Keys to the offseason: Free-agency, draft plans for the 15 non-playoff teams

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The 2021 NHL season was — hopefully — the most unique campaign that any of us will witness. Arenas had reduced numbers of fans — or no fans — and as a result of the U.S.-Canada border being closed, the divisions had to be realigned to sequester the Canadian teams; that decision led to the league adopting intradivisional play throughout the regular season (and the first two rounds of the playoffs).

With all 16 playoff teams having clinched their spots, it’s time to look ahead to the offseason for those who didn’t make the cut. As with everything that happened in the NHL world during the past year-plus, this summer’s transactions might be different from many that have happened before. And oh yeah, there’s a 32nd team entering the league — the Seattle Kraken — who will have a chance to select one player from 30 others during the expansion draft in July (the Vegas Golden Knights are exempt, having just joined the league in 2017-18).

So read on for a look at what went wrong for each eliminated team, a breakdown of its biggest keys this offseason and realistic expectations for it in 2021-22.

Read through every team’s profile, or skip ahead to your favorite team using the links below:

Jump to:
ANA | ARI | BUF | CGY
CHI | CBJ | DAL | DET
LA | NJ | NYR | OTT
PHI | SJ | VAN

Note: Profiles for the East and Central Division teams are by Emily Kaplan, and the West and North Division profiles are courtesy of Greg Wyshynski.

Anaheim Ducks: Time to get serious about the rebuild

What went wrong?

The Ducks were anything but mighty offensively. Anaheim followed a season in which it was 29th in goals per game with a season in which it was last in the NHL (2.21). The main culprit: an anemic power play that clicked at an 8.9% conversion rate, the only team in the NHL to finish at less than 10%. Perhaps it’s good that the Ducks averaged only 2.20 power plays per game, the second-lowest rate in the NHL.

Keys to the offseason

Maybe embrace the rebuild, finally? Word around the NHL at the trade deadline was that the Ducks’ asks for return packages on veteran players such as Josh Manson and Rickard Rakell were exorbitantly high. That’s because GM Bob Murray has stubbornly refused to flip the switch to a more complete rebuild, hoping to pull the same trick his neighbors in Los Angeles are attempting: hitting the sweet spot between a wave of young players and a veteran core. It hasn’t worked so far. But as much as it makes sense for Murray to flip those players for a more reasonable return, chances are he won’t.

Ponder Ryan Getzlaf‘s future. The Ducks’ star captain said that after this season he was going to take some time to figure out whether it’s time to hang up his skates or lace them up again for Anaheim. He did sound a little optimistic about the team’s prospects next season. “It’s a matter of looking at how the year went. How can we improve? How can we set goals for next year that are attainable but also push the group?” he said. If he does come back, it’ll be for a fraction of his $8.25 million cap hit.

Figure out the expansion draft strategy. Several mock drafts indicate that the Ducks could lose Alexander Volkov, acquired at the trade deadline, to the Seattle Kraken. But could the Kraken opt for someone like forward Sam Steel? Or, as the Ducks would no doubt prefer, the last three years of center Adam Henrique‘s contract?

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

The rebuild continues. Even if John Gibson reverts back to his previous form as “goalie who drags his inferior team to playoff contention,” this Ducks group has already run its course.


What went wrong?

In the grand tradition of the Arizona Coyotes, what was happening off the ice in the last year eclipsed anything that happened on it. GM Bill Armstrong took over from John Chayka, whose violation of scouting combine policy cost the team two draft picks — including its 2021 first-rounder — and got him suspended through this December for “conduct detrimental to the league and game.” There was the Mitchell Miller controversy, as the Coyotes renounced the 2020 fourth-round draft pick’s rights after his history of assault and racism as a juvenile were spotlighted in a newspaper investigation. The apex of the Coyotes’ off-ice issues was an exposé by Katie Strang of The Athletic, which chronicled claims of a “toxic” work environment and previously undisclosed financial troubles.

On the ice, the Coyotes kept things interesting, too. Their 2.68 goals-per-game average was the second highest of coach Rick Tocchet’s four-season tenure, powered by the most effective power-play unit (20.8%) during that span. That was powered by a resurgent season from Phil Kessel, who tallied 20 goals again after the 2019-20 campaign broke his 11-year streak of hitting that mark. Defenseman Jakob Chychrun had a star-making season, with 41 points. Forward Conor Garland saw his offensive output increase for the third straight season.

But defensively, they had an identity crisis. The Coyotes’ 3.11 goals against per game was the highest of Tocchet’s tenure. They were 26th in expected goals against in all situations (2.78 per 60 minutes). The usually dependable goalie battery of Darcy Kuemper and Antti Raanta battled through injuries and ineffectiveness.

In the end, they didn’t have enough to catch the St. Louis Blues in the standings, despite going 5-2-1 against them, including 4-2-1 in a pandemic-related seven straight games. But two five-game losing streaks and a humbling 1-7-0 record against Minnesota eventually sunk them.

