Watching the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs might be the toughest part of the season for players on teams that didn't quite make the postseason. After the immediate shock, there tends to be a glimmer of hope, however.
This is when management and the coaching staff really hunkers down and figures out what to do next. No one wants to be left out of the playoffs, and missing the dance is usually a wake-up call that at least part of the plan isn't quite working.
There's the NHL draft to think about. In one of the deeper drafts in recent memory, teams that didn't finish in the basement could still find a gem towards the middle of the first round. And there's always free agency, a period of time that will be even more interesting than ever this year with the added element of the buyout.
Looking at the to-do list for the offseason, each team that missed the playoffs should have at least one very specific, outstanding problem that became evident throughout 2013. Whether or not there's an easy fix is a different question, but each team should have at least one distinct thing to get right before October rolls around.
Top Offseason Priority: Re-sign top free agents.
The tough part of the 2013 season for the Winnipeg Jets is how close they came to making the playoffs. On April 25th, the team needed some help from the Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals—playing the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators, respectively—to get into the postseason.
Both games went to overtime, and both teams that the Jets needed to lose eventually won those games. It doesn't get much closer than that.
Still, it's important to remember that these same Jets were the helpless Atlanta Thrashers just two years ago. In the long run, this crunch of a season will act as a hyperbolic time chamber for the young players in Winnipeg.
Management must deal with a lot of important internal personnel choices before looking ahead to free agency and the draft. Ron Hainsey, Nik Antropov, Mike Santorelli, Kyle Wellwood, Antti Miettinen, Grant Clitsome, Derek Meech and Al Montoya are all unrestricted free agents.
Antropov and the greatly improved Clitsome will most likely be the top priorities in this group of UFAs.
There are several restricted free agents as well, a few of which are crucial to the future of the franchise. Two-thirds of the top line in Blake Wheeler and Bryan Little are both restricted, while Zach Bogosian and Alexander Burmistrov are also in line for new contracts.
That's a lot of moving parts, and the management team in Winnipeg will have ample opportunity to move this team around a bit as it sees fit. It's imperative that the Jets stay the course here and keep this good, young core intact moving forward.
Top Offseason Priority: Re-sign David Clarkson and decide the future of Patrick Elias.
The Stanley Cup Finals must feel like something that occurs on a different planet to the New Jersey Devils right now. Just one season removed from playing for the ultimate prize, they find themselves on the outside of the playoffs looking in.
Once the sting wears off, Lou Lamoriello will have a few tough choices to make moving forward.
First and foremost, David Clarkson needs a new contract, and negotiations could get tricky. Is he a legit 30-goal scorer or a flash-in-the-pan type? Whichever Lamoriello believes will likely decide if Clarkson is back as a Devil next season.
He's a six-year veteran who has scored 93 goals across his entire career, with 41 of those goals coming in his last 108 games. Either he's a late bloomer or doing his best impression of Jonathan Cheechoo.
Patrik Elias has not been approached by any member of management to discuss a contract extension. (per NJ.com) That's typical of Lamoriello, who used this same tactic with Zach Parise only to see him walk away over the summer.
Has the long-time Devil played his last game in New Jersey? If the team is looking to get a bit younger and sees that chance coming down the pipeline via free agency, the answer could be yes. Still, Elias is the franchise's all-time leader in goals, assists and points, and he lead the team in scoring this season.
For a squad that has had issues putting the puck in the net, can it really afford to let him go?
Top Offseason Priority: Make nice with Ryan Miller or trade him to kick start the rebuild, then figure out what to do with Thomas Vanek.
You won't read anything about the Buffalo Sabres and their offseason without Ryan Miller's future with the team being at the center of the whole thing. This has been a Scrubs-worthy melodrama between a once beloved goaltender and team, and it needs to be sorted out one way or the other.
There are reports floating around that his game on Friday night against the New York Islanders would be his last in Buffalo as a Sabre (per Puck Daddy). Miller has worn both management and Buffalo fans down with his frank demeanor, and the fit may not be there any more.
The fact that Miller recently decided to put his townhouse in Buffalo up for sale might be a good indication of which way things are headed for the netminder (per the Buffalo News).
