The Washington Capitals have won the Metropolitan Division four seasons in a row. It’s been domination of a sort, but with two top draft picks and a flood of top free agents coming in, the Metro is shaping up to be the toughest division in hockey in 2019-20 — and a real threat to the Caps’ ambitions.
Here’s a breakdown of who’s tougher and who’s weaker after the free-agent frenzy of July 1.
Last season: 104 points, eliminated in the first round
(Yeah, we’ll get to this later.)
Last season: 103 points, eliminated in the second round
Barry Trotz’s Islanders were last season’s miracle turnaround team — until St Louis pulled the same move later and better. The summer of 2019 has been a mixed bag for them. They were in the running for Artemi Panarin sweepstakes but did not win so instead they locked up a bunch of important role players: Anders Lee, Jordan Eberle, and Brock Nelson. Plus, they’ve got one more year of Mathew Barzal cheap on his entry-level contract.
But they’ve lost 2019 Vezina finalist goalie Robin Lehner to Chicago. In his stead is 2014 Vezina finalist goalie Semyon Varlamov, who is 31. That is not an upgrade.
New York’s supposed specialness is in their defensive stoutness and goalie magic. Next season will put that notion to the test.
Prediction: We’ll see, but I’d be more than a little worried.
Last season: 100 points, eliminated in the first round
The Penguins were not happy with their 2019 season, so they shipped our perfect son Phil Kessel to Abu Dhabi (Arizona) in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk. Kessel, a gifted offensive player with defensive problems, has been replaced by Brandon Tanev, a defensively responsible player who can’t score.
The Penguins also finally abandoned the Olli Maatta project — a few years late. In return they acquired an interesting young forward, Dominik Kahun. Meanwhile, the defense is spotty as they’ve still got Erik Gudbranson for two more years and Jack Johnson for four.
Pittsburgh’s hopes rely on Evgeni Malkin (21 goals, 51 assists in 68 games last season) having a bounce-back year, and Sidney Crosby remaining Sidney Crosby, which he will.
Prediction: Somewhat worse, but you can never count out Sid’s team.
Last season: 99 points, eliminated in the third round
In 2018-19 Carolina was the most offensively potent team the NHL had seen in more than a decade, and that’s mostly unchanged. They added middle-six forward Erik Haula from Vegas, they’re (almost certainly) going to fend off an offer sheet from Montreal for Sebastian Aho, and they’re still waiting on a decision about Justin Williams’ next season, but most of their other moves have been at the other end of the ice.
Goalie Scott Darling (who didn’t play after December) was exchanged for goalie James Reimer from Florida, and the Canes extended goalie Petr Mrazek. They’re hoping to have a good, stable tandem for the first time in basically a decade.
Prediction: They’re going to be assassins again.
Last season: 98 points, eliminated in the second round
The Blue Jackets won a round of the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, and all it cost them was everything: Forwards Artemi Panarin and Matt Duchene and goalie Sergei Bobrovsky all exited in free agency. So far, all they’ve found as replacement is 20-goal-scoring forward Gustav Nyquist, formerly of the Sharks. He’s good, but he’s not, you know, six wins above replacement good.
Last season: 82 points, did not qualify for postseason
The Flyers made changes in the front office and behind the bench for a new direction last season, but it looks like they’re still lost in the woods. Their big addition this summer is Kevin Hayes, who is a fine player, picked up from the Jets, but his new deal (7 years x $7 million) is probably a bit generous.
The goalie duo of Brian Elliott and Carter Hart is unchanged, but their jobs might get a bit tougher. The Flyers sent goon-who-is-secretly-good Radko Gudas to Washington in exchange for Matt Niskanen, who has had two down seasons in a row. The Flyers also parted ways with defenders David Schlemko and Andrew MacDonald, which trims the fat a bit, but probably not as much as they wish. They still have about $15 million left to spend, so this will change.
Prediction: An unending hell, which is the usual for Philly.
Last season: 78 points, did not qualify for postseason
After tanking hard last season, the Rangers were crestfallen to learn that they lost the draft lottery, which meant they had to settle for a world-class second overall pick, Finnish forward Kaapo Kakko. To keep Kakko company they landed the biggest fish of free agency, Artemi Panarin. Those are just two players, but holy wow are they good ones. If the Rangers can make a deal with Jacob Trouba, they’re gonna feel like a totally different team come October. (Plus they’ve got two more years of Lundqvist, 37, in net.)
Prediction: It’s the dawn of a new era for the Rags, but they’ve still got work to do before they’re a contender.
Last season: 72 points, did not qualify for postseason
As much of a turnaround as we expect from the Rags next season, the Devils will be even turnaroundier. They won the lottery and got Jack Hughes, they got PK Subban from Nashville for a song, they added Wayne Simmonds on a low-risk, redemption deal, and that’s not nearly all.
After losing their star player to injury way back in December 2018, Taylor Hall should be back to his old, 27-year-old self by fall. The Devils still need to fill out their defense, and they could use some help in transition, but they’ve got a ton of cap space to find those pieces.
Prediction: They’ve flipped a switch. Watch out.
Overall, CBJ is the only big dropper. PIT and NYI should be worse than last season, but not massively so. CAR remains fearsome, PHI remains irrelevant, and the bottom of the division — NJD and NYR — are coming for WSH’s crown.
Next, I’ll dissect Washington’s moves so far this summer, and we’ll figure out together if they can fend off the challenge.
Headline photo: Tom Mihalek
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