Keys to the offseason

Find a new coach. New general managers usually portend new head coaches. The Coyotes announced that Tocchet and the team were going their separate ways after his contract expires this summer. There’s early word that Arizona is going to focus on a young coach who can grow with the team. One name to watch: Mike Van Ryn, 41, who was an assistant coach for the Blues when Armstrong was an assistant GM in St. Louis. Van Ryn was a development coach with the Coyotes and coached their AHL affiliate during a 2016-18 stint with the team.

Refurbish the roster. The Coyotes have a pair of 25-year-olds who need new contracts: Garland, who is a restricted free agent, and Michael Bunting, who had 10 goals in 21 games after an AHL call-up and is an unrestricted free agent. The Coyotes have eight UFAs in total, including some significant names on the back end: Defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson, Alex Goligoski, Jason Demers, Jordan Oesterle as well as goaltender Raanta. (Also coming off the books: Marian Hossa‘s cap hit!) Armstrong has little loyalty to this roster, and that should be clear in how much it’s expected to flip during the offseason.

Revisit the OEL matter. Armstrong and the Coyotes tried to ship out defenseman and captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson last offseason, as he reportedly loosened up his no-move clause restrictions for either Vancouver or Boston. He is signed through 2026-27, makes $8.25 million against the cap annually and is turning 30. His overall game might be in decline. Worse yet: He’s due to make $10.5 million in real dollars for the next three seasons. Unless a new coach gets something else out of him, this feels like an anchor.

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

The rebuild continues. There’s something to build around here. Garland, Chychrun, Clayton Keller, Nick Schmaltz and Christian Dvorak form a good young core. But Armstrong’s greatest strength is player development, specifically through the draft. Not having a first-rounder last season (due to the Taylor Hall trade) or this season (due to the Chayka penalty) is a huge setback. The Coyotes can be competitive next season, but taking a step back to leap forward is probably the best recipe.


Buffalo Sabres: It’s all about Jack this summer

What went wrong?

The Sabres thought they could be a playoff team, as suggested by their free-agency signings of Taylor Hall and Eric Staal.

And then, things turned out disastrously. Buffalo missed the playoffs for the 10th consecutive season, the longest drought in the NHL. Hall, plagued by a dreadful shooting percentage, didn’t make an impact and, along with Staal, was gone by the trade deadline. Captain Jack Eichel missed most of the season because of a herniated disc in his neck, and because of the way it was handled, there’s a growing sense the captain could be on the move. A two-week COVID-19 pause seemed to derail the team, as did a bevy of other injuries besides Eichel’s.

The Sabres also continued their reputation as coach killers, as Ralph Krueger was fired as the team went on a misery-filled 18-game winless streak. Buffalo has been through six coaches since 2013, and it has now finished dead last in the NHL in 2013-14, 2014-15, 2017-18 and 2021.

Keys to the offseason

Mend things with Eichel. Listening to the captain’s end-of-season news conference didn’t exactly inspire confidence. Eichel had missed 33 games with a neck injury, and throughout that time, tension developed with the front office.

“I’ve been a bit upset about the ways things have been handled since I’ve been hurt,” Eichel said. “I’d be lying to say that things have moved smoothly since my injury. There’s been a bit of a disconnect between myself and the organization. It’s been tough at times. Right now, for me, the most important thing is just trying to get healthy, figure out a way to be available to play hockey next year, wherever that might be.”

Eichel is under contract through 2025-26 (with an average annual value of $10 million) with a full no-movement clause that kicks in after next season. That means it’s time to hash things out this summer, or seriously consider trading the center — and let it be clear, there will be plenty of suitors.

Determine whether Don Granato is the guy. Granato inherited the Sabres amid an 18-game winless streak and helped turn things around for a 9-11-2 finish (pretty significant for hapless Buffalo). He got the players to buy in and helped players such as Rasmus Dahlin, Casey Mittelstadt and Tage Thompson turn things around. Here’s an endorsement from Mittelstadt: “A lot of guys, including myself, owe Donnie quite a bit. He challenged me when he took over and pushed me to become a better player. I think it’s that simple. I think a lot of the strides … made are partly because of him pushing me or a lot to do with pushing me. Obviously, we don’t know what’s going to happen, but I owe Donnie a huge thank-you.”

The Sabres have been through six coaches since 2013. Are owners Terry and Kim Pegula willing to spin the carousel yet again, or will they give this team a little stability?

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

The rebuild continues. Management tried to bandage over some problems last summer, leading many of us to believe that Buffalo was ready to take a step forward. But the team’s structural flaws were inherently exposed. The 2021 season should be all about restoring confidence into players like Dahlin who are critically important to the franchise’s success. If Eichel stays, the Sabres need to get better foundational players around him. If he goes, well, it’s going to get a lot worse before it can get better.


What went wrong?

