As the Edmonton Oilers, Dallas Stars, Florida Panthers and New York Rangers play on towards their goal of the Stanley Cup, their Round 2 opponents are left in the dust considering what went right, what went wrong, and what needs to happen next to return here again in 2025, and push beyond.

Each of the teams eliminated in Round 2 likely has a different view of their season. Vancouver, for example, has to view this season as a success where they overachieved expectations and now will try to navigate what’s perhaps an opening Stanley Cup window. The Boston Bruins, after losing their top two centres last summer, made it further in the playoffs than they did the previous two years and now have summer cap space to upgrade what they couldn’t a year ago. Colorado certainly had Cup aspirations again, but never got captain Gabriel Landeskog back and then lost their leading post-season goal scorer at a crucial time. Carolina may enter the summer the most disappointed of all, as this seemed to be the year they were best equipped to go on a run.

So with one last look back on the teams who were eliminated in Round 2, we look at the top off-season questions facing the Canucks, Bruins, Avalanche and Hurricanes.

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Colorado Avalanche: What’s next for Valeri Nichushkin?

First, the good news for Colorado: at a press conference on Thursday morning captain Gabriel Landeskog — who hasn’t played in two years after having a knee cartilage transplant — said he still planned to make a return, hopefully in 2024-25. He was seen skating on his own at times during Colorado’s two-round playoff run, but wasn’t really an option to return to the lineup. There’s still no timeline on when he could be back, but the fact he didn’t retire brings hope that he will still be a contributing part of this group a year from now.

Now the bad news: Valeri Nichushkin was given a six-month suspension and placed in Stage 3 of the NHL/NHLPA Player Assistance Program midway through their second round series against the Dallas Stars. It was the second year in a row the winger was forced off the team during a playoff run, leaving them in the middle of 2023’s series against Seattle for “personal reasons” after he was involved in a “police incident.”

The first priority is to get the player the help he needs, but there could be on- and off-ice fallout from this, too. Has he lost the trust of his teammates or the organization after two incidents in two playoffs? Is there a path back to the team for him? Nichushkin has grown considerably as a producer for the Avs, finishing fourth on the team in points per game (0.98) this season in 54 games and then leading them with nine goals in eight playoff games. He’s also signed for another six years with an AAV of $6.125 million, with a no-move clause through next season before a modified no-trade kicks in for the rest of the deal.

While he’s in the player assistance program Nichushkin cannot be bought out, so that expensive option would be off the table. His contract also cannot be terminated in that time, so the Avalanche have to work through the summer knowing he and his cap hit would be eligible to return in November at the earliest. Not to mention the possibility that Landeskog’s $7 million AAV could be back at some time, too.

“At this time priority one is for Val to get the help he needs. Assuming he does and after the six months we’ll have to read and react on that, but it is very plausible he’ll be back with the Avalanche after that,” Colorado GM Chris MacFarland said on Thursday. “We’ve looked at all options like we always do and the obvious question is termination and at this time that’s not an option.

“It’s a privilege to play in this league and when you sign on that contract there’s things that have to be adhered to and hopefully Val takes the next six months to get himself right and we’ll stay in touch with the league. At this time that’s the way we’re operating. Yes, it’s a significant challenge in terms of off-season planning, but there’s a lot of teams with cap challenges, we’re certainly one of them, but we won’t shy away from looking at different ways to build as good a hockey team around what is still a very special group.”

Vancouver Canucks: Which free agents are the priority?

A season in which Vancouver exceeded expectations, took the Edmonton Oilers to the limit in the playoffs, and re-established respect around the league now makes way for tough contract decisions and the realization that not everyone who contributed to this success will be back in 2024-25.

The Canucks have nine UFAs, including valued trade deadline pickup and playoff performer Elias Lindholm, quote-machine and back end deterrent Nikita Zadorov, and breakout power forward Dakota Joshua. There are also two RFAs of consequence with arbitration eligible Filip Hronek, who formed a strong pair with Quinn Hughes, and Arturs Silovs, tracking to be Thatcher Demko’s capable backup who could give the starter more rest through the season.

