There are really only two ways to view an early dismissal from the Stanley Cup playoffs: a step forward to a brighter tomorrow or a precursor to Armageddon.
Five teams gathered on Monday to clear out their lockers after having their dreams dashed during the weekend. Here’s a look at how they’re taking it and what might come next.
As frustrating as it was to fall short against a very beatable opponent, there’s no reason for tears (or blood) to be shed in Ottawa. That the Senators got this far in the first place was a miracle in itself. A team that was 14 points out of a playoff spot on Feb. 10 went on an incredible 21-3-3 run that allowed it to clinch a wild-card berth and energized a fan base that sees great things on the horizon.
The Sens have a couple of beauties up front in Calder Tophy finalist Mark Stone, rookie goal-scoring leader Mike Hoffman, and Brenden Morrow-clone Curtis Lazar. The future for the back end looks solid as well. Cody Ceci made his share of mistakes in the Montreal series, but they tended to be of commission rather than omission. Given time, he’ll be a dandy. There's hope too for Patrick Wiercioch, a player who was a healthy scratch 19 times during the regular season and a constant in trade talks but who proved his worth against the Habs.
Turnover will likely be minimal. Winger Erik Condra is the only UFA of note and is unlikely to be re-signed, but GM Bryan Murray will be busy clearing up a pile of RFAs that includes Stone, Hoffman, and fellow forwards Mika Zibanejad, Alex Chiasson and J-G Pageau.
Those should be easy. The tough call is deciding the future of Andrew Hammond with the organization. The Sens would have been planning for the lottery if not for his play down the stretch, but with Craig Anderson and Robin Lehner under contract, Murray has to decide whether to sell high on the 27-year-old rookie/possible flash in the pan or clear space to make him a part of this thing moving forward. Tough call, but I’d bet on Murray taking a found-money approach to Hammond and cashing him in.
The off-season reorganization that’s coming to St. Louis could take many forms, but it’s hard to imagine any scenario that doesn’t include Ken Hitchcock being replaced as the team’s head coach. That’s not to label him as a failure. The team’s record during his four-year tenure was a stout 175-79-27 and included two Central Division titles. He also has the two gold medals he won as a member of Team Canada’s staff to prove that he’s one of the smartest, most respected men in the game. When he goes, he’ll be coveted by every team with a job opening.
But as I wrote earlier, the persistent inability of his Blues teams to meet the challenge of the first round suggests it’s time to look in a new direction. Anything can happen in the postseason, but the pattern of their back-to-back-to-back losses—a 2-2 split after four games, then a series-shifting home loss in Game 5—and the inability to win on the road (1-10 in their past four series) hints at mental softness. Part of that is on Hitch. With his contract up, there’s simply no reason to re-sign him.
GM Doug Armstrong is likely to survive the purge, but this should be his last kick at the can. Armstrong has built a terrific team on paper and has been aggressive trying to top off his talent but he needs to modernize his approach. Heavy hockey is fun to watch, but it only goes so far without the speed, the desire and finishing ability of a team like the Wild.
He’ll likely make significant adjustments to his roster, sacrificing players like T.J. Oshie, Patrik Berglund and Barret Jackman who have proved time and again to be incapable of making a difference at this time of year. What he gets in return will be important but secondary to his ability to make room for prospects Petteri Lindbohm, Robby Fabbri and Ty Rattie. No telling yet if the kids are ready or can make a contribution but we know this much: The old core didn’t work out. Time to try a fresh approach.
For a team committed to rebuilding on the fly, this year was a massive success. A good deal of the credit for that goes to Willie Desjardins, but the first-year head coach opened himself up a summer of second-guessing with some of his decisions, including his determination to limit the ice time of the Sedins. Rolling four lines is a great concept in the regular season, especially when your top players are aging and would benefit from a lighter load. In the playoffs, though? Desjardins should have worked them to the bone, and he should have loaded them up with the best available winger, Radim Vrbata. The twins are 34 years old and only have so many bullets left in the chamber. He wasted one here.
