8 NHL Teams Facing the Biggest Questions This Offseason

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistSeptember 17, 2020

8 NHL Teams Facing the Biggest Questions This Offseason

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    It's been a season unlike any other. And for all but three of the National Hockey League's 31 teams, a just-as-unusual offseason is already underway as well.

    Given that only the Tampa Bay Lightning, New York Islanders and Dallas Stars still have skin in the game as it relates to the chase for the Stanley Cup in Edmonton's pandemic-resistant bubble, big questions regarding the future are already being posed to the other 28 organizations.

    And let's not kid anyone: Regardless of how their championship story winds up, the Lightning are going to have some challenging things to deal with, too, thanks to the league's fifth-least amount of available salary-cap space heading into 2020-21.

    With that in mind—and fresh off a crystal-ball session in which we concocted a quintet of imminent blockbuster trades—the B/R ice hockey team reconvened to discuss which teams have the biggest questions to answer between now and when the puck (tentatively) drops for next season on Dec. 1.

    Read on to see what we think about your favorite franchises going forward or simply to see what issues might be robbing high-profile general managers of sleep through the rest of summer and into the fall.

Boston Bruins: What to Do with the Defense?

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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    When the Boston Bruins were bumped in Game 5 of the second round by the Tampa Bay Lightning, it wasn't just a postseason-ending loss. It may have been a last look at the team as we know it.

    The Bruins won the Presidents' Trophy and were the only team to compile 100 points in an abbreviated 2019-20 regular season, but their untimely playoff exit unofficially flicked the free-agency switch on a pair of stalwart defensemen—Zdeno Chara and Torey Krug—who may have played their final games in Boston.

    The official free-agency period doesn't begin until the Stanley Cup has been awarded, but unless there's an agreement made between now and then, it will mean the possible departure of 21 full-time seasons' worth of experience (Chara 14, Krug 7) from the team's blue line.

    Chara has indicated a preference to stay in Boston and logged more than 20 minutes of ice time per game during a season in which he turned 43. He's taken voluntary pay cuts to help balance the books over the past several seasons and would probably do so again if it meant suiting up for a 15th year as a Bruin.

    Krug, meanwhile, has suggested he would rather play in Boston, too, but he won't do so at a hometown discount.

    "I've bet on myself, and I've taken shorter-term deals, less amount of money, my whole career now," he said. "This is my time, in terms of my value at its peak. I have the ability, and I'm in a position now, where I need to make the most of it."

    The guess here is that the Bruins, who have better than $14 million in cap space and no other significant unrestricted players, will pony up the cash for both and keep a cohesive unit intact for one more run.

    If not, expect Krug, a Michigan native, to break the bank in Detroit.

Buffalo Sabres: What to Do with Jack Eichel?

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    All of a sudden, it's the biggest summertime diversion in Buffalo—gauging Jack Eichel's mood, interpreting his quotes and wondering whether it all means the second overall pick from 2015 would rather be playing elsewhere when the puck drops for 2020-21.

    The 23-year-old put up superstar numbers—36 goals, 78 points—in an abbreviated season, but a fifth straight year with no playoffs had him singing the competitive blues at a year-end media conference.

    "I'm fed up with the losing, and I'm fed up and I'm frustrated," he said. "It's definitely not an easy pill to swallow right now. ... It's been a tough five years with where things have went. I'm a competitor. I want to win every time I'm on the ice. I want to win the Stanley Cup every time I start a season."

    Those words have spawned a series of trade rumors and suggestions about where Eichel might wind up, but Kevyn Adams arrived on the scene as the organization's general manager in June and immediately made keeping his franchise player in blue, white and gold a top priority.

    And let's face it. Anything short of Connor McDavid—the only player picked ahead of Eichel in 2015—coming back in a trade would be grounds for Adams to lose his gig in the eyes of the Western New York faithful.

    "He is our franchise player, he is our captain, and it's really important he understands what we're trying to do here," Adams said. "Obviously, has a great relationship with [head coach Ralph Krueger], and now it's time for me to build that as well."

Detroit Red Wings: Where Do You Begin?

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    It'd take an optimist of behemoth proportions to look at the Detroit Red Wings and see anything less than than a smoldering dumpster fire.

