The New Jersey Devils ended a really bad 2021-22 campaign by missing the playoffs by 37 points. They finished seventh in the Metropolitan Division just two points ahead of the Philadelphia Flyers. Their record was 27-46-9 with 63 points earned with a points percentage of 38.4% - their lowest such percentage since the 1986-87 season (40%) and even a little bit worse than the 2021 season. Clearly, the New Jersey Devils had a lot of room for improvement.
In the past couple of weeks, the Devils arguably made some improvements. Goaltending was the team’s biggest issue on the ice. The Devils moved picks for the signing rights to Washington goaltender Vitek Vanecek (and another pick). Coaching was another significant issue. Before Free Agency Frenzy officially kicked off, the New Jersey Devils signed Andrew Brunette as an associate coach for three seasons. Brunette, who led the Florida Panthers to their best ever season in franchise history and their first playoff series win in decades, is certainly an upgrade behind the bench. They swapped Pavel Zacha for Erik Haula. They signed Brendan Smith as a depth defenseman. They made some kind of attempt for Johnny Gaudreau, didn’t get him, but they did get Ondrej Palat. They made a trade yesterday in moving defenseman Ty Smith and a third round pick in 2023 to Pittsburgh for defenseman John Marino. Regardless of how you feel about each individual move, the Devils have made improvements to the team. They got a goaltender, they stabilized their defense, they moved out two players who have struggled instead of hoping they turn a corner, they added an experienced winger, and got at least one credible coach behind the bench.
It remains to be seen whether the improvements will continue and, more importantly, be good enough within this division. The New Jersey Devils cannot miss the playoffs by 30+ points again or finish just ahead of a bizarrely-run Flyers team. Yet, the pathway to playing meaningful games in March for the first time since 2018 will require the Devils to hang within this division. The top three teams in the Metropolitan Division qualify for the playoffs automatically. Fourth and fifth place will be in direct competition with the fourth and fifth place teams in the Atlantic Division teams for two wild card spots. Even if the Devils fall short, falling short by a handful of points would still represent a big improvement.
To that end, I want to highlight what the other seven teams have done so far in this offseason. The majority of free agent signings took place on July 13 - 155 signings totaling $936.4 million contract dollars. While everyone still has work to do - RFA signings, potential trades, lining up PTOs - now is a good time to gauge what everyone else in the Metropolitan Division has done. Did they get better? Did they get worse? Did they stay about the same? In this special version of the Metropolitan Division Snapshot, let us look at the other 7 teams from reverse order of standings.
2021-22 Finish: 25-46-11, 61 points, 37.2% Points, 8th in the Metropolitan Division
The SBNation Blog: Broad Street Hockey
Players In: Anthony DeAngelo (Trade - Carolina), Nicolas Deslauriers (Free Agent), Justin Braun (Free Agent), Morgan Frost (Free Agent), Kevin Connauton (Free Agent), Troy Frosenick (Free Agent), Louis Belpdio (Free Agent), Cooper Marody (Free Agent), Adam Brooks (Free Agent)
Players Out: Oskar Lindblom (Buy Out), Martin Jones (Free Agent), Keith Yandle (Free Agent), Adam Clendening (Free Agent), Samuel Morin (Free Agent), Ryan Fitzgerald (Free Agent), Nate Thompson (Free Agent), Brennan Menell (Free Agent), Maxim Sushko (Not Qualified), Matt Strome (Not Qualified), Kirill Ustimenko (Not Qualified)
Their Salary Cap as of July 16: $82.598 million (-$98,107 in space), 41 contracts
My General Thoughts: What are you doing, Philadelphia? This is a team that hired John Tortorella to be the head coach. OK, he’s going to get them going. Then GM Chuck Fletcher proceeded to add Tony D and sign him to a $10 million contract. OK, he can add offense from the back end. Not their biggest concern, but OK. Then they buy out cancer survivor Oskar Lindblom. They apparently did not try to go for Gaudreau. Fine. But they would not part with James van Reimsdyk’s expiring contract. Which they may have to after adding their smaller free agent deals, which included a bizarre return of Justin Braun and a four-year contract for Nic Deslauriers. The team is slightly over the cap, they still have two RFAs to sign (Zack MacEwen and Owen Tippett), and their goaltending tandem is currently Carter Hart and the currently exiled-within-Russia Ivan Fedotov. What are you doing, Philadelphia?
