Keys to the offseason for NHL teams, including draft, free-agency game plans

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:


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.

First-round exitsAuston Matthews and the Leafs looked poised for a long playoff run. Instead, they’ll have some extra time to ponder what went wrong against the Canadiens. Minas Panagiotakis/Getty ImagesWhat went wrong?

The short answer is “the Toronto Maple Leafs were expected to win a playoff series,” something they still haven’t done since 2004.

Postgame analysis and highlight show airing each night throughout the season from Barry Melrose and Linda Cohn. Watch on ESPN+

The longer answer is that there were a variety of reasons for the Leafs’ elimination in the first round of the North Division playoffs by the Montreal Canadiens, a team that finished 18 points behind them in the standings. It started with the devastating injury — both in impact and optics — to star center John Tavares in Game 1 of the series, which Toronto would end up losing. The Leafs would win the next three games … but then lose the final three, blowing a 3-1 series lead. Another reason: Carey Price, who was the Canadiens’ best player in the series and a goalie for whom the Leafs didn’t make life difficult enough.

But Toronto’s ultimate undoing was a reoccurring criticism of this incarnation of the team: That the Leafs are not ready to actually contend for a championship. That their star players like Auston Matthews and Mitchell Marner are too ordinary in the playoffs. That they don’t get the goals they need in critical spots, and that they make critical mistakes at the absolute wrong times — such as consecutive playoff overtimes ending after turnovers.

So what comes next for the Leafs?

Keys to the offseason

Don’t panic. Seriously. This loss is devastating, no doubt. It’s a humbling defeat and a gut punch to prematurely end a season that could have ended with the Leafs lifting the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1967 instead of dropping out in the first round. But we’ve seen very good teams suffer through years of playoff embarrassment and futility before catching lightning in a bottle and having the stars align in the right postseason. We’ve also seen teams lose their collective minds after first-round upsets at the hands of a heavy underdog Montreal team — something that sent the Washington Capitals into a philosophical crisis for a few seasons. The window remains wide open for this group. They just have to figure out who’s holding the ladder for them to finally climb through it.

Rethink the supporting cast. GM Kyle Dubas went the “veteran NHL pedigree” route in building his supporting cast this season, an infusion of character and a response to the Maple Leafs not “knowing how to win” in the playoffs. Some moves (T.J. Brodie) worked better than others (Wayne Simmonds). Most of them contributed to a jarring lack of speed on the roster once you get past the core players.

The Leafs have eight key skaters hitting unrestricted free agency: forwards Nick Foligno, Zach Hyman, Riley Nash, Joe Thornton, Jason Spezza, Alex Galchenyuk and Simmonds, along with defenseman Zach Bogosian. Hyman is a no-brainer to bring back, given his role on their top line. There might be others to consider here, too. But after a first-round exit, and seeing the trade-off in experience with speed, Dubas may want to reconsider this approach for next season.

Address the goaltending. Jack Campbell was neither the problem nor the solution for the Maple Leafs in goal, but at $1.65 million against the cap next season he’s a bargain complement to wherever Toronto looks next in goal. Frederik Andersen, 31, is an unrestricted free agent who made $5 million against the cap. (So is David Rittich, the Leafs’ trade deadline insurance.) The free-agent market has some interesting potential names like Philipp Grubauer, Antti Raanta, Chris Driedger and, um, Tuukka Rask. There could be other options, too, as teams run the risk of losing goalies in the expansion draft.

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

Serious Cup contender. The Leafs obviously have to look under the hood and see what didn’t work in this series, and address some expected lineup changes through free agency. But Matthews, Marner and William Nylander remain a young core with boundless potential, and there are solid pieces around them. They can and will contend again next season. In the grand tradition of the Toronto Maple Leafs: Wait ’til next year.

Minnesota Wild: How to build on 2021’s successKirill Kaprizov, left, put up lots of points in his first NHL campaign. How will the Wild build around him? Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesWhat went wrong?

