The vast majority of the work teams needed to do this offseason is taken care of. While every general manager is still looking for ways to improve, most of them would be fine if the season started today. There are some exceptions though. Certain teams have key issues to settle before the regular season begins. With that in mind, I’m going to highlight the teams with work left to do and speculate about how their respective situations might resolve.
VEGAS GOLDEN KNIGHTS
The Golden Knights have gotten most of their work done already. They landed a huge free agent in Alex Pietrangelo and managed to re-sign Robin Lehner. They also cleared up some cap space by trading Paul Stastny and Nate Schmidt to Winnipeg and Vancouver respectively. And yet, even after those sizeable cap dumps, Vegas is a rough cap situation. They might be able to avoid making another trade if they resign themselves to starting the season with fewer than 23 players on the roster, but even that might not be enough.
As things stand right now, they’re roughly $900,000 over the cap even with a projected 21-man roster.
There’s a few players that Vegas could potentially move to make their cap situation easier. Nick Holden or Ryan Reaves could be moved. They come with $1.7 million and $1.75 million cap hits respectively for the next two season and they both provide enough value that there will likely be teams out there willing to take one of them. If the Golden Knights trade either one then that alone should be enough to keep them under the ceiling.
There’s also still the off-chance that Vegas could find a trading partner for Marc-Andre Fleury, though that seems unrealistic. He comes with a $7 million cap hit for each of the next two seasons and that’s just too tall an order for Fleury at the age of 35-years-old. Remember though that Vegas isn’t over the cap by much. Even if they agreed to retain half of Fleury’s salary, that would be enough of a cap savings to keep them complaint. Although, the other issue with trading Fleury is that Vegas would still want a reliable backup going into the season.
Right now, without Fleury, Oscar Dansk would probably be elevated to that role. He might do fine with it, but he’d be a bit of a gamble given that he only has five games worth of NHL experience. Vegas might get a goaltender back in a Fleury trade if they’re retaining a good portion of his salary or they might try to go after one of the few remaining goaltenders on the UFA market. Craig Anderson, Ryan Miller, and Jimmy Howard are all past their prime and coming off rough seasons, but in a strictly backup role, maybe one of them is worth gambling on. Miller would probably be the best of those options.
TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING
How are the Tampa Bay Lightning going to get under the cap? As things stand, they have about $3.8 million in cap space, but that’s not nearly enough to lock up restricted free agents Anthony Cirelli, Erik Cernak, and Mikhail Sergachev. The Lightning’s cap situation is problematic enough to make them arguably the team in the toughest position of any at this time.
Obviously, they’ll want to keep as much of the defending Stanley Cup champions together as possible. The Lightning’s cap crunch already forced them to watch defensemen Zach Bogosian and Kevin Shattenkirk walk as unrestricted free agents, but someone else has to go to. It seems the Lightning would ideally pick Tyler Johnson to be that player. Johnson is coming off a rough campaign where he scored 14 goals and 31 points in 65 games while averaging 14:33 minutes. In the playoffs he added a lukewarm four goals and seven points in 25 contests. On a team with as many offensive weapons as Tampa Bay, he’s expendable.
Unfortunately for the Lightning, for the same reason that they find him expendable, other teams aren’t interested. Oh, he absolutely is a player who would slot in fine on many NHL teams as a middle-six forward, but not for the $5 million cap hit he comes with through 2023-24. No one in the league wants that contract, and that’s not just me saying that, that was proven when the Lightning put him on waivers on Oct. 9th and he cleared. In a league where the cap stayed static, there isn’t a team out there that would just absorb that contract even if they were offered it for free.
That said, Tampa Bay might still be able to move him if they included a significant sweetener and/or agreed to retain some of the cap hit. Obviously, the Lightning don’t want to retain too much because the whole idea is clearing up much needed space, but clearing up some of his cap hit would certainly be better than clearing none of it. Unfortunately, if trading Johnson simply isn’t possible, the Lightning don’t have a lot of good alternatives. They could try to move Ondrej Palat instead. Palat was far better in the playoffs and with just two seasons left at $5.3 million per as opposed to Johnson’s four campaigns, finding a taker for him would probably be far easier. We imagine the Lightning would rather not trade Palat, but that might be what it comes down to.
Tampa Bay might also attempt to ease their cap burden by actually trading away one of their restricted free agents. If they do, Anthony Cirelli seems like the most probable choice. He had 16 goals and 44 points in 68 games last season and finished fourth in the Selke vote, so of course the Lightning want to keep him, but instead of giving up something to get another team to take Johnson, they could command a fair price in exchange for Cirelli.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
The Islanders took care of one key piece of business when they signed Ryan Pulock to a two-year, $10 million contract on Wednesday, but they still have a major RFA remaining in Mathew Barzal. The problem is that the Islanders probably don’t have the cap space to re-sign him as things currently stand.
The Islanders roughly $3.9 million below the ceiling after factoring in Pulock’s contract and Barzal, who has 59 goals and 207 points in 234 games, is expected to command considerably more than that. So how will the Islanders keep Barzal and stay under the cap?
