Not every NHL franchise has rearranged its roster this off-season. Which of the quiet teams were smart to stand pat, and which really need to get moving?
We’ve seen plenty of turnover on NHL rosters so far this summer, setting up what appears to be even crazier parity than normal in each division. The Calgary Flames, Edmonton Oilers and San Jose Sharks made major moves in the Pacific. The Washington Capitals jazzed up their top two lines in the Metropolitan. The Chicago Blackhawks did anything but sit on their championship team, making over a quarter of their roster.
A bushel of franchises, however, have been oddly quiet so far. Some are justified in their thought process. Others have their angry fans yelling “DO something!”
Why do some of these teams appear to be deer in the headlights right now? There’s a plausible explanation for each, though some are more maddening than others.
THE ‘IF IT AIN’T BROKE’ CROWD
New York Islanders
The Isles haven’t surrendered any important pieces of their core considering Griffin Reinhart, whom they dealt to the Oilers, hadn’t cracked their everyday lineup yet. They’ve swapped Thomas Greiss in for Michal Neuvirth as backup goalie. Nothing of consequence other than that. But GM Garth Snow has stocked this team with so much young talent, especially at forward, that improvements should come from within. Brock Nelson, Anders Lee and Ryan Strome are only getting better. Superstar John Tavares hasn’t yet hit his ceiling. The Isles’ depth chart is so packed up front that promising prospects Michael Dal Colle and Josh Ho-Sang have to beat out legit NHLers to make the team. So there was no point adding anyone new.
The Isles’ blueline looks a bit thin after the top four, sure, but maybe Snow is banking on stud prospect Ryan Pulock to make the team. He made it look pretty easy with AHL Bridgeport last year, potting 17 goals in 54 games. So while the Isles haven’t been busy this off-season, they have an excellent shot to keep rising in 2015-16.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Erik Condra comes in to presumably take Brenden Morrow’s spot, giving Tampa a younger, speedier replacement. Very little turnover other than that, unless you count the loss of depth D-man Mark Barberio. But hey, the Bolts came within two victories of a Stanley Cup, they led the NHL in goals and all their key pieces are just entering their respective primes. On paper, this looks like the NHL’s best team entering next season. They’re my pick to win the Presidents’ Trophy. Don’t fix what ain’t broke.
THE PATIENT CROWD
The Panthers sent hulking winger Jimmy Hayes to Boston for Reilly Smith, a more versatile two-way player, but that swap doesn’t move the needle for a playoff bubble team. Until or unless GM Dale Tallon scoops another body, it appears he’ll let his team mature into a contender. Aaron Ekblad, Aleksander Barkov, Jonathan Huberdeau and Nick Bjugstad have sky-high potential. Vincent Trocheck could make some noise, too, if he can find the ice time. If every one of those youngsters takes another leap, Florida might inch its way into the playoffs.
Hello? Anyone there? Re-uppping restricted free agents Colin Wilson, Craig Smith and Calle Jarnkrok is a piece of cake considering the Preds sit below the salary floor as is. This team has room for a big addition. Unfortunately, it doesn’t need defensemen after the minor addition of Barret Jackman, and there’s a dearth of high-end forwards out there. Maybe Preds GM David Poile decided there was no one worth spending money on. Eric Fehr would be a nice, big, versatile body for the top nine, though.
For the Jets, the goal isn’t as much about letting existing youngsters mature as it is leaving room for new blue-chippers to enter the lineup. Michael Frolik is now a Calgary Flame, while Jiri Tlusty, Lee Stempniak and Jim Slater sit out on the open market. But leaving those holes unfilled should let uber-prospect Nikolaj Ehlers join the starting lineup. Maybe Nic Petan, too. The Jets’ blueline depth chart is jammed, though, so we can’t count on Josh Morrissey yet barring a trade.
New Jersey Devils
At least lowly Carolina brought in Eddie Lack and James Wisniewski. The Devils’ big move of the off-season was trading for Kyle Palmieri. He could very well end up their first-line right winger. Let that sink in for a moment, then let it sink in the Devils know what they’re doing: entering the Auston Matthews sweepstakes.
THE FINANCIALLY CHALLENGED
Are the Wild in a bit of trouble this coming season? You must actively work to improve every year to stay alive in the deadly Central Division. But, since the Wild have broken the bank on Zach Parise, Ryan Suter and Thomas Vanek in recent summers, there isn’t any money left over to sign a significant free agent. The Wild aren’t worse per se, especially with Matt Dumba’s play making a nice jump last year, but they haven’t improved much at all unless Mike Reilly is really ready for prime time.
The Habs have close to $7 million in cap space but will use a chunk of it on RFA Alex Galchenyuk. How much? Depends on whether he gets a bridge contract or a long-term pact. It looks like they’ll have to roll with almost the same group Tampa Bay ousted in the second round of the playoffs. Acquiring Zack Kassian for Brandon Prust makes Montreal bigger, but this team still needs another high-end scoring threat to complement Max Pacioretty.
New York Rangers
Even if we decide Carl Hagelin for Emerson Etem is a wash because Etem has better upside, the reigning Presidents’ Trophy winners have gotten worse this off-season. Martin St-Louis retired. The Rangers sent backup goalie Cam Talbot to Edmonton. The Metropolitan division’s top contenders have improved, but the Blueshirts haven’t answered. They were tied up trying to re-sign restricted free agents J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast and Derek Stepan. Only Stepan remains, but after his deal there will be no room for a big free agent.
The Sens have been just like the Rangers, bogged down with their own free agents. Mark Stone, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Andrew Hammond and Mika Zibanejad are taken care of. Mike Hoffman and Alex Chiasson remain. Those two won’t put Ottawa anywhere near the cap, but the Sens aren’t known for hurling cash at big-name free agents. They play it conservatively.
It’s all up to two Russian defensemen. If Yevgeni Medvedev shows the same ability he has for years in the KHL, and if Ivan Provorov is as NHL-ready as many believe he is, OK, the Flyers’ defense improves a lot and this team could flirt with playoff contention. Those are fairly large ifs, though. Otherwise, the Flyers have done very little this off-season. They’re saddled with all kinds of bad contracts, from R.J. Umberger’s to Vincent Lecavalier’s, and even Matt Read’s is starting to look iffy. Ron Hextall hasn’t done much to suggest he wants his team in the post-season next spring, and he’ll be out of money once he re-signs RFA Michael Del Zotto (update: he just did, for almost all the Flyers’ remaining cap space).
The Canucks have to be shaking in their boots a little bit. They ran hot and cold for much of last season. Key cogs Henrik and Daniel Sedin, Radim Vrbata and Ryan Miller are all 34. Most of their best prospects, from Jake Virtanen to Jared McCann, need more time before joining Bo Horvat in the NHL lineup. And so many Pacific Division teams have improved.
The Canucks decided to spend more than $6 million to retain tough guy Derek Dorsett and bottom-pairing blueliner Luca Sbisa a few months back. Now they have just $2.8 million in cap space. So don’t count on, say, a Cody Franson homecoming, which is pretty much exactly what this team needs.
Matt Larkin is an associate editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin