The opening July deluge of trades and free-agent signings has ended. Many of the most prominent RFAs remain locked in stalemates with their teams. The NHL’s off-season news cycle has thus reached a degree of calm. That gives fan bases time to reflect on what their teams have or have not done so far this summer. If you assess your team’s roster and see no meaningful additions or, worse yet, nothing but meaningful subtractions, it’s natural for some panic to set in while you stare out at the wilderness on the dock or beach.
Not every stagnant team is created equal, of course. In some cases, the best action is inaction. In others, the lack of major moves should have you swallowing nervously.
It’s time for my annual Panic/Don’t Panic breakdown. A reminder that every “busy” team this off-season, whether its moves were savvy or foolish, does not qualify for this list.
Anaheim Ducks, Boston Bruins, Detroit Red Wings, Tampa Bay Lightning, Vegas Golden Knights
The “Don’t panic” tier consists of rebuilders in no rush and strong teams that don’t need to change much.
The Ducks sent a strong message with their Corey Perry buyout: they know this core can’t win as is, and they’re committed to getting younger. With Perry gone and Ryan Kesler’s career jeopardized by a hip injury, the depth chart is wide open at forward, creating opportunities for promising youngsters Sam Steel, Troy Terry, Max Comtois and Max Jones to earn prominent roles. Signing or trading for veterans would’ve blocked them. Promoting Dallas Eakins from AHL San Diego coach to Anaheim coach solidifies the franchise’s shift toward youth, as he’s already worked with a significant portion of the new wave. The Ducks are thus in no hurry to challenge for a Stanley Cup right now.
It feels like the Red Wings are getting reasonably deep into their rebuild, picking in the top 10 of the NHL draft three straight times after three straight playoff misses, but Steve Yzerman just took over as GM. He has a long leash and still has to free the franchise of some bad contracts. Detroit is more likely to challenge for the league’s worst record than a playoff spot in 2019-20, so it made sense that short-term deals for Valtteri Filppula and Patrik Nemeth were the Wings’ lone noteworthy moves.
The Bruins’ fan base is passionate, so there’s always a hunger for big roster shakeups, but this team was one victory away from the Stanley Cup. Even though the Bruins have lost Marcus Johansson, the continued progression from the likes of Jake DeBrusk up front and Charlie McAvoy and Brandon Carlo on defense should offset that. The Bruins are still an elite contender. They just can’t afford to chase any big fish at the moment because they must commit what dollars they have to contracts for McAvoy and Carlo, who are RFAs.
A team gets swept in Round 1, loses a third of its D-corps and trades J.T. Miller, and I’m telling its fans not to panic? That’s right. The Tampa Bay Lightning won 62 games last season. Their choke was an all-timer, but any team that ties the NHL single-season record for wins and keeps its superstar core intact is obviously a contender the following season. The other 62-win team, the 1995-96 Red Wings, failed to win the Cup – then won it the following two seasons. The Bolts are focused on signing RFA Brayden Point and don’t need to make any major changes.
The Golden Knights were hamstrung by salary-cap problems and have technically gotten worse on paper, shipping out right winger Colin Miller and center Erik Haula, but they were a great team last year despite losing Haula to a major knee injury, and it’s possible top prospect center Cody Glass makes the team this year. The Golden Knights’ key move for the future came when they re-signed Mark Stone after acquiring him at the trade deadline last winter. If you think of him as their big off-season signing, they’re doing great. Also, it’s still possible if not probable GM Kelly McCrimmon trades talented left winger Nikita Gusev before the season starts. Cap constraints may force Vegas to trade him for futures, but it’s not impossible to imagine a deal that nets a useful piece to improve Vegas in the present if McCrimmon can make the money work.
TRY TO REMAIN CALM, BUT…
Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, Montreal Canadiens, St. Louis Blues
The Flames were good enough to post the Western Conference’s best record last season, but the ease with which Colorado tossed them aside was alarming. Calgary would’ve benefitted from adding some size and snarl to its forward corps and/or chasing a major upgrade in net. Instead, Cam Talbot replaces Mike Smith in the 1B goalie role and…that’s pretty much it for major transactions. Shrug. The Flames theoretically needed to do more. That said, it’s not time for full panic given this is still an excellent team with several years left in its contention window.
The Blues don’t even really need to worry about contention. They have their prize: the first Stanley Cup in their 52-season history. They can dine out on that for a while. Sure, playing in the vicious Central Division, it’s never a great idea to stay stagnant, so any handwringing over the quiet off-season among Blues fans is understandable. But Blues GM Doug Armstrong has earned the rest after going wild with his roster changes last summer.
The L.A. Kings and Montreal Canadiens are teams in transition. The Kings still hold many key veterans from their Cup-winning teams of 2012 and 2014, but it’s starting to work against them, creating an identity of a team that refuses to acknowledge itself as a true rebuilder. The Montreal Canadiens have begun injecting their pipeline with exciting young prospects, from Ryan Poehling to Nick Suzuki to Cole Caufield, but the presence of Carey Price and Shea Weber, not to mention coach Claude Julien, keeps them in a “Maybe we could compete?” mentality. The Kings and Habs would both be better off committing to a philosophy – try hard to win now or admit you’re a rebuilder – rather than standing still in the murky middle.
The Oilers, having hired a new GM in Ken Holland, should theoretically have as much runway as the Red Wings do with Yzerman taking over, but Holland’s job is more complex. It takes time to fix such a dysfunctional roster structure – yet when you have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl smack in their primes, you also want to ice a competitive team and give them a chance to accomplish something while they’re at their best. Holland, hamstrung by so many bad contracts, hasn’t had the salary-cap malleability to do much. The Oilers look like a non-playoff team again right now.
San Jose Sharks, Winnipeg Jets
If you have to choose between Erik Karlsson, 29, and Joe Pavelski, 35, Karlsson is the right choice to re-sign, even if Pavelski is your captain. Sharks GM Doug Wilson thought with his head, not his heart. But the Sharks are still down Pavelski, which badly hurts their forward depth regardless of whether 40-year-old Joe Thornton re-signs. The Sharks have made zero impactful roster additions and said goodbye to Pavelski, Gustav Nyquist, Justin Braun and Joonas Donskoi. A team that prides itself on competing for the Cup every year looks dangerously thin up front right now. We can never count Wilson out, of course. Last year, I put the Sharks on the “panic” list, and they ended up trading for Karlsson in September. But if we’re judging the roster on how it looks as of mid-July, the Sharks appear primed for a regression.
The Jets, constructed by GM Kevin Cheveldayoff, ooze high-end talent, but this team fell short of expectations battling through the Central in 2018-19 and loses the half its D-corps: Jacob Trouba, Tyler Myers, Ben Chiarot. Momentum-swinging checker Brandon Tanev cost way too much to sensibly keep, but the Jets will still feel his absence. Kevin Hayes is now a Philadelphia Flyer, meaning Winnipeg loses its key trade-deadline rental center a second straight season. There’s tremendous pressure on Trouba’s blueline replacement, Neal Pionk, to deliver a big year. Same goes for young center Jack Roslovic. The Jets desperately need him to develop into a No. 2 or 3 option in the middle-six forward group with Bryan Little.
Stacked with Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Kyle Connor, Patrik Laine and Nikolaj Ehlers at forward, Dustin Byfuglien and Josh Morrissey on defense and Connor Hellebuyck in goal, the Jets still have the star power to make the playoffs. But it’s tough to see this team improving given all its losses, and it couldn’t escape Round 1 of the playoffs with all those departed players on the team last season.