Brace yourself, hockey fans. This could be one of the more wild weeks of off-season action in some time.
One year after the 2019-20 season began, the off-season is just getting started. But rather than a gradual build up to all the big events, this year the draft and free agency will all happen in the same week. Round 1 of the draft will open on Tuesday night, with Rounds 2-7 to follow Wednesday morning/afternoon. On Friday, free agency opens with Taylor Hall, Alex Pietrangelo and the like still unsigned.
The salary cap remains flat at $81.5 million, which is creating more headaches for GMs who planned their rosters for a rising cap picture. So, while the draft and free agency are big events themselves, the trade market will energize it as all sorts of moves, big and small, are expected in the coming days.
It’s gonna be a heck of a ride.
So while we prepare for what should be a wildly busy week, here is one question each team is facing in an off-season like no other.
Anaheim Ducks: Will they trade the sixth overall pick?
“It depends who’s still there,” Martin Madden, Anaheim’s director of amateur scouting, told The Athletic. “That top 12 is attractive from start to finish. If we think we can maximize it by moving up or moving down, we will. I don’t think we’re married to six at all, actually.”
The Ducks need more young players for a brighter future, but it’s not as though the cupboards are bare. Youngsters Sam Steel, Max Jones and Troy Terry saw more time in the NHL this past season. Max Comtois and Isac Lundestrom will push for more of a look in 2020-21. They’re all still trying to hit as permanent top-two-line forwards. But a top six pick in a deep draft that has lots of scoring forwards at the top? That’s going to be hard to turn away from since the Ducks need more scoring as it is. On top of their own first-rounder, Anaheim also holds Boston’s late in the round.
Arizona Coyotes: Will Oliver Ekman-Larsson get traded?
Bill Armstrong takes over in the GM chair from John Chayka, who left the team prior to the return to play, and he could start taking the Coyotes in a new direction. With little cap space to work with, Armstrong bought out Michael Grabner on Saturday, but that still leaves just $3.6 million in wiggle room. Taylor Hall, who Chayka moved a first-rounder for, is most likely gone to free agency and since the NHL fined the Coyotes another first-rounder and a second for violating scouting combine policy, Armstrong will need to think about acquiring new picks. Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s name has been heating up in the rumour mill, with Vancouver and Boston involved — two teams without first-rounders in 2020.
“You’ve got some really good younger players that are just coming into their own and at the same time you’ve got some older players who are still producing, but creeping up in age,” Armstrong said on Hockey Central. “We have to decipher how to create some assets because before me the regime lost some draft picks because of some NHL fines that were levied against us. So there’s a creative way we have to go and acquire assets to stay in the game and make sure we’re still bringing players in, whether it’s college free agents, European free agents or through the draft, there’s no excuses.”
Boston Bruins: Will Torey Krug leave and, if he does, who will replace him?
We’d need to see the Bruins tail off before believing a window was truly closed on this team, but questions about how much longer they can sustain their success are beginning to become real. Torey Krug can be a UFA as of Friday and indicated he wouldn’t take a shorter term or less money to make it work easily in Boston. Jake DeBrusk and Matt Grzelcyk are RFAs and the Bruins still have to ink Zdeno Chara to a short-term extension — all with $14.4 million in cap room. They’ve been connected to Ekman-Larsson, whose full cap hit is a hefty $8.25 million for another seven years. We don’t know what the cap will do in coming years, but Tuukka Rask is a year away from becoming a UFA, and Patrice Bergeron is two years away. Krug would leave a big hole that wouldn’t easily be filled under budget and with longer-term considerations for their best, but ageing, players.
Buffalo Sabres: What is the plan to move forward?
It’s been nine straight playoff misses in Buffalo and a few high draft picks haven’t led to much of a sniff of the playoffs. Jack Eichel is locked in as the forward star, Rasmus Dahlin is making lots of progress as a defenceman picked No. 1 overall, but depth to support them is lacking. So what will new GM Kevyn Adams do to bring meaningful progress in the standings?
He’s started by acquiring Eric Staal to play behind Eichel at 2C, but there’s a lot more work to do here. With only 11 players signed to the pro roster, Buffalo has $33.6 million in cap space to work with. How many of their own RFAs will even be qualified? Will they be players in UFA? How aggressive will Adams pursue trades? The ending to this season was again a miserable one for Buffalo, so it’s paramount to at least be in the running late into 2020-21. If that doesn’t happen, dreaded Eichel trade rumours are bound to follow.
Calgary Flames: How much does GM Brad Treliving think he needs to change?