Desjardins will also hear it for his stubborn refusal to reward the strong play of Bo Horvat. The rookie winger averaged less than 13 minutes a night but he made an impact with four points in the six games. He was the one Canuck forward who consistently paid the price to get to the net and he surprised with his improving speed and creativity. It’s clear that he’ll be a big part of this team moving forward. Seeing how quickly he transitioned should create opportunities for other prospects like Jake Virtanen, Hunter Shinkaruk and Sven Baertschi to prove their readiness.
The Canucks will see some veteran turnover. Shawn Matthias is likely to sign elsewhere in free agency. Kevin Bieksa’s best-by date has passed, but he has a no-trade clause. It will take an ideal situation with a contending team for him to waive it, but it could happen.
Ryan Miller, whose play in the series was compromised by the lingering effects of his knee injury, could be dangled as well. There’s no hurry to move him and the two years and $12 million left on his deal, but given the market for goaltenders there might be a match. If not, he can split duties with Eddie Lack for another season (or part, thereof) until the right opportunity comes along.
Did the Preds choke in the playoffs or overachieve during the regular season? When you consider how drastically this team changed its identity last summer it’s probably the latter, although that doesn’t take them off the hook for their late-season collapse and a maddeningly inconsistent performance against the Blackhawks. They made the mistakes that a young team makes, like repeatedly failing to hold a lead. But like most young teams, Nashville is a work-in-progress. GM David Poile has some labor ahead of him.
There’s a terrific core in place, with an amazing 15 players age 25 or younger. Roman Josi matured from best-kept secret to legitimate Norris Trophy candidate with a spectacular regular season. Both he and Seth Jones stepped up when Shea Weber went down in the playoffs, proving that this team is set on the blueline for years to come. Up front, Filip Forsberg looks like a legitimate first liner, while Colin Wilson and Craig Smith can anchor a second line.
As good as these kids are, they need to be surrounded by quality veterans. And with six significant vets heading into the offseason as unrestricted free agents, there could be a lot of new faces filling those roles.
Poile’s one deadline move, the acquisition of Cody Franson and Mike Santorelli from Toronto, was a costly bust. Neither player contributed down the stretch and both will be cut loose. It’s likely that Mike Fisher and Matt Cullen will move on as well, creating openings for top prospects Kevin Fiala and Viktor Arvidsson to step in next season. Both bring the speed, vision and offensive touch that will move this team closer to coach Peter Laviolette’s grand vision, but they’d probably benefit the presence of a center with some size and defensive awareness to smooth their transition.
Mike Ribeiro is the other key UFA. He was solid for the most part on the ice but more important he seemed to get his life together off it. He should be re-signed over the summer to a new and more lucrative deal.
Sidney Crosby’s not going anywhere. Neither is Evgeni Malkin. Let’s get that out of the way right off the top.
But other than them and goaltender Marc-André Fleury—who was the only reason that Pittsburgh’s series with the Rangers wasn't a blowout sweep—pretty much everything else is up for discussion. That includes the futures of GM Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Johnston. Neither man draped himself in glory this season, and it’s possible that both could be replaced.
Whoever ends up calling the shots from the GM’s chair faces a significant overhaul. Nine Penguins will be unrestricted free agents, including forwards Blake Comeau, Daniel Winnik, Max Lapierre, Steve Downie and Craig Adams, defensemen Christian Ehrhoff, Paul Martin and Taylor Chorney, and goaltender Thomas Greiss. It’s possible that none of them will return, although there’s room for Comeau, Martin and possibly Ehrhoff if the team feels his concussion issues are properly resolved. Ian Cole and Beau Bennett are the two key RFAs. Cole stepped up in a big way in the playoffs and deserves another deal. Bennett has the talent, but his inability to steer clear of the IR might lead the Pens to explore their options.
Spots should open up for young forwards Kasperi Kapanen and Oskar Sundqvist, but that won’t be enough to get this team where it needs to go. The Pens are at a pivotal point. Crosby is 27. Malkin is 28. Fleury is 30. The window on this remarkable core hasn’t closed yet, but it’s on the way down. And unless there are serious upgrades to the team’s forwards, it’ll slam shut with just one championship to show for itself. The Pens need someone ready to make the tough calls, not a caretaker like Rutherford. That should be the first change they make.