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Which NHL GM has toughest job this summer?

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Every general manager has an extremely difficult job when trying to assemble a championship contending team.

No matter the sport it is a daunting task that requires vision, a plan, an ability to actually perform that plan, having the right people around you, and an understanding of not just where the league and their own team is today, but where all of that is headed in future seasons. It requires great scouting, an eye for talent, asset management, a lot of luck, and countless other factors to get their team to a championship level.

Even when all of those things work together in near perfect unison they are still more likely to fall short of their ultimate goal (a championship) than they are to achieve it.

With the NHL offseason officially underway, the league’s 31 general managers are beginning the process of putting their vision into practice, and while they all have a difficult job in front of them not all of their jobs are created equal. Some of them have significantly taller mountains to scale over the next couple of months. Some out of their own creation, and others out of the circumstances and hands they have been dealt.

These general managers are part of that group and have what will almost certainly be the toughest offseason jobs ahead of them.

Ken Holland, Edmonton Oilers

It is a testament to how bad and completely incompetent the previous front office was that Holland is walking into a situation where he has two of the NHL’s top-four scorers from this past season (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl), both still not even in the prime of their careers yet and signed to long-term contracts, and your first reaction to his situation is, “wow, this team seems like it is light years away from contending.”

The Oilers have missed the playoffs in 12 of the past 13 seasons, including three of the first four years of McDavid’s career, having completely wasted what might be some of the best and most dominant hockey he ever plays (at least offensively).

They are a team that plays at the level of an early 1990s expansion team when their two-headed monster of McDavid and Draisaitl is not on the ice, they need an overhaul on defense, a ton of depth at forward, and a goalie. And Holland is likely going to have less than $10 million in salary cap space to start with.

What his roster lacks in talent it makes up for in bad contracts that are sinking the organization’s ability to build around its two superstars at the top.

Milan Lucic‘s contract is, for all intents and purposes, buyout proof and trading him will require Holland to take on a similarly bad contract in return or give up a far more valuable asset to entice a team to take the remaining $6 million per year cap hit (for four more years!) for a player that has just 54 points over the past two seasons (161 games) with only 43 of them coming at even-strength.

His returning starting goalie, Mikko Koskinen, will be 31 years old on opening night and has just 59 games of NHL experience with a .904 save percentage. He is also signed for three more seasons at $4.5 million per season, a rather lousy house-warming gift from the previous regime on their way out the door.

He has eight defenders under contract for close to $27 million under the cap for this season and doesn’t have a No. 1 or anything close to a top-tier puck-mover among them.

At least three of them (Andrej Sekara, Kris Russell, and Brandon Manning) are legitimate buyout candidates this summer.

There are only a handful of teams with less cap space than the Oilers entering the offseason, and it is not because of the contracts they are paying McDavid, Draisaitl, or even Ryan Nugent-Hopkins at the top.

It is because of the $17 million(!) that is going to Lucic, Russell, Manning, and Koskinen.

Other than that, things are pretty good.

If Holland manages to turn this situation into something positive within two years they should build him a statue.

Kyle Dubas, Toronto Maple Leafs

Dubas’ situation is pretty much the exact opposite of Holland’s because his team is actually … good.

Really good.

Really, really, really good.

Championship contending good.

The problem Dubas and the Maple Leafs are going to run into is the same one they have run into in previous years. That “problem” is that it is a lot easier to go from being a “bad” team to a “good” team than it is to go from being a “good” team to a championship team. Having lost in the first-round of the playoffs three years in a row, including to a divisional rival in Boston in each of the past two seasons, kind of illustrates that. The Maple Leafs can score, they can win a lot of games in the regular season, but there is still a hurdle they have to get over because for as good as they have become, this group still does not have a finish higher than third place in its own division or a playoff series win.

But that is all narrative. When it comes to the actual team building Dubas’ challenge is going to be finding a way to get a contract done with Mitch Marner, one of his team’s best and most important players.

The Maple Leafs certainly do not want to go through a replay of last year’s William Nylander restricted free agency saga, and there is always that (please try not to laugh at the ridiculous suggestion) possibility of an offer sheet from another team (hey, one of these years it could happen again).

Finding the salary cap room for Marner is going to be a challenge as the Maple Leafs are already paying Nylander, Auston Matthews, and John Tavares huge money at the top of the lineup. As I wrote a few months ago, this is not a problem. The Maple Leafs can (and most likely will) compete for a championship with a significant chunk of their salary cap allotment going to the quartet of Matthews, Tavares, Marner, and Nylander.

