Big questions facing the NHL’s 16 non-playoff teams this summer

Vegas Golden Knights coach Peter DeBoer watches the team during an NHL hockey game against the Washington Capitals Wednesday, April 20, 2022, in Las Vegas. (Sam Morris/AP)

For the 16 NHL teams that didn’t qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the off-season checklists have begun to roll in.

Next week, on May 10, the NHL draft lottery will go down and it will cement the order of the top half of the draft. That could start influencing what teams want to do, if they jump higher or fall lower in that order than expected.

These teams have done their exit interviews, spoken to the media and will now get to work on putting in place rosters that they hope will improve on what happened in 2021-22.

So what are the big questions facing these teams? We take a look here, moving from the last team eliminated from the playoffs, down to the bottom of the league standings.

Vegas Golden Knights: Will Peter DeBoer be back?

At his season-ending avail, Pete DeBoer made it clear he wanted to coach in Vegas again next season. But after being the first Golden Knights coach to whiff on the playoffs, there is real question whether he should be the guy to move forward with.

“Pete is under contract,” Vegas GM Kelly McCrimmon said Tuesday. “Pete and I are going to sit down later this week.”

McCrimmon credited DeBoer for the work he did with the team this season under trying circumstances, with injury after injury preventing the team from icing its full lineup at any point. Of course, its “full lineup” was over $10 million above the cap, so that was going to bring its own headaches anyway. That issue will also need to be dealt with this summer.

Locally, some question if DeBoer’s style is the right fit for a team as talented as Vegas. As Jesse Granger of The Athletic wrote, DeBoer’s system may be good to help defence, but does it stifle creativity and flow? Should a team such as Vegas instead be better off the rush? Should they be better on the power play, where they finished 25th in the league after massively struggling there during last year’s playoffs?

Do the Golden Knights need to think about a coach who better suits the personnel they’ve put in place?

“We have to change something,” Mark Stone said. “I look back on it, the last playoff run, our power play was five per cent. I don’t think the offence really dried up. I think the power play dried up. So, I think that’s got to change.”

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Vancouver Canucks: Will J.T. Miller get an extension?

Truthfully, there are a lot of questions around the Canucks. How will this re-tool go? How will the need for cap space balance with a desire to still try to compete? Could 2022-23 be positioned as a step back season instead?

Some of that direction could be influenced by what happens next with Miller. A 99-point scorer and the team’s best player from start to finish, Miller has exceeded all expectations since the trade, but will be 30 years old in Year 1 of any extension he signs. For a team that wants to a) get younger and b) cheaper, this is going to be tricky to balance when you consider captain Bo Horvat is in a similar position. Both players are eligible to be extended in July.

If Miller (and Horvat) re-sign, it’ll be a clear indication that there will be no steps back, but also that organizational change and open cap space will need to come from other resources. Or, Miller becomes just too expensive for a player his age on a roster like this and a trade needs to emerge. One would think it would be better to make that move long before an in-season deadline. Could the Canucks make their move on Miller, either way, this off-season?

Winnipeg Jets: Will Mark Scheifele get traded, or formally request a trade?

A lot of soul-searching is upcoming in Winnipeg after the team many had pegged as “Canada’s best Cup hope” in 2022 missed out on the playoffs by an eight-point margin. It starts from the top, where GM Kevin Cheveldayoff – the only general manager the team has had since relocating in 2011 – will be working with a fresh three-year contract extension. In 11 years at the helm, his team has three total playoff series wins.

Winnipeg isn’t an organization that likes to change things up much, so it was a shock to the system when head coach Paul Maurice stepped down mid-season. Dave Lowry, who took over on an interim basis, was not guaranteed a spot back and Winnipeg will open a coaching search this summer. It seems change will be forced upon the team this summer. Mark Scheifele, a focal point of off-season speculation, had interesting comments about the path of the team and his future within it. It left some to wonder whether or not he has, or will, request a trade – the GM said that hadn’t come yet when he spoke to the media Monday afternoon.

“There’s a lot of big questions to be asked this off-season about where the team’s going,” Scheifele said. “I’d love to be in Winnipeg, but I’d also love to see where this is all going and what direction this team is going in.

“I have to think about my career and what’s best for me. I think I’m going to have to talk to my agent and everyone in my family and figure out what I want.”

Scheifele makes $6.125 million against the cap for another two years and would have suitors lining up. It’s not often a centre who averages over a point per game at that salary becomes available.

