The summer moves for most teams are just about finished, as outside of some restricted free agents and teams trying to get under the cap, most organizations are set for the new season. With that we can see who in the Metropolitan Division is trending up or down, and how their upcoming season is projecting.
After missing the playoffs the last nine years, the Hurricanes formed into a “Bunch of Jerks” and finally broke through in 2019 to go on quite a run, making it to the Easter Conference Finals. Despite being swept by the Bruins, it was a successful season overall – one that energized their fanbase and caused the rest of the League to sit up and take notice.
The Hurricanes haven’t made any huge splashes so far this offseason, only losing Michael Ferland via free agency and Calvin De Haan in a trade to Chicago. Then they added Ryan Dzingel on a nice contract, James Reimer from Florida, and Erik Haula from Vegas (while hanging on to Sebastian Aho despite a Montreal offer sheet).
Losing Ferland hurts but Dzingel, though not a great possession player, is a great finisher, which is exactly what Carolina needs. They have all the possession players a team needs to succeed, they desperately need guys who can put pucks in the back of the net. Haula was often injured last season but if he can stay healthy he’ll certainly be a great third line center for the Canes. De Haan was a very underrated defensemen, but the Hurricanes still have one of the best defensive cores in the league with Jaccob Slavin, Brett Pesce, and museum connoisseur Dougie Hamilton leading the way.
The big question for the Canes is can the goaltending hold up? Looks like they will be going with Petr Mrazek/James Reimer duo, which certainly doesn’t strike fear into the hearts of opponents. But Mrazek did have a pretty good year for them and if he can at least bring in average goaltending the Canes should be okay. Reimer is an overpaid backup, but as long as he isn’t playing that #1 spot then he should be able to help the Canes.
Trend: Up. Carolina is a young, fast entertaining team with a bright future. Sebastain Aho and Andrei Svechnikov are only going to be getting better, both with potential to be elite talents in the NHL. Surround them with Teuvo Teravainen, Nino Niederreiter, Dzingel, Haula, and the aging but still impactful Jordan Staal, the Hurricanes should be fighting to be a top team in the NHL. All they need is their goaltending to help them out.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKET
It’s been a bit of a wild ride for the Blue Jackets over the last six months or so. After going all in and acquiring Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel from Ottawa at the trade deadline, the Jackets squeaked into the playoffs where they played David and swept Goliath, also known as the Tampa Bay Lightning, in the first round. Alas, that’s all they could do before following up their first-ever playoff series victory with a loss to the Bruins in the second.
So their all-in attempt for a Cup was for nothing — and as added salt in the wound, they lost Artemi Panarin, Duchene, Dzingel, and Sergei Bobrovsky in free agency. Not good.
That being said, the Blue Jackets aren’t a team to so easily dismiss. On the forwards, they still have sniper Cam Atkinson, elite defensive forward Nick Foligno, a good young talent in Pierre-Luc Dubois, and Tom Wilson-lite with Josh Anderson. They also added, via free agency, a very underrated top six winger in Gustav Nyquist.
The biggest question for the Jackets is how Alexander Wennberg responds to a couple of terrible years. He had a 59-point season in 80 games in 2016-17; he’s had a total of 60 points in 141 games since. His success or failure will determine how far the Blue Jackets go this upcoming season.
Where things get interesting is in the injection of some very good young talents like Emil Bemstrom, Alexandre Texier, and Trey Fix-Wolansky to the lineup. It’s not certain all of them will make the team, but with a lot of spaces opening it wouldn’t be surprising. These guys are young but have a ton of skill.
On the back end they arguably have the best top pairing in the NHL with Seth Jones and Zach Werenski, along with some nice surrounding pieces like David Savard and Ryan Murray, (when he’s healthy).
Like the Hurricanes, their biggest question mark is in net. With the departure of elite talent Bobrovsky, they now have back up Joonas Korpisalo and newcomer Elvis Merzlikins (side note: not only will the Jackets have that terrible cannon, they’ll have about 100 terrible Elvis puns). Elvis has all the ability to be a NHL starter but he has yet to play one North American hockey game – and the chances of a 25-year-old rookie netminder stepping into the NHL and being at least average aren’t great.