Before they can get there they have to shed some contracts, specifically the ones belonging to Patrick Marleau and Nikita Zaitsev. The top-four might also cost them a couple of other depth players around the edges, but it is a heck of a lot easier to find another Conor Brown or Kasperi Kapanen than it is to find another Mitch Marner or William Nylander.

Along with that, he is also set to lose a little bit off of his blue line with the pending free agencies of Jake Gardiner and Ron Hainsey, while also dealing with the elephant in the room that is the highly paid head coach whose recent resume hasn’t matched his reputation.

Add in the fact this is all playing out in a hockey market where all reason and logic gets thrown out the window and he not only has a difficult task ahead of him, he is going to be under a constant microscope to get it done.

No matter what he does this offseason he has a playoff team on the ice this season.

Simply being a playoff team is no longer enough in Toronto.

Jarmo Kekalainen, Columbus Blue Jackets

He put together the most successful season in Blue Jackets history by not only getting them to the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the third year in a row (first time the franchise has ever done that), but by putting together a team that shocked the hockey world by sweeping one of the best teams of the modern era (the Tampa Bay Lightning) in Round 1 for the team’s first-ever playoff series win.

He did that by betting big on keeping his own pending free agents (Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky) but by acquiring several more at the trade deadline in Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel.

It gave Blue Jackets fans their first taste of postseason success and built a ton of excitement around the team.

Now he is facing the possibility of losing all of Panarin, Bobrovsky, Duchene, and Dzingel in free agency, while having only two draft picks (a third-round pick and a seventh-round pick) this year and only five draft pick in the 2020 class.

Do we really need to go any further as to what his challenge here is?

Panarin and Bobrovsky have seemingly had one foot out the door all season and their departures just seem to be a matter of where they go and not if they go, and there is little doubt that Duchene is going to test the open market for his one last shot at another big contract (Nashville seems like a perfect fit for him, right?).

The Blue Jackets will still a decent core coming back with Seth Jones, Zach Werenski, Cam Atkinson, and the constantly improving Pierre-Luc Dubois, but Panarin and Bobrovsky are not players that you just easily replace. They have been impact players and significant pieces of what has been a consistent playoff team the past few years. Bobrovsky in particular is going to be a huge loss because he is not only a two-time Vezina Trophy winner and one of the best regular season goalies of his era, but they do not really have any kind of an internal option that is a sure thing and limited options outside the organization.

Kekalainen did an outstanding job to raise the bar and set a new level of expectation in Columbus this season, but he also left himself in a situation where it is going to be extremely difficult to reach it (or exceed it) this upcoming season.

Jason Botterill, Buffalo Sabres

This seems like a make-or-break year for Botterill in Buffalo.

The Sabres are basically Edmonton-east right now given their consistent lack of success, inability to build around a young franchise player (Jack Eichel), and complete lack of depth.

Also like the Oilers: They recently traded an eventual major award winner (2019 Conn Smythe winner Ryan O’Reilly) for some magic beans. The situation in Buffalo is so bleak right now that probably overpaying winger Jeff Skinner is seen as a win for the organization, and I don’t really mean that to be as critical as it sounds because I do like it. If you are going to “overpay” someone under the cap, you are better off making sure it is a player that might score 40 goals for you and seems to have developed some chemistry with your best player.

But after the Eichel-Skinner duo, and 2018 No. 1 overall pick Rasmus Dahlin, this is a roster that just … well … who in the hell excites you here?

The Sabres are in a division with three powerhouse teams at the top, a team a Florida that is already ahead of them with a better core, more salary cap space to work with, and is probably going to be a destination for top free agents (Panarin and Bobrovsky) this summer.

Oh, and there is also Montreal that missed the playoffs this past year by just two points.

This is, at best, the fifth best team in its own division after years and years and years of rebuilding and entering year three with his finger on the button (and with a new coach) there has to be immense pressure for Botterill to make something out of this mess. He has to do a lot, and he has to do it quickly.

More NHL offseason
Lessons NHL teams should (and should not) learn from the 2019 St. Louis Blues
Capitals trade Matt Niskanen to Flyers for Radko Gudas
Islanders re-sign Jordan Eberle
Binnington’s next contract challenge for Blues
Bruins could look different next season

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Tortorella on Blue Jackets’ goalie outlook, post-Bobrovsky future

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The Columbus Blue Jackets are headed toward what might be the most fascinating offseason of any team in the NHL thanks to their trade deadline splurge that saw them send off most of their 2019 draft picks in an effort to load up for a playoff run.