The Hail Mary fell incomplete. Darryl Sutter was hired after Geoff Ward led the Flames to an 11-11-2 record in his first (and last!) season as Calgary head coach. The plan was for Sutter to work the magic he had as a two-time Stanley Cup winner with the Los Angeles Kings, giving the Flames defensive structure and systematic stability. He ended up going 11-14-0 in his first 25 games, and the Flames missed the postseason.

Among the bummers: Free-agent prize goalie Jacob Markstrom posting a negative goals saved above average (per Hockey Reference); Sean Monahan‘s second straight season of offensive decline; Matthew Tkachuk‘s goal scoring falling off; and Sam Bennett going from Flames castoff to 15 points in 10 games with Florida after being traded just before the deadline.

Keys to the offseason

Make decisions on some stars. Johnny Gaudreau was not the problem this season, but he’s now one season away from UFA status. He’s got no trade protection and a $6.75 million cap hit. He’s a 27-year-old star player with a bunch of value; Monahan, on the other hand, might be at the low ebb of his value. The 26-year-old has two more years left on his deal at a $6.375 million AAV. Changes have to be afoot after another disappointing season; they might start at the top line.

Devise a smart strategy for the Kraken draft. Milan Lucic said he’d waive his no-movement clause to be exposed in the Seattle expansion draft — to help the Flames protect another roster player and, well, for the chance to play in Seattle, one assumes.

If not Lucic, which player will Calgary lose? The blue line seems the most likely spot. The Flames have Mark Giordano, Noah Hanifin, Rasmus Andersson and Chris Tanev, with potentially only three slots open. Even if they leverage a side deal to keep all four from the Kraken, it could be 23-year-old defenseman Oliver Kylington who gets tentacled away.

Bolster the offense. The Flames were 26th in the NHL in goals per game this season. They had a team shooting percentage of 8.8%. Calgary needs to add more offense to its lineup this offseason, either via trade or by using that $14.525 million in cap space.

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

On the playoff bubble. It’s time the Flames swap out some malfunctioning parts from their lineup to better fine-tune this machine. It’ll be on GM Brad Treliving and Coach Sutter to find that mix. Treliving is signed through the 2022-23 season, but there’s some speculation that his tenure could end before that. Darryl Sutter as coach/GM? Now that would be a nostalgia trip.


What went wrong?

Let’s be honest, Blackhawks management didn’t expect this to be a playoff team, not after spending the preseason preaching transparency, then having GM Stan Bowman trot out for a series of interviews explaining the rebuild (which apparently had already begun).

“We don’t have enough players, top to bottom, to compete with the top teams,” Bowman told me in late October. “We’ve got a lot of good players, we’ve got a pretty good start on the makings of a good team, but we still have a ways to go yet, and I accept that.”

Expectations were definitely tempered when captain Jonathan Toews took a medical leave of absence, and the Blackhawks began the season without Kirby Dach and Alex Nylander as well. Chicago was a mirage early on — thanks to better-than-expected goaltending, while veterans and younger players performed at a high level — but tapered off to finish the season. The Blackhawks have some great players to build around, but Bowman was right: Chicago just doesn’t have enough to compete with the top teams right now.

Keys to the offseason

Figure it out with the RFAs. The Blackhawks have one only unrestricted free agent, Vinnie Hinostroza, and it’s easy to imagine both sides (who reunited via trade this year) agreeing to an affordable contract. On the RFA front, Chicago will be much busier. Nikita Zadorov, Brandon Hagel, David Kampf, Pius Suter and Adam Gaudette are all restricted free agents. Hagel is an obvious keeper. Suter is too, but the Blackhawks need to work some cap magic to fit him in, as he’s arbitration-eligible and due for a huge jump from his $925,000 this season. Gaudette had a limited audition but still is worth keeping around for potential. Kampf is a useful fourth-liner, but maybe he doesn’t make sense to keep around at this stage of the rebuild. Zadorov, who is making $3.2 million already and has arbitration rights, will present a fascinating case.

Any players on the move? It’s been established that the team’s core veterans (this season, it was only Duncan Keith and Patrick Kane) have no desire to go anywhere. However, the Blackhawks can continue to shape the roster around them, especially considering they’re clearing a decent number of contracts in the next two years. To free up more flexibility, perhaps Chicago will part with Dylan Strome, who couldn’t earn the coaches’ trust. It would be a strategic subtraction, as Strome is coming off a down year and is due for a new contract in 2022. Ian Mitchell has struggled, so perhaps the Blackhawks will find him a new home?

Is the captain back? Before the season, the Blackhawks reported Toews was taking time away to deal with an unspecified illness that had him feeling “drained and lethargic.” Publicly, there hasn’t been much information since, but Bowman has hinted (and sources affirmed) that Toews is improving and that the Blackhawks are expecting him back for 2021-22.

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

On the playoff bubble. The Blackhawks might have been on the playoff bubble in 2021 if they had had Toews and Dach for the entire season. But now is not the time for what -ifs. For 2021-22, it will be all about taking strides, specifically with the young core coming up. For example, Philipp Kurashev was a revelation for Chicago, but it’s the Blackhawks’ job to make sure he keeps progressing. Next season will be another one of transitions in Chicago. After that, it’s crunch time for the Blackhawks to shape their future identity. Kane, Keith and Toews are all due to come off the books after 2023-24.


