Through the first week of free agency and almost a month into the NHL offseason — since the St. Louis Blues hoisted the Stanley Cup on June 12 — several teams have taken a step back on paper and will have their work cut out for them going forward.
Granted, there are still some quality players available on the open market — Jake Gardiner, Ryan Dzingel and Micheal Ferland, to name a few — and also the potential for more offer sheets this summer, but most of the retooling has already taken place for the season to come.
As of today, here are seven teams that appear to be trending down — four from the Western Conference and three from Eastern Conference, with the divisional breakdown being three from the Metropolitan and two from both the Central and Pacific.
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Columbus Blue Jackets
Jarmo Kekalainen went all-in at this year’s trade deadline and it worked to some degree, with the Blue Jackets shockingly sweeping the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs for Columbus’ first-ever series win.
Problem is, that success wasn’t enough to retain their stars and there has since been a mass exodus from Columbus — Sergei Bobrovsky to Florida, Artemi Panarin to the New York Rangers and Matt Duchene to Nashville, with Ryan Dzingel also shopping his services elsewhere as a free agent.
The replacements, as of now, are Gustav Nyquist, a second-tier free-agent signing, and promising-but-unproven rookie forwards Alexandre Texier and Emil Bemstrom, while Joonas Korpisalo is taking over the net in a tandem with North American newcomer Elvis Merzlikins.
Optimists be damned, those are significant downgrades across the board and John Tortorella will be returning to a depleted roster come training camp unless Kekalainen works some late-summer magic to better fill those glaring holes.
As is, with the kids pencilled in, it’s difficult to envision Columbus as a playoff team again in 2020 — especially with a few other Metropolitan teams trending up.
Bob Murray ended up behind the bench in a losing season as Anaheim missed the playoffs for the first time in seven years — since 2012 — and now the perennial-contending Ducks appear destined for a full rebuild.
Corey Perry was bought out to signal a changing of the guard, while Ryan Kesler and Patrick Eaves remain question marks but seem unlikely to return due to injuries and illness.
Ryan Getzlaf is still the captain and face of the franchise, but it’s time to wonder how much longer he’ll be calling Anaheim home?
Reality is, the Ducks are going to go young under new coach Dallas Eakins — who had success with Anaheim’s prospects in San Diego before getting promoted to the big league — and that means plenty of opportunity for the likes of Troy Terry, Sam Steel, Max Comtois, Isac Lundestrom, Max Jones, Brendan Guhle, Jacob Larsson and Josh Mahura this coming season.
There will be growing pains, but some believe the Ducks might actually be better by passing the torch to those kids. Anaheim also signed AHL playoff MVP Andrew Poturalski, a 25-year-old career minor-leaguer who could make the most of his NHL chance. Jani Hakanpaa, a 27-year-old former St. Louis prospect coming off a big season back home in Finland, was another under-the-radar signing for Anaheim that could pay dividends.
Anaheim has always drafted and developed well, so the Ducks won’t stay down for long. This will likely be a down season, but if anything can save Anaheim, it’ll be the goaltending of John Gibson and Ryan Miller. That position remains an organizational strength, with the addition of Anthony Stolarz to battle Kevin Boyle in the AHL, while Lukas Dostal and Olle Eriksson Ek could be the future in net.
Paul Fenton hasn’t provided any real sense of direction yet, with a series of puzzling moves since taking over as Minnesota’s general manager in May 2018.
The Wild aren’t built to win now and aren’t even a playoff contender on paper. But that didn’t stop Fenton from signing Mats Zuccarello to a five-year contract that will take him to 37 years old. Zucarello joins an aging and declining core led by Mikko Koivu (36), Zach Parise (soon-to-be 35), Eric Staal (also turning 35), Ryan Suter (34) and Devan Dubnyk (33).
Fenton also signed Ryan Hartman, who he knew just briefly from his Nashville days, after previously acquiring another former Predator in Kevin Fiala. That trade, straight up for Mikael Granlund, and the 1-for-1 swap of Nino Niederreiter for Victor Rask aren’t favourable for Minnesota going forward.
Fenton has also twice failed to trade Jason Zucker — first to Calgary, then to Pittsburgh as part of a package for Phil Kessel — so we’ll see if the third time is the charm prior to training camp.
In the meantime, Fenton should be targeting Nikita Gusev — the restricted free agent asking for more than cap-strapped Vegas can afford to pay the KHL star — because that acquisition could further entice Kirill Kaprizov to join the fold at season’s end.
Getting Kaprizov signed, sealed and delivered — in a Wild jersey — might be the biggest win for Minnesota in 2020. Then Fenton can go to work in rebuilding around that young Russian sensation who might be the best player outside the NHL this coming season — a title that formerly belonged to Gusev.
With Ryan Donato, Jordan Greenway, Luke Kunin, college signing Nico Sturm and 2019 first-rounder Matthew Boldy, in addition to Fiala and Joel Eriksson Ek, the future is fairly bright for Minnesota’s forward group, but Kaprizov could be the best of that bunch and the Wild desperately need to get that deal done in order to trend up again.
Kevin Cheveldayoff’s window to win with Winnipeg is getting a little tighter, with the Jets also feeling a cap crunch now that Patrik Laine and Kyle Connor need new contracts — and could be offer-sheet targets in the present.
Protecting against that possibility, the Jets traded Jacob Trouba for a much cheaper-but-inferior Neal Pionk and allowed Tyler Myers and Ben Chiarot to get away as free agents, which has depleted Winnipeg’s defence. As of now, rookies would be stepping into those roles with Sami Niku and Tucker Poolman likely getting their opportunities to shine despite Winnipeg re-upping Nathan Beaulieu. Logan Stanley, a first-rounder from 2016, could also get a long look in camp.
