Post-Free Agent Frenzy: Some Big Questions Remain

The big fish are gone. There are now more teams over the cap ceiling than there are below the cap floor. But as free agent frenzy has died down, not every team’s needs have been adequately addressed. Here's a look at five teams that aren't done yet.
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Adin Hill and Evander Kane

The big fish are gone. There are now more teams over the cap ceiling than there are below the cap floor. But as free agent frenzy has died down, not every team’s needs have been adequately addressed. 

Some questions will be answered as the attention shifts to unsigned RFA’s and salary arbitration cases that will be heard over the next few weeks, but a few teams still have glaring holes on their rosters or their future plans.

Here’s a look at five of those teams:

Arizona Coyotes

Whatever cap space the Coyotes had were used to acquire contracts that other teams were desperate to get rid of. The team will be built around elite defenseman Jakob Chychrun but you always wonder how much losing a team can endure – just ask the Sabres (more on them later), who have traded key pieces originally thought to be part of their long-term futures. It’s going to be a lot of pressure on Clayton Keller and prospects Barrett Hayton and Victor Soderstrom, and also force centers Nick Schmaltz and Christian Dvorak to punch above their weight against tough competition as the Coyotes move to the Central Division.

Their offense, which ranked 23rd in goals per game last season, traded Conor Garland, who led the team with 27 assists, and captain Oliver Ekman-Larsson for three aging veterans who combined to score just two goals last season. Michael Bunting, one of their six forwards to score double-digit goals last season, signed with his hometown Maple Leafs. Phil Kessel, who turns 34 in October, and Dmitrij Jaskin, who signed a one-year deal after being named the KHL regular-season MVP in 2020, will likely end up being trade bait.

Their defense, which ranked 22nd in goals allowed per game, lost Niklas Hjalmarsson to retirement and Alex Goligoski (Wild), Jordan Oesterle (Red Wings) and Jason Demers to free agency. In their place is Anton Stralman, who could barely crack the Panthers lineup and ended up being a cap dump, and Shayne Gostisbehere, a reclamation project but even at his best was never considered a defensive stalwart.

Goaltending will be as fruitful as the desert, with Carter Hutton slated to be the No. 1 and backed up by Josef Korenar, who has just 10 games of NHL experience. According to Natural Stat Trick’s model, Hutton ranked 86th and Korenar ranked 69th out of 98 goalies in GSAA/60; not only were Hutton and Korenar below average, but they were also among the worst in the league. It’s clear what the Coyotes want to do, but what isn’t so clear is who ends up staying beyond this season and, most importantly, how long The Process might take. The Coyotes, who have won fewer than 30 games just three times in an 82-game schedule in their 24 years of play, may be on their way to the worst season in franchise history.

Buffalo Sabres

As of this writing, the Sabres are a little over $7 million from the cap floor with Jack Eichel’s $10-million cap hit on injured reserve, per CapFriendly. It’s a curious situation to be in, though extensions for RFA’s Casey Mittelstadt, Rasmus Dahlin and Henri Jokiharju could solve that problem. It might also help if the Sabres retain or take back salary in a trade involving Eichel, but the Coyotes cornered the market on bad contracts early on, and the Sabres already own two of them in Jeff Skinner and Kyle Okposo.

It’s certainly an easier problem to solve than being over the cap since they could theoretically overpay any of the numerous free agents available to become cap compliant. As per the CBA, being under the cap floor is a form of cap circumvention and will incur similar penalties to being over the cap ceiling, which may include fines, suspensions or loss of picks. But most of the big-name free agents have signed and with training camps just one month away, the Sabres have limited options at the moment.

Their 28th-ranked offense, which averaged just 2.39 goals per game, will take a step back. Scoring leader Sam Reinhart was shipped to Florida and Taylor Hall, even if his time with the Sabres was forgettable, leaves another unfilled void in the top six. The defense, ranked 29th with 3.50 goals allowed per game, may have improved by subtraction depending on what you think of Rasmus Ristolainen, but it’s debatable if Will Butcher and Robert Hagg are an improvement.

Their situation in net is even direr. Despite protecting Linus Ullmark in the expansion draft, they still couldn’t re-sign him and currently have Aaron Dell, a 32-year-old journeyman backup who had a 4.14 GAA and .857 Sv% last season, and Craig Anderson, a 40-year-old who was expected to retire, according to NHL.com’s Tom Gulitti, but instead has returned on a league-minimum deal. There’s a bright spot in Ukko-Pekka Luukkonen, but with just 52 games of pro experience in North America, it’s probably best not to rush him lest his confidence gets completely wiped out by the end of the season.

