The St. Louis Blues are the epic Stanley Cup Champions, and with that, the 2018-19 NHL season has officially concluded.
That said, the off-ice action is only heating up. The NHL Draft is June 21st in Vancouver, two days before the unrestricted free agency window opens up for teams who wish to discuss the parameters of a contract with a potential UFA target. Finally, unrestricted free agency opens up on July 1st.
There is going to be a lot to digest while the Blues celebrate their Stanley Cup victory, and things are about to get sizzling hot on both the free agent and trade markets.
As a result, let’s discuss five teams that I think will be the busiest this offseason. I’ll include their odds to win the Stanley Cup and contemplate whether or not their offseason intentions truly give them value as a bet to win the 2020 Stanley Cup.
*Odds courtesy of BetOnline
Florida Panthers (+2500)
Cap Space: $21,975,001
Needs: Goaltender | Bottom-Six Forward(s) | Top-Four Defenseman
I expected the Panthers to be competitive last season, but they simply did not get any form of goaltending whether it be from the oft-injured Roberto Luongo or the wildly inconsistent James Reimer.
I don’t anticipate the Panthers having similar troubles next season.
Around the time the Panthers made some forward-thinking trade deadline moves this past season, it was rumored they were gearing up to be big players in free agency. More specifically, they apparently have their sights set on a pair of Russians formerly employed by the Columbus Blue Jackets in goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and star winger Artemi Panarin.
I mean, the Panthers have already made a win-now move by hiring lauded head coach Joel Quenneville to turn the franchise into the proper direction, not to drag them through a rebuild.
With a strong core of young, talented forwards and a trio of defensemen in Aaron Ekblad – just 23 years old – Keith Yandle and Michael Matheson all in Florida for the long haul, there is an admirable framework for which to build a contender.
Nonetheless, goaltending remains priority number one and a lucrative contract offer to the top goaltender on the market – a two-time Vezina Trophy winner no less – seems like a reasonable place to start for a team approaching $22M in cap space to play with this offseason.
The trade market looks like a more appropriate place to add to the bottom of their blueline as the only real upgrades in free agency would be one of Tyler Myers or Alexander Edler – the former of which is just 29 years old and fits their long-term contention plan.
The time to win in Florida is now. Only the New York Islanders averaged fewer than the 13,261 fans per game the Panthers had last season. Florida has made the postseason just twice since the 1999-2000 season and lost in the firm round on both occasions, most recently to the Islanders in the 2015-16 season.
Their last playoff series in came when they ran all the way to the Stanley Cup Final only to be swept by Joe Sakic’s Colorado Avalanche.
Hockey needs to grow in Sunrise, and GM Dale Tallon has his sights set high this offseason. I expect a busy, fruitful offseason that will only give Florida plenty of value to win the Cup at those +2500 odds.
Philadelphia Flyers (+2500)
Cap Space: $33,410,834
Needs: 1B Goaltender | Scoring Help | High-End Defenseman
The Flyers have already made an offseason move – their offseason at least – when they acquire the right to UFA-to-be Kevin Hayes for a 2019 fifth-round pick from the Winnipeg Jets. The Flyers now have until July 1st to try and sign Hayes to a deal or risk him hitting the market after the stroke of midnight.
Such a move screams win-now. Hayes is about to enter his prime and the Flyers are thin at center behind Sean Couturier, even with former second-overall pick Nolan Patrick in tow.
Keep in mind GM Chuck Fletcher is new to his job. He was hired in early December, however, his hands were mostly tied at that point as he wished to evaluate his club over the remaining few months before making any drastic changes to the roster. Makes sense.
Now that the offseason has arrived, expect him to put his handprint on this team. The Flyers haven’t enjoyed much success as a franchise since going to the Cup final in the 2009-10 season. They’ve alternated missing and making the playoffs over the last seven seasons, but have failed to win a round in any.
Philadelphia is a sports-crazed city that doesn’t handle failure too well, so I expect Fletcher and co. to be earnest in their intentions to turn this team into a long-term contender – and now.
The Flyers need help in goal. Carter Hart is the future, but not a full-time No.1 at the age of 21 when next season begins despite a nice .917 Sv% as a 20-year-old in 31 appearances last season. I doubt Fletcher throws Hart to the wolves full-time next season.
