Top Offseason Priority for Each Team Eliminated in Round 1 of 2014 NHL Playoffs
As the NHL playoffs advance into the second round, the eight teams eliminated from the opening round must confront the weaknesses which dashed their Stanley Cup dreams.
Each team has different needs to be addressed. Some have rosters filled with promising youth in need of veteran experience and leadership. One is a longtime playoff contender currently going through a transition period. Another is a dominant regular-season team which underachieves in the postseason.
Some must make substantial moves, while others merely need to fine-tune their rosters.
How each team addresses its respective issues will have significant consequences upon their respective performances next season and beyond. A rising salary cap for 2014-15 should be a major factor in how most of these teams respond to their needs.
Here's a look at the top offseason priority for each club eliminated from the opening round of this year's playoff, its importance going into next season and potential solutions.
The priority: Improve their overall defensive game.
Why it's important: No other NHL goaltender saw more shots against this season than the Avs' Semyon Varlamov (2,013). During the regular season, they gave up the sixth-most shots against per game (32.7). If not for Varlamov, a finalist for the 2014 Vezina Trophy, the Avalanche would have struggled to reach to playoffs. Teams which give up that many shots not only risk burning out their goalie, but they tend not to go far in the postseason. They learned that lesson the hard way against the Minnesota Wild.
How to address it: Pursuing a skilled shutdown defenseman and adding another quality checking-line forward should be management's goal this summer. Free-agent options are limited, with the most notable being blueliners Brooks Orpik and Ron Hainsey, while Steve Ott and Brian Boyle are possible checking-line candidates. The Avs have depth in young talent if they wish to go the trade route. The Nashville Predators could be a trade partner. They're in need of scoring and could part with some of their defensive grit.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The priority: Re-sign Ryan Johansen.
Why it's important: Johansen enjoyed a breakout performance this season. He was the Blue Jackets' leading scoring during the regular season and tied with Brandon Dubinsky as their second-leading scorer in their conference quarterfinal against Pittsburgh. The 21-year-old center is also a restricted free agent coming off an entry-level contract. Johansen lacks arbitration rights, but could receive an offer sheet from a rival club if negotiations drag into July.
How to address it: Get Johansen under contract before July or risk another club setting the terms with an expensive offer sheet. Last summer, the Jackets re-signed Sergei Bobrovsky to a two-year bridge contract, so they'll likely go the same route with Johansen. Bobrovsky got $11.25 million ($5.625 million per season), but he was coming off a Vezina Trophy campaign. Johansen's deal could be in the range of $3.5 million per season.
The priority: Add an experienced top-six winger.
Why it's important: During the regular season, first-line Stars Jamie Benn and Tyler Seguin carried the bulk of their offense. That was a factor in the Stars struggling down the stretch to clinch a playoff berth. It also played a part in their first-round elimination in six games by the Anaheim Ducks. While young forwards Cody Eakin, Alex Chiasson and Valeri Nichushkin have promise, they haven't fully developed yet into proven top-six forwards. Adding a skilled top-six winger could provide a significant boost to their secondary scoring.
How to address it: Stars general manager Jim Nill showed a willingness to make bold moves last summer by acquiring Seguin from Boston in a multiplayer deal. He has depth in young assets to make another significant trade this summer. If ownership is willing to invest its $20 million cap space, there are some enticing options via free agency. Left wingers include Thomas Vanek, Mike Cammalleri, Milan Michalek and Matt Moulson, while Marian Gaborik, Jarome Iginla, Ales Hemky, Ryan Callahan and Radim Vrbata are right-wing possibilities.
Detroit Red Wings
The priority: Find a top-four, right-handed defenseman.
Why it's important: Though the Red Wings qualified for the playoffs for the 23rd straight year, they're a team in transition. As older veterans declined, younger players were given more playing time and responsibilities. MLive.com's Ansar Khan reports GM Ken Holland and head coach Mike Babcock acknowledged improvement is needed. “Our back end has got to be better and we got to be able to score better up front,” said Babcock. Their most-pressing need is a top-four defenseman with a right-handed shot. “If we can find a top-four right-handed shooting defenseman by trade or free agency, we'd certainly like to add one,” said Holland.