There is still some uncertainty up front, with reports that Jack Roslovic requested a trade due to a limited role and speculation that Nik Ehlers is being shopped to free up more cap space or to better plug one of those gaping holes on the blue line. Buffalo’s Ramsus Ristolainen could be the return for Ehlers. Jake Gardiner could also be an attractive option at the right price — meaning less than what Myers is now making in Vancouver ($6 million).
Turmoil is a strong word, but these are suddenly challenging times for Cheveldayoff as he attempts to mitigate those losses while locking up his young core for the long term.
The pressure will also be on Paul Maurice to keep Winnipeg in the contender conversation for the season to come. Easier said than done.
Jim Rutherford wanted to shake things up this summer, with the potential for major changes in Pittsburgh.
Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang were floated on the trade market, but the two significant moves to date involved Phil Kessel to Arizona for Alex Galchenyuk and Olli Maatta to Chicago for Dominik Kahun. The Penguins didn’t come out ahead in those deals and Rutherford’s only free-agent signing of note was a six-year head-scratcher for Brandon Tanev. That amount of term for a role player is pretty unheard of — especially with Tanev essentially a clone of Bryan Rust, who is subsequently being shopped.
Pittsburgh will be getting full seasons of Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann — now that they are familiar with Mike Sullivan — but it’s hard to envision these Penguins being any better than the team that got swept by the Islanders in the first round.
The depth on defence is a real concern — heaven forbid Letang gets hurt again — and Rutherford has yet to shore up his goaltending either. Curtis McElhinney could have been a good target there, but Louis Domingue and James Reimer appear to be available through the trade route. Nothing against Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry, but that move probably has to happen.
This team still has Sidney Crosby, so Pittsburgh is tough to bet against, but the Penguins will need a healthy and stellar season from Matt Murray in goal just to make the playoffs again. Otherwise, Rutherford will be shopping Justin Schultz at the trade deadline as a pending free agent next summer. Perhaps Galchenyuk too, depending what happens with his contract situation.
San Jose Sharks
Doug Wilson knows how to manoeuvre around the salary cap — as evidenced by Kevin Labanc’s one-year, $1-million extension — but San Jose has suffered some significant losses this summer.
That list includes former captain Joe Pavelski — thought to be a career Shark — and fellow forwards Gustav Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi, plus steady defender Justin Braun. There just wasn’t enough money to go around once Wilson committed $92 million to Erik Karlsson over the next eight seasons and extended Timo Meier for four more years totalling $24 million.
Wilson isn’t regretting those decisions in the present — Karlsson and Meier are certainly keepers — but there is still work to be done in rounding out San Jose’s roster. That is presumed to include extending Joe Thornton and reuniting with Patrick Marleau on discounted deals.
Dylan Gambrell should get a regular role as a result of those departures, along with sophomore Lukas Radil and newcomer Jonny Brodzinski, with a handful of other forward prospects and European signings also knocking on the door for playing time.
The one area of ongoing concern is San Jose’s goaltending, with Wilson still hoping to upgrade on Aaron Dell as the team’s backup by adding a netminder capable of pushing Martin Jones for the starting job. Jones faltered in the playoffs and Pete DeBoer will no doubt want more consistency in the crease this coming season, but will there be enough money left to address that need?
The Sharks may not skip much of a beat — and might benefit from the return of Bob Boughner to the coaching staff — but they aren’t as good on paper today as they were in reaching the Western Conference final. That much is for certain.
New York Islanders
The Islanders overachieved last season, getting the Barry Trotz bump as most of the breaks went their way in the first season under Lou Lamoriello’s watch.
Trotz’s systems took hold — en route to winning another Jack Adams Award as coach of the year — and the players bought into an underdog mentality. Despite losing John Tavares to Toronto, the Islanders made it further in the playoffs than the Maple Leafs.
Perhaps sensing that overachievement, Lamoriello tried to make a big splash this summer by pursuing the biggest fish in Panarin. He lost that bidding war to the rival Rangers but still has money to throw at somebody, which has fuelled speculation of an offer sheet for Mitch Marner.
Imagine that, Toronto steals Tavares from the Islanders, only to have Lamoriello respond by luring away the much younger Marner a year later. But would Marner, a Toronto kid, actually sign an offer sheet from the Islanders? That is a valid question.
The Islanders did manage to re-sign their trio of unrestricted free agents in captain Anders Lee, Brock Nelson and Jordan Eberle to keep their top-six forwards intact. They lost third-line centre Valtteri Filppula to Detroit, but there are still options to replace him such as Brian Boyle, Derick Brassard or Riley Sheahan.
The Islanders haven’t really added to date, but their biggest change is in goal where Robin Lehner has been replaced by Semyon Varlamov. That was surprising since Lehner stood tall for the Islanders as a Vezina finalist — and settled for the same salary in Chicago — but Varlamov was viewed as a better long-term fit to eventually mentor Russian prospect Ilya Sorokin.
It’s not too late for Lamoriello to do some adding — Jake Gardiner could still be on his radar too, from their time together in Toronto — but the Islanders will be hard-pressed to repeat last season’s success with much the same roster. They won’t sneak up on anybody or be taken lightly, that’s for sure.
Larry Fisher is a senior writer and head scout for The Hockey Writers, having been an at-large contributor for THW since August 2014. Fisher covers both the NHL and the WHL, specializing in prospects and NHL draft content, including his annual mock drafts that date back to 2012. Fisher has also been a beat writer for the WHL’s Kelowna Rockets since 2008, formerly working as a sports reporter/editor for The Daily Courier in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada from 2008-2019. Follow him on Twitter: @LarryFisher_KDC.