Well, the Islanders are going to get a second buyout window starting on Friday and lasting 24 hours, but that’s not as helpful a solution as you might think. The Islanders could buyout Andrew Ladd, who spent a significant portion of the 2019-20 campaign in the AHL, his seven-year, $38.5 million contract was structured in such a way to make a buyout unappealing. As things stand he comes with a $5.5 million cap hit for the next three seasons. If he were bought out, that cap hit only drops to $4,833,333 for the next three seasons and then the Islanders get a $333,333 penalty for three additional campaigns. In other words, the savings are so minor that they wouldn’t even move the needle or make it worth absorbing the eventual penalties. Johnny Boychuk has two seasons left with an annual cap hit of $6 million, but his contract was similarly structured in a way that makes a buyout a poor option. If the Islanders did buy him out, he’d still cost $5,166,667 against the cap in each of the next two campaigns and then they’d take on a $416,667 cap hit for two additional seasons. There’s even less appeal to doing that than with Ladd. Boychuk is still contributing something, even if he isn’t playing up to his cap hit anymore whereas Ladd might not even have a spot on the roster this season.
The Islanders do have some players who could free up significant cap space if they were bought out like Nick Leddy, but he’s good enough that the Islanders could probably trade him and his $5.5 million cap hit. After all, he’d be a top-four defenseman on any team and a top pairing blueliner on a lot of them. Trading him would be painful, but it would solve their cap situation.
It’s hard to imagine any team taking on Ladd’s contract, but maybe the Islanders could find someone who is willing to absorb the final two seasons of Boychuk’s deal if a good enough sweetener was included. In this market, the cost of moving Boychuk might be the Islanders agreeing to give up their first-round pick. Again, that’d be painful, but there isn’t exactly much in the way of teams willing to take on $6 million in cap for each of the next two seasons while getting an aging defenseman who is now best suited for a third-pairing role.
The Islanders will probably end up trading either Boychuk or Ladd, but it will be interesting to see if Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello has an alternative creative solution up his sleeve. For example, maybe he’ll talk Barzal into a cheaper, short-term deal that would put him in a position where he’d be able to get under the ceiling while only moving say Cal Clutterbuck and his $3.5 million cap hit. Or maybe there’s an entirely different trade in the works involving players we haven’t discussed here. There’s certainly more than one potential path to cap compliance for the Islanders even if most of them look unappealing at this time.
The Bruins still have restricted free agent Jake DeBrusk to sign and that’s significant, but out of any team, the Bruins are arguably the most likely to attempt something bold before the regular season. This has just been a really disappointing offseason for Boston and they could use some good news.
Torey Krug left as an unrestricted free agent, Zdeno Chara’s future is unclear, and the Bruins are likely to start the season without David Pastrnak and Brad Marchand due to injuries. Meanwhile, the Bruins had an opportunity to trade for Oliver Ekman-Larsson and there was talk of them going after Alex Pietrangelo and/or Taylor Hall, but none of those major moves materialized.
Granted, even if all the Bruins do between now and the regular season is re-sign DeBrusk, they would still be going into the campaign with a strong team, but key members of their team like Marchand, Patrice Bergeron, David Krejci, and Tuukka Rask are all well into their 30s at this point. Their window hasn’t closed yet, but they are running out of chances with this group. So a quiet offseason where they arguably took a step backwards following a disappointing second round exit in the playoffs would be a tough pill for Bruins fans to swallow.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
The Blue Jackets don’t have any significant cap issues, but they do have one of the most significant remaining restricted free agents, Pierre-Luc Dubois. Blue Jackets GM Jarmo Kekalainen said last week that he hasn’t spoken to Dubois’ agent in a while, but he’s also not concerned. That’s fair given that the NHL campaign won’t start until Jan. 1 at the earliest, so he still has plenty of time left to work out a deal. Between all the cap space Columbus has and the lack of financial flexibility a lot of teams have at this time, an offer sheet is unlikely and even if Dubois agrees to one, the Blue Jackets will be in a position to match it.
The bigger issue for the Blue Jackets is the possibility that Dubois holds out and ends up missing training camp or even regular season games. Even just missing training camp could end putting him behind the curve for a good chunk of the campaign. Dubois is a key part of the Blue Jackets’ offense, so it’d be a major issue for the team if he missed time or was put in a position where he’s more likely to underperformed, especially after it was revealed that Gustav Nyquist underwent shoulder surgery on Tuesday and would miss the next five-to-six months.
With Nyquist out for a significant chunk of the campaign, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Blue Jackets made a serious push to sign UFA Mike Hoffman. That would go a long way towards covering for Nyquist’s absence. As for Dubois, the situation is likely to result in the two sides agreeing to terms before training camp. Anything is possible, but this market is pretty unfavorable for players so Dubois doesn’t have as much of a leg to stand on as other RFAs in recent years. That might lead to Dubois pushing for a bridge contract so that his situation can be reassessed after the salary cap starts rising again.
It’s worth noting that Vladislav Gavrikov is also a restricted free agent after scoring five goals and 18 points in 69 games as a rookie last season. He showed that he can be a solid defenseman, but given that he only has one NHL campaign under his belt, it’s even more likely that he’ll end up with a bridge contract than Dubois. Like Dubois, Gavrikov’s contract talks have stalled, but they should pick back up closer to training camp.