NHL Power Rankings: Top storylines for 2021-22 NHL season (Part 2)

In this week’s edition of the NHL Power Rankings we continue counting down the 30 biggest storylines to watch across the league for the 2021-22 season.

We are looking at 10 storylines each Monday until the start of the season. We continue today with storylines 20-11, including looks at the Philadelphia Flyers, Montreal Canadiens, the top rookies, pending free agents, the salary cap, and new Stanley Cup contenders.

[You can read Part 1 here]

What stories make the list this week?

To this week’s NHL Power Rankings!

20. The Philadelphia Flyers offseason. Now this is the type of offseason you expect from the Flyers. Big moves! Bold moves! Maybe even crazy moves! The trades for Ryan Ellis and Cam Atkinson have the potential to be huge additions, but the Rasmus Ristolainen trade is a little difficult to figure. Do they think they can turn his career around? Of course, all of these moves will be rendered pointless if Carter Hart does not play better in goal this season.

19. What do the Montreal Canadiens do for a repeat? The Canadiens shocked the NHL by making a stunning run to the Stanley Cup Final. Carey Price found the fountain of youth and helped lead them to upsets over Toronto, Winnipeg, and Vegas before running into the Tampa Bay Lightning buzzsaw.

They are bringing back a very different roster, however. Phillip Danault and Jesperi Kotkaniemi are gone, Tomas Tatar left in free agency, Shea Weber will not play this season, while Mike Hoffman, Christian Dvorak, and David Savard join the team. They are also getting Jonathan Drouin back after he missed most of the 2020-21 season and all of the playoffs. They also have potential breakout seasons for Nick Suzuki and Cole Caulfield to look forward to. But is this roster good enough to even get back in the playoffs in a tough division?

18. The salary cap situation in the NHL. We are still looking at a situation in the league where salary cap increases are going to be minimal in the coming years. There are obvious ramifications for contending teams close to the cap and with pending free agents to sign. It could also make more players available in trades and allow teams with excess salary cap space to utilize that in trades.

17. Potential unrestricted free agents. A lot of significant players are entering the final year of their contracts this season with Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Alexander Barkov, Filip Forsberg, Tomas Hertl, John Klingberg, Johnny Gaudreau, Morgan Rielly, Ryan Pulock, Patrice Bergeron, Claude Giroux, Mattias Ekholm, P.K. Subban, Marc-Andre Fleury, Darcy Kuemper, and Mika Zibanejad leading the way. Many of those players will re-sign with their current teams. Some might even retire (Fleury? Bergeron?). But there are a few players that they could end up changing teams, including Forsberg, Hertl, Gaudreau, and maybe even Rielly.

16. The rookie of the year race. Always one of the more intriguing individual award races because it highlights new stars coming into the league. This year’s favorites have to include Caufield in Montreal, Spencer Knight in Florida, Moritz Seider in Detroit, Quinton Byfield in Los Angeles, and Vasili Podkolzin in Vancouver.

[NHL Power Rankings: Calder Trophy candidates for 2021-22 season]

15. Can Islanders break through to the Stanley Cup Final? It has been three decades since the New York Islanders played in a Cup Final, but they are getting closer every year. They just can not seem to get over the final hurdle that is the Lightning, having lost to them two years in a row in the Eastern Conference Final/Semifinal round. They are bringing back mostly the same roster, but will have a full season of Kyle Palmieri, a returning Anders Lee, and the offseason additions of Zach Parise and Zdeno Chara. Not to mention one of the league’s best coaches and a sensational goalie duo with Semyon Varlamov and Ilya Sorokin.

Their regular season performances never look impressive. But they are probably one of the last teams you want to see in a best-of-seven series in the playoffs.

14. New York Rangers changes. The Rangers’ rebuild was not going fast enough for ownership, so a lot of changes were made this offseason in the front office, coaching staff, and even on the roster. Chris Drury takes over for Jeff Gorton in the GM chair, Gerard Gallant replaces David Quinn behind the bench, and the team attempted to get tougher this offseason by trading Pavel Buchnevich, while also acquiring Ryan Reaves, Patrik Nemeth, and Barclay Goodrow. It is the Tom Wilson impact. The Rangers can say it is not all about Wilson all they want, but it is pretty clear that is what this is about. Is that the right step for a team that has a Hart Trophy candidate (Artemi Panarin), a Norris Trophy-winning defender (Adam Fox), and an impressive collection of young talent? We are about to find out.

In the end, though, the success or failure of this season will depend on the development of Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Vitali Kravtsov, and Igor Shesterkin. If that quartet becomes impact players, the Rangers will be very good. If they do not, the Rangers’ rebuild will remain stuck in neutral.

13. Panthers becoming a Cup contender. This might be the first time ever that the Florida Panthers are entering a season with real, championship level expectations. This is a really good roster with a couple of All-Stars at the top of it (Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau) coming off the best regular season in franchise history They also added Sam Reinhart to the mix this offseason. If Spencer Knight can take over the goaltending job and play to his potential this could be a sleeper Cup team.

12. Can Avalanche get through Second Round ceiling. On paper the Colorado Avalanche might have the best team in the NHL. They are loaded from top to bottom with a deep, talented group of forwards, an excellent defense with young stars, and a strong goalie with the offseason addition of Kuemper. They have been Cup contenders and favorites for a couple of years now. But they remain stuck in the Second Round, having lost their three years in a row.

When a team like this can’t get through a particular round, or can’t take that next step, it is easy to get frustrated and think that some kind of change needs to happen. We heard it constantly with the Washington Capitals and how they needed to change and who they needed to trade. We heard it all the time with the Lightning. Eventually talent breaks through and wins. The Avalanche have the talent to get there. They just need to be patient and stick with the process and talent they have. It is championship caliber, and still has its best days ahead of it.

11. Can the Oilers finally take advantage of Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. McDavid and Draisaitl are the two best offensive players in the world. They are both league MVPs, winning the award in three of the past five seasons. Most teams will go decades, maybe even their entire existence to this point, without getting one player like this, let alone two of them together at the exact same time. You can not waste that luck. The Oilers are wasting it. Badly.

They made some significant changes this offseason with the additions of Zach Hyman, Warren Foegele, Duncan Keith, and Cody Ceci. But even with that depth still looks suspect, as does this defense (largely due to the changes there with an aging Keith and Ceci replacing Ethan Bear and Adam Larsson), and they are counting on a 39-year-old Mike Smith to have another strong year when he has only had one good season in the past three seasons. Still a lot that can go wrong here, even with two megastars at the top of the lineup.

New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the New York Rangers.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 27-23-6 (60 points); fifth place in East Division
• Postseason: Missed playoffs. Drafted Brennan Othmann with the 16th pick.
• Offensive leader: Artemi Panarin (42 games, 17 goals, 41 assists).

• Free Agent Additions: Barclay Goodrow (trade from Lightning), Ryan Reaves (trade from Golden Knights), Patrik Nemeth, Dryden Hunt, Sammy Blais (trade from Blues), Jarred Tinordi.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Pavel Buchnevich (trade to Blues), Tony DeAngelo (buyout), Colin Blackwell (Kraken expansion draft), Phillip Di Giuseppe (Canucks), Brendan Smith (Hurricanes), Brett Howden (trade to Golden Knights).

Biggest question for Rangers

• Did they lose their wits chasing grit?

Did the Rangers abruptly fire Jeff Gorton and make other key front office changes because of the Tom Wilson – Artemi Panarin incident? Was countering Wilson the guiding light during Chris Drury’s first offseason as Rangers GM?

Ryan Reaves said that he wasn’t acquired because of Tom Wilson — at least not directly. Even Tom Wilson himself insisted it wasn’t all about him.

Sometimes people want to ignore the elephant in the room. Sometimes they’re stubborn, or in denial, about obvious truths. Especially when one person seems to leave you wildly flustered, and possibly overreacting.

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

Wilson-related or not, the Rangers sacrificed skill for grit before the 2021-22 season. Maybe losing Pavel Buchnevich will make sense in the long run. But next season? It sure feels like a painful subtraction, and maybe even an unforced error.

When the Lightning traded for Barclay Goodrow, it was part of a series of moves to go over the top. That was already a stacked team, one that forged a historic regular season. The Rangers, meanwhile, haven’t truly made the playoffs since 2016-17.

(No, you should not count getting squashed like a bug during the 2019-20 Qualifying Round.)

So, was this team already skilled enough to focus so much on sandpaper? It seems dubious. Then again, Gerard Gallant worked wonders in Vegas, and sometimes that team got a bit fixated on ferocity.

What’s the salary cap situation?

Even during a genuine rebuild, the Rangers weren’t shy to spend big money on big names. They’re still the Rangers, after all.

Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba combine for about $19.6M in cap hits through 2025-26. Maybe the Rangers should have traded Chris Kreider. Instead, they kept him on a deal that could get scary ($6.5M AAV through 2026-27). Igor Shesterkin could end up being better than a $5.67M goalie. With just 47 games of NHL experience, Shesterkin still counts as a leap of faith.

That’s already a lot of money for a team that hasn’t delivered yet. And things could get even more expensive for the Rangers after the 2021-22 season. (Or there could be some agonizing losses.)

Ryan Strome ($4.5M) and most importantly, Mika Zibanejad ($5.35M) are both 28-year-old centers entering contract years. Two different players, sure, but both present the Rangers with riddles to solve.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Adam Fox was already surging toward a big payday. He’s 23, a right-handed defenseman, and just won a Norris Trophy. Mix in a sometimes-outrageous offseason of spending on defensemen, and ominous music plays for the Rangers’ salary cap. Fox merely being an RFA gives the Rangers a key advantage, but Cale Makar‘s $9M seems like a reasonable placeholder. If maybe an optimistic one.

Fox isn’t the only young player the Rangers need to leave room for.

Kaapo Kakko enters a contract year, while Alexis Lafreniere has two years left on his rookie contract.

Overall, the Rangers need to get the balance right. If they sign both assuming too much growth, they could get burned. If they wait too long, Kakko and Lafreniere could drive up their value. There are worse problems to have, but these are challenges nonetheless.

The Rangers approach the tougher stages of a rebuild. Will they turn young prospects into stars, ideally on team-friendly contracts? Can they support that young talent with savvy additions? Chris Drury has his work cut out for him.

Breakout Candidate

• Kakko/Lafreniere

All but the most patient observers would admit that there have been some disappointments with both prospects so far.

In the cases of both Kakko and Lafreniere, they were hyped as very NHL-ready prospects. Instead, each player has struggled with immediate jumps to the big time.

Those stumbles aren’t the end of the world. Thanks to having two seasons in the NHL, Kakko serves as the best reminder to be patient.

Consider his Evolving Hockey Player Card from 2019-20, which was concerning even with caveats for young players:

Kakko Evo Player Card 2019-20 New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
via Evolving Hockey

Yikes, right? Then, in 2020-21, Kakko looked like a player who could really gain steam.

Kakko player card Evo New York Rangers: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview
via Evolving Hockey

Frankly, if I were running the Rangers, I’d be tempted to extent Kakko before he surges to another level. (If he’d listen to offers right now, of course.)

With some prospects, people picture too much growth. They assume a 25-year-old player has more runway than maybe they actually do. But Kakko (20) and Lafreniere (19) are both indeed in the age ranges where players can take big leaps.

Don’t be surprised if both do so. Maybe the Rangers are assuming too much, but betting in young players is better than hoping aging veterans can hold on.

Bonus points if other young players come through for the Rangers in 2021-22, too. Ideally, Vitali Kravstov isn’t just learning from Ryan Reaves …

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Rangers

Gallant represents a huge coaching upgrade. Panarin – Zibanejad tear it up, and stay healthy. Their defense improves, and Shesterkin cleans up the rest. Kakko, Lafreniere, and others flourish. The Rangers become dangerous, and in a hurry.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Rangers

That fixation on feistiness leaves the Rangers with more fights and hits, but the same middling standings results. Kakko and Lafreniere stagnate. Gallant’s system can’t overcome limitations on defense beyond Fox and a few others. Things fall apart, and management takes all the wrong lessons from that collapse.

PointsbetNew York Rangers’ Stanley Cup odds

+2200 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Blue Jackets bet on Elvis Merzlikins with five-year extension

Which bad Elvis joke are you going to dust off for this one? The smart money is on “Elvis stays in the building,” as the Blue Jackets signed Merzlikins to a five-year extension on Tuesday.

That Merzlikins extension costs the Blue Jackets $5.4M per season (five years, $27M overall) starting in 2022-23. Merzlikins, 27, carries a $4M cap hit during the 2021-22 season.

“Goaltending is a position of strength for our team and Elvis Merzlikins has been an important part of that over the past two seasons so we are very excited to have agreed to terms on a contract extension that will keep him in Columbus for at least the next six years,” GM Jarmo Kekalainen said via the team’s release. “He is big, athletic and has a tremendous passion for the game and we believe he will be an integral part of our success in the coming years.”

Blue Jackets gamble on Merzlikins with five-year extension

At first blush, it seems like quite the gamble by Kekalainen.

Despite already being 27, Merzlikins doesn’t have a ton of NHL experience. So far, he only has 61 regular season and two playoff games under his belt.

The Blue Jackets could’ve merely decided to wait and see how the 2021-22 season played out in net. Joonas Korpisalo (27, $2.8M cap hit) is entering a contract year, so they could’ve allowed the two netminders to battle it out with huge motivation.

Of course, that scenario introduces more uncertainty to a team that keeps losing key players like Seth Jones, Pierre-Luc Dubois, and previously, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky.

Earlier during the offseason, the Blue Jackets handed Zach Werenski an eyebrow-raising six-year, $57.5M extension. With extensions to Werenski, Merzlikins, and Boone Jenner, along with term for players like Jakub Voracek and Oliver Bjorkstrand, the Blue Jackets can project more stability.

Yet, in some cases, there’s an air of desperation.

[2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Merzlikins ranks as an especially intriguing bet, though.

Again, his NHL experience is limited. That said, credit Merzlikins for nailing just about every opportunity so far.

  • As a rookie in 2019-20, Merzlikins went 13-9-8 with a strong .923 save percentage in 33 games. He generated 12.1 Goals Saved Against Average, by Hockey Reference’s version of the stat.
  • That offseason, Merzlikins only appeared in two playoff games. Still, he notched a .946 save percentage in those appearances. Strong work all around that season.
  • In 2020-21, Merzlikins went 8-12-5, and his save percentage slipped to .916. That’s perfectly respectable when you consider how disastrous the Blue Jackets were last season. His GSAA was 7.0, indicating the Merzlikins did his job.
  • Now, you can only extrapolate so much from his work over six seasons in the Swiss league. Still, his numbers mostly look good there, too.

