Free agency brings major change to Metro division
Devils landed one of the top free agent forwards with last week's signing of Mike Cammalleri. (GETTY IMAGES)
The NHL's two biggest superstars play in the Metropolitan Division, and each has witnessed change all around them this offseason.
Pittsburgh Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has a new coach, a new general manager and six new teammates so far. That's not even mentioning the eight players who left Pittsburgh via a trade or through free agency.
Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin also has a new coach, a new general manager and four new teammates so far, including three of Crosby's former teammates and two defensemen he used to battle against.
The Penguins are trying to maintain their place among the elite teams in the NHL while changing on the fly. The Capitals are trying to get back to being one of the elite teams in the NHL while doing the same thing. Pittsburgh ran away with first place in the division last season but lost in the Eastern Conference Second Round to the New York Rangers. The Capitals didn't even make the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But Pittsburgh and Washington are not alone in the changeover department among teams in the Metropolitan Division.
The Rangers have lost five of the 19 skaters they used in the Stanley Cup Final. The Philadelphia Flyers traded Scott Hartnell, considered by many players and fans to be the heart and soul of the team. The Columbus Blue Jackets added Hartnell, which means they got bigger and edgier.
The New Jersey Devils spent on new offense. The New York Islanders spent on two second-line forwards. The Carolina Hurricanes followed the path of the Penguins and Capitals by changing their coach and general manager. Carolina's former GM is the current GM in Pittsburgh, and the Hurricanes' current GM is a former Hall of Fame player for the Penguins. Got that?
What have all these changes done to the teams in Metropolitan Division? Let's break it down:
Note: The additions, re-signed players, still unsigned players and subtractions pertain only to the NHL roster. The money figures are according to CapGeek.com or have been provided by the club.
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
The Devils bolstered their offense with the addition of Cammalleri. He scored 26 goals last season for the Calgary Flames, who were 23rd in the League in goals-per-game (2.46). The Devils were 27th (2.40).
Fayne's departure puts more onus on Adam Larsson to become a regular on the blue line. Jon Merrill and Eric Gelinas should be as well as New Jersey will likely have a top-six defense corps that features Andy Greene, Bryce Salvador, Zidlicky, Larsson, Gelinas and Merrill with Peter Harrold as an extra.
Additions: Patric Hornqvist, Nick Spaling, Steve Downie, Blake Comeau, Christian Ehrhoff, Thomas Greiss
Still unsigned: Spaling (RFA), Brandon Sutter (RFA), Simon Despres (RFA), Lee Stempniak (UFA), Taylor Pyatt (UFA), Tomas Vokoun (UFA)
Subtractions: James Neal (Nashville Predators), Jussi Jokinen (Florida Panthers), Matt Niskanen (Washington Capitals), Brooks Orpik (Washington Capitals), Tanner Glass (New York Rangers), Chris Conner (Washington Capitals), Deryk Engelland (Calgary Flames), Joe Vitale (Arizona Coyotes)
The Penguins have a new GM (Jim Rutherford), a new coach (Mike Johnston), at least one new assistant coach (Rick Tocchet) and six new players so far. They also traded their fourth leading scorer (Neal), and lost their fifth-leading scorer (Jokinen) and one-third of their top-six defense corps (Niskanen and Orpik) in free agency.
Yet despite the significant changes, they still should be favored to win the division. Why?
Pittsburgh still has a strong top-six forward group with Crosby, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Evgeni Malkin, Hornqvist and maybe Beau Bennett. Spaling, Downie and Comeau give the Penguins something they lacked last season: forward depth, especially when you factor Sutter, Craig Adams and Marcel Goc in the mix.
They still have a mobile defense with Kris Letang, Paul Martin, the emerging Olli Maatta and now Ehrhoff, who signed a one-year, $4 million contract. Marc-Andre Fleury has been one of the NHL's best regular-season goalies for the past four seasons.