There’s a lot more “what went right” for the Wild than anything else this season. While many predicted they would be a playoff team in the top-heavy West Division, their 35-16-5 (.670 points percentage) was still outstanding, finishing 12 points clear of fourth-place St. Louis. First-year coach Dean Evason’s systems and lineup management were solid. The addition of Cam Talbot in the offseason solidified their goaltending. They were a difficult team to play against on both sides of the puck.

The Wild continued to shed their decades-old label as a conservative defensive team to finish eighth in the NHL at 3.21 goals per game — the fourth time in franchise history the team has averaged over three goals scored a game, all of them coming in the last five seasons. The catalyst for this season’s offensive spark was the arrival of rookie Kirill Kaprizov from the KHL, who had 51 points in 55 games. He also had what could be called “The Ovechkin Effect,” in that his offense was as contagious as his enthusiasm.

What went wrong? The Vegas Golden Knights survived the Wild, mostly. Sure, the Wild offense could have been better in the first four games of the series, where Vegas built a 3-1 lead. But Minnesota outscored them 7-2 in rallying to force a Game 7, a combination of offensive spark and great goaltending from Cam Talbot. The Wild were an upset special in pre-playoff predictions, thanks in part to how well they played Vegas in the regular season (5-1-2). The first round was a reminder that as far as Minnesota has come as a contender, they’re not on that elite level — yet.

Keys to the offseason

Navigate the expansion draft better than last time. In 2017, the Wild traded Alex Tuch to the Golden Knights to ensure they wouldn’t select Matt Dumba or Marco Scandella in the expansion draft. Fast-forward to the Seattle Kraken draft, and the Wild are still in a pickle. They have five players with no-movement clauses who must be protected: Zach Parise, Ryan Suter, Jared Spurgeon, Jonas Brodin and Mats Zuccarello. Protect seven forwards, and they’d risk losing Dumba. Protect eight skaters including Dumba, and they risk losing a player such as Jordan Greenway. Do they protect Talbot, 33 years old and coming off a great season? Or Kaapo Kahkonen, 24, who could be the goalie of the future? Do they need to make another side deal with the Kraken? If so, they can’t make another mistake like sacrificing Tuch to Vegas.

2 Related

Make the tough decisions on veterans. The Wild have a couple of interesting veterans seeking contracts this offseason. Marcus Johansson was a sub-replacement-level forward for them, and one imagines they’ll move on. Centers Nick Bonino and Nick Bjugstad are up, as is glue guy defenseman Ian Cole. But the biggest decision to make, and one that could impact the expansion draft, is what the Wild can do with Parise. The veteran star has been a frequent healthy scratch this season, and when he has played it’s been on the fourth line. The winger has four years left on his contract ($7,538,461 in average annual value) and a full no-move clause, but this is an untenable situation that needs to be remedied in the offseason.

Time for Jack Eichel? Speaking of untenable situations, the hockey world is waiting to see if the losing seasons and building animosity between Buffalo Sabres star Jack Eichel and his team will lead to him asking out. The derby for his services could be epic, as deep-pocketed teams with deep prospect pools line up for a trade. There’s no reason Minnesota couldn’t be one of them. The Wild have a top-10 prospect pipeline, including players already on the main roster. They have a well-managed salary cap. They’re in a market Eichel would find appealing, and they’re a team with an upward trajectory. The Wild have been searching for a No. 1 center for … well, the entirety of their existence. If Eichel is available, the Wild have the means and the need to chase the star center.

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

Serious Cup contender. GM Bill Guerin took over a team in 2019 that had some good pieces in place, and he has smartly made it better. Betting on Evason worked. The arrival of Kaprizov was a long-awaited game-changer. Kevin Fiala continues his maturation into an offensive force, while Joel Eriksson Ek was one of the NHL’s best defensive forwards. The Wild are one of the league’s most exciting new contenders. It’s on Guerin to help them continue to shed the veteran contracts that have anchored them and continue to move the franchise forward.