So, at first, it does still seem like a significant risk. That said, if Merzlikins can deliver above-average goaltending (or even elite work) during much of that contract, it could also be another clever-as-a-fox moment from Kekalainen.

If the Blue Jackets are weak again in 2021-22, would this set the stage for Joonas Korpisalo being an intriguing trade target, too? Might their defense crater after a coaching change?

There are a lot of interesting factors that could play into how we perceive the Blue Jackets signing Merzlikins to that extension. Whether it works out or not, it’s an important part of the team’s future.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Los Angeles Kings: 2021-22 NHL Season Preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Los Angeles Kings.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 21-28-7 (49 points); sixth place in West Division
• Postseason: Missed playoffs, drafted Brandt Clarke with eighth pick of 2021 NHL Draft.
• Offensive leader: Anze Kopitar (56 games, 13 goals, 37 assists).

• Free Agent Additions: Philip Danault, Viktor Arvidsson (trade from Predators), Alexander Edler.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Kurtis MacDermid (Kraken expansion draft), Matt Luff (Predators).

Kings’ biggest question

• Too much too soon?

No, the Kings didn’t totally mortgage their future this offseason. They didn’t spend a massive amount of money and/or draft capital to add a huge contract, like the Blackhawks did with Seth Jones. Their bolder moves aren’t so big that they’d necessarily sink their rebuild.

Even so, the Kings made the sort of moves that signaled they’re heeding Drew Doughty‘s advice about being more competitive in 2021-22.

The aging curve indicates that both Viktor Arvidsson and Philip Danault are exiting their peak years, both at age 28. No, that doesn’t mean that they’ll turn into pumpkins in a year. A heady player like Danault, in particular, might age gracefully.

The best bet is that they’ll deliver their best results in the next year or two, though, and it’s fair to wonder if the Kings are really in a good position to reap such opportunities in 2021-22 (or even 2022-23?).

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

Danault and Arvidsson are worthy upgrades, but if the Kings truly make a leap in 2021-22, it will be thanks to growth from younger players. If the 2021-22 Kings seek more dramatic growth, they’ll need Quinton Byfield, and maybe some others (Gabriel Vilardi? Alex Turcotte? All of them?) to take big steps. Frankly, that might also hinge on someone like Lias Andersson seizing the opportunity.

(Truly, it could be a training camp to watch.)

Would those additions really just translate to a Kings team that’s too good to get one more great pick, but too bad to really make an impact in 2021-22? There are genuine concerns that Los Angeles jumped the gun. Maybe they should’ve just waited for the 2022 offseason’s versions of Arvidsson and Danault, instead?

What’s the salary cap situation?

It’s sobering that the Kings are allotting the same amount of cap space ($21 million, per Cap Friendly) for Drew Doughty and Anze Kopitar that the Oilers are paying for Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.

If you haven’t checked up on Doughty and Kopitar in the last, oh, three years … well, let’s just say there’s a gap. Actually, a gulf might be a more appropriate word for it. Chasm?

At least some of the Kings’ tougher contracts are expiring somewhat soon. It’s a bit surprising that Jonathan Quick‘s $5.8 million remains on the books, but that dissolves after the 2022-23 season. Kopitar’s $10 million ends one year later, after the 2023-24 campaign. Relief is staggered, as this is the final year of Dustin Brown costing $5.875 million per season.

With Doughty, the Kings merely must hope that he’s worth closer to his bloated $11 million cap hit. For two straight seasons, Doughty’s contract ranked as the absolute worst in the NHL, according to Dom Luszczyszyn’s metrics (sub. required).

You can debate if it’s actually the worst, but if you’re in that discussion, you’re a problem for your team either way. The 31-year-old’s $11 million cap hit runs through 2026-27. With a no-movement clause, Doughty’s contract is scary, especially for a team that hopes to move this rebuild along.

(Frankly, there’s an argument the Kings should’ve ignored Doughty’s calls for improvement, and instead tried to nudge him out the door. There were also arguments about whether they should’ve signed him to another contract — even before his decline became so profound.)

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Beyond that lingering Doughty headache, the Kings’ slate is fairly clean for a team that gave key Stanley Cup-era players big contracts.

Ultimately, the key will be to time second contracts right. First and foremost, the Kings need to develop prospects like Byfield, Brandt Clarke, and Arthur Kaliyev properly. Saving money even beyond those gimme rookie contracts could really give them a competitive advantage. (When the Kings won their first Stanley Cup, Jonathan Quick carried a $1.8 million cap hit, Kopitar cost $6.8 million per year, and Doughty’s AAV was merely $7 million.)

The slate would’ve been even cleaner without Danault, Arvidsson, Matt Roy, and Sean Walker on the books, but maybe various windows will line up in a way that makes it all worth it for Los Angeles?

Breakout Candidate

• Quinton Byfield

By most accounts, it was a bumpy 2020-21 season for the second overall pick of the 2020 NHL Draft. Being limited to a single assist in six NHL games tells just part of Byfield’s story.

Really, the Kings should be careful here. The smarter long-term play might not be to rush him.

Even so, there’s that undeniable, siren-like temptation of watching Byfield blossom up close. Few players his size can move so well, and bring such skill to the table. At times, a lack of polish can show. The sky sure seems like the limit for a towering center who barely turned 19. Considering the developmental obstacles of this COVID era, it might also just be wise to keep such an important prospect closer.

If Byfield doesn’t break through, there are plenty of other candidates. For the most part, it seems like Vilardi put injuries behind him. Kaliyev’s mix of scoring and inexperience could be enticing, but it might also make for a short leash. It’s unclear if the Kings will see the benefits as soon as 2021-22, but their much-hyped prospect pool is shimmering with depth and potential.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Kings

During stretches of even these troubled times, the Kings have occasionally been subtly competent. Not always, but often enough to plant a seed of hope. If the Kings see huge growth from younger players, show courage in letting Cal Petersen being their go-to goalie, and Arvidsson returns to a first-line level, they could make some noise in a paltry Pacific Division. As great as it is to pile up prospects, you have to get to winning at some point. The best version of the 2021-22 Kings could make the playoffs, and then possibly pull off an upset or two.

Threading the needle between being competent and also winning the 2022 NHL Draft Lottery would be neat, too.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Kings

That “too much, too soon” question still lingers. The worst-case scenario would involve the Kings having a fairly miserable season, but keeping their heads above water enough not to get that one extra blue-chip draft prospect. If they linger in the playoff bubble, they might flinch at chasing a few extra wins. If there are teams that would cough up something for Brown and Quick at the deadline, the Kings should do it, even if it ruffles a few feathers. Meandering in the middle would translate to missing both birds with that one stone.

PointsbetLos Angeles Kings Stanley Cup odds

+10000 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Edmonton Oilers: 2021-22 NHL season preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Edmonton Oilers.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 35-19-2 (72 points); second place in North Division
• Postseason: Swept by Jets in First Round
• Offensive leader: Connor McDavid (56 games, 33 goals, 72 assists, Art Ross Trophy winner).

