The summer is a wonderful time to be a hockey fan. If you're at all into being an armchair General Manager, it's a great time to look at salary cap charts, draft prospects, and potential free agents, not to mention players rumored to be traded. More than anything, it's a time of renewed optimism, when fans of even bottom-feeding teams like the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils can feel optimistic. All teams have an equal record and there's a sense that, if management makes the right moves, your team can make a move to become one of the elite teams in the league.
That idea is even more true heading into the 2017 offseason thanks to the Vegas Golden Knights. Say what you will about Gary Bettman or the idea of Las Vegas as a hockey market, but the upcoming expansion draft has made for an increased prospect of nobody-saw-that-coming type of trades. All 30 other teams in the league are going to lose one player to the Golden Knights, and, because of protection rules, some franchises might lose a quality player. However, teams may attempt to deal those players to other teams to avoid losing them for nothing, while others might make backdoor agreements with Vegas' GM George McPhee. Then there's the draft and free agency. If nothing else, this summer will be one of the wildest offseasons in NHL history in regard to speculation and rumors.
Whether or not anything major happens is up to the league's 31 General Managers. Here's our list of teams that have the potential to fall apart and those that should improve this offseason.
15 Fall Apart: Minnesota Wild
The Minnesota Wild seemed revitalized under head coach Bruce Boudreau last season. No longer did the team play a boring defensive-minded system; instead, it played an up-tempo offensive style and received All-Star goaltending from Devan Dubnyk, particularly in the first half of the season. And, moving forward, they've got some nice pieces, but don't let that fool you.
The team is without its first and second round pick in the upcoming NHL Draft thanks to a trade it made with the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Martin Hanzal, who is actually a pending free-agent and gave the Wild very little in regard to offensive contribution toward the end of the season and into the playoffs. Oops. Beyond that, thanks to mammoth long-term contracts handed out to Ryan Suter and Zach Parise years ago, the Wild will be in cap hell for at least another five years. Heading into the upcoming offseason, the team has just $11 million in cap space and needs to sign Mikael Granlund and Nino Niederreiter, both of which had breakthrough seasons and are due for massive pay days. At the very least, the Wild tread water in the offseason.
14 Thrive: Tampa Bay Lightning
After signing Steven Stamkos to a long-term deal last offseason, you could have argued the Lightning were in a similar situation as the Wild. However, Steve Yzerman continues to prove himself as one of the league's smartest executives. The former Detroit Red Wings' great shed substantial cap space last year by dealing Valtteri Filppula to the Philadelphia Flyers, opening up cap space to re-sign Jonathan Drouin, Tyler Johnson, and Ondrej Palat.
Even if the Lightning don't add another piece, keeping its promising young core together is a win, especially if you factor in the return of Stamkos, who missed most of last season with an injury, and the rapid development of Brayden Point, who has quickly become one of the best young players in the game. The Lightning might lose Vladislav Namestnikov in expansion, but they should have ample cap space to make a big splash in free agency. A lot of that has to do with the fact that Nikita Kucherov is owed less than $5 million in each of the next two seasons - Yzerman's biggest steal yet.
13 Fall Apart: Chicago Blackhawks
The Chicago Blackhawks were literally too good for their own good. The team won three Stanley Cups in a span of six years despite continually having to change personnel due to cap issues; however, it seems to have finally caught up to the perennially-great team. Despite another dominant regular season in 2016-17, the team's lack of depth up front was exposed in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Nashville Predators.
While there's plenty of depth forwards available in free agency, the Blackhawks likely won't have the cap space to add any players of substance. In fact, according to CapFriendly, the Hawks are the only team in the red when it comes to cap space as of right now. They'll be able to make some moves to get under the cap come September, but their lineup - unless they make a major trade - is pretty much penciled in as it stands now. Nobody is questioning the $10.5 million given to Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane a few years ago, but in today's NHL, it appears as though Superstars need to take discounts to keep their teams competitive in the long run.
12 Thrive: Winnipeg Jets
The Winnipeg Jets could have been filed into this category in each of the past few seasons, yet the team continues to disappoint in the regular season. The team has all the makings of a team on the rise and was projected by most pundits last season to make the playoffs. If you look at the team's recent drafting history, you'll find some quality players and very few mistakes - so why haven't the Jets burst through the floor of the Western Conference?
That's a question best left for a smarter man. But it's clear the opportunity is there once again next season. Winnipeg enters the 2017 offseason with a plethora of promising young players - Patrik Laine, Nik Ehlers, Josh Morrisey, Kyle Connor - and nearly $19 million in cap space with few players of substance to re-sign. If the team is seriously committed to bringing a championship to Winnipeg, management and ownership will invest heavily in adding veteran leadership to its young core.
