The NHL offseason is well underway and the league’s landscape is beginning to take form ahead of the 2022-23 season. Many big-name free agents have found new homes, or stayed put. The NHL even had its very own NBA-style blockbuster trade go down this past weekend, when the Flames secured a promising haul from the Panthers in exchange for Matthew Tkachuk.
The Metropolitan Division — and the Eastern Conference for that matter — is still loaded with generational talent and teams with legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations. The Post’s Mollie Walker takes a look at the changes in the Metro and what it means for the Rangers.
After their second-round exit in the 2022 Stanley Cup playoffs thanks to the Rangers, the Hurricanes were able to replace most of what they lost this offseason. The Canes somewhat upgraded from defenseman Tony DeAngelo, who was traded to the Flyers for draft picks, with veteran blueliner Brent Burns. Center Vincent Trocheck is now a Ranger and winger Nino Niederreiter now plays for the Predators, but Carolina picked up established scorer Max Pacioretty — and depth defenseman Dylan Coghlan — in a trade with the Golden Knights for future considerations. The Canes also brought in forward Ondrej Kase on a one-year deal.
How it pertains to the Rangers: Only six points and two wins separated the Rangers from the Hurricanes last season, when the two clubs battled it out for first and second place in the Metro. When they met in the playoffs, star goalie Igor Shesterkin and the rest of the Rangers were able to limit Carolina to just one or two goals in six of the seven games, which ultimately proved to be the difference. It’s possible that these two teams will wrestle for the top of the division once again, but if Trocheck proves to be an upgrade over Ryan Strome or Andrew Copp and a couple young players have breakout seasons, the Rangers could snag the No. 1 spot.
The Big 3 of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang is back, so the Penguins are essentially running it back after a fourth-straight first-round departure (including their qualifying round loss during the 2020 bubble playoffs). General manager Ron Hextall was able to keep Letang and Malkin and still sign wingers Bryan Rust and Rickard Rakell, but it’s not the top six that needed to be addressed. The Penguins have an extremely front-loaded lineup and if players like Jeff Carter and Teddy Bleuger don’t have bounce-back seasons, then it’s difficult to see how the club has improved.
How it pertains to the Rangers: The Rangers finished seven points ahead of the Penguins in the division standings, with six more wins. But Pittsburgh nearly knocked the Rangers out in the first round before they rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to advance, partially due to Crosby missing a game and a half after taking a hit from Jacob Trouba. With so few changes, the Penguins are holding out hope that this is the core that can get the club back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since their 2017 championship — but their results haven’t changed in recent years.
In landing one of the top free agent goalies in Darcy Kuemper, who backstopped the Avalanche to the Stanley Cup last season, the Capitals may finally have security at the goalie position for the first time since Braden Holtby. But the uncertainty surrounding Nicklas Backstrom (hip surgery), Tom Wilson (knee surgery) and Carl Hagelin (eye injury) makes it hard to gauge where Washington is heading into next season. They do have reinforcements after signing center Dylan Strome and trading for right winger Connor Brown, in addition to some depth in defenseman Erik Gustafsson and forward Marcus Johansson. But time is running out on the Alex Ovechkin era in Washington, and back-to-back first-round exits is not an encouraging sign.
How it pertains to the Rangers: Washington trailed the Rangers by 10 points in the division, but they were significantly ahead of the bottom four teams. With an upgrade in net, the Capitals could have a chance to get back to the top of the Metro.
After putting all their eggs in one free agent’s basket and coming up short once again, the Islanders haven’t made any notable changes this offseason yet after a bizarre and disastrous year that culminated in parting ways with head coach Barry Trotz and promoting assistant Lane Lambert. They lost out on Johnny Gaudreau. They still don’t have a scoring winger who can complement star Mathew Barzal. They are looking at running it back with a roster that largely underperformed last season, albeit some circumstances were unforeseen. The draft-day trade for defenseman Alexander Romanov was a solid acquisition, but the Isles need help up front.
How it pertains to the Rangers: A 13-game stretch on the road to start the season and a prolonged COVID-19 outbreak played a part in the Islanders’ fifth-place finish in the Metro, which was 26 points behind the Rangers. The team that pieced together back-to-back runs to the Eastern Conference Final is still there at the core — and they have the other top young goalie in Ilya Sorokin — but adjustments need to be made in order for the Isles to get back to being competitive in the division.
Columbus Blue Jackets
General manager Jarmo Kekalainen seemingly rejuvenated the franchise by catching the biggest free agent fish on the market in Gaudreau, who left money on the table from a couple other teams to come to Columbus. In addition to Gaudreau, the Blue Jackets also brought in Patrik Laine and Jakub Voracek to make for a dynamic offense that should shake up the Metropolitan Division a bit. Despite bringing in hard-nosed defenseman Erik Gudbranson, who will presumably slot onto the third pair, Columbus still needs to solidify their top four ‘D’ core.
How it pertains to the Rangers: The Blue Jackets should see improvement from their third-to-last finish last season in the division standings, but there’s still work to be done in rounding out their lineup. There was a 29-point difference between the Rangers and Columbus last season. Even if the Blue Jackets’ offense significantly improves, defense should still be an edge for the Rangers.
The Devils are overdue for a jump in results after missing the playoffs for a fourth straight season and the ninth time in the past 10 seasons. By acquiring goalie Vitek Vanecek from the Capitals and subsequently signing the 26-year-old Czech to a three-year extension, the Devils addressed their goaltending need. They also signed two-time Cup champion Ondrej Palat for a steep price, but the club will reap the benefits of having an experienced, versatile two-way forward. Winger Jesper Bratt elected salary arbitration, so we’ll see what happens between now and the 23-year-old’s Aug. 3 hearing.
How it pertains to the Rangers: With a 47-point difference at the end of last season, the Rangers and Devils showed how different rebuilds go at different paces. Throw in a couple breakout (and healthy) seasons for their young core and the Devils could finally see some significant improvement. With Lindy Ruff still behind the bench, however, how much change can we expect in the team’s play?
Recently hired head coach John Tortorella is sure to bring some much-needed structure to Philadelphia, but the Flyers haven’t necessarily improved their player personnel heading into next season. General manager Chuck Fletcher brought in DeAngelo, who could flourish or implode with the opportunity to play close to home again and under a demanding coach like Tortorella. They brought defenseman Justin Braun back and added 31-year-old enforcer Nicolas Deslauriers to their existing physical group of Rasmus Ristolainen and Zack MacEwen.
How it pertains to the Rangers: With a question mark still hanging over Ryan Ellis and his return from a pelvic injury, the Flyers’ offseason so far hasn’t accomplished much to improve on their fourth-worst record in the NHL in 2021-22. They still haven’t made up for the loss of captain Claude Giroux. The Rangers should be worrying about the improvements of other teams.