The NHL Entry Draft is taking place on Friday night and the free agent frenzy is just over a week away.
It may be the summer solstice on Friday, but this is the busiest time of the year for NHL clubs as they look to reshape their rosters for the upcoming season.
With that, there are items that each NHL front office has on their checklist that may or may not be accomplished over the next 10 days or so in order to improve their team as well as their chances at winning the Stanley Cup in 2020.
In part one of a four-part series, let’s take a look at each Atlantic Division team and see what needs to be done in order to improve their odds of winning hockey’s ultimate prize next season.
*Odds courtesy of BetOnline
**Salary cap information courtesy of CapFriendly
Tampa Bay Lightning
- 2020 Stanley Cup Odds: +800
The Lightning are the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup next season after a wildly successful yet heart-crushing 2018-19 campaign.
The Lightning won 62 games last season, tying the 1995-96 Detroit Red Wings for the most regular season wins in NHL history. They would go on to win precisely zero playoff games as they were shockingly swept in the first round by the second Wild Card seed in the form of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
So, what does GM Julien BriseBois do to improve his already-loaded roster this summer?
Retain Brayden Point
Point is one piece of a loaded restricted free agent crop this offseason, a group that includes Patrik Laine, Mitch Marner, Mikko Rantanen, and Matthew Tkachuk, among others.
As a result, he is a prime offer sheet candidate, and with the Lightning tight against the cap, the threat of a potential offer sheet could cause the front office some headaches.
Point, 23, exploded for 41 goals and 92 points across 79 games last season and spent a big chunk of the season playing alongside Nikita Kucherov, which is saying something considering the Lightning also employ superstar Steven Stamkos down the middle.
With a steadily increasing salary cap and some big-money contracts being handed out across the league, you can bet Point’s camp is looking to cash in at a figure hovering around the $9M range on at least a five-year term.
It looks like Ryan Callahan’s $5.8M cap hit won’t count against the cap this season as he is bound for long-term injured reserve. Aside from that, however, it doesn’t look like much money is coming off the books this summer and Tampa Bay might have to move one, or more of Tyler Johnson, Ondrej Palat, Yanni Gourde, Alex Killorn or J.T. Miller, all of whom carry a cap hit at least $4.4M.
Regardless of how you slice it, retaining Point and possibly fending off an offer sheet is priority number one for this Lightning club.
Aside from shedding salary in order to retain Point, I don’t see any pressing needs on the league’s most talented roster.
- 2020 Stanley Cup Odds: +900
After marching all the way to the game seven of the Stanley Cup Final, the Bruins are once again one of the top favorites to win the Cup in 2020 with their +900 odds sliding in behind the Lightning as the second-highest to win Lord Stanley’s Cup.
GM of the Year Don Sweeney made some moves at the trade deadline that ended up paying big dividends for his team, although there doesn’t appear to be many pressing needs on his table at the moment.
However, is there something Sweeney can do to ensure his team gets back to the promised land again next season?
Find a Taker for David Backes
Sweeney is on record stating that Backes is a part of the Bruins moving forward, however, Sweeney has a plethora of contract situations to deal with within the next 12 months and moving the ever-declining Backes and his $6M cap hit should be a priority.
John Moore is the only Bruins defenseman under contract after the conclusion of next season. On top of signing Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo to RFA contracts this offseason, Sweeney will need to give a raise to Torey Krug and sign young blueliners Matt Grzelcyk and Connor Clifton to RFA deals next offseason. That 2020 RFA group also includes forward Jake DeBrusk who will be in search of a hefty raise himself.
The Bruins aren’t exactly flush with cap space at over $13M, but that number will shrink in a hurry when the McAvoy and Carlo deals are completed this summer. Moving the $6M owed to Backes will allow Sweeney the flexibility to add at the deadline again next season while allowing him some breathing room in negotiations with almost his entire blueline next offseason.
Add Scoring on the Flanks
The Bruins are strong down the middle with the trio of Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci and Charlie Coyle set to form an enviable 1-2-3 punch at the center ice position.
However, aside from first-liners Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak, the Bruins are lacking offense on the wing.
DeBrusk is their next best option, but playoff performer Marcus Johansson is almost sure to sign elsewhere in unrestricted free agency while players such as Backes, Chris Wagner, Joakim Nordstrom, Karson Kuhlman, and even 23-year-old RFA Danton Heinen haven’t produced consistently at the NHL level.
