Congratulations to the Tampa Bay Lightning on their back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. A team without any discernible weakness, these Lightning are how every team attempts to get built: through the draft, through developing homegrown talent, complemented by smart trades and contracts.
And now, over the span of the next 20 days or so, general managers around the league face a compacted off-season with unique market conditions to try and put their teams on a similar path.
In nine days, protection lists are due ahead of the Seattle expansion draft on July 21. Two days after that, Round 1 of the NHL draft will commence and that event has become one where big trades are expected. Free agency will open on July 28.
Before you know it, we'll be back in September training camps with a fresh season and renewed hopes for 32 teams.
Ahead of the expected off-season frenzy, here is a question each team is facing:
Anaheim Ducks: Can they come back with a better offence?
The Ducks have finished with the league's worst offence in two of the past three seasons — 22-year-old Maxime Comtois led them with 16 goals this season and Adam Henrique was the only other Duck to score 10 times. Anaheim is linked to Jack Eichel in rumours, but if they don't get him there are a number of other top-six forwards available who could help the Ducks.
Arizona Coyotes: How big do they blow it up?
They delayed a sell-off at the deadline when playoffs were still in the picture, but now it's time to pivot back toward picks and prospects. Oliver Ekman-Larsson has plenty of term left on his contract and some retained salary could bump his trade value up a bit. Darcy Kuemper and Phil Kessel are a year away from unrestricted free agency and either player would be welcome on a playoff team looking for its last piece in the top-six or in net. After that, what will become of Conor Garland, a heck of a blossoming talent who is an RFA right now, but one who would command an enticing return in trade?
2021 SUMMER TARGETS: Conor Garland is 25 years old player, legit TOP6 winger. He'll be a RFA after this season. He's really great winger, we like him a lot, very fast skater. We believe he would play in TOP6 in (almost) every team in the NHL right now. He's worth $~5.5M per year. pic.twitter.com/qTFwagBDjE
— Andy & Rono (@HockeyStatsCZ) July 6, 2021
Boston Bruins: How will they approach the goaltending situation?
Tuukka Rask will be a UFA this summer, but even if he's back with Boston, his season might not start until at least January. He's getting surgery on a torn labrum he sustained in his hip this season. So then what's the plan? Jeremy Swayman showed well late in the season, allowing three goals only once in 10 starts and running a .945 save percentage. Unless someone else is added, Daniel Vladar would be his backup and he has just five games of NHL experience, all this year. So will the Bruins keep Rask and use these two kids until then, or find a more experienced and proven netminder?
"We have to make a decision if we’re going to go to market and bring in a player that we feel is ahead of those two players or certainly from an experience standpoint, or we do roll the dice a little bit, allow those guys to see if they can handle the workload, which is a tall task," Bruins GM Don Sweeney said. "Make no mistake about it. It's a tall task."
Buffalo Sabres: How do you balance a reset with needing to build a winning culture?
So Eichel appears to be on the way out. Rasmus Ristolainen is a year away from being able to leave on his own, so a trade involving him seems inevitable, too. Maybe Sam Reinhart attracts enough interest from the Eichel market run-off that he brings the Sabres a return too good to pass up. They finished last and have missed the playoffs for a decade now so time to rebuild (again), right? Well, ya, but it's not so simple.
The Sabres have gone scorched earth and the perpetual losing culture that followed strangled hope and growth year after year. How many ex-Sabres have spoken about losing their love and drive after departing? Regular coaching changes and a lack of focused front office direction (and change there, too) exacerbated these issues, and now we're back at square one. Starting again and thinking it could play out differently this time is a nice idea, but a losing culture is already eating away at the foundations.
We appear to be getting closer to a resolution and a likely new home for Jack Eichel.@RoryBoylen takes a look at seven teams believed to be in the running for the Sabres star, and what sort of players and assets they might be able to put on the table https://t.co/dTQcQeXB8d
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 6, 2021
Calgary Flames: Which of the core players won't be back in 2021-22?
