NHL Offseason Grades: Metropolitan Division
The busiest days of the NHL offseason are officially in the rearview mirror. There is still plenty of work to be done before training camp opens, of course. Plenty of RFAs still need to be signed, a couple of big UFAs linger and there is a lot of talent on the trade block, especially in Winnipeg and Calgary — not to mention the reigning Norris Trophy winner. Some teams still aren’t even cap-compliant.
But the draft and the opening days of free agency have already come to pass. And with those deadlines behind us, we have a pretty good idea of what every team’s roster will look like. Hundreds of millions of dollars were handed out on Canada Day. There were a couple of stunners on the draft floor. And a handful of noteworthy trades as teams desperately try to navigate the final year of a flat cap environment.
For the most part, though, the dust has settled. Teams have answered their biggest questions, or at least attempted though. Their success in doing, of course, varies. The dog days of summer aren’t good for a lot of things hockey-wise, but analyzing those moves is one of them. We’ll go division by division — after starting with the Atlantic, we finish the East today with the Metro.
Carolina Hurricanes (52-21-9, Lost in Round 3)
Cap Space: $2.52M
The Hurricanes are one of my bigger winners of the offseason. It’s not often you can add two high-quality players for a combined total of just five years. Free agency usually means committing far too much money for far too long to mediocre players who just happen to be the best of that year’s class. But despite an especially weak group this year, Carolina managed to pry two of the better players to their side.
Look, the $7.75 million cap hit for Orlov is certainly eye-popping. It’s an overpay, but only a slight one, and if it prevents them from signing the 31-year-old into his twilight years, it’s worth it. Orlov was always going to be the top defenseman on the market, and that was before taking his game to another level in Boston. The Hurricanes may not have found the high-end sniper they’d love to have, but Orlov should help provide them with some extra offense from the back end.
Also aiding the Canes attack will be Bunting. The sour end to his time in Toronto makes you forget he scored 23 goals in each of his two seasons as a Leaf. Lemieux, meanwhile, is a standard, dime-a-dozen tenacious depth forward. But combine those two big additions with re-signing the solid tandem of Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta (with Pyotr Kotchetkov as much-needed injury insurance), versatile winger Jesper Fast, and a known commodity in the Carolina system in DeAngelo and the Canes remain one of the beasts of the East. And extending Sebastian Aho at a fair price, if not a bit of a bargain, only makes things better.
Columbus Blue Jackets (25-48-9, Missed Playoffs)
Cap Space: $3.95M
I think there’s a chance Columbus could take a big jump next season, although it has more to do with the waves of young talent in their pipeline than the two big splashes they rushed to make on defense. At his best, Provorov was a legitimate top-pair defenseman who has always defended well. The problem is he hasn’t been at his best since 2020 or without a strong partner to help carry the load. The latter shouldn’t be a problem in Columbus – between Severson, David Jiříček and Zach Werenski, the Blue Jackets have an intriguing top four. But that doesn’t guarantee Provorov will bounce back.
Severson is a good player, too. However, Columbus needs to avoid asking too much of him. Severson can be mistake-prone at times, a trait that is workable on the second or third pair but is almost always exposed in top-pair minutes. It seems like the Blue Jackets will probably slot him there initially with the potential for Jiricek to move up there in time.
Like with Buffalo, though, there’s still work to be done for Columbus. The Blue Jackets have a log jam on defense, with spots only open for two of Erik Gudbranson, Andrew Peeke, Jake Bean and Adam Boqvist if/when Jiricek is ready. Even with the gift of Adam Fantilli falling to them at No. 3, Columbus could still use help up front. After a dismal, injury-plagued 2022-23, the pressure is on the Blue Jackets to show us something this season.
New Jersey Devils (52-22-8, Lost in Round 2)
Cap Space: $4.83M
RFAs: D Kevin Bahl
Some will lament the Devils for not taking a big swing on a goalie, but I think they’re wise to wait. They’ve got Jack Hughes and, now, Timo Meier and Jesper Bratt locked up for the rest of the decade with total cost certainty. Nico Hischier has four years left on his deal, too. And this is still a young team with only one member of its core (Dougie Hamilton) in his 30s. This is not the type of team that needs to trade Alexander Holtz and a 1st to get Connor Hellebuyck when they can wait to see if he reaches free agency next season.
The moves the Devils did make also deserve praise. New Jersey paid a buy-low price on Toffoli, coming off a career-high 34 goals. He helps solidify the Devils’ top-nine as one of the league’s best and at a modest $4.25 million cap hit too. Miller is a cheap Severson replacement who should fill in just fine on New Jersey’s third pair. The Devils even got a draft pick for an unwanted Blackwood. Tougher decisions lie ahead, but it’s hard to quibble with what the Devils have done so far.
New York Islanders (42-31-9, Lost in Round 1)
Subtractions: LW Zach Parise
Cap Space: $390K
RFAs: RW Oliver Wahlstrom
That $390K cap space is for a roster with 14 forwards and seven defensemen. Send two forwards down and the Islanders might be able to sneak Wahlstrom in under the wire. That’s good because New York’s core is about to get a lot pricier. Bo Horvat’s eight-year, $8.5 million AAV extension kicks in this year, and apparently Lou Lamoriello is so pleased by how it aged after Horvat scored seven goals in 30 games, he wanted to hand out some more long-term deals.