Heinen will be expected to take a step forward after regressing to 34 points after a strong 47-point rookie season, however, the Bruins will require more scoring punch on the wing behind the duo of Marchand and Pastrnak on the top line.
Toronto Maple Leafs
- 2020 Stanley Cup Odds: +1000
The Maple Leafs round out a loaded Atlantic Division that occupies three of the top four Stanley Cup odds for 2020 as they slide in at fourth with their +1000 odds.
It’s going to be a busy summer for GM Kyle Dubas and the rest of the Leafs’ front office.
There are RFA contracts to get done, there is trade movement required to open the required cap space and there is a ton of pressure on Dubas to build a winner that can get over the first round hump after three straight seasons of first-round postseason exits.
Let’s break down Dubas’ priorities in order.
Sign Match Marner
Perhaps the most hot-button topic in hockey right now is RFAs and offer sheets given the loaded RFA crop mentioned earlier, and Mitch Marner’s name continues to be used the most in such dialogue.
Marner is coming off a career-year in which he tallied 94 points while he’s arguably one of the best play-makers in the sport at just 22 years of age.
The Maple Leafs just handed Auston Matthews a five-year deal in excess of $11M and it’s quite likely that Marner’s camp will point straight towards that number as a comparable. Keep in mind Toronto has paid John Tavares $11M over seven years the last offseason, so asking Marner to take a discount to keep the bang together seems like a sure no-go in these negotiations.
Marner is going to require a cap hit likely around $10M if not higher. He appears to be the biggest offer sheet target in hockey and if he signs for more than $10,568,590 annually on an offer sheet, the signing club would owe the Maple Leafs four first-round picks as compensation. That’s a steep price, and one Kyle Dubas is apparently willing to accept if it makes the most sense for his team.
However, the priority remains to sign Marner and keep the NHL’s best young core intact moving forward.
Trade Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev
After two seasons in Toronto, it appears both player and team are willing to part ways when it comes to 39-year-old Patrick Marleau.
Marleau has apparently moved his family back to San Jose where he spent the first 19 years of his NHL career and put his Toronto home up for sale.
For the Leafs, moving his $6.25M cap hit off the books is almost essential to getting a Marner contract under the cap. Marleau’s production cratered last season to just 16 goals and 37 points after scoring 27 goals and 47 points in his first season in Toronto. Marleau was also registered just two assists in the Maple Leafs’ seven-game playoff series against the Bruins.
Moving a 39-year-old declining player with a $6.25M cap hit isn’t going to be easy. Especially when the player is in full control of his destiny via a full no-movement clause and with his intent on returning to only San Jose to finish his career. Dubas will certainly need to get creative and find a way to shed this unfavorable contract off the books.
While Marleau playing in Toronto next season still remains possible, Zaitsev has definitely played his last game in blue and white.
After a three-year run with the Maple Leafs, the latter two of which were very disappointing, Zaitsev has asked for a trade out of the Toronto pressure cooker, and the Maple Leafs are more than willing to oblige.
While his penalty killing and right-hand shot hold value across the league, the Maple Leafs are more than happy to get the $4.5M owed to him in each of the next five years off the books.
Zaitsev would play on the second pairing on most clubs and if a change of scenery were to help, that contract would actually hold value. Keep in mind Zaitsev was arguably Toronto’s best all-around defenseman in the 2016-17 season when he notched a career-high 36 points. He’s recorded just 27 in the two seasons since.
If he can get back to that first-year production, Zaitsev would be a valuable commodity on a lot of NHL clubs.
Add a Top-Four, Right-Shot Defenseman
The Maple Leafs were in need of an impact right-handed blueliner even before Zaitsev’s trade request, and the need increases heavily at this point.
Quality right-shot blueliners are both scarce and expensive. As a result, it may very well cost the Maple Leafs either Kasperi Kapanen or Andreas Johnsson, two-valued, productive, young players that are in need of notable raises in restricted free agency this offseason, just like Marner.
Both are easily top-six forwards on most teams moving forward and both will come up in any trade discussions the Maple Leafs have with opposing clubs. Their raises won’t be outrageous a la Marner, however, they are still going to be tough to fit under Toronto’s cap and combined with their value on the trade market, one is likely to go in order to fill this need.
With Norris Trophy candidate Morgan Rielly and Jake Muzzin filling the left side on the top two pairs, the Maple Leafs are in need of a right-handed complement to at least one of those players if they plan to keep the puck out of their net this upcoming season.
- 2020 Stanley Cup Odds: +5000
The Canadiens surprised most of us by fighting for a playoff spot throughout the entire 2018-19 season, a year that wasn’t supposed to include postseason aspirations.
Now, it appears the only choice Marc Bergevin has at this point is to acquire win-now talent and make another push next season. With odds that sit alongside the New Jersey Devils and Los Angeles Kings, it would appear Montreal has notable value here given the fact they missed the playoffs but just two points last season while the other two clubs were lottery teams by season’s end.
What can Bergevin do to force his club back into postseason contention next season?
Add Down the Middle
The Canadiens have plenty of options to play center on their current roster, but few are full-time impact pivots.
Max Domi has a nice year in his first season in Montreal and Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s rookie season went better than expected after surprisingly making the team out of training camp.
Phillip Danault is a quality two-way center, but better suited for a bottom-six role than skating in between Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher as he did for the majority of the season.
With Mike Reilly, Charles Hudon, Artturi Lehkonen and Joel Armia all 26 and under and in need of RFA contracts, the $10.7M Montreal has in cap space might disappear quickly. That means adding a player such as Matt Duchene, the top center available in a thin UFA center class, might not be feasible.
In a division that has Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point, John Tavares, Auston Matthews, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and even Aleksander Barkov and Vincent Trocheck down the middle, the Habs just don’t stack up at the most important position up front. The trade market is most likely where any addition would come given the paper-thin UFA crop down the middle.
Add Blueline Help
Perhaps this will be priority number one.
The Habs weren’t a bad defensive team by any stretch last season as their 2.88 goals against per game ranked 13th, however much of that was done by Carey Price who bounced back with a 2.49 GAA and .919 Sv% last season.
As it stands right now, 33-year-old Shea Weber and 31-year-old Jeff Petry will anchor the blueline. Noah Juulsen is a nice, young, cheap piece that will be there as well. Victor Mete will remain as well at just 21 years of age. Still, it’s not the most impressive group around.
No one is going to take the albatross of a contract handed to Karl Alzner off their hands, so money will come into play here as well. Like many teams, the Habs will need to move salary in order to accomplish their needs, including adding blueline help.
However, the good news is there are plenty of cost-efficient, left-handed defensemen in this league and the Habs are set on the right side with Weber and Petry on the top two pairs.
Working Juulsen into a full-time role will likely happen and as mentioned, Mete is just 21, but this league is tough on young defensemen and this duo is far from their prime. If the Canadiens want to win now, they’ll need an impact defenseman on the left side that can log minutes in a productive manner.
- 2020 Stanley Cup Odds: +2500
I already like the value we’re getting with Florida’s Stanley Cup odds here and the wheeling and dealing hasn’t even started.
I also expect the Panthers to be among the busiest teams this offseason as they have some needs that need attending to. If they are able to accomplish these needs, I believe the Panthers could very well get into the postseason and make noise next year given the roster pillars already in place.
Add a No.1 Goaltender
Absolutely priority number one.
Roberto Luongo’s status for the upcoming season is in limbo, but that doesn’t even matter. If Luongo returns for another kick at the can, it should be in a backup role to whoever (Sergei Bobrovsky) they add in free agency or a trade.
Bobrovsky’s name has been heavily linked to the Panthers ever since last season’s trade deadline. It makes sense as he’s the top free agent goaltender on the market, the Panthers desperately need a reliable number one netminder and they have plenty of cap space to do it.
Luongo’s inability to stay healthy at age 40 and backup James Reimer’s back-to-back disappointing seasons have the Panthers as the most goalie-hungry team in the show. I’d be surprised if they didn’t land Bobrovsky given their resources and need.
Add to the Blueline
This would be a need on a lot of teams, but it rings true with Florida to be sure.
Aside from the top trio of Aaron Ekblad, Keith Yandle and Michael Matheson, the Panthers are weak on the back end and could stand to add at least one impact defenseman to the current group.
If they can add Bobrovsky or another legitimate number one goaltender this offseason while adding to their blueline, I’d be shocked if Florida didn’t improve significantly on their 28th-ranked defense from a season ago. They received just a .891 Sv% from their goaltending, which doesn’t help, but Florida can do a lot better than some combination of Mark Pysyk, Josh Brown, MacKenzie Weegar and Ian McCoshen as their bottom three, at least while the latter three develop in lesser roles given all three are 25 or under.
I mean, the forward group is good and young. At just 23, Barkov is very much one of the league’s best 200-foot centers. Trocheck, 25, is an annual 30-goal threat with speed and creativity to boot. That’s an enviable 1-2 punch down the middle.
On the flanks, Florida has Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, Evgeni Dadonov and 25-year-old Frank Vatrano who broke out with 24 goals a season ago.
The top six is good, which is why Florida ranked ninth on offense a season ago.
While they’ve also been linked to Artemi Panarin, and they could certainly add him given their cap flexibility, Florida’s offense is already good enough to win. They just need to revamp the back end.
Fill in Bottom Six
The Panthers have three UFAs from their bottom six last season in Riley Sheahan, Troy Brower, and Jamie McGinn. While it remains possible they bring any of these players back, their pending UFA status leaves holes in Florida’s bottom-six.
Denis Maglin, Henrik Borgstrom and Colton Sceviour will return, but there’s at least three spots open in that bottom-six. On top of the goaltending and blueline needs, I expect GM Dale Tallon to be busy in assembling a productive bottom-six with all of that cap space.
- 2020 Stanley Cup Odds: +3300
The Sabres jumped out the gate to the top of the Atlantic Division last season, but that success was largely on the back of an unsustainable win/loss record in one-goal games. Once that record evened out, the Sabres plummeted out of playoff contention in an unsightly manner.
GM Jason Botterill has already checked one box off of his to-do list by re-signing 40-goal man Jeff Skinner to once again form a formidable duo with Jack Eichel on the top line.
Still, there’s plenty to do.
Add Scoring / Centers
Behind Eichel, the Sabres are paper-thin down the middle. Casey Mittelstadt will be good in time, however, he’s just 20 years old and recorded only 25 points last season.
Vladimir Sobotka, Evan Rodrigues, and Johan Larson form the remainder of their center ice group, a group that is blown out of the water by the pivots on rival clubs in the Atlantic.
The Sabres are going to need the trade market to heat up to add a productive pivot. Successful NHL teams are strong down the middle, and Buffalo just doesn’t stack up.
Aside from their need at center, the Sabres just need to score more. Their 2.70 goals per game last season tied the Rangers for 23rd in the league and Jason Pominville, who ranked fourth on the team with 16 goals, is an unrestricted free agent.
There’s scoring help on the wings in free agency and the Sabres have just shy of $20M in cap space to work with in order to add more scoring to the team after re-upping Skinner to a healthy $9M annual cap hit over eight years.
Add a Goaltender
You could categorize this as priority number one, but the goaltending market isn’t exactly robust.
Aside from Bobrovsky, the only other productive goaltender on the free agent market is Robin Lehner and I’d be shocked if the Sabres and Lehner reunited after a stressful three-year run together despite Lehner posting quality numbers in that time. I’d also be surprised to see Lehner sign anywhere by back with the Islanders.
The Sabres still have two goaltenders in Carter Hutton and Linus Ullmark – goaltender of the future. The problem is the Sabres got just a .901 Sv% from their goaltending last season and that’s just not good enough.
- Hutton regressed to a 3.00 GAA and .908 Sv% in 50 appearances in Buffalo last season after posting a stout 2.09 GAA and .931 Sv% with the Blues the season prior. I have a feeling the group playing in front of him had something to do with it as well.
- Ullmark, just 25 years old, posted a 3.11 GAA and .905 Sv% in his rookie season. He’s still the goaltender of the future, but if the Sabres want to win now it’s difficult to gauge who gets the keys to the crease to open the season.
The Sabres could simply wait and see if they get better performances out of this tandem this season or they could use Hutton as part of a deal to acquire a netminder. Given the bleak goaltending market, I’m thinking the former seems more likely.
Detroit Red Wings
- 2020 Stanley Cup Odds: +6600
The Red Wings are much very still in a rebuilding phase as Steven Yzerman looks to put his handprints on a team he once led during their glory days.
There are some pieces on this Red Wings roster, but it’s clear that they have a long way to go in order to seriously compete for a playoff spot.