NEW YORK RANGERS
Additions: Dan Boyle, Tanner Glass, Mike Kostka, Chris Mueller, Matt Hunwick
Re-signed: Dominic Moore
Still unsigned: Derick Brassard (RFA), Chris Kreider (RFA), Mats Zuccarello (RFA), John Moore (RFA), Daniel Carcillo (UFA), Raphael Diaz (UFA), Justin Falk (UFA)
Subtractions: Anton Stralman (Tampa Bay Lightning), Brian Boyle (Tampa Bay Lightning), Brad Richards (buyout, Chicago Blackhawks), Benoit Pouliot (Edmonton Oilers), Derek Dorsett (Vancouver Canucks)
The Rangers knew their salary-cap situation wasn't going to allow them to bring back the same team that went to the Final this spring. So instead they've tried to plug some holes left in the wake of free agency and should go into the season hoping some of their younger players are ready.
Dan Boyle should fill Stralman's role as a right-shot defenseman paired with Marc Staal. Glass can take Dorsett's minutes, even if the Rangers can't expect him to be as effective on the forecheck. Kostka and Hunwick will replace Diaz and Falk as the seventh and eighth defensemen. Dylan McIlrath might push too.
Beyond that, it will be up to the young guys, unless the Rangers can swing a trade.
Oscar Lindberg might take over for Richards as one of the Rangers' top-three centers. J.T. Miller might be able to fill Pouliot's role on a line with Brassard and Zuccarello, who are likely to re-sign. But the Rangers still need to find someone to play Boyle's hard minutes. He was their most effective forward on the penalty kill, and he could play any forward position.
Additions: R.J. Umberger, Nick Schultz
Re-signed: Kimmo Timonen, Ray Emery, Brayden Schenn, Jason Akeson
Still unsigned: Adam Hall (UFA), Hal Gill (UFA)
Subtractions: Scott Hartnell (Columbus Blue Jackets), Steve Downie (Pittsburgh Penguins), Tye McGinn (San Jose Sharks), Erik Gustafsson (KHL)
The Flyers' big move this offseason came before the draft, when they traded Hartnell to the Blue Jackets to bring Umberger back to Philadelphia. Otherwise it's been a quiet offseason so far for the Flyers, who have re-signed some of their own guys and added a depth defenseman in Schultz but don't have the cap flexibility to do much more right now.
That could change if GM Ron Hextall finds a trading partner and a friendly return for Vinny Lecavalier, who reportedly is on the block with the Flyers looking to move his contract, which carries a salary-cap charge of $4.5 million for four more seasons.
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
Additions: Scott Hartnell, Jerry D'Amigo
Re-signed: Curtis McElhinney, Dalton Prout
Still unsigned: Ryan Johansen (RFA), Corey Tropp (RFA), Tim Erixon (RFA), David Savard (RFA)
Subtractions: Blake Comeau (Pittsburgh Penguins), Matt Frattin (Toronto Maple Leafs), R.J. Umberger (Philadelphia Flyers), Derek MacKenzie (Florida Panthers), Nikita Nikitin (Edmonton Oilers), Nick Schultz (Philadelphia Flyers)
The Blue Jackets haven't made their most important offseason signing yet; they need to get Johansen under contract without any further tension than there already is. Johansen feels disrespected in the negotiations, telling the Columbus Dispatch that he feels he has earned more than a "bridge" contract and the offers that have come his way have been "a slap in the face."
Johansen was excellent last season with a team-high 63 points as he became the No. 1 center the Blue Jackets thought he would become when they took him with the fourth pick in the 2010 draft. However, it was his first good season. He had 33 points in 107 games from 2011-13.
Provided the Blue Jackets and Johansen find a mutual understanding, the team looks primed to be even better than it was last season, when it made the playoffs and lost in the first round to the Penguins. They will have plenty of size and bite with Hartnell (6-2, 210) joining a forward group that already features Johansen (6-3, 223), Nathan Horton (6-2, 229), Brandon Dubinsky (6-2, 216), Nick Foligno (6-0, 210), Artem Anisimov (6-4, 198), Boone Jenner (6-2, 208) and Jared Boll (6-3, 214).
Additions: Matt Niskanen, Brooks Orpik, Justin Peters, Chris Conner
Re-signed: Michael Latta
Still unsigned: Dustin Penner (UFA)
Subtractions: Mikhail Grabovski (New York Islanders), Tyson Strachan (Buffalo Sabres), Jaroslav Halak (New York Islanders)
GM Brian MacLellan, who served as George McPhee's assistant for the past seven seasons, addressed Washington's defense in a big way on July 1. That's important considering the Capitals might be going for more of a defensive approach under new coach Barry Trotz.
McLellan did it by taking two players from Washington's biggest rival in the division, the Penguins. Neither of them came cheap: Niskanen signed for seven years and $40.25 million. Orpik signed for five years and $27.5 million. The Capitals, who at times had three bona fide NHL defensemen in the lineup last season, now have a top-six defense corps that features Niskanen, Orpik, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Mike Green and Dmitry Orlov.
McLellan also signed Peters to a two-year contract to push incumbent No. 1 Braden Holtby.
However, the Capitals still have a hole at center behind Nicklas Backstrom with Grabovski's departure. How they fill it will go a long way in determining their overall team depth and their chances of getting back into the playoffs after missing last season.
Additions: Jay McClement, Brad Malone, Tim Gleason
Re-signed: Ron Hainsey, Jiri Tlusty, Nathan Gerbe
Still unsigned: Andrei Loktionov (UFA), Drayson Bowman (UFA), Radek Dvorak (UFA), Joni Pitkanen (UFA), Mike Komisarek (UFA), Brett Bellemore (UFA)
Subtractions: Justin Peters (Washington Capitals), Manny Malhotra (Montreal Canadiens)
The Hurricanes, like the Penguins and Capitals, have a new coach (Bill Peters) and a new GM (Ron Francis), so ideally they'll have a new look and a new direction as well. However, so far this offseason the Hurricanes have added depth players, a clear indication that they're prepared to give their young guys a fair chance to be difference makers.
Forward Jeff Skinner and defenseman Justin Faulk already are difference-makers. Forward Elias Lindholm and defenseman Ryan Murphy are supposed to become star players. They will have to step up this season. If they do, it will give Carolina four key players who are 22 or younger.
Unless the Hurricanes trade Cam Ward and his $6.3 million salary-cap charge, they appear set in goal with Ward and Anton Khudobin. Eric Staal and Jordan Staal are still their top-two centers. Andrej Sekera, at 28, is an emerging top-four defenseman coming off a strong season.
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
Additions: Mikhail Grabovski, Nikolai Kulemin, Jaroslav Halak, Chad Johnson, Cory Conacher, T.J. Brennan, Jack Skille
Still unsigned: Anders Lee (RFA), Casey Cizikas (RFA), Calvin de Haan (RFA), Matt Donovan (RFA), Radek Martinek (UFA)
Subtractions: Evgeni Nabokov (Tampa Bay Lightning), Anders Nilsson (KHL)
The Islanders paid a hefty price for two-thirds of their second line on Wednesday, but they're hoping Grabovski (four years, $20 million) and Kulemin (four years, $16.75 million) find the magic they had when they played together with the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2010-11.
That season, while playing with Clarke MacArthur, Grabovski and Kulemin put up career-highs in goals, assists, points, shots on goal, plus-minus and games played. Grabovski had 29 goals, 29 assists, 58 points, 239 shots and a plus-14 rating in 81 games; Kulemin had 30 goals, 27 assists, 57 points, 173 shots and a plus-7 rating in 82 games.
Grabovski and Kulemin should give the Islanders secondary scoring behind John Tavares and Kyle Okposo. Considering they should have solid goaltending again with Halak and Johnson, and it's conceivable that the Islanders take a major step forward and challenge for a playoff berth.
However, they still need to address their defense, which may happen in the form of a trade. The Islanders have an abundance of centers in Frans Nielsen, Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Josh Bailey. One could be moved in a trade that brings back a top-four defenseman.