After each NHL team made changes during the 2019 offseason and some have taken a serious step towards Stanley Cup contention while others have taken a step back. NoVa Caps goes through the major question facing each team heading into the 2019-20 season.
Question: Who will round out their top-four defense unit?
The Ducks have unloaded defensemen Brendan Montour, Francois Beauchimen, Marcus Pettersson, and Sami Vatanen since the end of the 2016-17 season via trade or retirement. After the top three of Cam Fowler, Hampus Lindholm, and Josh Manson, there is a drop off to Michael Del Zotto, who was a healthy scratch for the St. Louis Blues for all 25 games during their Stanley Cup run. Having one of the best goalies in the game in John Gibson on their side will help the Ducks, but they need to figure out who will take that final spot on their blue line whether that’s Del Zotto, Brendan Guhle (who was acquired from the Buffalo Sabres for Montour), or someone outside of the current roster.
Question: Can Nick Schmaltz develop into a No. 1 center?
The Coyotes have a strong group of NHL centers with Schmaltz, Derek Stepan, and Carl Soderberg but none of them are proven No. 1 centers. Schmaltz got off to a strong start with the Coyotes after being acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks in a trade on November 25, recording five goals and 14 points in 17 games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. If Schmaltz can produce the way he did after the Coyotes acquired him, that will fill their gap at center.
Question: Who will grab the final spot in the top-six forward spot?
After their elite top-line, there is a drop off on the Bruins forward depth. Center David Krejci and forward Jake DeBrusk are mainstays in their top-six but there is a hole on the wing. Karson Kulhman and Sean Kuraly are the early favorites to grab that spot but neither has the track record to play there. After forward Marcus Johansson left in free agency, the Bruins must fill this hole through trade or their prospect pool.
Question: Who’s going to play third-line center?
Center Zemgus Girgensons is the favorite to land the job, but he has eclipsed the 20-point mark only twice in his career and has failed to do so in the past four seasons. Other candidates to center the third-line include Tage Thompson, who produced just 12 points in his rookie NHL season, and Marcus Johansson, who has not played center regularly during his NHL career. Buffalo will have to resolve this issue at training camp next month.
Question: Will their goaltending be good enough?
After the Flames’ team save percentage of 0.918 was in the bottom half of the league last season, they swapped Mike Smith for Cam Talbot, who posted an .892 save percentage and a 3.40 goals-against average in 35 games with the Edmonton Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers in 2018-2019. David Rittich also came back down to earth after a hot start early last season and eventually lost the starting job to Smith at the beginning of the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs. The Flames have a talented roster but may fall a little lower than expected if their goaltending isn’t great.
Question: Can they match higher expectations?
Expectations were low in Carolina last season after missing the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs despite having a young squad with a lot of promise. The Hurricanes overcame those expectations and rode a solid goalie tandem in Petr Mrazek and Curtis McElhinney to their first Stanley Cup Playoff berth in 10 seasons. After falling to the Bruins in four games in the Eastern Conference Final, the Hurricanes are aiming high going into the season. They have a solid roster, but they will be challenged to rekindle the magic of the Storm Surge with the rest of the league on notice that Carolina is not to be taken lightly.
Question: Can Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews, and Erik Gustafson follow up career-years from last season?
Kane and Toews each had career-highs last season with 110 and 81 points, respectively, but Kane will turn 31 in November while Toews turned 31 in April. Gustafsson recored 17 goals and 60 points in 79 games at age 27 last season but had never played more than half a season and had a career-high of five goals (set in 2017-18) entering last season. The trio led Chicago to an eighth place finish in goals-per-game (3.26) but with Kane and Toews aging and Gustafsson unproven as an elite defenseman, it is possible that the Blackhawks wasted a golden opportunity last season. Can they prove the doubters wrong? Only time will tell.
Question: Can Philipp Grubauer handle 55+ starts this season?