The Sabres may be wise to take what they can get for him and move on. Unlike the monstrous Roberto Luongo contract, Miller only has one year left on his pact and could be a very attractive option to a team looking for a stop gap in net.
Thomas Vanek may also be put on a lift and rotated out of town as well as the Sabres look to get younger in its rebuild (per the Buffalo News). The return the New York Rangers received for Marian Gaborik is probably a good comparable to what kind of deal Buffalo could secure for the services of the oft-injured sniper.
Proper trades for both Miller and Vanek might make 2014 look a bit more bleak, but as the Columbus Blue Jackets are currently showing, a little personality and grit goes a long way in this league.
Top Offseason Priority: Defense, defense and a little more defense.
The offseason priority hasn't changed over the year for the Philadelphia Flyers. Heading into the 2013 season, they knew they were going to be looking to fill some holes. Injuries quickly tore through almost the entire blue line, and that was pretty much it for the season.
Ilya Bryzgalov has been so-so for the Flyers—he certainly hasn't been the savior in net that the team was hoping for when GM Paul Holmgren offloaded future Stanley Cup Champs Jeff Carter and Mike Richards to make room for him—and any Philly fan that thinks that Steve Mason is the long-term answer in net is sorely mistaken.
Regardless of what happens in goal, the Flyers need help on defense in a big way. Losing Chris Pronger to the LTIR and Matt Carle to free agency were big dents that were never banged out. While no one important managed to stay healthy on the back end this season, even when at full force, this is an average-at-best group of defenders.
There are several Flyers-type defenseman available in the draft this season, and targeting either Darnell Nurse or Rasmus Ristolainen could be a big bump for a fragile blue line.
Top Offseason Priority: The top guns need to stay indoors and avoid injury at all costs while the kids get sent to Gary Roberts to work on their games over the summer.
The Gary Roberts comment is mildly sarcastic, but the young players in the Carolina Hurricanes system need to step up for this team to be successful. GM Jim Rutherford did his job and brought in marquee players in Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin to play alongside Eric Staal and Cam Ward.
Injuries derailed the season partially in Carolina, sure. Most of the blame lays on the shoulders of players like Zac Dalpe, Drayson Bowman and Jeff Skinner, who have failed to live up to their potential. These are guys that are supposed to round out one of the better top-six units in the NHL.
Instead, the youngsters on the team were marred by inconsistency and couldn't find a way to contribute on a nightly basis.
Skinner in particular was a disappointment in 2013. It's tough to be hard on a 20-year-old like him, but if you look at the Stanley Cup Champions since the Salary Cap, each team has had players in that same range playing much more important roles than their age would have indicated.
If the younger players on the roster can take a step forward—see Jiri Tlusty and Justin Faulk for perfect examples of what "stepping forward" means—and the 'Canes can manage to stay on the right side of the IR, then this should be a much better hockey team next year.
Top Offseason Priority: Develop the technology to clone Steven Stamkos or find a true NHL-caliber starting netminder.
The Tampa Bay Lightning used four different netminders through the shortened 2013 season. It's too early to say that the Anders Lindback experiment won't work out at all. It's not too early to say that it absolutely failed this year.
Lindback started 20 games and went on to post a 2.83 GAA and a .903 save percentage. Steven Stamkos and the forwards on this team are good, but they aren't bail-you-out-of-an-automatic-three-goal-hole good. At least not on a nightly basis.
To be fair, none of the other netminders that the Lightning rolled out this season worked out very well either. Mathieu Garon, Cedrick Desjardins and deadline acquisition Ben Bishop all posted very similar numbers to those of Lindback.
So is the real issue the guy between the pipes or the defensive schemes being rolled out in front of them?
Tampa needs to get to the bottom of it because next season will feature all 82 games, and sporting a pair of goalies that give up an average of three goals a game will make the season feel much, much longer in 2014 than it did in 2013.
Top Offseason Priority: Draft one of the "big three" at the draft in June and get healthy. Keeping Erik Gudbranson away from the wakeboards this offseason would be a plus.
The good news for the Florida Panthers is that there are three huge, beaming lights at the end of the tunnel that was an awful, injury-plagued 2013 season. Seth Jones, Jonathan Drouin and Nathan MacKinnon are each good consolation prizes for only a few months of agony.
The injury bug hit Florida early and never really let up, forcing the team to ice AHL-caliber talent throughout much of the year.
