As the opening round of the 2015 Stanley Cup playoffs draws to a close, speculation is slowly emerging over the off-season plans of several eliminated teams.
The early playoff exit of the Pittsburgh Penguins by the New York Rangers suggests significant changes could be in order. Despite rumors earlier this month suggesting Evgeni Malkin or even Sidney Crosby might be dealt this summer, Ron Cook of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports Penguins president and CEO Ron Morehouse said the duo would return next season. So will embattled GM Jim Rutherford and coach Mike Johnston.
Morehouse cited an injury-riddled blueline corps among the factors behind his club's first-round elimination. He said ownership intends to build around core players like Crosby and Malkin.
Doing that, however, won't be easy. Cook's colleague Dave Molinari points out the Penguins are “top-heavy with high-price, elite talent,” lacking sufficient cap space to build up a quality supporting cast. He speculates Rutherford could attempt to bolster his depth up front via free agency, but the lack of talent in this summer's market could force him instead to make trades.
Molinari doesn't see much trade value for wingers Chris Kunitz and David Perron, citing their second-half struggles. Rutherford could draw upon his depth in promising young defensemen, though the potential departure of Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff via free agency could weaken their blueline.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Rob Rossi makes the case for keeping Martin, claiming his steady presence can help the defense corps. Re-signing the 34-year-old could prove expensive, as he's coming off a multiyear deal with an annual cap hit of $5 million.
With around $60 million tied up in 15 players for 2015-16, Rutherford must shed salary if he hopes to build around Crosby and Malkin. Doing so could mean buying out Kunitz and fading veteran defenseman Rod Scuderi. Despite Perron's struggles, he still finished the season with 41 points in 81 games. There might be a market for him on clubs seeking offensive depth who strike out in this summer's free agent market.
JETS HAVE TO PLAN FOR LADD, BYFUGLIEN
In Winnipeg, though the Anaheim Ducks swept the Jets from their opening-round series, GM Kevin Cheveldayoff is pleased with his club's performance this season. He reportedly hopes to re-sign as many of his free agents as possible.
With over $47 million invested in 16 players for 2015-16, Cheveldayoff has the cap space to retain most of his key free agents. The most expensive will be wingers Drew Stafford ($4 million) and Michael Frolik ($3.3 million).
The Winnipeg Sun's Ken Wiebe anticipates the 29-year-old Stafford could be among those returning, but believes Frolik could depart via free agency. ESPN.com's Craig Custance also considers re-signing Stafford, who was a solid fit with the Jets after joining them in the Evander Kane trade with Buffalo in mid-February, among the Jets' priorities this summer.
Cheveldayoff's biggest concerns, however, could be team captain Andrew Ladd and top defenseman Dustin Byfuglien, who are eligible next summer for unrestricted free agency. The Winnipeg Free Press' Ed Tait believes Ladd ($4.4-million cap hit) and Byfuglien (earning $6 million in actual salary for '15-'16) will command significant raises to stay in Winnipeg.
Tait also wonder what the future holds for blueliner Tobias Enstrom, who's earning an average cap hit of $5.75 million with a no-trade clause. The 30-year-old rearguard took a pounding in the series against the Ducks, sparking questions over his ability to handle the heavy going in the Western Conference. Given the Jets' depth in good young defensemen, Tait wonders if Enstrom could become a trade candidate.
BLUELINE CHANGES COMING IN VANCOUVER
While the Vancouver Canucks reaching the playoffs was a better than expected result for a club in the first season of a rebuild, their first-round elimination by the Calgary Flames indicates management's work isn't done. The Canucks defense, shredded by the speedy Flames in their six-game series, could face an overhaul.
Custance believes rebuilding the defense is in order, an opinion shared by The Province's Ed Willes and Jim Jamieson. Custance and Jamieson suggest veterans Kevin Bieksa or Dan Hamhuis could be shopped this summer.
Both are a year away from unrestricted free agency. While each holds a no-trade clause, Jamieson points out GM Jim Benning was able to convince Jason Garrison to waive his clause last summer to accept a trade to Florida.
Rumor Roundup appears regularly 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 The Guardian (P.E.I.).
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