Metropolitan Division Improves, Flyers’ Road Gets Tougher
By: Wes Herrmann (@Wes_Herrm)
The mantra since Ron Hextall took over the general manager position with the Philadelphia Flyers is that the team will improve with youth and patience. With Nolan Patrick, Oskar Lindblom and anywhere from one to three rookie defensemen joining the team next season, the youth is ready to take off.
But things may have just become a lot tougher for the youngsters to push the Flyers into the playoffs next season. Most of the other Metropolitan teams have improved noticeably after the draft and the beginning of free agency — the two biggest points of improvement for NHL clubs.
Team-by-team, the Metropolitan Division is much tougher than it appeared less than two weeks ago.
The Hurricanes have been operating under the same principle as the Flyers, building from the defense out and waiting for the youth to take over. Their biggest issue, though, was in net. GM Ron Francis thinks he’s found the solution in Scott Darling.
The former Chicago Blackhawk has been one of the premier backups in the league for the past three seasons and even won three games against the Nashville Predators during the 2014-15 playoffs. The team went on to win the Stanley Cup, but may not have without Darling’s play in relieve of Corey Crawford.
Last season, the 28-year-old played in 32 games, the highest of his career, and carried an 18-5-5 record with a .924 save percentage. On defense, Trevor van Riemsdyk was brought in for a third-pairing role.
Besides Darling and van Riemsdyk, the team also brought back Justin Williams at a costly two-year/$9 million contract. However, the 35 year old is still good for 40 points and will provide invaluable leadership for a young team on the rise.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets made one of the biggest moves of for the summer trading Brandon Saad for Artemi Panarin. Panarin will bring more of an offensive flair to the Columbus offense.
Besides that, they stayed pat for the most part, buying out Scott Hartnell and lettting Sam Gagner walk, who combined for 87 points. William Karlsson was also lost in the expansion draft, but will count on youngsters like Zach Werenski and Alexander Wennberg to keep the team rising.
Columbus is also still rumored to be interested in Matt Duchene. If they can pull off a deal, that will add a first-line center, which the team sorely needs. It could be a move that changes the team from playoff-contender to something more.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils have plenty of holes on their roster, but did add Brian Boyle and Marcus Johansson. Boyle is a solid bottom-six veteran add and Johansson will slot in nicely in the top six.
Besides the veterans, the team obviously chose Nico Hischier first overall and Michael McLeod, a 2016 first-rounder, could also become NHL regulars come October.
Ilya Kovalchuk is still rumored to be interested in coming back to the NHL and New Jersey owns his rights. It’s possible the Russian stays with the team, but if he’s traded the return should still help the Devils in some capacity this year.
The defense, though, is still scary to imagine, which is where the Devils should be looking to improve in a Kovalchuk deal. But even if Kovalchuk doesn’t return, the team should be more competitive than it was last year.
New York Islanders
The Islanders finally seem to have found a winger capable of playing with John Tavares in Jordan Eberle. They gave up Ryan Strome for the former Oiler. Strome could still turn things around, but he wasn’t going to be doing it in Brookyln.
They gave up a first and second-round pick to keep the Vegas Golden Knights away from their key unprotected players and to take on Mikhail Grabovski’s salary. They later recouped some of the picks by dealing Travis Hamonic to the Calgary Flames for a first and two seconds.
That opened up a lot of cap space, but whether GM Garth Snow tried or not, no key free agents ended up with the Islanders. It was rumored sometime ago that the team was interested in Duchene also. If nothing else happens, the team will have to hope coach Doug Weight can continue his success behind the bench after taking over in the middle of last season.
New York Rangers
The Rangers would have improved on-ice just by buying out Dan Girardi, but signing Kevin Shattenkirk — and to a fair four-year deal worth $6.65 million annually — means the team has improved greatly in free agency.
Ondrej Pavelec was an underwhelming starter with the Winnipeg Jets, but in a smaller, clearer role, he may be able to succeed. Still, he can’t be counted on as heavily or easily as Antti Raanta, who was traded to the Arizona Coyotes.
But Derek Stepan will be the one toughest to replace. The long-time Ranger was also in the trade to the Coyotes, and was an integral two-way center in New York, albeit overpaid.
Last season, the 27 year old scored 55 points in 81 games. The team is banking on Mika Zibanejed and Kevin Hayes stepping up to replace Stepan’s contributions at both ends of the ice.
The Penguins may have taken the biggest hit this summer in the Metropolitan in terms of talent. They lost Marc-Andre Fleury, Nick Bonino, Chris Kunitz, Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey to the expansion draft and free agency, but still have the pieces to contend for the Cup again.
Sidney Crosby didn’t show any signs of slowing down and Evegni Malkin led the playoffs in scoring. Jake Guentzel loudly arrived on the scene during last year’s playoffs and Matt Murray is a more-than-capable starter.
Antti Niemi is a heavy downgrade from Fleury and Ryan Reaves was acquired because GM Jim Rutherford felt the team needed grit, despite winning the Cup twice in a row without it. Matt Hunwick was also brought in to help replace Daley and Hainsey, but the team won’t hit much of a speed bump with the turnover.
Like the Penguins, the Capitals have mainly downgraded since the 2016-17 season ended. Unlike the Penguins, the majority opinion is that the Caps aren’t Stanley Cup-contenders at this point.
Unsurprisingly, trade-deadline acquisition Shattenkirk walked due to cap concerns and underwhelming play and Williams went to Carolina. Later, Johansson was traded to the Devils. Unfortunately for the Metro, all three stayed in division.
Karl Alzner also found a new home, but outside the division, with the Montreal Canadiens. Defenseman and 25 year old, Nate Schmidt was selected in the expansion draft and fourth-liner Daniel Winnick is also an unrestricted free agent.
If Washington is to get over the second-round playoff hump, it’ll need major improvements from the players that couldn’t do it the past two years.
The Flyers made a good trade for the future by dealing Brayden Schenn for two first-round picks and Jori Lehtera. Brian Elliott, at best will be a slight upgrade over Steve Mason. Besides that, there were rumors that Andrei Markov was interested in joining the Flyers, but the team didn’t reciprocate those feelings.
Andrei Markov to Flyers will NOT happen. He is interested in them, they are not interested. Teams not interested in terms & $ Markov asking.
— Tony Marinaro (@TonyMarinaro) July 4, 2017
The improved play of youngsters like Shayne Gostisbehere, Travis Konecny and Ivan Provorov is uplifting, as is the potential influx of rookies, but things have only stacked up more against the team since the end of last season.
The easiest way for a team to make the playoffs is by finishing in the top-three of its division. That certainly seems difficult, if not impossible, to do in the Metropolitan for the Flyers.
Image Credit: Sarah Connors/Flickr