They need help on the blueline. Only the Senators and Blackhawks allowed more goals than the Flyers last season (3.41 per game).
Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Sanheim, and Ivan Provorov are staying. Gostisbehere is the top offensive defensemen and is signed at a very reasonable $4.5M cap hit for four more years. While valuable on the trade market, he’s still just 26 and has a 65-point season under his belt from two years ago. Sanheim (23) and Provorov (22) are fabulous young defensemen and the future of the Flyers’ blueline.
As a result, I see three spots up for grabs on that blueline, whether it be externally or externally. I’m thinking the latter as the internal solutions led to the league’s third-worst defense last season.
And yes, they need help up front. The talent is there with Claude Giroux, Couturier, Jakub Voracek, James van Riemsdyk, Patrick and possibly Hayes, but the Flyers ranked just 18th in offense last season. Not good enough.
There’s a wealth of forward help on the free agent market and the Flyers have $33.4M in cap space to spend this summer. That’s a nice combination.
They aren’t far from contending. Fletcher knows that, and so does the city of Philadelphia.
I would expect win-now moves all summer long from the Flyers, although I would have their Stanley Cup value lower than that of the Panthers at the same odds.
Columbus Blue Jackets (+2800)
Cap Space: $32,473,376
Needs: Goaltender | Scoring Help (Wing or Center)
While the all-in moves made by GM Jarmo Kekalainen at the trade deadline didn’t result in the ultimate prize, it was admirable to see an NHL executive throw all his chips into the table for the betterment of the team and fanbase alike.
That said, the Jackets now have some holes to fill.
All three of their trade deadline acquisitions – Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel and Adam McQuaid – are UFAs-to-be. I can certainly see a scenario where Duchene returns to a team that needs help at center – and scoring help in general – but as the top center on the market his suitors will be aplenty.
Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Artemi Panarin are almost certainly gone in free agency.
The holes are in goal and up front, but the good news is that the defense remains adequate for now, anchored by Seth Jones and Zach Werenskiy while David Savard, Markus Nutivaara, Scott Harrington and Ryan Murray should all return to the club, the latter three of which are restricted free agents in need of new deals.
That said, expect to hear a lot from Kekalainen and co. The holes up front are rather glaring. As it stands, their depth chart down the middle looks something like Pierre Luc-Dubois, Boone Jenner, Nick Foligno and one of Brandon Dubinsky or Alexander Wennberg. All but Dubois are available to play the wing as well and all are better suited to do so.
As a result, I’d look for Kekalainen to strengthen his team where it matters most: down the middle. Whether that means signing Duchene to a lucrative long-term deal or exploring the trade market – the latter of which makes the most sense given the thin crop of centers on the free agent market, especially if Hayes signs with the Flyers.
The real hum-dinger is what to do in goal. I’d personally be shocked if the Blue Jackets handed the keys to backup Joonas Korpisalo who studied under Bobrovsky for the last four seasons.
He has a strong rookie season that saw him post a 2.60 GAA and .920 Sv% as a 21-year-old, but has since mostly struggled and has posted a .897 Sv% over his last 45 NHL appearances.
We’ve seen from a team like the Bruins what a 1A and 1B goaltending duo can do. Tuukka Rask started just 45 regular season games and was at his best in the playoffs. As a result, perhaps the Jackets go out and get someone like Robin Lehner on the free agent market who had a Vezina-caliber year in a similar timeshare on Long Island last season.
At the end of the day, there’s just so much work to do on the forward group and in goal. I’d have to see how Kekalainen does his patchwork after so many valuable pieces heading out the door, but I don’t like the value here. This seems like a team you should never rule out, however they aren’t high on the value chart despite the somewhat attractive odds.
Edmonton Oilers (+4000)
Cap Space: $9,833,001
Needs: Scoring Wingers | Goaltender | Help on Defense
Unlike the three teams above, the Oilers don’t have a ton of cap space to work with, especially after coming to terms with their four RFA forwards, more likely to be three given the comments made by President Bob Nicholson in regards to RFA winger Tobias Rieder.