11 Fall Apart: San Jose Sharks
It's a shame the Sharks weren't able to take down the Pittsburgh Penguins in last year's Stanley Cup Final because, looking back, it seems as though that was a last-ditch effort for a group that has continually let its fans down in the postseason. The team went out with a whimper against the upstart Edmonton Oilers in the first round of the 2017 playoffs and now it heads into the offseason with cornerstone aging veterans Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau as unrestricted free agents.
Should they bring both players back, it's hard to expect them to play integral roles in leading the team back to the playoffs. But without them, the Sharks lack depth beyond Logan Couture and Joe Pavelski. They've got Brent Burns, but expecting him to replicate his output from last season is asking a little much. Expect a shake-up in San Jose, but with few options for outside help and a lack of tradeable assets, it's hard to see them being better next year than they were this past season.
10 Thrive: Buffalo Sabres
The Buffalo Sabres may appear to be an organization in complete disarray after firing Tim Murray and Dan Bylsma as General Manager and head coach days after disparaging comments made by franchise player Jack Eichel - and they are - but there's reason for optimism in Buffalo. It's true, Sabres fans have heard that sort of talk for years now, but ownership is clearly committed to winning as is Eichel, which is a good combination. The team has over $20 million in cap space heading into the offseason; it just needs to allocate that money to the right players.
If Eichel can stay healthy for a full 82 games next season, the Sabres are going to improve regardless. Up front, the team is actually in solid hands if you factor in Ryan O'Reilly, Evander Kane, and Sam Reinhart, but it's defense and goaltending is where the Sabres need improvements. Luckily, they have the money to make free-agent signings and the prospects to dangle for a potential stud blueliner. Alexander Nylander could be a prospect that draws attention from other clubs as the Sabres enter win-now territory.
9 Fall Apart: Pittsburgh Penguins
When you've got two of the best players in the world, it's hard to expect much of a regression in terms of talent and success, but that might be the case for the Pittsburgh Penguins heading into next season. The team has over $32 million committed to its core of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, and Kris Letang, which, if you're going to invest that much in just four players there's not much of a better group you can pick. That said, Crosby has concussion concerns, Kessel has fitness concerns (rightly or wrongly), and Letang has his own history of health problems.
Making matters worse, the team will almost certainly lose Marc-Andre Fleury to expansion or trade. Matt Murray is the goaltender of the future, but Fleury gave the team the needed security that it wouldn't have otherwise had this season to reach the Stanley Cup. Connor Sheary and Justin Schultz are due for an increase in pay this offseason and there's only so much money to go around. In order to remain a Stanley Cup contender, the Pens might need to find the next Artemi Panarin-type of player.
8 Thrive: Toronto Maple Leafs
It's truly weird to be writing positive things about the Toronto Maple Leafs as the team has been mismanaged for over a decade and perhaps well beyond that if you want to get technical. But the truth is the Maple Leafs are one of the best young teams in the league, and that was even before it was blessed with the first overall pick that granted the team Auston Matthews, who is arguably a top-five player in the league right now.
Toronto's big three of Matthews, William Nylander, and Mitch Marner is unequaled in terms of young forward talent, but it's clear the Maple Leafs need to add a defenseman or two. They have already signed two promising undrafted Swedish free agents in Calle Rosen and Andreas Borgman and there's an expectation that a potential trade with the Ducks or Wild could be in the works. With those three young forwards on entry-level deals, now might be the time to strike while the iron is hot and make a Stanley Cup run.
7 Fall Apart: New York Islanders
There's absolutely nothing positive to say about the New York Islanders right now. The team's management and ownership seems to be equally inept and there's lingering arena issues that its own players have complained about in the past. The team missed the playoffs in 2016-17, so you might think there's reason for a turnaround next season, but you'd be painfully mistaken. Rather, the Islanders enter the offseason with a little over $2 million in cap space and virtually nobody coming off the books. Yup, the Islanders will return to Long Island (err, Brooklyn) next season with virtually the same roster, unless the team makes a major trade.
And right now, the only major trade the team might be able to pull off is one that would involve two of its best players - John Tavares and Travis Hamonic. Tavares' contract expires following the 2017-18 season and the team will have plenty of space to sign him as players like Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski come off the books, but why would Tavares want to stay? The Islanders do have some intriguing prospects, but the team is nowhere near competing for a Stanley Cup. The smart move would be to blow it up this summer and deal Tavares for a boatload of picks and prospects.
6 Thrive: New Jersey Devils
The term thrive is relative in this case, as it's hard to get much worse than the Devils were last season. Yet, for the first time since it reached the Stanley Cup Final in 2012, there's reason for optimism in New Jersey. Following that season, the team's best player, Ilya Kovalchuk, bolted to Russia, essentially eliminating any chance of the Devils being a relevant team in the near future. Well, fast forward five years later and Kovalchuk wants to return to the NHL, but just not in New Jersey. That fact is actually a benefit to the Devils, who can trade the aging Russian to a desperate team looking for scoring.
