Our New Jersey Devils are facing an uphill climb to get back to postseason promised land; finishing last in the Metroplitan Division (by a good chunk) means the Devils have a lot of ground to make up. They took a number of steps to fix that (as I will get into below) but the rest of the Metro didn’t remain idle while the Devils made strides to catch the pack.
Many of the Metro’s 8 teams (including NJ) made an attempt this summer to improve their team in hopes of competing for the Stanley Cup in 2017-18. With all of the changes going on, coupled with how competitive the Metro already was, it’s going to be a fight (at times literally) to get into a playoff position. Even if teams from our division occupy both Eastern Conference wild card spots, there’s still going to be 3 teams out in the cold come April. Today we look at whether teams got better, stayed roughly the same, or got worse as we march on towards 2017-18.
Arguably Better: New Jersey Devils, Columbus Blue Jackets, Carolina Hurricanes
I didn’t want to quantify any team as “definitely” better because I think it truly depends on how you look at each of the above teams. For instance, our Devils definitely improved offensively with Nico Hischier brought in through the draft and Marcus Johansson coming in via trade; I also like the Brian Boyle signing as it could help solidify our faceoffs and penalty kill while giving us someone who isn’t afraid to stand up for teammates when needed. The argument part falls to the defense as per usual; one question mark (Jon Merrill) essentially turned into another (Mirco Mueller), but outside of that, nothing was done to address last season’s major shortcoming; if some of the young players fighting for spots step in, then yes the Devils will definitely be better this upcoming season. Damon Severson’s continued growth will be another interesting piece to look at, and if Cory Schneider forgets last season ever happened, Jersey’s Team could be dangerous.
The Columbus Blue Jackets made one of the biggest splashes of the summer when they sent Brandon Saad back to where he started his NHL career (the Chicago Blackhawks) along with a couple small pieces in exchange for Artemi Panarin and different small pieces. Panarin gives Columbus a threatening, sniping winger and a pure finisher which is one piece they truly lacked. A number of youngsters round out Columbus’ lineup, including Zach Werenski, who the Jackets need to hope does not suffer the dreaded “sophomore slump” in 2017-18. The only issues I can see with Columbus is if either their forwards don’t mesh with each other or if starting goalie Sergei Bobrovsky goes down with an injury for an extended period of time. If neither of those happen, Columbus could be a serious contender this season.
While the Carolina Hurricanes didn’t make any drastic changes like the Jackets, their youth infusion is slowly helping the team to take form. They added some nice supporting pieces in Justin Williams, Marcus Kruger, and Trevor Van Riemsdyk to help balance out their forward lines and defense pairings. The key addition that I think could help make them a much better team is Scott Darling in net; the Canes acquired his rights from Chicago (yep, Hawks helping the Metro again) and signed him to a deal that says they see him as their #1 goalie. With how shaky Cam Ward and Eddie Lack were for them, Carolina needs Darling to step up, otherwise they’ll find themselves roughly where they were last year in the standings, if not lower.
Roughly the Same: Pittsburgh Penguins, Our Hated Rivals, Second Rate Rivals
The Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins had a pretty quiet offseason; they took care of their own contracts and signed Antti Niemi to backup Matt Murray. They did lose Ron Hainsey to free agency, but a returning Kris Letang should more than balance that out. If the team stays healthy they’ll probably be just as good as last season, but a long-term injury to a key player (like Murray without Marc-Andre Fleury to back him up) could be a back breaker.
Our Hated Rivals made a variety of moves this summer, but did they really improve? Prized free agent Kevin Shattenkirk got his wish to join his favorite team, and re-signing Brendan Smith has the blue line looking solid; additionally Anthony DeAngelo joins the back end coming over in a trade with the Arizona Coyotes, but there was a downside to the trade. To acquire DeAngelo (and save a ton of cap space), OHR sent Derek Stepan and Antti Raanta back to the Coyotes. While they also re-signed Mika Zibanejad, OHR are now somewhat weak down the middle, and the NHL is definitely now a league where center depth is key. Father Time has also added another year on Henrik Lundqvist and someone though giving a contract to Ondrej Pavelic was a good idea, so unless the defense is playing lights out, the scoreboard against OHR might be lighting up.
The Second Rate Rivals got the consolation prize of Nolan Patrick at the draft, but his injury issues put a bit of a question mark on his durability. The team will also be hoping that their prized prospect pool of young defenders can make its mark this season as two more youngsters should join already promoted Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov to fill out their D ranks. I still say the SRR are roughly the same, however because Brian Elliott is a downgrade from Steve Mason, and they turned Brayden Schenn into Jori Lehtera. If everything goes right for them this season (Patrick stays healthy and produces, young defenders step into without growing pains, Elliott isn’t the sieve he was last year) they will be better, but it really seems like the pluses and minuses will just cancel out.
Arguably Worse: New York Islanders
The Islanders are the one team that I argue got worse, but again could see other hockey fans seeing differently. They sent underachieving Ryan Strome to the Edmonton Oilers in exchange for Jordan Eberle, but other than that, did little to try and support John Tavares. Additionally, they’re running a still somewhat iffy goaltending tandem in Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss, and Travis Hamonic was traded to the Calgary Flames for draft picks. Andrew Ladd’s contract is still hanging around and not looking so great; while he did rebound a bit with his goal scoring in the second half of the season, the Isles need to hope first half of 2016-17 Ladd doesn’t show up in 2017-18, otherwise coupled with all of their other issues, the Isles will go from arguably to definitely worse.
Definitely Worse: Washington Capitals
This is the only team in the Metro that doesn’t get put into an “arguably” category; the Caps were pretty limited by the salary cap, though they did manage to re-sign T.J. Oshie and Dmitry Orlov. Free agency saw the above mentioned Shattenkirk, Karl Alzner, and Justin Williams depart, and Johansson became another Caps cap casualty but by trade rather than the others who left for nothing. I just don’t see the same depth in Washington for this upcoming season, and while they’ll more than likely still be a playoff team, I just don’t see how they can make a deep run after having lost as many pieces as they did.
What Does It All Mean?
As I said in the title of this article, the Metropolitan Division is going to be a bloodbath (again, probably literally at times) this season, and even with their improvements, our Devils could still be the worst team in the division due to just how competitive it will be. While Pittsburgh and our two rival teams may not have noticeably improved, they’re still going to be highly competitive; similarly, while the Capitals lost a lot of depth, they still have the necessary pieces to compete for a playoff spot. It’s a tough time for our Devils to be young and on the upswing, as there’s no guarantee of success in an extremely competitive division, but I’m confident and hopeful that the team is up to the task.
Now I’d like to hear your thoughts on the Metro division for this upcoming season; do you think it will be as competitive as I’m forecasting it to be? Who do you see as improved teams? Who do you see being worse than they were last season? Any teams you see surprising the league in one way or another? Leave any comments you have below and thanks as always for reading!