The 2011-12 season is in its final week, but for the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, Winnipeg Jets, Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers, whose playoff hopes are now dashed, it’s no longer meaningful.
Other than some fans of the Oilers, Canadiens and Leafs hoping their respective clubs lose all their remaining games to improve their chances for a top-five draft pick, much of the focus now will be on what these five teams do this summer to improve their playoff chances next season.
The Oilers’ main priority is bolstering their defense – specifically, adding another skilled puck-moving blueliner to help oft-injured Ryan Whitney carry the load. While Jeff Petry and Corey Potter showed promise this season, it would be beneficial to add more experience to the blueline.
They could go with Devan Dubnyk as their starting goaltender for next season, with aging Nikolai Khabibulin returning to play out the final year of his contract in a backup/mentor role.
Offensively the Oilers made significant strides this season, thanks primarily to the ongoing improvement of right winger Jordan Eberle and left winger Taylor Hall, as well as the addition of rookie center Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. Like their blueline, their checking lines could use a little more experience and skill.
The Flames, meanwhile, have reached what many consider a crossroads. Do they maintain the status quo, anchored by veteran right winger Jarome Iginla and goalie Miikka Kiprusoff and tweak their lineup for one more shot at a playoff berth next season? Or do they finally admit they need to rebuild and consider moving Iginla, Kiprusoff or both in the off-season?
Whether they rebuild or tweak, they’ll definitely need to address their offensive depth, which has been in steady decline since 2008-09, the last time they made the post-season. In that season, the Flames had the eighth-best goals-per-game average (3.06) in the league. This season, they’re 25th (2.39).
If they do retain the 35-year-old Kiprusoff for another season, they must – at long last – bring in a quality backup to prevent him from burning out down the stretch.
Turning to the Jets, their front office doesn’t intend to deviate from building the roster for the long-term, with a focus on the draft and player development.
The Jets are still enjoying a honeymoon with Winnipeg fans and won’t face much criticism over the summer. Management, however, cannot take it for granted, as the Jets faithful will expect to see improvement next season.
It makes sense to not blow up their budget in the pursuit of expensive, big-name talent. Still, the consensus amongst Winnipeg pundits is the Jets are in need of more scoring punch, a bit more size on defense and perhaps a better backup for starter Ondrej Pavelec.
The Canadiens had one of the worst seasons in their illustrious history, but despite the soap opera atmosphere that hung over the club this season, there’s a sense Montreal could quickly return to playoff contention with the right management and coaching.
The Canadiens are coming off four consecutive post-season appearances and possess a core of promising talent, anchored by goaltender Carey Price, rising star defenseman P.K. Subban and emerging power forward Max Pacioretty.
Once the new management and coaching staff are installed, their first order of business should be to find more skilled size at forward and along the blueline. The Canadiens have been small and out-muscled for far too long.
The scrutiny these clubs will face this summer, however, pales in comparison to that facing the Maple Leafs.
Patience with GM Brian Burke has clearly run out among the denizens of Leafs Nation, putting considerable pressure upon him to find the right deals that will finally turn a Maple Leafs franchise wallowing in mediocrity into a legitimate playoff contender.
The Leafs could use more depth at center, as well as more skilled penalty-killers, but the biggest need is a top starting goaltender. Given the lack of depth in this summer’s free agent market of that particular commodity, Burke could have no choice but to pursue one via trade.
Rumor Focus appears Tuesdays and Thursdays only on thehockeynews.com. Lyle Richardson has been an NHL commentator since 1998 on his website, spectorshockey.net, and is a contributing writer for Eishockey News and Kukla’s Korner.