Trend: Down. After losing talents like Panarin, Bobrovsky, and Duchene there’s no way to go but down. That doesn’t take away from the fact that the Jackets still have a pretty darn good team — goaltending will probably end up sinking them this season in a tough Metro division, but their upcoming young talent mixed with the stuff they have now should make them a dangerous team again soon enough.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
It’s hard to have a perfect offseason, but the Devils probably came about as close as a team could get. First they added Tyler Dellow and Matt Cane to their analytics department, which is a home run. Then they traded for PK Subban for pennies on the dollar, used their first-overall pick to select Jack Hughes, and put a cherry on top with a trade for hyped Vegas prospect Nikita Gusev. It was an ace offseason for them.
They now have a Nico Hischier/Hughes 1-2 punch up the middle, surrounded by players like Taylor Hall, Kyle Palmaieri, and Gusev to fill in their top six. They also have great depth players like Miles Wood, Blake Coleman, and Jesper Bratt. And taking a one year gamble on Wayne Simmonds is a low risk high reward move. Their offense should be deadly.
Having a right-side defense of Subban, Damon Severson, and Sami Vatanen is amazing. And the left side isn’t too shabby either with young power play ace Will butcher. Andy Greene is 36 but still should hold his own.
Stop me if you heard this before, but their success depends on the goalies. Cory Schneider was once one of the best goalies in the league but after a few seasons with hip and other injuries, he just hasn’t been the same. The good news for Devil fans is he finished last season very well, so if he can continue it into next season he should be able to be able to put up at least some decent numbers. He just needs to stay healthy.
Trend: Up. The New Jersey Devils added a ton of great talent this summer and their young guys should only be getting better. This is good news for them, bad news for the rest of the division as it means another potential powerhouse joining an already stacked group. The Devils are a team to keep an eye on… as long as their goaltending holds up.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
The Islanders shocked the league last season by actually being… good. On paper they looked like a bottom-five team, especially after the loss of John Tavares, and yet they ended up not only making the playoffs but also sweeping the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. That was of course then followed by their own sweep at the hands of the Hurricanes – but that doesn’t take away from the magic that team brought due to Barry Trotz’s coaching and the hype by the fans.
The Islanders seemed to be poised for a big offseason, getting into the mix on both Panarin and Bobrovsky, but were unable to snag either. The only real move they did make (after losing Robin Lehner to free agency) was to sign Semyon Varlamov as their new starting goalie.
The rest of their business revolved around locking up some of their own, with big deals to three of their top six forwards: Brock Nelson, Jordan Eberle, and Anders Lee. So the Isles still have a good top six that also includes the elusive Mathew Barzal and stable Josh Bailey. And of course they still have “the best fourth line in hockey” in Martin-Cizikias-Clutterbuck which, although vastly overpaid as individuals, can still be effective as a trio. The issue for the Islanders is their third line doesn’t have anyone notable to play on it, so they’re basically working with two fourth lines.
They still have a decent blueline, although not a spectacular one. Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy aren’t what they once were, but they do have some promising young pieces like Ryan Pulock, Adam Pelech, Scott Mayfield, and Devon Toews. So if those young guys can really step up they should be able to stabilize the rearguard.
Where it will get interesting (are you sensing a trend?) is the goaltending. Lehner and Thomas Griess made up the best tandem in the league (statistically speaking) last season. Lehner is now gone. Can Varlamov replace him? He’s still a good goalie but seems to have a hard time staying healthy, as Caps fans likely remember. If he can’t go the Islanders must go with Greiss, who is good but is on the wrong side of 30 to carry too much of a workload.
Trend: Down. Yes down, but only slightly. The magic that the Islanders rode last season is probably not repeatable, even as they generated a similar level of excitement as Vegas did a season before (although perhaps with a little less flash and a little more Long Island). They certainly aren’t a bad team, and should be in the mix for a playoff spot, but it’s not certain that they challenge for the Metro crown a second time.
NEW YORK RANGERS
Earlier it was noted that the Devils had about as perfect of an offseason as you could have — well, the Rangers weren’t far behind them. The Rangers landed free agent prize Panarin, traded for Jacob Trouba and Adam Fox, moved up in the lottery draft to snag the amazingly named Kaapo Kakko with the second-overall pick, and saw their prized prospects Vitali Kravstov and Igor Shesterkin make the jump from the KHL to North America. That is one heck of an offseason.
Panarin, Kakko, and Kravstov will join Mika Zibanejad, Chris Kreider (for now), and Pavel Buchnevich to create a deadly top six. There’s a bit of pressure on Kravstov and Kakko to jump right in and not deal with the typical rookie struggles, but they’ll almost assuredly turn into great NHL players before too long.