• Free Agent Additions: Zach Hyman, Duncan Keith (trade from Blackhawks), Cody Ceci, Warren Foegele (trade from Hurricanes), Slater Koekkoek, Brendan Perlini, Derek Ryan, Colton Sceviour (PTO).
• Free Agent Subtractions: Adam Larsson (Kraken expansion draft), Ethan Bear (trade to Hurricanes), Caleb Jones (trade to Blackhawks), James Neal (buyout, then Blues), Dmitry Kulikov (Wild), Jujhar Khaira (Blackhawks).

Edmonton’s biggest question

• Did they get McDavid and Draisaitl enough help?

At this point, anyone arguing against Connor McDavid being the best hockey player in the world is really straining the limits of logic. Last season, McDavid scored an absurd 105 points in 56 games, and even cleaned up a lot of the defensive lapses that raised some mild criticisms.

Between McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, and a shockingly effective Mike Smith, the Oilers put together a reasonably promising 2020-21 season. And then they got swept by the generally mediocre Winnipeg Jets.

If you look at the additions and subtractions above, you’ll note that Ken Holland was busy this offseason. Even so, did he really change the big-picture view for the 2021-22 Oilers?

With all due respect to useful winger Zach Hyman, the larger answer looks like a firm “No.”

[PHT’s offseason trade tracker]

Heading into the 2021-22 season, the Oilers’ defense looks different. They’re banking on the analytics being wrong about Keith’s decline, Barrie’s flaws, and Ceci’s … (motions at everything).

Losing Larsson, Bear, and Jones may only exasperate those worries. That’s especially true if concerns are true about Oscar Klefbom missing some, or all, of the Oilers’ 2021-22 season.

For all of the changes on the fringes, the biggest takeaway about the 2021-22 Oilers is how similar they look compared to recent versions.

It’s one thing for one of Nugent-Hopkins, Barrie, and Smith to return. It’s surprising that all three are back, though.

Overall, it sure feels like the 2021-22 Oilers are asking the usual: for McDavid and Draisaitl to paint over the many holes up and down this roster. That seems dicey. Yet … it’s also dangerous to tell McDavid he can’t do something. (Like, say, that he can’t score 100+ points in a 56-game season. You know, as a hypothetical.)

What’s the salary cap situation?

It would be convenient to blame the Oilers’ salary cap woes on the McDavid – Draisaitl combo. After all, they cost a combined $21M in cap space. That translates to slightly more than 25-percent of the $81.5M salary cap.

Instead of shackling Edmonton to mediocrity, McDavid – Draisaitl are more like hockey’s answer to a “get out of jail for free” card. Frankly, McDavid’s worth around $21M by himself.

Now, that $21M commitment does require a front office to be agile to make things work. Unfortunately, the Oilers have instead stumbled time and time again. This offseason only adds to the worries.

  • In the shaky trio of Keith, Ceci, and Barrie, the Oilers have $13.5M in cap commitments. The 2021-22 Oilers get Nurse for a reasonable $5.6M, but that explodes to $9.25M from 2022-23 through 2029-30.
  • Despite those additions, the Oilers defense might actually be worse in 2021-22. If it’s more or less the same as last season, that’s a big (and expensive) problem.
  • Long-term, the Nugent-Hopkins and Hyman contracts could become headaches. In 2021-22, they’re probably nice bargains for the Oilers. Hey, at least there’s that.
  • Mike Smith didn’t break the bank at $2.2M, but it’s still puzzling that the 39-year received a two-year deal. At least the 2021-22 season is the last one where the Oilers pay Mikko Koskinen that comical $4.5M.
  • Paying Warren Foegele and Zack Kassian about $6M combined isn’t ideal for a hopeful contender. The Oilers get to do that for three seasons.

No, the Oilers don’t have a mammoth, Sergei Bobrovsky-style albatross weighing them down. Instead, the Oilers keep stacking up medium-sized mistakes; they’ve rolled up a katamari of questionable contracts.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Even Oilers apologists probably aren’t overly thrilled that the 2021-22 team is essentially spending to the salary cap ceiling. The Oilers’ greatest pain might come after the 2021-22 season, though.

According to Cap Friendly, the Oilers only have about $7M in projected cap space for 2022-23, with a mere 16 roster spots covered. Yes, there’s wiggle room. For better or worse, Oscar Klefbom might be LTIR material. And the 2022-23 cap might bump up a bit.

In the grand scheme of things, however, it just doesn’t look good. At least McDavid and Draisaitl are still around.

Breakout Candidate

Evan Bouchard

The Oilers’ three first-round picks following Connor McDavid (first overall in 2015) all might be capable of bigger and better things in 2021-22.

Both Jesse Puljujarvi (fourth in 2016) and Kailer Yamamoto (22nd in 2017) have shown flashes of brilliance in the NHL. Each have also experienced ups and downs, which seems customary for young Oilers not named McDavid or Draisaitl.

Bouchard (10th in 2018) may be the most intriguing of the three.

He’s been knocking on the door for a while now, with the Oilers preferring a “slow-cook method” of development. Coach Dave Tippett’s been hesitant to unleash young players lately, and that’s where things get intriguing.

Chances are, Bouchard will begin the season as a third-pairing option as a right-handed defenseman. It’s not outlandish to picture Bouchard performing better than Barrie and Ceci, however. If Bouchard shows that potential, and the Oilers embrace that evolution, his breakthrough could end up absolutely crucial.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Oilers

McDavid remains an unrelenting scoring cyborg. Once again, he dominates alongside Draisaitl — and they do so by carrying their own lines. Instead of sputtering out, Mike Smith repeats his not-that-far-from-Vezina work from last season. Those changes on defense exceed expectations. It all comes together, and McDavid finally goes on a deep playoff run.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Oilers

McDavid fails to be superhuman, or worse, gets injured. Mike Smith slips in a big way, and Mikko Koskinen can’t make up the difference. An already shabby Oilers defense gets even worse, and they end up delusional about Keith. The Oilers miss the playoffs, even in the pathetic Pacific Division. Rumors start to swirl about McDavid wanting out.

PointsbetEdmonton Oilers Stanley Cup odds

+2400 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Carolina Hurricanes: 2021-22 NHL season preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Carolina Hurricanes.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 36-12-8 (80 points); first place in Central Division
• Postseason: Reached Second Round, lost in five games to Lightning
• Offensive leader: Sebastian Aho (56 games, 24 goals, 33 assists, 57 points)

• Free Agent Additions: Jesperi Kotkaniemi (successful offer sheet), Tony DeAngelo, Frederik Andersen, Antti Raanta, Ethan Bear (trade from Oilers), Ian Cole, Derek Stepan, Josh Leivo, Stefan Noesen, Brendan Smith.
• Free Agent Subtractions: Dougie Hamilton (Devils), Alex Nedeljkovic (trade to Red Wings), Petr Mrazek (Maple Leafs), James Reimer (Sharks), Jake Bean (trade to Blue Jackets), Morgan Geekie (Kraken expansion draft), Warren Foegele (trade to Oilers).

Biggest Question Facing the Hurricanes

• Did the Hurricanes outsmart themselves?

Heading into the 2021-22 NHL season, the Hurricanes are betting big that they’re the smartest people in the room.

Was it truly bitter revenge? Maybe a savvy move with a splash of trolling? Either way, the Hurricanes weren’t being modest with the Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet.

Yes, there could be more than meets the eye if that Kotkaniemi offer sheet translates to an affordable contract down the line. But there’s the risk that the Hurricanes burned themselves with a “galaxy brain” move.

