When the Vancouver Canucks bowed out to the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 7 of their Western Conference semifinal Friday, Canada’s Stanley Cup drought officially hit 27 years.
Six of the country’s seven markets were part of the NHL’s 24-team restart after the season was brought to a screeching halt by COVID-19 in March, but only the Canucks, Montreal Canadiens and Calgary Flames survived the qualifying round.
Montreal, the last Canadian franchise to capture the title all the way back in 1993, and Calgary subsequently bowed out in the first round, while Vancouver beat the defending champion St. Louis Blues before having its hopes dashed by Vegas.
Without knowing when the 2020-21 campaign will begin because of the pandemic — the NHL would like to get rolling Dec. 1, but that could be overly optimistic — and a salary cap set to stay flat for the foreseeable future, The Canadian Press takes a look at what’s facing clubs north of the 49th parallel in an unusual off-season.
After another disappointing playoff performance, big changes could be on the way in Calgary. The Flames came together in the wake of head coach Bill Peters’ resignation following racism and physical abuse allegations levied against him by former players in November. Interim coach Geoff Ward guided Calgary to victory over the Winnipeg Jets in the qualifying round before the team imploded against the Dallas Stars, allowing seven straight goals against after going up 3-0 in a decisive Game 6. General manager Brad Treliving will have to determine Ward’s future, but also those of centre Sean Monahan and Johnny Gaudreau, who could both be traded. The crease also remains a question mark, with goalie Cam Talbot poised to hit unrestricted free agency, while David Rittich has one year left on his deal.
The Oilers made strides in their first season under head coach Dave Tippett and GM Ken Holland, but it’s clear a roster led by Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl still requires substantial upgrades. Edmonton had the NHL’s best power play and No. 2-ranked penalty kill in 2019-20, but needs more from its supporting cast. Like their provincial rivals in Calgary, the Oilers have to address goaltending. The two-headed monster of Mike Smith and Mikko Koskinen was adequate during the regular season, but let the team down in Edmonton’s four-game loss in the qualifying round. The good news for the Oilers and other teams looking for goalies? Plenty are set to become available on the open market.
There were a lot of positives for the Canadiens this summer. Limping towards the end of a lost season when COVID-19 hit, Montreal was the final team included in the restart. Led by veterans Carey Price and Shea Weber, the Canadiens upset the Pittsburgh Penguins in the qualifiers, and were the better club for much of their six-game defeat at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers. Where GM Marc Bergevin, who traded for Jake Allen earlier this week to serve as Price’s backup, goes from here will be interesting. Montreal’s old guard showed it has plenty left in the tank, while young centres Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi showed they belong in the top-6 of an NHL lineup. The Canadiens will have to figure out what to do with forward Max Domi, who led the team in scoring in 2018-19, but had a difficult season and is set to become a restricted free agent.
The only Canadian team not to involved in the restart, the Senators are poised to select third and fifth at the NHL draft. It’s been a rough three years in the nation’s capital, but Ottawa is primed to snag some top-end talent. The Senators are poised to get a centre in Quinton Byfield or Tim Stutzle at No. 3 — a selection they acquired in the Erik Karlsson trade with San Jose — and will pluck another blue-chip prospect two spots later in a deep draft class. GM Pierre Dorion should be busy with only four NHL forwards currently on the roster, while there’s another decision to make in goal with veteran Craig Anderson poised to hit free agency — if he doesn’t retire — and Anders Nilsson only signed through 2021.
TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS
The Leafs, who were ousted in the qualifying round by the Columbus Blue Jackets, made the off-season’s first big move when GM Kyle Dubas traded winger Kasperi Kapanen to Pittsburgh as part of a package that included the No. 15 pick in the draft, a prospect and provided some much-needed salary cap space. The last part is perhaps the most important as Toronto looks to upgrade its blue line. The Leafs need to shed more salary to find that elusive top-4 right-shot defenceman, but the Kapanen swap was a start. It’s unlikely Toronto moves any of its stars up front in Auston Matthews, John Tavares, Mitch Marner and William Nylander, but middle-6 forwards Alexander Kerfoot and Andreas Johnsson could fit the bill. Toronto goalie Frederik Andersen has one year left on his contract, but there have been rumblings he could be on the move.
The Canucks took a massive leap forward even before the NHL was forced to suspend its schedule. Elias Pettersson confirmed he’s an elite centre, rookie defenceman Quinn Hughes could snag the Calder Trophy, and captain Bo Horvat showed he’s more than capable of leading on and off the ice. Vancouver GM Jim Benning will, however, have to make some difficult manoeuvring under the stagnate cap. No. 1 goalie Jacob Markstrom is a pending unrestricted free agent, but what does Thatcher Demko’s heroic performance against Vegas do to change the Canucks’ thought process? Vancouver, which continues to pay its bottom-6 forward group far too much, also has to keep in mind Pettersson and Hughes will be due significant raises after next season.
The Jets defence corps was decimated last summer by the departures of Tyler Myers, Jacob Trouba and Ben Chariot before Dustin Byfuglien left the team and eventually had his contract terminated. Winnipeg GM Kevin Cheveldayoff will no doubt look to upgrade the blue line in front of Vezina Trophy finalist Connor Hellebuyck. The Jets fell to the Flames in the qualifying round, but were without injured forwards Mark Scheifele and Patrik Laine for much of the series. One player to watch is Laine, who’s entering the final year of his bridge contract. Could he wind up being the trade piece that helps bolster Winnipeg’s back end?
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 5, 2020.
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Joshua Clipperton, The Canadian Press