What went wrong?

This season felt somewhat doomed from the start. It began in January, when coach John Tortorella was benching No. 1 center Pierre-Luc Dubois. Columbus has had its fair share of off-ice drama before — and typically has handled it well, and within the locker room — but this one hit different. The Blue Jackets engineered a flashy trade, swapping Dubois for Finnish sniper Patrik Laine and Columbus native Jack Roslovic.

However, when Tortorella began benching Laine too, it started to feel as if the coach’s message was becoming stale — and the messaging was becoming a distraction. There’s no question Tortorella did immeasurable good for the Columbus franchise in his six years behind the bench, however it was time for both sides to move on. In fairness to the coach, he wasn’t given many high-end skill forwards to work with, outside of Artemi Panarin.

All of this leads us to a pivotal offseason for the Blue Jackets. They want to prove that they can hold on to talent as an organization. They should also have plans to acquire more talent — which isn’t always easy to do. This is a team that has operated on a budget and isn’t expected to spend a ton of money on Tortorella’s replacement. The golden ticket might be landing the No. 1 pick in the lottery — something that has never happened in franchise history (Columbus had to trade up to select Rick Nash in 2002). But that, alas, is up to fate.

Keys to the offseason

What to do about Seth Jones‘ next contract. It will be the biggest story dominating the headlines for the Blue Jackets this summer. The 26-year-old is eligible to sign an extension, and will be asking for a massive raise from the $5.4 million he was earning annually. The stakes are high; once again, Columbus is desperate to kick the narrative that nobody wants to stay there. Since captain Nick Foligno was traded at the deadline, it wouldn’t be shocking to see the Blue Jackets offer the “C” to Jones as part of a new deal.

Goalie movement. The Blue Jackets don’t have anything to wait for anymore; they should probably strike a deal to trade away one of their goalies. Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins are both capable, but it’s silly to keep both around on expiring contracts — especially with a deep prospect system behind them.

The Patrik Laine question looms large. The winger was getting frustrated in Winnipeg and hoped for a new start in Columbus. But given the opportunity for a big role, Laine fell flat. The Blue Jackets have to determine how much of that was a poor stylistic fit with the coaching staff and how much of it is on the player. Laine is a restricted free agent this summer, so if they don’t believe he can be part of their future, he could get traded.

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

On the playoff bubble. Big changes are ahead for Columbus. Chief among them: finding a new coach, who will likely bring a different style behind the bench. While it’s easy to write off the Blue Jackets, they’re plucky enough to surprise you. If GM Jarmo Kekalainen could sort out the center position — and perhaps bring in one high-end forward — Columbus could be better than you think next season.


Dallas Stars: Don’t alter the course too much

What went wrong?

Everyone faced adversity in this unusual 2021 season, but the Stars just couldn’t catch a break. They began the season late after a COVID-19 outbreak ripped through the team. Injuries mounted. A winter storm then wreaked havoc on their lives and therefore schedules, as many players were without power for days, bunking at their teammates’ homes.

All of it meant a super-condensed schedule to finish out the season. Dallas never looked for excuses, but it was never able to find consistency. When things got going late — Tyler Seguin returned, and Jason Robertson emerged as a legit Calder Trophy threat — there was just too much ground to make up.

The Stars aren’t likely to dwell on this season, or treat it like anything other than an anomaly. They got a bad draw but are just one year removed from making it to the Stanley Cup Final. Things could be worse.

Keys to the offseason

A huge new deal for Miro Heiskanen? The 26-year-old is a restricted free agent this summer, and GM Jim Nill’s top priority is getting him an extension. For how long is the question. Heiskanen has been on a star track ever since last year’s bubble, with many in the league viewing him as a future Norris Trophy winner. Obviously it would behoove the Stars to work out a long-term deal.

But with the Stars strapped against the salary cap — which is remaining flat — it wouldn’t be surprising to see Heiskanen agree to a bridge deal to wait out the economic climate. Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov agreed to similar types of deals last offseason.

Who stays, who goes? The Stars have a slight conundrum in net. Ben Bishop should be healthy to return next season, and Jake Oettinger has emerged as a solid option as well. Anton Khudobin struggled, lessening his value. Will the Kraken select him in the expansion draft? Can the Stars find a taker for his $3.33 million through 2022-23?

Dallas likely wants to bring Jamie Oleksiak back after not trading him at the deadline. With Andrew Cogliano, Blake Comeau and Stephen Johns coming off the books, can Dallas use its extra cash to snag an impact forward?

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

Tough playoff out. The Stars will welcome the extra rest after a wacky and wild 2021. Then, Dallas is hopeful Bishop, Seguin and Alexander Radulov will all be fully recovered and ready to go. Their absences were a big reason the Stars missed the postseason this year.