When Treliving feels change is necessary, he’s not shy to make it happen. After two straight first-round exits, the core is now being questioned and Johnny Gaudreau is the face of that. Fresh off elimination, Gaudreau was the centre of trade speculation and it’d be better to trade someone with two years left on their contract instead of one. What about Sean Monahan? Elias Lindholm? Dare we say Mark Giordano?
The Flames have a clear need on the blue line, where only four players are signed as TJ Brodie and Travis Hamonic prepare for free agency. The goalie situation must be resolved too, as Cam Talbot is also a UFA after taking the crease from David Rittich, who remains under contract. So, instead of radically changing a group that hasn’t broken through in the playoffs, could Treliving instead use his $16.9 million in cap room to add to it? Jacob Markstrom, anyone?
“The idea we’re going to blow it up doesn’t make sense to me,” Treliving told Sportsnet’s Eric Francis. “Certainly we’re open to change, but what is that? You don’t want to be different and worse. If you’re going to be different you want to be better.”
Brad Treliving knows change is necessary at the back, but it doesn't sound like he wants to sacrifice part of the core to do it.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 3, 2020
Carolina Hurricanes: Can they find an upgrade in net?
Carolina has long had one of the top blue lines in the game and with the ascension of Andrei Svechnikov and Sebastian Aho, the offence is coming along to elite levels, too. But Carolina was 26th in regular season 5-on-5 save percentage and it may be time to seek out an upgrade on Petr Mrazek and James Reimer, who are both under contract for another season. With so many goalies available (or potentially available) on the UFA market and through trade, this is a buyer’s market that should help Carolina upgrade at its most needy spot.
Chicago Blackhawks: Will Corey Crawford return and, if so, will he be the clear No. 1?
Defence is a big weakness for the Hawks so it’s either rebuild the blue line, or invest in goaltending (and maybe a bit of both). Long-time starter Corey Crawford is a UFA, leaving only Collin Delia under contract, and Malcolm Subban an arbitration eligible RFA. Chicago has $7.8 million in cap space and Calder finalist Dominik Kubalik still needs a new contract. Change is inevitable, so buyouts or trades involving their defencemen is a possibility to create a bit more room on the books. Crawford, theoretically, could be a low-cost keep, but would the Hawks acquire another goalie to make a 1A/1B combination? They did it a year ago with Lehner.
Colorado Avalanche: How big do they go for an all-in push to the Stanley Cup?
The Avs are a rare breed this off-season: a contender with cap space — $22.3 million to be exact. One year from now Gabriel Landeskog and Cale Makar will need new, and likely big-money, extensions. In a recent 31 Thoughts column, Elliotte Friedman noted this was an “all-in” year for the Avs. In such strange times to be a free agent, would a short-term, big-money offer from Colorado, and a shot at the Cup, be attractive? Taylor Hall is a candidate to add since the Avs need a scoring winger, but how big could this get? And after injuries decimated them in net in the playoffs, when Pavel Francouz and Michael Hutchinson were forced in and struggled, will Joe Sakic go after an experienced netminder (say, Henrik Lundqvist?) to support Philipp Grubauer?
Columbus Blue Jackets: Is a second line centre attainable?
It’s so hard to get elite centres in the league that drafting one is the best course. That’s how the Blue Jackets got Pierre-Luc Dubois, who turned a lot of heads this season. Columbus showed it had the system and pieces to hang with more skilled teams, so it’s plausible they’ll follow the same path as the New York Islanders. Second line centre is where a bold acquisition would help most, but that would have to be done via trade. The Jackets have $7 million in projected cap room and Dubois still needs an extension. If a trade is in the cards, who goes? RFA Josh Anderson is one possibility, as is one of the goalies. And if a second line centre upgrade is not out there, would they target Patrik Laine for more goal scoring instead?
Dallas Stars: What’s next for playoff hero Anton Khudobin?
Truthfully, there are a few notable questions facing the Stars. Will Rick Bowness graduate from interim to full time head coach? (Yes, probably.) Will GM Jim Nill run back the same team, or make changes — and if it’s the latter, how big will those changes be? Khudobin’s future is of great interest here after he led this team to within two wins of a Stanley Cup, taking over the No. 1 job from an “unfit to play” Ben Bishop. But Khudobin has been a career backup who’s never played more than 41 games in a regular season, so would he be content staying on in the same role, or does he want to seek more money or opportunity as a 34-year-old in a crowded market? Khudobin’s expiring deal came with a $2.5 million cap hit, but he may be the best backup in the league.
