During the regular season, I post up a weekly division snapshot. I find it valuable to see how the New Jersey Devils in the week in terms of results alongside the other teams in their division. While playoff formats, division names, and even the teams have changed, one thing has remained consistent: How you do in the standings matters. Even when it does not seem so, such as early in the season. The snapshot works on the idea that pay attention regularly to the standings is a good indicator as to whether a fan should feel good about their team or whether they need to start worrying or demanding change or accepting it is a lost season.
As the third main event of the 2021 NHL Offseason is in the distance, I figure now is a good time to see how the division looks ahead of training camp beginning in about seven weeks from now. While there can and will be other moves made in the league, the lion’s share of free agent signings took place on July 28 with over 160 contracts handed out. And teams were quite active in trades in the prior week or so ahead of the Seattle Kraken Expansion Draft and 2021 NHL Draft. While it is not yet made official, my understanding is that Boston and Buffalo are out and Carolina and Columbus are back in. Their inclusion in the Devils’ schedule release suggests that. I do not know for sure if the playoff format will change, but I would anticipate that doing well in the division will likely be a requirement for making it. To that end, how the Devils and the other seven teams in the division - New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Washington Capitals - look after the first few days of free agency will help set expectations for this coming season.
To do this, I am going to look at each team’s significant transactions in and out of the team in this offseason as of July 31. I want to provide a general statement as to whether or not I think they are a better team as of the end of July than they were back at the end of this past season. I am not going to go over every move made or drill down deep into their cap or roster. These will be somewhat higher-level summaries for all eight teams. I will also begin with the returning Columbus and Carolina teams before going through the East Division in reverse order of last season’s results.
All salary cap, trade, and free agent information comes from CapFriendly.
Columbus Blue Jackets
2021 Finish: 18-26-12, 48 points, 42.9% Points, 8th in Central Division
The SBNation Blog: The Cannon
Players In: Jakub Voracek (Trade - Philadelphia), Adam Boqvist (Trade - Chicago), Jake Bean (Trade), Sean Kuraly (Free Agent), Gavin Bayreuther (Free Agent)
Players Out: Seth Jones (Trade - Chicago), Cam Atkinson (Trade), Michael Del Zotto (Free Agency - Ottawa), Adam Clendening (Free Agency - Detroit)
Their Salary Cap as of July 31: $68.92 million ($12.13 million in space), 37 contracts
My General Thoughts: The Columbus Blue Jackets appear to be in some kind of transition. They did not really lose anyone significant in fee agency beyond maybe Michael Del Zotto and Adam Clendening. But between the team letting go from John Tortarella, Seth Jones wanting to move on, and the team swapping Atkinson one-for-one with Voracek, they may be looking for a new way forward. I do not see this team being gutted though. The deal for Jones yielded picks (including a valuable 2022 first rounder) and Adam Boqvist, the team did retain longtime Jacket Boone Jenner, gave Patrick Laine an expensive one-season “prove it” deal, and Voracek is still quite talented. They may end up fighting for the basement in the division, but they are going to be a competitive bunch to do so. Should everything align in Columbus’ favor, they could be a darkhorse at best.
If everything goes in their favor. Unless they’re going to play the Devils in all 82 games, this team is going to have a very long 2021-22. (Related Aside: Oliver Bjorkstrand is signed for 5 more seasons! Why!) Adam Boqvist may be an answer for the future of their blueline but not today. Sean Kuraly was not that good and that he has been their big free agent signing is a sign the team is not aiming high. Then again, they just committed just under $57.5 million for six more seasons of Zach Werenski.
Did They Get Better?: Not really, but their future may be brighter.