What went wrong?

GM Steve Yzerman won’t put a timeline on his rebuilding plan, so it’s hard to gauge where the Red Wings should be right now. They improved defensively in 2021, and they surpassed their 2020 win total in 18 fewer games.

However, the offense still couldn’t get much going. Filip Hronek was the leading scorer, averaging less than 0.5 points per game (26 points in 56 contests). Yzerman shocked the hockey world when he traded away Anthony Mantha — once believed to be part of the untouchable core — to Washington. But the rationale was that the 26-year-old’s prime and the window for the Red Wings exiting the rebuild weren’t aligned. While that’s sobering to hear for a Detroit fan, at least Yzerman is tempering expectations — perhaps planning to overdeliver on them in the near future.

Keys to the offseason

Devise a wise free-agency game plan. The Red Wings have only 11 players under contract for next season, accounting for just $32 million dollars — giving them ample cap space with which to work. Jonathan Bernier, Luke Glendening, Darren Helm, Valtteri Filppula, Sam Gagner, Marc Staal and Bobby Ryan all come off the books this summer.

Bernier has voiced a desire to come back, and given how hard the goaltender fought in 2021 — and how well he worked in tandem with Thomas Greiss at the end of the season — it makes a lot of sense. Gagner and Ryan will present tough choices for GM Steve Yzerman, who might be very active on the free-agent market.

Nailing the draft. Yzerman’s plan has been all about collecting draft picks so the team can build from the ground up. He has done well in the initial gathering phase. Detroit has 12 draft picks this season, including five in the first two rounds (the Red Wings hold the Capitals’ first-round pick and the Rangers’ and Oilers’ second-round picks).

It’s a central dilemma for the Red Wings: It’s essential for them to nail a draft like this, yet it’s one of the most challenging years for evaluation, given how many of the junior leagues have been shut down.

Make the right calls for the expansion draft. The Red Wings have some tough calls to make at the expansion draft. Of the forwards, for example, Detroit is likely able to protect only two of the following players: Adam Erne, Givani Smith, Vladislav Namestnikov and Evgeny Svechnikov. There will be tricky choices to make on defense too, but it seems clear Troy Stecher worked himself onto the protected list with a solid first season in Detroit.

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

The rebuild continues. Until Yzerman makes moves that suggest otherwise, it’s looking like yet another unmemorable season in Detroit ahead. The Red Wings hopefully will continue to improve, and could have a new voice behind the bench if the team elects to part with Jeff Blashill. But even making the playoffs would be completely unexpected in 2021-22.


What went wrong?

It wasn’t time yet. GM Rob Blake has been amassing one of the deepest prospect pools in the NHL over the past few seasons. The plan had been to ease them into the lineup: Gradually letting go of familiar names, ushering in young replacements and hoping to hit that sweet spot with a strong youth movement syncing with the remaining stars.

Well, the old guard was up to the task: Center Anze Kopitar, defenseman Drew Doughty and winger Dustin Brown were among the team’s leading scorers. But the supporting cast saw some young players struggle (Gabriel Vilardi) while L.A. was waiting for the stars of that next wave (Alex Turcotte, Arthur Kaliyev and 2020 No. 2 overall pick Quinton Byfield) to ripen.

What undid the Kings, specifically? Their 5-on-5 play. Through 53 games, their expected goals per 60 minutes dropped to 2.10 from last season’s 2.45, while their expected goals against ballooned to 2.45 from 2.27. They can thank an outstanding season from goalie Calvin Petersen (19.9 goals saved above average) for helping them to 19th in team defense despite that.

Keys to the offseason

Use that cap space. One of the clear benefits of a youth movement is the creation of cap space. The Kings are set to have over $19.6 million in open space under the flat $81.5 million ceiling, partially due to six players hitting RFA status, including wingers Andreas Athanasiou and Trevor Moore. Blake will have the chance to use that cap space to upgrade the roster — perhaps on the blue line — or can continue to play the long game.

Prepare for the expansion draft. Petersen’s rise as the Kings’ top goaltender clinches what might have been inevitable anyway: Jonathan Quick will be unprotected in the Seattle expansion draft. He might not be the only veteran Kings player on the hook to bait the Kraken: 36-year-old winger Brown has another year left on his deal ($5.875 million AAV) and can clearly still put the puck in the net. The Kings are high enough on Brown’s intangibles that they might protect him, especially since so many of their younger forwards are exempt from being exposed. If Quick doesn’t go, it might end up being 22-year-old defenseman Kale Clague, who hasn’t come along as quickly as expected.

The temptation of Eichel. If Sabres star Jack Eichel‘s frustration does boil over and he were to become available this offseason, there are few NHL teams that can match the collection of picks and prospects the Kings could offer. In fact, that list might include a single other team: the New York Rangers. There are many, many questions to consider before making this kind of deal. Chief among them: Eichel is signed through 2026-27 at $10 million annually; Kopitar is signed through 2023-24 at $10 million annually; and Doughty is signed through 2026-27 at $11 million annually. That’d be a lot of cheddar tied up in three players.