Will Mark Giordano be left unprotected in the expansion draft and claimed by Seattle? Will Johnny Gaudreau, long followed by trade rumours, actually get moved this season, or is an extension possible? If Gaudreau stays, will Sean Monahan go? What about Matthew Tkachuk, a year away from another contract expiration that will measure the long-term fit both sides envision? Change seems to finally be coming here because running back the same outfit just won't fly. But how exactly that plays out and what the shuffle looks like is a huge mystery right now. Choose your own adventure; there are many ways forward from here.
Carolina Hurricanes: How will Dougie Hamilton's contract be resolved?
Hamilton has unofficially been on the market for a couple weeks now, ever since the Hurricanes gave him permission to speak to other teams ahead of free agency opening July 28. One of the top defenders in the game, Hamilton could seek a huge and deserved pay day, but that might require leaving a Hurricanes team on the cusp, and walking into some other uncertainty. Seattle? Chicago? Philadelphia? Toronto? And if Hamilton does leave, how much would the Hurricanes miss him? Thank goodness they're deep on the blue line anyway, but losing a defenceman of Hamilton's caliber would be no small thing.
Two teams might be ideal landing spots for Dougie Hamilton. https://t.co/lLonDZbULu
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) June 17, 2021
Chicago Blackhawks: When will the stakeholders address how they handled the sexual assault allegations from a decade ago?
As we await the conclusion of an investigation into allegations against former video coach Brad Aldrich from 2010, GM Stan Bowman will likely meet the media for some of the off-season events. The Blackhawks are believed to be interested in some big off-season moves, including showing interest in adding a defenceman like Seth Jones or Hamilton, and Duncan Keith trade rumours aren't going away. But these allegations will continue to be the biggest story until there is some explanation as to what happened, who knew about it and when, and why the team gave Aldrich a positive reference letter before he joined a high school team's staff in Michigan.
Colorado Avalanche: Can they go any more all-in?
Gabriel Landeskog's expiring contract is a reminder that the cap picture is only going to tighten for this core of players in a short time. The team's captain is in for a big pay day following a $5.57 million AAV. Nathan MacKinnon has just two years left at $6.3 million and his rate could nearly double. There might not be a "value" period for RFA defenceman Cale Makar at all, because he could get a big pay out right off his entry-level contract this summer. They have enough of their own business to take care of first — including contracts for Philipp Grubauer and Makar — but after a third straight second-round playoff exit they have to also figure out how and what to add to return even better.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Is Patrik Laine going to be a long-term fit on the roster?
It was a miserable year for Laine, posting just 12 goals in 46 games. Chalk it up to strange circumstances and we can reasonably expect a return to form before long. Still, that season has complicated his value somewhat. Laine is an RFA coming off a two-year bridge contract signed with the Winnipeg Jets. He's also just two years away from free agency, so a short-term deal could just walk him out the door. The Blue Jackets are already having to trade Jones and will soon face similar questions around Zach Werenski. The only way speculation about his future goes away is if he signs a long-term extension this off-season.
Dallas Stars: After a uniquely challenging season, do they just run it back?
The Stars had a delayed start to their season due to a COVID-19 outbreak and then had another pause when a winter storm slammed Texas. The schedule was already compact enough, but because of these interruptions the Stars were playing catch up to the rest of their division all season and played their last 44 games in a 78-day span. Alexander Radulov was limited to just 11 games and was sorely missed, while Ben Bishop didn't play at all due to injury. They almost overcame it all, too, missing out on a playoff spot by four points. Built on a sound defensive structure that helped them to the Cup Final in 2020, the Stars aren't in a particularly bad spot for expansion and could return much of the same team. The situation in net is worth watching, but we shouldn't be surprised if they're able to return as a dark horse in 2021-22.
Detroit Red Wings: How much of the future will we see in 2021-22?