How to address it: With several aging players coming off the books this summer, the Wings have over $19 million in cap space. They've traditionally kept pace with a rising cap, so they have room to add that right-handed blueliner. Free-agent targets could include Matt Niskanen, Dan Boyle, Marek Zidlicky or Derek Morris. Better options could be found via trade, as the Wings have depth in young talent to use as bait. ESPN.com's Craig Custance suggested Buffalo's Christian Ehrhoff or Vancouver's Alex Edler as trade targets.
The priority: Find a top-two defenseman.
Why it's important: During the regular season, the Flyers were 19th in shots against per game (30.6) and 20th in goals against per game (2.77). Their defense corps hasn't been the same since concussion and eye injuries forced Chris Pronger into perpetual long-term injured reserve until his contract expires. Compounding the problem is the fact that aging Kimmo Timonen could retire this summer.
How to address it: It won't be easy. The Flyers have been linked to Nashville Predators captain Shea Weber since inking him to an offer sheet (subsequently matched by the Predators) in July 2012. Earlier this year, ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun reported Predators GM David Poile has no intention of trading Weber, so the Flyers must look elsewhere for a top blueliner. With only $6 million in cap space, they can't afford to sign one via free agency. Trade options include Buffalo's Christian Ehrhoff, Phoenix's Keith Yandle, Vancouver's Alex Edler and Winnipeg's Dustin Byfuglien.
San Jose Sharks
The priority: Shed the label of playoff underachievers.
Why it's important: Becoming the fourth team in NHL playoff history to blow a 3-0 series lead and lose a best-of-seven series ensures that the Sharks will remain perennial poster boys for playoff underachievement. Despite their depth in talent, these Sharks lack postseason bite.
How to address it: Forget about moving out most of their longtime veterans. Most of them—like Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau—are under expensive contracts with no-trade clauses. The Sharks could fire GM Doug Wilson, but he appeared entrenched in his job. The likely solution is replacing head coach Todd McLellan with someone who can motivate this roster into playing like a true Stanley Cup contender. Possible candidates could include Peter Laviolette or Barry Trotz. Laviolette won a Cup with Carolina in 2006 and coached the Philadelphia Flyers to the 2010 Stanley Cup Final. Trotz is a highly respected bench boss who was hamstrung by limited scoring talent in Nashville. It would be interesting to see what he could do with a deeper roster.
St. Louis Blues
The priority: Address the goaltending (again).
Why it's important: It's the biggest factor preventing the Blues from becoming legit Stanley Cup contenders. Prior to this year's trade deadline, they dumped Jaroslav Halak and acquired Ryan Miller, believing he could carry them to the promised land. While Miller wasn't solely to blame for another early Blues playoff exit, his numbers (an underwhelming 2-4 record, 2.70 goals-against average and .896 save percentage) were not those of a clutch playoff goalie. Miller is an unrestricted free agent this summer. He told The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Jeremy Rutherford he would be interested in re-signing, but as yet there haven't been any serious contract talks.
How to address it: Rutherford's colleague Jeff Gordon doubts Miller will be back, speculating the Blues could promote promising Jake Allen next season and re-sign Brian Elliott. ESPN.com's Craig Custance suggested Anaheim's pending free agent, Jonas Hiller, could be an option. Having struck out by going outside the organization, giving Allen a shot as their starter—supported by an experienced backup—could be the way to go.
Tampa Bay Lightning
The priority: Bolster the blue line.
Why it's important: The Tampa Tribune's Erik Erlendsson pointed out the Lightning's defensive weaknesses were exposed during their first-round loss to the Montreal Canadiens. This must be addressed before next season. Assuming the Lightning spend to next season's projected cap ceiling of $71 million, GM Steve Yzerman will have over $23 million in cap space. Some of that must be spent on re-signing young players like Calder nominees Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson. Yzerman hopes to re-sign winger Ryan Callahan. Instead of overpaying Callahan, it would be wiser to invest in the defense corps.
How to address it: Erlendsson claimed this summer's free-agent market is thin on quality defensemen. Yzerman could instead go the trade route, using his depth in young talent. Erlendsson noted the Lightning were linked in the past to Vancouver's Alex Edler and Phoenix's Keith Yandle. If Yzerman revisits his interest in those two, it will definitely cost a good young forward as part of the return.
Salary-cap and contract information courtesy of CapGeek.com.