By Stu Hackel
While everyone is talking playoff matchups and predicting the number of stitches that doctors will need to close the combined wounds of the Penguins and Flyers, there are 14 other clubs who are packing up for the summer and planning for next season. Here’s a roundup of the NHL’s also-rans and what might be in store for them during the offseason. We’ll start at the bottom of the league and work our way up.
Columbus – Yes, the Blue Jackets won seven of their last 11 games and ownership continues to back the hockey department, but the team’s dreadful start when so much was expected, its last place finish, the coaching change, the fan protest, and the Rick Nash mess all made for a dreadful season. The future of interim coach Todd Richards is uncertain, but the huge question mark is Nash’s fate. If he is traded — which is widely expected — what will embattled GM Scott Howson get in return? Will it be enough to reverse this club’s direction and win back the many discontented fans? Michael Arace of The Columbus Dispatch summed it all up over the weekend.
Edmonton — This was the sixth straight non-playoff season for the Oilers – ever year since their 2006 run to the Stanley Cup Final — and one in which they fell short in some observers’ expectations. Their 12-point improvement over last year (and the year before) disappointed those who had hoped this young club would at least make a run at the playoffs. That never happened. Whether GM Steve Tambellini and/or coach Tom Renney could take the fall for that is an open question, but there is a crying need — as there was a year ago — for the Oilers to strengthen the defensive side of their game. Jim Matheson of The Edmonton Journal has more here.
Montreal – The Canadiens’ misery has been well-chronicled. Their last place finish and bizarre off-ice moves were an embarrassment to this legendary franchise. A new GM is the first order of business and he’ll most likely hire a new coach. Serge Savard is rumored to be in line for a senior VP position (he’s denied it). Injuries, especially to Andrei Markov, played a role, but the Habs had only one productive line and they badly need to build offensive depth. CTV’s Brian Wilde discusses the Habs’ plight with La Presse’s Francois Gagnon and TSN’s John Lu in a video seen here.
New York Islanders – It’s been five years now since the Isles last appeared in the postseason and, like the Oilers, they’ve been collecting young talent up front but have shown weaknesses on the back end. This team’s defense corps is not particularly speedy in an increasingly fast NHL, nor is it effectively physical. While GM Garth Snow said he’s not expecting any big changes to the roster during the offseason (meaning, don’t expect a big free agent signing, as this team likes to keep its budget low), he does have to try to hold on to one of his own important pending free agents: P.A. Parenteau, who a number of other teams hope remains unsigned by July 1. Arthur Staple of Newsday poses more questions facing the Islanders here.
Toronto – There’s enough blame to go around for their’ 8-18-4 collapse during the final two months and even Maple Leafs fans are getting a share. They’re calling for GM Brian Burke’s head, so this could be an unstable situation with new ownership coming in shortly and probably not willing to put up with continuing the team’s 45 years of futility. It seems that no part of the roster or hockey department functioned as hoped, but Burke needs to address at least two glaring problems he thought he’d solved a year ago: the need for an NHL-proven goaltender and a true Number One center to play with Phil Kessel and Joffrey Lupul. More on possible roster moves here from Terry Koshan of The Toronto Sun.
Anaheim – A poor start, a coaching change, and a strong second half, but a slip in March took the Ducks on a rollercoaster ride in which some of their top players were thought to be on the way out of town. GM Bob Murray didn’t pull the trigger on any big moves and now faces an offseason in which he has to take a hard look at his club, an also-ran in two of the last three seasons. If 41-year-old Teemu Selanne – its top scorer — retires, Murray will have a big hole to fill. But he’s also got to gauge whether some other big names have the offensive consistency to make the Ducks a force in the West again. Their defense corps needs an upgrade as well, which may or may not come from signing collegiate star Justin Schultz, who could opt for free agency. These topics and more are covered in a video discussion between Tanya Lyon, Eric Stephens and Jeff Miller of The Orange County Register.
Minnesota — The Wild’s collapse started earlier than Toronto’s. This was the NHL’s surprise team for the first 30 games, then it plummeted as injuries dragged it down and the organization’s depth was tested and didn’t really pass. That was the result of poor personnel moves prior to and since Chuck Fletcher became GM. Fletcher has tried to make up for some of what he inherited, but the Wild still lack enough top-end talent, especially on offense. They were the league’s lowest scoring team this season, with only 166 goals, or 2.02 per game. This won’t be a stellar summer for free agency, but you can expect Fletcher to take a run at what is available, especially local product Zach Parise if the Devils can’t keep him from hitting the open market. Michael Russo of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune examines the Wild’s trading and drafting and Fletcher’s performance here.