Nashville Predators: Time to kick-start the youth movementThe Predators have entrusted their crease to Juuse Saros. Now, they must make tough decisions among a number of veteran forwards. Danny Murphy/Icon Sportswire via Getty ImagesWhat went wrong?

The Predators shouldn’t have been a playoff team given how they started the season. Then they went 19-7-1 from March 5 on, convincing the front office that it was better to get into the playoffs — even as a No. 4 seed, where a one-and-done was probable — than trade away players at the deadline. Those are decisions you make in markets like Nashville, where playoff hockey gives you outsized exposure (and also helps recoup a small amount of revenue from a season of losses).

As predicted, the Predators were outmatched by the more talented and deeper Carolina Hurricanes team. However, Nashville proved to be a far tougher out than expected. Home-ice advantage in this series was very much a factor, and Juuse Saros continued his incredible season with some dominant stretches (like saving 58 of 61 shots in a double-overtime Game 4 win). Ultimately, it came down to this: Carolina has more high-end players, specifically at forward, than Nashville does.

Compete for $9,000 throughout the NHL postseason! Make Your Picks

The Predators had been looking stale after they made it to the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. The tail end of this season showed some freshness, but there’s still plenty of work to do to get this team to contending status again.

Keys to the offseason

Kick-start the youth movement. GM David Poile talked a big game about a youth movement last offseason, and at the beginning of the season, it felt like empty promises. But the Predators began working in younger players, and by the playoffs, Alexandre Carrier, Yakov Trenin and Eeli Tolvanen were all playing big roles, with Tanner Jeannot and Mathieu Olivier also getting action. It’s the direction in which Nashville needs to continue next season as well; furthermore, there should be a regular role for Philip Tomasino as well. The 2019 first-rounder had a strong first season as a pro, scoring 13 goals and 32 points in 29 games with the Chicago Wolves (AHL).

What veterans are part of the future? The Predators cleared considerable cap space last summer by buying out Kyle Turris and trading Nick Bonino. It could be another offseason of big decisions. The first order of business is Mattias Ekholm, who enters the last year of his contract (which is a team-friendly pact at $3.75 million annually). If he wants to stay long term in Nashville, the Predators should prioritize a new deal. We’ve likely seen the last of Pekka Rinne (a pending free agent) in Nashville as Saros (who, as an RFA, also needs a new contract) fully takes over.

What about the two underperforming $8 million-per-year forwards, Matt Duchene and Ryan Johansen? The Predators can dangle them in the expansion draft — and likely throw in a sweetener for Seattle — though that could lead to some uncomfortable conversations if they are not selected.

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

Tough playoff out. The Predators showed over the last half of the season that the core isn’t quite washed yet. Coach John Hynes is finally clicking with this group, and some young players are emerging, which is exactly what Nashville needs. This is probably not a deep or talented enough group to be considered a top contender, but all is not lost in the Music City.

Florida Panthers: How to take the next step forwardSam Bennett, No. 9, fit in quite well with the Panthers after coming over in trade during the 2021 season. What does his next contract look like? Scott Audette /NHLI via Getty ImagesWhat went wrong?

This Panthers season was a pleasant surprise. As Florida entered Year 2 of the Joel Quenneville era, nobody in the league knew quite what to expect. In January, a rival assistant GM told me Florida was “the biggest mystery in the league.”

But new Panthers GM Bill Zito began putting his stamp on the roster, and many of those moves panned out. Captain Aleksander Barkov soared — making legitimate cases for both the Hart and Selke trophies — while Jonathan Huberdeau inherited Barkov’s title as the most underrated player in the league. Even when Sergei Bobrovsky wasn’t at his best, the Panthers stayed afloat thanks to the emergence of Chris Driedger (and the Goaltending Excellence Department). Florida had the depth to withstand the loss of Aaron Ekblad (broken leg) — hello MacKenzie Weegar’s star turn — but Zito also helped his team out with trade deadline reinforcements.

