NHL Offseason: One Player Each Non-Playoff Team Should Pursue This Summer
For the 14 NHL teams who won't be playing any towel-waving, hard-hitting playoff hockey games this spring, the lockout-shortened 2013 season proved more of a revealing examination than a utopian success story.
Somewhere, deep within the talented roster that composes any professional hockey club, a fatal flaw or disastrous hole was uncovered that doomed this fast-paced campaign.
And, as next October's new season begins its tantalizing six-month approach, each of those ruinous vacancies must be both fixed and resolved. Whether through June's draft, July's free agency or a trade somewhere in between, every non-playoff team will have some work to do in the coming months.
Which players should be targeted in order to fill each of those gaps? We point out and analyze one prospect or free agent that each of the 14 non-qualifying clubs should pursue this summer on the coming slides.
Note: For the sake of diversity, each player is listed only for one realistic team, regardless of the widespread interest they may garner.
Colorado Avalanche: Seth Jones
Missed Playoffs By: 16 points
The Colorado Avalanche entered Monday's draft lottery with the second overall pick but only 18.8 percent odds of moving up one spot to first.
The Western Conference's last-place finisher got lucky, however, and now seem almost assured of selecting consensus No. 1 pick Seth Jones.
Jones has been touted as one of the most draft-ready defensemen in decades, taking center stage during the United States' gold medal run in the World Junior Championships in January. He would be the first African-American player ever drafted first overall in the NHL draft.
For an Avalanche squad that entered 2013 with tentatively optimistic expectations but fell flat on its face—partially because of their 25th-ranked defense in terms of shots allowed—Jones should be the prize of the summer.
Columbus Blue Jackets: Michael Ryder
Missed Playoffs By: 0 points (tiebreaker with Minnesota)
The Blue Jackets vaulted from last place overall in 2012 to the last team out of the playoffs in 2013, adding first-line superstar Marian Gaborik and a million times more confidence to the franchise in the process.
Their draft selection won't be nearly as good this time around, but Columbus has proven they're a lot closer to the postseason than they appear on paper.
With 38-year-old leading scorer Vinny Prospal set to enter free agency in July—and no other player on the current roster over the age of 31—the Jackets may soon realize that a veteran presence or two will be needed.
Michael Ryder, 33, is one player who would not only fill that role but also fit right in with the rest of Columbus' reliable yet unheralded cast of players. He's a former Stanley Cup winner (2011 with Boston), coming off a 16-goal, 35-point season with Dallas and Montreal and has never missed more than 12 games in any of his nine NHL campaigns.
He'd be a reasonable and responsible addition for the Blue Jackets on the open July market.
Phoenix Coyotes: Elias Lindholm
Missed Playoffs by: 4 points
The Phoenix Coyotes' streak of three consecutive playoff appearances came to a quiet end in 2013, missing the postseason by just four points on paper but, realistically, quite a bit more in overall performance.
The 'Yotes pick 12th in June's draft, but they might be inclined to trade up a few slots for well-rounded Swedish center Elias Lindholm.
Phoenix lacks a lot of star power down the middle—Martin Hanzal wouldn't be considered a No. 1 center on most other teams—and Lindholm is just the kind of low-profile, hard-working centerman who could enjoy playing hockey in the desert.
Most experts project him to be a top-10 pick, though, so reeling him in could require a bit of wheeling on the part of GM Don Maloney.
New Jersey Devils: Jarome Iginla
Missed Playoffs by: 7 points
Last year's Eastern Conference champions tanked down the stretch, clearly missing former captain Zach Parise and oft-injured Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur as the pressure dialed up in March and April.
One long-time veteran with proven leadership skills and experience in all types of situations is Penguins winger Jarome Iginla, acquired from Calgary less than a month ago but still a pending UFA this summer.
Whether or not Iginla's well-known dream of a Stanley Cup ring will come true this spring is still unknown, but despite their disappointing season this year, the Devils should have a solid interest for Iginla either way.
Current first-line winger Patrik Elias is also set to be a free agent, and New Jersey's 28th-place finish in offense is quite concerning moving forward. Iginla's introduction to the fold might be just what this franchise needs to get back on the right track.
Calgary Flames: Aleksander Barkov
Missed Playoffs by: 13 points
If missing out on the eighth seed by more than a dozen points can ever be considered over-performing, the Calgary Flames did so this year.
Receiving the sixth overall choice is almost insulting for a team that is among the league's thinnest in every major category and now lacks former captain and best player Jarome Iginla, too. Making matters worse is the fact that Calgary is also the NHL's third-oldest team.
