They may have stopped playing games but hockey season never truly ends. For fans, the speculation and critique of trades and signings are half the fun, and the offseason is full of it.
The biggest shocker so far has been the surprising low return on big pieces being traded. Phil Kessel, Milan Lucic and others brought back very little compared to the returns of just a few years ago. Toronto even had to eat a portion of the cap hit for the honor of trading him! This clearly shows that general managers are fully taking into account cap hits and bad contracts. How many goals you can score is almost worth less than how you fit underneath the all-important cap.
Salaries have risen big-time over the past decade but the Cap hasn't kept up. Teams are pricing themselves out of icing a full team. Take a look at the bottom pairing on almost every team; how many of those names do you recognize? Players on entry-level contracts are becoming more and more valuable, and aging veterans may have to start taking huge pay cuts to continue playing. Why spend $3 million on a 36-year old blue liner when you could spend the league-minimum on a rookie? Chicago won a Cup on the backs of their top-four, but not everybody has the luxury of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook.
Right now the NHL has about six teams that have a legitimate shot, another group that is a notch below, and the rest are much further away. Of the group that is currently near the bottom, teams like Edmonton and Buffalo literally won the lottery and should be in the mix in a few years time. But for the others, they're not so lucky.
To compete around the playoff bubble is a dangerous place to play. Not low enough for a draft pick, and never strong enough to seriously compete. My hometown Vancouver Canucks have become the poster boys for this depressing situation. Just like the 2004 Calgary Flames that held on to their aging core thinking they could quickly return to the Finals, the jig is up.
Hopefully your favorite team isn't on this list, so cross your fingers and keep reading.
10 Columbus Blue Jackets
This was a battle with Detroit for last spot but The Red Wings edge them out slightly. Detroit miraculously signed their next superstar Gustav Nyqvist to an incredibly reasonable cap hit. If he and Tomas Tatar can develop fast enough and Zetterberg/Datsyuk can remain effective they could still be dangerous. They've always had a solid team dynamic and it will be interesting to see how that continues without former Coach Mike Babcock. Also interesting is to see how supremely talented D-man Mike Green will do in the famed Detroit System.
Columbus has made some great moves and has hit the jackpot with Ryan Johansen. He's the franchise center every team wants and Brandon Dubinsky is a perfect number two behind him. Scott Hartnell and David Clarkson should provide grit while chipping in with goal support as well. They have an elite goaltender but could use an upgrade or two on the back line. Their big move this offseason was acquiring Brandon Saad from the Blackhawks who was arguably Chicago's best forward in this year's finals.
Columbus is in good shape, but they are missing a few pieces and you have to wonder where those are going to come from.
9 Boston Bruins
The mighty have fallen but they could be retooled before they completely hit the ground.
This team was so loaded with talent they could afford to give up talents like Kessel and Seguin because they didn't fit the mold of a typical 'Bruin'. However, age and injuries have caught up to the core and the new GM quickly unloaded two key pieces in Lucic and Dougie Hamilton. The Lucic deal made sense as his name and past exploits have given him a much higher perceived value than his declining play and ridiculous cap hit are worth. But trading the young and rare puck moving defensive talent of Hamilton was puzzling to most. Rumors have swirled about locker room issues so it appears Boston is pretty serious about team chemistry.
For Boston to load up with first round picks like they did was impressive and could seriously speed up their rebuild(retool?). If any of those picks produce some talent to play alongside David Krejci, Patrice Bergeron and Tuukka Rask then the Big Bad Bruins could be right back in the playoff picture.
8 San Jose Sharks
It's gotta be difficult to be a Sharks fan. Sure it's been fun to watch their regular season success over the past decade, but nothing hurts more than playoff disappointment. Management stubbornly rode the Joe Thornton/Patrick Marleau nucleus into the ground, choosing to change the supporting cast around them instead. Thornton and management have had some ugly public moments this season and their relationship might be too damaged to recover.
Joe Pavelski and Logan Couture have emerged as the new face of the organization but the squad requires too many upgrades to be taken seriously. If they can pull in a king's ransom for Thornton they could be in great shape, but looking at the recent superstar trades (Kessel) it might be too much of a buyers market.
7 Ottawa Senators
This team has done so much with so little. They've had to make clever decisions on contracts and players to remain as successful as they have. You wonder if they had the ability to spend to the cap whether it would put them over the top or if some of their best moves had been made out of financial necessity.