2 Related

Things were trending up for the Panthers, but then they ran into an extremely tough first-round matchup. The defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning — who welcomed back Nikita Kucherov for this series — got more chances, better chances, and forced the Panthers to rely on chippiness. Though Spencer Knight’s work late in the series is encouraging for the future, Tampa Bay capitalized on Florida’s goaltending slips. Barkov was dealing with a shoulder injury, according to sources, and clearly wasn’t 100%. It was a disappointing end to an exciting season that showed us that the Panthers are closer than we think.

Keys to the offseason

Ace the expansion draft decisions. The Panthers got burned by the Vegas Golden Knights expansion draft in 2017. Florida gave up Jonathan Marchessault, on the condition that Vegas also selected Reilly Smith. Since the Golden Knights debuted in 2017-18, Marchessault and Smith have ranked first and third in points for the club, respectively, becoming a huge part of the team’s identity and success. That should deter Florida from making side deals again, though let’s note it’s Zito not Dale Tallon in charge this time.

Still, the Panthers will have to give up a good roster player, perhaps a forward like Patric Hornqvist or Mason Marchment, or one of these defensemen: Gustav Forsling, Radko Gudas or Markus Nutivaara. And of course, there’s the possibility they lose goaltender Chris Driedger.

Decide on new contracts for Bennett, Wallmark, Duclair, more. The Panthers made several additions to the team this season, and many of those players are due for new contracts this summer. Who stays and who goes? Sam Bennett was acquired at the trade deadline and was such a tremendous fit at second-line center, the Panthers should ink a new deal (he’s a restricted free agent, with arbitration rights). Lucas Wallmark and Anthony Duclair — who spent a lot of the season on Barkov’s wing — are RFAs. Alexander Wennberg, Nikita Gusev and Brandon Montour are all unrestricted free agents; their futures with Florida are a little murkier.

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

Serious Cup contender. The Panthers posted their best points percentage ever, and were tied for their best-ever goal differential in the 2021 season, despite playing in a brutal division. There’s no reason to believe Florida can’t build off of that, but the goal now is simple: make it past the first round of the playoffs, which the Panthers haven’t been able to do since 1996.

As long as Sidney Crosby is on the roster, the Penguins will be competitive. But Pittsburgh must do better to build up its depth. Mike Stobe/NHLI via Getty ImagesWhat went wrong?

For the second straight season, the Penguins dealt with tough injury luck. They persevered, and had the NHL’s second-best record over the final nine weeks. Expectations were high entering the postseason … and then they failed to win a playoff round for the fourth consecutive season.

The obvious scapegoat in the Penguins’ first-round series loss to the New York Islanders is goaltender Tristan Jarry. He allowed a few soft goals in this series — on his glove side, on low-danger shots — and will be remembered for a double-overtime gaffe in the pivotal Game 5 loss.

The first line also, woefully, did not produce.

The Penguins actually outplayed the Isles for a lot of the series. While Pittsburgh is deeper than it has been in previous years, there’s still something off about the supporting cast surrounding Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The truth is, neither superstar — 33 and 34 years old, respectively — can truly take over a series anymore. But with their prime windows closing, it’s frustrating to see yet another early playoff exit. The Penguins’ front office has a summer of soul-searching ahead.

Keys to the offseason

A roster shakeup? In a shocking move in the middle of the season, GM Jim Rutherford — the architect of the Penguins’ most recent Stanley Cups — resigned. The Penguins opted for two veteran front-office executives to run the team: Brian Burke and Ron Hextall. The team would like to stay competitive while Crosby and Malkin are still on the roster, but they also have to think feasibly. Malkin and Kris Letang both enter next season on the final season of their contracts, so decisions will need to be made on each player. On this roster, any player except for Crosby could feasibly be traded. Malkin has a no-movement clause, meaning he only leaves if he wants out.

Make wise protection picks for the expansion draft. The Penguins’ biggest issue in making their decisions will come in the forward group. There’s a few contracts they can dangle (such as Jason Zucker, and his $5.5 million annual cap hit), but Pittsburgh is likely to lose a young depth forward like Zach Aston-Reese, Jared McCann, or perhaps Kasperi Kapanen. Remember, it’s a new regime with less emotional ties to these players. So we could see something unexpected.

