2018 Offseason Preview: Nashville Predators

Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Nashville Predators and their outlook for the summer.

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The 2017-18 Nashville Predators finished atop the league. At the end of the regular season, that is.

For the first time in franchise history, the Preds clinched the President’s Trophy as the NHL club with the best regular season record (53-18-11) at season’s end. Nashville’s 117 points led the Central Division and Western Conference, but ultimately were no match for the Winnipeg Jets in seven games in the Second Round of the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

General Manager David Poile and head coach Peter Laviolette look to regroup and go at it again in 2018-19, but without assistant GM Paul Fenton, who took a job as Minnesota Wild’s General Manager.

Mike Fisher retired (again), Pekka Rinne was chased in multiple postseason appearances and Nashville was left without any hydration from Lord Stanley’s Cup.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

Poile and the Predators do not have a first round pick in Friday’s draft as a result of the Ryan Hartman trade deadline acquisition made with the Chicago Blackhawks.

It’s a deep draft, so Poile will have to use his magic anyway and select the next elite player in the later rounds or pull off a classic one-for-one hockey trade that rivals the Shea Weber for P.K. Subban trade or Seth Jones for Ryan Johansen trade. Did I mention the Filip Forsberg deal yet? The point is, Poile’s a magician, but he still hasn’t won a Cup.

Speaking of drafting in the late rounds, though, Nashville doesn’t have a second round pick this year or a sixth round pick (which the latter is more concerning given the aforementioned take above).

Pending free agents

The Predators have about $7.500 million in spending allowance this summer.

Scott Hartnell is their only pending-UFA forward and at 36-years-old, he amassed 13-11–24 totals in 62 games with the club that drafted him 6th overall in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft. The year-long reunion with his first NHL club produced totals that, sure, mean something from a bottom-6 forward, but he could be replaced as he only played four postseason games (scoring precisely, zero points).

As long as Hartnell isn’t getting a raise, Poile could keep him as a depth forward or a fourth liner, but if either party doesn’t see something mutual, then for sure Hartnell will be moving on.

Poile has two pending-RFA forwards to ponder this summer in Miikka Salomaki and Hartman.

Salomaki, 25, had two goals and six assists (eight points) in 58 games this season and went on to play in eight postseason games with Nashville. Since breaking into the NHL in 2014-15, Salomaki has had 8-11–19 totals in 125 career games. Not great for a mid-twenty-something year-old winger, but he’s more in his prime than, say, Hartnell is and for cheaper too.

Hartman, 23, in his second NHL season was traded by the Blackhawks to the Predators in a bit of a surprise move at the deadline, but went on to amass 11-20–31 totals in 78 games with Nashville and Chicago.

Despite taking some foolish retaliation penalties in the postseason, Hartman’s worth having somewhere in the Preds lineup for a bridge-deal to short-term contract as long as the dollars work out.

The biggest wrench in Poile’s plans might come in the form of Alexei Emelin‘s next contract if the pending-UFA defender is to re-sign with Nashville this offseason.

The 32-year-old blueliner had one goal and eight assists (nine points) in 76 games in his first season wearing a uniform other than the Montreal Canadiens sweater. Emelin was claimed by the Vegas Golden Knights at the 2017 Expansion Draft, then flipped to Nashville as part of a deal that solidified the Predators with the best top-6 defensive corps on paper in the NHL.

Shutdown, offensive, two-way, defensive– you name it, Nashville had it this season.

Emelin’s most recent contract carried a $4.100 million cap hit and if it’s going to be the same or even higher moving forward, Poile might be forced to let him walk with some key RFAs to re-sign for the longevity of the franchise.

One of those keys, of course, happens to be the Predators backup goaltender, Juuse Saros.

The 23-year-old is prime for taking over Pekka Rinne’s net one of these years– if the Preds can keep him around.

While others are after the Washington Capitals trying to work a deal on acquiring the rights to pending-RFA, Philipp Grubauer, Saros is comfortably sitting around with his 2.44 goals against average and .925 save percentage in 26 games played and 1.05 GAA and .952 SV% in 4 postseason appearances in this year’s playoffs.

Rinne is 35-years-old.

Shocking, I know, but even more shocking? He only has one-year left on his current deal with a $7.000 million cap hit.

Rinne posted a 2.31 GAA and .927 SV% in 59 games this season as Nashville’s starter, but faltered to a 3.07 GAA and .904 SV% in 13 games in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs.

If the torch is almost to be passed from one elite goaltender to perhaps the next best goalie in the NHL, signing Saros to a sensible bridge-deal before both parties cash in is imperative this summer.

Perhaps, even, before making any major adjustments to the team.

Buyouts on the books: Viktor Stalberg through 2018-19 at $1.167 million

Other pending free agents throughout the organization include:

Harry Zolnierczyk (UFA), Matt O’Connor (UFA), Cody Bass (UFA), Mark McNeill (UFA), Trevor Smith (UFA), Brandon Bollig (UFA), John Ramage (UFA), Anders Lindback (UFA)

2018 Offseason Preview: Boston Bruins

Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Boston Bruins and their outlook for the summer.

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The Boston Bruins are ahead of schedule. They weren’t supposed to finish 2nd in the Atlantic Division this season according to most experts. They weren’t supposed to get 50 wins or 112 points, but the 50-20-12 record 2017-18 Bruins made it all the way to the Second Round against the Tampa Bay Lightning after defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games.

Boston won Game 1.

Then it all came to a screeching halt, the Bruins lost four straight and were eliminated.

But fear not, for Bruce Cassidy‘s system is working and General Manager Don Sweeney has a plan. They weren’t supposed to be this good, this soon, but it all fits the bill of winning the Cup within Cassidy’s first three years at a time when Jake DeBrusk, Charlie McAvoy, Danton Heinen and Co. emerge as the future core behind Patrice Bergeron, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Zdeno Chara.

For the entire roster, it was just one more lesson in experience. The postseason is an entirely different animal from regular season action.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

Sweeney traded away Boston’s first round pick in the 2018 Draft to the New York Rangers as part of the Ryan SpoonerRick Nash blockbuster trade prior to the deadline in February.

Since then, the Bruins GM has indicated he’d like to get in on the deep first round action if he can, amid speculation that Boston is in the running for Ilya Kovalchuk, David Backes could be traded and more.

Pending free agents

Boston has almost $7.500 million in cap space available currently with the cap ceiling expected to rise perhaps by as much as $4.000 or $5.000 million, Sweeney still cannot afford to hand out long term contracts with a lot of value willy-nilly.

He did, however, just re-sign defender Matt Grzelcyk to a cap friendly two-year, $2.800 million ($1.400 million AAV) extension late last week and no it does not mean that Torey Krug is going to be traded. Signing 2017 first round pick, Urho Vaakanainen to his maximum term, maximum value entry-level contract doesn’t mean Krug is gone either– let alone that Vaakanainen will be on the NHL roster this October.

The Finnish blueliner has to really earn a spot on the Bruins defense this fall. Otherwise things are just going as planned with Vaakanainen’s development and he’ll be fine in Providence (AHL) for a season (at most).

Pending-UFAs Brian Gionta, 39, Kenny Agostino, 26, and Paul Postma, 29, already know they won’t be back in black-and-gold next season, leaving Riley Nash, 29, Tommy Wingels, 30, Rick Nash, 34, and Tim Schaller, 27 as the only pending UFA skaters on the NHL roster (ignoring Austin Czarnik, 25, and the fact that Agostino and Postma were with the Providence Bruins before season’s end, though all three– Czarnik, Agostino and Postma– played with Boston in relief appearances).