2021 Finish: 36-12-8, 80 points, 71.4% Points, 1st in Central Division
The SBNation Blog: Canes Country
Players In: Ethan Bear (Trade - Edmonton), Anthony DeAngelo (Free Agency), Frederik Andersen (Free Agency), Antti Raanta (Free Agency), Ian Cole (Free Agency), Brendan Smith (Free Agency), Josh Leivo (Free Agency), Derek Stepan (Free Agency)
Players Out: Dougie Hamilton (Free Agency), Alex Nedeljkovic (Trade - Detroit), Jonathan Bernier (Free Agency), Brock McGinn (Free Agency), Petr Mrazek (Free Agency), James Reimer (Free Agency), Jake Bean (Trade - Columbus), Warren Foegele (Trade - Edmonton), Morgan Geekie (Expansion)
Their Salary Cap as of July 31: $69.67 million ($11.83 million in space), 42 contracts
My General Thoughts: The Canes have this reputation of being a smart team. This offseason belies that reputation so far. After struggling to find a goaltender to make a breakthrough, they had one in their system in Alex Nedeljkovic, and then decided to not pay him and move him to Detroit for Jonathan Bernier. Bernier chose to walk. While Mrazek and Reimer were UFAs. So they are rolling the dice on Andersen and Raanta, which could be good if healthy - which is unlikely for Andersen and Raanta. The trade for Bear was nice; he’s a good player. Tony D’s on-ice metrics have been great in the past, but the big question is whether he can play nice with others as he showed he could not earlier this year in Manhattan. I doubt that. Derek Stepan may be a fine gamble as forward depth. But the big failure is that the Canes let Dougie Hamilton walk. He is legitimately one of the top right-sided defensemen in the world. And they let him go. No amount of Bear, DeAngelo, Ian Cole, or Brendan Smith (??) can replace Hamilton. All that and the team is gambling again on two brand new goalies to be at least decent. At least the forwards are still very good.
Here is the frustrating thing about the Hurricanes. Carolina has been a fantastic 5-on-5 team for the last decade while being undercut by something in every season. Usually, it has been not getting decent goaltending. Sometimes with the combo of poor special teams. Just as it looked like they were going to get right, they were bounced in 5 by Boston in the first round in 2020 and bounced in 5 again by Tampa Bay this year. The first place finish in the division suggested they should stay the course. Instead, they decided to make bad changes that will not likely help them. They could very well be a playoff team, but past history suggests that they could be cut off at the knees again. I will not be surprised if they underachieve, which will lead to even more changes - likely in management as well.
Did They Get Better?: No! They let Dougie Hamilton walk! They let a promising Nedeljkovic go and did not even retain the goalie returned from that deal! And then signed two coming off bad seasons with injuries. For those reasons alone, they are a worse team.
New Jersey Devils
2021 Finish: 19-30-7, 45 points, 40.2% Points, 7th in East Division
The SBNation Blog: All About the Jersey - which you are reading right now.
Players In: Dougie Hamilton (Free Agency), Jonathan Bernier (Free Agency), Ryan Graves (Trade - Colorado), Christian Jaros (Trade - San Jose)
Players Out: Will Butcher (Trade - Buffalo), Nathan Bastian (Expansion), Mikhail Maltsev (Trade - Colorado), Nick Merkley (Trade - San Jose), Matt Tennyson (Free Agency), Aaron Dell (Free Agency)
Their Salary Cap as of July 31: $60.25 million ($21.24 million in space), 37 contracts
My General Thoughts: The Devils have only made two free agent signings, a notable trade, and a more minor trade so far. They are that much better for it. Their signings were two of the more expensive ones in signing Jonathan Bernier and Dougie Hamilton. In Bernier, the Devils filled their glaring need for a veteran goaltender to share the crease with Mackenzie Blackwood. In Hamilton, the Devils have massively upgraded their defense by way of acquiring one of the best in the league and the best free agent on the market. Send a thank you card to Don Waddell and his staff in Carolina for letting both go free. Getting Graves and dumping Butcher is an upgrade for the left side of the defense given that Butcher was not getting minutes. Throw in an improving young group of forwards, and the Devils should be far better in 2021-22 than they were in the last two seasons.
What is amazing is that the Devils are just over the salary cap floor. The Devils added $13.125 million in cap space in their two UFA signings and they still have oodles of space. They will reach the floor with their RFA re-signings; but this is a team that could make other moves happen depending on how aggressive Tom Fitzgerald wants to be. He did mention needing a top six winger. That can still be had. Regardless, they are an improved team and at a minimum should be playing a lot of meaningful season games in 2022.
