The NHL offseason has continued to drag on through the end of July, with several big-name restricted free agents still unsigned, and one particular UFA captain still unsure on if — and, perhaps, where — he will play next season. Nevertheless, now is a good time to assess the current state of the Metropolitan Division after the bulk of the summer.
New York Rangers
While the Rangers may still be a team in transition, they unquestionably improved their roster as the 2019-20 season approaches. Their offseason got off to an early start as they were able to swing a trade with the Hurricanes during the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs to add defensive prospect Adam Fox to their blueline. Fox was unable (or perhaps unwilling) to come to an agreement with the Canes on a contract and will now look to step in to significant playing time.
He joins a group of defensemen that received another jolt in June when the Rangers shipped a first rounder and Neal Pionk to the Winnipeg Jets in exchange for Jacob Trouba. Trouba was then signed to an extension (seven years, $56 million) to be a top blueliner in the Big Apple.
Additionally, the Rangers made perhaps the biggest splash on July 1st as they snagged one of the biggest free agents on the market, Artemi Panarin. With a massive seven year, $81.5 million deal, the Rangers added the best true scorer that has graced MSG in years. Along with these additions, the Rangers recouped some draft capital in trading Jimmy Vesey to the Buffalo Sabres in exchange for a third-round pick. Other small moves included the signings of former Canes Greg McKegg and Phil Di Giuseppe.
Will all of these moves, are the Rangers a playoff contender? Perhaps. But it is more likely that they are fringe postseason contenders that may have some tough decisions to make near the trade deadline. Henrik Lundqvist is not getting any younger, and Alexandar Georgiev has shown the potential to be a capable NHL netminder. The long-time Ranger goalie may end up their best trade chip this winter.
New Jersey Devils
Another also ran from a season ago, the Devils may be the most transformed team in the Metro heading into this season. By virtue of their poor year, and a little bit of ping-pong ball luck (thanks, Taylor Hall!), the Devils secured the top pick in the NHL Draft and with it, the services of the highly-anticipated Jack Hughes. Hughes is slated to slide right into the NHL lineup, as he joins two prior first overall picks in Hall and Nico Hischier.
The Devils did not rest on their draft haul, however, as they made a significant trade for the services of P.K. Subban to man the blueline and run their power play. The Devils managed to make the deal without giving away a first round pick (surrendering two second-rounders and two players), and were then able to add a veteran net front presence in Wayne Simmonds via free agency. If nothing else, the addition of Subban and Simmonds should be a boon for the Devils power play, as Hall and Hughes should have plenty of freedom to go about their business with Simmonds and Subban drawing a crowd.
Along with some depth signings such as Connor Carrick on the blueline, the Devils made an intriguing deal with the Vegas Golden Knights to acquire winger Nikita Gusev. Though he has yet to play in the NHL, some believe he could be a top-six forward. All told, the Devils have given themselves a much better base to work from to attempt to climb back into the postseason.
When deciding whether a team is on an upward or downward trajectory, sometimes you have to take into account more than just offseason acquisitions. Yes, the Flyers did grab one of the bigger free agent names available in Kevin Hayes (seven years, $50 million), but their upward trend is more about an organization that is moving forward from an era that has left fans unsatisfied.
The Flyers have moved on behind the bench and have hired Alain Vigneault. The Dave Hakstol experiment, which ended abruptly last season, is officially a thing of the past. Paul Holmgren has left his perch as President of Hockey Operations to become an adviser and Chuck Fletcher has taken his post. A team with a solid prospect base is now in a position to move forward as a franchise.
Add in the trade with Washington Capitals that saw the Flyers swap Radko Gudas for veteran Matt Niskanen, and the Flyers could be poised for an improvement in front of their prized netminder Carter Hart, who was able to get his feet wet last season. If the Flyers are more system-committed in this coming season, and Hart is the real deal in net as many expect, don’t be surprised to see the Flyers jump from .500 in 2018-19 (37-37-8) to serious playoff contention in 2019-20.