It’s easy to act like the Hurricanes can just wash their hands of Kotkaniemi if he’s a dud in 2021-22. They’d still need to accept that they paid him way more than expected, and also gave up picks in what’s expected to be a strong 2022 NHL Draft. If it works, they can point to their craniums. But, yeah, it’s possible that they trolled themselves, most of all.

It’s not the only area where people can wonder if the Hurricanes were overconfident heading into 2021-22.

Did they underestimate how important Dougie Hamilton is to their defense? Maybe they weren’t convinced that Alex Nedeljkovic was the real deal. If the younger, cheaper Nedeljkovic is better than Frederik Andersen, then that’s another strikeout in net. Andersen – Antti Raanta could be what the doctor ordered. It could also figure into a narrative of overthinking things.

What’s the salary cap situation?

During a polarizing offseason, just about anyone would agree that Andrei Svechnikov‘s new contract is a big win.

Between Svechnikov, Sebastian Aho, and Teuvo Teravainen, Carolina enjoys a young, talented trio at about a $21.6M cap hit for multiple seasons. It gets even better when you consider bargain deals for Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce.

Also, the Hurricanes may have simply made a difficult-but-necessary decision with Dougie Hamilton. From Erik Karlsson to Drew Doughty, we’ve seen teams burned by paying big for elite, aging defensemen.

On the horizon, the Hurricanes might soon wave goodbye to Vincent Trocheck, Nino Niederreiter, and/or Jordan Staal. Unlike less proactive teams, Carolina may already have solutions lined up. Kotkaniemi, Martin Necas, Seth Jarvis, Ryan Suzuki, and others could make up the difference. They could also end up even better.

(Oh, and the team cleared up a more immediate concern. With Jake Gardiner headed to LTIR, Kotkaniemi’s offer sheet fits in to the cap puzzle.)

Breakout Candidate

• Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Martin Necas

Is it cheating to include Martin Necas as a breakout candidate? With 41 points in 53 games, he’s already a valuable Hurricanes forward. Still, this season could be the time where Necas gains more mainstream attention.

If Necas counts as a cheat, then Kotkaniemi seems like a worthy candidate. Certainly, the Hurricanes have plenty of incentive to help him succed. (If anything, there’s the potential for grumbling if they try to force it.)

Frighteningly for the competition, there are other candidates. It’s more likely that Hurricanes prospects Seth Jarvis and Ryan Suzuki will truly break out later than 2021-22. Don’t count them out from leaping sooner than expected, however.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Hurricanes

Look, the Hurricanes have been knocking on the door for a long time now. Carolina merely needs to look at the Capitals to recall that, sometimes, teams go deep later than expected. It wouldn’t be outrageous if the Hurricanes remain daunting defensively, even without Hamilton. In that event, they’re that much more likely to get the goaltending they’ve needed, while that offense looks potent. Few would be stunned if Carolina rises that one extra level.

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Hurricanes

Then again, it’s easy to ignore that Dougie Hamilton’s put up elite results for years. Multiple NHL teams have allowed him to walk. What if the Hurricanes end up regretting that? Things could start to turn sour if they slip defensively, their goaltending bets backfire, and Tony DeAngelo does … well, Tony DeAngelo things. The worst-case scenario would be missing the playoffs outright, then falling into a crisis of confidence. Patience may really start to wear thin if they barely make a postseason run, as well. At some point, a promising future needs to translate into a fulfilling present.

PointsbetCarolina Hurricanes Stanley Cup odds

+1600 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Calgary Flames: 2021-22 NHL season preview

The 2021-22 NHL season is coming and it’s time to take a look at all 32 teams. Over the next month we’ll be examining best- and worst-case scenarios, looking at the biggest questions, breakout candidates, and more for each franchise. Today, we preview the Calgary Flames.

2020-21 Season Review

• Record: 26-27-3 (55 points); fifth place in North Division
• Postseason: Did not qualify for playoffs; drafted Matt Coronato No. 13 overall
• Offensive leader: Johnny Gaudreau (56 games, 19 goals, 30 assists, 49 points)

• Free Agent Additions: Blake Coleman, Erik Gudbranson, Brad Richardson, Trevor Lewis, Nikita Zadorov (trade from Blackhawks), Tyler Pitlick (trade from Kraken), Daniel Vladar (trade from Bruins).
• Free Agent Subtractions: Mark Giordano (Kraken expansion draft), Josh Leivo (Hurricanes),  Dominik Simon (Penguins),  Derek Ryan (Oilers), Buddy Robinson (Ducks).

Biggest Question Facing the Flames

• Where is this team going, exactly?

Heading into the offseason, it seemed like the Flames were at a fork in the road.

Would they trade or extend Johnny Gaudreau? What about Matthew Tkachuk? Sean Monahan has two years left on his deal, but the clock is ticking there, too. Might Brad Treliving pay a price to keep both Mark Giordano and Chris Tanev? Could the Flames make even bolder decisions, such as possibly parting ways with Treliving (who’s had plenty of kicks at the can since taking over as Flames GM during the summer of 2014)?

At that fork in the road, the Flames could have gone up (trying to swing for the fences, maybe getting Jack Eichel?) or down (blow things up, rebuild). Instead, they mostly idled in the middle of the road. While they did give Blake Coleman big term in their lone free-agent splash, this is still mostly the same team that disappointed last season. Even their biggest loss (Giordano to the Kraken) feels like a nondecision, one carrying the stench of passivity.

Heading into 2021-22, it feels like the Flames are stuck in neutral, and not exactly driving a cheap vehicle. They’re betting that things just sort of … fall into place.

What’s the salary cap situation?

For a team that’s only won one playoff series (two if you count the Qualifying Round series vs. the Jets during the 2020 bubble playoffs), the Flames aren’t exactly cheap.

By Cap Friendly’s measures, the Flames are more or less scraping against the salary cap ceiling. If the Flames get back into the Jack Eichel sweepstakes, quite a bit of money would need to go back to Buffalo.

Looking past the 2021-22 season returns the Flames to that fork in the road. Gaudreau ($6.75 million cap hit) and Tkachuk ($7M) are both entering contract years. Even if they underwhelm this season, it wouldn’t be surprising to see both get significant raises. A potential raise could also be the downside if Andrew Mangiapane ($2.425M) breaks out in a mainstream way after being an analytics darling for years.

It all sets up a series of uneasy scenarios. If Tkachuk and Gaudreau flop, it might cost Treliving his job. If they both rebound in huge ways, they’d be tough to fit under the salary cap in 2022-23 and beyond.

All of that said, credit Treliving for this: if someone else is taking over as GM, they can make their own mark on the Flames. Even with dicey contracts on the books (most obviously, Milan Lucic), the Flames are projected to have more than $30M in cap space with 12 roster spots covered next summer.

Breakout Candidate

Juuso Valimaki

The Flames’ defense seemed suspect even with an aging-yet-still-effective Giordano. With Giordano cracklin’ with the Kraken, Calgary might just sink.

Valimaki could be called upon to pick up a lot of slack. So far, he’s played 73 games at the NHL level. Both in 2018-19 (24 games played) and 2020-21 (49 GP), Valimaki averaged about 15 and a half minutes per night. The 22-year-old showed flashes of that first-round potential (16th overall in 2017), but the Flames might ask for him to accelerate his growth in an uncomfortable way in 2021-22.

Otherwise, the Flames’ defense might need to lean heavily on some clunky depth defensemen, such as Erik Gudbranson, Nikita Zadorov, and Michael Stone. Not ideal.