The Jets have other work to do with centre Pierre-Luc Dubois, an RFA this summer. They are two crucial pieces down the middle and the biggest questions facing Cheveldayoff and the Jets, with other decisions to make about the core and direction of the team as well.

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New York Islanders: Do they still consider the window open?

The bad start really scuttled the Islanders’ season, but that followed two trips to the third round of the playoffs in a row. Not the most exciting team on paper, and not the most offensive in a season where offence was the name of the game, what exactly do the Islanders need after they missed the playoffs by 16 points?

They won’t run back the exact same outfit, and GM Lou Lamoriello weeks ago talked about making “hockey trades” to improve. The needs are for a scoring winger, someone to complement and help bring out the best in Mathew Barzal. A trigger man would be nice. The defence will need tweaks too, with Zdeno Chara (retirement?) and Andy Greene set to become UFAs. Noah Dobson needs an extension as an RFA after his breakout season, and Adam Pelech and Ryan Pulock are signed long-term. They’ll need to build around them.

The goaltending will need to be settled as well. Ilya Sorokin really emerged as one of the better netminders in the league, but Semyon Varlamov is no slouch, either. It might be wise to continue on with two quality netminders, but Varlamov could also bring back an intriguing trade return.

Columbus Blue Jackets: What happens with Patrik Laine and his contract?

Laine’s first year in Columbus was a challenge and one to forget about. Year 2 had challenging times as well but, on the ice at least, Laine started to return to form. He got back up to a near-40-goal pace (26 goals in 56 games) and became a point per game player for the first time in his career.

Now, it gets interesting. Laine is an RFA and, if he goes to arbitration for a one-year award, that would walk him to unrestricted free agency in 2023. He makes $7.5 million AAV this coming season, which is already the 18th-highest cap hit among all wingers. How much higher can that go on a long-term deal? What’s the compromise on a mid-term extension? Is it somewhere between Brady Tkachuk’s $8.2 million and Kirill Kaprizov’s $9 million?

After last season, there was question about how another underperforming year would complicate Laine’s next contract talks. Now that he’s stepped up again, it’s clear that a pay day is in order.

“This year, when the ball started rolling in the right direction and he got more confident, you could see what the other end of the potential is,” Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said. “He’s expressed he wants to stay here, we’ve said we want him to stay and it’s now just finding the common ground.”

San Jose Sharks: Who’s going to GM this thing?

Doug Wilson had been in charge of the Sharks’ operations for so long, it’s hard to envision a successor. Since 2003, Wilson has built strong team after strong team, reaching the final once along the way but experiencing more playoff disappointment over those years than most. “The Best Team To Not Win The Cup” would be a fair description of the Sharks over the past two decades.

The search for San Jose’s next GM is on and the net cast wide. At his year-end media conference, interim GM Joe Will talked about the search and how it will include people with GM experience, but also those with other areas of expertise. And then whichever direction the team goes in, the rest of the front office will be built around the GM’s strengths.

But what’s interesting is that while the Sharks have missed the playoffs three years in a row and weren’t particularly close to challenging in any of them, it appears the new hire will still be expected to carry on with a win-now approach.

“We’re not trying to keep a narrow path for somebody to come in and (tell them) this is exactly what we want you to do, but all we’re saying is that we want to win,” Will said.

There are ageing contracts that are becoming issues, especially on the back end, where $26.5 million is committed to three players in their 30s for multiple years. The critical decision on whether to re-sign or trade Tomas Hertl was already made. There will be no rebuild here, but the team as constructed does seem a little stuck in the mud and stale.

The new GM might also have a decision to make on head coach Bob Boughner, who has been at the helm for all three of these seasons.

Anaheim Ducks: Will they make a big splash addition?

With Ryan Getzlaf moving on into retirement, veterans Josh Manson and Hampus Lindholm traded at the deadline, the Ducks started to pivot toward their younger core. Sonny Milano and Isac Lundestrom are RFAs this summer, Max Comtois, Troy Terry and Trevor Zegras are next. How many will get long-term extensions this off-season?

More than that, Anaheim has six UFAs on the roster and none of them would be classified as “must-signs.” The Ducks have $40 million in projected cap space, and while they do need to consider the big dollars coming to the youngsters, there may be room to make a big add in free agency to help propel the team forward.