    The team was dead last in the league with 39 points, posted the lowest points percentage by a non-expansion squad in more than 20 years and still managed to not wind up with the No. 1 overall draft pick, which the New York Rangers will almost certainly use to select Alexis Lafreniere.

    But we come to console Steve Yzerman, not bury him.

    The ex-Red Wings star player and former General Manager of the Year (2014-15 with Tampa Bay) does have tools with which to begin the rebuild, including the No. 4 pick in the aforementioned draft and better than $34 million in cap space to work with thanks to having just 11 players under contract for 2020-21.

    An executive as savvy as Yzerman can put that cash to use at the expense of high-profile teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Lightning and St. Louis Blues, among others, who are pressed against the cap's upper limits and might be willing to offload draft assets or prime players to gain some additional wriggle room.

    Picking up a goaltender would be a worthwhile first step after Detroit's abomination of a 2019-20 season, in which Jonathan Bernier and Jimmy Howard combined to win just 17 times while posting a sub-.900 save percentage and a single shutout in 68 games.

    Bernier is signed for another year at $3 million, while Howard is an unrestricted free agent, meaning the money is available to at least kick the tires on the likes of Robin Lehner, Corey Crawford or Braden Holtby—all of whom are expected to hit the open market after the Stanley Cup is awarded.

Edmonton Oilers: How Do You Fix the Goaltending (Again...)?

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    It's not as if the Edmonton Oilers are bereft of assets.

    They have a three-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champion and a former MVP in Connor McDavid, not to mention a 2019-20 scoring champion and MVP finalist in Leon Draisaitl.

    But after all that got them was an inglorious four-game loss to the Chicago Blackhawks in the qualifying round, it's time for heads to roll.

    And where better for them to roll from than the goal crease, where the pairing of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen compiled an .869 save percentage in those same four games. For perspective's sake, consider the Detroit Red Wings, who won just 17 times in 71 games, had an .894 save percentage while posting by far the worst record in a 31-team league.

    Given those numbers, it's not surprising the Oilers are on the prowl.

    The team was reported to have interest in the Pittsburgh Penguins' Matt Murray, and rumors have also circulated about the possibility Edmonton could grab for trade bait like Darcy Kuemper (Arizona Coyotes), Marc-Andre Fleury (Vegas Golden Knights) or Frederik Andersen (Toronto Maple Leafs).

    Smith is an unrestricted free agent and could be brought back on the cheap if the Oilers aim for a big-ticket netminder, while Koskinensigned for two more years at $4.5 million apiece—could either be traded or retained as part of a tandem with a new teammate at a more manageable price point.

New York Rangers: What to Do with Henrik Lundqvist?

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    Henrik Lundqvist holds nearly every worthwhile New York Rangers goaltending record. Not to mention, he's a Vezina Trophy winner, a five-time All-Star and a former nominee for league MVP.

    But he's also 38, coming off the least statistically successful season of his career and clearly no better than the No. 2 option—behind Igor Shesterkin and perhaps Alexandar Georgiev—going forward in the Rangers' goal crease.

    So as difficult as it is to fathom, it might be time to pull the trigger on a buyout.

    The decorated Swede is under contract for 2020-21 at $8.5 million, an awfully hefty price tag for a player unlikely to play starter minutes.

    A buyout would still result in $5.5 million of dead money against the salary cap next season, per CapFriendly, but it would free up an additional $3 million and rid the team of a player unlikely to be satisfied with a full-time backup role.

    Georgiev played 34 games for the Rangers in 2019-20 and is a restricted free agent after making less than $1 million. Locking him up with a small pay increase could shore up the goaltending situation and leave Lundqvist free to either retire in the blue, red and white or pursue opportunities elsewhere.

    It's a tough pill to swallow for longtime fans, but the frenzy of Alexis Lafreniere's inevitable arrival in the Big Apple will provide more than enough cover for the organization to bid "adjo" (Swedish for goodbye) to its king.

Pittsburgh Penguins: How Much to Shake Things Up?

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    Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    It's not as if the Pittsburgh Penguins are in dire straits.

    The team was three points shy of making the Eastern Conference's top-four round-robin and skipping past the qualifying round that ultimately doomed them, and both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are under contract for the next two seasons and still producing at better than a point-per-game rate.