GM Steve Yzerman is still playing the long game here. They have plenty of flexibility — only three players are under contract beyond next season and none have a contract past that. The Wings are still a few years away from eyeing a playoff push again, so we wonder how much of that future we start to see in the fall. Will Moritz Seider, sixth overall in 2019, be on this blue line? Will Joe Veleno, 30th overall in 2018, get a shot to see what he can do at this level? How about Lucas Raymond, last year's fourth-overall pick?
Edmonton Oilers: Can they get a third-line centre who moves the needle?
There's actually a lot to consider around the Oilers. Will they get Keith? Will Oscar Klefbom be able to play — and effectively — again? Do they run it back with a 39-year-old Mike Smith in net and hope he captures the same magic, or search for someone younger?
They really need to find a reliable third-line centre who can create matchup problems in that role, and confidently be moved up to the second line if and when Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid are put together in a pinch. Jujhar Khaira, Gaetan Haas and Kyle Turris were all used there at times this season, but are replaceable in the role. Maybe Ryan McLeod can fill the job internally, but what if he's not ready yet? A lot of issues would be addressed if the Oilers could bring in a short-term fix along the lines of a Luke Glendening, Nick Bonino, Tyler Bozak or Derek Ryan, all UFAs.
Florida Panthers: Does GM Bill Zito have a big move in him?
Zito had big-play potential at the trade deadline and then got Sam Bennett who was terrific down the stretch until he received a playoff suspension. Still, something even bigger could be in the cards. Only Sergei Bobrovsky and Aaron Ekblad are under contract beyond the 2022-23 season. Aleksander Barkov will be entering the final season of his deal and will need to be extended quickly or, perhaps, a trade will have to be explored. But after the season they just had, ended in an exciting six-game series against Tampa in which they played the defending champs very well, the Panthers have to be thinking about an all-in approach to 2021-22. They have $13 million in cap space with 11 forwards, six defencemen and two goalies, and decisions on RFAs Bennett and Anthony Duclair pending. The time to move is now, before some key players will be in position for big raises — what can Zito pull off?
Los Angeles Kings: How aggressively will they push forward?
Eichel? Jones? Hamilton? Someone else from the long list of trade candidates around the league this off-season? The Kings already spent a second- and third-round pick to buy low on Viktor Arvidsson and all his upside, so how about pushing in some more chips to get someone who's maybe a little more secure and hasn't gone through a two-season lull? The Kings are rumoured to be aiming to push the rebuild forward a bit quicker, and so we're watching to see if that means a blockbuster trade is incoming.
Minnesota Wild: Will Zach Parise be with the team next season?
The Wild are one of the teams linked to Eichel and have a desire to find an upgrade down the middle. The problem is that cap space is tight and new contracts for Kevin Fiala and Kirill Kaprizov will make it tighter. The Seattle expansion draft is looking as though it'll force Minnesota to lose a good player (Matt Dumba, Cam Talbot/Kaapo Kähkönen, Jordan Greenway), barring a side deal. One way to create more cap space would be to try and trade Zach Parise, though his $7.538 million cap hit might make a buy out more likely. If the Wild went that route they'd save a chunk of change in 2021-22, a little less for the following three seasons, and then be on the hook for a sub-$1 million cap hit past the contract's end date.
From Cap Friendly.
Montreal Canadiens: What are the true takeaways from this season?
A Cinderella run to the Stanley Cup Final after entering the playoffs as the lowest-ranked team seemed to confirm the belief that the Canadiens were built for post-season success. What these Habs achieved was incredible, and there is a lot of optimism to move forward with, especially considering the best is yet to come from some of the younger players (Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Alexander Romanov, etc).
But to have playoff success you, of course, need to be in the playoffs, and when the Canadiens return to the Atlantic Division next season they'll face stiff competition from Tampa, Toronto, Boston and Florida. Ottawa may even be improved. Unless both wild cards come from this group, a good team will miss out on next year's playoffs. The Habs caught fire at the right time, and Carey Price — the MVP of this run — rose to a level of excellence he has not been at in the regular season for a few years. From Feb. 1 to the end of the regular season, Montreal was 20th in points percentage in the NHL and fifth in the North Division, behind even the Senators. How do they weigh that with their playoff success, and what can be done to make them better in the regular season and less of a "Cinderella" in the playoffs?
