-goal pace last season, they should try to get him on a long-term deal. If not, Mantha holds value on the trade market and could be flipped for another piece or two that helps with the long-term project GM Steve Yzerman is undertaking in Michigan.
Florida Panthers: Who’s untouchable?
The Panthers seem dangerously close to tipping into doing-something-completely-stupid territory. Trading Trocheck was troubling enough and you get the sense this desperate team will listen to just about anything right now. I have to believe Sasha Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau — amazing players on stupid-good contracts — aren’t in play. After that, though, everything is likely on the table. Florida has three quality goal-scorers — Mike Hoffman, Erik Haula and Evgeni Dadonov — who are UFAs this summer. Stay tuned — and, if you’re a Panthers fan, cross your fingers that Sergei Bobrovsky starts playing like a $10-million goalie and all the other problems suddenly vanish accordingly.
Montreal Canadiens: Can they swap a forward for blue-line help?
The Canadiens are a study in contrast. On one hand, they haven’t made the playoffs since 2017. On the other, Marc Bergevin and his staff have managed to create an intriguing prospect base while simultaneously icing a club that was extremely competitive last season and hung tough for much of this year despite a spate of key injuries. Though you could argue the best work of his eight-year tenure has come in the past two or three years, Bergevin is likely out on his can if the Habs miss the 2021 post-season. The spot most in need of an immediate upgrade is the left side of the defence, so if he can find the right fit, perhaps Bergevin would part with somebody as good as RFA Max Domi — the Canadiens are much more flush up front — to address that shortcoming.
New Jersey Devils: Who is guiding the ship?
Both GM Tom Fitzgerald and coach Alain Nasreddine carry interim tags, so the first order of business is figuring out who is going to run this show. In time, Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier is going to be a dynamic 1-2 combo down the middle. The Devils essentially need help everywhere else, so the name of the game is young talent acquisition. Kyle Palmieri has one year to go before he becomes a UFA and the 29-year-old would fetch a nice return if the Devils decide to go down that path.
New York Islanders: What’s Mathew Barzal’s number?
The 2018 rookie of the year requires a new contract this summer and, all things being equal, it would be fantastic if the Isles could get him to sign for the maximum term of eight years. Defenceman Ryan Pulock is also an RFA in need of a new pact.
New York Rangers: Is there a graceful exit plan for Henrik Lundqvist?
‘The King’ is 38 and it’s hard to believe the best path forward for the Rangers isn’t with promising young stoppers Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev. Lundqvist has one year remaining on his deal and there has to be a heart-to-heart coming between the career Ranger and the team’s GM, Jeff Gorton. I, for one, think people tend to overrate the value of a player spending his entire career in one uniform. If Hank wants to keep going, the Blueshirts should buy him out and let him test the free agent waters.
Ottawa Senators: Is it time to turn some draft capital into actual NHL players?
Ottawa has three first-rounders this year (though the one they got from the Islanders is top-three protected) and seven — seven! — second-round picks in the next two drafts. Their first two selections of 2020 could be very, very tasty, so go ahead and hang on to those. After that, I’d want to see if I could flip some of those draft picks for an under-25 guy or two who — for whatever reason — needs a change of scenery. Maybe there’s an RFA out there who just can’t make it work with his current club.
Philadelphia Flyers: Can Nolan Patrick catch a break?
Unfortunately for Patrick and his club, there’s not much either party can do except hope for the best in terms of the young man’s battle with migraines. Patrick didn’t play a single game this year in what would have been his third NHL season. The 21-year-old has had absolutely no luck health-wise dating back to his major junior days with the Brandon Wheat Kings. He may never live up to the lofty expectations set for a second overall pick, but what a wild card he could be for this already-improving club if he can start to realize some of his potential.
First and foremost, though, let’s just hope he gets healthy.
Pittsburgh Penguins: What does it take to sign two goalies?
Matt Murray is a two-time Cup-winner and Tristan Jarry was one of the breakout stories of the league. Both RFAs need new deals before October. Jarry’s play flattened out in 2020, taking a bit of the shine off his tremendous first half to the season. The 24-year-old is basically making the league minimum, so there’s likely some short-term agreement to be struck here that doubles Jarry’s salary and gives the Penguins a longer look at him. Murray, meanwhile, has done so much for the team in the relatively recent past that you have to think this relationship continues at a salary figure that doesn’t hose the squad.
Tampa Bay Lightning: What’s the trickle-down effect of Vasilevskiy’s raise?
This is the toughest one to do without having a real resolution to the year. If Tampa participates in a playoff and flames out early, the burning questions will become much more grave, possibly to the point of, “Is this team critically flawed?” As it stands, the Bolts still look to be in wonderful shape for years to come. The big change for next season, though, is the fact Andrei Vasilevskiy’s cap hit jumps $6 million up to $9.5 million. Mikhail Sergachev and Erik Cernak are both coming off their entry-level deals, so Tampa may need to sacrifice one of its second-tier forwards to create a salary solution.
Toronto Maple Leafs: What does the next blue-line build look like?
The Leafs’ back end looked disjointed all year, thanks to newcomer Tyson Barrie not being a great fit and injuries to lead horses Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin. There’s certainly hope for internal growth with Rasmus Sandin, Travis Dermott and Timothy Liljegren. That said, GM Kyle Dubas is going to have to look outside the organization for help, just as he did last summer when he swapped Nazem Kadri for Barrie. The Leafs are always up against it cap-wise and even if they weren’t, there’s not much in the way of appealing right-shot options available on the open market (especially if Pietrangelo re-signs in St. Louis).
Washington Capitals: What happens with the best goalie in franchise history?
Braden Holtby is set to become a UFA just as he’s enduring the roughest patch of his career. Given the shift in mentality around paying goalies — especially ones who will be 31 in September — it’s not clear what the market for the accomplished Holtby will be. Combine that with the fact the Caps are probably a little hesitant to simply toss the keys to incumbent Ilya Samsonov and you wonder if there’s some sort of kick-the-can solution here that could see Holtby return for one or two years at a salary similar to the $6.1 million he’s making now.