Best-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Flames

While the Flames inspire a lot of pessimism, it’s easy to lose track of the good. This was a team that finished in the top-10 in both simple (percentage of shots) and more advanced (expected goals, high-danger chances) metrics, at least at even-strength. You could apply some of the same “if only their power play was decent, and they got a few saves” logic to the Flames, as the Canadiens received before. Yes, contract years can be a big distraction. Pressure creates diamonds, too, though, eh? Maybe we’ll see the best of Tkachuk and Gaudreau, and things just come together for the Flames in 2021-22? Hey, there’s even some room for optimism about the latest Sutter sequel.

(Also, the Pacific Division is weak enough that Calgary could make the playoffs even if a lot goes wrong.)

Worst-Case Scenario for 2021-22 Flames

Look at the Flames’ recent history of head coaches, and it’s difficult to shake the feeling that this franchise is out of ideas. So many retreads; so many Sutters. Darryl’s in-season record (15-15-0) captures the stuck-in-the-middle spirit of the Flames, an expectation that carries over to 2021-22. Truly, staying stuck in the middle might be the worst-case scenario for the 2021-22 Flames. Missing the playoffs (again) would already be bad. But what if the Flames are good enough to maintain false hope, thus leading them to keep Gaudreau and others, instead of trading them at the deadline? There’s the very real, stomach-turning possibility that the Flames miss the playoffs, Gaudreau leaves for nothing in free agency, and people lose their jobs.

PointsbetCalgary Flames Stanley Cup odds

+4000 (PointsBet is our Official Sports Betting Partner and we may receive compensation if you place a bet on PointsBet for the first time after clicking our links.)

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Sharks should consider trades, bold experiments to turn things around

When it comes to NHL rebuilds, there are teams who seemingly live in denial, like the Ducks. Every now and then, a team such as the Coyotes actually exceeds expectations. Then there’s the Sharks, a team that (deep down) might prefer to rebuild, but could just be flat-out stuck.

Be sure to cue the “Jaws” theme as you scroll through the Sharks’ page at Cap Friendly, because you won’t find an NHL team with bigger bloat. Add in Evander Kane‘s ugly situation, and reports about fractured relationships with teammates, and the situation looks more and more like a disaster movie.

Is there any room for a happy ending, then?

Frankly, the 2021-22 Sharks don’t look that different from the recent, wildly disappointing groups from recent seasons. Yes, they moved from Martin Jones, but it’s unclear if James ReimerAdin Hill can transform their goaltending from a weakness to a true strength. In most cases, the Sharks are simply hoping that the bad things that happened before won’t keep happening.

So, where are the Sharks stuck, what are some trades/departures that are more realistic, and how might they improve what they currently have? Let’s attack this monster from multiple angles.

Kane, Hertl, and more pressing Sharks trade considerations

During the offseason, we’ve heard about the Sharks having little luck trying to trade Evander Kane. There have also been rumblings about Tomas Hertl, and murmurs about Timo Meier.

If Sharks management is self-aware, they really shouldn’t close the door on any trade possibilities, with the potential exception being the rare impact prospect, such as William Eklund. Instead, the question should be about when they should trade a player, not if.

  • Hertl turns 28 in November, and enters a contract year this season. Even as a player whose all-around skill is sorely underrated, the Sharks must expect Hertl to get a nice raise from his current $5.625M cap hit. Making that investment in such a messy situation screams of added more sunk costs to a drowning group. So, instead, it’s imperative to sell as high as possible in a Hertl trade. With just a three-team no-trade clause, that could be difficult. On the other hand, does Hertl really want to linger in this bad situation for a full season?

It’s a delicate situation, and the Sharks don’t have the greatest recent track record of threading this needle. They need to get this one right — and that almost certainly means waving goodbye to one of the few players they employ who exceeds his contract value.

[Click here for more on the Sharks’ conundrum regarding possibly trading Hertl]

  • Possibly trading Timo Meier is tricky, too.

When Meier signed his four-year, $24M contract in 2019, it looked like a steal. It’s been a bumpy couple of seasons for both the Sharks and Meier, who is now 24.

Trading Meier now would probably translate to selling low — he’s better than he’s looked. Maybe a lot better. Eventually, the Sharks may still need to accept that a Meier trade is the wisest long-term move. (Unless everything just kind of … works out this season.)

  • At 30 years old, with an array of off-the-ice issues,* Evander Kane’s $7M cap hit runs through 2024-25. His situation is one of several Sharks scenarios where you just sort of shrug your shoulders. There aren’t many clean, easy answers.

* – And some on-the-ice ones, too. He has a penchant for taking bad penalties, for instance.

Sharks in quite a pickle with Vlasic, Karlsson, and others

Kane’s situation straddles the line between the previous section (Sharks who are still producing at or near their prime levels) and this current one (contracts San Jose simply might not be able to trade away). Naturally, his situation is complex for different reasons, yet it’s just part of the team’s headaches.

In an ideal world, the Sharks could just blow it all up. It might be tempting to view that as possible, as we saw NHL teams throw caution to the wind during this offseason, often ignoring what charts and recent play might say.

So, maybe there’s room for dreaming. If that door is cracked open even a little, the Sharks should not hesitate. Realistically, though? They seem stuck.

Jarringly, The Athletic’s Dom Luszczyszyn ranked three Sharks among the NHL’s 10 worst contracts (sub required). Not a single Shark was even an honorable mention on his best contracts list, so there’s not much to dilute that poison.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Free Agent Tracker]

Certainly, there’s room to debate that Erik Karlsson deserves the absolute worst spot instead of Drew Doughty. Either way, few would deny that Karlsson’s contract is frightening for the Sharks. The 31-year-old’s mammoth $11.5M cap hit only expires after the 2026-27 season.

You could argue that Erik Karlsson’s story is, to some extent, the same as that of the Sharks. Considering the age of their core, their front office might have expected a drop-off, eventually. Just not this soon.

This xSPAR chart from Evolving Hockey charts that course in a graph:

Sharks should consider trades, bold experiments to turn things around Karlsson Evo
via Evolving Hockey

It happened earlier, but Marc-Edouard Vlasic went sour sooner than expected, too. At 34, Vlasic’s already sliding to third pair duty, a disturbing fate for a defenseman whose $7M cap hit runs for five more seasons. Would a GM succumb to nostalgia for ‘Douard in a way that the Oilers did with Duncan Keith? Would retirement or an LTIR trip be the messy “solution” for Vlasic and/or Karlsson?

The Sharks likely weren’t expecting to mull these questions over this soon. Even with Brent Burns, there’s subtle slippage, which isn’t great being that he’s somehow already 36, and his $8M cap hit lasts for four more seasons.

Sharks should consider trades, bold experiments to turn things around Burns MEV comparison
via Evolving Hockey

Room for the Sharks to experiment? Maybe no excuse not to?

Leaf through the Sharks’ even-strength metrics at Natural Stat Trick, and you probably won’t be blown away by their level of play. Yes, you could argue that Martin Jones’ struggles dragged the Sharks from mediocre to abysmal.

If the Sharks want to aspire to something resembling contention — they spend like contenders, after all — then it might mean asking people to exit their comfort zones. Really, they might want to throw a bunch of ideas at the wall, and see what sticks.