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

On the playoff bubble. That aforementioned sweet spot with the youth movement and the veteran players could hit next season, as Byfield, Turcotte and Kaliyev all see significant ice time. There are upgrades to be made and roster holes to fill, but it’s time for the Kings to start their ascension back to the throne.


New Jersey Devils: Continue to build around the core four

What went wrong?

The Devils weren’t dealt the best hand in 2021. Corey Crawford, whom the team signed to help ease the burden for Mackenzie Blackwood, suddenly retired ahead of the season. Captain Nico Hischier was out for most of the season. While the beginning of the campaign featured flashes of promise — like development for Jack Hughes and a breakout for Ty Smith — things slipped away quickly.

The team struggled with coming back from a COVID-19 outbreak. By the trade deadline, New Jersey couldn’t work out a long-term deal with Kyle Palmieri, sending him and Travis Zajac to the Islanders for draft picks. The team then had to stop trading away players to ensure there were enough veterans in the lineup to keep things afloat.

The Devils were one of the youngest teams in the NHL (they dressed 18 players 23 or under), which is promising. But they also know their core is Blackwood, Hischier, Hughes and Smith, and the focal point needs to be building around those four.

Keys to the offseason

To spend or not to spend? The Devils have roughly $36 million in cap space to spend — if they want to. It’s not the most dynamic free-agent class, and New Jersey knows it can’t apply expensive bandage fixes and expect to suddenly be a playoff team. But there are a few areas New Jersey could improve, specifically looking at gritty, veteran forwards who can score. Maybe that means even bringing back some familiar faces (such as Palmieri or Zajac, for instance).

Come back healthy. This is a crucial part of New Jersey getting off to a better start next season. Being without Hischier to begin the season was less than ideal, and it’s fair to wonder how different the Devils could have been if they had had the captain for the entire season?

“I think we’re finally getting to see the real Nico,” coach Lindy Ruff said as the season wound down. “It’s been a rough road to get back to the point where we need him at. I think for him to bounce back and get his play to the level where it’s at now, and you can see the impact when you have two centermen like that and you see the age [of Hischier and Hughes]. For a team looking at a position that is so important, we’ve got two young centermen that I think are dynamite.”

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

The rebuild continues. GM Tom Fitzgerald has said that the Devils will be ready to go for it once Hischier and Hughes hit their prime. Hughes will turn 20 later this week. Hischier is 22. They’re close, but not there yet.


New York Rangers: Another star coming to Broadway?

What went wrong?

It was a wild season in New York. It began with expectations from fans outgrowing reality. After being included in the 2020 bubble, the Rangers were supposed to take a step forward. Instead, they looked stagnant. Goaltending struggled early, and the defense was leaky. After a breakout 41-goal campaign in 2019-20, Mika Zibanejad had a slow start — which he later surmised was an aftereffect of recovering from COVID-19.

The season got bumpier as injuries mounted. In February, the Rangers dismissed promising young defenseman Tony DeAngelo from the team for an altercation with teammates. Then star Artemi Panarin took a personal leave of absence.

In the final stretch, there was the Tom Wilson fiasco, then general manager Jeff Gorton and well-liked team president John Davidson got axed.

It was exhausting, from start to finish. The Rangers have the offseason to regroup and will look forward to a clean slate in 2021-22 — to show off how good they can be, hopefully without all of the outside distractions.

Keys to the offseason

Make some minor additions. The Rangers shored up their first piece of offseason business by inking Ryan Lindgren to a three-year, $9 million extension. That’s 13 players under contract for next season.

There are now six RFAs to sort out. Combine that with the buyout allocation (which will likely include DeAngelo this summer) and the Rangers don’t have a ton of cap space with which to work. But there is some. The Rangers aren’t in need of high-end talent, but they could use some bottom-six help, and maybe a defenseman.

Destination Eichel? The Jack Eichel saga in Buffalo isn’t going away, and it could only intensify this summer. The Rangers are going to be mentioned as front-runners, a status only amplified because Eichel’s agents were the same agents who represented new GM Chris Drury when he was a player.

Nonetheless, this would be a massive commitment for the Rangers to make, if they can lure him away. While figuring out how to work in Eichel’s $10 million cap hit through 2025-26 is plausible, a bigger priority for the Rangers should be extending Zibanejad — which could cost them more than $8 million annually.

Coaching calls. The Rangers have a decision to make on David Quinn, who signed a five-year deal with New York in 2018. The Rangers’ only playoff experience under Quinn was a three-game sweep in the 2020 bubble qualification round. He was in place to usher the Rangers through the rebuild and help develop young players. But entering a new phase, does owner James Dolan prefer a new voice? If the Rangers go in-house, their AHL coach, Kris Knoblauch, is a good candidate.

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

On the playoff bubble. However, the stakes are high, as players are feeling the pressure to accelerate through this stage of the rebuild. “That message has been sent and received,” forward Ryan Strome said at his end-of-the-season news conference. “We’ve just got to get into the playoffs.”