Grubauer struggled for the majority of last season, recording an .890 save percentage and a 3.47 goals-against average through his first 19 games last season, but he turned it on late, ending the season with a .917 save percentage and a 2.64 goals-against average. That won him the starting job over Semyon Varlamov to begin the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, when he went 7-5 with a .925 save percentage, a 2.30 save percentage, and a shutout to guide the Avalanche past the Flames, the Western Conference winners in the regular season. Backup Semyon Varlamov signed a four-year contract with the New York Islanders in free agency, so Grubauer will take on a leadership role with a rookie backup. He has never started more than 33 games, which he’s done only once before, and has endured some inconsistent streaks in each of the past two seasons. Until Grubauer proves himself as a No. 1 goalie, goaltending could be a concern in the Rockies.
Question: Can Joonas Korpisalo fill Sergei Bobrovsky’s shoes?
Filling in for the two-time Vezina Trophy winner, who signed a seven-year contract with the Florida Panthers in free agency, will be no easy task. Korpisalo, 27, has never started more than 31 games in his NHL career and has hit the 20-game mark only twice. He posted an .897 save percentage in each of the previous two seasons before recording a .905 save percentage this past one. If Korpisalo can’t run with the starting job, the Blue Jackets will have to go with Elvis Merzlikins, who has never played an NHL game in his career. The 25-year old posted a .921 save percentage and a 2.44 goals-against average in 44 games with Lugano of the national league in Switzerland. The Blue Jackets’ defense is stacked while they still have some nice weapons up front despite losing their leading scorer from last season in forward Artemi Panarin (who signed a seven-year contract with the New York Rangers on July 1). If they can’t get quality goaltending, however, it will be a very long year in Columbus.
Question: Is Roope Hintz good enough to center the second line?
The 22-year old rookie was productive in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, where he posted five goals and eight points in 13 games, but he recorded just nine goals and 22 points in 58 games during the regular season. Hintz was on pace for 31 points over a full 82-game season but will need to produce more as a second-line center. He certainly showed what he can do in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs but that’s a small sample size. The Stars better hope that he can fill that role or they are going to need another top-six center before the NHL Trade Deadline.
Detroit Red Wings
Question: Is their defense deep enough?
The Red Wings’ top-four defense corps for the upcoming season is projected to be Mike Green, Filip Hronek, Danny Dekeyser, and Dennis Cholowski after Nicklas Kronwall retired and they traded Nick Jensen to the Washington Capitals. None had more than seven goals or 26 points last season. The highest plus-minus rating that any one of them had last year was a +2 (Dekeyser). All of the rest were in the negative. With the group struggling offensively and defensively last season, the blue line is a red flag for Detroit.
Question: Are they deep enough on the wings?
The Oilers may have acquired a 10-time 20-goal scorer in forward James Neal this offseason but he dipped to seven goals with the Flames last season and was a healthy scratch when their season was on the line against the Avalanche. They tried adding reinforcements with the additions of forwards Tomas Jurco and Josh Archibald over the offseason but neither are significant upgrades. If Neal rebounds from an awful year last season, the Oilers should be better in this area but for now, depth on the wing is a concern in Oil Country.
Question: Can they live up to high expectations?
The Panthers entered the season with high expectations after finishing 2017-18 with a 25-8-2 record and adding forward Mike Hoffman, who has scored at least 26 goals in each of the past five seasons, but they didn’t get a win until their fifth game of the season last year and missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs by 12 points. After winning the Atlantic Division in 2015-16 and arguably winning the 2016 offseason, the Panthers missed the 2017 Stanley Cup Playoffs by 14 points. After adding Bobrovsky, forward Brett Connolly, center Noel Acciari, head coach Joel Quenneville, and defenseman Anton Stralman over the offseason, there are high expectations in South Florida for the upcoming season. But after falling short the first two go-rounds, will the third time be a charm? Quenneville should certainly help manage expectations but it remains to be seen if the team can reach its potential.
Los Angeles Kings
Question: Where will the offense come from?