Sweeney is in the hunt for Kovalchuk and if it comes down to it, he’ll either sign the 35-year-old scorer looking to rejoin the NHL after a five-year journey to the KHL or re-sign 34-year-old Rick Nash– provided the 34-year-old Nash is still on the market.

It’s a bit of a standoff for the services of a sniper. One that’s almost guaranteed (Kovalchuk) and the other that had a small, injured, sample size already in a Bruins uniform (Nash).

The other Nash, Riley Nash, could get a pay raise elsewhere if the numbers don’t work out in Boston and I’ve already hinted at why *shameless self plug*.

Boston needs a second line winger. Whether it’s Rick Nash or Ilya Kovalchuk doesn’t matter. There’s already a youth movement going on and Mark Recchi played until he was 43 on the Bruins 2011 Stanley Cup champion roster.

Don’t worry about one player– who’s still contributing– getting old. Worry about entire rosters.

Outside of Boston’s core (Bergeron’s turning 33 this July), Sweeney’s roster is filled to the brim with youth.

Wingels could see another go-around on the Bruins fourth line if Sweeney deals Backes’s $6.000 million cap hit elsewhere and brings back Schaller. The latter forward (Schaller) had his best career season with 12 goals and 10 assists (22 points) in 82 games played, while Wingels contributed with grit and the occasional surprise goal on the fourth line.

What’s more important for Boston’s fourth line skaters is the return of pending-RFA, Sean Kuraly.

The 25-year-old center could play on the third line at times, despite only notching 6-8–14 totals in his first full season of NHL action (75 games). Despite his offensive shortcomings, the Bruins shouldn’t give up on Kuraly with guys like Jakob Forsbacka-Karlsson and Trent Frederic breathing down his neck for a bottom-6 forward role on the 2018-19 squad.

Kuraly had two clutch goals in the short-lived 12-game 2018 postseason run.

Pending UFA-defender, Nick Holden, 31, is as good as gone as the rental blueliner was acquired as an insurance policy for a deep run that didn’t come to fruition.

Sweeney won’t have to do much this offseason. Find a second line winger, work on bringing some key glue guys back (if possible) and re-sign or sign a new backup goaltender.

You’ll notice “find another top-4 defender” isn’t included in this list. A healthy Brandon Carlo shakes things up in the 2018 postseason. More experience under McAvoy’s reign or the insertion of Jeremy Lauzon or Jakub Zboril on the blueline can make a difference too.

Boston doesn’t have to rush and overpay for the services of a top-4 blueliner– unless they have John Carlson or the like in mind.

That’s right, Anton Khudobin, 32, is a pending-UFA.

While Khudobin held down the fort in October and early November, the backup goalie is not a starter. He loves Boston and the city, rightfully, loves him back for his best performance in goals against average (2.56) and save percentage (.913) in 31 games played since his 2013-14 campaign with the Carolina Hurricanes (a 2.30 GAA and .926 SV% in 36 games played).

There isn’t a huge goalie market, which could do favors for Khudobin if he’s looking for a healthy pay raise, but for Sweeney and the Bruins means he might have to fork something up to retain the services of his backup or acquire a new one.

Then again, Zane McIntyre and Dan Vladar have a healthy competition in the system for the backup role to starting goaltender, Tuukka Rask, 31, and his $7.000 million cap hit through the 2020-21 season.

Rask posted a 2.36 GAA and .917 SV% in 54 games played this season with a 34-14-5 record. He had his third-straight 30-plus win season and was right in the sweet spot for number of games played as a starter (he was four appearances shy of matching his 58-game appearance in 2013-14 with the Bruins– the same season Boston won its 2nd President’s Trophy in franchise history).

Now, as for why the Bruins would look to move Backes (I’m sure you’ve been wondering), it’s a simple game of math. Freeing up $6.000 million in cap space makes signing Kovalchuk or John Tavares more attractive, while also leaving an open door for maybe re-signing glue guys like Riley Nash and Tim Schaller.

And no, Boston won’t bring Milan Lucic back for a second stint with the organization like they did with Glen Murray years ago. Sweeney’s looking to rid the organization of a bad $6.000 million contract, not trying to add one in the form of an Edmonton Oiler’s forward who had his worst season since the lockout shortened 2012-13 season and his injury shortened 50 game season in 2009-10.

Plus, Boston still has Matt Beleskey ($1.900 million, retained salary) on the books through the end of 2018-19, Dennis Seidenberg‘s $1.167 million cap hit through 2019-20 (thanks to a buyout) and Jimmy Hayes‘s $866,667 cap hit through the end of 2018-19 (another buyout) on the books.

Waiting a year to then buyout Backes’s remaining contract isn’t an option either, for the record.

It’s either find a trading partner or live with the consequences.

And no, just trading David Krejci without taking care of Backes at some point doesn’t fix things either. That’d actually hurt the team in its roster depth. Krejci is your surefire second line center (unless Tavares comes into the equation), which is not something Backes could handle at this point in his career.

Other pending free agents throughout the organization include:

Justin Hickman (RFA), Chris Breen (UFA), Colby Cave (RFA), Tommy Cross (UFA), Austin Czarnik (UFA), and Anton Blidh (RFA)

2018 Offseason Preview: Toronto Maple Leafs

Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Toronto Maple Leafs and their outlook for the summer.

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There was no competition for the remaining playoff spots in the Atlantic Division this season as only three teams were truly in contention for the top spot through divisional seedings.

While the Tampa Bay Lightning sat atop the Atlantic Division standings for about 95-percent of the season, the Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins swapped 2nd and 3rd all season long until Boston started peaking in March.

Toronto finished the regular season 3rd in the Atlantic with a 49-26-7 record and 105 points on the season, lining up on the road for Games 1 and 2 of their First Round matchup with the Bruins.

It was the first postseason meeting between the two clubs since their 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals matchup and epic collapse in Game 7 by Toronto. Like 2013, however, the Maple Leafs won Games 5 and 6 in the series, forcing a decisive Game 7 back at TD Garden.

This time, though, the Bruins cruised in the third period to a 7-4 victory and won the series, 4-3.

Head coach, Mike Babcock, faced criticism from Toronto media and fans alike for back-to-back years of First Round exits, while Lou Lamoriello fulfilled his three years as General Manager.

Lamoriello’s seven-year contract with the club intended on keeping him in the role of GM for three years, then as a senior advisor for the final four years. Instead, Lamoriello resigned from Toronto and joined his son with the New York Islanders (and was subsequently promoted as General Manager).

Since Brendan Shanahan took a front office job with the Maple Leafs, there’s been another name prime for the GM job. Kyle Dubas.

Hired as an assistant GM as a 28-year-old, the prolific analytics-driven evaluator became General Manager of the Leafs at 32 as his Toronto Marlies (AHL) won this year’s Calder Cup championship.

The old regime is almost completely new-school in the 6ix.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

Dubas and his Maple Leafs scouting crew hold onto the 25th overall pick in the first round of the 2018 Draft and it’s not entirely clear cut on who they’ll likely target. There’s no immediate need to fill with a teenager, the 2018 Draft is deeper than usual and Toronto could always trade the pick.

There’s no ties to a player like Erik Karlsson, but the Leafs seem prime to make some type of acquisition this summer via a trade in addition to sticking with the plan.

Pending free agents

Toronto has about $22.340 million in cap space heading into July with some big names to consider re-signing.

Tomas Plekanec, Tyler Bozak, Leo Komarov, Dominic Moore and James van Riemsdyk are all pending-UFAs as of July 1st– with van Riemsdyk as one of the hottest players not named “John Tavares” potentially hitting the open market.

Acquired around the deadline from the Montreal Canadiens, 35-year-old Tomas Plekanec is two games away from the 1,000th in his NHL career. He recorded two assists in 17 games down the stretch with the Leafs and had six goals and 20 assists (26 points) in 77 games with Toronto and Montreal this season.