Start thinking about the long term. Under Rutherford, the Penguins were always in win-now mode, and it came at the expense of the future. Pittsburgh has drafted in the first round just once (Samuel Poulin, 2019) in the past six years. The Pens are also without a first-round pick in the 2021 draft. Hextall has a reputation as a builder from his time with Philadelphia. His mandate is balancing a win-now mindset with the understanding that the organization needs to start preparing for life after Crosby.

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

Tough playoff out. Big changes could be coming, so it’s tough to predict exactly what the Penguins will look like next season. As long as they have Sidney Crosby, there’s a mandate to stay competitive. But until they win a playoff series again, they won’t be considered serious Cup contenders.

GM Ken Holland needs to make some major moves to get the Oilers to the next level of contenders. Getty ImagesWhat went wrong?

The Oilers had a record of 35-19-2 in the regular season. Their 72 points were good for second in the North Division. Connor McDavid put together one of the greatest single seasons of offense in NHL history, when adjusted for era: 105 points in 56 games. Leon Draisaitl had 84 points in 56 games. Mike Smith proved his critics wrong, finishing 12th in goals saved above average (15.1).

Then the playoffs happened.

2 Related

The Winnipeg Jets started the series short-handed, without forwards Pierre-Luc Dubois and Nikolaj Ehlers. They won Game 1, keeping McDavid and Draisaitl scoreless. They did the same thing in Game 2, getting Dubois back and relying on Connor Hellebuyck to shut out the Oilers. Game 3 was the pivotal moment of the series: McDavid and Draisaitl each had three points, but Ehlers returned and scored the game winner in overtime.

Analytically, the Oilers outplayed the Jets, with Hellebuyck as the difference-maker. But the only numbers anyone was paying attention to were the zeros Edmonton’s star players posted in their first two home games of the series, and the fact that Winnipeg advanced in such emphatic fashion. The Oilers have won a single playoff series in the McDavid era. Changes have to be coming.

Keys to the offseason

The Biz vs. The Nuge. Ryan Nugent-Hopkins is set to hit unrestricted free agency this offseason, finishing up a contract that averages $6 million annually. He’s an essential penalty killer, plays on their top power-play unit and is the kind of complementary player that a winning team needs. What does a new deal for him look like for the Oilers, both in money and term? Would someone else in need of a center be willing to go bigger for the 27-year-old, considering the flat cap?

Fix the back end. The Oilers have two key unrestricted free agents on their blue line in Tyson Barrie and Adam Larsson. Barrie, 29, signed a one-year “show me” deal with the Oilers, and ended up leading the NHL in scoring for defensemen (48 points). An extension would have to be richer and with more term, and that might not make sense with young puck-mover Evan Bouchard waiting for his turn. Larsson, 28, makes a bit more sense to extend as a stay-at-home defenseman. With Oscar Klefbom returning from injury next season, the Oilers could have a nice group on the back end, as players like Darnell Nurse and Ethan Bear continue to improve.

The other question is Mike Smith, who is also a UFA. Mikko Koskinen — signed for another season at $4.5 million with trade protection! — was a sub-replacement-level goalie. Smith turns 40 next March. They could get another defiantly effective regular season from him, but he hasn’t won a playoff series since 2012. The Oil have some decisions to make in goal.

Be all-in. The Oilers have been nibbling around the edges under GM Ken Holland. Barrie was a one-year bargain that worked, Kyle Turris was not. They had a quiet trade deadline outside of acquiring Dmitry Kulikov. “I don’t know that you can be all-in every year,” said Holland. He was saddled with a roster that had little depth but a lot of contract bloat when he took over. In its current incarnation, that roster is an inferior group that does a disservice to the team’s star players: Without McDavid and Draisaitl on the ice, the Oilers have just a 44.3% expected goals percentage.

The Jets had two distinct advantages heading into this series: in goal and in their depth at forward. Until the latter isn’t an annual issue for the Oilers, they’re not going to contend for anything. Get Connor and Leon the help they need.