While most people might not consider being stuck in neutral a particularly good thing, the Capitals are largely returning the exact same core that has delivered postseason appearances and one Stanley Cup to the nation’s capital over the last several years. Trimming and adding around the edges should not significantly alter the makeup of the Caps, even with veterans like Niskanen exiting, as the Caps maintain their same identity.
Additions such as Richard Panik, Garnet Hathaway, and Brandon Leipsic continue the churn of depth that contenders such as the Caps routinely pursue. The main question for the Caps will be what they receive from their stars, Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeni Kuznetsov, along with Braden Holtby in net. Their defense should be solid if Michal Kempny returns healthy. But in order to contend at the top of the NHL, the Caps must have good health and good goal-tending. Time will tell if they receive both.
The concept of labeling a team as “trending down” feels especially dangerous when there is a byline attached, because there is no way to avoid it coming off as a prediction of sorts. Alas, the Penguins continued their annual game of scrambling to work around the salary cap this summer. This year, the casualty was star winger Phil Kessel, who was shipped to the Arizona Coyotes in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk. Galchenyuk was decent in his one season in the desert, but he has not cracked the 20-goal mark since achieving 30-goals in the 2015-16 season in Montreal. He is likely to see a jump in production if/when he lines up with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin or Jake Guentzel on his line, but will it be enough to make up for the pure goal-scoring ability of Kessel?
The Penguins also added some depth up front with Brandon Tanev coming in via free agency, but overall, the Penguins appear to be counting on their stars to remain great. They will also hope that their emerging players such as Guentzel taking yet another leap and for Matt Murray to regain the form that many believed he was capable of after two Stanley Cup runs to begin his career. If these things don’t occur, general manager Jim Rutherford increasingly has his hands tied due to the cap issues in the Steel City.
New York Islanders
While this offseason may not have represented the same extraordinary loss as last offseason for the Islanders, they did see their Vezina Trophy finalist netminder leave Brooklyn/Long Island, as Robin Lehner signed with the Chicago Blackhawks. The Isles responded by signing veteran Semyon Varlamov on a four year deal, but it is fair to wonder if he will be able to make the same kind of transformation as Lehner.
Varlamov has been volatile over his career, sporting some fantastic seasons of his own (Vezina runner-up in 2013-14) and some disappointing campaigns (only 24 games played, .898 save percentage in 2016-17). With Barry Trotz system in play, most expect to see the very best version of Varlamov, but we will have to wait until October before we can make any true determinations.
Most observers were shocked at the identity transformation that the Isles underwent in 2018-19 to become one of the premier defensive-minded hockey clubs in the league after sporting historically poor defensive numbers just one season prior. With much of the same roster returning, and an entire offseason for teams to plan out how to attack this roster, the question becomes: Can they do it again?
If they can remain towards the absolute top of the league in goals against, the Isles can contend again for the postseason in 2019-20. If they are unable to remain at the top however, finding enough offense could become a concern for Trotz and the Islesas they will not be taking anyone by surprise this coming season.
Columbus Blue Jackets
No team bet bigger on making a run in the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs than the Blue Jackets. For their efforts, they did win their first postseason series in franchise history (a rousing first-round sweep of the Tampa Bay Lightning), but they also surrendered a number of draft picks in favor of expiring deals. As such, gone are mainstays Artemi Panarin (Rangers) and Sergei Bobrovsky (Panthers), as well as rentals Ryan Dzingel (Hurricanes) and Matt Duchene (Predators).
To replace some of the lost scoring talent, the Blue Jackets were able to sign Gustav Nyquist in free agency. To replace Bobrovsky in net, the Jackets will now turn to former backup Joonas Korpisalo to take the reins as the starter. Korpisalo has failed to post a +.900 save percentage in backup duties over the last two seasons, but Columbus will need him to prove he can be better with a greater workload.
No matter how you slice it, the Blue Jackets will immediately feel the pain from their 2019 trade-fueled run. And in a division with so many competitive teams surrounding them, the ride could be bumpier than they bargained for.