The Kings scored the second-fewest goals in the NHL last season (202) and did not make any significant additions over the offseason to bolster their offense. They added forward depth in Martin Frk and Mario Kempe in free agency but those two players combined for only five goals last season. Bounceback years from forwards Tyler Toffoli and Jeff Carter would help, but would it be enough to get the Kings back into the Stanley Cup Playoffs? Doubtful, but possible. The Kings will need a lot of contributions from all over the lineup and maybe a trade to resolve this issue.
Question: Do they have enough fire power up front?
The Wild added forwards Mats Zuccarello, who recorded 12 goals and 40 points in 48 games with the Stars and New York Rangers last season, and Ryan Hartman, who tallied 12 goals and 26 points in 83 games with the Philadelphia Flyers and Nashville Predators, but lack a game breaker. Jason Zucker hit the 30-goal mark in 2017-18 and Zach Parise eclipsed the 28-goal mark last year, but Zucker has been the subject of trade rumors while Parise is not getting any younger at age 35. Minnesota’s average of 2.56 goals-per-game last season was 27th in the NHL.
Question: Are they deep enough on defense?
The Canadiens added Ben Chiarot in free agency for defensive depth but are relatively thin on the blueline after Shea Weber and Jeff Petry. With a goaltender like Carey Price, your defense can be a little thin, but the Canadiens need some more depth on the backend to get back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time in three seasons.
Question: Can Pekka Rinne keep it up at age 37?
Rinne has posted at least a .918 save percentage in each of the past three seasons, including .927 in 2017-18 when he won the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goalie. He dropped from a .927 save percentage to .918 from two seasons ago to last year, which is still respectable, but he will turn 37 on November 3. Rinne has one of the best defenses in the league in front of him, which allowed an average of 30 shots-per-game last season (the ninth-fewest in the NHL), and that should help him this season. The Predators have one of the best teams in the Western Conference but if Rinne declines, they could drop down in the standings.
New Jersey Devils
Question: Can Corey Schnieder get back to playing like a no. 1 goaltender?
Schneider, 33, has seen his save percentage dip from .924 in 2015-16 to .908 the next season, .907 in 2017-18, and .903 last year, when he didn’t get his first win of the season until February 22. He did not win a single game in 2018, when he lost the starting job to Keith Kinkaid, who was later traded to the Blue Jackets at the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline. The good news for the Devils is that he posted a .923 or higher save percentage in nine of his last 14 games of the regular season. If he can pick up where he left off, the Devils should compete for at least a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference after an active offseason. If not, New Jersey will be forced to ride backup Mackenzie Blackwood, who just has 21 NHL games under his belt.
New York Islanders
Question: Can Semyon Varlamov do enough to make up for the offseason loss of Robin Lehner?
The Islanders have only made one major change this offseason, replacing Lehner, who was second in the NHL with a .930 save percentage and third with a 2.13 goals-against average last season, with Varlamov, who went 20-19-9 with a .909 save percentage, 2.87 goals-against average, and two shutouts last season. Some time with goaltending guru Mitch Korn should help Varlamov improve upon last season and he should be a solid backup to Thomas Greiss, who was 23-14-4 with a .927 save percentage, a 2.28 goals-against average, and five shutouts last season. But it remains to be seen if he can perform close to the level that Lehner did in 2018-19. With the Islanders’ league-low average of 2.33 goals-against per game likely going up this season, they will need their goalies to play at a high level. After losing the starting job to Grubauer in Colorado last season, there are certainly questions regarding Varlamov in the crease.
New York Rangers
Question: Will their second defense pairing be good enough?
After buying out the final two seasons on defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk’s four-year contract, the Rangers see a big drop off from their first defense pairing of Jacob Trouba and Brady Skjei to Anthony DeAngelo and Brendan Smith, whom they reportedly considered buying out before Shattenkirk got the ax. While DeAngelo performed better last season with 30 points and a +6 rating, he remains unproven. In addition, Adam Fox, who is expected to play on the second-pair, has never played a game in the NHL. With goaltender Henrik Lundqvist not getting any younger and his stats declining, the Rangers will need to be better than the average of 33.8 shots-per-game that they gave up last season. With a thin second-pair, they will likely have to look outside of the organization for help. Until they do that, their defense will hold them back from taking the next step as Stanley Cup Playoff contenders.