The big question mark for the Rangers is who plays second-line center. Zibanejad had a massive season on a bad team last year, but he will need help behind him. There are some young players that could slot in there like Filip Chytil, Lias Andersson, and Brett Howden, but it is no sure thing that any of them are ready for those duties. Center depth is so key these days — if they can’t find a second-line center internally, they’ll need to look at external options if they want to be in the playoff mix.
One option for them is to let Panarin carry his own line. He’s that good that he doesn’t need a top-end center to help him. So one of those young guys or even Vladislav Namestikov could play second-line center; they may not be able to match him in talent, but they just need to be good enough not to hold Panarin back.
The defense is where things can get a bit ugly. Yes, there are some great pieces like Trouba, Tony DeAngelo, Brady Skjei, and potentially Fox. But the team still has Marc Staal and Brendan Smith on their roster (and arguably their one big stumble this summer was buying out Kevin Shattenkirk instead of one of those two). How the coach decides to play the defense will determine a lot for them. If they rolled with a Trouba, DeAngelo, Skjei, Fox, Hajek, allowing only one of Staal or Smith to play a number six spot with the least of amount of time than the Rags should be looking good. But that’s very unlikely. One or both of Staal and Smith will probably get top four minutes.
As for the goalies, the Rangers still have The King. Henrik Lundqvist has been the best goalie in the League over the course of his career, and it’s not that close. That said, the dude is 37 years old, so if they want to get the best out of him they need to play him way less than a full season. They should keep him around 40-50 games at the most.
The issue is that his backup, Alexandar Georgiev, probably isn’t a goalie that should be getting close to 40 starts himself, so the Rangers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. There’s a chance Shesterkin could maybe be NHL ready. He absolutely tore up the KHL the last few years but he hasn’t played a North American game yet and that usually takes adjusting. But crazier things have happened.
Trend: Up. The Rangers looked like they have ended their rebuild early by getting lucky in winning the draft lottery and landing a huge free agent at 27 years old, that usually doesn’t happen. Will they be a playoff team this season though? Most likely not. They could maybe get there if they find a suitable second line center, the coach puts the right defensive pairings out on the ice, and they are able to rest Lundqvist without hurting the team. But even if they don’t make the playoffs they will be a scary team soon enough.
The Flyers were one of the quieter teams this offseason, but when they made a move it was quite big. They signed Kevin Hayes for seven years, and while it was for too much money, he should help them now. They lost two trades when they sent Radko Gudas to the Capitals for Matt Niskanen and sent a pair of picks to San Jose for Justin Braun, expelling cheaper, shorter deals for longer, more expensive ones on two blueliners over 30 and likely on the decline.
Hayes will fit in nicely behind the ever underrated Sean Couturier, who needs to stay healthy. They will be able to surround those two with some great weapons like Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, James van Riemsdyk, Nolan Patrick, and Travis Konecny (still unsigned). Depth might be an issue, but if a kid like Morgan Frost can come in from Juniors and be effective immediately that would certainly help.
Defense, on the other hand, could be a struggle. Niskanen and Braun will probably be getting top-four time when they shouldn’t. Shayne Gostisbehere will need to have a bounceback season, and Ivan Provorov (also still unsigned) still needs to take that next step that everyone is waiting on to become a true #1. Travis Sanheim is young but should be very good. Robert Hagg is bad. So the defense could be a big mess if it isn’t put together perfectly, much like the Rangers.
One thing the Flyer fans don’t have to worry about for the first time in a long time is goaltending. Savior Carter Hart appears to be here to stay. He’s a very good young goalie that will probably be a top goalie in the league soon enough. As long as he can stay healthy and keep Brian Elliot out of the crease the Flyers could steal some games from Hart alone.
Trend: Up. Down. Maybe both. It’s hard to tell. This season the offense should be very good, the defense not so good, and the goalie very good. The Flyers also have one of the best, if not THE best, prospect pools in the NHL, so they should be good for awhile. The issue is trying to meld their older players with young talent in time to win a Cup now. They will certainly be there in the playoff spot battle, probably getting in on a wild card spot or just missing.
You hate to see it, you really do… but the Penguins are declining thanks to the decision-making of the top brass over the last couple years, and especially this past summer. The Penguins shipped out sniper Phil Kessel to Arizona for Alex Galchenyuk, a clear downgrade. Galchenyuk brings less offense than Kessel while maintaining the same terrible defense.