Carolina – The late November coaching change from Paul Maurice to Kirk Muller helped turn their season around (they went 20-12-10 in the new year) and has them believing they aren’t too far away from returning to the postseason. They have some very good high-end youngsters in popular Jeff Skinner (whose season was interrupted by a concussion) and young d-man Justin Falk. Still, they need a goal-scoring winger to play with Eric Staal, having let Erik Cole walk away in free agency last summer, and could use some depth on defense. GM Jim Rutherford says he’ll take a run at a big free agent. More on the ‘Canes season from Chip Alexander of The Raleigh News-Observer here.
Winnipeg – The honeymoon with the fans was great, but it probably won’t linger deep into next season if the club falters again. The Jets are set in goal with Ondrej Pavelec, but their team defensive play badly needs work. In his postmortem with the media, coach Claude Noel talked about the players’ collective mindset needing improvement, which is hard to comprehend considering the fan support they receive. So GM Kevin Cheveldayoff may be in the hunt for some character guys during the offseason. He has a number of UFAs and RFAs to contend with, and there is a need for this club to be more physical, especially up front. Kirk Penton of The Winnipeg Sun lists the areas he thinks need improvement.
Tampa Bay – Every season, it seems, one team makes a surprise leap forward only to fall back the following year. That was the Lightning’s story, stumbling after last year being one game away from the Cup Final — and in both seasons it had something to do with the play of 42-year-old goalie Dwayne Roloson. He and Mathieu Garon were less than advertised this season (after the team let Mike Smith walk away in free agency), but a top netminder is only one area in which GM Steve Yzerman must improve his team. Victor Hedman is still developing, but the Lightning have never really replaced Dan Boyle as a true Number One defenseman. If one becomes available in free agency — like, say, Nashville’s Ryan Suter — expect Yzerman to be in the long line to sign him. Led by Steven Stamkos, this club has no problems scoring, but its once-formidable special teams play, like the season as a whole, went slip sliding away. The Tampa Bay Times’ Damian Cristodero breaks down the Lightning’s performance here.
Colorado – A team that touted itself as much improved when the season started didn’t play that way until the second half, and that was only after GM Greg Sherman tinkered with his roster. Still, the end result was positive — a shot at the postseason and a 20-point improvement. By season’s end, the Avs had the NHL’s youngest roster. The offseason will reveal whether captain Milan Hedjuk, the link to the Avs’ glorious past, returns and whether Sherman decides to keep Paul Stastny, who some believe underperforms. But their biggest need is a top defenseman, especially on the power play. Once upon a time, they had Kevin Shattenkirk. More thoughts on the Avs from Adrian Dater in his full-time gig for The Denver Post.
Buffalo – After all their offseason moves and heightened expectations, the only way to classify this season is as a disappointment. Even the late run at a playoff spot, and the injury bug excuse, haven’t provided much solace because a large number of Sabres players had down seasons. Just where that leaves this organization is anyone’s guess. One team executive said during the season that the club was considering breaking up its core. Even Ryan Miller was thought to be available. Management will have a tough debriefing job assessing whose shortcomings deserve a second chance and whose merit being shipped elsewhere for fresh faces. John Vogl of The Buffalo News reflects on a lost season.
Dallas – A team in transition, from behind the bench to the ownership suite to the ice, the Stars missed the postseason for the fourth straight year. Some people are beginning to question GM Joe Nieuwendyk’s performance. He has, however, been hamstrung by the drawn-out ownership mess that tarnished the franchise and cut the team’s budget, allowing Brad Richards to walk away last summer in free agency. With the team’s finances no longer a problem, the Stars will look to add depth to all areas of their game during the offseason, with the exception of goaltender, where they look strong, led by Kari Lehtonen. Owner Tom Gaglardi shared his thoughts on the club with ESPN Dallas’ Mark Stepneski here.
Calgary – Like the Oilers, the Flames have not won a playoff series since their last trip to the Stanley Cup Final, but unlike their Albertan rival, they don’t have a roster filled with promising young talent, although there are some promising youngsters on the way. But until the cavalry arrives, the Flames need to get better for next season, and that could mean decision time on some of their veterans, most notably Jarome Iginla and Miikka Kiprusoff, whose trades could bring a lot in return. It would be emotionally painful to part with those two cornerstones, but the need to create cap space and bring in new bodies could leave GM Jay Feaster with little alternative. In The Calgary Sun, Steve MacFarlane makes the case for a Flames rebuild.
It’s a tough time to be a fan if your team is done for the year, and if you need more to cheer you up, you might want to read this Ryan Kennedy piece for The Hockey News website. Like your team, you’ve got to look ahead and not let it get you down.
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