Did They Get Better?: No! And it’s not likely going to get any better before it gets worse no matter how much Tortorella tries to coach them up. Their offense is still leaning on players who cannot produce at the level of how much they are being paid. They have no room to add Sean Couturier or Ryan Ellis back from LTIR. An outsider may think they should blow it all up, but Fletcher & Co. think otherwise. Short of some superlative performances, they could be about as bad as last season. By the way, the Flyers are your current example of why signing players to huge deals they cannot possibly play up to is generally a bad idea. Just look at Kevin Hayes, Cam Atkinson, and Rasmus Ristolainen among others.
2021-22 Finish: 37-38-7, 81 points, 49.4% Points, 6th in the Metropolitan Division
The SBNation Blog: The Cannon
Players In: Johnny Gaudreau (Free Agent), Erik Gudbranson (Free Agent),
Players Out: Nathan Gerbe (Free Agent), Zac Rinaldo (Free Agent), Dean Kukan (Free Agent), Scott Harrington (Free Agent), J-F Berube (Free Agent), Tyler Sikura (Free Agent) Gabriel Carlsson (Not Qualified), Mathieu Olivier (Trade)
Their Salary Cap as of July 16: $80.158 million ($2.3 million in space), 40 contracts
My General Thoughts: The Columbus Blue Jackets appeared to stay still. Maybe get a little worse in adding a defensive defenseman who is not good at defense named Erik Gudbranson. For four seasons. For $16 million. I laughed. Maybe you did too. Then they signed Johnny Gaudreau for seven seasons at $68.25 million. I was not laughing. You probably were not either.
There is a chance that Gaudreau’s contract ages like milk. It is more likely Gaudreau will still play and produce like a star for several seasons. He alone is an instant upgrade for a Columbus team that outdid expectations last season. It may be enough to push them into a playoff fight. I still think Gudbranson was not a good add even if it may have helped Gaudreau’s hand in signing with the Devils. I am unsure how they will find the money to keep Patrik Laine. I am still going to continue dread Devils games against Columbus. Mostly for Oliver Bjorkstand.
Did They Get Better?: When you sign the most talented free agent on the market and the first triple-digit scorer in years to hit UFA, then yeah, you got better. Enough to surpass Washington or Pittsburgh? Eh...maybe.
2021-22 Finish: 37-35-10, 84 points, 51.2% Points, 5th in the Metropolitan Division
The SBNation Blog: Lighthouse Hockey
Players In: Alexander Romanov (Trade - Montreal)
Players Out: Zdeno Chara (Free Agent), Thomas Hickey (Free Agent), Cory Schneider (Free Agent), Andy Greene (Free Agent), Austin Czarnik (Free Agent), Paul LaDue (Free Agent), Mitch Vande Sompel (Free Agent), Michael Dal Colle (Not Qualified)
Their Salary Cap as of July 16: $71.31 million ($11.18 million in space), 37 contracts
My General Thoughts: The Islanders have the majority of their roster already set for this coming season ahead of time. Some minor extensions were done ahead of the first day of free agency (I think Sebastian Aho, the defenseman, was the most notable) and so far that has been it. No movement that I am aware of for their RFAs, Kieffer Bellows, Noah Dobson, and the acquired Alexander Romanov. No movement for anyone on the market. Sure, they were thought to be in on Gaudreau, but I do not think Lou has ever really negotiated through the media before so I do not think he started this past week. This is a team that has just kind of stayed in place.
Did They Get Better?: No. They have not done anything of note beyond Romanov, who was not so notably good for Montreal in his past two seasons with them. So, no. Their best shot at improvement may be not spending the much of the first half of the season away from Long Island - which is a plus.
2021-22 Finish: 44-26-12, 100 points, 61% Points, 4th in the Metropolitan Division, Eliminated by Florida Panthers (Round 1, 2-4)
The SBNation Blog: Japers’ Rink
Players In: Darcy Kuemper (Free Agent), Charlie Lindgren (Free Agent), Connor Brown (Trade - Ottawa), Dylan Strome (Free Agent), Matt Irwin (Free Agent), Henrik Borgstrom (Free Agent), Erik Gustafsson (Free Agent)
Players Out: Vitek Vanecek (Trade - New Jersey), Pheonix Copley (Free Agent), Justin Schultz (Fre Agent), Shane Gersich (Free Agent), Johan Larsson (Free Agent), Michael Kempny (Free Agent), Ilya Samsonov (Not Qualified)
Their Salary Cap as of July 16: $88.82 million (-$6.32 million in space), 47 contracts
My General Thoughts: The Washington Capitals were clearly not happy with their tandem of Vanecek and Samsonov last season. Especially Samsonov as they did not even choose to qualify him or trade him before a qualifying offer was due. Clearly, they needed goalies. They got arguably the best one from free agency in Darcy Kuemper. A quality goaltender with quality experience and even has a shiny new ring. They also added Charlie Lindgren to spell him. Lindgren was good for the St. Louis organization last season. He was awful with Montreal’s organization before then. Basically, the Caps are betting on Kuemper to be the man even if his $26.25 million contract is seen as reasonable for a goalie of his caliber.