The good fortune of dynamic Finnish center Aleksander Barkov slipping to sixth might be the blessing of a lifetime for the Flames.
Barkov, at 6'2", 210 lbs, likely possesses the most balanced combination of grit and finesse among this year's highly ranked prospects. He'd be able to step into the NHL quickly and provide a great influx of youth and energy to the paltry Calgary offense that "featured" a minus-15 leading scorer (Mike Cammalleri) in 2013.
Philadelphia Flyers: Nikita Zadorov
Missed Playoffs by: 6 points
Big? Tough? Physical? Aggressive?
Sounds like the Philadelphia Flyers, no?
Current OHL defenseman Nikita Zadorov is not only one of the most underrated youngsters in this June's stacked draft class; his playing style, moreover, is unbelievably perfect for the Philadelphia Flyers, who are in desperate need for a back-end makeover and happen to own the 11th overall pick.
The massive—and we're talking about 6'5", 230-pound massive—blueliner was touted by London Knights coach Mark Hunter as having "unlimited potential." That surely sounds great in Philadelphia, where the Flyers finished the season with four defenseman of fewer than 60 games in the lineup and missed the playoffs for the first time since 2007.
If you aren't already convinced of this Cupid-made combination, consider that 18-year-old Zadorov would already be the heaviest and second-tallest player on the Flyers' rough-and-tumble roster.
It's a match made in heaven.
Carolina Hurricanes: Mark Streit
Missed Playoffs By: 13 points
A plethora of injuries and some absolutely atrocious defensive play derailed the Carolina Hurricanes' promising 15-9-1 start in a hurry.
The 'Canes lost 19 of their final 23 games to crash into the fifth overall pick and miss the playoffs by a whopping 13 points. While they'll certainly have some great options with that high selection (an Alexander Semin-Valeri Nichushkin Russian duo would be extremely intimidating a few years down the road), GM Jim Rutherford is most focused on improving the defense immediately.
New York Islanders captain and highest-scoring 2013 UFA defenseman Mark Streit, now 35, isn't nearly as worn down as his age indicates and would instantly improve both the puck-moving capabilities and board-battle toughness of Carolina's "D."
He's excellent at staying healthy—something comparable Carolina rearguard Joni Pitkanen definitely is not—and could provide a great boost to the Hurricanes' 27th-ranked power play, having recorded 61 assists in 128 games over the last two seasons.
Winnipeg Jets: David Clarkson
Missed Playoffs by: 4 points
New Jersey Devils winger David Clarkson has arguably redefined the NHL's idealistic representation of a true power forward over the past two years.
The 6'1", 200-lb 29-year-old shocked everyone with his 30-goal explosion in 2011-12 before following it up with 15 more lit lamps in 2013. It's not too often that one player can finish first on his team in goals along with being second in hits, but Clarkson did so this past regular season.
Now he's going to take his bruising frame to the free-agent market, and the Winnipeg Jets—longing a physical, sturdy presence to play alongside flashy forwards like Evander Kane and Andrew Ladd—may soon come calling.
The Jets held the Southeast Division lead at one point in the season's second half, but their inexperienced and perhaps still overly inconsistent squad just couldn't quite close the deal. Clarkson, on the other hand, seems like a perfect fix for all of Winnipeg's flaws, and the Jets should have the cash to lure him in come July, too.
Tampa Bay Lightning: Jonathan Drouin
Missed Playoffs by: 15 points
How many top-notch forwards do the Tampa Bay Lightning need before they can return to playoff contention?
A whole lot, apparently.
It's frankly astonishing that a team sporting the No. 1 and No. 2 scorers on the continent (Martin St. Louis with 60 points and Steven Stamkos with 57 points, respectively) could fall 15 points short of the cut-off line and receive the third overall draft pick.
Having Stamkos and St. Louis, along with Teddy Purcell, Vincent Lecavalier, Benoit Pouliot and others, doesn't seem to be enough, though, so perhaps Jonathan Drouin will put this team over the ridge. The speedy winger has exactly the same quickness and puck-handling ability that St. Louis has built his career on, and many think Drouin is talented enough to have been a first overall selection in other years.
The Lightning need defense much more than offense, but new, up-and-coming netminder Ben Bishop should help stabilize the team's GAA next season, and there's absolutely no way they could pass on Drouin at third.