Johnny Gaudreau? Filip Forsberg? Maybe a little lower down the list in Vincent Trocheck or Nazem Kadri? Or will the Ducks get involved in the trade market and target whatever is going to happening Vancouver and Winnipeg? There is room to do it.

Anaheim showed potential early this season, but after the All-Star break. the Ducks shrivelled away and were among the worst teams down the stretch. Will now be the time to seek a big addition or two to try tp stabilize what they showed in the first half, or is this still going to be a multi-year work in progress?

Buffalo Sabres: Will they be after a defenceman to play with one of the kids?

Consider it a success that the Sabres were playing above .500 points-percentage hockey over the last couple of months, and outperformed Vegas after the Golden Knights started getting games from Jack Eichel. But it’s important to not overstate the Sabres’ relative success down the stretch. They were out of the running for a while and had no pressure. It’s the sort of finish we’ve seen before and certainly doesn’t guarantee a notable turn when the puck drops again in October.

But this does feel like it could be the start of the turnaround. Whereas in the past certain players have talked about losing their love for the game while struggling in Buffalo, or airing general frustration, this year-end was far more positive. The culture seems to be turning for the better, and that’s a good start.

Now, how to keep making sure the roster improves?

Goaltending will be one area of focus, and Craig Anderson’s plans will be a factor in that. Buffalo holds three first-round picks (which would become two if Vegas’ lands in the top 10, in which case the Golden Knights would send their 2023 third to Buffalo instead) and GM Kevyn Adams did mention that he’d have conversations about those potentially being involved in trade. However, the expectation should be that the Sabres will add three more prospects with the selections.

One thing to watch is how involved the Sabres might get in the defence market. Buffalo was loosely rumoured to be poking around here at the trade deadline, seeking more experienced partner for either Rasmus Dahlin or the incoming Owen Power, both young left shots.

Dahlin took a notable step forward in 2021-22 with 53 points, and Power showed well in his eight games, with three points and an average of over 22 minutes a game. It will be important for the organization to keep letting these two grow, insulating and challenging them where they can, but not risk their confidence. Buffalo has three defencemen becoming UFAs this summer and space to add on the back end. Could they make a splash at the position, or maybe something a little more subtle?

“Less focus on ‘We have to get a right-shot defenceman to play with Owen Power or Rasmus Dahlin.’ More about, ‘Is there the right person that fits what we’re doing here that can be additive to all parts of the culture and with their on-ice play?’ Yeah, for sure we’re going to look at that,” Adams said.

Detroit Red Wings: Will the new coach lead the Wings to the next step?

Jeff Blashill had seven seasons behind the bench in Detroit, saw the worst of the rebuild and tried to start making strides out of it. That the Wings missed the playoffs in each of the past six years is hardly on Blashill – Detroit has been sucked into the rebuild abyss for some time.

This season became the one where not enough progress was made, and it became time for the Wings to look for the coach who will take them into the next phase of trying to challenge for a playoff spot.

“We’d gotten to a point where fundamentally with and without the puck we had regressed. We’re at a point now where I felt, ‘OK, I’ve gotta see if bringing in a new coach, new coaching staff, can make a difference to get us back on track and going in the right direction,” Yzerman said. “I’m hoping a new voice, new coach, different approach, we can improve our team play and the play of our players individually.”

Yzerman did not describe what kind of coach he’d be after, a recycled veteran or someone less proven at this level. He didn’t even give a defined plan about when he wanted the Wings to contend again. The Wings remain all about slowly adding pieces, accumulating assets and planning that one day it’s all going to come together and hit.

Whoever the next Wings coach is will still have room to work with and doesn’t need to face the pressure of needing to move things along to the post-season ASAP. That will come in this next window, though, making this coaching situation one of the more interesting to watch.

Ottawa Senators: Could they add to the roster?

Ottawa GM Pierre Dorion admitted that his team won’t be a cap team next season, pushing the upper limit of $82.5 million. But, he said there was room to increase payroll to try to meet next season’s goal of playing “meaningful games to the end.”

“I think we’re going to bridge a certain amount to go after higher-quality free agents or higher-quality players,” Dorion said.

The big fish everyone will wonder about is pending UFA Claude Giroux, a local who spends his summers in the area and played his junior hockey in Gatineau. Giroux is still an elite playmaker in the game today, but will turn 35 midway through next season. He would give the team a huge boost no doubt, but will he choose to finish his career trying to get out of a rebuild situation?

And if no Giroux, who? The Sens still have lots of prospects coming and can’t create a clog that will keep any out.