Jonathan Huberdeau was every bit as good as advertised, and adding another player of his ilk at the draft will only bode well for a franchise that is struggling to stay relevant in the NHL's fickle landscape. A division banner one year, and then into the basement the next.
Goaltender-of-the-future Jacob Markstrom was baptized in the fire this season and looked like he could stop a thimble off the stick of Alex Ovechkin at times. Of course, there were the other occasions where he didn't appear to be focused and gave up piles of goals as well.
When healthy, this is a team that can do some damage. The defensive core is underrated with guys like Dmitry Kulikov and Gudbranson backing up veterans such as Brian Campbell. The Panthers also sport a few guys who can score some goals.
Adding one of the big three to the mix would be an outstanding sign of things to come in Florida.
Top Offseason Priority: Secure the services of Mike Smith. Steady ownership would be nice too, but who's holding their breath for that at this point?
If the Phoenix Coyotes had managed to ink goaltender Mike Smith to an extension prior to the 2013 season, they would have ended up overpaying in a big way based on his performance this season. He was hampered by injuries and only managed to secure 15 victories for the desert dogs as they failed to make the playoffs.
To the credit of the Coyotes, they hung tough and didn't fall out of contention until the final week of the regular season, But was this ever a team that was going to overcome a four- or five-point deficit with only a handful of games left on the docket?
Math is sometimes cruel, and at other times it is kind.
While it wasn't on the side of Phoenix concerning the playoffs, waiting until this summer to attempt to secure the services of Smith might show the team the pleasant side of numbers.
After all, the 2012 version of Smith would have cost just a few bucks more than the 2013 version of Smith. We're probably not looking at saving a bundle of cash here, but every little bit counts for a franchise that will continue to be strapped for money until an ownership solution is found in Glendale.
Top Offseason Priority: Resist the temptation of aging free agents and let the kids play.
Now ex-GM Joe Nieuwendyk can't be blamed for pouncing on the chance to bring in a player like Jaromir Jagr. Nor can he be blamed for grabbing at Derek Roy when the cost was Steve Ott.
Many kudos to the man for looking at that team at the deadline, deciding it wasn't working and ending the experiment as quickly as it began. Nieuwendyk received valuable assets in return for his veteran players instead of just watching the sands fall through the hourglass, Calgary Flames style.
Brendan Morrow's days in Dallas were numbered, and it was a great move by management to move him out while his value was still significant.
Now that Morrow, Roy and Jagr are all playing for other teams, the Stars finally seem to be clicking as a unit. They held on to a playoff hope up until the final week of the regular season and seemed to play much better puck without the trio of veterans.
Lesson learned. Let the kids play in Dallas, and good things happen.
This is Jamie Benn's team now. The squad has been utilizing a north-south, up-tempo style over its last ten games, and the results have been better for a team that wasn't quite set up for the puck possession game.
Alex Chiasson is emerging as a possible high-end talent, and forwards Radek Faksa, Brett Ritchie and Alex Guptill could all make an impact in the NHL soon.
Dallas also boasts an enviable combination of talent and size with its young defenders. Jamie Oleksiak got his feet wet with 16 games with the Stars this season, and newly acquired Joe Morrow is the type of offensive-defenseman teams covet.
Top Offseason Priority: Become less pretty and a little more gritty.
There isn't another team in the NHL that boasts the same overwhelming abundance of young, game-breaking talent as the Edmonton Oilers. Yet the team once again managed to miss the playoffs in 2013 while watching upstarts such as the Columbus Blue Jackets and Dallas Stars scrap for a spot until the bitter end.
At what juncture is not being one of the top eight teams in the conference unacceptable for this franchise?
While the Oilers won't have an issue scoring goals down the road, they may continue to have problems preventing them. As a whole, Edmonton is too easy to play against—no one dreads heading to Rexall for a matchup against this team.
That needs to change before the Oilers are going to make any noise.
Luckily for them, adding grit is a bit easier than adding guys that are capable of scoring five goals in a game. A trade like the one the Detroit Red Wings pulled off for Brendan Shanahan would be massive for Edmonton. Players like Shanny don't go up on the trading block every day, but it wasn't too long ago that Chris Stewart was shipped to the St. Louis Blues.