Since he amassed 54 points in 2015-16, Plekanec has averaged 27 points over the last two seasons. That kind of production drop-off is to be expected at some point in the waning days of his NHL career, but still important to the depth scoring of any organization.

He brings intangibles to the locker room, like leadership and good chemistry with Mitch Marner and Patrick Marleau that boosted Toronto’s playoff performance and helped extend the series with Boston to seven games.

The question is, can Dubas keep two 35-plus members on the roster, let along on the same line for another year or two (though nightly lineups are at Babcock’s discretion) and will Plekanec be allowed to regrow his goatee if he re-signs now that Lamoriello is gone?

Regardless, it’s been noted that Plekanec and his turtleneck have a desire to go back to Montreal, but if he truly wants to win a Cup before the end of his playing days…

Bozak, 32, is six games shy of his 600th career NHL game and had 11-32–43 totals in 81 games this season. One of Toronto’s more consistent point-producers, Bozak has only surpassed 20 goals once in his career (he scored 23 goals in 2014-15).

The veteran center has long been a playmaker, reaching 30-plus assists three times in his career– including the last two seasons.

He should get another look, but at what cost given some of the other big names potentially heading for the open waters of free agency from Toronto.

Komarov, 31, had 19 points this season. He’s never reached the 20 goal plateau in his career and– despite being a fan favorite and Brad Marchand‘s man-crush— he shouldn’t expect a big contract from Dubas if he wishes to extend his stay in Ontario’s capital city.

Moore, 37, resurrected his career last season with Boston, notching 11-14–25 totals in all 82 games, but the fourth line center scored just six goals in 50 games with the Maple Leafs this season.

Three games shy of 900 in his career, his 12 points on the year this season doesn’t scream “extension” in a Leafs sweater, but might find work elsewhere as a bottom-6 forward in what could be his last chance at a Cup.

van Riemsdyk, 29, reached the 30-goal plateau for the second time in his career since being drafted by the Philadelphia Flyers 2nd overall in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft. He first scored 30 goals and 31 assists (61 points) with Toronto in 2013-14.

He had 33 assists last season and 36-18–54 totals this season.

Under Dubas, the Leafs are on their way to becoming the next Washington Capitals in prospect development. The Marlies just won the Calder Cup with a mixture of grizzled former NHLers in Colin Greening and young, developing, players that are intentionally overcooked at the AHL level for an easier transition to the NHL game.

Moving on from older pending-UFAs is bound to happen and it just might be this offseason’s plan.

In his second full season at the NHL level, pending-RFA William Nylander, 22, matched his rookie season point total (61) on the heels of 20 goals and 41 assists in 82 games this season. Sophomore year went swimmingly for the top-6 forward.

Now he’s a pending-RFA and will need a pay raise with Auston Matthews entering the final year of his entry-level deal.

It might seem easy for Toronto to crunch some numbers, keep van Riemsdyk, Bozak, Nylander and the rest of the gang together, but without a little proper planning for the future, the club could easily get themselves in some deep trouble.

32-year-old pending-UFA defender Roman Polak over came a leg injury, signed a PTO and landed a one-year renewal for his fourth season as a Maple Leaf in October. He had 4-7–11 totals in 75 games last season and improved to 2-10–12 totals in 54 games this season with Toronto. He even recorded his third career point in the playoffs (an assist).

But for the St. Louis Blues’s 160th overall pick in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft, it doesn’t seem like another year in a Leafs uniform is in the cards. Not when Travis Dermott was making waves as a potential top-6 defender next season in the playoffs and Polak was being blown past by Bruins forwards.

Connor Carrick— a 24-year-old, pending-RFA defenseman– had a career-year in goals (4), assists (8) and points (12) in 47 games this season. Why he’s not utilized more is perplexing. He was a healthy scratch for 32 games, injured for two more and did not play in the postseason.

Both Dermott and Carrick should see precedence over Polak next season– especially in today’s game and with Ron Hainsey already as an anchor veteran on the blueline at 37-years-old– but that all depends on whether Dubas makes an effort to bring Carrick back and mend whatever’s between Babcock’s viewpoint and Carrick’s play on the ice.

If the Leafs get older and more reliant on guys like Hainsey, Polak and Marleau, like they did this postseason, Babcock risks being viewed similar to Ken Hitchcock in his loss of being adaptable in an increasingly younger, faster and more skilled than ever league.

That’s not to discredit Babcock as one of the greatest NHL coaches of all-time, but rather to point out he’s got a challenge ahead of him and his staff– and Babcock likes challenges, because he usually excels at them.

In goal, Frederik Andersen, 28, is under contract through the 2020-21 season with a $5.000 million cap hit and backup Curtis McElhinney, 35, has one-year remaining at $850,000.

There’s no need to disrupt something that’s working in net in the dynamic duo that is Andersen and McElhinney, but you can expect to see 24-year-old Garret Sparks get a few extra looks having led his team to the Calder Cup championship.

Other pending free agents throughout the organization include:

Colin Greening (UFA), Miro Aaltonen (RFA), Frederik Gauthier (RFA), Andreas Johnsson (RFA), Martin Marincin (RFA), Kyle Baun (UFA), Justin Holl (RFA), Calvin Pickard (RFA)

Of note, Toronto has $1.200 million in retained salary on the books (Phil Kessel) through the 2021-22 season.

2018 Offseason Preview: Minnesota Wild

Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Minnesota Wild and their outlook for the summer.

Just like they have for previous five seasons, the Wild’s 2017-18 campaign saw them advance to the playoffs for the sixth-straight year. And, just like they have for the previous two postseasons, the Wild’s 2018 playoffs ended in the first round (in fact, Minnesota has won only one playoff game apiece for the past two seasons) for a third-straight year.

Whether you’d call it idling, treading water or stalling, the point remains the same: the Wild aren’t getting better, and any time a team isn’t getting better, it’s getting worse.

Is this a problem that can be resolved this offseason? Or will newly appointed General Manager Paul Fenton be able to duplicate his Nashville success in St. Paul?

2018 NHL Entry Draft

With the 24th-overall pick in this year’s deep draft, the Wild are still in the running for landing an excellent prospect. Personally, I’m leaning towards Minnesota snagging D Alexander Alexeyev (Red Deer Rebels), C Benoit-Olivier Groulx (Halifax Mooseheads), D Jared McIsaac (Halifax Mooseheads) or C Jay O’Brien (Thayer Academy), pending each player’s availability.

Of the 18-year-old defensemen, Alexeyev is the more offensive-minded of the two as his .82 points per game this season is superior to McIsaac’s .72 points per game, but both would make an already dangerous Wild blue line even more lethal.

Determining the better of the two centers is a taller task, as O’Brien is still playing with his high school team (posting 43-37-80 totals in 30 games played) while Groulx has been facing tougher competition in the QMJHL (posting 28-27-55 totals in 68 games played). However, clocking in at 6-foot, 174 pounds at only 18-years-old, O’Brien just might be worth the risk to propel Minnesota forward.

Pending free agents

With both G Devan Dubnyk and G Alex Stalock under contract for at least one more season, the only way there’s something changing here is if Fenton makes a trade – and I doubt he does it.

The Wild have three pending RFA defensemen to make decisions on, the most important of which is soon-to-be 24-year-old D Mathew Dumba. The seventh-overall pick in the 2012 NHL Entry Draft, Dumba’s 23:49 time on ice per game is third on his club at his position, while his .61 points per game is second among Wild defensemen with at least two games played.

Minnesota has just under $7.5 million in projected cap space for this upcoming season, but more than $2.55 million of that is going to be heading Dumba’s way (that’s the price at which he signed his last two-year contract).

