We’ve reached mid-July, a.k.a the worst sports week of the calendar year, with Major League Baseball in the all-star break, the NHL not yet in its pre-season and, of course, NHL and NBA free agency petering out. Most teams in both those leagues have made their most significant moves at this point.
Focusing (obviously) on the NHL: it’s only natural for fans to get restless if their teams have done alarmingly little so far this off-season. The free-agent well is mostly dry, and several of the most-rumored trade candidates have changed addresses, from Dougie Hamilton to Mike Hoffman.
Should you worry if your team has done very little to improve so far this summer? It’s time to play the panic/don’t panic game.
Nashville Predators, New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, Tampa Bay Lightning
The Predators, one of the NHL’s deepest teams, didn’t have many roster spots open for upgrades and have never been particularly aggressive in free agency in the David Poile era anyway. Last year’s Nick Bonino signing was an anomaly, and the the Preds would probably give it back his $4.1-million cap hit if they could. They’re fresh off a Presidents’ Trophy-winning season and could’ve won a Cup had Vezina Trophy winner Pekka Rinne not imploded in Round 2 against the Winnipeg Jets. They have Juuse Saros there to take on a bigger crease workload if necessary this season, and deadly young scorer Eeli Tolvanen can upgrade Nashville’s offense from within if he makes the team. The Preds have a top-four team in the NHL now and simply aren’t yet under pressure to improve it. They can always do that at the trade deadline – where Poile is often aggressive.
Same goes for the Lightning, who have been to three of the past four Eastern Conference finals. They were the class of the East last season and can probably lead the conference in points again without making any major additions. General manager Steve Yzerman’s bigger priority this summer has been locking up his core long term, which he’s done by extending Nikita Kucherov and Ryan McDonagh. If Tampa makes an upgrade, it’ll be of the 10-bell variety in the form of an Erik Karlsson trade. Otherwise, it’s tough to make such a talent-rich roster much better.
The New Jersey Devils may have spiked fan expectations with a playoff berth and Hart Trophy for Taylor Hall, but GM Ray Shero has laid extremely low in free agency. It’s possible the Devils take a step back this year since the teams that finished closest to them in the standings, the Philadelphia Flyers and Florida Panthers, added James van Riemsdyk and Mike Hoffman, respectively, but the Devils aren’t letting one good season distort their long-term vision. They’re building around Hall, Nico Hischier and Will Butcher, with Mikey McLeod possibly emerging as an impact offensive center down the road, too, and missing the playoffs wouldn’t even be the worst news for them. The Devils could use another high pick and franchise building block. Avoiding any pricey veteran contracts was a wise move.
The Rangers told their fans they’d commit to getting younger going forward, and they’ve done a nice job honoring that promise by not doing what so many Rangers teams have done over the years: throw money at expensive veterans. By staying out of the free agent frenzy, they don’t block promising young forwards Lias Andersson and Filip Chytil from making the roster and growing under new coach David Quinn, a college hire clearly geared toward shepherding the teams’ prospects. The Blueshirts are rebuilding and thus should not have chased any veteran upgrades. Standing pat is a good thing.
TRY TO REMAIN CALM, BUT…
Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Dallas Stars, Pittsburgh Penguins, Washington Capitals
The Bruins are one of the NHL’s best five or six teams, armed with hockey’s top line in Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak, not to mention a good D-corps and an exciting crop of young talent, from Jake DeBrusk and Ryan Donato up front to Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo on defense. The Bruins have immediate Stanley Cup aspirations, though, so it’s concerning that the Toronto Maple Leafs, who took them to Game 7 last spring, have added John Tavares, while the Bruins have also done nothing to gain ground on the Lightning, who eliminated them in five games. Actually, Boston’s top-nine forward group loses Riley and Rick Nash, so the team arguably looks weaker on paper. It’s not cause for panic given this is still one of the NHL’s most balanced squads, but adding another top-six winger would be nice.