Did They Get Better?: Absolutely.
2021 Finish: 25-23-8, 58 points, 51.8% Points, 6th in East Division
The SBNation Blog: Broad Street Hockey
Players In: Ryan Ellis (Trade - Nashville), Cam Atkinson (Trade - Columbus), Rasmus Ristolainen (Trade - Buffalo), Keith Yandle (Free Agency), Nate Thompson (Free Agency), Martin Jones (Free Agency), Adam Clendening (Free Agency)
Players Out: Nolan Patrick (Trade - Nashville), Philippe Myers (Trade - Nashville), Shayne Gostisbehere (Trade - Arizona), Robert Haag (Trade - Buffalo), Carsen Twarynski (Expansion), Jakub Voracek (Trade - Columbus), Brian Elliott (Free Agency)
Their Salary Cap as of July 31: $73.49 million ($8.01 million in space), 45 contracts
My General Thoughts: The Philadelphia Flyers finished in sixth in 2021 with a roster seen as underachieving. A big factor for that was that goaltenders Carter Hart and Brian Elliott were putting up terribly low save percentages. The Flyers proceeded to make a bunch of moves to make space and bring in Martin Jones to address that gap. Martin Jones, one of the worst performing goaltenders in the past three seasons. Oh, boy.
Not to mention the Flyers’ defense has not really improved. Trading for Ryan Ellis and taking a flyer on Keith Yandle were good moves. Dumping Gostisbehere for practically nothing and acquiring Rasmus Ristolainen were bad moves. While swapping Atkinson for Voracek made some space for July 28, but, again, their space has been used on Jones and a bunch of depth players. Have fun with the last season of Claude Giroux’s and Sean Couturier’s contracts!
Did They Get Better?: No. I think they could be battling Columbus and the next team in this post for last place unless Hart plays incredibly well and Jones is somehow decent. Even then, I do not see how this team can finish in the top half in this division.
New York Rangers
2021 Finish: 27-23-6, 60 points, 53.6% Points, 5th in East Division
The SBNation Blog: Blueshirt Banter
Players In: Barclay Goodrow (Trade - Tampa Bay), Sammy Blais (Trade - St. Louis), Patrik Nemeth (Free Agency), Jarred Tinordi (Free Agency), Greg McKegg (Free Agency), Dryden Hunt (Free Agency), Ryan Reeves (Trade - Las Vegas)
Players Out: Anthony DeAngelo (Bought Out), Colin Blackwell (Expansion), Brett Howden (Trade - Las Vegas), Pavel Buchnevich (Trade - St. Louis), Philip Di Giuseppe (Free Agency), Brendan Smith (Free Agency)
Their Salary Cap as of July 31: $66.09 million ($15.41 million in space), 41 contracts
My General Thoughts: One of the stunning moves made in the league during the regular season was in the wake of Tom Wilson going stupid against the Rangers. This led to a line brawl and a bunch other fights in the next Capitals-Rangers game wherein the Rangers lost. This also led to owner James Dolan firing GM Jeff Gorton and team president John Davidson. Since then, the Rangers have decided to go more for character, grit, size, and other things that do not make teams all that better.
This has to be especially frustrating for the Rangers fan who, correctly, saw the team improve as 2021 went on. The Rangers missed the playoffs by 11 points but did get great seasons out of Artemi Panarin, a Norris campaign from Adam Fox, and a fine debut from K’Andre Miller and Igor Shesterkin among other positives. Sure, you could argue that missing the postseason while having those in your favor is a big failure. Changes were needed. But these changes? Getting Goodrow for a 7th and handing him a six-season, almost $22 million contract? Moving a top-six forward in Pavel Buchnevich for a fourth-liner in Blais? And then signing McKegg, who can do that thing too? Adding Nemeth and Tinordi? Trading a pick for Ryan Reeves? And then giving him a contract extension when he will be age 35? It is almost as if GM Chris Drury felt the team did not have enough bottom six/pairing guys that could be MEAN and TOUGH and NASTY as if that was why they finished 11 points behind the Isles last season. Spoiler: These moves will not help them make it this season short of some amazing repeats from Panarin, Fox, Shesterkin, and Miller and improvements from Zibanejad, Trouba, Strome, Kakko, Kravstov, and Lafreniere. Oh, and goaltender Alexandar Georgiev wants out now. I know there are some in the Devils fanbase (and others) that ache for these kinds of moves. The Rangers may demonstrate why they are not so good ones in 2021-22.
