“We’re just a little further away”
You hear that all the time in professional sports. It’s the hockey player’s favorite line, one he uttered to buy himself another year or two to move deckchairs on the Titanic.
This summer, there are more than a few NHL teams that seem to feel like they’re a step away from the competition. Some might actually be right. Others not so much.
Let’s run through the top three contenders to see if they really are as close to the promised land as they think they are and what their off-season might look like.
– Result 2021-22: Lost to the New York Rangers in the second round
– 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 I would actually agree with could be a bit off. It’s just that the piece they need is pretty hard to find.
The Hurricanes should be feeling fine for the most part. They had an amazingly strong team last season with talent in all positional groups who also happened to be playing a system specifically designed to maximize each player’s impact on the ice.
However, what happened to them in the end was a combination of two factors.
Factor #1 was injuries – which, to be honest, are partly due to them. When you couple your car to a duo of Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta, two above-average but aging and injury-prone goalkeepers, you accept the risk that one of them will be out just when you need them most.
And shockers! That’s exactly what happened. Who could have seen this coming? When you buy a used car with a history of transmission problems, how good can you be when it inevitably stalls on a lonely stretch of freeway?
The second factor is the one that earns them their place on this list: lack of elite goalscoring talent.
Sure, Sebastian Aho and Evgeny Svechnikov are wonderful players. Great even. But neither has yet broken into the upper league of the NHL’s elite — a club full of players capable of taking over large chunks of the game all by themselves.
That lack of firepower was particularly evident in the Canes’ second-round series against the Rangers, where New York’s blue chippers like Chris Kreider, Artemiy Panarin, Mika Zibanejad and Adam Fox provided their team with an element no one in Carolina’s roster could fit.
So what are they doing? Well, the problem is, few teams can just stroll down to their local free agent shop and pick up an elite goalscorer.
But this summer offers a rare opportunity.
GM Don Waddell and his front office are not afraid to take bold steps. They’ll swing for the fences if they want to. Maybe the Hurricanes will shift a few pieces and pounce on Johnny Gaudreau, someone who would be a perfect match for their top forwards and also happens to come from a Hart Trophy season.
Filip Forsberg could also be an option as he seems to fit perfectly into Rod Brind’Amour’s system and would give Canes a hit they’ve been missing for years.
If they don’t want to blast the doors open right away, Waddell could always be the next fool to pitch Evander Kane a long-term deal. We all know how much this team loves their controversial talents who probably shouldn’t be given another chance to play pro hockey.
Any of these moves would, of course, require some financial gymnastics first. The Hurricanes have a cap of just over $19 million and more than a few notable players to sign. But it’s not impossible and would actually give them that one piece that really seems to separate them from the argument.
– Result 2021-22: Swept by Colorado Avalanche in the first round
– 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 where 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 made it at least a tad more interesting. And that fact almost certainly haunts GM David Poile’s dreams as he prepares for his 283rd consecutive offseason at the helm of that 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 was paid to play, followed by Ryan McDonagh for virtually zero expense, it’s hard not to dream big , if you are responsible for the predators there.
Are the Predators actually some distance away? Probably not. Their entire franchise trajectory hinges on the signing of Filip Forsberg, which the Preds have yet to do, while their depth at both forward and goaltender positions could definitely use some replenishment.
But locking up Forsberg opens up a world of possibilities. If Duchene can perform like last season, adding another high-end weapon up front could give the Predators an offensive punch they honestly haven’t had at any point in their existence.
I could absolutely see Poile chasing Avs playoff superstar Valeri Nichushkin once the market opens. The Predators also have their own first-round picks for the next three drafts, including this one. Maybe they’ll pool some of that draft capital with a prospect or two to get Jesper Bratt out of New Jersey, where his chances seem to be diminishing by the day.
Given how dated Poile seems, a short-term deal for Evgeni Malkin, whose Pittsburgh days seem oddly numbered, may not even be off the table. The Penguins know just how great the Nashville market can be when they played them in the 2015 Cup final. Malkin probably took note.
The Preds may not be exactly one step away from the argument, but circumstances can certainly convince their brass that they are. And once that happens all bets are void.
– Result 2021-22: Swept by Colorado Avalanche in the Western Conference Finals
– Pending Free Agents: Evander Kane, Brett Kulak, Jesse Puljujarvi (RFA), Kailer Yamamoto (RFA), Ryan McLeod (RFA)
– cap space: $7.1 million
There’s nothing quite like an unexpectedly deep playoff run, with your star players hiding the glaring flaws plaguing your roster to drive a GM insane.
Ken Holland is probably feeling good right now. Signing Evander Kane worked (until it didn’t), Cody Ceci actually performed like an NHL defenseman for three months, and Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl once again proved how far they can pull a team on their own.
Better believe Holland has told the Oilers board that the team is just a stone away. And to his credit, he has the postseason success to prove it – on the surface, that is.
Look even the tiniest bit deeper and you’ll see that the Oilers are a Jenga tower waiting to collapse.
To be fair, their top-end talent is actually pretty secure. McDavid and Draisaitl excelled in both the regular season and the playoffs, Zach Hyman earned every penny of the contract he signed that summer, Evan Bouchard established himself as a fine young defenseman and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins once again proved his versatility is a top 6 forward who can play up and down the lineup.
But that’s where the stability ends.
The Oilers have just over $7 million in cap space to 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 bit) . and also ban at least one (and possibly two) new goalies.
This math doesn’t add up. And to make matters worse, the team is reportedly in the process of forcing one of the cheap, versatile youngsters who could help them in such a cap crunch, Puljujarvi, out of town because… er, has anyone actually figured out why yet?
If the Oilers find a way to create some leeway, likely by buying Zack Kassian and dumping a player they probably shouldn’t, that new money will likely be dedicated to Kane – who is currently waiting to find out if his previous employer had reasons to terminate the last long-term contract he had signed.
This Oilers roster has great bones that, if built right, could back a competitor. But they are not a piece away. And their offseason could show the dangers of teams mistakenly believing they are.