Welcome to my annual panic/don’t panic column. It’s typically reserved for mid-July, but mid-October is now the equivalent. It’s the early-off-season juncture in which we peek at a handful of relatively inactive teams and assess whether their fan bases should worry about the lack of major roster turnover.
It’s worth noting that, unlike in most off-seasons, there’s still a decent amount of hope for teams to make improvements as we reach the 10-day mark of free agency. With the early UFA negotiation window removed and the flat salary cap putting the squeeze on the middle class of free agency, the market has slowed down, and a few big names remain available, most notably goal-scoring left winger Mike Hoffman.
Still, most teams have made their biggest off-season decisions already, so it’s not too early to put the quietest teams under the microscope and assess why they’ve been sluggish relative to their peers. Is it cause for concern or not?
Los Angeles Kings, Tampa Bay Lightning
I’ve been saying this for a while: Kings GM Rob Blake takes after his old Colorado Avalanche teammate Joe Sakic. ‘Burnaby Joe’ bided his time for his first several seasons as Avalanche GM, staying conservative and amassing top-end prospects. He finally became aggressive by summer 2019 after his team improved enough to become a contender. Blake seems to be following a similar blueprint. He has done very little with his NHL roster this off-season so far, and that’s totally OK. The off-season is already a win considering L.A. nabbed hulking center Quinton Byfield with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Once he makes the team, be it 2020-21 or 2021-22, he’ll begin an apprenticeship with another towering pivot who was a Kings first-rounder: Anze Kopitar.
By making very few noteworthy NHL additions, the biggest being defenseman Olli Maatta, the Kings keep roster spots open for Byfield, the emergent Gabe Vilardi and perhaps another handful of kids who could push for spots, from center Alex Turcotte to defenseman Tobias Bjornfot. Blake is in no rush. The Vegas Golden Knights, Vancouver Canucks, Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames sit in their win-now windows in the Pacific Division, so the Kings might be better off getting good in another year or two.
As for the defending Stanley Cup champion Bolts? The resources have to be pooled for crucial RFAs Anthony Cirelli and Mikhail Sergachev, so it’s no surprise that GM Julien BriseBois hasn’t been chasing any noteworthy additions. He’s also had to let some veteran depth UFAs walk: defensemen Kevin Shattenkirk and Zach Bogosian. Again, it’s OK. As long as Tampa finds the money for Cirelli and Sergachev, even if it means trading away a middle-six forward, we’re looking at an elite Cup contender in 2020-21. The core remains as deep, balanced and talented as any team’s. It will sting a bit if BriseBois must pony up an additional asset to get a team to bite on Tyler Johnson after the waiver experiment failed, but it’s a palatable sacrifice if it means keeping the star core intact.
TRY TO REMAIN CALM, BUT…
Arizona Coyotes, Boston Bruins, Carolina Hurricanes, Dallas Stars
The Coyotes were a nice story during the bubble tournament, shocking the Nashville Predators to “make the playoffs” on the strength of great goaltending from Darcy Kuemper. So far this off-season, though, new GM Bill Armstrong is treating his team like a rebuilder. Taylor Hall is gone, and the Coyotes’ ensuing moves in free agency have been minor ones designed to add depth to the bottom-six forward group. Can Coyotes fans stomach what might be several more years without a post-season berth? The team is trending that way. The Coyotes had the 22nd-best record in the NHL – before they lost Hall. It is cause for panic? Yes if you believed the 2020 run meant something, no if you’re a realist who wasn’t fooled by it.
The Bruins added right winger Craig Smith. It was one of the off-season’s best signings. So it’s not like GM Don Sweeney has sat on his hands. But Boston lost defenseman Torey Krug and may or may not re-sign Zdeno Chara. Overall, it’s been an underwhelming off-season. The Bruins were on track to win the Presidents’ Trophy when the regular season shut down in March, so they obviously have a lot of good hockey left in this era, but they’re likely to start next season without superstars David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand, who are recovering from surgeries. Boston could start slowly with a weakened lineup.
The Hurricanes showed flashes of becoming genuine Stanley Cup contenders before imploding against the Bruins in the Round of 16. Is it a mild disappointment that GM Don Waddell counts middle-sixer Jesper Fast as the biggest addition for a team that might be one nudge away from becoming an alpha dog in the Metropolitan Division? It was a bountiful market for goaltenders, but the Canes are rolling with the ho-hum tandem of James Reimer and Petr Mrazek again for now. It’s not too late to wade into the trade waters, of course. Might Waddell still make a play for Kuemper, Marc-Andre Fleury (one of Reimer or Mrazek would have to go the other way with Robin Lehner in danger of missing the start of the season) or Joonas Korpisalo?
The good news: Dallas returns much of the same team that reached the 2020 final. The bad news: it really can’t improve that group at all, and status quo can be scary when other divisional rivals such as the Avalanche continue to add. The Stars are simply in a bind. They managed to retain 1B goaltender Anton Khudobin at a reasonable price, but the rest of their cap space was allotted for RFAs Radek Faksa, Roope Hintz and Denis Gurianov. Faksa signed a five-year, $16.25-million extension Oct. 11. The Stars will use their remaining $6.66 million on Gurianov and Hintz. Unless Dallas sheds more salary elsewhere, it can only afford bridge deals for both, even if Stephen Johns ends up on LTIR.
New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers
The Islanders, like the Stars, were painted into a corner on paper heading into the off-season thanks to the perfect storm of a flat cap and some high-end RFAs needing new contracts. With the Isles having to devote their attention to top-line center Mathew Barzal’s next pact, they were at risk of not being able to afford one of their two important RFA defensemen, Ryan Pulock and Devon Toews, so GM Lou Lamoriello opted to trade the underrated puck-mover Toews to Colorado. As of now, the Isles have $8.9 million in cap space and still haven’t re-signed Barzal and Pulock, who arguably deserve $15 million or more per season combined. Their top off-season addition is Cory Schneider, who will likely be the No. 3 netminder or at best the No. 2 in a pinch if the Isles decide they want Ilya Sorokin to get extra work in the AHL.
The Flyers made great gains in Year 1 under new coach Alain Vigneault. They transformed from a bad defensive team to a great one. Ivan Provorov recaptured his identity as a future Norris Trophy threat. Carter Hart grew into the role of No. 1 netminder. But this off-season started with the surprising retirement of veteran blueliner Matt Niskanen. Bringing in Erik Gustafsson as a replacement might be a bit better for Philly’s offense but doesn’t off-set Niskanen’s defense, leadership and influence on the younger players, and the Flyers haven’t added anyone of note to the forward group. That's a bit disappointing for a team that looks like a genuine contender in 2020-21.