Nonetheless, the Oilers have had an interesting few months. Ken Hitchcock ultimately was unable to turn the team around after Todd McLellan’s mid-season dismissal while former GM Peter Chiarelli was also shown the door.
Enter veteran GM Ken Holland and veteran bench boss Dave Tippett. For the first time in a long time, the Oilers have names in the press box and behind the bench that fans trust and are excited about.
Change is coming, and it’s coming now.
Holland isn’t about to waste one more second of Connor McDavid’s time. Not only McDavid, but Leon Draisaitl showed another level last season, scoring 50 goals and 105 points after 25 goals and 70 points the year prior.
The Oilers have a 1-2 punch down the middle that rival teams idolize. Let’s work with that.
These guys need help on the wing. Whether that means Draisaitl moving up permanently with McDavid – something that will be watched under a microscope with Tippett in training camp – or sliding third line center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins back up to McDavid’s wing where he spent considerable time last season. The Oilers could simply have a three-headed monster down the middle and scour the trade and free agent market for wingers.
No matter how you slice it, the help needs to come on the wing. There’s a wealth of them in free agency, but as mentioned, the Oilers are cash-strapped until they find a way to unload unfavorable contracts (Milan Lucic – but good luck).
With Cam Talbot now out of the picture and Mikko Koskinen about to begin his three-year extension next season, it would appear the Oilers are in need of a 1B goaltender themselves with Anthony Stolarz – the return in the Talbot trade with the Flyers – listed as a Group 6 UFA and is free to sign elsewhere. They will need to make a move for a goaltender.
Finally, expect Holland to address his defense. It’s not as pressing as the above two areas and it will be the last item on the board, so perhaps it ends up falling by the wayside. They do have all six of their defensemen from last season under contract for next season, however Andrej Sekera, at age 33 and oft-injured of late, and his $5.5M cap hit for this season and next looks like the most moveable expensive contract on the books.
I would expect Sekera to be shopped this offseason.
At the end of the day, Holland is not going to sit there and twiddle his thumbs. Fans expect change, as do the premier players on this team. I expect they’ll get plenty of it, but I’m hesitant to lay any sort of money down on this team right now despite the odds.
Dallas Stars (+2800)
Cap Space: $12,390,001
Needs: Scoring Help
Sure, it may only be one need, but it’s a big one.
Let’s take a step back and consider how close the Stars were to a possible Stanley Cup this past season.
Had Pat Maroon not jammed home a loose puck in overtime of Game 7 to eliminate the Stars in the second round, it could have been Dallas in the Western Conference Final. From there, who knows what could happen?
I mean, the Stars had, in my opinion, the best goaltender in hockey last season given Ben Bishop’s 1.98 GAA and league-leading .934 Sv% and one of the most dangerous top lines in all of hockey.
As a result, I expect GM Jim Nill to push forward and beef up this forward group.
The goaltending situation is set with Bishop and backup Anton Khudobin both set to return next year coming off big seasons.
The defense won’t change a whole lot with the trio of John Klingberg, Miro Heiskanen and Esa Lindell along with expected returning veterans Roman Polak and Jamie Oleksiak filling five of six defense spots. Julius Honka, a 23-year-old RFA, could step in.
Nonetheless, the Stars ranked second with just 2.44 goals against per game last season, so sweeping changes to the back end are highly unlikely.
Major additions up front, however, could be a different story.
Roope Hintz proved himself as a legitimate top-six forward in the second half and postseason last year, joining Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin and Alexander Radulov in the top-six.
By my math, that means there is still two top-six forward spots open and we haven’t even began to talk about the bottom six.
Mats Zuccarello was a fantastic fit, but coming off a career year he will have options in unrestricted free agency. The Stars have some, but not a ton of cap space to work with, so any UFA additions will have to be done prudently.
There’s just no getting around their need for big upgrades up front after the top trio carried them once again this season with very little help underneath.
To be honest, if the Stars do add a couple of legitimate offensive players to their top six and maybe fill out their bottom-six, I am loving the value they present at +2800 with the league’s second-best defense from last year returning.
Of all the teams here, I like the Panthers and Stars’ odds the most given the fact I anticipate both will turn a busy offseason into a productive one and challenge for the Stanley Cup.