The good news is the additions of Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel not only helped the Blue Jackets make the playoffs for the third year in a row (their longest streak in franchise history), but also have their most successful postseason to date, reaching Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs where they fell in six games to the eventual Eastern Conference champion Boston Bruins. That came after a stunning and emphatic Round 1 sweep of the Presidents’ Trophy winning Tampa Bay Lightning. It gave Blue Jackets fans a taste of success they hadn’t yet experienced and helped raise the bar on a franchise that had consistently been an afterthought.

None of that is a bad thing.

The problem is that along with their own stars, Artemi Panarin and Sergei Bobrovsky, Duchene and Dzingel are also eligible for unrestricted free agency this summer and there is a very real chance that none of that quartet will return to the team next season. Combine that with the fact the team only has two draft picks in this month’s draft (their own third-round pick, and a seventh-round pick that previously belonged to the Calgary Flames) and, as of now, only five for the 2020 class (if Duchene re-signs with the Blue Jackets, their 2020 first-round pick will also go to the Ottawa Senators as part of a condition attached to that trade) and there is a lot of work for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.

That means a lot of changes are probably coming for the Blue Jackets.

The biggest of those changes will be in net where Bobrovsky is almost certainly going to be moving on in free agency.

With limited trade resources at their disposal and a thin crop of potential free agents at the position that spot might have to be filled from within, and that is not going to be easy given how important Bobrovsky has been to the Blue Jackets over the past seven years. Poke fun at his playoff resume and worry about the potential issues that would come with signing him to a seven-year contract at his current age all you want, but the reality is he has been one of the league’s best goalies and a two-time Vezina Trophy winner with the team.

It is not going to be easy to just replace that.

The internal option is Joonas Korpisalo, Bobrovsky’s top backup the past four years, while the team also signed 25-year-old Elvis Merzlikins to a one-year, one-way contract this past month.

On Monday, Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella appeared on 97.1 The Fan in Columbus and talked about the team’s offseason, with a special emphasis on the goaltending situation without Bobrovsky and how that might impact the team’s style of play.

“I don’t think Bob’s going to be here,” said Tortorella while appearing on his Hockey and Hounds segment with hosts Anthony Rothman and Bobby Carpenter (you can listen to the full segment here).

“You’re losing a very, very good goaltender. We may have young goaltenders that are going to be taking over that position. I have to start thinking about just a little bit of a change in style of play in order to protect them a little bit to get their feet wet. Korpi has obviously played, but Merzlikins is coming in here, we have couple of other guys coming in here, I’m not sure what it looks like. So we have to start thinking about style of play.”

The only conclusion that can be reached when hearing him talking about protecting inexperienced goalies is a more conservative approach, which might be necessary anyway Panarin and Duchene leave.

He was later asked if Korpisalo can be a No. 1 goalie for the team and after a slight hesitation in his response, expressed some confidence in him.

“I do,” said Tortorella. “I say that in a respectful way, because it’s hard to say if a guy that is kind of spotted in — you know Korpi ran with the ball early in the regular season, and we saw once he was playing a lot of games, we saw his game grow. I have not given him many opportunities to run with it because I simply can’t because I had Bob. He has certainly showed us, like a lot of players at that position, if you have the ball and you run with it and you are playing every other night and you get into a little bit of a roll, you are certainly going to play better. So that’s what we are going to look for with Korpi, we feel it’s in him, he hasn’t really had an opportunity go a couple of months being the No. 1 guy, he’s had a few weeks at certain times. He’s going to get an opportunity, that’s one think as I’ve talked to a few guys coming here, and maybe some guys from last year that didn’t get the ice time they wanted, it’s going to be an open book, you’re going to get an opportunity and you’re going to make the decision on if you play or not.”

The concern with Korpisalo is that his performance the past three years has not been great, even after a promising start to the 2018-19 season.

His save percentage the past two years is only .897, and if you go back to the start of the 2016-17 season it is only .899, a mark that places him 61st out of the 65 goalies that have appeared in at least 40 games since then.

Combine that with Merzlikins, who has zero games of NHL experience, and there is a lot of uncertainty at the position.

It is no wonder that Tortorella is looking at a slight change in the team’s playing style.

Making a trade seems like a major challenge given how depleted the team’s trade chips are after the deadline, while the free agent market after Bobrovsky is, in a word, unappealing. Robin Lehner is the next most significant name out there, but the New York Islanders are probably not going to let him get away.