We know the future lies in Dahlin, Dylan Cozens and the prospects in the pipeline, but it’s easier for the Coyotes to see what lies ahead in the future. The plan for the Sabres, who have only six picks in the first two rounds in 2022 and 2023 as opposed to the Coyotes’ seven in 2022 alone and still need to resolve a stalemate with Eichel, is a lot murkier.

Columbus Blue Jackets

If there’s one thing the Jackets have been missing since the inception of their franchise, it’s the lack of a high-end center. It’s not like they haven’t tried, but things just don’t seem to work out. William Karlsson scored 15 goals in 162 games for the Jackets but ended up scoring 43 in his first season with the Golden Knights, though nobody saw that coming. Alex Wennberg looked like a top-end playmaker but ended up getting bought out. Ryan Johansen and Pierre-Luc Dubois, both talented centers whose work ethic had been questioned by then coach John Tortorella, were eventually traded.

The players they acquired recently in order to shore up their depth, Max Domi and Jack Roslovic, produced mediocre results and long-term may be better suited playing on the wing. And so, once again, the Jackets face a perilous situation at center and will likely be forced to use a committee approach and cross their fingers that someone will emerge from the heap.

Domi, when he returns from shoulder surgery, and Roslovic will be part of that group, as will Alex Texier, Kevin Stenlund and perhaps Gregory Hofmann, but their best options might end up being Boone Jenner and Sean Kuraly. Jenner and Kuraly are the only forwards who won more than half their faceoffs last season, but neither are considered top-six quality and lack the playmaking ability to maximize the talents of wingers Patrik Laine, Jakub Voracek and Oliver Bjorkstrand. The Jackets finished 30th in faceoff percentage last season, and it’ll be more of the same this season barring the addition of a marquee center.

Nashville Predators

GM David Poile promised to make changes after an early playoff exit for the umpteenth time, but are the Preds better right now? They ranked 22th in goals per game last season and didn’t replace Viktor Arvidsson, one of their more consistent players over the past few seasons, and swapped the more accomplished and dependable Ryan Ellis for 24-year-old Philippe Myers.

Calle Jarnkrok was lost to the Kraken in the expansion draft, Erik Haula signed with the Bruins and the player they decided to bring back was Mikael Granlund, whose offensive production continues to diminish season after season. Based on hockey-reference’s Point Shares model, the Preds lost a total of 11.5 Point Shares with Arvidsson, Ellis, Jarnkrok and Haula, or the equivalent of roughly six wins.

Perhaps they’re hoping Cody Glass, Eeli Tolvanen, Luke Kunin and defensemen Dante Fabbro, David Farrance and Alexandre Carrier can provide more offense, but so much of their success still depends on getting strong seasons from Ryan Johansen and Matt Duchene, who have the 26th-highest cap hit among forwards yet ranked 193rd and 241st, respectively, in points per game. Even if the Preds wish to move either of them to the wing to lighten their load, they lack the requisite depth down the middle to do so permanently.

The Preds made the playoffs last season by the skin of their teeth, and in what should be a very competitive Central Division they may find themselves challenging for a wild-card spot yet again.

San Jose Sharks

The big question surrounding the Sharks right now is what to do with Evander Kane, who is under investigation after allegations made by his wife that he had wagered on games. After running out his welcome with the Jets, the same seems to have occurred with the Sharks, with rumblings from that some of his teammates no longer wishing to see him back with the team, according to The Athletic’s Kevin Kurz.

Removing Kane is also to remove one of the Sharks’ most consistent players and also one of the rare players in the league who can both dominate with their physicality and scoring. The talent and the potential have always been there, but off-ice issues have plagued Kane wherever he’s played. Assuming that Kane’s days as a Shark are numbered, it once again raises questions about the competitiveness of a roster that’s seemingly too old, too overpaid and too stale.

It’s been an impressive run for the Sharks, but how this team can pivot from Logan Couture, Erik Karlsson and Marc-Edouard Vlasic’s contracts – all of whom are over 30 years old with a combined cap hit of $26.5 million, nearly one-third of the cap – remains to be seen. The signing of Nick Bonino and James Reimer, and trading for Adin Hill, plugs the holes that were apparent last season, but the Sharks are simply staying afloat as they move neither closer to playoff contention nor closer to lottery status. 

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