Did They Get Better?: No. Tom Wilson going dumb one night in May hurt the Rangers far beyond anyone expected. They could be battling Columbus and Philly for last in 2021-22 if/when their top players do not repeat what they did last season. Now that’s a straight shot.
New York Islanders
2021 Finish: 32-17-7, 71 points, 63.4% Points, 4th in East Division
The SBNation Blog: Lighthouse Hockey
Players In: Richard Panik (Trade - Detroit)
Players Out: Jordan Eberle (Expansion), Andrew Ladd (Trade - Arizona), Nick Leddy (Trade - Detroit)
Their Salary Cap as of July 31: $63.83 million ($17.67 million in space), 33 contracts
My General Thoughts: Lou does not leak. I know this. You know this. As such, not much has happened in this offseason involving the Islanders. After getting within a game of the Stanley Cup Finals, the Isles did have to “pay the toll” so to speak for their salary cap. Nick Leddy and his $5.5 million was sent to Detroit for a pick and Panik. Ladd, a second rounder, and two conditional picks was dumped to the desert for future considerations. Eberle was taken by Seattle. The Islanders’ response as of July 29: Nothing other than re-signing Andy Greene.
The Islanders have the roster and cap space to bring players back. Insiders claim that Zach Parise is reuniting with Lou on the Island and Palmieri will be returning. However, nothing has yet been announced. Given that the majority of free agents have already been signed by July 29, that space may be better served to keep RFAs Anthony Beauvillier, Ilya Sorokin, and Adam Pelech happy.
As much as I think they will miss Eberle and Leddy, I do not think the Islanders became appreciably worse. They still have Barzal, Nelson, Bailey, and a returning Beauvillier. The D will be led by Pulock and Pelech. Wahlstrom and Dobson are emerging. Sorokin and Varlamov should be solid in the net. They still have a top-tier coach in Barry Trotz.
Did They Get Better?: No. But watch them confound the hockey men and women online by battling to make the playoffs. They may even do it.
2021 Finish: 36-15-5, 77 points, 68.8% Points, 2nd in East Division
The SBNation Blog: Japers’ Rink
Players In: Vitek Vanecek (Trade - Seattle), Matt Irwin (Free Agency), Dylan McIlrath (Free Agency)
Players Out: Brendan Dillon (Trade - Winnipeg), Michael Raffl (Free Agency), Craig Anderson (Free Agency)
Their Salary Cap as of July 31: $78.83 million ($2.67 million in space), 42 contracts
My General Thoughts: The Washington Capitals had one and only goal for this offseason: retain Alex Ovechkin. They did so. To the amount of $47.5 million over five seasons. He’s 36. This is not going to end well. But he’s their greatest player ever, so I get it. The Capitals’ other big move of the offseason was exposing Vanecek, trading Dillion to the Jets for two second round picks, and using the 2023 second rounder to get Vanecek back.
If the Capitals wanted to do more than just make some depth moves and letting some depth players go, then they would have needed to move someone with a significant cap hit. They did not do so. It could be argued they should since the Caps had an early playoff exit. Not to mention it could make the Ilya Samsonov negotiations a little easier (he’s an RFA and their only one). But the Caps are committed to their current core and they only had to re-sign their all-time best player. It may not be good for the long term future. For today, they are still in the top tier in this division.