What went wrong?

Can something go wrong in a season when nothing was supposed to go right, by design? The Senators were awful, but maybe not as awful as expected. Their points percentage improved from 2019-20. Their goals per game (2.75) was a tick up over last season (2.68). Their team defense produced 2.36 expected goals per 60 minutes at 5-on-5, but some truly terrible goaltending (.896 save percentage) erased any of those gains.

They could never find consistency, failing to string together more than three wins in a row during the season. Against some teams, they were pesky, playing well against Calgary and Montreal. Not so much against Edmonton, which went 9-0-0 against Ottawa this season.

Keys to the offseason

Sign Brady Tkachuk to a new deal. The 21-year-old forward is the Senators’ most impactful player, and it’s not particularly close. He scores, he creates offense and he plays with a physical edge. Tkachuk is a restricted free agent, and it’ll be fascinating to see what kind of contract extension he’ll sign. Does he follow teammate Thomas Chabot and commit to Ottawa for eight years? Does he follow the lead of Islanders star Mathew Barzal and his brother, Matthew Tkachuk, with the Flames and opt for a three-year deal? Their average annual value was $7 million. Chabot makes $8 million annually. Where will Brady Tkachuk fall, and for how long?

Sort out the expansion draft goalie situation. Given the options they’re going to have from the rest of the league, there’s every possibility the Kraken won’t select a goaltender from the Senators. Filip Gustavsson, 22 and an RFA, would be the most logical goalie for the Sens to protect, given that he’s been their best netminder this season. But what about young Joey Daccord, who has shown promise? Matt Murray, the team’s key offseason acquisition, has improved late in the season; but given his contract ($6.25 million annually through 2023-24), he’s an obvious choice to be exposed. The real question here: Will GM Pierre Dorion make any kind of side deal to ensure the Senators don’t lose either Daccord or Gustavsson — or, perhaps, to entice Seattle to select Murray?

Address the blue line. As the Senators build out a solid collection of young forwards, from Tkachuk to center Josh Norris to 2020 first-round pick Tim Stützle, the back end needs some support. Chabot is a star, and Artem Zub was a revelation this season. But as the team tries to figure out what it has in Erik Brannstrom — and certainly knows what it has in Nikita Zaitsev — Ottawa should use its nearly $31 million(!) in cap space to go shopping for a solid veteran blueliner who fits with its trajectory as a contender.

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

The rebuild continues. It will be another year of growth, but not a playoff berth. Ottawa returns to the Atlantic Division next season, where Boston, Toronto, Tampa Bay and Florida are leaps better than the Senators are. Keep building. Keep improving. There are reasons for optimism in Ottawa next season, aka the start of owner Eugene Melnyk’s “five-year run of unparalleled success” that he vowed in 2019.


What went wrong?

Perhaps no team foundered below expectations quite like the Flyers this season. They met the Islanders in Game 7 of the second round last year. Philly lost, but the expectation was for the Flyers to come back even stronger this season, and they were a trendy Stanley Cup pick.

Instead, it was a disaster. The first obstacle was Matt Niskanen‘s surprise retirement. Philadelphia sorely missed his presence on the blue line. A COVID-19 outbreak that nearly derailed the outdoor game in Lake Tahoe was another blow, and the team could never recover on the ice after that.

Most surprisingly, the goaltending struggled. Carter Hart was poised to finally take the reins as the franchise’s No. 1 goaltender. But he wasn’t himself this season, posting a .877 save percentage as the Flyers allowed the most goals in the league — yes, even more than the Sabres.

Keys to the offseason

Re-sign the RFAs. Hart, Travis Sanheim and Nolan Patrick are all restricted free agents this summer, and the contracts for all three will be intriguing. Again, it wasn’t the best season for Hart (especially entering a contract year). But he’s only 22 and this is uncharacteristic for his career, so the Flyers aren’t worried; still, neither side is probably looking at seven or eight years right now.

Blueliner Sanheim is due for a raise from the $3.25 million he signed on his previous bridge deal. As for Patrick? Philadelphia might ask around for trade takers, but he likely will come back — and shouldn’t command too high of a salary, considering he put up only nine points in 52 games.

More additions on the way? Since the Flyers were quiet at the trade deadline, it seemed GM Chuck Fletcher was gearing up for an active summer. Philly will be in the mix for a new backup goalie (with Brian Elliott coming off the books) as well as defensive help (the Flyers never adequately addressed Niskanen’s absence).

Philadelphia also could be in on some splashier names, such as snagging hometown boy Johnny Gaudreau from Calgary. To make any of this work, the Flyers might need to make trades. They don’t have a ton of cap space, and they can’t just rely on the Seattle Kraken taking one of their high-priced veterans. (Or can they?)

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

Tough playoff out. The Flyers are hoping 2021 is just an anomaly, though they surely will make some improvements this summer. GM Chuck Fletcher and coach Alain Vigneault hinted that the offseason rink shutdowns in Canada plus the isolation and anxiety of the pandemic adversely impacted their younger players. Hopefully 2021-22 will bring more normalcy.


San Jose Sharks: This has been a reset, not a rebuild

What went wrong?

When you reset your device, it takes a while for it to boot up again. GM Doug Wilson used that word to describe this season, in which the Sharks sought to build up future assets and give younger players significant ice time. It’s also the word one uses when his team is out of the contention window and his salary cap is clogged with a collection of unmovable veteran contracts.

On the ice, the Sharks didn’t score enough (2.65 goals per game), they didn’t defend well at 5-on-5 (2.39 expected goals against per 60 minutes) and when they did defend well, it was undercut by another season of atrocious goaltending (.891 save percentage, second worst in the NHL). Hey, at least Patrick Marleau gave us all warm fuzzies in breaking Gordie Howe’s games played record. We did have that.

Keys to the offseason

Explore veteran trades. It’s obviously more “rebuild” than “refresh” when one starts trading away veteran players, but maybe the Sharks should be honest about the reality of their surroundings. Defensemen Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic have full no-move clauses. Defenseman Brent Burns has a limited no-trade clause and saw his production drop for a second straight season; he has four years left on his contract, but his salary peaked this season. Tomas Hertl is a UFA after next season. Timo Meier has two more years left before RFA status, but the Sharks wouldn’t get much in return. All options should be on the table for his team — perhaps the Kraken can help a Shark out?

Internal or external goaltending help? This will be Martin Jones‘ third straight sub-.900 save percentage season. He’s signed through 2023-24 with a $5.75 million annual cap hit, on a contract that inexplicably contains some semblance of trade protection. In truth, his recent play is the greatest no-trade clause of all.

The Sharks could seek another low-cost veteran keeper to pair with Jones in the hopes that he stabilizes the position, as was the intention with the acquisition of Devan Dubnyk last offseason. Or, the Sharks could give 22-year-old KHL product Alexei Melnichuk or 23-year-old Josef Korenar, who saw time this season, a shot to take over the crease.

Nail this draft class. After spending so many future assets in chasing a Stanley Cup the past several years, the Sharks will have a second straight season with eight-plus draft picks — including their first trip to the lottery since 2015, when they drafted Meier. The downside is that, due to the pandemic, the draft could be more unpredictable than ever.

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

On the playoff bubble. This is an extraordinarily generous assessment of the Sharks next season, but there are still parts of this team that are rather effective and we’d still like to see what happens if San Jose is actually able to get a save or two when it needs them. The other option for this category is “the rebuild continues,” and we simply can’t assign that to the Sharks, as it has been explicitly established that this is a “reset.”


What went wrong?

Everything. Everything went wrong.

The Canucks were expected to follow their impressive run through the Stanley Cup playoffs bubble last summer by contending in the North Division. Despite losing goalie Jacob Markstrom to free agency, they brought in Braden Holtby, and allegedly learned about the value of team defense; instead, the Canucks had the worst expected goals against at 5-on-5 (2.63 per 60 minutes) and their goaltending wasn’t always there to save them. They let Tyler Toffoli walk in free agency, assuming their offense could withstand the loss; instead, their goals-per-game average dropped from 3.25 last season to 2.64, while Toffoli scored 28 goals for Montreal.

Vancouver started the season going 8-14-2. It never recovered. Then COVID-19 hit the team and the Canucks went 24 days between games. The NHL mandated that the team finish its season, when ending it and seeding the division through points percentage would have been the humane thing to do, on several fronts. Yet the team battled on, and actually made a short-lived playoff push. There are some hopeful takeaways.

Keys to the offseason

Whither Jim Benning? Many fans are calling for the removal of the Canucks’ GM, with some having funded a plane that flew a “FIRE BENNING” banner over metro Vancouver. Is this disastrous season, after a series of personnel missteps in the past few years, a tipping point? Or will Benning, signed through the 2022-23 season, get another offseason to “fix” the Canucks?

Whither Travis Green? The Canucks coach is in his fourth season with the team and is in need of a new contract. He has missed the playoffs in three of those seasons, and the coaching staff didn’t acquit itself well when Vancouver was staggering at the start of the season. But he wants to stay with the Canucks, and there seems to be a fit there — if the money’s right.

Whither Elias Pettersson and Quinn Hughes? The two young pillars of the Canucks’ foundation are due new contracts this summer. Hughes can’t be given an offer sheet; Pettersson can. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of deals the two young stars sign — especially Pettersson, coming off a season limited by a “serious” upper-body injury, in the words of Green.

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

Tough playoff out. We’re believers in the Canucks and are willing to chalk up this season’s mess to a bad start, some key injuries, the COVID interruption and … well, their GM’s rather misguided offseason plan. Hopefully Green will return to help Vancouver return to being one of the NHL’s most promising young teams, and hopefully Benning — or someone else — can make the necessary changes to foster that return.

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