Detroit Red Wings: How aggressively will Steve Yzerman add to his roster with so much cap room?
The Wings head into the off-season with $25.7 million in cap space, which Yzerman could strategically use to gear up his roster. Trades are also a possibility, as Yzerman has had more than a year to assess the rebuild and start to re-shape it. There are seven RFAs to deal with and a goalie to find, after Jimmy Howard revealed he was not going to be back with Detroit next season. Would Yzerman target his old team in Tampa for an offer sheet?
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 wasn’t “there” yet.
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, along with a little scoring upside. This isn’t too surprising and GM Ken Holland will take time to sculpt his team, but expectations are going to heighten and the worst thing would be for Edmonton to take a step back next regular season.
News that Oscar Klefbom may need surgery for a shoulder injury that could keep him out for an extended period would also thrust Edmonton into the defence market as they’d need to replace Klefbom’s minutes and power play presence. Holland has a lot to navigate as the Oilers don’t want to squander any more of McDavid’s prime.
Florida Panthers: What are the priorities under new GM Bill Zito?
If you were to rank the most disappointing 2019-20 seasons, the Panthers would have to be way up there. Now they’ll be figuring out how to correct that under new management, and one year after hiring Joel Quenneville as head coach. They have $21.7 million in cap room, but that’s because their two leading goal scorers, Mike Hoffman and Evgenii Dadonov, are free agents. So what is the priority? Owen Tippett and Grigori Denisenko could graduate as prospects, but that would likely bring growing pains. Sergei Bobrovsky is still making $10 million against the cap, so that has to make you an aggressive adder, doesn’t it? Aleksander Barkov has two years left on his contract and Jonathan Huberdeau has three, after which both would be UFAs. If this team doesn’t make progress by then, would either stick around?
Los Angeles Kings: Who will they pick second overall?
We could get into roster questions, like which veterans will be back and if they’d consider trading any of them. But the Kings are in a transition period right now, where getting younger and more skilled is a priority, so whoever they choose with their first-round pick on Tuesday night will be central to the plan ahead. If it’s Quinton Byfield, Los Angeles will get a big centre with real impact No. 1 upside after scoring 82 points in 45 OHL games and representing Canada at the WJC. If it’s Tim Stutzle, the Kings will get a different kind of offensive whiz, and one who played against men for the Mannheim Eagles in Germany’s DEL. Byfield is a centre, while Stutzle played on the wing for Mannheim, though a move to centre is a possibility if not the most likely outcome.
— LA Kings (@LAKings) September 23, 2020
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 maybe could be had in a Matt Dumba trade), 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?
Montreal Canadiens: Will Marc Bergevin trade for an impact goal scorer?
The Canadiens used to have an organizational weakness down the middle, but between Philip Danault, Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, suddenly they’re looking alright there. What they lack enough of, though, is reliable, star-power goal scorers among the forwards. Brendan Gallagher is that engine right now, but if the Habs are going to become a real threat, they need another option.
Max Domi, an RFA this off-season, is better at centre, but was being used on the wing, which opens up questions about his availability and if he could be used in a trade to get Montreal the sniper it seeks. They also have 11 draft picks, starting with 16th overall, and any of those could be available. After acquiring Jake Allen and Joel Edmundson, Bergevin has already resolved some other needs and he still has $10.2 million in cap room. Can he take advantage of the tight cap situation around the league to get the impact forward he still requires?
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 any more despite a roster that looks like it should never be an easy out. Craig Smith and Mikael Granlund will go to free agency. Kyle Turris is a buyout candidate. Nashville has just $8.1 million in cap space, though, which means trade is the only way to meaningful and immediate change. How can GM David Poile reinvigorate the core and at least make the Preds a tough out once again?
New Jersey Devils: How close does GM Tom Fitzgerald think the Devils are to being a playoff team?
With a 28-29-12 record this season, New Jersey finished at the bottom of a tough Metropolitan Division, but there were signs of optimism. Young goalie Mackenzie Blackwood assumed a greater role and fit the part of a solid No. 1. The acquisition of 28-year-old Russian Nikita Gusev was a relative success. And, heck, they enter this week’s draft holding three first round picks (their own, plus Arizona’s and Vancouver’s). So what are GM Tom Fitzgerald’s next steps? Stay focussed on the long-term, try and use valuable cap space to hurry things along, or a little of both?
The Devils have $26.2 million in cap space and how Fitzgerald uses that will be interesting to watch. Will they take on a bad contract or two if it means more draft picks? Or will they be a little more strategic and only consider trades that help in the present?