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

Tough playoff out. The Oilers are good enough not to be a bubble team in the reconstituted Pacific Division, as long as they get competent goaltending while McDavid and Draisaitl do their thing. But to win a playoff round, or for anything beyond that, they’ll need two things: depth that gives opponents even a modicum of concern when the big two aren’t on the ice; and to have learned from the hard lessons of the past two postseasons, in losing to an inferior Blackhawks team in 2020 and then blowing a 4-1 third-period lead in a critical game against the Jets, which coach Dave Tippett said was “a lesson on how not to win in the playoffs.”

St. Louis Blues: How to recapture the magic from 2019The Blues had some encouraging moments this season, but they ran into a juggernaut in Round 1. AP Photo/Jeff RobersonWhat went wrong?

The departure of Alex Pietrangelo as a free agent opened up two holes for the Blues. One was leadership, but that was quickly and effectively filled by new captain Ryan O’Reilly, who was already the heart and soul of the team. The other was on the blue line, and that proved trickier. Due to injuries, ineffectiveness and the adjustment to life without Petro, the Blues saw their goals-against average jump from 2.68 last season to 2.98 this season. Torey Krug, signed to ostensibly replace Pietrangelo’s offense from the blue line, averaged 0.63 points per game, his lowest output in five years.

Injuries played a huge factor in the Blues’ 27-20-9 season, in which they finished fourth in the West Division, some would say by default. Defenseman Colton Parayko wasn’t himself, playing in just 32 games. Jaden Schwartz (40 games), Sammy Blais (36 games), Tyler Bozak (31 games), Ivan Barbashev (38 games) and Robert Thomas (33 games) all missed time. Oskar Sundqvist and Carl Gunnarsson suffered season-ending injuries. Vladimir Tarasenko, who has now had three shoulder surgeries since 2018, played 24 games and scored just four goals.

Compete for $9,000 throughout the NHL postseason! Make Your Picks

The Blues were good for stretches — notably a seven-game point streak in March and taking points in eight of nine games to end the season — but for the most part lacked the swagger and identity that defined them under coach Craig Berube. He called them “fragile” multiple times this season. When goalie Jordan Binnington is trying to goad opponents into fights to spark his team, it’s hard not to think there’s something malfunctioning here.

After last postseason, general manager Doug Armstrong said that 20% of his players had COVID-19 before they went to the bubble last summer, and he explained it was a factor in them losing to the Vancouver Canucks. The coronavirus impacted the Blues again this postseason, as leading scorer David Perron (58 points in 56 games) was in the league’s COVID-19 protocols for their series against the Colorado Avalanche. But ultimately, what went wrong could be simply drawing the Avalanche in the first round, as Colorado exerted its will against a lesser opponent.

Keys to the offseason

Roster refresh. The Blues could look very different next season at the forward spot. Schwartz is an unrestricted free agent, although the team has expressed a desire to keep him. Forwards Bozak and Mike Hoffman are unrestricted free agents, as is defenseman Gunnarsson. Center Thomas, forward Zach Sanford, defenseman Vince Dunn and this season’s breakout star Jordan Kyrou (35 points) are among the team’s restricted free agents. Does Armstrong look at this pandemic season as an anomaly due to its odd structure and the team’s numerous injuries? Or does he get aggressive in refreshing the roster? (One place the roster will undoubtedly be refreshed is in goal, where Ville Husso was not ready to back up Binnington.)

Ponder Craig Berube’s future. Berube, the coach who helped turn around the Blues’ season in 2019 en route to their first Stanley Cup, has gotten diminishing returns since then. Obviously, there are other factors at play here, as the past two seasons were impacted by the pandemic and his Blues teams struggled through injuries. But the lack of intensity and execution are not what you expect from Berube-coached teams. There seemed to be focus issues too: The Blues were plus-8 in goals in the first period and minus-11 in the second period. Berube is signed through the end of next season.