Without even signing D Ryan Murphy or D Nick Seeler, the Wild would have eight NHL defenseman contracts on their books. Odds are very good that at least one Minnesota defenesman will be shipped off in some sort of trade this offseason, and that number could climb all the way to three.

How am I so confident in that prediction? The Wild also have five free agent forwards to ponder, including primary target W Jason Zucker – a pending RFA. The 59th-overall pick in the 2010 NHL Entry Draft posted decent 33-31-64 totals in 82 games played (.78 points per game) from his spot on the first line, scoring the second-most tallies on the team for a career-high.

This Wild team without Zucker would be helpless, so I have a hard time believing Fenton will allow him to wear a different sweater next season if he’s committed to winning now. As such, Zucker will likely improve on his $2 million contract, even if it’s only a one-year deal to get him to his 27th birthday – the graduation into unrestricted free agency.

And just like that, we’ve spent almost $6 million of the $7.5 million available on Dumba and Zucker. As such, Minnesota is likely going to be forced into some uncomfortable trades that could likely damage the team and potentially put its six-year playoff run at risk.

One thing to keep in mind is that, as unsigned restricted free agents, Dumba and Zucker may not be necessarily off the trading table. Both (especially Dumba) will be valuable haggling pieces if the Wild decide to do a retool, but they’ll need to make sure to get the right pieces in return to avoid wasting anymore of Dubnyk’s prime.

2018 Offseason Preview: Anaheim Ducks

The theme of aquatic birds continues in DtFR’s offseason preview series, as it’s time to tackle the Anaheim Ducks’ priorities regarding their pending free agents.

Featuring a playoff roster with an average age of 28.5-years-old, logic would indicate the Ducks are in their prime. However, even though they’ve qualified for the postseason for six-straight seasons, they’ve failed to advance beyond the first round in half of those appearances – including a four-game sweep at the hands of the San Jose Sharks this April.

One of the biggest concerns about this Anaheim club is it plays an old-fashioned, grind-it-out style that simply doesn’t mesh well against the increasingly quicker and technically-sound opponents.

In simpler terms, the Ducks need to get younger and faster.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

One of the easiest ways to get younger is with a solid draft class, and Anaheim will have that opportunity with the 23rd-overall selection.

If one of the mock drafts I’ve compiled (all of which are available at Elite Prospects) are correct, I’d bet on General Manager Bob Murray selecting D Alexander Alexeyev (Red Deer Rebels), C Ryan McLeod (Mississauga Steelheads), D Rasmus Sandin (Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds) or D Bode Wilde (USNTDP) with his first round selection.

If there’s one thing the Ducks’ scouts know, it’s definitely defense. Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm and Josh Manson are all solid blueliners 26-years-old or younger that will service this organization for years to come, and I’d only expect Alexeyev, Sandin or Wilde to join the group if they’re deemed truly worthy.

That’s what makes McLeod such an attractive option. Even though the 18-year-old is all but ensured at least one more season with the Steelheads, Anaheim’s deep defense gives it the opportunity to invest in restocking its attack.

McLeod had a breakout season in 2017-18, registering 26-44-70 totals in 68 games played (1.03 points per game), followed by 2-3-5 marks in his six postseason appearances. If he can take command of the club following the potential departure of brother F Michael McLeod (12th-overall pick by New Jersey in 2016) and lead Mississauga on a deep playoff run, Anaheim could happen into a stellar young forward.

Pending free agents

Let’s tackle Anaheim’s easiest position first: goaltending. G John Gibson and G Ryan Miller are both under contract for one more season, so the Ducks will likely make no moves in this department. The most important note here is making sure Murray reserves money on the back burner for Gibson next summer (he’ll be an RFA, for those that care about those sorts of things). He currently has a touch over $9 million in cap space this season and a whopping $23 million to play with in 2019-20.

Along the blue line, D Kevin Bieksa (UFA), D Brandon Montour (RFA) and D Andy Welinski (RFA) are all looking for jobs, but I’d argue that only Montour is truly worth a big-time contract.

Montour’s 20:28 time on ice per game was fourth on the team, and the same can be said for his .4 points per game. At 24-years-old, he’ll be worth every penny of any contract he receives to play an imposing presence as a top-four defenseman.

Having just turned 37-years-old Saturday following a 0-8-8, -13 season in 59 games played, it’s hard to see a way Bieksa returns to Anaheim for a fourth season. That makes signing Welinski –  the Ducks’ third-round pick in 2011 – to a low-cost, two-way contract all the easier to swallow.

Instead, the toughest decisions for Anaheim will be made in the forwards room. RW J.T. Brown, W Jason Chimera, C Derek Grant, W Ondrej Kase, F Chris Kelly, LW Nick Ritchie and F Antoine Vermette are all looking for contracts this summer, with all but Kase and Ritchie being of the UFA variety.

Regardless of type, Kase is by far the most important free agent on Anaheim’s plate this summer. He reached the 20-goal plateau in his second season in the NHL, and he needed only 66 games to do it. He may not compare to RW Teemu Selanne (I mean, the Finnish Flash did score 76 goals in his rookie season compared to Kase’s five), but I believe he’s fully ready to climb into a top-six position with F Rickard Rakell to lead this Ducks team when F Ryan Kesler and C Ryan Getzlaf depart.

In a similar fashion, fellow 22-year-old Ritchie should also receive a fresh deal to keep him in Orange County. While not quite the scorer Kase is (he managed only 10-17-27 totals in 76 games played this season), Ritchie is an excellent third-liner that still has more than enough time to develop into a real weapon from his position. Get him a bridge deal for a cap hit under $1.25 million and move on.

Anaheim’s most important UFA is Grant, a player that provided 12-12-24 totals in 66 appearances this season from his position on the fourth line. Coming off a one-year, $650 thousand deal, he’ll likely sign for cheap to give the Ducks four solid centers.

The rest of the UFAs (Brown – 27, Chimera – 39, Kelly – 37, Vermette – 35) either don’t fit with the “get younger” plan or simply aren’t worth the money (looking at you, Brown). Anaheim can either promote a forward from its organization (I like pending RFA F Kalle Kossila) or acquire another from outside to fill its 13th forward position.

2018 Offseason Preview: Pittsburgh Penguins

Only a few more teams’ offseason previews remain before the 2018 NHL Entry Draft gets started this Friday. First up today is the Pittsburgh Penguins!

The chance to become the NHL’s first official dynasty since the 1983-90 Edmonton Oilers is still available to C Sidney Crosby‘s Penguins, but falling in the second round of the playoffs to the eventual champion Washington Capitals has forced them into a situation that requires another title in 2019.

Among others, the major flaw in this Penguins club during the postseason was clearly a disappearance of the depth scoring that became so expected during their previous two Stanley Cup runs, as well as a defense that – while playing well overall (their 26.6 shots against per game in the playoffs was best of all 16 teams) – had a habit of allowing its few mistakes to become major problems.

Was this just a result of a tired squad, or is General Manager Jim Rutherford going to have to make some major adjustments?

2018 NHL Entry Draft

For any Pittsburgh fans planning on addressing these issues in the draft, you’re in for some bad news: the Penguins’ first round pick belongs to Ottawa as a result of the trade that yielded C Derick Brassard.

Slated to turn 31-years-old this September, Brassard certainly does not provide the Penguins the scoring youth they would have received in the draft (speaking of, I’d expect Ottawa to select C Benoit-Olivier Groulx [Halifax Mooseheads], RW Martin Kaut [HC Dynamo Pardubice], F Isac Lundeström [Luleå HF] or RW Serron Noel [Oshawa Generals] with Pittsburgh’s pick). However, there’s a reason Columbus selected him sixth-overall in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

Under contract for one more year, Brassard is still capable of providing the depth scoring Pittsburgh needs, as he’s notched at least .64 points per game in three of his last four seasons. After a summer off the ice to fully recover from his groin injury, I have no doubt Brassard will make Rutherford’s trade look like an excellent idea.