The Caps did not stop there. They backfilled their depth (keeping Marcus Johansson, adding Gustafsson and Irwin), added Connor Brown for a pick, and took a flyer on the also not qualified Dylan Strome. The team is well over the cap in addition to having no room for Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson, or Carl Hagelin at this time. The Capitals literally cannot be done this offseason. With a heap of expiring contracts on the books, GM Brian MacLellan may not have to take an especially bad deal to be cap compliant. Although, he may need to make two or three given that the only guys making more than $6 million are nigh-untouchable (Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Backstrom). Kuemper is better than Vanecek or Samsonov. Yet, his larger problem is that the team’s skaters are still going to go as far as Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, Backstrom, Oshie, Carlson, and Orlov can take them. All are in their 30s with Ovechkin, Oshie and Backstrom each at 36, 35, and 34 years old. Do they still have enough in the tank to have Kuemper keep the contending window open?
Did They Get Better?: Yes...kind of. They got the best goalie on the market and then a backup that may make fans wish for Vanecek or Samsonov if he returns to his Montreal form. They added Brown and Strome, but now really need to move some cap space. Just when I think their core is aging out of effectiveness, they continue to show up as contenders and the team puts together a 100 point season. So it’s not a total improvement and the team may end up declining a bit, but the Kuemper addition alone is enough to think the Caps are better now than they were a few months ago.
2021-22 Finish: 46-25-11, 103 points, 62.8% Points, 3rd in the Metropolitan Division, Eliminated by New York Rangers (Round 1, 3-4)
The SBNation Blog: PensBurgh
Players In: Ty Smith (Trade - New Jersey), Jeff Petry (Trade - Montreal), Ryan Poehling (Trade - Montreal), Josh Archibald (Free Agent), Jan Rutta (Free Agent), Dustin Tokarski (Free Agent), Drake Caggiula (Free Agent)
Players Out: John Marino (Trade - New Jersey), Michael Matheson (Trade - Montreal), Liam Gorman (Trade - Chicago), Brian Boyle (Free Agent), Evan Rodrigues (Free Agent), Louis Domingue (Free Agent), Juuso Riikola (Free Agent), Anthony Angello (Free Agent), Nathan Beaulieu (Free Agent), Danton Heinan (Not Qualified), Will Reilly (Not Qualified), Justin Almeida (Not Qualified), Jordan Bellerive (Not Qualified), Cam Lee (Not Qualified), Jan Drozg (Not Qualified), Niclas Almari (Not Qualified), Alex D’Orio (Not Qualified)
Their Salary Cap as of July 16: $80.53 million ($1.97 million in space), 44 contracts
My General Thoughts: The biggest concerns ahead of free agency for Pittsburgh was what to do with Kris Letang and Evgeni Malkin. Both have been legends for the Pens in their ascendency from the despair of the early 2000s to their current Golden Era. But both were getting older - Malkin being particularly injury-prone - yet still providing plenty on the ice to command serious money and respect. They retained 35-year old Letang for six years, gave Rickard Rakell a six-season deal, and before Malkin hit the market on July 13, they locked him up for four more years. I suppose if the Penguins are going to go down as the trio of Malkin, Letang, and Sidney Crosby fall to Father Time, then they can at least say they secured them as Penguins for life. There’s a romanticism to that. Not that it matters in the NHL.
Because of those moves and other extensions, GM Ron Hextall had to get creative to get some cap space. They got that when they moved Marino to the Devils for Ty Smith and a pick. A good move for the Devils. If the Penguins can salvage Smith’s young career, then perhaps it is a good move for the Penguins - although they will have to pay Smith next season. The Penguins then turned Michael Matheson into 34-year old Jeff Petry and 23-year old Ryan Poehling, which immediately used up a chunk of the space the Marino trade created. I like the players and I am sure Pittsburgh can turn Poehling into something given their apparent magic used on Rodrigues, Blueger, McGinn, Rust (who has a big new deal of his own), etc. but I am not sure if I can say that Petry is a significant enough upgrade over either Matheson or even Marino.