It wouldn’t be all bad for the Penguins if they used the money they saved in that swap on something good, but they inexplicably used it to sign Brandon Tanev to a six year deal with a $3.5M AAV. Granted, this wasn’t like signing Jack Johnson long term, because Johnson was just bad (and is still on the books); Tanev is not bad per se, but he isn’t worth that contract. The Capitals, for example spent 4 years $2.75M AAV on Richard Panik. Panik is much better than Tanev and he cost $750K and is signed for two fewer years.
The Penguins do still have Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jake Guentzel up front, and as everyone knows, those three can be deadly. And while the Galchenyuk acquisition wasn’t great, he’s still a good offensive weapon who could turn a spot next to Crosby or Malkin into a 20-30 goal season if everything breaks right for him. The issue for the Penguins is now depth. The ability to move Kessel to the third line gave them an extra threat and some flexibility up front; now the third line will probably be Tanev-Bjugstad-Rust, which is certainly a good third line but won’t have the same pop that Penguin fans are used to.
Defensively, Brian Dumoulin and Kris Letang should still make up an amazing top pair. It’s also nice to have a Marcus Pettersson (still not signed) and Justin Schultz second pair. The issue is the bottom pairing is Jack Johnson and Erik Gudbranson. Those two will get torn apart every time they are on the ice if paired together — and it’s not even a guarantee they are on the bottom pairing, as both Johnson and Gudbranson could see top four minutes like they did last season.
Matt Murray is still holding down the fort in net and Casey DeSmith is a good backup, so the goaltending should not be an issue for them provided Murray can stay healthy (which isn’t an ironclad guarantee). The Penguins will need them to be quite good to keep up with the hectic Metro.
Trend: Down. No two ways about it, the Penguins are getting worse. BUT they still have Crosby, Malkin, Guentzel, Letang, and Murray. Those guys give the Penguins a chance to win every single night, but playoffs even with that group is no longer a guarantee as it may have been in recent years. With Carolina, New Jersey, and New York all getting much better, the road to the postseason is that much harder (and it wasn’t easy to begin with). It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Penguins miss the playoffs all together, especially if they can’t stay healthy.
It’s also important to remember that the Penguins’ summer isn’t over yet. They are currently over the cap and still need to sign Pettersson. How they fit him in can either help or hurt the team. If the Penguins make room for him by moving out Johnson or Gudbranson then they get better, but if they make room by moving out Rust, like it’s being rumored, than they could get even worse.
The Capitals didn’t have a sexy offseason, but it was a busy one. They added a lot of depth in Panik, Garnett Hathaway and Brednan Leipsic, extended trade deadline pickup Carl Hagelin, and moved Niskanen and his contract out for Gudas. But other than that, nothing crazy.
Up front, the Capitals should still be very dangerous. Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and TJ Oshie (if he can stay healthy) are older but still should be reliable. Jakub Vrana is poised for a break out season. And Wilson, as long as he stays out of the box and avoids the wrath of the DoPS, should be good for top-six production like he has done the last two seasons.
The biggest question mark is Evgeny Kuznetsov. How Kuznetsov goes is how the team goes. His potential is endless and it wouldn’t be surprising if he hit 100 points, but it’s up to him if he wants to do it. The Capitals need him to be his top end self or they won’t capture their second Stanley Cup.
On the backend, the Capitals got some addition by subtraction. Losing Brooks Orpik to retirement and the declining Niskanen to the Flyers for Gudas are wins. John Carlson will still be an elite talent that will hopefully have a healthy Michal Kempny by his side. Nick Jensen struggled with the Capitals last year but should bounce back as he gets more comfortable, and young talents like Jonas SIegenthaler and Christian Djoos should round out a very strong defensive core.
Braden Holtby will be in a contract year and after seeing Bobrovsky and Andrei Vasilevskiy sign large deals, Holtby should have a big year himself. Considering the defensive additions in front of him, Holtby should be able to be better than he has the last two seasons, at least number wise. Pheonix Copley is an average backup but could have his position usurped by Vitek Vanecek or Ilya Samsonov (if they make room for him) in preseason. Either way, the Capitals should have a good-to-great tandem this upcoming season.
Trend: Up. Slightly. The Capitals didn’t need a lot of help because they were already a top team, but with the positive defensive additions from both the forwards and rearguards, the Capitals should be even deadlier this upcoming season. They might have to sacrifice some offense but will be worth it if they can get better defensive play from the team. They already had the offense, now they should be able to stop so many pucks going in as they have the last two years. And as long as Kuznetsov rights his ship and head coach Todd Reirden maximizes his roster, the Capitals should be a top team once again.