Pending free agents

With almost $4.8 million to play with, Pittsburgh needs to sign or trade for a minimum of three players just to reach the minimum 20-man roster required by the NHL. That’s not very much wiggle room, especially since that would leave the Pens without a 13th forward and a seventh defenseman.

To put it simply, Rutherford is going to need to put in some serious work if he wants to get his club back to the Stanley Cup Final for the third time in four years.

With nine forwards on the current roster, it’s a no-brainer that a minimum of three rosters are going to be added into the mix. If the Penguins elect to change things up in their bottom-six, they’re certainly going to have that option, as W Tom Kuhnhackl, F Carter Rowney, W Bryan Rust, C Riley Sheahan and F Dominik Simon are all pending free agents, with all but Rowney being of the restricted variety.

Of the five, Rust is clearly the most talented offensively, as his 13-25-38 totals in 69 games played are the most of the group. Making him more impressive, Rust bounced all over the Pens’ lineup this season, proving that his numbers weren’t just a result of playing with Crosby or F Evgeni Malkin.

With unrestricted free agency only one year away, odds are very slim of seeing Rust settle for much of a team-friendly deal given his two championship rings. If I were a gambling man, I’d put my chips on Rutherford shipping Rust’s rights to a team that has cap space and needs a proven winner (perhaps F Ryan Dzingel or W Micheal Ferland would be available if Pittsburgh could find an acceptable package).

Sheahan is another player that I wouldn’t be surprised to be wearing a different sweater next season. Though he is still excellent at the face-off dot (he won 54.2 percent of draws this season), it’s hard to justify his 11-21-32 totals (.4 points per game) at the $2.075 million price tag he was awarded in 2016 by Detroit. Unless Sheahan – who will be eligible to test unrestricted free agency following his next contract’s completion – is willing to take a pay cut, he might meet the same fate as Rust.

Of their free agents I’d actually expect the Penguins to resign, Simon looks to be the best bet. Turning 24-years-old in August, the Czech posted 4-8-12 totals in 33 NHL appearances this season, spending time on the first and third lines. Considering how good Crosby has made young players look in the past (ex: F Jake Guentzel, W Conor Sheary and Rust), there’s a strong chance Rutherford gives Simon a slight raise to a three-year, $1 million AAV contract to keep him in town.

A resigning of Simon also makes Kuhnhackl expendable if the two parties cannot come to terms on a team-friendly deal. The German provided only 2-6-8 totals in 69 games played from his fourth-line role at a $625 thousand price tag. If he tries to leverage his two championships for a raise, Rutherford will likely go no higher than $1 million per season.

Lastly, if Rutherford resigns Rowney for a cent more than the league minimum ($700 thousand starting this season), he loses his job. It’s that plain and simple in my book. The Penguins simply don’t have the cap space to keep a player who’s averaged only .17 points per game for his career.

His only saving grace in staying with the team is the Pens not wanting to risk having too few players. He’s a known commodity, which makes him a better asset on the fourth line than a player from outside the organization.

One thing to keep in mind regarding the signing of any of these free agents is the fact that Guentzel will be looking for a contract this time next year. Given his 23 goals and 42 points in 37 Stanley Cup playoff games, the Nebraskan will fetch a pretty penny that Rutherford will need to plan for if he sees Guentzel as a longtime member of the organization.

With Pittsburgh set in net (G Matt Murray and G Casey DeSmith have respective two and one seasons remaining on their contracts), the only contract to focus on defensively is RFA D Jamie Oleksiak. Oleksiak’s 17:24 time on ice per game was seventh among Penguins defensemen, while his .3 points per game clocked in at fourth-best.

For the past three offseasons, Oleksiak has signed one-year deals of increasing value, the most recent of which was worth almost $965 thousand.

Figuring out if Oleksiak gets a new contract is a difficult task, as Pittsburgh could certainly save money by promoting from within. Since 2015, the Penguins have drafted eight defensemen – including three in the first three rounds – but none of those players have even been signed by the club.

If promotion is in fact the route Pittsburgh elects to take, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s best option, D Andrey Pedan, is no longer on the table due to his decision to take his talents to Russia. Similarly, both D Frank Corrado and D Kevin Czuczman are in the same position as Oleksiak, as their identical one-year, $650 thousand contracts expired following the Charlotte Checkers’ three-game sweep against the Pens.

If Rutherford can pull off the signings listed above, he’ll have approximately $2 million to play with to keep Oleksiak around and/or acquire additional skaters.

2018 Offseason Preview: San Jose Sharks

Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the San Jose Sharks and their outlook for the summer.

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The San Jose Sharks quietly strolled along in the Pacific Division for much of the season, spending time in 2nd place behind the Vegas Golden Knights. If it wasn’t for slipping considerably down the stretch in a critical time where every point matters, the Sharks would’ve had home ice for their First Round matchup against the Anaheim Ducks.

Instead, head coach Peter DeBoer and his players finished the season 3rd in the Pacific, with 100 points on the season– one point behind Anaheim– and a 45-27-10 record.

For not having the spotlight on the team most of the year and the pressure that had built up in 2016 and 2017 thanks to the club’s Stanley Cup Final run in 2016, General Manager Doug Wilson made a splash acquiring Evander Kane from the Buffalo Sabres at the trade deadline.

The Sharks were all in.

They swept the Ducks in the First Round, proving home ice advantage didn’t matter to them and even beat the Golden Knights on the road in the Second Round in double-overtime.

But San Jose fell to the Vegas offense and stellar goaltending from Marc-Andre Fleury and the 2018 postseason run was cut short in six games without an appearance by Joe Thornton— in the literal sense, because he was oft-injured this season.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

Wilson and the Sharks have the 21st overall pick in the 2018 Draft and could target a defender or fall in line with the “pick the best available” mantra of the first round past the top-10 picks in the draft.

In any case, San Jose realistically has a chance of landing either Jack McBain, Serron Noel, Jared McIsaac, Ryan Merkley, Olivier-Benoit Groulx, Rasmus Sandin, Albin Eriksson, Adam Ginning, Fillip Hallander or Ryan McLeod.

The club does not have any picks in the second or third round as things currently stand at the time of this writing.

Pending free agents

The Sharks have a little more than $7.500 million to work with this summer after delivering a significant pay raise to Evander Kane, keeping him around for the long-term in Northern California, alongside Joe Pavelski.

Speaking of Pavelski, he’ll need a new contract next summer.

Back to the present, for now, though.

Jannik Hansen, Thornton, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward are all pending-unrestricted free agents.

Hansen, 32, might have some staying power in that he’s one of the younger pending-UFAs currently on the NHL roster in San Jose, however, he only amassed 2-12–14 totals in 46 games this season. That’s not good and the Sharks can move on, given the emergence of Marcus Sorensen and, well, the overall outlook of the organization.

It could come down to re-signing one or two of these pending-UFAs if they’re willing to take a tremendous discount and limited role.

While a guy like Thornton wouldn’t have as limited of a role as Hansen, Fehr or Ward, he is coming off of a season plagued by injuries.

If he has anything left in the tank, he’ll be back, but at a discount for sure. Not an $8.000 million, one-year deal, but something like a $1.000 million one-year deal with performance bonuses and the like.

Despite being limited to 47 games this season, the Boston Bruins 1st overall pick in the 1997 NHL Entry Draft still had 13 goals and 23 assists (36 points).

