Though the 2020-21 season ended two days ago, the rest of the NHL had been making plans for what’s to come in the next few weeks, including 2021 NHL Expansion Draft for the Seattle Kraken on July 21, the 2021 NHL Draft on July 23-24, and the opening of the free agent signing period on July 28.
Here are the top 10 questions going into the NHL offseason:
1. Who will be available to the Kraken in the expansion draft?
It will be interesting to see how teams handle their rosters before submitting their final lists of protected players to the NHL on July 17, four days before Seattle selects its first roster.
The Vegas Golden Knights are exempt from the expansion draft, and the Kraken will select one player from each of the other 30 teams.
There likely will be some trades made with protection lists in mind, with teams trying to determine whether to protect seven forwards, three defensemen and one goalie, or eight skaters regardless of position and one goalie.
Teams may also want to deal directly with Seattle to ensure a player they do not protect doesn’t get selected.
The Kraken also have an exclusive window from July 18-21 to interview and potentially sign pending free agents left unprotected. Any player signed during that window will count as Seattle’s pick from that player’s former team.
2. Will Jack Eichel be traded?
The center, who has been dealing with a herniated disk in his neck, said May 10 he believes there is a disconnect between him and the Buffalo Sabres, especially when it comes to dealing with the injury.
The Sabres captain said he would like to have surgery to repair the injury, but Buffalo general manager Kevyn Adams said May 12 team doctors have encouraged Eichel to take a conservative approach with rehab.
Peter Fish, Eichel’s agent, said last week the sides are nearing a resolution regarding treatment for the injury.
Adams said Eichel had not requested a trade, but he remains a subject of rumors.
The 24-year-old has five years left on an eight-year, $80 million contract (average annual value $10 million) he agreed to on Oct. 3, 2017.
3. Will the Golden Knights trade a goalie?
Marc-Andre Fleury, who won the Vezina Trophy this season voted as the top goalie in the NHL, has one year left on a three-year, $21 million contract (average annual value $7 million). Robin Lehner has four years remaining on a five-year, $25 million contract (average annual value $5 million).
The Golden Knights have other positions they need to address, most notably a No. 1 center, so it’s reasonable to think they won’t have Fleury and Lehner together on their roster next season.
Because Vegas is exempt from the expansion draft, it doesn’t have to worry about losing either to Seattle for nothing in return.
4. How will the Lightning navigate their pending NHL salary cap issues?
Tampa Bay could have difficulty keeping the group together that has won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships because of the salary cap staying at $81.5 million.
Forwards Barclay Goodrow and Blake Coleman, and defensemen David Savard and Luke Schenn each can become an unrestricted free agent July 28. The Lightning also will lose a player in the expansion draft.
But they navigated through the salary cap this season largely because they had more than $17 million in long-term injured reserve (LTIR) relief with forwards Nikita Kucherov ($10.5 million) and Marian Gaborik ($4.875 million) and goalie Anders Nilsson ($2.6 million) on LTIR for the entire regular season.
That relief won’t exist next season. Kucherov will play, and the contract for Gaborik and for Nilsson will expire.
5. Who will be the Bruins goalie in the season opener?
The Boston Bruins will have a new No. 1 goalie to start next season because Tuukka Rask, their top goalie for the past nine seasons, is a pending unrestricted free agent and won’t be ready to play until January at the earliest because of surgery to repair a torn labrum in his hip.
Rask could eventually re-sign with the Bruins, but he will not be available for at least the first three months of the season.
Jaroslav Halak is a pending unrestricted free agent who might look for a contract elsewhere because he was passed on Boston’s depth chart by rookie Jeremy Swayman this season.
Swayman and Dan Vladar are the top two goalies on the Bruins depth chart. Vladar needs to be protected in the expansion draft; Swayman is exempt. They have a combined 15 games of NHL experience, so it’s likely Boston will look to sign a veteran free agent.
6. Will the Avalanche resolve their contract issues?
The Colorado Avalanche have a lot of work to do if they want to keep their core intact.
Forwards Gabriel Landeskog, Brandon Saad and Pierre-Edouard Bellemare, and goalie Philipp Grubauer each is a pending unrestricted free agent. Defenseman Cale Makar, who was second in the Norris Trophy voting this season, is a pending restricted free agent.
In the background is center Nathan MacKinnon, who has one year remaining on his seven-year, $44.1 million contract (average annual value $6.3 million). His salary could potentially double in his next contract; he becomes eligible to sign an extension July 28.
7. Will any offer sheets be signed?
Sebastian Aho is the only restricted free agent to sign an offer sheet from another team in the past eight offseasons.
The center signed a five-year, $42 million offer sheet with the Montreal Canadiens on July 1, 2019. The Carolina Hurricanes matched it and retained Aho, who has been their leading scorer the past four seasons.
Makar is the top candidate for an offer sheet this offseason, especially with Colorado’s contract issues. But the Avalanche are likely to match any he signs, so issuing one could be considered futile.
Other pending restricted free agents who could get an offer sheet include Dallas Stars defenseman Miro Heiskanen and forward Roope Hintz, Ottawa Senators forward Brady Tkachuk, Hurricanes forward Andrei Svechnikov, and Vancouver Canucks center Elias Pettersson and defenseman Quinn Hughes.
8. Will Alex Ovechkin re-sign with the Capitals and what will the duration be?
The answer to the first part is most likely yes. Ovechkin is a pending unrestricted free agent, but the forward said May 25 he wants to finish his NHL career with the Washington Capitals and is confident an agreement will be reached.
Capitals owner Ted Leonsis also said he doesn’t think it’ll be an issue to get Ovechkin under contract, but the better question is for how long and for how much?
Ovechkin completed a 13-year, $124 million contract (average annual value $9.538 million) he negotiated himself and signed Jan. 10, 2008. He’ll turn 36 years old Sept. 17. He scored 24 goals in 45 games this season, giving him 730 in the NHL, one behind Marcel Dionne for fifth in history.
9. Who will be the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NHL Draft?
The Sabres have the top selection and could take defenseman Owen Power, who is No. 1 in NHL Central Scouting’s final rankings of North American skaters. Power was scheduled to meet with the Sabres on Thursday.
Power said he’s leaning toward going back to the University of Michigan for his sophomore season regardless if he’s the No. 1 pick, but he’s leaving it open for discussion until after the draft.
The Kraken have the No. 2 pick, followed by the Anaheim Ducks, New Jersey Devils and Columbus Blue Jackets in the top five.
10. Will NHL players attend the 2022 Beijing Olympics?
As part of the extension of the collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players’ Association, the NHL committed to sending players to the 2022 Winter Olympics provided certain conditions could be met. The NHL, NHLPA and International Olympic Committee remain in discussions regarding those conditions.
The NHL participated in five Olympics from 1998-2014 but did not attend the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics. The NHL position has been that Olympic participation disrupts the season, and Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said that opinion has not changed.
Protocols and insurance related to COVID-19 must be part of any agreement the NHL and NHLPA make with the IOC.