One off-season question facing each NHL team eliminated in Round 1

As the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs go on, we aren’t far away from another four teams having their seasons end, after which they’ll be asking tough questions about what went wrong and how to come back stronger in 2024-25.

Their off-seasons will arrive after having more success than the 16 teams that didn’t qualify for the playoffs at all, and we explored what decisions the also-rans will be wrestling with now.

But before we move on to the conference finals, today we’re taking one last look back at the first round of the playoffs, with an eye on the teams that had their seasons come to an abrupt end. What might their summers look like, and what are the tough question they are having to answer?

Tampa Bay Lightning: What becomes of Steven Stamkos, and how quickly will Victor Hedman get signed?

When the Lightning exited the playoffs, there was some question if Steven Stamkos had played his final game with the team. After all, the start of the season began with him airing a grievance over lack of contract extension talks last summer, when he was first eligible to sign.

But after his seventh 40-goal season concluded, Stamkos added five goals in five playoff games and reminded everyone that — even at age 34 — he’s running strong. Stamkos hasn’t played a full season in which he finished short of a point per game since 2015-16.

After the elimination everyone was saying the right things, with GM Julien BriseBois claiming that he was “very hopeful” to get a deal done soon, and Stamkos commenting that he was excited to talk soon. But what do you give a player who will turn 35 mid-way through next season in both dollars and term? And what other factors could be at play?

Stamkos may be the only pressing free agent the Lightning have to resolve, but crucially Victor Hedman has one more year left on his contract and can sign an extension as of July 1 — the day Stamkos would become UFA eligible. Hedman is currently Tampa’s second-highest paid defenceman at $7.875 million, with Mikhail Sergachev at $8.5.

And though Hedman is also still running strong, he too is getting up in age for a professional hockey player and will turn 34 midway through next season. Now Tampa must balance a desire to reward and keep the core that was won them Stanley Cups with the fact that group is getting older now and the team hasn’t won a playoff round in two years.

Toronto Maple Leafs: Who can they move from the core?

It didn’t have to be this way. After the Maple Leafs finally won a playoff round last season, only to swiftly get eliminated in five games by the Florida Panthers, leadership could have identified that still wasn’t good enough and moved on from pieces of the core. Instead, president Brendan Shanahan’s move was to replace the GM, which gave replacement Brad Treliving one month to make key decisions. It just wasn’t enough time to work with.

Now, Mitch Marner has a no-move clause that his contract lacked a year ago, while William Nylander similarly had an NMC included in 2023-24, the final season of his last contract. Nylander has since signed an extension making his trade candidacy a long shot, while Marner would have full control of any move the Leafs would have in mind for him.

Everyone knows there has to be change and that since-fired head coach Sheldon Keefe can’t be the only one held responsible for another first round loss. The core has to return with a different, and at management’s year end press conference they made it clear that the model of spending huge amounts on a small number of players atop the roster didn’t work. It’s a nice idea, but given all the NMCs at play and expiring contracts, how will Treliving navigate this difficult summer?

Washington Capitals: Where will they find more goals?

It turned out that Charlie Lindgren was one of the better surprises of this NHL season, playing 50 games with a .911 save percentage and an X-Factor in getting the Caps back to the playoffs. They weren’t the best defensive team by any means, but the real problem area for the Capitals was actually their offence.

Washington was 28th in goals-per-game, averaging just 2.63 per game this regular season. Alex Ovechkin was having a subpar goal scoring season by his standards for most of the year, but went on a tear near the end and finished as the team leader with 31 anyway. But only he, Dylan Strome (28) and Anthony Mantha (20), who was traded away at the deadline, hit the 20-goal mark.

The Capitals may have gotten into the playoffs, but they did it with a dreadful minus-37 goal differential. And, once there, they averaged just 1.75 goals per game — better than only the Toronto Maple Leafs in Round 1.

Capitals GM Brian MacLellan said that while he hopes to see some internal improvement from players such as Hendrix Lapierre, Connor McMichael and Aliaksei Protas, he’d have to look at external options as well. With the salary cap going up, it will provide a little more room to acquire players and the GM also suggested some of the draft capital Washington had accumulated could be used in trade.

“We’re going to look outside, too, I think trades and free agency, we need to add something in that area,” MacLellan said. “We need to get a little more skill, more goals.

“I think we have more flexibility going forward here. We’ll see what the market is.”

NY Islanders: Can they get any traction in getting out of the muck?

Any Lou Lamoriello team is hard to get a read on and these Islanders have been an enigma. When it was looking like they weren’t really serious Cup contenders after two surprise Round 3 appearances were followed by missing the post-season completely, Lamoriello kept going and paid a hefty price to get Bo Horvat. Consistently capped out, these Islanders will have nine players on next year’s roster making at least $5 million.