Edmonton Oilers: Darnell Nurse
Missed Playoffs by: 10 points
All lofty expectations for this Oilers season went quickly tumbling down the drain as the team floundered in the campaign's closing weeks. Big-name newcomers Justin Schultz and Nail Yakupov went a combined minus-21, only four forwards managed more than 20 points and Edmonton finished in the league's lower half in both offense and defense.
Picking seventh will be a bit of a transition for GM Craig MacTavish, however, after the club's three-year streak of first overall picks was officially ended Monday night.
He'll likely want to find a young, solid first-pairing partner for Schultz moving forward—Jeff Petry isn't quite the ideal player for that role—and should have his choice of good blueliners (Rasmus Ristolainen, Nikita Zadorov, Darnell Nurse) late in the top 10.
Nurse won't blow anyone away offensively, but his conservative style and ready toughness would be an excellent compliment alongside Schultz a few years down the line.
And, who knows, perhaps he can also be the young star that finally hoists Edmonton into the top eight.
Florida Panthers: Nathan MacKinnon
Missed Playoffs by: 19 points
Nathan MacKinnon's stat line has closely resembled that of a top-six NHL forward for the past two years in the QMJHL—31 goals and 78 points in 2011-12, 32 goals and 75 points in 2012-13—but those numbers become quite a bit more surprising when considering he played just 58 and 44 games, respectively.
The Florida Panthers were practically sporting an AHL roster by season's end and have the unusual distinction of finishing 30th in both goals for and goals against. MacKinnon's exciting, lively playing style and incredible scoring talent is exactly what the Panthers would love to have alongside rookie leading scorer Jonathan Huberdeau, who was one of few bright spots in southern Florida this spring.
They'll have plenty of enticing options with the second pick, but taking the slight risk on MacKinnon is a chance worth taking.
Nashville Predators: Mike Ribeiro
Missed Playoffs by: 14 points
Any team averaging a paltry 25.9 shots per game is going to have a tough time consistently lighting the lamp, as the Nashville Predators' 29th-ranked offense soon discovered.
Landing Filip Forsberg at the deadline helps the future potency of this unit tremendously, but they still need a lot more playmaking ability and need it quickly.
Mike Ribeiro, the leading scorer in 2013 among all upcoming UFAs, kept the Capitals' goal-scoring alive this year even when Ovechkin and Backstrom couldn't. He ranked fifth in the league with 36 assists and tied for 10th with 49 points, closing out the final season of his five-year contract with a raise-worthy campaign.
No team needs offense more desperately than Nashville and no available free agent can provide more offense than Ribeiro.
Sounds like a good fit.
Buffalo Sabres: Valeri Nichushkin
Missed Playoffs by: 7 points
The Buffalo Sabres' late-season playoff push seemed feasible for a little while, but, despite winning six of their final 10 contests, there just wasn't enough left in the tank to squeeze in this year.
Although GM Darcy Regier found a great trade return for Jason Pominville at the deadline, the Sabres are now extremely shallow on the wings. Three of their top four scorers in 2013 are listed as centers and LW Thomas Vanek, coming off a sporadically great campaign, will see his production drop significantly in the coming years without a new wingman across the ice.
Fortunately, Buffalo has the eighth overall choice to take care of that hole.
Incredibly talented but contractually uncertain Russian winger Valeri Nuchushkin (try that name in the spelling bee!) has a chance to slip that far—he's by far the biggest risk of the top 10—but the Sabres may also have to trade up to fifth or sixth to ensure their selection.
At 6'4", Nuchushkin is more of a power forward than the Alexander Ovechkin/Alexander Semin model, but he could take Buffalo's offense to an entirely new level of versatility.
Dallas Stars: Pascal Dupuis
Missed Playoffs by: 7 points
The Dallas Stars have now missed the playoffs in the season's final week for two consecutive Aprils and were, in fact, a lot closer than that seven-point margin indicates this time around.
Meanwhile, Pascal Dupuis, now 34, continued to prove that he only gets better with age. Dupuis set the highest point-per-game rate of his career with 20 goals and 37 points in 48 games, benefiting greatly from his position alongside Chris Kunitz and Sidney Crosby on Pittsburgh's top line.
On a Stars team filled with unheralded players—Jamie Benn and Loui Eriksson are two of the most underrated forwards in the NHL—Dupuis would transition in comfortably, providing a reliable locker-room presence and steady on-ice performance.
Dupuis could be, like many of the players discussed on previous slides, that one item that finally gets Dallas to the postseason.
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