There are various trade avenues that the Oilers could explore. If nothing else, the team should resist the urge to use yet another high pick on an all-finish kind of player. Instead, going to route of a tougher power forward would do this team a boatload of good.
Top Offseason Priority: Stick to the rebuild and don't blow any draft picks.
How Jay Feaster continues to have a job is beyond me. He's been one of the most ineffective GMs in professional hockey over the last few years and has managed to screw everything up from the Jarome Iginla trade to the Ryan O'Reilly offer sheet
The Calgary Flames have a great shot at securing a top-five pick in this draft and almost gave that away for a second line center (albeit a good one).
Easy jabs at Feaster not withstanding, Calgary needs to hit nothing but home runs at the draft this year. Ignore the free-agent market for the time being—since being given an opportunity to play big minutes, guys like Sven Baertschi and Roman Cervenka have been great.
Feaster and Co. needs to not take any shots on random projects like Mark Jankowski. 2013 sports a deep draft chock full of players that could help the Flames within the next year or two. Going best-player-available across the board and continuing to restock the prospect pool with reliable names might be the way to go for Calgary.
Save the pot shots for the later rounds.
Top Offseason Priority: Continue to aggressively get offensive.
The Martin Erat-for-Filip Forsberg deal was one of the best of the 2013 trade deadline. Both the Nashville Predators and Washington Capitals received exactly what they were looking for: The Caps received a legit top-six forward that was ready to step into a scoring role for the playoffs while the Preds locked up a potentially elite, young forward.
Forsberg could (and should) signal a bit of a new direction for Nashville.
For the last several years, this has been a team that has relied on stingy goaltending and outstanding team defense to win hockey games. The strength in net is still there, but the loss of Ryan Suter was more devastating than anyone could have imagined.
He's put up a Norris-worthy season with the Minnesota Wild while Shea Weber struggled to steady his game through much of 2013.
The defense-first mentality will continue to be a mainstay in Nashville, but they flat-out need the ability to score more goals. They have an enviable amount of young talent on the blue line, so continuing to beef up the forward ranks should take priority.
It seems likely that Nashville will be drafting much higher than it is used to, and adding another elite forward to the mix would be a huge boost for a team that has never really boasted huge stars up front.
Top Offseason Priority: Draft Seth Jones.
Nathan MacKinnon or Jonathan Drouin would fit in fine with the Colorado Avalanche, but the chance to draft Seth Jones should excite just about any Avs fan.
Players cut from this fabric don't come along very often. Jones is possibly the kind of player that could turn around the fortunes of an entire franchise, and that's exactly the kind of player that they need in Colorado.
Adding Jones to a back end that already includes Erik Johnson with Tyson Barrie, Duncan Siemens and Stefan Elliot coming up the pipeline would solidify the blue line for a decade-plus in Colorado. Not to mention the "crossover appeal" that the kid brings with him.
He's an exciting player with incredible poise and a nose for big moments. With everything else going on with the Avalanche and how they could soon be a team in flux with changes to the front office and behind the bench, Jones would give fans something positive to talk about and look forward to.
For the next 15 years.
Top Offseason Priority: Stay hungry and positive.
One period of play. That's how far away the Columbus Blue Jackets came to making the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs. Sadly for the Jackets and their fans, the Colorado Avalanche just didn't have enough in the tank to knock off the Minnesota Wild despite trailing by one goal for the entire third period.
Columbus did its part by knocking off the Nashville Predators in dramatic fashion but missed out on the playoffs via tiebreaker.
It was dramatic—take that from a person that had both games going simultaneously—and heartbreaking for a team that was supposed to compete for the top selection in the upcoming lottery draft.
The change of culture is officially complete, implemented by team president John Davidson when he took over the squad last season. Over the year and a handful of months, Columbus has seen a multitude of changes that all appear to have been for the better.
The team offloaded Rick Nash during the offseason and were expected to struggle. Instead they found a keeper in Sergei Bobrovsky and a team identity to go along with him.
In the offseason, the Jackets need to stay this course. They have a whopping three first-round draft selections this year and can do some serious damage by selecting well. This is a team on the upswing, and both players and management would do themselves well to remember that as the sting from missing the playoffs on a tiebreaker wears off.