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Three NHL Playoff Contenders With Some Work to do This Summer

Some teams might be one piece away. Others might need a couple. Here's a look at three teams with interesting off-seasons ahead of them.
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"We're just one piece away" 

You hear it all the time in professional sports. It's the Hockey Man's favorite phrase, one uttered to buy himself another year or two of time to shuffle deck chairs on the Titanic. 

This summer, there are more than a few NHL teams who seemingly believe themselves as one piece away from contention. Some might actually be right. Others, not so much. 

Let's go through the three leading candidates to determine if they really are as close to the promised land as they think they are, and what their off-seasons could look like. 

Carolina Hurricanes

- 2021-22 Result: Lost in Second Round to New York Rangers
- Pending Free Agents: Vincent Trochek, Nino Niederreiter, Derek Stepan, Max Domi, Martin Necas (RFA), Tony DeAngelo (RFA), Ethan Bear (RFA)
- Cap Space: $19.3 million

This is the one team that I actually would agree might be one piece away. It's just that the piece they need is pretty hard to find. 

The Hurricanes should feel good about themselves for the most part. Theirs was a staggeringly deep team last season, one boasting talent at all position groups that also happened to play a system designed specifically to maximize the impact of each player on the ice. 

What befell them in the end, however, was a combination of two factors. 

Factor No. 1 was injuries -- which, frankly, is partly on them. Hitching your wagon to a Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta duo, two above-average but aging and injury-prone netminders, means you accept the risk that either may break down right when you need them the most. 

And, shocker! That's exactly what happened. Who could've seen that coming? If you buy a used car with a history of transmission problems, how made can you be when it inevitably stalls on a desolate stretch of highway?

The second factor is the one that earns them their place on this list: Lack of elite scoring talent. 

Sure, Sebastian Aho and Evgeny Svechnikov are wonderful players. Great, even. But neither has broken into that upper echelon of the NHL's elite yet -- a club filled with players capable of taking over large stretches of games all by themselves. 

That lack of firepower was particularly apparent in the Canes' second-round series versus the Rangers, during which New York's blue-chippers like Chris Kreider, Artemiy Panarin, Mika Zibanejad, and Adam Fox provided their team an element no one on Carolina's roster could match. 

So, what do they do? Well, the problem is that few teams can just stroll into their local free agent store and pick up an elite scorer. 

But this summer offers a rare opportunity. 

GM Don Waddell and his front office are not shy when it comes to making bold moves. They'll swing for the fences if they want to. Perhaps the Hurricanes shift a few pieces around and make a run at Johnny Gaudreau, someone who would pair perfectly with their top-line forwards and also happens to be coming off a Hart Trophy-caliber season. 

Filip Forsberg could be an option, as well, as he seems like a great fit in Rod Brind'Amour's system and would give the Canes a scoring punch they've lacked for years. 

If they don't want to blow the doors off right away, Waddell could always be the next fool to hand Evander Kane a long-term deal. We all know how much this team loves their controversial talents that probably shouldn't be given another chance to play pro hockey. 

Any of these moves would first require some financial gymnastics, of course. The Hurricanes have a little over $19 million in cap space with more than a few notable players to re-sign. But it's not impossible, and would actually give them the one piece that really does seem to separate them from contention. 

Nashville Predators 

- 2021-22 Result: Swept in First Round by Colorado Avalanche
- Pending Free Agents: Filip Forsberg, Nick Cousins, Luke Kunin (RFA), Yakov Trenin (RFA)
- Cap Space: $18.1 million

Speaking of Filip Forsberg...

There is no universe in which the Predators beat the Colorado Avalanche in round one of the 2022 playoffs. It just wasn't in the cards. But a healthy Juuse Saros would have at least made it a tad more interesting. And that fact is almost certainly haunting the dreams of GM David Poile as he prepares for his 283rd consecutive offseason at the helm of this organization. 

After a promising season that saw Saros establish himself as a franchise goaltender and Matt Duchene finally play like the top-line center he's paid to be, followed quickly by adding Ryan McDonagh for practically zero cost, it's hard not to dream big if you're in charge of the Predators. 

Are the Predators actually one piece away, though? Probably not. Their entire franchise trajectory hinges upon re-signing Filip Forsberg, which the Preds have yet to do, while their depth at both the forward and goaltending positions could definitely use some replenishing. 

But getting Forsberg locked in opens up a world of possibilities. If Duchene can perform like he did last season, adding another high-end weapon up front could give the Predators an offensive punch they've frankly never had at any point of their existence. 

I could absolutely see Poile going after Avs playoff superstar Valeri Nichushkin when the market opens. The Predators also possess their own first-round pick for the next three drafts, including this one. Perhaps they package some of that draft capital with a prospect or two to pry Jesper Bratt out of New Jersey, where his odds of staying seem to dwindle by the day. 

Given how old-school Poile tends to be, a short-term deal for Evgeni Malkin, whose days in Pittsburgh seem quizzically numbered, might not even be off the table. The Penguins know full well how great the Nashville market can be from when they played them in the Cup Final back in 2015. Malkin probably made note of it. 

The Preds might not actually be one piece away from contention, but circumstances can certainly convince their brass that they are. And once that happens, all bets are off. 

Edmonton Oilers

- 2021-22 Result: Swept in Western Conference Final by Colorado Avalanche
- Pending Free Agents: Evander Kane, Brett Kulak, Jesse Puljujarvi (RFA), Kailer Yamamoto (RFA), Ryan McLeod (RFA)
- Cap Space: $7.1 million

There's nothing like an unexpectedly deep playoff run during which your star players hid the glaring deficiencies plaguing your roster to make a GM lose their mind. 

Ken Holland is probably feelin' himself right now. The Evander Kane signing worked (until it didn't), Cody Ceci actually performed like an NHL defenseman for a three-month stretch, and Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl proved once again just how far they can drag a team all by themselves. 

You better believe Holland has told the Oilers' board of governors that the team is just one piece away. And, to his credit, he has the postseason success to prove it -- on the surface, that is. 

Take even a tiny glimpse deeper, and you'll see that the Oilers are a Jenga tower waiting to crumble. 

To be fair, though, their top-end talent is actually pretty secure. McDavid and Draisaitl were transcendent in both the regular season and the playoffs, Zach Hyman earned every penny of the contract he signed over the summer, Evan Bouchard established himself as a fine young defender, and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins proved once again that he's a versatile top-six forward who can play up and down the lineup. 

But that's about where the stability stops. 

The Oilers have just upwards of $7 million in cap space to re-sign the likes of Evander Kane and Brett Kulak, find new deals for RFAs Ryan McLeod, Kailer Yamamoto, and Jesse Puljujarvi (we'll get to him in a minute), and also lock down at least one (and potentially two) new goaltenders. 

That math doesn't add up. And to make matters worse, the team is reportedly in the process of forcing one of the cheap versatile young players that could help them in a cap crunch like this, Puljujarvi, out of town for...uh, has anyone actually found out why yet? 

If the Oilers do find a way to clear some cap room, likely by buying out Zack Kassian and jettisoning a player they probably shouldn't, that new money will probably be devoted to Kane -- who is currently waiting to find out whether his previous employer had grounds to terminate the last long-term deal he signed. 

Not ideal! 

This Oilers' roster has great bones that, if built around properly, could support a contender. But they're not one piece away. And their off-season might show the perils of teams who mistakenly believe that they are. 

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