That’s not to say that Yzerman plans to sit on his hands, however, as last season’s 62-win Tampa Bay team was essentially Yzerman’s doing, so we know he knows what he is doing and is eager to get this franchise turned around.
Rebuild the Blueline
There aren’t many players from last year’s full-time blueline that are a part of this team’s future.
The Wings currently have just one defenseman under contract after next season in Danny Dekeyser. Presumably, they will also have 24-year-old Madison Bowey on their blueline in the future as he is set for restricted free agency after next season.
Current UFA Niklas Kronwall’s knees could force him into retirement, Mike Green will be a trade chip at this year’s trade deadline and veterans Trevor Daley and Jonathan Ericsson are both 35 years of age and UFAs at season’s end. Both could be traded at the deadline as well.
Now, Filip Hronek showed plenty of offensive upside with 23 points in 46 games as a 21-year-old rookie last season, as did Dennis Cholowski who tallied 16 points in 52 NHL games a season ago.
However, this is anything but an admirable group and one that will struggle again next season. Yzerman will be tasked to get this blueline into shape in time to coincide with the progression of their talented forward group.
Yzerman has time, but after ranking 27th with 3.32 goals against per game last season, it’s clear Detroit’s blueline is in need of an overhaul.
Other than that, it will be another year of development for the young players while Yzerman can look to acquire further future pieces by dealing with some of his veteran defensemen and goaltenders at the trade deadline.
- 2020 Stanley Cup Odds: +10000
The Senators have the lowest odds in the league to win the Stanley Cup next season, which makes sense given the makeup of their current roster.
GM Pierre Dorion did well to acquire future pieces – most notably Swedish defenseman Erik Brannstrom from Vegas in the Mark Stone deal – at the trade deadline last season as he also dealt pending UFAs Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel to the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Still, there’s a long way to go for Dorion’s club, but let’s see what priorities he has on his plate to improve his club moving forward.
Find a Goaltender of the Future
The Senators have three goaltenders under contract for next season in Craig Anderson (38), Anderson Nilsson (29) and Mike Condon (29). This will surely be Anderson’s last season in Ottawa and possibly the last of his career given his age and UFA status at season’s end.
The Sens acquired Nilsson from the Canucks last season and he did well in posting a 2.90 GAA and .914 Sv% playing behind the NHL’s worst defense. Condon was fallen to third on the depth chart and could very well be moved before the beginning of next season.
This is an uninspiring group. The Senators need to locate a goaltender that they can develop in time for when they plan to become contenders. 21-year-old Filip Gustavsson posted an ugly 3.38 GAA and .887 Sv% in 31 games with AHL Belleville last season, but they did sign 22-year-old Joey Daccord out of Arizona State University after he posted a 2.36 GAA and .926 Sv% in 34 NCAA games last season. He even started a game with the Senators last season but was shelled for five goals and took a loss.
Perhaps Daccord is the long-term answer, but the Sens will have goaltending questions to field in the very near future.
Build the Blueline
Even after trading Stone, Duchene, and Dzingel at the deadline, the Senators still ranked 20th in goals scored after the trade deadline last season. Their offense obviously needs pieces given the current makeup of the roster, however, I would be building my blueline before anything else.
Thomas Chabot was one of the league’s best defensemen early in the season and at just 22 years old, he’s a future superstar. Brannstrom is just 19 and whether or not the Senators want to expose him to what will amount to a long, dreadful season is up for debate. Nonetheless, he’s a future piece.
Aside from that duo, there’s not a lot to work with. Cody Ceci is just 25 but he hasn’t developed as the Senators have hoped. 25 is still young for a defenseman, however, the former first-round pick hasn’t developed to the Senators’ liking at either end of the ice.
26-year-old Dylan DeMelo is a candidate to get extended and hang around longer, although he’s set for unrestricted free agency after next season.
Aside from getting just a .897 Sv% from their goaltending last season, this Senators team was bar-none the worst defensive team in hockey with their 3.67 goals against per game by far the worst mark in the league.
The Senators also have zero defensemen under contract for the 2020-21 season, so there’s going to be spots available even after Ottawa deals with their RFA players on the blueline.
It’s not going to be easy, or quick, but Dorion needs to build this team from the back out and that begins with a goaltender while adding some more promising pieces to the back end should absolutely be a priority moving forward.