New York Islanders: Is Matt Barzal going to get an offer sheet?
The Isles are one of those teams in a real cap bind, with just $8.9 million in room and RFAs Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews joining Mathew Barzal. The free agent market opens up on Friday, which means if some rival GM wants to try and pry Barzal away with an offer sheet, the window opens on Oct. 9. The Islanders already have six forwards making at least $5 million for each of the next three years, so moving money out won’t be easy to accomplish either. GM Lou Lamoriello has a lot to juggle over the next five days and it’d be best if a contract extension would get done so that an offer sheet to Barzal is never even an option.
New York Rangers: What does GM Jeff Gorton have up his sleeve?
The Rangers rebuild is nearly complete and the team should begin rising up the standings starting next season. They’ll do it without franchise legend and future Hall of Famer Henrik Lundqvist, who was bought out on Tuesday, and will continue with a younger goalie duo of Igor Shesterkin and Alexandar Georgiev. Last summer’s big pickup was Artemi Panarin and Alexis Lafreniere will likely get selected with the first overall pick on Tuesday. The Rangers are still left with roughly $23 million in cap space with contracts to RFAs Tony DeAngelo and Ryan Strome to sort out. Will Gorton take another big cut through free agency or trade to upgrade his roster?
Ottawa Senators: Will they spend any money to support a young core?
Long-time veteran goalie Craig Anderson won’t be offered a new contract before free agency. Veteran winger Bobby Ryan was bought out to make room in the lineup for an influx of younger players. Brady Tkachuk is quickly becoming a leader on this team and Pierre Dorion holds two draft picks in the top five, plus another 11 through the rest of the draft. But there is some danger in not surrounding a young core with enough experience, especially if the struggles continue as expected in 2020-21. Ottawa is currently under the cap floor with a whopping $43.2 million in cap room, so if they wanted they could take on expensive contracts to gain more draft picks, or use that money to sign or trade for helpful players. We’re a year away from owner Eugene Melnyk’s stated commitment to be spending to the cap and there’s now a previously unforeseen window to perhaps get started moving in that direction early.
Patience might be key to the @Senators' free-agent strategy.
With a number of teams in salary cap hell, Ottawa will aim to grab some veterans on short-term, budget contracts.@HockeyScanner breaks down the club's needs and targets ahead of Oct. 9 https://t.co/1XF8fAd2IR
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) October 1, 2020
Philadelphia Flyers: Make subtle changes or run it back?
The Flyers are a difficult team to figure out. On paper, there is a lot to like here and prior to the COVID-19 pause, they were playing like one of the best teams in the NHL. Once there, they earned the East’s top seed, but were then given a hard time by Montreal and were eliminated by the division rival Islanders. For the past eight years Philadelphia has alternated back and forth from playoff team to non-playoff team and while things seem more stable now, there are a lot of good and promising teams in that division. The Flyers won’t make any sweeping changes of course but what, if anything, will they add to the edges of the roster to supplement the core?
Pittsburgh Penguins: Will Matt Murray be traded and, if so, where to?
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 is 34: How much longer will the window stay open? Rutherford mentioned it was “likely” that one of his goalies would be traded this off-season, and now that Tristan Jarry has signed an extension, Matt Murray is the one we’re all expecting to go. It’s a crowded market in net, sure, but a 26-year-old two-time Cup champion will be appealing.
San Jose Sharks: Can they fix the goaltending problem?
For the past two years in a row the Sharks as a team have had the league’s worst 5-on-5 save percentage. Aaron Dell, the better of the two netminders statistically this season, is a UFA unlikely to return. Martin Jones, however, has a $5.75 million cap hit for another four years and, short of a buyout, it’d be a miracle to get out from under that one now. So the focus will have to be on a new battery mate who could split starts and even, perhaps, end up as the No. 1. Devan Dubnyk is the rumoured target from Minnesota, which is a questionable fit given his age (34) and recent performance (.890 save percentage in 2019-20). San Jose has $14.1 million in cap room and resolving the crease should be high priority.
St. Louis Blues: Will Alex Pietrangelo really leave?
One year after captaining the Blues to their first Stanley Cup, we’re looking at the possibility of Alex Pietrangelo leaving in free agency. Under normal circumstances this situation may never have gotten this far, but the Blues are tight to the cap and will have personnel choices to make regardless of what happens with Pietrangelo. If he should leave, there would be an endless market for the right shot, 30-year-old defenceman who would be a No. 1 on most teams, so what kind of hole would that leave behind in St. Louis? That’s the biggest question here.