Did They Get Better?: Not really, but they did not get any worse either. They stayed in place; as much as I like the maneuvering to bring Vanecek back It is pretty much the same team that nearly finished first in the East and was in first in the East for quite some time in 2021. That core is still a nightmare to match up against. They may not be favorites for the Cup, but they’ll likely fight for first in the division in 2021-22.
2021 Finish: 37-16-3, 77 points, 68.8% Points, 1st in East Division
The SBNation Blog: PensBurgh
Players In: Filip Hallander (Trade - Toronto), Brock McGinn (Free Agency), Filip Lindberg (Free Agency), Dominik Simon (Free Agency), Danton Heinen (Free Agency), Taylor Fedun (Free Agency)
Players Out: Jared McCann (Trade - Toronto), Brandon Tanev (Expansion), Cody Ceci (Free Agency)
Their Salary Cap as of July 31: $78.90 million ($2.59 million in space), 43 contracts
My General Thoughts: Like the Washington Capitals, the Pittsburgh Penguins did not need to do much. Just getting a healthier Evgeni Malkin may be its own improvement for the team that finished first in the division. However, Tristan Jarry was horrid in the 2021 postseason and not particularly amazing in the 2021 regular season. There was some thought to the Pens acquiring a goaltender. They did sign college free agent Filip Lindberg, who was awesome at U Mass for the last three seasons. But expecting him to usurp minutes from Jarry or Casey DeSmith is a lot of pressure to put on a rookie. They do not have a ton of space to get one, either. That $2.5 million of available space may be barely enough to give new deals to Radim Zohorna and Zach Aston-Reese.
With that in mind, I question their decision to bring in a bunch of depth players. Knowing Pittsburgh, they will play well better than anyone expected (McGinn is a shrewed pick up) and help the Penguins continue to be division leaders instead of division also-rans. The question about goaltending will loom larger should Jarry and/or DeSmith struggle to start this coming season. As with the Capitals, I do not think they are Cup contenders, but they are a top team in this division until proven otherwise.
Did They Get Better?: Not really, but it is possible if McGinn, Heinen, Simon, or Fedun end up better than expected similar to past depth Penguins excelling. And especially if Lindberg ends up being a NHL quality goalie. As before, doubting Crosby, Malkin, and Letang remains as a bad idea.
Biased as it may seem, I really do think the Devils were the only team to improve themselves up until the second day of free agency. They had needs at goaltender and defense; they have addressed them with quality players. Adding the best free agent on the market is an unquestionable improvement to the team. Philly had similar positional needs and managed to acquire two of the worst players at those positions. They did not get better. The better New York team has done nothing as of July 31, so they are not a better team by default. The other New York team has done a lot, but nothing really done to appreciably make them better unless depth somehow equals wins. Pittsburgh and Washington did not get better and they did not get worse, so they remain at the top of the heap by default. What about the two returning teams? Columbus has made the most of their situation but I think it is a team in transition as opposed to a playoff squad. Carolina let the best free agent defenseman walk, and traded a revelatory goaltender for a veteran they did not keep and then ran out to sign two others to replace the other two veterans they did not want to keep either. That is not an improved team at all. Unless you feel differently about the other seven teams or they do something significant between Thursday night and Sunday morning, that is how I see it.
Now, does this mean the Devils are going to be better than at least a couple of teams this season? That remains to be seen. The Devils were real bad last season. They are a better team now than they were in May 2021, but I cannot promise they are better than another team in this division. Remember that Carolina won their division, Pittsburgh and Washington went down to the wire, and the Isles made the playoffs by a good margin. That could be the foursome that goes to the playoffs. That will be a tough group to crack assuming none of them fall apart. Of course, we can see whether that does happen on a week-by-week basis when the Weekly Division Snapshot returns on October 17 for the 2021-22 season.
What do you think of the offseason moves within the division? Do you agree that the Devils improved while others really did not? Or do you think another team in the division made themselves better? While it is early, who do you think will take the division in 2021-22 based on what we know now? Who will end up in the basement? Please leave your answers and other thoughts about the offseason of the Devils and the other seven teams in the division in the comments. Thank you for reading.