[PHT’s 2021 Offseason NHL Trade Tracker]

Ponderous power play

It’s baffling that their power play ranked third-worst in the NHL last season (14.1-percent), and ranks fourth-worst during the two seasons since Bob Boughner took over as head coach (15.9-percent).

In November 2020, Jack Han shared some interesting insight about how Rocky Thompson and the Sharks wanted to make things work with Karlsson and Burns on the same power play. Thompson professed an interest in “nerding out about hockey” to Sheng Peng, but with Thompson gone due to COVID rules, maybe it’s time for even bolder experiments?

Erik Karlsson’s power play time with Brent Burns (79:07) nearly equaled his time away from him (73:16) last season. On one hand, that makes sense. Both take up a lot of oxygen, and each might want to play the point. In an NHL where teams lean toward 4F/1D setups, splitting the two up makes some sense.

Yet, with the way the Sharks are built, the best-case scenario would be to use their talents, and give penalty kills a lot to think about. Could the key be to convince Brent Burns to move his booming shot to “Alex Ovechkin‘s office?” Maybe on a more permanent basis?

Burns back to forward?

Truly, Burns might be the catalyst for multiple experiments.

Back in 2014, Fear the Fin argued that the Sharks were better off deploying Burns as a forward, instead of a defenseman. While that decision clearly worked out fine for the Sharks, the team’s predicament should at least prompt people to revisit the question.

Theoretically, moving Burns to forward could allow him to create even more offense, and soften the blow from defensive issues. As he gets older, he’s only going to have more trouble getting back into position if he decides to get aggressive offensively. What if that damage was mitigated by a position change?

Of course, Burns probably wouldn’t prefer that. As a forward, he’d almost certainly see a drastic drop in ice time.

But, frankly, are the Sharks really in a position to be that worried about ruffling feathers? (Granted, Brent Burns probably thinks about feathers more than any other NHL player. Although he has competition in Ryan Getzlaf.)

Overall, a Sharks turnaround is easier said than done

Sometimes you make big bets, only to come up empty. Long-term, big-money contracts rarely work out several years down the line in sports. Yet, with the Sharks, it’s truly dizzying just how quickly everything went south.

Do they stand much of a chance of turning things around in anything but the mildest ways?

In a putrid Pacific Division, being mildly competitive might be enough to at least linger in the playoff bubble. Considering all of the expensive bets the Sharks made, treading water — or remaining in the cellar — sure seems disappointing. Unfortunately, such a fate might simply be unavoidable.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Coyotes rebuild is just beginning, but it’s off to a brilliant start

Some NHL and sports teams are afraid to use the word “rebuild.” Sometimes calling it “reloading” or a “retool” is genuinely more accurate, as teams try to thread the needle between competing in the present, and building for the future. In the case of the Arizona Coyotes, their rebuild is so full-fledged, maybe it needs an even heftier term.

Call it a reset, even?

Slice it up whichever way you’d like, but this Coyotes rebuild is one of the most dramatic renovations the NHL’s ever seen.

The bad news is that the Coyotes still have a long, long way to go. That tracks both on and off the ice. People will reasonably call this the “easy part” of the Coyotes rebuild.

But even with some caveats, the Coyotes rebuild warrants praise. Frankly, other teams can learn from just how aggressive the Coyotes rebuild has been.

Let’s dig into what makes GM Bill Armstrong’s work, and briefly consider how far they still need to go.

An inventive Coyotes offseason powers rebuild with draft picks

Ever since the Hurricanes bought out Patrick Marleau to land a first-rounder, I’ve been pleading with rebuilding NHL teams to Xerox that template. As promising as the Red Wings and other rebuilding teams have been at times, we haven’t really seen truly savvy “weaponizing of salary cap space” often enough.

Even the Kraken produced underwhelming returns, despite once-in-a-franchise opportunities to exploit other teams’ cap problems for their long-term gains.

Instead, the Coyotes swooped in, taking short-term bribes that other teams should’ve embraced. That “weaponizing salary cap space” phrasing feels too soft for what the Coyotes have done, much like a rebuild almost feels like an understatement. They’ve truly assembled a war chest of futures.

[PHT’s 2021 NHL Offseason Trade Tracker]

If we went over every offseason move, we’d be here all day. Instead, a summary:

  • Again, they took on problem contracts of one or two years, knowing they’re in tank mode anyway. That converted Shayne Gostisbehere, Anton Stralman, Loui Eriksson, Antoine Roussel, and others into a bucket of picks. Theoretically, some of those players could be traded again for even more picks. If not … already a great use of cap space.
  • Considering John Chayka’s many blunders, it’s already impressive that the Coyotes used the landmark Oliver Ekman-Larsson/Conor Garland trade to get into the 2021 NHL Draft’s first round. That also softened the blow of the Coyotes’  would-be 11th pick being “forfeited,” yet listed. Strange “hotel not having a 13th floor” vibes there.
Coyotes rebuild is just beginning, but it's off to a brilliant start round one cap
(Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
  • Most dramatically, all of that wheeling and dealing leaves the Coyotes with a ton of 2022 NHL Draft picks. If that draft lives up to the hype, the Coyotes would be in a great place. That’s true even if the Coyotes’ obvious tanking doesn’t net them Shane Wright.
  • The Coyotes haven’t just accelerated their rebuild by loading up on the 2022 NHL Draft, either.

They already lined up three second-round picks for the 2024 NHL Draft, while other teams likely don’t feel comfortable looking that far ahead. The sheer volume of those picks could mean more dart throws, or assets to send for more immediate help.

Not every team is as willing to make painful choices like the Coyotes have during their rebuild

Considering Oliver Ekman-Larsson’s plummeting value, the Coyotes pretty much had to get out of his contract. Yes, the Canucks are holding out hope that they can rebuild OEL like a hockey Robocop. But the Coyotes packaging OEL in a way that actually landed them a first-rounder, rather than costing them one to shake that odious contract loose? Wonderful. (Unless you’re a Canucks fan?)

Zooming out, your mileage will vary on other trade sacrifices from this Coyotes rebuild. Conor Garland’s a gem, Darcy Kuemper conjured most of their recent flashes of brilliance, and Christian Dvorak will clearly be missed.

In the big picture, it’s brilliant stuff.

At 31, and entering a contract year, the Coyotes risked Darcy Kuemper’s stock falling — or him leaving for nothing as a free agent. Instead, they exploited the Avalanche’s situation without Philipp Grubauer, getting an outstanding return.

Amid Montreal’s offer sheet misery, the Coyotes landed serious draft capital by trading Christian Dvorak. The cost-controlled 25-year-old could very well be worth the price for the Canadiens. But, for the Coyotes? It’s difficult to  imagine a solid but unspectacular center moving the needle for a team blowing almost everything up.

[Could the Coyotes rebuild go even further with Kessel, Keller trades?]

Time and time again, the Coyotes exploited other teams’ angst. The Canucks were desperate both to improve (thus willing to gamble on OEL’s scary contract) and also to wiggle out of cap worries. With that in mind, the Coyotes got out of that OEL deal, landed nice picks, and only had to absorb a year of Eriksson/Beagle/etc. pain. Just splendid.

That would all seem like obvious stuff, but other teams don’t always strike when the iron’s hot. Among other things, other rebuilding teams could learn from the Coyotes in being so decisive. A wishy-washy team might have waited too long to take advantage of the Avalanche’s Grubauer situation, among other opportunities.