Vancouver has a projected $23.7 million in off-season cap space, but that’s quickly going to evaporate as each of these deals is locked in because none figure to be cheap. Lindholm, who said he hadn’t “put much thought into” his next contract yet, would be a priority to keep and the depth down the middle they have with him is enviable, but he’s also likely to be the most expensive of the bunch with a wide selection of suitors waiting to bid on July 1.

But if you sign Lindholm, who do you lose? Joshua, who brings a particular skill set and late blooming upside to the wing? One of the big defencemen? Or maybe it’s walking away from Hronek’s big contract, though that would leave the Canucks needing to find another right shot defender.

Cap management is at the core of the Canucks’ summer.

“We want to be a competitive team moving forward so it’s only so much I can pay certain individuals and hopefully we can find ways to keep a lot of players because I do think a lot of them have a chance to, with the coaches here, take their game to the next level,” GM Patrik Allvin said Thursday.

As the team sifts through who they can keep or not, part of the process may include exploring any signed players they could move off the books. Perhaps Conor Garland’s name pops up in the rumour mill again, as it did earlier this season when it was reported he had made a trade request. Thing is, Garland had a very strong playoffs and helped lead one of the best third lines in the post-season. There’s also online debate on potentially buying out Ilya Mikheyev, who has two years left on his contract. That would save the team a few million in the next two seasons, however with a buyout to Oliver Ekman-Larsson already on the books for another six seasons, it may add up to too much dead cap to bare.

What an Ilya Mikheyev buyout would look like this summer, per CapFriendly.

“We have different ideas how we want to structure our team moving forward,” Allvin said. “I think we have also a lot of younger players in our system who deserve to get an opportunity coming to training camp and we might leave some spots open for them to come in and compete and give us more.”

Carolina Hurricanes: How different will this team look next season, especially on the blue line?

Initially the biggest off-season question for the Hurricanes was if head coach Rod Brind’Amour would be back, but with the former captain inking a multi-year contract along with his staff, that bit of business was sewn up. Now, we wonder, what lineup will he be coaching next season?

Under Brind’Amour the Hurricanes have won at least one playoff round six years in a row, but there’s a hump they haven’t been able to get over. They’ve made it to two conference finals in the past six years, were swept in both, and in Round 2 this season they dropped the first three games against the Rangers before showing some life to force a Game 6. But also, for the past six years Carolina has been one of the best regular season teams in the league, claiming three division titles and posting a combined .664 points percentage since 2018-19 — second only to Boston in the NHL.

After their latest playoff exit, they have options. Eight players are set for unrestricted free agency, including four blueliners, while six players are set to become RFAs, led by Seth Jarvis and Martin Necas as the most important to resolve.

At their season-ending press conference, plenty of ground was covered on what the Canes had in front of them. Now former GM Don Waddell noted that he liked the depth they have at centre, with five on the NHL roster, but that a right handed shot was something he and the coach have discussed adding.

“The depth of our centres is good, but they’re all left hand shots,” Waddell said. “If we could find one of those guys that could win faceoffs on the right side I think that’s what we would like.”

Could the right-handed shot Necas be an option there? The 25-year-old has almost exclusively been a winger with the Hurricanes and, now an RFA, rumours are beginning to swirl about him potentially becoming a trade candidate instead. Necas took 47 faceoffs all season and had just a 34.1 winning percentage. The 25-year-old also saw a dip in production from 71 points last season to 53 this season.

Even in goal, where Carolina has Frederik Andersen, Pyotr Kochetkov and Spencer Martin all under contract for another season, Waddell indicated the team may still look to improve. Andersen played the majority of the playoff games, but finished with an .895 save percentage and wasn’t at his best in the elimination game.