Even with the likely free agent departures there is still a good bit of talent on this roster. Seth Jones and Zach Werenski are stars on the blue line and there is still going to be some real talent at forward with Cam Atkinson and rapidly improving younger players like Pierre-Luc Dubois and Oliver Bjorkstrand. But the goaltending might end up making or breaking what this team is capable of in 2019-20, and right now the entire position seems like a giant mystery.

(S/T 1st Ohio Battery)

Related: Blue Jackets ink Bobrovsky’s potential successor

John Davidson resigns from Blue Jackets, joins Rangers as president

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A busy off-season for the Columbus Blue Jackets is under way with the news that John Davidson, the team’s President of Hockey Operations and Alternate Governor since 2012, has resigned and will be taking up the role of president with the New York Rangers.

Davidson replaces Glen Sather, who stepped down from the position in April.

In a statement released on Friday, Blue Jackets’ president Mike Priest confirmed that the team granted the Rangers permission to speak with Davidson about the job. Davidson still had four years left on his contract with the Blue Jackets, but rumblings of his departure for New York surfaced this spring and only seemed to grow once their postseason run ended.

It’s expected that Davidson will be introduced by the Rangers on Wednesday.

“Today is the start of a new and exciting chapter in New York Rangers history,” said Rangers owner James Dolan in a statement. “John Davidson is one of the premier executives in the National Hockey League. As we continue to build a team that can consistently compete for the Stanley Cup, John’s knowledge of the game and his experience and passion for the Rangers logo make him the ideal choice to oversee our Hockey Operations department. I am thrilled to welcome ‘JD’ and his family home.”

Davidson played parts of eight seasons with the Rangers and was one half of their television broadcast team for two decades before he moved into management as the President of Hockey Operations for the St. Louis Blues from 2006-2012.

According to The Athletic’s Aaron Portzline, there will be no replacement for Davidson within the Blue Jackets’ organization. General manager Jarmo Kekalainen will now lead the hockey operations department and assume the alternate governor role.

Davidson’s exit could be the first of many this off-season for the Blue Jackets. Unrestricted free agents Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin are looking like they’ll be leaving, while the futures of fellow UFAs Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Keith Kinkaid, and Adam McQuaid are also cloudy. Back inside the management offices, assistant GM Bill Zito has interviewed for open GM positions around the league, including the expansion NHL Seattle franchise.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Departing stars could slow progress for Blue Jackets

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COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — If the Blue Jackets’ two best players leave town as expected, it will ripple through just about every move the team makes this summer.

Goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky and winger Artemi Panarin are unrestricted free agents and almost certainly are out the door. Retooling the roster to compensate for the loss of the two Russians, and possibly other free agents, will mean a busy and interesting offseason for general manager Jarmo Kekalainen.

”We want guys that are proud to be Blue Jackets, guys that want to live in Columbus, want to raise their families in Columbus,” Kekalainen said Wednesday. ”If that’s the reason why you want to play somewhere else, then go play somewhere else.”

Kekalainen knew the elite pair probably would go – their refusal to sign contract extensions caused some strife in the locker room during the season – but held on hoping to make a deep postseason run. ”Bob” and ”Bread” ended up being a huge part of the Blue Jackets’ march to the playoffs and first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning, the NHL’s best team during the regular season.

Columbus played in a second-round series for the first time in the 19 years the franchise has been in existence but fell to Boston 4-2 in an Eastern Conference semifinal.

”We took a step in the right direction,” coach John Tortorella said. ”I hope we can see how difficult it is to keep on going. There are so many good things going on in our room now and – in talking to Jarmo and the management group – so many good pieces coming here. It’s an exciting time for us.”

But there will be retooling.

Forwards Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, both picked up from Ottawa at the February trade deadline for the playoff run, also will be unrestricted free agents. Both were so-so down the stretch, but Duchene caught fire in the playoffs with 10 points in 10 games. Defenseman Adam McQuaid, also a trade-deadline pickup, didn’t contribute much because of an injury and may or may not be re-signed.

”That’s part of the business, unfortunately,” said winger Cam Atkinson, who led the team with a career-high 41 goals. ”That’s the crappy part about it. But we’re so close as a team and an organization. We took a lot of huge strides forward this year. Ultimately, those guys get the make their own decision, but we know what we have in this room. We have a winning team and a winning culture.”