Nashville Predators: GM David Poile indicated a need for change, so what will he do?
“I think we have to have some growth in our team and go in a little bit different direction. I’m not saying a whole bunch of changes, but I think it’s time to make some changes." These are comments Poile made after trading Arvidsson to the Kings last week. Poile also talked about the likes of Phillip Tomasino and Eeli Tolvanen as homegrown players who could work their way into the lineup permanently.
The team has stalled, this core has already hit its peak it seems, so what other changes are coming? Mattias Ekholm was a trade candidate at the deadline and has one more year left on his contract — will he be re-signed or dealt? If he stays, could Ryan Ellis be a trade candidate? Does UFA Pekka Rinne return after Juuse Saros took the net with an excellent finish to his season? Is there any way to get out from under either Matt Duchene's or Ryan Johansen's long-term contracts?
New Jersey Devils: Will they seek out a goal scorer?
There is a lot to like with the Devils' rebuild, but they're not a finished product yet. Centres Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes are great, creative young players, but the team could use more of a proven finisher to really help them get closer to their potential. Only four Devils finished with even 10 goals in this 56-game season, and the team had the 26th-ranked offence on the year. With so many names in the rumour mill heading into the summer, will they take advantage of the market to get an upgrade on offence? The Devils have $36.8 million in cap room to play with, a valuable commodity in a flat-cap world.
— Todd Cordell (@ToddCordell) July 7, 2021
New York Islanders: How much changes after back-to-back semifinal losses to Tampa Bay?
In a perfect world, GM Lou Lamoriello wouldn't change much. This team works and its identity is all about how well the group meshes. But with just under $6 million in cap room, Lamoriello has RFAs Anthony Beauvillier and Ilya Sorokin to worry about, and UFAs Kyle Palmieri and Casey Cizikas to keep. Not all of those contracts can get done without something else happening.
So, can Lamoriello find a trade to offload a bad contract, or at least part of one? In this case we're wondering if someone would take the final year of Leo Komarov's $3 million if it means adding a draft pick, too. Will another trade be made with the cap picture in mind, perhaps Jordan Eberle and his $5.5 million AAV? Seattle will be a factor as well and, perhaps, Nick Leddy becomes available to them, which would offload the last season of his $5.5 million AAV. The Isles were so close to the Cup Final, stretching Tampa to seven games, but they'll have to make some tough calls about who can stay now.
New York Rangers: Can they get Jack Eichel, or will adding "toughness" be more of a focus?
The Rangers are poised to take a leap any year now. Most of the pieces are in place and now New York is being linked to Eichel in trade rumours, which would give them a franchise centre to move into the future with. But $10 million against the cap is hefty — especially for a player with a neck injury — and the Rangers have other more subtle needs. The Tom Wilson incident started a conversation about if the Rangers needed more grit in the lineup to answer a situation like that, or to be better suited for a playoff style. With that, they could be players for Zach Hyman or Blake Coleman, if they become UFAs — two tough players with offensive upside as well.
Ottawa Senators: Are they better than we think?
Look, this season started off terribly for the Senators, and that bad taste lingered in our mouths the rest of the way. Looking back, maybe it wasn't all bad. They didn't finish last in the North Division and actually weren't far off from fifth place — considering they were written off as by far the worst before the first puck dropped, that's gotta be a win.
From March 1 to the end of the season, the Sens clicked along with a .545 points percentage, good for 17th in the league and third in the North Division. There's going to be some growth from young players and another top-10 pick is incoming. Goaltending remains a concern. But should our takeaway from this season be that, perhaps, Ottawa will be better sooner, and that maybe they could be a headache for the Atlantic Division?