Those contracts range from excellent to questionable to unwise. Ilya Sorokin is undoubtedly in the first group. He’s been one of the league’s top goalies for the last few years and will be an Islander until age 36 and is only the third highest-paid goalie in the league (and will likely be jumped by Hellebuyck next season). He is New York’s most important player, and locking him up was a necessity to keep the Isles in win-now mode.
I understand the Semyon Varlamov and Pierre Engvall extensions, but that doesn’t mean they’re good ideas. Varlamov has been a great ying to Sorokin’s yang for the last few years. Expecting the 35-year-old to be that for the next four years is a bit risky, especially since Varlamov was 35 at the time of signing, meaning there’s no cap relief if he retires early. Engvall looked good for after coming over at the deadline from the Maple Leafs. Giving term to depth is rarely smart, though, and Engvall’s exceeded 30 points once at 27 years old.
Time will tell if that contract turns into a problem at some point. It will also almost certainly spell the Scott Mayfield deal becoming just that eventually. Mayfield is a solid, defensive-minded blue-liner who can handle second-pair minutes and slots in even better behind Ryan Pulock and Noah Dobson. But a soon-to-be 31-year-old with one season hitting the 20-point threshold doesn’t exactly scream “ideal candidate to give a seven-year contract” too.
New York Rangers (47-22-13, Lost in Round 1)
Cap Space: $2.30M
RFAs: LW Alexis Lafrenière
Rarely can a team strike the balance between not overspending and improving as well as the Rangers have. For a combined total of $1.625 million, the Rangers brought in 97 points in the person of Wheeler and Gustafsson – 10 fewer than Tarasenko and Kane combined for last season. That isn’t to say the Rangers are a better team (although the defensive concerns were real with those two, especially Kane). But it should highlight how outstanding those two contracts are.
Combine that with fine depth signings of Bonino and Pitlick and the Rangers are at least treading water, which is far from the worst thing to do after a 107-point season. Bridging K’Andre Miller isn’t optimal, but it was basically the only path without major surgery to the rest of the roster. Same with bringing in an aging Quick to backup Igor Shesterkin – the Rangers don’t have an extra $1 million to spend on a backup goalie. They’re already going to have a hard time signing Lafrenière.
Philadelphia Flyers (31-38-13, Missed Playoffs)
Cap Space: $9.22M
RFAs: C Morgan Frost
The first offseason of the Danny Brière era (GM addition) definitely had more good than bad. It’s been a while since the vibes around the organization were this good. They took the big swing at the draft on Matvei Michkov. Two of John Tortorella’s biggest bug-a-boos in Hayes and DeAngelo are out the door. Provorov, who had outstayed his welcome in the room and regressed on the ice, was traded for a strong return.
Yes, the Flyers weren’t able to add another first-round pick from St. Louis and jettison Travis Sanheim’s problematic contract. No, they didn’t sell high on Travis Konecny or Scott Laughton. The depth signings are largely fine, although there’s a concern (especially with Hathaway) that they could unnecessarily block out the kids. But overall, Briere has at least gotten the Flyers back on track after years of disarray.
Pittsburgh Penguins (40-30-11, Missed Playoffs)
Cap Space: -$2.32M
RFAs: LW Drew O’Connor
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Penguins replaced Zucker with Smith (who’s on a good contract) and Dumoulin with Graves (who’s on a big contract). Eller, Acciari and Nieto supplement the depth. I’m not sure why the Penguins, over the cap with an RFA to sign, decided to sign a third goalie making at least $1.5 million in Nedeljkovic (maybe this signals a Casey DeSmith trade). Of course, the other is Tristan Jarry, who re-signed on a pricey but fair five-year, $5.375 million AAV pact.
It’s not that it’s bad work by Kyle Dubas. But it feels like the Penguins need a shot in the arm to contend after five straight seasons without a playoff series win. Adding Erik Karlsson is even more complicated than it already seems – Jake Guentzel is up at the end of next year. There’s still time, of course, both to trade for Karlsson or/and maximize the last years of the Sidney Crosby/Evgeni Malkin/Kris Letang era. But it’s starting to run out.
Washington Capitals (35-37-10, Missed Playoffs)
Subtractions: RW Connor Brown
Cap Space: $890K
We know that Evgeny Kuznetsov wants a trade – GM Brian McClellan has admitted as much. To be honest, moving him might have been in Washington’s interest regardless. It does feel like things have gone stale here. But trading a player $7.8 million cap hit and 10-team no-trade list in a flat cap world is easier said than done. Same goes for Anthony Mantha, making $5.7 million for one more year and coming off the worst season of his career. T.J. Oshie is still going strong at 36, but maybe he and his $5.75 million cap hit could also be on the move.
Washington doesn’t want to rebuild – not while Alex Ovechkin is still chasing Wayne Gretzky’s all-time goals record. That make sense. But running it back doesn’t for a team coming off their first playoff miss since 2014 and hasn’t won a series since the 2018 Final. Yes, Pacioretty is an intriguing buy-low addition. If he’s healthy, he should chip in 20-30 goals and 50+ points. But that hardly seems enough to turn the Capitals from a middling bubble team, which is what they’ve been the past few seasons, to something greater.