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Chicago Blackhawks: What’s next for Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews?

One would still be a valued trade asset, the other would probably require either a sweetener or salary retention to move out. But both Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are still leaders for the Chicago Blackhawks, and how each are handled now will be indicative of where GM Kyle Davidson is going to steer this ship.

The Blackhawks traded Marc-Andre Fleury at the trade deadline, of course, but the more interesting trade was Brandon Hagel. They got a healthy return, sure, and probably made it a deal they couldn’t pass up. But he was a 23-year-old, 20-goal scorer for the team and so moving on from a young talent like that was discouraging for Toews. When asked if he’d be invested in going through a rebuild with the Hawks at 34, Toews answered with an open-ended “We’ll see.”

“Of course, you invest a ton of energy and emotion and care with your teammates because you’re all working toward that common goal,” he told The Athletic in March. “Now, all of a sudden you realize no one on our team is safe and we could all be going in different directions in the near future — it’s pretty discouraging. I’ll leave it at that for now.”

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Toews will make $10.5 million for another year before becoming UFA eligible, but he’s far from an impactful player anymore. Kane, on the other hand, led the team in scoring again, with 92 points, and he seemed more open to sticking around, depending on what other moves are made. For example, Kane’s linemate Alex DeBrincat scored 41 goals as a 24-year-old this season and he has one more year left on his contract before becoming an RFA. He’s the type of player you’d think a rebuilding team would keep, but he’ll also be an attractive trade asset if they choose to go down that route. If something that drastic goes down, Kane’s outlook may change.

“I’ve enjoyed always being around the younger guys and feel I’m still a young kid at heart the way I go about my business and daily life,” Kane said at the end of the season. “I think another thing is developing some chemistry with DeBrincat over the years, and if he’s here and a big piece, that makes it easier for me too.”

Kane, like Toews, has one more year left on his contract paying $10.5 million. Could they look to trade Kane, or instead re-sign him to an extension?

“Everything’s on the table,” Davidson said. “Everything’s under consideration.”

New Jersey Devils: Who will be their goalie next season?

Even though they were well out of the play playoff picture by March, the Devils were still a team that was rumoured to be in the goalie market at the trade deadline, with an eye on next season. Injuries prevented the pair of Jonathan Bernier and MacKenzie Blackwood from playing even half the season as Nico Daws and Jon Gillies combined for a greater percentage of games played. Seven goalies in total suited up for the Devils this season. No exactly Plan A.

New Jersey had the lowest 5-on-5 save percentage and one of two teams under .900 (with Seattle). Other measures showed promise: Fifteenth in Corsi percentage, 13th in expected goal percentage, sixth in high-danger chances for percentage at 5-on-5. Having even league-average goaltending would add quite a few points. Not the 37 they needed to make up this year’s gap on a post-season berth, but enough to keep them playing meaningful hockey well into the new year at least.

Whether by trade or free agency (where Marc-Andre Fleury, Darcy Kuemper, Jack Campbell or current Penguins starter Casey DeSmith all could be), the Devils are a good bet to add a goalie before next September.

Philadelphia Flyers: Who will be the next head coach and how much more re-tooling will take place?

The Flyers had Sean Couturier for 29 games this season and Ryan Ellis for just four – lose your top centre and a top-pair defenceman for that long and you’ll always face a challenging year. But the Flyers have deep-rooted issues that followed them from a 2020-21 season that resulted in fairly significant change.

GM Chuck Fletcher seems likely to make more splashes in 2022.

First up was the coach, as the unsurprising call to move on from Mike Yeo was the least amount of change that could be expected. But last summer’s moves made it clear that this GM wants to win now, and so the next coach will inherit those expectations, reasonable or not.

The GM can’t run back the same roster and expect different results again, though. Ivan Provorov is a trade candidate for the right price and that alone could be something that shakes the core.

“So, you know, it’s been aggressive in all phases,” Fletcher said of his approach to fixing what ails the Flyers after two playoff misses in a row. “Certainly, part of it is we have to get younger, we have to get more talented, we have to get faster. And then we have to aggressively look at trades and free agency. And can we add a couple players to supplement what we have here to make this team better?”

Seattle Kraken: Can they find more goal scorers?

The most obvious area of disappointment for the Kraken this season was the goalies, who combined for the 31st-ranked save percentage at 5-on-5. Philipp Grubauer finished with the league’s lowest Goals Saved Above Average. The Kraken were something of a Corsi darling early, though that faded a little mid-way through before it recovered again. At 5-on-5, the 30th-ranked Kraken were top-half of the league in Corsi and shots for percentage.