Philadelphia Flyers: What blockbuster do they have in store?
One of the more disappointing teams this season, the Flyers squandered a 9-4-3 start by going 16-19-5 the rest of the way — a mark that ranked 23rd in the league over those last 40 games. On paper it's a wonder why they don't perform better and with greater consistency. Now is the time for a shake up, which is why the Flyers are connected to every big trade candidate under the sun. And it's something GM Chuck Fletcher hinted at after this year's trade deadline.
"We certainly have much higher expectations for our club than how we've played this year," Fletcher said in April. "My goal in the off-season is to make this team the best we can make it. We fully expect to be a quality hockey team next year that is in much different position this time next year."
Pittsburgh Penguins: Who will be playing goal for them next season?
Though they finished first in their division, the Penguins were ousted by the Islanders in Round 1 for the second time in three years. They seemed to be in line for a playoff run, but it's hard to do that when your starting goalie has an .888 playoff save percentage and allows four goals against or more in four of your six games. The Penguins have to address the situation in net.
Jarry could even be back and he didn't have a "bad" regular season, but a more veteran or established partner might be necessary here. Is that bringing back Marc-Andre Fleury in trade or someone like Kuemper? Or is free agency the way to go, where Frederik Andersen or, maybe, Grubauer might be? Chris Driedger doesn't have the same track record, but he's coming off a great season and will be a UFA as well.
San Jose Sharks: Can GM Doug Wilson oversee a successful reset?
The Sharks don't seem eager to do a tear-down rebuild. With five veterans signed through at least the next four years, the question becomes how you build around them, or even: who do you move from that group to help with an organizational reset that puts them back on a playoff track in short order?
Evander Kane's name is appearing in rumours, as is Tomas Hertl's. Buying out goalie Martin Jones is certainly an option, and until they fix their issue in net, the Sharks won't be going anywhere. With how much money is being spent on this core, finishing as one of the league's worst teams two years in a row is not even close to good enough. After years of constant success, can Wilson find the right mix of skill and locker room presence again before it's too late?
Seattle Kraken: Will they be able to take advantage of the expansion process as efficiently as Vegas?
The expansion draft process will force some teams into a tough spot where losing a good player is inevitable. That was true when the Vegas Golden Knights picked their team as well. What really allowed Vegas to find success so quickly, though, was how some of the side deals worked out for them. Some of those deals steered Vegas toward William Karlsson, Jonathan Marchessault and Reilly Smith for instance, which is still a solid line for them today.
Seattle will hope to mine a similar depth of talent, but now GMs have recent expansion experience in mind and the knowledge of just where things went horribly wrong. Instead of striking side deals, will teams be more apt to just suck it up and let Seattle take whichever unprotected player they want? Surely there will be trades still, but will the whole picture allow the Kraken to start fast, or perhaps will it be a slower build to a peak?
St. Louis Blues: Can they find the right trade for Vladimir Tarasenko, and then how do they fare without him?
Tarasenko has had three shoulder surgeries in two seasons and that injury has slowed him to seven goals in his past 34 games over two years. At his best, Tarasenko is one of the top snipers in the game, so he has immense upside, but there is considerable risk around him now, especially considering his cap hit is $7.5 million for the next two years.
A report broke during Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final that he had asked for a trade and a no-trade clause means he's as in control of his next destination as much as he wants to be. It's hard to see the Blues getting considerable return on a player they'd be selling at low value, and so Tarasenko will have to be replaced from within. That's doable, but St. Louis will be in the market for other changes since they've fallen off a Stanley Cup track. Can they replace Tarasenko's lost 30-40 goal upside in one guy?
— The Cam and Strick Podcast (@camandstrickpod) July 8, 2021
Tampa Bay Lightning: Who stays, who goes as inevitable roster shuffle beckons?