Most important steps still to come — and go beyond work on the ice

Truly, it’s rare to see a rebuild as dramatic as the Coyotes,’ at least if you focus on a single offseason. You might need to go to other sports, possibly delving into “The Process.”

Yet, despite a series of impressive leaps, this franchise is really just placing the first bricks of a foundation. That’s just how decimated things were after a series of dizzying errors by former GM John Chayka.

Collecting a ton of draft picks gives the Coyotes crucial extra “dart throws.” They still need to hit those targets, and develop players properly if they even select the right ones.

Wade through the Coyotes’ draft history, even just looking at high first-rounders, and you’re essentially doom-scrolling. From Barrett Hayton (fifth overall in 2018) to Kyle Turris and Brandon Gormley, there’s ample evidence that high picks won’t just automatically make the Coyotes rebuild an actual success.

If you only look at year-to-year disappointments, the likes of Scott Wheeler ranking the Coyotes’ farm system just 14th seems less than ideal. With all of the picks they lost because of Chayka’s scouting violations and expensive deadline rentals, though? It could be worse. But there’s still a ton of work to do.

[Looking back at the mess GM Bill Armstrong inherited]

Of course, the Coyotes face bigger hurdles than making the right draft picks, and getting the most out of them.

The Coyotes’ arena problems seem like they’ll never end. If they do, it could take a while. Either way, there’s no denying that money troubles made a Coyotes rebuild a no-brainer. To truly generate optimism, the Coyotes will eventually need to appear viable to potential free agents.

Back in February, the Athletic’s Katie Strang dropped a bombshell report (sub required) about the Coyotes. Beyond illuminating money troubles, it pointed to a toxic atmosphere. Ownership absorbed the harshest criticisms in Strang’s piece, but it didn’t always shine a flattering light on Armstrong, either.

Now, it’s true that successful NHL franchises aren’t immune to ugly scandals. Still, the general feeling is that the Coyotes have a lot of work to do both on and off the ice for this rebuild to actually come together.

Like the Sabres and others have shown, things can unravel in ways both expected and unexpected. The mission has by no means been accomplished just yet.

But give credit where it’s due. Looking at this offseason, the Coyotes have nailed their rebuild. Other NHL teams should take note.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Can Hurricanes get more out of Kotkaniemi than Habs did?

Whether it’s true or not, Hurricanes GM Don Waddell denied that the (eventually successful) Jesperi Kotkaniemi offer sheet was about getting revenge on the Canadiens. Waddell indicates that the trolling aspects of the fallout were about marketing, and letting the Hurricanes’ social media team have a little fun.

In the grand scheme of things, what happens on the ice matters the most.

So, about that. Can the Hurricanes get more out of Jesperi Kotkaniemi than the Canadiens did?

Contract/cap considerations

When you zoom in on the 2021-22 season alone, you don’t get the full picture of why the Hurricanes went after Kotkaniemi.

Things get more interesting if you take a wider view. Center Vincent Trocheck‘s $4.75M cap hit expires after 2021-22, and he enters this contract year at age 28. Jordan Staal, 32, will see his $6M AAV dissolve after two more seasons.

On one hand, Waddell claimed publicly that the Hurricanes only discussed Kotkaniemi’s one-year, $6.1M (plus trolling change) deal.

It’s possible that’s a matter of playing coy. Way back to when the offer sheet first surfaced, Elliotte Friedman indicated that the high one-year price might factor in a possible, cost-effective future contract for Kotkaniemi.

(Side note: Jake Gardiner is expected to go on LTIR, making room for this new contract.)

A younger (Kotkaniemi turned 21 on July 6), potentially cheaper player could be a nice replacement for Trocheck and/or Staal. With Martin Necas (22) also coming into his own and bouncing between the center and wing, you could picture something impressive forming for Carolina.

They have 24-year-old center Sebastian Aho locked up for three more years (about $8.5M) on that allegedly-not-revenge-inspiring deal. Also, Andrei Svechnikov, 21, just signed an eight-year contract that carries a $7.75M cap hit.

That’s potentially quite the young core, and there could be some good Finnish vibes, as Kotkaniemi joins Aho and 26-year-old Teuvo Teravainen (a $5.4M bargain for three more seasons).

Sounds great, especially after you sell it a bit, right? Well, the success or failure of the Hurricanes investing all of this in an offer sheet for Kotkaniemi ultimately boils down to …

Can the Hurricanes get the most out of Kotkaniemi after bumpy Habs development?

In giving up a first and a third-round pick in 2022, and paying Kotkaniemi far more than he was expected this season, the Hurricanes made a big upfront investment. Much like absorbing Patrick Marleau‘s contract for a first-rounder, the key for Carolina is if the bet will pay off down the line.

So, will it pay off? That’s where things get tricky, interesting, and maybe a bit granular.

On one hand, there was a jittery, staccato rhythm to Kotkaniemi’s development with the Canadiens. Injuries, the occasional AHL demotion, and even playoff healthy scratches didn’t help matters. As Andrew Berkshire discussed on The Hockey PDOcast, there also may have been an essential disagreement about how he should play. Berkshire noted that Kotkaniemi viewed himself as more of a playmaker, while Montreal seemingly wanted him to use his size to play a more straightforward style, focused on getting to tougher areas.

There was at least some sense that Kotkaniemi expects Carolina to be a better fit.

Talking to the press in his car, Waddell noted that Kotkaniemi’s likely to slot in at left wing. At least early on.

The Hurricanes’ early plan: start Kotkaniemi at LW

Playing on the wing, instead of center, might allow Kotkaniemi to assert himself on offense more often. Frankly, the most important difference might be linemates.

During his three seasons with the Canadiens, Kotkaniemi’s linemates were scattered. It’s telling that Joel Armia is the only forward he logged more five-on-five ice time with (757:40 minutes) than without (649:33). His most consistent linemates were Armia and Artturi Lehkonen (703:42 with; 1,186:30 without).

Armia and Lehkonen are both very nice supporting cast forwards. Still, neither are the types of players who will light up scoreboards.

It stands to reason that Kotkaniemi will receive more dangerous linemates with the Hurricanes. Carolina has some incentive, even, to prop him up, after making this big gambit.

(To be fair, it also seems like the Habs were gearing up to give him a bigger role. He was penciled in as a 2C, and likely would’ve played with more dynamic wingers, more often. Whether he was actually ready for them, or not.)

Making the puzzle pieces fit

But will Kotkaniemi’s skills match up with the Hurricanes on the ice to the same degree that he seems to fit in their minds? That’s more complicated, and might boil down to how much leash he receives.

Can Kotkaniemi acclimate to the Hurricanes’ system after struggling with the Canadiens? Will his skating still hold him back? Last season, he scored 20 points in 55 games. His ceiling is almost certainly higher than that, but by how much?

This was already a fascinating and polarizing offseason for the Hurricanes. They’ve made big changes in net. Carolina allowed Dougie Hamilton to walk in free agency, hoping that Tony DeAngelo can be a cheap offensive alternative (while not being too … actually offensive).

Beyond totally not getting revenge, the Kotkaniemi offer sheet is another big Hurricanes gamble. If things really go off the rails, they could’ve squandered key picks in what’s expected to be a strong 2022 NHL Draft. They have some power in making themselves look smart by getting the most out of Kotkaniemi. That said, there’s also balancing getting the most out of their roster, overall.

Will this look like a smart move, or a case of Canes galaxy brain? We’ll see soon enough.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.