At 38, Thornton could be the next ageless wonder, a la Jaromir Jagr— minus all the traveling around the league, because Thornton is that dedicated to the organization he’s been with since the 2005-06 season.

Without a doubt the plan in Silicon Valley is Cup or bust in 2019 and Joe Thornton still haven’t won his Cup.

But he’ll surely take his time to mull over a decision on whether to return or not, let alone return to the game.

Fehr, 32, was a low-cost, potentially high-reward on the fourth line acquisition the Sharks made in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but Fehr didn’t have all that far to go to meet up with his new team. He was already on loan to the San Jose Barracuda (AHL).

Unless he can rebound, he might be getting an AHL deal this summer.

Drafted by the Washington Capitals 18th overall in the deep 2003 NHL Entry Draft, Fehr had three goals and one assist (four points) in 18 games with the Sharks and Maple Leafs this season.

He won’t be back.

Like Thornton, Joel Ward is getting up there in age. He’s 37 and really slowing down in offense. Ward had 5-7–12 totals in 52 games this season and did not play in the postseason. He may still find an NHL team or two interested in his services this summer, but it’ll be outside of San Jose.

Doug Wilson’s biggest priorities this offseason is keeping things intact while envisioning a younger defense somewhere down the not-so-distant line.

But first, he’ll have to re-sign pending-RFAs Tomas Hertl and Chris Tierney.

Hertl, 24, had 22 goals and 24 assists (46 points) in 79 games this season. He’ll be looking for dollars or term and the Sharks will have to work around some things to give it to him, but they absolutely should.

Tierney, 23, has proven to be an effective second or third line center with 17-23–40 totals in 82 games this season. It’s the first time in his young NHL career (4th season) that he’s played in all 82 games in the regular season and he’ll continue to play in many more as long as he’s got a spot on San Jose’s special teams– most notably, at times, killing penalties.

Then there’s pending-RFA blueliner Dylan DeMelo.

The 25-year-old’s role on the Sharks defense increased this season as Brent Burns, Marc-Edouard Vlasic and Paul Martin— though better than average combined– continued to age.

DeMelo had 20 assists in 63 games played this season. He can move the puck and shutdown the opponent on any given night. He’s also in the sweet-spot for a defenseman in their prime.

Finally, the Sharks are set in net with Martin Jones, 28, under contract through the 2023-24 season at a $5.750 million cap hit as their starter and Aaron Dell, 29, on a fresh two-year extension at $1.900 million per year as the backup.

Seriously though, Jones is perhaps the best goaltender– if not one of the best– in franchise history and he’s signed at an affordable cap hit for a starting goaltender of his caliber.

Look, we love Evgeni Nabokov as much as the next guy, but Jones carries the promise of potentially bringing the franchise its first Cup on his current contract and he’s not even being paid $6.000 million or more like other elite goaltenders in this league.

Other pending free agents throughout the organization include:

Brandon Mashinter (UFA)

2018 Offseason Preview: Los Angeles Kings

Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Los Angeles Kings and their outlook for the summer.

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The Los Angeles Kings got off to a bit of a hot start battling for 1st place in the Pacific Division with the Vegas Golden Knights in the first month or two of the 2017-18 season before cooling off a bit.

Still, first year head coach John Stevens commanded his team back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016, with a 45-29-8 record and 98 points on the season– good enough for 4th in the Pacific and the first wild card spot in the Western Conference.

Despite reaching the postseason, the Kings faced the Golden Knights in the First Round and were swept in a low scoring series.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

General Manager Rob Blake embarks upon his second entry draft with Los Angeles and the 20th overall pick in the first round of the 2018 Draft Friday night in Dallas.

Blake will likely yield one of the following players in Jack McBain, Grigori Denisenko, Serron Noel, Jared McIsaac, Ryan Merkley, Benoit-Olivier Groulx, Rasmus Sandin, Akil Thomas or Albin Eriksson.

Pending free agents

This offseason is a big deal for Los Angeles. The Kings have about $3.900 million in cap space currently and a headache looming on the horizon next summer, but we’ll get into that in a minute or two.

Pending unrestricted free agent forward, Torrey Mitchell, 33, was acquired by the Kings in a trade early in the season with the Montreal Canadiens, whereby Mitchell went on to produce 6-5–11 totals in 60 games with Los Angeles and Montreal.

A durable bottom-six forward, the Kings are cash-strapped and probably cannot re-sign him in their current state.

More importantly, Los Angeles is tied to discussions with Ilya Kovalchuk, meaning someone on the roster currently would have to be moved to free up enough cap space to sign the 35-year-old prolific scorer looking to return to NHL action.

Blake has two options for the Kings heading into 2018-19.

Stay the course and grow as a team that’s been implementing a younger, faster game to stay competitive while hitting everything in sight (as has always been the Kings way) or move too quickly to attract too much talent in the short term without planning for a future like how Los Angeles got into their rash of inconsistent postseason appearances– whereby the team is up against the ceiling as the cap stands, regardless of its projected increase.

Tobias Rieder, 25, was traded by the Arizona Coyotes to the Kings along with Scott Wedgewood in exchange for Darcy Kuemper in February and went on to produce 12-13–25 totals in 78 games with Los Angeles and Arizona this season.

Whether he was a rental or not, we’ll find out if he gets re-signed.

Los Angeles only has two pending free agent defenders in 26-year-old Kevin Gravel and 27-year-old Chrisitan Folin.

Gravel appeared in 16 games for the Kings this season and had three assists. He played in 49 games with Los Angeles in 2016-17, recorded his first career NHL goal and likely won’t be back with the Kings on their NHL roster next season.

Folin, on the other hand, participated in 65 games this season with the Kings, which was the most he’s ever played since joining Los Angeles after spending 2013-17 with the Minnesota Wild. Folin recorded 3-10–13 totals with the Kings and was a plus-1.

Between Alec Martinez and Jake Muzzin, both top-4 defenders have a $4.000 million cap hit. One of them could be traded this offseason to give Folin an increased role and/or sign Kovalchuk.

Of course, the real wild card here for Los Angeles is the status of their anchor on the blueline– Drew Doughty.

Doughty’s current contract expires at the end of the 2018-19 season and has a $7.000 million cap hit. That’s about to go way up.

Again, thankfully, Blake and his front office have a season to try to figure out where the money is going to come from. Nevertheless, it makes longterm planning difficult. Especially given how Doughty has indicated he will want to get paid. Big time.

One more thing of note, Oscar Fantenberg is currently in the minors and could play a role in either a trade package or a top-6 spot on the blueline next season.

In goal, 32-year-old, Jonathan Quick is under contract through the 2022-23 season with a $5.800 million cap hit. The elite goaltender still has a few more good years left in him and could backstop the franchise to its third Cup with him at the reins in net.

Peter Budaj, 35, was acquired last week in a trade with the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for forward Andy Andreoff. Budaj rejoins the Kings organization for his second stint and could end up being Quick’s backup or back in the American Hockey League with the Ontario Reign next season. He has one-year remaining on his current deal and a $1.025 million cap hit.

In the pipeline between the pipes, 26-year-old Jack Campbell resurrected his professional career with Los Angeles, finishing the 2018 postseason as Quick’s backup and is under contract through the 2019-20 season at $675,000 per. Meanwhile, 23-year-old, Cal Petersen has one-year remaining on his entry-level contract and is looking to break through the ice at the NHL level.

Competition for the backup job in Los Angeles isn’t a bad thing.

It’s how Jonathan Bernier and Martin Jones came out of the system and landed full-time roles with the Toronto Maple Leafs and San Jose Sharks, respectively (though Bernier’s bounced around from being a starter in Toronto, back to a backup role with the Leafs, Anaheim Ducks and most recently, Colorado Avalanche).