    But given that the season ended with congratulatory handshakes for the 12th-seeded Montreal Canadiens and not a celebratory lap around bubble ice in Edmonton, it's not surprising that calls for change are loud.

    A trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs got the ball rolling and brought Finnish winger Kasperi Kapanen back to the team that had drafted him with the 22nd pick in 2014.

    General manager Jim Rutherford has long been adept at being up against the salary cap, and this offseason is no different considering the Penguins trail 17 other teams when it comes to available space.

    Among the issues confronting him are in the goal crease, where 25-year-old Tristan Jarry statistically outplayed two-time Stanley Cup champ Matt Murray for most of the season before the Penguins went with Murray for the series against the Canadiens that resulted in a four-game elimination.

    Both are restricted free agents heading into 2020-21, following a season in which Murray made $3.75 million and Jarry raked in just $700,000.

    Jarry would be the cheaper option even with a raise, though it would be a bit of a risk to hand the keys to a guy who's played 62 games over another who has 146 career victories—including 29 in the playoffs.

    Also up for discussion is what to do on the blue line, where eight-year veteran Justin Schultz is free to walk after making $5.5 million in 2019-20. The word from Rutherford is that Schultz won't be asked back, and the gap will be filled by 23-year-old John Marino (26 points in 56 games).

    "We'll move on from Justin," Rutherford said. "He's going to do better in the marketplace than what he can do here, based on our cap situation."

Tampa Bay Lightning: Who Stays and Who Goes?

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    Winslow Townson/Associated Press

    If the Tampa Bay Lightning win five more games in this year's playoffs—one against the New York Islanders, four against the Dallas Stars—it will make whatever occurs in the offseason drastically less painful.

    Amazing how an imminent banner-hanging party soothes a headache, eh?

    But that doesn't mean general manager Julien BriseBois won't have any work to do.

    The Lightning figure to enter the compacted timeline between the playoffs and the next regular season with a little more than $5 million in available cap space and no fewer than 10 free agents—five restricted, five unrestricted—on whom to divvy it up.

    Defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk is a likely candidate for a change of scenery—not because he failed to perform but more so because he exceeded expectations.

    The 31-year-old was bought out of a $6.65 million annual deal by the New York Rangers in 2019 and came to Tampa Bay for the bargain-basement rate of $1.75 million. He responded by producing more points than he had since 2016-17 and will probably get offers beyond what the Lightning are able—or at least willing—to pay.

    Potentially heading elsewhere, too, are depth players like third-line winger Pat Maroon and right-side defenseman Jan Rutta, who combined for 10 goals and 20 assists in 97 games while earning a cumulative $2.2 million.

    Their departures could help clear some funds for restricted free agents Mikhail Sergachev, 22, who could evolve into a top defensive pairing with Victor Hedman, and Anthony Cirelli, a 23-year-old center who can work in the top six or bottom six depending on other lineup tweaks.

    Cirelli scored 16 goals and added 28 assists in 68 games while making $700,000.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Time to Deal a Big-Ticket Player?

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    It's a question of who, not when.

    Reports from in and around Toronto suggest the Maple Leafs, who already sent Kasperi Kapanen to the Pittsburgh Penguins for a first-round draft pick, are poised to deal another piece to free up space under a particularly tight salary cap.

    James Mirtle of The Athletic suggested as many as four players are "being dangled to varying degrees" as general manager Kyle Dubas tries to maneuver a roster in a flat-cap scenario in which three players (Auston Matthews, John Tavares and Mitch Marner) are making better than $10 million per season.

    The would-be chopping block includes winger Andreas Johnsson, center/winger Alex Kerfoot, goalie Frederik Andersen and winger/center Pierre Engvall.

    The three forwards are signed to deals that will pay them better than $8.1 million combined next season, while Andersen will make $5 million in his final season before potentially heading to free agency.

    Dealing a starting goaltender like Andersen would make the biggest splash in the Toronto market, and prolific winger William Nylander is good for the occasional transaction suggestion, too, given that he's making nearly $7 million per season, scored 31 goals in 2019-20 and occasionally seems like an expensive luxury for an offense-heavy team that could use help on the blue line.