An organization still needs to be built here, and so generally the expectation should be for a relatively bland off-season. They’ll have a top-five draft pick to acquire another solid prospect and four second-rounders. With 25 draft picks across this season and next, Kraken GM Ron Francis said they could use some of those to acquire an expensive contract, or an otherwise useful player. But, really, this is a slow build now and after not flexing their muscle much at the expansion draft, the Kraken set the table at the deadline.

The goalies won’t likely be an area that gets much attention this off-season, with Grubauer and Chris Driedger still under contract. But how about on offence?

Seattle generated the third-fewest expected goals per game and could use a finisher or two to give their offence more oomph. They passed on Vladimir Tarasenko at the expansion draft, but would surely love to have a player just like that now.

“We do have the ability to acquire, whether it’s via trade or free agency, so we’ll certainly be looking at those areas to try to boost our lineup,” Francis said. “I like the core of what we had. I think we did a lot of good things right till the end. Guys didn’t quit, they kept working hard. You try to establish that culture as a new franchise, I think that’s important. So, we feel we’ve got those key pieces, and now it’s a matter of tweaking a little bit and adding pieces around it.

“Goal scorers are not easy to find, but if we can add something in the free-agency market, guys that can come into play our top six, top nine, that’s certainly something we’ll look for.”

Arizona Coyotes: Will Jakob Chychrun be traded?

Off the ice, the biggest question facing the Coyotes is something like “Are they really going to play in a ~5,000-seat arena?” Yes, yes, that’s actually going to happen.

On the ice, we can expect roster turnover. Veterans Phil Kessel, Loui Eriksson, Jay Beagle, Antoine Roussel and Anton Stralman are set for UFA. Youngsters will keep pushing for roster spots, or more ice time. Next year figures to be another long one in the desert, with meaningful standings progression still in the distance, but the Coyotes will still need to get to the salary floor. As of today, they have a projected $48 million in cap hits on next year’s roster, with the floor set at $61.2 million.

“There’s probably going to be a lot of new faces,” GM Bill Armstrong said. “Probably half the team will change. And that’s part of the process we’re going through at this point.”

Armstrong listed a few names of players he does expect to return, including Clayton Keller, Karel Vejmelka and Barret Hayton. Notably, though, he excluded Jakob Chychrun from that list.

The 24-year-old blueliner was a hot rumour at the trade deadline, but with a reportedly massive return to move the player, the timing just wasn’t right. Now, we move into the off-season, where every team can get in on the discussions and are allowed to exceed the cap by 10 per cent until next fall. But it’s not as though Chychrun is a heavy contract to take on – part of his attraction as an asset is that he’s a young and highly productive defenceman making a bargain $4.6 million AAV for another three years.

Chychrun did have a bit of a down season, and injuries ended his year early, in March. But make no mistake: If available, he’d be one of the most sought-after defencemen out there.

Montreal Canadiens: Will Carey Price return and, if not, how will management proceed?

The most common refrain throughout Kent Hughes’ end-of-season press conference was, “We’re going to evaluate all options.”

Consider just about anything on the table in Montreal.

They’re going to get a stud in the draft, and the hope is that they’ll lock in the No. 1 pick with the top odds at the lottery next week. After that, it’s about figuring out who can be helpful to bring them back, or who can be helpful in returning a friendly trade. But before any of those decisions can be made, clarity is needed on Carey Price’s future.

The most important player in the whole plan, Price has a decision to make on his career with a surgically repaired knee that didn’t recover well enough to play more than five games all season. Price said he would do everything he could to return, but also that he prepared for this final start of the season to also be the final start he’ll ever play.

That’s a $10.5-million cap commitment hanging out there.

With Price, the Habs have a player who can cover up all sorts of warts and elevate you at least a tier or two above where you otherwise would be. Without Price, Jake Allen is a fine enough starter, but without the same effect. If Price doesn’t return, this thing could go well off the rails into the bushes of a rebuild.

Jeff Gorton oversaw something like this in New York, when the Rangers suddenly pulled the plug on trying to win right now, and instead taking a multi-year plan. They identified the useful pieces, kept them, and reconstructed everything else. Now, New York is a very promising and exciting squad. The Canadiens seem likely to head down a similar path beginning this off-season.

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