Whatever the case, Ottawa has been consistently mediocre. Not good or bad enough to do anything of consequence. In fact, they looked destined to miss the playoffs before new goaltender Andrew Hammond came out of nowhere to miraculously sneak them in. A nice story for him but perpetually losing in the first round is a great way to never get any better. They're nowhere near competing for the Cup and aren't loading up with quality draft picks. Ottawa needs a better plan.
6 Vancouver Canucks
Spirits were high when the team instilled fan favorite Trevor Linden as team president. It was a public-relations boost the franchise desperately needed after they just finished the season from hell and the John Tortorella disaster. Linden's hire of Jim Benning was also met with a positive response but after overpaying on a few contracts and underwhelming with trade returns, fans are starting to turn.
This core wasn't good enough to win the Cup four years ago against Boston, and they haven't gotten any better. The Sedin twins are getting older and the promising young talent are too many years away to make a decent run. The defence was frankly embarrassed against Calgary's forecheck in the playoffs and the entire squad looks to be trending downwards in a tough conference that is only getting tougher.
Benning has a lot of work to restore confidence in his GM abilities and not much to work with.
5 Philadelphia Flyers
The Flyers of the past two decades have always been built like a video game team. Loaded with exciting scoring stars and big names but always lacking in details like a bottom six, defence, and goaltending.
While they now look like geniuses for moving out Mike Richards and Jeff Carter's crippling contracts for a motherland of young talent, they still lack the fundamentals. The defence and goaltending are simply too weak to compete. This isn't the 80s and you can't score your way out of trouble. The Flyers have struggled to round out their defence since Chris Pronger and in today's NHL it's harder than ever to fit a solid defence under the cap.
Major defensive upgrades are required before this team will get another sniff. Cody Franson?
4 New Jersey Devils
Being at the top for so long can make it extremely tough to keep the cupboards stocked. The Devils' success seems to have caught up with them as they were forced to assemble he oldest team in the league full of castoffs and comebacks.
Cory Schneider is a top level goalie who appears to be getting used to the Brodeur-like heavy load Jersey wants him to play. He will need some help however if they plan on keeping the puck out of the net. Long gone are Niedermayer, Stevens, Rafalski, and Martin. Instead they are now led by Andy Greene, John Moore, and Eric Gelinas.....yikes!
Zach Parise's departure was the nail in the coffin for this core and they are left far out of the picture without any easy way back.
Good luck to Cory Schneider.
3 Carolina Hurricanes
What happened to this once-promising core. When they won that Stanley Cup oh so long ago they looked set for years to come. Eric Staal and Cam Ward looked like franchise pieces at the beginning of a long career. Perhaps Rod Brind'Amour and Justin Williams had a greater impact on the squad than was previously thought.
Carolina tanked like crazy yet still missed out on McDavid/Eichel. The future looks bleak unless Eric Staal can fetch a heavy price on the trade market.
2 Arizona Coyotes
This team appears to be just treading water in the desert. They are consistent sellers at the deadline yet haven't been able to acquire enough blue-chip prospects to assure any kind of a future. With their constant financial woes adding stress to the situation you have to wonder if this team has any future at all in Arizona.
Mike Smith has had nightmare of a time with consistency and their forward lines are far too thin. They lost their best goal scorer Radim Vrbata to free agency last year and there is still no adequate replacement for his goals. TWO defencemen led this team in scoring! Sam Gagner was the top scoring forward with a measly 14 goals and 26 assists. No one cracked the 50 point barrier.
This team is in trouble.
1 Toronto Maple Leafs
The Shanahan era has officially begun with Kessel out and Mike Babcock/Lou Lamoriello in. Unfortunately, the price fetched for Kessel was underwhelming to say the least. The fact they had to pick up part of his cap hit is even more depressing for Leaf fans. Kessel may have been wrong for the leadership of a rebuilding team but he is still one of the league's most talented goal scorers with plenty of productive years ahead. Getting fed by Sidney Crosby and/or Evgeni Malkin is going to sting.
In net they have two potential number ones that still haven't fully grasped the spot. To be fair to Jonathan Bernier and James Reimer though, the defence core and overall team-defence have been incredibly weak.
There will be many lean years ahead for this squad as no one on the current roster looks like a top liner and their best prospects are years away from making an impact.
However, like always, it'll be interesting to watch. And if Shannahan can get this team back to respectability before his hair falls out, he will become more of a legend than he already is.