Prepare for the expansion draft. Perron also is signed through next season. He has seen this movie before: Perron had one year left when the Blues left him exposed in the Vegas expansion draft, and he had a career year in their run to the Stanley Cup Final in 2018. One year later, he was back in St. Louis. This time around, he has likely played his way onto the protected list for St. Louis.

Among the Blues who could be available for the Seattle Kraken: Schwartz, Blais, Barbashev, defenseman Marco Scandella and Dunn. Given his status in the Blues’ lineup, his RFA status and his puck-moving prowess, it’s widely assumed that Dunn is done in St. Louis. But if the Blues wanted to really make things interesting and they don’t believe he can ever be what he was again … would they dare leave Tarasenko (signed through 2022-23, $7.5 million AAV) unprotected?

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

Tough playoff out. There’s a lot to like about this Blues roster. When your starting point is Ryan O’Reilly, that’s a solid foundation Despite his critics, Binnington was 11th in goals saved above average (15.7). If Parayko is healthy, the Blues have a strong defense corps, especially with the emergence of Justin Faulk as a versatile leader this season. There are a lot of question marks and some fine-tuning that Armstrong must do in the offseason, but this group could have another run left in it.

Washington Capitals: New solutions needed after quick playoff lossAfter winning the Stanley Cup in 2018, the Capitals have lost in the first round for three straight seasons. Rob Carr/Getty ImagesWhat went wrong?

The Capitals hired Peter Laviolette as head coach this past offseason to instill urgency within the franchise. They also added long-time Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara to add accountability in the locker room. The team had grown stale after winning the franchise’s first Stanley Cup in 2018, with back-to-back first-round exits in the two years following. In addition to holding the Caps accountable, Laviolette was also charged with adapting the way the team played.

Postgame analysis and highlight show airing each night throughout the season from Barry Melrose and Linda Cohn. Watch on ESPN+

The Caps adjusted to Laviolette’s new system — which is predicated on puck possession, and getting plenty of pucks on net — but were held back by off-ice obstacles. It began when Henrik Lundqvist (whom the team signed as veteran insurance in net) was ruled out for the season because of a previously undetected heart condition. The Caps also lost Alex Ovechkin and three others because of COVID-19 protocol violations in January. Some of those same players (goalie Ilya Samsonov, center Evgeny Kuznetsov) would return to the protocol list later in the season.

Injuries also became an issue, and lingered through the first round. Perhaps some players were still banged up, which could explain why the Bruins looked like the faster and hungrier team. Washington did make strides on the ice and was a dominant regular-season team. But there’s a sadly familiar feeling as the team is packing up after a first-round exit for the third straight postseason.

Keys to the offseason

An extension for Alex Ovechkin. The captain is due for a new contract, and there’s not much doubt on how this is going to play out. Washington is going to get it done, the question now is: How much will it cost, and on what terms will the sides agree? Five years? Three? Would he be comfortable playing on a one-year deal? Ovechkin is coming off a 13-year, $124 million contract, which has aged extremely well.

According to sources, Ovechkin’s initial ask was for around $12.5 million per year in the new pact, but that was before the pandemic. In a new economic climate, in which the salary cap is remaining flat for the foreseeable future, the Caps might have budgeted for less. But make no mistake, Ovechkin will play in Washington next season. As owner Ted Leonsis told The Athletic last month: “Alex knows that if he plays five more years, 10 more years, whatever it is, we’ve got his back.”

A potential shakeup? The Caps will do some soul searching after they hired a new (and-high priced) coach but received the exact same results. Washington might need to clear some cap space for Ovechkin’s contract — or perhaps it will just do some general reshuffling. There’s a sense around the league the Capitals are getting frustrated with first-line center Evgeny Kuznetsov. The 29-year-old carries a $7.8 million annual cap hit through 2024-25. Could Washington find a change-of-scenery trade, like the one GM Brian MacLellan engineered for Jakub Vrana earlier this season? Kuznetsov has some agency in the situation, as his contract stipulates for a 15-team no-trade list.