Did They Get Better?: No...kind of. I think their defense is worse off unless Petry turns out to be a great fit for what the Penguins do on defense and Smith turns his career around in a hurry. Still, the base of the team is still aging - did you know Rust is 30 and Rakell is 29? - and Hextall is sticking with this base. The Penguins defied a lot of injuries last season in addition to concerns to earn 103 points last season. I do not think they are a better team even if healthier, but I am not ready to say they will fall out of the playoffs until they do. I have been burnt by Crosby before, so I will believe it when I see the decline.
New York Rangers
2021-22 Finish: 52-24-6, 110 points, 67.1% Points, 2nd in the Metropolitan Division, Eliminated Pittsburgh Penguins (Round 1, 4-3), Eliminated Carolina Hurricanes (Metropolitan Division Finals, 4-3), Eliminated by Tampa Bay Lightning (Eastern Conference Finals, 2-4)
The SBNation Blog: Blueshirt Banter
Players In: Ty Emberson (Trade - Arizona), Vincent Trocheck (Free Agent), Louis Domingue (Free Agent), Jaroslav Halak (Free Agent), Ryan Carpenter (Free Agent), Turner Elson (Free Agent), Andy Welinski (Free Agent)
Players Out: Alexandar Georgiev (Trade - Colorado), Patrik Nemeth (Trade - Arizona), Andrew Copp (Free Agent), Ryan Strome (Free Agent), Frank Vatrano (Free Agent), Justin Braun (Free Agent), Greg McKegg (Free Agent), Tyler Motte (Free Agent), Nick Merkley (Free Agent), Kevin Rooney (Free Agent), Keith Kinkaid (Free Agent), Anthony Greco (Free Agent), Maxim Letunov (Free Agent), Adam Huska (Free Agent), Ty Ronning (Not Qualified), Tyler Wall (Not Qualified), Jake Elmer (Not Qualified), Justin Richards (Free Agent)
Their Salary Cap as of July 16: $77.66 million ($4.83 million in space), 44 contracts
My General Thoughts: They did not beat up Tom Wilson. They did have a run to the Eastern Conference Finals. The Rangers success in the postseason included a lot of what made them win a lot of those 52 games they did win. Igor Shesterkin played out of his mind. The top players on NY were top players from Artemi Panarin to Chris Kreider to Mika Zibanejad to Adam Fox. The depth either chipped in or were not so bad to make the Rangers lose a bunch. Their deadline additions are now gone, they moved Georgiev, and they even let Strome go. What did they do in response? They got an experienced backup in Halak, who can be good when Shesterkin needs a break. Vincent Trocheck was signed for seven years and $39.375 million; he is a forward who is a pain to play against because he does a lot of things well and adds another weapon to join their core. It is a long deal, but he will help them now. They have probably enough space to give their one remaining RFA, Kappo Kakko, a deal as Kakko has yet to really showcase why he was a second overall pick.
GM Chris Drury decided he did not need to change a whole lot. The team’s success is on the back of Shesterkin and his top players and they are still young and talented enough to keep a good thing going. Trocheck could probably do more for them in the short term than Strome did. Halak can probably do a better job as a #2 in the net than Georgiev did. Especially Shesterkin and Fox, who are 26 and 24, respectively. They can have a battle in camp to replace Nemeth’s minutes on the blueline. I hate praising the Rangers, so I will leave it at that. By the way, Drury, good luck for next year’s contract negotiations.
Did They Get Better?: Yeah, I think so. New York is going to be a threat as long as Shesterkin continually bails them out and the Panarain-Zibanejad-Kreider core up front continues to bang in goals. I hated writing that sentence by the way.