Tampa Bay Lightning: How will Julien BriseBois manage a tough cap situation?
Congratulations on the Stanley Cup, Tampa Bay. Now you get to face the same issues those great Chicago Blackhawks teams faced: how to keep most of it together? Those Blackhawks lost some great players over the years and they never had to deal with a flat salary cap. The Lightning have a projected $5.3 million in salary cap space, but will be a target for offer sheets to Anthony Cirelli or Mikhail Sergachev if neither signs an extension by Oct. 9. There are a lot of no-move and no-trade clauses on the team, too, so the trade options aren’t clear.
Alex Killorn made our 25 trade candidates list for the fact his trade protection is only limited. While those two RFAs will need to be dealt with and other contracts moved out, BriseBois also will have to replenish the depth pieces if UFAs such as Zach Bogosian, Pat Maroon and Kevin Shattenkirk don’t return. The players may have won the Cup, but the work starts now for the GM.
Toronto Maple Leafs: What kind of defenceman will they add?
Leafs GM Kyle Dubas noted plans to move ahead without altering his four star forwards, despite the fact that the team struggled to score against Columbus and with a clear need for improved defensive play. Tyson Barrie and Cody Ceci will hit free agency and the blue line will need to be addressed. Alex Pietrangelo is a target, though with just $5.4 million in cap room how that would fit isn’t clear. Instead, a cheaper fit such as Radko Gudas could be found. But under a flat cap, free agency could be tough to wade into, which makes the trade market another option. Kasperi Kapanen has already been traded and perhaps the 15th overall pick he was acquired for will be flipped. You can bet the Leafs aren’t done. Could Alexander Kerfoot could be available? What about Andreas Johnsson? The goal remains to upgrade the blue line, but it’s not obvious how to get there.
Vancouver Canucks: What will happen with Jacob Markstrom?
The team’s regular season MVP is now five days away from becoming an unrestricted free agent. If he stays, the Canucks would face the possibility of losing either Markstrom or Thatcher Demko to Seattle in next year’s expansion draft (or trade one first). If Markstrom leaves there would be all sorts of suitors for him and the Canucks would be left in need of a replacement to at least be in a tandem with Demko. They may be able to save a little money that way, but would risk not being as solid in net as the young group tries to build on a promising season. Canucks fans should be excited about their core group and how they competed in the playoffs, but the goalie question is a big one to follow in Vancouver. The five-year, $25 million extension Vegas gave Robin Lehner on Saturday is a floor market-setter for Markstrom.
Vegas Golden Knights: Will they shock us and be big players in trade or free agency?
Maybe it shouldn’t be a “shock” if the Golden Knights are involved in the big-name player market. The Rangers are always in on available star players. Toronto and Philadelphia, too. As my Tape To Tape co-host pointed out, Vegas should be part of that “always interested group” now. The problem this time is that, after re-signing Robin Lehner for a $5 million cap hit, they have no cap space left. A trade involving Marc-Andre Fleury and his $7 million contract seems the most likely way to make room, but someone, perhaps a third party team, will likely have to retain some of that cap. And does it stop at Fleury, or could other bodies move for cap considerations? The Golden Knights have become a destination for players in their short time as an NHL franchise and the management team has gained a reputation for making bold moves. If they want to swing big again this week, some trimming will need to happen.
Washington Capitals: Who’s going to replace Braden Holtby?
Ilya Samsonov is the new No. 1, but he’s just 23 so leaning on him while trying to keep a Cup window open is a lot to ask of a youngster. Besides, with next season expected to have a tight schedule with possibly more back-to-backs than usual, a solid backup goalie is a necessity. Thankfully for Washington, the goalie market is full of options and the latest edition, Henrik Lundqvist, could be a great fit. Someone with experience who would be happy to play support to a young goalie on a Cup contender is a must-have.
Winnipeg Jets: Will they trade Patrik Laine?
In 305 NHL games, 22-year-old Patrik Laine has 138 goals and he was on track for a fourth 30-goal campaign before the season was paused. So why trade him? Laine wants a permanent spot on Mark Scheifele’s wing, but the team has so far been reticent to make it happen. After signing an unusual bridge deal for a player of his calibre, Laine will be an RFA again next off-season, just two years away from being UFA eligible, so the Jets will need some resolution here in the next year. They also have plenty of roster needs, namely a second line centre and anyone who would help rebuild a once-strong blue line. If Laine is traded, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff should be able to fill at least one of those needs. It’s hard to win a deal like this, but boy would it be exciting.