Had Nikita Kucherov not sustained an injury that kept him out of the lineup and off the salary cap for the entire regular season, the Lightning would already have had to deal with the ramifications of being such an efficient organization in a system designed for parity. Our own Chris Johnston painted the picture of what's to come, from the inescapable fact the Lightning will lose a quality player to Seattle, to the reality that keeping most of their pending UFAs will be next to impossible. The whole third line, so solid and important in this championship, could be gone. Then again, Steven Stamkos was in the rumour mill last off-season, so will his name pop up again? Changes are coming, but what exactly will they be?
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) July 8, 2021
Toronto Maple Leafs: What really is the response to another first-round exit?
Go back to the end of May, and Maple Leafs fans were in an absolute panic over blowing a 3-1 series lead and losing to the rival Montreal Canadiens. Calls to trade Mitch Marner were constant, and even the old idea of floating William Nylander popped up again — except this time it was because he was playing so well that, perhaps, the team should take advantage of his heightened trade value.
Now that the initial takes have been digested and the Habs got all the way to the Stanley Cup Final, maybe the response doesn't have to be so drastic. No, the Leafs don't need to trade a cornerstone to get better (how does that work anyway?) but they do need to react in some way because, regardless of anything else, a fifth straight first-round exit is not OK anymore. The bottom six will be rebuilt, and indications are they will be in the market to make a substantial upgrade to an area of need. Will that come on defence, or will it be a little more specific and aimed at replacing a forward like Nick Foligno or Zach Hyman, who they could lose?
Vancouver Canucks: What will contracts for Quinn Hughes and Elias Pettersson look like and how will it impact the team's ability to improve?
Will the Canucks be able to find a way to a long-term contract for both of these key players, or is a bridge deal more likely? Vancouver has some cap gymnastics to perform, with $15.8 million in projected room that these two players could eat up together, and then some. They currently only have three defencemen signed, so something has to give here. Maybe it's a Jake Virtanen buy out, or perhaps Braden Holtby is claimed by Seattle. Both of those possibilities would help.
A year from now Brock Boeser will be an RFA and Jack Rathbone too (though Loui Eriksson's contract would be off the books by then as well). The Canucks are at a crucial point here, balancing a need to regain some winning momentum with a requirement to shave some dollars. When Pettersson and Hughes sign, that picture will be a little more clear, but we can already see the cap will remain tight.
Vegas Golden Knights: Will they find a way to make another headliner acquisition?
Since picking a winning team right out of the gate in expansion, the Golden Knights have added a number of high-profile players, including Alex Pietrangelo, Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone. They aren't a quiet team, so we shouldn't expect falling short in the semifinal to the Canadiens to lead to a quiet off-season.
On the contrary, their stalled power play will need to be addressed, and maybe even their situation at centre, where they lack a true No. 1. The cap, again, remains an issue and any notable addition would have to be followed by a notable subtraction. When Vegas moves, they don't do it quietly, so our eyes are peeled for what this summer's splash is.
Washington Capitals: Uh, Alex Ovechkin is re-signing, right?
In his most recent 31 Thoughts column Elliotte Friedman noted: "I can’t find anyone in the NHL who thinks Alexander Ovechkin’s extension isn’t already 'in the drawer.'" This could be an expansion draft tactic: if Ovechkin is unsigned he won't need to be protected and if he has a contract ready anyway he's not a threat to sign with the Kraken in the meantime. It'd allow Washington to protect one more forward than they otherwise would. Still: he will be back with the Capitals and not testing the market on July 28, possibly moving elsewhere to chase down Wayne Gretzky's goal scoring record in the coming years. Right?
Winnipeg Jets: Can they upgrade their blue line?
The Jets had a top-12 offence and one of the best goalies going this season. Their window to win should be open right now and many pieces are in place. But for two years running now, the blue line has been a weakness, and far too many high-quality chances are getting to Connor Hellebuyck. When the Jets got to the Western Conference Final three years ago they had a big, mobile defence and most of the best parts of that are gone now. Free agency will always be a challenging place for Winnipeg to make big acquisitions, so GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will need to get creative to fix an obvious issue.