Embrace a mini youth movement. The Caps are one of the oldest teams in the league, and that translates to veteran experience. But they also might need to start retooling on the fly, to make the most out of Ovechkin’s final years with the franchise (entry-level contracts are quite kind to a team pressed up against the salary cap). Connor McMichael, the Caps’ 2019 first-round pick, should get a good look to make the team next season. McMichael, 20, led the AHL in scoring eight-game winning goals for the Hershey Bears in 2021 (and 14 goals in 33 games overall).

Realistic expectations for 2021-22

Serious Cup contender. The Capitals might have stumbled through the first round yet again, but this is also true: As long as Ovechkin is around, Washington is going for it. And there’s already a very talented team around him, albeit one that could use an infusion of youth. As Leonsis said last month, “Our commitment to [Ovechkin] is to continue to have great teams. We’ll spend to the cap, we’ll try to win championships. And that’s what he’s focused on because that will be his legacy.”

The non-playoff teamsAnaheim Ducks: Time to get serious about the rebuildHas captain Ryan Getzlaf played his last game for the Ducks? John Cordes/NHLI via Getty ImagesWhat 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.

Jakob Chychrun leveled up during the 2021 season. Unfortunately, same process didn’t happen for a number of his teammates. Kevin Abele/Icon SportswireWhat 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.

2 Related

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 summerFranchise center Jack Eichel is the type of player for whom teams spend great amounts of money and time searching. Will he remain in Buffalo through the end of his current deal? Gregory Fisher/Icon SportswireWhat 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.

Compete for $9,000 throughout the NHL postseason! Make Your Picks

“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.

The Flames could move on from mainstays like Sean Monahan this offseason. Gerry Thomas/NHLI via Getty ImagesWhat 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.

Goaltender Kevin Lankinen was one of the bright spots for the Blackhawks this season. Jason Mowry/Icon SportswireWhat 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.

Postgame analysis and highlight show airing each night throughout the season from Barry Melrose and Linda Cohn. Watch on ESPN+

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.

Patrik Laine, left, didn’t exactly thrive under John Tortorella. How will it work out with the new coach? Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty ImagesWhat 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 muchThe Stars have to be pleased with how Jason Robertson, left, and Jake Oettinger progressed during the 2021 season. Jerome Miron-USA TODAY SportsWhat 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 21-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.

Dylan Larkin is one of the players around whom Steve Yzerman will build the next Red Wings contender. Dave Reginek/NHLI via Getty ImagesWhat 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.

Catch NHL games streaming live every night (and on replay) this season on ESPN+. Click here for the upcoming schedule and to learn how to subscribe.

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.

The Kings have high hopes for 2020 No. 2 overall pick Quinton Byfield. Debora Robinson/NHLI via Getty ImagesWhat 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 fourThe Devils are building something good around defenseman Ty Smith, left, and center Jack Hughes. Rich Graessle/Icon SportswireWhat 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?The Rangers already have a superstar on the roster in Artemi Panarin. Will they add another this summer? Kathryn Riley/Getty ImagesWhat 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.

A panel of NHL players, coaches, GMs and other front-office personnel ranked the best players at each position:

• Centers• Wingers• Defensemen• Goalies

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 elected to fire 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, owner James Dolan appears to prefer a new voice. If the Rangers decide to 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.”

Thomas Chabot, left, and Brady Tkachuk are solid pieces with which to build a contender. Andrea Cardin/NHLI via Getty ImagesWhat 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.

Carter Hart is probably ready to put the 2021 season behind him. Tim Nwachukwu/Getty ImagesWhat 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.

2 Related

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 rebuildThere are some talented veterans in San Jose, but the team wasn’t able to deliver on its potential this season. Dilip Vishwanat/Getty ImagesWhat 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.”

The 2021 campaign didn’t go as planned for Elias Pettersson and the Canucks. Photo by Derek Cain/Icon SportswireWhat 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.

Published: 2021-06-01 02:36:39

Tags: #Keys #offseason #NHL #teams #including #draft #freeagency #game #plans


You might like

About the Author: Hockey Games Today

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *