As this year's group of free agents was lacking in terms of name players and general talent, one might describe this year's Free Agent Frenzy as something more minor. Like a Free Agent Fracas. Or a Free Agent Flap. However, after two days of unrestricted free agency, followed by what happened in days prior, one thing is clear: the Metropolitan Division got stronger.
Granted, this is all "on paper." When teams take to the ice and outside, uncontrollable factors take hold, the results may be different. Yet, some teams have made some serious moves be more dangerous while other teams were already dangerous and stayed the course. A few are banking on better luck. Then there's the New Jersey Devils. But we'll get to them later on.
Three big trades happened that certainly make three different Metropolitan teams better in theory. Pittsburgh swung a huge deal to get Phil Kessel. Yes, the Penguins may be top-heavy, but the top is Kessel, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury. That's a top that can continue the Pens being in contention for the division crown. Before the Kessel deal, the deal that got many buzzing was the one Columbus made with Chicago. The Blue Jackets picked up Brandon Saad in a seven-player swap. While I think Marko Dano will be good and Artem Anisimov is also good, the Blue Jackets picked up a burgeoning scorer who's only 22. The Blue Jackets offense could be more potent as he joins Ryan Johansen, Nick Foligno, Cam Atkinson, and company. The most recent deal involves the Capitals. They acquired TJ Oshie from St. Louis for Troy Brouwer, a prospect, and a third rounder. Yes, not even a first rounder or a similar player; the Caps just straight up got a better forward than Brouwer for Brouwer and not much more. The Oshie deal is an even bigger winner for the Caps given that they signed Justin Williams. They essentially swapped Joel Ward, who's exploring free agency, and Brouwer for Williams and Oshie. That's a win. While the Blue Jackets and Penguins still have some serious questions about their defense. These three teams bolstered their offense with these deals, and that will help them be more competitive than what they were last season.
The two New York teams weren't terribly active. The New York Islanders didn't just have one awesome summer last season to get good. Garth Snow had an awesome summer that galvanized the components already in place on the team to make them solid. They really just added some depth and a new backup goalie in Thomas Griess. They'll be contenders next season given that their forwards are excellent, their defense is strong, and goaltending just has to be average to succeed. The New York Rangers had to be busier to make some cap space. Therefore, they traded Cam Talbot for picks and Carl Hagelin for Emerson Etem. They made two other deals to add some more goalies; but their main task is to retain Derek Stepan. While they'll miss the hole Martin St. Louis left - his own decline notwithstanding - they still have plenty of talent and one of the best goaltenders in the game. Adding Viktor Stalberg and Raphel Diaz for the bottom six and bottom pairs, respectively, should help. All the same, both New York teams remain strong going into 2015-16 provided uncontrolled factors don't derail them.
Speaking of uncontrolled factors, I'm expecting two other changes for next season. Last season, Columbus lost 503 man-games due to injury. While I can't say they were definitely a playoff team if they weren't so banged up, I can say it certainly didn't help the cause. I highly doubt that will repeat in 2015-16. Last season, Carolina was actually one of the better possession teams in the league. War on Ice listed them with a 52.4 Corsi For%. Their problem was with the percentages at evens. Their PDO was the league's lowest at 97.1; a shooting percentage of 6.2% and a save percentage of 90.9%. That's not going to win many games regardless of how good they may be in the run of play. The Canes may be stuck with Cam Ward in the crease, but some better puck luck when firing it could make the difference in a few more games in 2015-16. Columbus already added Saad, with better health, they should be a better team. The Canes can at least be more competitive.
Plus, the Canes have the cap and roster space to be more competitive should they enact on it. So do the Philadelphia Flyers, who finally dumped the Chris Pronger deal (in a farce of a move, but what's done is done) and Niklas Grossmann. Both teams haven't made too many material changes beyond the Flyers picking up a replacement for Ray Emery (Michal Neuvirth). Still, the Flyers boast a forward group that can hang with anyone. Should Steve Mason continue to be good, they'll hang with more teams in 2015-16. The Canes' system may be suited for them and continued growth out of Elias Lindholm, Justin Faulk, and others makes them a tougher squad to face. Should there be more teams in cap trouble, both of these teams can absolutely pounce on them and potentially make their squad better for it.
(As an aside, I've noticed a lack of ridiculous contract signings this summer. Maybe I'm missing a few, but it seems like the Summer of Analytics has taken fruition throughout the league. Good!)
From my quick and dirty look at the rest of the division, there's a lot of competition to be had. The division snapshots will be certainly ones to keep tabs on. The Islanders, Rangers, Capitals, and Penguins all made the postseason last season. They could do so again, though I think the Blue Jackets can absolutely crash that party. The Flyers and Hurricanes can be very good spoilers. Then, there's the Devils.
The Devils are currently in a re-build right now. What that means is that we know the team isn't good and it's going to take time, smart moves, and a little luck to get back to where we want them to be. That will also take drafting high for some time to get the prospects they so badly need. As much as I think Pavel Zacha was an acceptable pick and the other selections boasting speed are good things, they need more. A big reason why the Devils are where they are was because they lacked the offensive forward prospects available. They need those players now. Getting those players requires picking earlier in the draft, and that requires a bad record.
However, I am very much against the notion of a tank. The top three picks in 2016 will be decided by a lottery, which should deter most from just being awful. As a season ticket holder, I can accept the team not being good, but I want them to at least put up an effort. I want them to re-build by trying to get on the right track as opposed to just being bad and hoping one day it magically becomes good. With a stronger Metropolitan Division, the Devils can try to get better without being too much better to get out of that spot. I think they may battle with Carolina for last in the division, but they won't have to put out the crummiest roster possible to do so.
This is a kind of luxury for the Devils re-building. With potentially five playoff teams in the Metropolitan and two others that aren't doormats, the Devils don't have to "go for it" now. John Hynes and his crew can establish what works. Younger players, for better or worse, may get more leeway as to what they'll be doing. At a minimum, it'll allow Ray Shero and his staff to identify who's worth keeping and who should be dealt or released. They don't have to be jobbers and play to not get results; they'll likely end up near the bottom of division anyhow because of the steps other teams have taken.
And it doesn't even stop with the Metropolitan. Look at some of the other top-ten drafting teams from last season. Out of the ten, I only see two teams that could reasonably worse than New Jersey. There's Arizona, which is just a mess. There's Toronto, who is undergoing a re-build of their own. The rest will be better for one reason or another. Edmonton and especially Buffalo will be better teams than what they were. Carolina and Philly can hang and that could lead to some more wins to push them up the standings. San Jose could very well sneak into the postseason. Columbus will likely be better just because of how unlikely . Colorado can make some more noise of their own. Lottery aside, the Devils should be expected to finish in the bottom ten again, which is where they should be to get the prospective talent they need. They won't have to play like total scrubs to get there.
Therefore, management, coaches, and the players should still be free to try to make small improvements. I still think they could use another right winger; but signing the RFA's and a goalie for Albany may really be it for this summer. It's not flashy, but it'll do for where they are. When they get more offensive prospects and a better free agent class, then they can take a bigger step in the re-build. I'm willing to wait until then. The growing strength of the division from the past week or so makes that easier to accept.