The 16-team field is set for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Matchups and home-ice advantage still need to be determined. But that means half the NHL’s 32 teams have two more days to play out the string before their relatively short summer begins.
With that, here are 10 burning offseason questions facing the 16 non-playoff teams.
1. Will Kelly McCrimmon survive in Vegas?
In Vegas, the hometown Golden Knights opened the season in the sportsbooks with the second-best odds to win the Stanley Cup. They were the consensus Pacific Division pick. And that was before they traded for Jack Eichel in November. It’s fair to say, then, that missing the playoffs with a $92-million payroll is an abject failure. Owner Bill Foley said Stanley Cup in six years, right? The Golden Knights’ quest for hockey’s holy grail has been admirable. There will be a refrain from the franchise about the tough luck of this season’s injury list. That played a factor, of course, but there was also near daily drama surrounding the Knights – who seem to have lost their way, from the do-no-wrong expansion darling to the hockey’s heel. They jettisoned the reigning Vezina Trophy winner Marc-Andre Fleury, then backed the bus over warrior Robin Lehner, and their roster of mercenaries played much more like a collection of jerseys than a team as seemingly everyone looks over their shoulder wondering who’s next to go. The Golden Knights have no cap space, no top draft picks, and a thin prospect cupboard. It feels like an inevitability that coach Pete DeBoer will be cut loose … but will GM Kelly McCrimmon follow him out the door?
2. Are Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews in the Blackhawks’ rebuild for the longhaul?
This is a potential decade-defining offseason for the Chicago Blackhawks, who will begin to chart a new course forward with a to-the-studs rebuild under new GM Kyle Davidson. It just so happens that Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews, the only two franchise pillars remaining from their three-Stanley-Cup run, are also entering the final year of their twin $84 million contracts. In the hours before the press conference that announced his permanent promotion, Davidson pulled the Hawks’ leadership corps aside and let them know that he would be proclaiming a full rebuild is in order. Kane seemed to publicly support the plan. Given his critical comments after the Hawks moved Brandon Hagel for two first-round picks at the deadline, it would seem Toews was not as supportive. Difficult decisions loom. Will Toews return for a 15th and final season with the Hawks? Will he ask for a trade? Will Kane sign an extension to stay for the long-haul? Or given his productive play that shows little sign of drop-off, is he the trade chip the Hawks need to jumpstart the rebuild? And what happens with 40-goal scorer Alex DeBrincat, who needs an expensive new deal?
3. Will Lou Lamoriello double down with the Islanders’ core?
On the surface, it seems like Lamoriello has no choice but to do that, with 13 players signed for at least the next two seasons. In a lot of ways, it feels like the Isles got the short end of the stick this season. They survived a 13-game road trip to start the season and didn’t play their first home game of the season until Nov. 20 as the long-awaited UBS Arena was completed. As soon as they could exhale with that, COVID-19 ravaged their roster, and they were forced to play with a seriously decimated lineup – before the NHL finally agreed to postpone some games. In total, 13 Islander games were postponed and rescheduled. They could never recover from a 5-10-5 start that included the road trip and roster squeeze. Once things settled down, Barry Trotz’s back-to-back Conference finalists went on a 30-20-4 run, which still isn’t quite good enough for a playoff spot (.592), but certainly would’ve changed the conversation of the season. We learned a long time ago not to make predictions with Lamoriello. Every time you expect him to zig, he zags.
4. Has Mark Scheifele played his last games as a Winnipeg Jet?
On the list of seriously disappointing seasons: Golden Knights, Islanders, Kraken, Flyers and Jets. Some, ahem, may have even picked Winnipeg to win the Stanley Cup. Connor Hellebuyck recently called it a “wasted” year. Kevin Cheveldayoff’s tenure has been a measured one; he isn’t one to make rash decisions and he doesn’t typically act on emotion. That’s why his reaction to this season will be one to watch. Can the Jets pull a page from the Calgary Flames’ playbook and go from outside the playoffs to division champs in one year? It’s possible. But it feels like something is missing in Winnipeg. There is no shortage of whispers that the Jets’ core forwards – read: Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele – can be an ornery bunch. Wheeler’s contract is a tough one to move. Scheifele would have a ton of value. Change has already come in Winnipeg. Andrew Copp was dealt to the Rangers at the deadline; coach Paul Maurice stepped down in December after he felt the Jets needed a new voice. It will be interesting to watch how deep the changes are in Manitoba and to see whether any of them hit the seismic level.
5. How does a ‘blank check’ help the Flyers rebound?
It was one of the memorable quotes from a forgettable Flyers season: Comcast Spectacor CEO Dave Scott saying GM Chuck Fletcher would have a ‘blank check’ to fix Philadelphia’s woes. “I’m going to give him a blank check,” Scott said on Jan. 26. “We’re going to get this right. Whatever we need to do. Don’t want to wait; want to deal with it now.” If that didn’t set the course for the offseason, then this did: “I don’t really see this as being a three-, four-, five-year rebuild at all,” Scott said. The question is: Where do the Flyers even start? Missing Ryan Ellis and Sean Couturier for the bulk of the season unquestionably hurt. But the Flyers were hoping their offseason changes, coupled with a rebound by Carter Hart, would help them avoid missing the playoffs in back-to-back years for the first time since 1993-94. Hart was not the issue this season, hovering right around league average. The difficult part is there is seemingly no blueprint, no roadmap on how to quickly turn the Flyers around. Ten expensive players are locked up for at least each of the next three seasons. They have financial muscle, but little salary cap space. Worse than that, the Flyers really seem to lack an identity or calling card. And maybe that’s the best place to start.