Question: Where do we even start?
The Senators have lost star defenseman Erik Karlsson, center Matt Duchene, and forwards Mike Hoffman and Ryan Dzingel over the past 14 months and their roster has deteriorated dramatically since taking the defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins to Game 7 overtime of the 2017 Eastern Conference Final. They added only Nikita Zaitsev and Ron Hainsey to a defense that gave up the most goals in the NHL last season (301). While they averaged 2.95 goals-per-game in 2018-19, the offense took a hit with the loss of Duchene, Dzingel, and Hoffman. In addition, their .907 save percentage was the third-worst in the NHL last season and they did not make any changes to the tandem of 38-year old Craig Anderson and Anders Nilsson. If you think their on-ice situation is bad, their off-ice drama has been even worse, from the owner threatening to move the team in December 2017 to players trash talking one of their assistant coaches during an Uber that was captured on video that was released last November.
Question: Will Carter Hart have a breakout year?
The rookie goaltender posted a 16-13-1 record with a .917 save percentage and a 2.83 goals-against average in his rookie season and has the potential to improve those numbers. He was the No. 1 goalie prospect in the league entering last year after going 31-6-3 with a .947 save percentage and a 1.60 goals-against average with the WHL’s Everett Silvertips, so it’s fair to say that the 21-year old has a much higher ceiling. Will this be the season he reaches it? The Flyers better hope so as they used an NHL-record eight goaltenders last season and had a .910 team save percentage, the fourth-lowest in the league, to show for it.
Question: Will their defense be good enough?
The Penguins lost defensemen Olli Maatta (traded to the Blackhawks) and Jamie Oleksiak in 2019 and got themselves into a mess by signing defenseman Jack Johnson to a muti-year contract on July 1, 2018. Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin are a strong first pairing, but the second pairing has a hole next to Justin Schultz, who was limited to 29 games due to a leg injury last season after playing in 63 the year prior. Marcus Pettersson, a restricted free agent, played well after the club acquired him from the Ducks in December but could hold out if he doesn’t have a contract by the time training camp starts and the Penguins are currently over the salary cap. Even if he plays a full season, he’s more of a third-pairing player, as are Johnson and Erik Gudbranson.
San Jose Sharks
Question: Will their bottom-six forwards produce?
After losing Pavelski along with forwards Joonas Donskoi and Gustav Nyquist in free agency, the Sharks’ offensive depth took a hit. Kevin Labanc, who notched 56 points last year, and Tomas Hertl, who tallied 42, should handle bigger roles but the Sharks didn’t bring in any forwards this offseason with the exception of Josh Brodzinski, who has only six goals in 54 career NHL games. Mostly fourth-line and AHL forwards are expected to fill the holes on the bottom-six for the Sharks. With a lot of depth walking out the door, the Sharks’ forward group has become relatively thin, especially if center Joe Thornton retires.
St. Louis Blues
Question: Is Jordan Binnington the real deal?
Binnington was nearly sent to the ECHL last season and did not make his NHL debut until January 7. The 26-year old led the league with a 1.89 goals-against average and posted a .927 save percentage in addition to five shutouts while going 24-5-1 in the regular season. He played well in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, too, backstopping the Blues to their first Stanley Cup in franchise history while posting a .914 save percentage and a 2.46 goals-against average. The Blues rewarded him with a two-year, $8.8 million contract when he became a restricted free agent. While he was impressive, there are questions whenever you come out of nowhere and steal the show. Binnington had appeared in just one NHL game prior to last season. If he shows that he can be a No. 1 goaltender, the Blues are in great shape. But if not, they will likely have to ride Jake Allen, who was 19-17-8 with a save percentage of .905 and a goals-against average of 2.83.
Tampa Bay Lightning
Question: Can they handle the pressure in the Stanley Cup Playoffs?
It’s hard to find a glaring hole on the Lightning’s roster once they re-sign center Brayden Point, who is currently a restricted free agent. After tying an NHL record with 62 wins during the regular season and leading the Blue Jackets by three goals in the first period of Game 1 of the first-round series, they were outscored 19-5 in the next 11 periods and swept out of the postseason. In each of their previous three trips to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they held onto 3-2 series leads in the Eastern Conference Final but lost Game 6 each time and Game 7 twice. The Lightning have the talent and star power to be just as dangerous as last year this upcoming season but have struggled in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in their last five trips to the tournament. Until they can silence those demons, that’s their biggest concern.
Toronto Maple Leafs
Question: Will Mitch Marner sign prior to the start of the season?
The 22-year old forward, who is currently a restricted free agent, led the Maple Leafs with 68 points and 94 points in 82 games last season. Toronto is currently $2,397,199 over the salary cap and Marner is reportedly seeking over $10 million per season for the next 3-5 years, meaning that they will likely have to trade somebody, possibly forward William Nylander and/or defenseman Cody Ceci to make room for him. After seeing Nylander hold out for the first two months of last season, the Maple Leafs understandably don’t want to go through the same thing with Marner. However, it will remain a question until No. 16 puts pen to paper.
Question: When will Brock Boeser re-sign?
After posting at least 26 goals and 55 points, respectively, in each of his first two NHL seasons, the 22-year old is currently a restricted free agent who is looking for a contract with an average annual value of at least $7 million per season. Boeser finished second for the Calder Trophy for the league’s best rookie in 2017-18 and he is a pivotal part to a Vancouver offense that tied the Devils for 25th in the NHL with an average of 2.67 goals-per-game. The Canucks better hope that he’s under contract by the time opening night comes around or it will put even more pressure on sophomore center Elias Pettersson.
Vegas Golden Knights
Question: Can Nicolas Hague fill in the opening on the top-four defense corps?
After dealing defenseman Colin Miller to the Sabres because of salary cap constraints, the Golden Knights have a hole on their second defensive pairing next to Shea Theodore. The hope in the desert is that Hague, who posted 13 goals, 32 points, and a +31 rating in 75 games last season and helped the AHL’s Chicago Wolves reach the Calder Cup Final. If he fits in, the Golden Knights should be fine. If not, they will likely have to promote Nick Holden, who was a healthy scratch for all of one of their Stanley Cup Playoff games, or Deryk Engelland, which wouldn’t be ideal for the 37-year old, to the top-four.
Question: Will the second defensive pair bounce back after a rough end to last season?
When the Capitals dealt defenseman Matt Niskanen to the Philadelphia Flyers, they did so hoping that they had found a replacement for him when they acquired Nick Jensen from the Detroit Red Wings at the 2019 trade deadline. While Jensen started out fine with the team, he struggled in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Dmitry Orlov arguably had his worst season in the NHL last year, tying his career-low over a full season with three goals and had his lowest plus-minus rating (+3) since his rookie season in 2011-12. He also struggled defensively. If Orlov and Jensen each rebound from last season’s tough endings, the Capitals’ defense should be in fine shape but if not, there could be concerns after Michal Kempny missed the team’s final 15 games of the season with a torn hamstring.
Question: Will the defense hold up after key losses in the offseason?
Jacob Trouba (traded to the Rangers), Tyler Myers (signed with Canucks), and Ben Chiarot (signed with Canadiens) all left Winnipeg this summer and they just traded for Neal Pionk to replace them. The hope is that Sami Niku, who recorded 16 goals, 54 points, and a +17 rating in 76 games with the AHL’s Manitoba Moose in 2017-18, can fill that hole. The 22-year old recorded a goal, four points, and an even rating in 30 games with the big club last season. While Niku has potential, he has to prove himself at the NHL level. If it doesn’t work out, the Jets will be forced to plug Nathan Beaulieu or Dmitry Kulikov, both third-pairing defensemen, in that spot.
By Harrison Brown