The big question right after the Islanders were eliminated by Carolina in five games this playoff season was if Lamoriello would be back at all. Today, his return (and Patrick Roy’s behind the bench) is about all we know for sure about what’s next for these Islanders, who seem to be caught in the NHL’s mushy middle.

The Islanders have certainly had success under Lamoriello, but that has given way to the muddiness of the past three years and not a lot in the way of cap space to wiggle out of it. Lamoriello also values loyalty and so big, sweeping changes are unlikely anyway.

However, if the coach wants to play an uptempo game that leans offence, but the roster was constructed to grind out games and series, where does that leave the Islanders?

Los Angeles Kings: Who’s the next coach and how do they get the most out of Pierre-Luc Dubois?

While Elliotte Friedman reports there is some momentum towards the Kings keeping Jim Hiller behind the bench and removing the interim tag, it would be hard to imagine the Kings running back a 1-3-1 system without much change to the roster. There is offensive skill in this roster and some of GM Rob Blake’s recent years have been spent acquiring the likes of Kevin Fiala and Viktor Arvidsson to do just that, to say nothing of the blossoming talent of second-overall pick Quinton Byfield.

And then there’s the little matter of Pierre-Luc Dubois’ massive contract, which started with a thud. While on paper it may make some sense to consider buying out Dubois before Year 2 begins in July, Blake said he didn’t intend to do so and rather would be seeking ways to bring out his best again.

Whether that means changing the system away from the 1-3-1 (to help not only Dubois, but the whole roster) or perhaps moving Dubois to the wing, the Kings are having to think long and hard about how they play as a team and how to not have Dubois’ contract linger as a stinker.

Nashville: Is Yaroslav Askarov ready for full time No. 1 duty?

The 11th-overall pick in 2020, Yaroslav Askarov has spent the past two seasons in the AHL where he’s been one of the top goalies and this season finished fifth in GAA and second in both wins and shutouts. He’s quite possibly the best goalie outside of the NHL right now. He had one NHL start this past season, a 27-save, 3-2 shootout win over Washington.

It seems like Askarov is ready for the NHL and he will be 22 by the time next season begins. But is he ready to take on the full No. 1 starter’s job?

If Predators GM Barry Trotz thinks Askarov is, then Juuse Saros suddenly becomes a more likely trade candidate and the kind of player who could return to Nashville a player or two that would help in other roster areas of need. It would also save money at the position, with Askarov still on his ELC and one year from needing it to be extended.

Winnipeg Jets: What to do with Nikolaj Ehlers?

The Jets are rather loyal to their productive players who aren’t seeking a way out of town and Ehlers is certainly one of those. The ninth-overall draft pick way back in 2014, Ehlers has been a staple on Jets teams for nearly a decade now with pretty consistent production.

But in Ehlers you have a player who often puts up very strong “per minute” numbers while never getting top-line minutes. This season, for instance, Ehlers’ 25 goals and 61 points — both near career highs — but averaged 15:52 of ice time per game, seventh among all Jets forwards. Meantime, at 5-on-5, Ehlers ranked fourth on the team in goals per 60 minutes and second in primary assists per 60.

Now he has one year remaining on his contract at $6 million and would be eligible to extend on July 1. But how will the Jets handle a middle-six player? Ehlers managed just two assists in the five-game playoff-series loss to Colorado this spring and has never been a big post-season contributor for them with just seven points in his past 16 playoff games going back to 2020. Is the play then to seek out a trade for Ehlers, or play out his contract and consider the possibility he leaves for nothing next summer?

one off-season question facing each nhl team eliminated in round 1

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Vegas Golden Knights: Will they re-sign Jonathan Marchessault?

The Golden Knights are known for their bold moves and the cavalier way they manoeuvre around the salary cap and they’re one of the most active teams in the league. So, when they won their first Stanley Cup last season, only six original Golden Knights remained on the roster, despite the fact the team has always been a contender.

Of those original expansion draft players, Jonathan Marchessault is the most productive and he finished as their leading goal scorer (42) and point-getter (69) this season after driving their playoff run and winning the Conn Smythe a year ago. Vegas was able to largely bring back the same roster that won the Cup, but after a few in-season trades they’ll have to make tougher choices this time around.

Trade acquisition Noah Hanifin will start a new, long-term contract next season after playing on a double-retention bargain. His new $7.35 million AAV will mostly replace Alec Martinez’s likely departing contract. The Golden Knights will also have to figure out what to do with their other UFAs, including another trade deadline pickup Anthony Mantha, and two other original Knights in Chandler Stephenson and William Carrier.

The fact is Vegas won’t be able to keep all of these players. Marchessault’s deal figures to come with the largest cap hit, with a raise expected from his $5 million.

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