The Blue Jackets have some goalies in the wings but none of Bobrovsky’s caliber. Backup Joonas Korpisalo will get a good look but may not be an everyday goalie. Columbus likely will try to re-sign 29-year-old Keith Kinkaid, who was acquired from New Jersey at the trade deadline but didn’t get into a single game with his new team.

The team also likes 24-year-old Elvis Merzlikins, a flashy Latvian goaltender who was a 2014 third-round draft pick. He’s had success in the Swiss National League and is expected to start next season on the Blue Jackets roster.

Columbus hopes forward Alexandre Texier and defensemen Vladislav Gavrikov – rookies who joined after their foreign league commitments finished – can develop into reliable NHL players. Both showed flashes in limited action in the playoffs. Highly touted prospects Emil Bemstrom and Liam Foudy also could be ready to contribute.

Columbus will have to find a way to replace Panarin’s team-leading 87 points, but will have Atkinson (41 goals, 28 assists) and Pierre Luc-Dubois (27, 34) as well as top blue-liners Seth Jones and Zach Werenski.

”We’re trying to put a stamp on what this place is, what this organization is, how we run our business here,” Tortorella said. ”Our community put a stamp on it (in the playoffs), not just for us but for the hockey world.”

Follow Mitch Stacy on Twitter at https://twitter.com/mitchstacy

More AP NHL: https://apnews.com/NHL and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Bruins eliminate Blue Jackets after another Rask masterpiece

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The Columbus Blue Jackets might feel robbed by the refs, but deep down, they have to wonder: “If Charlie McAvoy got a major penalty for that hit on Josh Anderson, would we have beaten Tuukka Rask, anyway?”

Rask already stamped his name on this Round 2 series with great play, yet Game 6 might have been his best work against Columbus yet. Then again, you have some other great options, as Rask has been lights-out lately. Either way, the Finnish goalie was the standout in the Bruins’ 3-0 win in Game 6, allowing Boston to close out the series 4-2.

With a would-be Bruins goal disallowed thanks to a murky goalie interference review, the first period ended with a 0-0 score.

The second period, then, was quite pivotal. That McAvoy hit on Anderson came with 20 seconds remaining, and the questionable call had Anderson shaking his head at officials to start the third. The Blue Jackets were likely shaking their head in disbelief at Rask in general, though, as they were down 1-0 despite generating a 17-5 shots on goal advantage in that second period, and a 27-17 edge through the first 40 minutes. Rask ultimately generated a 39-save shutout in Game 6.

David Krejci didn’t have a ton of chances on Monday, but he made one of his count, scoring a 1-0 stunner that would stand as the game-winning goal. Krejci continues to be a player who probably deserves more credit for his strong work for the Bruins, particularly in producing big numbers during his playoff career.

Columbus couldn’t convert on the power play that resulted from the McAvoy hit, and can’t argue that they lacked any chances overall, going 0-for-4 on the evening.

Amid all of that controversy, Game 6 was mostly very close, at least until the wheels came off. Marcus Johansson scored a 2-0 goal 8:58 into the third period, and David Backes really took the air out of the building in Columbus by making it 3-0 less than two minutes later. As rugged and hard-working as the Blue Jackets have been during this still-quite-remarkable run in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they didn’t manage much of a push once they fell behind by three goals.

With this result, the Bruins advance to a fascinating 2019 Eastern Conference Final series against the Carolina Hurricanes for Round 3. Boston avoids giving Carolina too much of a rest advantage, as the Hurricanes swept the New York Islanders on Friday. The Bruins were pushed to a Game 7 in Round 1, so avoiding John Tortorella’s guaranteed Game 7 in Round 2 is pretty significant. Even if they might need to face the Hurricanes in Game 1 without McAvoy.

One figures that the Blue Jackets feel absolutely gutted, at least looking at the short term on Monday.

Sergei Bobrovsky was fantastic during this series, but he’ll probably have some regrets about the goals allowed in Game 6, at least the two that really destroyed any dream of a comeback in the third period.

Sweeping the mighty Tampa Bay Lightning remains a testament to GM Jarmo Kekalainen’s bold gamble to keep Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin and load up during the trade deadline, yet Columbus still mortgaged most of its 2018 NHL Draft to see things end here. If Bobrovsky and Panarin stick with the plan and leave Columbus, there are also questions about the likes of Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel, among other forks in the road.

This was an intense, tight series that ended in a painful way for the Blue Jackets. The Bruins, meanwhile, hope that they’re merely halfway through a glorious journey.

If Rask keeps this up, he might just have a Conn Smythe in his future.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.