Other pending free agents throughout the organization include:

Justin Auger (RFA), Andrew Crescenzi (UFA), Michael Mersch (UFA), Jordan Subban (RFA), Paul LaDue (RFA), Scott Wedgewood (UFA), Alex Lintuniemi (RFA), Kurtis MacDermid (RFA)

2018 Offseason Preview: Philadelphia Flyers

Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Philadelphia Flyers and their outlook for the summer.

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The 2017-18 Philadelphia Flyers pulled themselves into 3rd place in the Metropolitan Division with a late season surge ahead of the Columbus Blue Jackets and New Jersey Devils by one point.

Philadelphia’s 42-46-14 record lauded them 98 points on the season under the guidance of head coach, Dave Hakstol, and in a First Round matchup with their intrastate rival Pittsburgh Penguins.

Despite a breakout performance in the postseason by Sean Couturier and back-and-forth offense all series long (in games that weren’t lopsided), the Flyers succumbed to Pittsburgh in six games on home ice in their first playoff appearance since 2016 and first postseason meeting with the Penguins since the 2012 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

As usual, goaltending was an issue with Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth sustaining injuries late in the season, leading General Manager Ron Hextall to acquire Petr Mrazek as an insurance policy down the stretch from the Detroit Red Wings in exchange for a conditional 2018 third round pick and a conditional 2019 fourth round pick.

2018 NHL Entry Draft

Hextall has two first round picks at his disposal with the 14th overall selection via the St. Louis Blues (thanks to last June’s Brayden Schenn deal for Jori Lehtera, a 2017 first round pick (Morgan Frost) and a conditional 2018 first round pick) and their own 19th overall selection in the 2018 Draft.

With two mid-round picks in the first round, Hextall can lay claim to two of the best available picks or go off the board in accordance with however his scouting department values talent– I’m not the expert here. Then again, he could flip one or both first round picks for assets.

But if you’re a Flyers fan, you likely could see Ty Smith, Bode Wilde, Barrett Hayton, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Joseph Veleno, Jack McBain, Grigori Denisenko, Serron Noel, Jared McIsaac or Ryan Merkley walking up the draft stage in Dallas in less than a week grabbing a hold of Philadelphia’s classic orange-and-black sweater.

Pending free agents

Philly has about $17.200 million to spend on free agents this summer and only a handful of pending UFAs and RFAs.

Matt Read, 32, and Valtteri Filppula, 34, are the club’s only current NHL roster pending-UFAs.

Read only appeared in 19 games for the Flyers this season, scoring one goal and recording 16 shots on net. After reaching the 40-point plateau twice in his career with Philadelphia in 2011-12 and 2013-14, his offensive production has only declined since 2014, yielding 30 points in 2014-15, 26 points in 2015-16 and 19 in 2016-17.

Filppula was traded to the Flyers by the Tampa Bay Lightning at last year’s trade deadline, served as an alternate captain this season and had 11-22–33 totals in 81 games. His numbers are respectable, though he hasn’t replicated his 58-point season with the Lightning in 2013-14.

A third round pick (95th overall) of the Red Wings in the 2002 NHL Entry Draft, Filppula should see more time in the City of Brotherly Love if there’s a mutual attraction. Just maybe not at the $5.000 million cap hit he had on his five-year contract he signed with Tampa in July 2013.

24-year-old Taylor Leier makes up the only pending-RFA forward on Philadelphia’s roster and played in 39 games with the Flyers this season (the most he’s been a part of since breaking into the league in 2015-16). Leier had one goal and four assists (five points) and is not an offensive threat by any means.

Hextall could let Leier walk without tendering a qualifying offer and that’d be fine.

It’s not so much about what the Flyers do this summer, but rather what Hextall and his front office is proactively planning to do next summer that makes a world of a difference (glancing at the current NHL roster alone and ignoring any potential additions via trade or free agency).

There’s six players currently on Philadelphia’s NHL club that could test the open market in July 2019, including Lehtera, Wayne Simmonds, Michael Raffl, Jordan Weal, Scott Laughton and Travis Konecny.

The obvious standouts of those names are Simmonds (who’ll be in the midst of his prime and entering his 30s) and Konecny (who will be coming off of his entry-level contract). Both are sure to expect a raise and long term deals if they see themselves attached to the city for a while.

And with only two roster players signed past the 2021-22 season in Jakub Voracek (2023-24) and Shayne Gostisbehere (2022-23), Hextall will soon have to start navigating the future of the new core in Konecny, Nolan Patrick and crew.

Perhaps Hextall would float the idea of moving 29-year-old forward, Dale Weise, and his $2.350 million cap hit through the 2019-20 season with the future in mind.

On defense, the Flyers have two pending-UFAs in Brandon Manning and Johnny Oduya and one pending-RFA in Robert Hagg.

Manning, 28, had his best season with 7-12–19 totals in 65 games played, while Oduya, 36, signed with the Ottawa Senators last July as a free agent and was claimed off waivers by Philadelphia on February 26th. The Swedish defender recorded four goals and four assists with Ottawa this season and played in one game for the Flyers.

Hagg, 23, played his first full-season with Philadelphia in 2017-18, amassing 3-6–9 totals in 70 games played in his rookie season.

Both Manning and Hagg are part of the solution on Philly’s blueline, while Oduya will more than likely test the waters of free agency once more in the NHL.

In goal, Elliott, 33, Neuvirth, 30, and Mrazek, 26, are currently listed on the NHL roster.

Elliott had one-year left on his two-year deal with a $2.750 million cap hit, while Neuvirth also has one-year remaining on his current contract at $2.500 million.

For the second year in a row, Elliott’s goals against average increased and his save percentage worsened as a starting goalie. In 43 games this season, he had a 2.66 GAA and .909 SV%.

Neuvirth improved from 2016-17 to 2017-18 in six fewer games as Philadelphia’s backup, finishing the year with a 2.60 GAA and .915 SV%.

Mrazek is a pending-RFA coming off his worst season. In 22 games with Detroit this season, the Czech goaltender had a 2.89 GAA and .910 SV%. That’s less than ideal, but considering the Red Wings ongoing rebuild… Mrazek didn’t do himself any favors with a playoff bound team in the Flyers, amassing a 3.22 GAA and .891 SV% in 17 games.

On the surface it may appear as though the annual revolving door of goaltenders in Philadelphia may continue, but there’s some promise in their goaltending prospects.

Philly could have a situation very much like their rival in Pittsburgh currently has where Matt Murray is the starter and Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith constantly battle for the backup role while all being close in age.

The Flyers should make Neuvirth their starter– in the meantime, as the search continues for a legitimate starter– with Alex Lyon and Anthony Stolarz (both pending-RFAs this July) competing for the backup role.

Other pending free agents throughout the organization include:

Reece Wilcox (RFA), Colin McDonald (UFA), Samuel Morin (RFA), Tyrell Goulbourne (RFA), Alex Lyon (RFA), John Muse (UFA), Dustin Tokarski (UFA), Danick Martel (RFA), Anthony Stolarz (RFA), Will O’Neill (UFA)

2018 Offseason Preview: Columbus Blue Jackets

Our offseason previews for all 31 National Hockey League teams continues with the Columbus Blue Jackets and their outlook for the summer.

The Jackets finished the 2017-18 season with a record of 45-30-7, capping a strong (albeit inconsistent) campaign with 97 points, earning them fourth place in the Metropolitan Division and a playoff birth as the first wild card in the East.

After taking two dramatic overtime victories in Washington to start the playoffs, the soldiers in Union Blue fell on their bayonets by dropping four-straight games (including three within the friendly confines of Nationwide Arena) to the eventual Stanley Cup Champion Washington Capitals and were once again eliminated from contention in the opening round of the playoffs.

