With the start of the NHL playoffs less than two weeks away, a number of Eastern Conference teams are still battling for positioning. For others, though, their postseason dreams are over, leaving their front offices planning offseason changes.
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The Ottawa Senators got an early start to their rebuilding process, shipping out veterans Alex Kovalev, Mike Fisher, Chris Campoli, Chris Kelly and Jarkko Ruutu for draft picks leading up to the February trade deadline.
They also swapped goaltenders with Colorado, dealing Brian Elliott to the Avalanche for Craig Anderson, whom they re-signed several weeks later to a four-year contract extension. Veteran defenseman Chris Phillips was also re-signed to a long-term contract.
Head coach Cory Clouston is expected to be replaced but general manager Bryan Murray will likely remain in his current role as the Senators continue their rebuilding program.
The Senators’ first-round pick is expected to be among the top five in this year’s entry draft. The additional picks acquired in their recent trades should help them to bolster their depth in prospects.
Should the salary cap increase to $62 million for next season, Murray could have nearly $20 million in available cap space, but unlike previous years he’s not expected to be a major bidder in the free-agent market.
The Florida Panthers, who also shipped out some veterans for young players and picks at the trade deadline, are also likely to try to rebuild through the draft.
With just over $16 million committed to only nine players for next season, GM Dale Tallon will not only have plenty of cap space to re-sign free agents like Mike Santorelli, Jack Skille and Shawn Matthias but could also make a splash or two in this summer’s free-agent pool.
Veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun is expected to depart via free agency, which could make pursuing a new starter via trade or free agency a priority. Forwards Niclas Bergfors and Sergei Samsonov, acquired at the trade deadline, could be retained with affordable one- or two-year deals.
Tallon is also expected to target cap-strapped teams — like his former club, the Chicago Blackhawks — in hopes of perhaps using some of his picks and prospects as trade bait for quality talent.
A coaching change could also take place, as it’s rumored third-year coach Pete DeBoer could be replaced by a more experienced bench boss.
The New York Islanders’ horrific first half — during which they went winless in 14 games followed by a seven-game losing skid — scuttled their playoff hopes. But the Isles were among the better clubs in the Eastern Conference during the second half, going 24-17-7 from Dec. 16 to March 28.
Though the Isles have just over $30.3 million invested in 14 players next season they’re not expected to be big spenders, as GM Garth Snow will focus on re-signing restricted free agents Kyle Okposo, Michael Grabner, Blake Comeau and Josh Bailey.
Snow might not pursue big-ticket players via trades or free agency but he’ll likely continue his practice of acquiring affordable castoffs and turn them into valuable players. Grabner, Matt Moulson, P.A. Parenteau and Al Montoya are four of Snow’s notable reclamation projects who’ve become important players in the Islanders’ future.
The Islanders will have another top-five draft pick heading into the entry draft, and while they might not land a player as valuable as John Tavares, they should be able to add another promising youngster to their burgeoning stable.
Some observers have suggested interim head coach Jack Capuano might be replaced this summer. But given the fine job he did rallying the Isles in the second half, hopefully management will give him another season to see what he can do.
Unlike the Islanders, the New Jersey Devils -– with over $52 million tied up in 17 players -– won’t have a lot of available cap space for next season, making it very difficult to re-sign restricted free-agent forward Zach Parise, as well as unrestricted free-agent defenseman Andy Greene and backup goalie Johan Hedberg.
Parise could seek as much as $6 million per season. If Devils GM Lou Lamoriello hopes to re-sign him long-term, it could not only mean waving farewell to Greene and Hedberg but also a salary dump in order to also fill out the rest of the roster.
Little wonder then there’s speculation Lamoriello could trade Parise and perhaps another player to bolster his defense while providing sufficient cap space for other signings or additions.
The Devils will also be in need of a new head coach. While Jacques Lemaire returned at midseason to rally the club into a strong second half performance, he’s not expected to be behind the bench next season.
Lamoriello is facing one of the most difficult offseasons of his long career as Devils general manager.
Poor defensive play was primarily responsible for the Atlanta Thrashers squandering a solid first-half performance to drop out of playoff contention by season’s end.
Despite the uncertainty over the franchise’s future in Atlanta, first-year general manager Rick Dudley did a fine job improving the Thrashers. Thanks to the offseason additions of defenseman Dustin Byfuglien and forward Andrew Ladd from Chicago, plus the improvement of forward Evander Kane and goalie Ondrej Pavelec, the Thrashers have a decent core around which to rebuild.
Dudley heads into this summer with nearly $36 million locked up in 15 players. Ladd, recently acquired winger Blake Wheeler and promising defenseman Zach Bogosian are restricted free agents and expected to be re-signed.
However, the Thrashers will need more defensive depth as well as perhaps another top-six forward. Dudley might consider dipping into the free-agent pool but given the team’s ownership uncertainty won’t be spending up to the cap ceiling next season — which could mean testing the trade market again this summer.
The Toronto Maple Leafs’ postseason hopes remain slim, which has many of their fans looking forward to whatever plans general manager Brian Burke has in store for next season.
With a possible $25 million in available cap space, Burke is expected to not only re-sign key players like Luke Schenn, Clarke MacArthur, Tyler Bozak and rookie goalie James Reimer but could make one or two substantial unrestricted free-agent signings.
Despite Reimer’s promising performance in his short NHL debut, it’s believed the Leafs GM could target Phoenix’s Ilya Bryzgalov or Florida’s Tomas Vokoun should they become UFAs by July 1, relegating Reimer to the backup role and thus allowing him more time to develop without the pressure of being the Leafs starter.
Another big need is a first-line center, but this summer’s market is thin in that department, which could perhaps push Burke into the trade market where, like the Panthers and Thrashers, he might contact teams with limited cap space willing to move players.