2021-22 Finish: 54-20-8, 116 points, 70.7% Points, 1st in the Metropolitan Division, Eliminated Boston Bruins (Round 1, 4-3), Eliminated by New York Rangers (Metropolitan Division Finals, 3-4)
The SBNation Blog: Canes Country
Players In: Max Pacioretty (Trade - Las Vegas), Brent Burns (Trade - San Jose), Dylan Coghlan (Trade - Las Vegas), Lane Pederson (Trade - San Jose), Ondrej Kase (Free Agent), Mackenzie MacEachern (Free Agent), Malte Stromwall (Free Agent), Zach Sawchenko (Free Agent)
Players Out: Anthony DeAngelo (Trade - Philadelphia), Steven Lorentz (Trade - San Jose), Eetu Makiniemi (Trade - San Jose), Vincent Trocheck (Free Agent), Nino Neiderreiter (Free Agent), Brendan Smith (Free Agent), Derek Stepan (Free Agent), Ian Cole (Free Agent), Max Domi (Free Agent), Josh Leivo (Free Agent), Alex Lyon (Free Agent), Josh Jacobs (Free Agent), C.J. Smith (Free Agent), Andrew Poturalski (Free Agent), Sam Miletic (Free Agent), Spencer Smallman (Free Agent) Jack LaFontaine (Not Qualified), David Cotton (Not Qualified), Beck Warm (Not Qualified)
Their Salary Cap as of July 31: $78.416 million ($4.083 million in space), 36 contracts
My General Thoughts: GM Don Waddell and his staff continue to show why they are one of the smarter, bolder management groups in the NHL. Their bet on Antti Raanta and Frederik Andersen went way better than I and many others figured. Tony D kept his mouth shut and was moved to Philly, where he got a nice pay day. They did see plenty of talent move on out. Did the Canes sit on their hands? No. They got to work. San Jose loaded with bad contracts? How about a deal to bring in Brent Burns with some retained salary so he can do what DeAngelo did. Even at age 37, a sheltered role for Burns can prove to be very valuable. Canes have some cap space and teams with lots of it were not talking to Las Vegas about their cap problems? They contacted them and came away with Max Pacioretty for future considerations. Sure, he may not be what he used to be and his $7 million on the books is a lot, but he can still fill a net when he’s on the ice and the cost to bring him in was literally nothing. They took a flyer on Kase, who can be an effective player when healthy too. These are risks, but the Canes have shown that if you take some risks, they sometimes pay off.
Carolina cannot be done, though. They still have Ethan Bear and Martin Necas to pay. It is unlikely $4 million will be enough for both. Someone else is getting moved. But Carolina’s management has at least earned the trust to make something happen and still end up being a contending team for their efforts. They lost a lot of names from last season as they did load up to “go for it.” But I think
Did They Get Better?: Yes with a if; no with a but. If Burns and Pacioretty stay healthy and the move(s) to keep Necas and Bear don’t hurt, then this team will be a threat. But should they get hurt - and if the goalies get hurt again - and the move(s) to keep Necas and Bear end up being bad ones, then the Canes will take a step back. They’re still a playoff team but a step back means someone else may take the division and at least one bye in the postseason. Which I kind of don’t want to happen because that could very well be, sigh, Our Hated Rivals.
I would like to think that the Devils have had one of the better offseasons within the Metropolitan Division purely based on the moves they made and the risks they took. The Devils addressed needs and can claim that, at least in the short term, other positions can stand to gain. It is certainly more done than the not-much the Islanders have done. It is certainly not as head-scratching as Philadelphia. It did not involve giving out a heap of extensions that led to two significant moves made on defense yesterday like Pittsburgh. It is not a team leaning on a core that is definitely aging like Washington. I would not say the Devils have had the best or the most improvement in an offseason within the Metropolitan Division. Certainly not in the Eastern Conference (Hi, Ottawa). I would say that the Devils are among the better ones.
The question remains: Is it good enough? Is it enough to push the Devils past other teams in the division? I am very hesitant to say yes and several teams. I’m so old that I remember when the Offseason Champs of 2019 and 2021 did not yield to anything close to competitive hockey by January 1, 2020 and January 1, 2022, respectively. I am very much in wait-and-see mode and I suggest you take these thoughts with a grain of salt. I am confident in thinking the Devils, on paper, are a better team than Philadelphia and perhaps even the Islanders given their inaction. I am not at all confident in stating the Devils should be seen among Washington, Pittsburgh, Our Hated Rivals, and Carolina. Or even better than Columbus, although it is far from an impossibility - more of a “if some things work out, maybe” feeling. I am more confident in stating that the Devils should be a lot closer to those teams based on what has happened in the past few weeks.
What it would take to improve my confidence? That the Devils’ improvements actually bear out. I need to have the confidence that Vanecek will be as good for the Devils as he was for the Caps in 5-on-5 and that Mackenzie Blackwood is legitimately good instead of occasionally OK. I need the confidence that Brunette can put together a power play that has more than a snowball’s chance at the shore of scoring a goal once in a while. I need the confidence that Palat adds to the top six and Haula stabilizes the bottom six as Hughes, Hischier, Bratt, and Mercer improve. I need the confidence that injury luck is a little better and that players either play to their capability or into their potential some more. I need the confidence that Lindy Ruff will not coach this team down; to jam a square peg of tactics into the round hole of talent.
But right now, it’s better than where they were in April 2022. That is progress. We shall see, hope, and pray it will be more meaningful in the Fall.
Now I want your take. What do you think of the offseason moves made within the Metropolitan Division? How do you think the Devils’ offseason stacks up with the other 7 teams in the Metropolitan Division? While it is early, who do you think will take the division in 2022-23 based on what we know now? Who will end up in the basement? Where should we expect the Devils to end up by next April? 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.