I mean, would they really be the Blue Jackets if they didn’t get your hopes up before firing them out of that cannon?

Though the core of a solid-if-not-spectacular team is likely to remain through the summer, the front office is now feeling the pressure of raising a team that they drug out of the trenches by the bootstraps to the next level. The fanbase will no longer accept ‘just making the playoffs’, and though there’s still plenty of promising youth onboard, some key players like captain Nick Foligno are sliding into the back half of their careers. This is a team that needs to win, and needs to do it soon.

How can they do that? I’m glad you asked. (If you didn’t actually ask, I’m still going to tell you.)

2018 NHL Entry Draft

The Jackets are decently well-stocked to try and score some talent in this year’s draft, with a pick in each of the first three rounds, along with another in both the sixth and seventh. It will be those early-round picks that are likely to mean the most to GM Jarmo Kekalainen and his staff, as this year’s extremely deep draft class means that you’re likely to nab some serious quality (or perhaps have a bigger bargaining chip should you decide to trade picks for another asset) deeper in than usual.

It’s not overly likely that the CBJ will look to acquire further picks, though they could perhaps look to trade up from their 18th spot in line. With Jack Johnson a pending UFA who looks very likely to be on the move (his recent time in Columbus has been tumultuous, and a change of scenery could be the spark he needs to reignite his career) come July 1, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that we could see a deal made to send his negotiating rights and that 18th pick to a team further up the draft order.

As for likely selections with whatever first round pick they happen to have (we’ll pretend that if they trade up, it will be a small swing, maybe in the 12-15 position at most), a few names stand out to me as filling potential needs.

Serron Noel, a 6-foot-5, 205-pound right winger out of the OHL (Oshawa Generals) could be a fit on a team with few natural right wingers. A solid, if not outstanding scorer in juniors, Noel is still filling out his large frame and is likely to continue improving his burgeoning offensive game, drawing comparisons to power forwards like Wayne Simmonds. An eventual perhaps third-and-fourth line RW tandem of Noel and Josh Anderson would be a lot of meat to throw at opposing defenses.

Bode Wilde, a 6-foot-2, 196-pound right shooting defenseman from the United States National Team Development Program, is a very good possibility. Regarded as one of the better all-round defenders in a draft that is not lacking them, Wilde could eventually complete a defense corps that boasts himself along with David Savard and Seth Jones down the right side. Not a bad lineup there. In particular, his booming slap shot would be a welcome addition on a power play unit that hasn’t had a true cannon since James Wisniewski‘s departure. Also, he has a sick hockey name.

My personal pick for the most likely selection comes in the form of Swedish Elite League center Isac Lundestrom. At 6-feet and 185 pounds, he’s not far off from good NHL size, and with the additional polish his defensive game could use, he’d likely have plenty of time to hit the weight room before reaching the Jackets lineup. But his elite offensive capabilities and, in particular, blinding speed address two of the club’s biggest shortcomings. He also provides versatility, having proven himself capable of playing the left wing well. Regarded by some scouts as having potentially the highest ceiling of any center in the draft, he could be a mid-round steal for Columbus.

Pending Free Agents

The UFA list for Columbus isn’t huge, but it does contain a few potentially interesting names. NHL regulars Johnson (who’s possible fate has already been discussed, so we’ll skip over him in this section), Thomas Vanek, Matt Calvert, Ian Cole, and Mark Letestu are the most notable names (no offense to Jeff Zatkoff, Taylor Chorney, Andre Benoit, Cameron Gaunce, and Alex Broadhurst).

Vanek’s stint in Columbus started off very well, gelling quickly with linemates Alexander Wennberg and Boone Jenner to put up great numbers in early games following his acquisition at the deadline. But the magic wore off and he was all-but-invisible during the playoffs, often looking far too slow to keep up with the game. Acquired for an absolute steal (Jussi Jokinen, a waiver wire pickup, and Tyler Motte, a throw-in on the Artemi Panarin trade that had bounced around between the AHL and the Jackets’ fourth line all year), it doesn’t hurt the organization at all to simply let him walk.

Calvert was protected from the expansion draft in place of 2017-18 40-goal scorer William Karlsson. That isn’t necessarily relevant information, but I enjoy pain. Anyway, Calvert enjoyed a so-so year, producing nine goals and a career-high (tied) 24 points in 69 (nice) games played. A solid contributor on the penalty kill, and a constant spark plug on the fourth line, his never-quit playing style has endeared him to Columbus fans, but he may have to take a hometown discount if he wants to stay.

Cole played extremely well down the stretch for Columbus after his acquisition from Pitt…Otta…it was weird, but you get the point. He basically made Jack Johnson expendable, and he has said many times that he absolutely loves the city and his new teammates. It’s of course always a matter of numbers, but don’t be surprised to see Cole back in Union Blue next year.

Letestu loves Columbus, lives in Columbus (his family never left when he went to Edmonton), and has said he would like to finish his career there. Still a more-than-serviceable fourth line center that can help your special teams units, it’s likely he’ll take a hometown discount and remain with the organization.

The RFA list is smaller, but contains three major names in Jenner, Oliver Bjorkstrand, and Ryan Murray.

Jenner is a fan favorite, and one of the hardest-working 30-goal scorers you’ll ever find. But after a breakout 30-goal, 49-point 2015-16 campaign, he’s tallied just 31 goals and 65 points in 157 games since. If not for a late-season hot streak when paired with Wennberg and Vanek this season, his numbers would have been significantly lower. At times the game just seems too fast for his skating abilities, and even at just 24 years of age you wonder if he can improve it enough to stay useful. I’d expect him to get a bridge extension on a pay level similar to his current $2.9M, but Boone has a lot to prove going forward.

Bjorkstrand is coming off of his entry level contract, and I’d expect a bridge-style deal similar to what I listed for Jenner. Posting 11 goals and 29 assists for 40 points this season, ‘Olli’ showed flashes of his potential, but still needs to get a little more confident in himself, and particularly in his laser beam wrist shot.

Murray is a very intriguing topic. Though ever-dependable, the former WHL standout and second-overall pick has never really hit the stride he was projected to, particularly in the offensive department. Derailed time and time again by injuries (often to his legs, which are probably the silky-smooth skating defender’s greatest weapons), Murray has played all 82 games just once in 5 NHL seasons, and has missed no less than 19 games in any other campaign.

At 24-years-old, he’s definitely still young enough to sell as ‘Still coming into his own’ and his potential ceiling should be alluring to many teams. With other good young left handed defenders waiting in the wings (Markus Nutivaara, Gabriel Carlsson, Dean Kukan, Vladislav Gavrikov), the time could be right to try and swing a sign-and-trade type of deal to send Murray out in exchange for some offensive power. The Senators come to mind as a potential trade partner, as a spoil of offensive firepower up front is countered by a defense corps that is suspect at best, especially with the likely departure of Erik Karlsson. Mike Hoffman‘s name was already tied to Columbus around the trade deadline last year, but former Ohio State standout Ryan Dzingel could be a potential fit, as well.

I don’t expect a particularly busy or flashy offseason in Columbus, but Kekalainen and company can’t just rest on their laurels, either. They have a very good group that really needs just a few things to get them over the hump. Add another solid offensive threat or two to compliment the dynamic Panarin/Pierre-Luc Dubois line, sprinkle in a reliable veteran depth blueliner, and hinge your bets on a new goaltending coach for Sergei Bobrovsky (longtime man Ian Clark is departing the team this summer) helping him get past his playoff struggles, and you might be on to something.

Oh, and you may want to figure out what to do with that abysmal Brandon Dubinsky contract…

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