And, for years, Carolina has been defined by its deeply skilled blue line group, but now face contract upheavals. Brett Pesce and Brady Skjei, two of their top-four minute eaters in the regular season, are just over a month from hitting the UFA market, as is underrated Jalen Chatfield who stepped up to average over 20 minutes a game in the playoffs. On July 1, Brent Burns, Jaccob Slavin and Dmitry Orlov will all be eligible for extensions as they’ll enter the final seasons of their contracts.

Some players will be back, but with so many contracts up and another season failing to break through in the playoffs, the time is right for change in the locker room.

On Friday came another wrinkle in Carolina’s off-season: Waddell stepped down from the GM seat to be replaced internally on an interim basis by Eric Tulsky, who now will be the one overseeing these decisions. He could very well have an entirely different look at how to go about all this business.

“We’ve done a pretty good job of being able to tweak what we’re doing every year based on the personell we have and still keep the way we want to play, our identity. And that’s really the key is playing to your identity,” Brind’Amour said.

Boston Bruins: How do they use their cap space and can they keep the goalie tandem together?

The Bruins will go into the summer with approximately $20.9 million in cap space and one especially important contract to get done. Jeremy Swayman is once again an arbitration-eligible RFA who GM Don Sweeney said he hoped to sign long before it got that far after they went through the process last summer. Jake DeBrusk, who scored 19 goals this season, is their most impactful UFA.

The Bruins have choices to make, whether or not to focus again on trying to get a top-two line centre after being unable to find outside replacements for Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci following their retirements last year. The team could also look to bolster itself on the wings and generally could be after a bit more scoring pop after finishing 14th in goals per game this past regular season.

“We’re gonna be aggressive to be able to complement what we already have in certain areas,” GM Don Sweeney said.

Meantime, the Bruins have a luxury in net with Swayman and Linus Ullmark, a tandem that won the Williams Jenning Trophy for lowest GAA in 2023 and followed up rankings fourth (Swayman) and seventh (Ullmark) in the league by Goals Saved Above Expected this season. The tandem split regular season games nearly down the middle in 2023-24 — 43 starts for Swayman, 39 for Ullmark with nearly identical numbers — before Swayman caught fire and earned 12 of 13 playoff starts. If he wasn’t already cemented as a key part of Boston’s future, that run opened the door to the possibility that Swayman could take the reins as a standalone No. 1.

“We clearly engaged in conversation during the regular season to find a longer term extension, we haven’t gotten there yet, it’s a priority now, it’ll continue to be a priority until we get that across the finish line,” Sweeney said of Swayman. “He’s a big part of our current team and the run we went on in the playoffs and our future. Our goaltending is arguably one of the best tandems in the NHL and they proved it during the course of the season.”

Swayman and Ullmark get along famously and the latter has stated a desire to remain in Boston as well. However, while Swayman’s contract is more pressing, Ullmark’s will factor in as well. The Swede has one year remaining on a $5 million contract and would be eligible to extend as early as July 1. On one hand, having this tandem has lifted the Bruins, on the other, it might become a luxury they can no longer afford given their other areas of need.

If Swayman were to earn $6-7 million on his next contract, could the Bruins go on with a tandem that counts for $12 million plus against the rising cap?

Another factor could be age, with Swayman turning 26 in November, and Ullmark turning 31 in July. If Ullmark were to become available, he would be added to an intriguing goalie market and could be one of the better, perhaps more affordable, options on the market compared to other rumoured names such as Jacob Markstrom or Juuse Saros. Ullmark, however, has partial control with a 15-team no-trade list.

“We’re going to find a landing spot with Jeremy Swayman and if we can make the math work we’re going to have the best tandem,” Sweeney said. “If we can’t, we’re going to explore and/or Linus may come to us and change his mind. That may occur as well. Right now he’s really happy. We were very happy to sign Linus. In a perfect world we would keep the tandem because I think it’s damn good. But we’re going to explore opportunities. My phone’s going to ring, I’m going to make calls, that’s just what the job requires.”

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