In addition to the players or picks the Devils might receive for Kovalchuk, the team also owns the first overall pick in the upcoming draft. While there's no Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid in this year's draft, they'll still get a future first-line player, or, if they chose, can deal it for immediate help. Add in the fact the Devils have over $21 million in cap space and there's plenty of options for the franchise.
5 Fall Apart: Los Angeles Kings
It's become quite clear that success in the salary cap era of the NHL comes at a cost and that cost is sacrificing your team's future. While the Blackhawks and Penguins haven't quite been hit as hard yet, the Los Angeles Kings truly experienced that feeling this past season as the team missed the playoffs and was never really a threat in the difficult Western Conference.
Like the Blackhawks, the Kings have way too much money tied up in declining assets. The difference is the Hawks' players are still among the best in the game. The Kings, meanwhile, have over $20 million committed to Anze Kopitar, Dustin Brown, and Marian Gaborik for the next three seasons. Kopitar is still a dominant defensive presence, but he scored a career-low 12 goals last season and appears to be on the back end of his career, where Brown and Gaborik have been for the past three seasons.
4 Thrive: Dallas Stars
Despite a frustrating 2016-17 season, the Dallas Stars have an opportunity to perfect a quick turnaround this offseason; in fact, the team has already addressed the major issue that seemed to be holding them back the past few years. Management fired head coach Lindy Ruff, whose commitment to defensive-minded hockey was below-average if not non-existent, and it later acquired the rights to goaltender Ben Bishop, who was quickly signed to a long-term deal. It's a bit of a risk given Bishop is now 30-years-old and was average at best last season, but it's also an upgrade on the poor performances the team received from Kari Lehtonen and Antii Niemi last year.
The Stars ultimately have a chance at starting fresh and doing so with two of the game's premier goal-scorers in Tyler Seguin and Jamie Benn. They also own the third and 29th selections in the upcoming draft as well as $16 million in cap space. It's going to be a summer of optimism in Dallas.
3 Fall Apart: Montreal Canadiens
If you thought the Montreal Canadiens couldn't look any worse following an early exit from the 2017 playoffs and seeing former franchise cornerstone P.K. Subban reach the Stanley Cup Final with the Nashville Predators, think again. The Canadiens lack prospect depth, which might be a good thing, because General Manager Marc Bergevin would likely trade any young player for immediate help, which would be a mistake.
Everyone but Marc Bergevin realized trading P.K. Subban for an aging Shea Weber with a greater cap hit was a mistake, and it's going to linger in the Montreal media throughout the summer, especially if/when Bergevin makes another deal. The Canadiens have over $20 million in cap space, but need to re-sign Andrei Markov (if he decides to continue playing), Alex Radulov (if he wants to stay), and Alex Galchenyuk. Take away Carey Price (which could happen if he leaves when his contract expires at the end of next season) and the Canadiens are a lottery team.
2 Thrive: Carolina Hurricanes
The Carolina Hurricanes have existed in relative obscurity for the better part of the past decade and not only just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. The team has been a struggling market, but, as evidenced by its past Stanley Cup runs, the fan base comes alive with lengthy playoff runs. The good news for those fans is that a return to the playoffs could come sooner rather than later for the Hurricanes, who are blessed with perhaps the best young defense core in the league. Carolina has Justin Faulk, Noah Hanifin, Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and Ryan Murphy all signed through next season at a combined $7 million. Yeah, you read that right.
Up front, the 'Canes have a decent core in Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner, and Victor Rask, but the prize jewel is Sebastian Aho, who, if not for last year's incredible rookie class, would have been a Calder Trophy finalist. The Hurricanes already addressed its goaltending concerns with the acquisition of Scott Darling and still have over $27 million in cap space heading into next summer.
1 Fall Apart: Washington Capitals
At first glance, one might think the Capitals are in fairly decent shape heading into the upcoming offseason with nearly $23 million in cap space. However, the team is losing Justin Williams, T.J. Oshie, Kevin Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, and Daniel Winnik to unrestricted free agency and needs to re-sign restricted free agents Brett Connolly, Andre Burakovsky, Dmitry Orlov, Nate Schmidt, and Evgeny Kuznetsov. They probably bring back all of the restricted free agents and perhaps one or two that are unrestricted, but beyond that the Capitals will have no money left to help improve upon last season's result.
Then there's Alexander Ovechkin, who had a disappointing season last year and is clearly regressing in regard to overall talent. Trading the Great 8, for the first time ever, is actually a topic worthy of discussion, although it would certainly be a tough sell to the team's fans. Regardless of where Ovechkin lands, there's no chance the Capitals begin the 2017-18 season with a lineup as deep as it had last year.