Hand-wringing over the Blackhawks’ relatively quiet off-season depends on your outlook. For anyone believing 2017-18 was an anomaly, that the Hawks can still win with Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews leading the way and that the win-now window remains open, the lack of significant roster upgrades is cause for alarm. Maybe last week’s trade with the Arizona Coyotes, which dumped Marian Hossa’s contract, was a precursor for a bigger trade. Might GM Stan Bowman fish for Jeff Skinner or Max Pacioretty to play on a scoring line after shipping out Vinnie Hinostroza? What about Justin Faulk to upgrade the defense? The other school of thought: the Hawks are the Central Division’s worst team and shouldn’t be touching any roster upgrades right now. They should bomb out and hope to secure a big-time lottery pick in hopes of turning their franchise around while Kane in particular still has prime years left. In that case, no news is good news, and Chicago shouldn’t be making major moves.
Counting Blake Comeau as the biggest off-season addition isn’t exciting for a Dallas Stars team with two consecutive playoff misses, but they also bring Valeri Nichushkin back from the KHL, could have a dynamic rookie D-man crack the lineup in Miro Heiskanen and have a new coach in Jim Montgomery who should help them push a much higher tempo of play. So the Stars are more improved than meets the eye. They’re also still one of Karlsson’s top trade suitors.
The Penguins look a bit worse on paper, subtracting Conor Sheary from their forward group and adding Jack Johnson to their D-corps, but this team still had three of the NHL’s top 10 scorers last year, is one season removed from consecutive championships and should get a much better season from goaltender Matt Murray, who endured injury problems and the death of his father last season. The Pens still have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. They’re Cup contenders even if they head to October without any other acquisitions.
And hey, the Caps’ roster is largely unchanged – a bit worse, actually, with checking center Jay Beagle and No. 2 goalie Philipp Grubauer gone – but the defending champs re-signed John Carlson, which was their top off-season priority.
Anaheim Ducks, Edmonton Oilers, Minnesota Wild, San Jose Sharks
The Ducks look young and competitive for years to come…from the net out, with John Gibson in goal and Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, Josh Manson and Brandon Montour anchoring their blueline. Their forward group is aging, however. They only have so many high-quality years of Ryan Getzlaf left, while Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler’s best seasons are clearly behind them. The Ducks’ next-generation forwards, from Sam Steel to Max Jones, have promise but don’t quality as absolute can’t-miss NHL stars. It thus stands to reason the Ducks could’ve used some noteworthy roster additions if they had any intention of competing for a Cup before their window closes. Depth pieces such as Carter Rowney, Andrej Sustr and Luke Schenn pale in comparison to what the Calgary Flames have done, for instance. It’s tough to see Anaheim being the one of the best two or three teams in the Pacific, let alone the West right now.
The Oilers got too slow and needed to build a faster, more dynamic team around Connor McDavid to get back on track after a disastrous 2017-18 season. Their big off-season splash was…Tobias Rieder. He’ll probably go down as quite a clever add, but he hardly turns Edmonton from bad to good again. At this point, Oiler fans have to cross their fingers that Kailer Yamamoto and Evan Bouchard make the team, that Jesse Puljujarvi makes a huge developmental leap and goalie Cam Talbot regains his form from 2016-17.
The Wild were already expected to stare up at Nashville and Winnipeg in the Central Division standings again, and the Blues were the division’s most aggressive team this off-season, pushing the Wild further down in the projected pack. Minnesota made an underrated signing in Greg Pateryn but otherwise will field a pretty stagnant group anchored by several players getting deep into their 30s, including captain Mikko Koivu and blueliner Ryan Suter. The Wild are in danger of regressing in the standings, especially with Eric Staal unlikely to repeat a 42-goal season at 33.
We know the Sharks were in hard on John Tavares and struck out. The current corps, led by Brent Burns, Joe Pavelski and Joe Thornton, is getting old, and we may look back at 2016 as its last great shot at the Cup. The Sharks should ice a perfectly competitive squad in 2018-19 and compete for the Pacific Division crown, but they probably needed another marquee piece to join the NHL’s top tier and didn’t get one. Does that mean there’s nowhere to go but down?