This is a four-part series analyzing where each NHL teams stands heading into the trade deadline based on the context of each division, and the short- and long-term implications of buying or selling with the expansion draft around the corner.
The Metropolitan Division is stacked. At the time this article was written, four of the top five teams in the NHL standings were all from the Metro. The Pittsburgh Penguins look even better than they did when they won it all last year, and the Washington Capitals are gearing up for one final run with this group of players. The Columbus Blue Jackets have come out of nowhere, and the New York Rangers have enjoyed a renaissance. Even the bad teams in the Metro, the Islanders, Devils, Flyers, and Hurricanes aren’t pushovers. So, what do you do in order to make yourself work your way out of this division come playoff time?
40-12-7 (87 Points) / 51.2 CF% / 64.5 GF% / 104.3 PDO
This might be the most talented team the Washington Capitals have ever built around Alexander Ovechkin.
T.J. Oshie has been the perfect wing-man to play opposite Ovechkin on the team’s first line. Evgeny Kuznetsov’s emergence as a legit star player has given the team a serious secondary scoring punch beyond just the first line. The Caps have also built an excellent two-way third line from scratch, featuring bargain bin free agent Brett Connolly, summer trade acquisition Lars Eller, and Andre Burakovsky. Their blue line is solid, and Braden Holtby is excellent in net when he has to be.
There aren’t any holes on this roster. They’re the best team in the NHL, and over an 82-game sample size, they’re bound to come out on top. The Caps on pace to best their President’s Trophy season from 2015-16, and could challenge the 2009-10 squad for best regular season in franchise history.
But none of that really matters if they lose in the second round of the playoff again. Anything short of a Stanley Cup will be a failure for the Capitals this spring. As we’ll see in a minute, this year’s run will likely be the last kick at the can for this group.
Come July 1, a good chunk of the Capitals’ depth is going to hit the open market.
Karl Alzner and T.J. Oshie will become unrestricted free agents for the first time in his career, and veterans Justin Williams and Daniel Winnik’s two-year deals come to an end. Also, the Caps will need to deal with new RFA contracts for Kuznetsov, Burakovsky, Connolly, and Dmitry Orlov.
So, yeah. This spring’s run will be the last one with this group.
The big priority will be getting a reasonable long-term deal worked out with Kuznetsov, and figuring out which of the other RFAs is worth keeping around for the long haul. As a result, it’s hard to imagine the Caps being able to sign either Alzner or Oshie, as both can command a major pay increase on a pretty weak free agent market.
It’s not like the Capitals are suddenly going to fall off a cliff after this season, or anything, but they have a perfect blend of inexpensive, young talent and strong veteran depth built around their core. And putting together a group this good isn’t easy.
At the deadline:
Where exactly do you upgrade a roster like this?
The Capitals don’t have much cap flexibility to work with, nor do they really have the space on their roster to acquire an impact player. The only things they can do, realistically, would be adding depth as insurance for injuries.
Last spring, Brooks Orpik was injured, which resulted in Mike Weber and Taylor Chorney getting extended action in the playoffs. That obviously wasn’t ideal. This year, Burakovsky, Oshie, and Winnik have missed time with injury, and while the Capitals have prospects like Jakub Vrana and Zach Stanford who can fill in, legitimate veteran depth would be nice to have.
They’ve already acquired Tom Gilbert from the L.A. Kings for insurance on the blue line, but expect the Caps to also add a cheap forward or two at the deadline. They don’t have second round picks in either 2017 or 2018, though, so it won’t be a very exciting name.
This is probably the best team the Capitals have ever constructed, and it’s hard to imagine it’ll ever be this good again in the Ovechkin era. Come summer 2017, the Caps are going to be forced to lose a lot of their depth on the open market, meaning this year’s run is as important as ever. They don’t have much flexibility, nor do they have many holes, but the Caps will likely add some veteran plug-in pieces as insurance for injuries.
37-14-8 (82 Points) / 50.8 % / 56.4 GF% / 101.2 PDO
The defending Stanley Cup Champions look as good as ever.
The Penguins came into the 2016-17 season with virtually the exact same group as the one that won it all last summer, and this year, there wasn’t a slow start involved. They’ve hit the ground running and look like they can compete to become the first back-to-back Cup winner since the Detroit Red Wings of the late 1990s.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeny Malkin are both fully healthy for the first time in years, and it’s shown, as the pair have looked dominant all season. The franchise centres, along with veteran scorers Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist and breakout performances from Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust have given the Penguins the league’s most potent offence.
The blue line is somewhat more problematic, but Justin Schultz has emerged as a legitimate top pairing defenceman with elite production numbers in his first full season with the Pens. This is critical, as Kris Letang and Olli Maatta have missed time with injury. But while their defence is less-than-stellar, rookie (!) Matt Murray has been excellent, posting a 0.924 save percentage that suggests his incredible playoff performance wasn’t a fluke.
The Penguins’ core of Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, and Letang are locked up for five years after this season, meaning the team will continue to be a contender for as long as these key players stay good and healthy.
Like the Capitals, though, the Penguins have a closing window with this exact group of players. This summer, they have Chris Kunitz, Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, and Trevor Daley hitting the open market, while Conor Sheary, Justin Schultz, and Brian Dumoulin are in need of new RFA deals. Some cap relief will likely come in the form of a Marc-Andre Fleury trade, as the Penguins have made it clear with the signing of Matt Murray to a three-year extension who their goalie of the future is, but we’re likely to see a pretty different roster in 2017-18 than we’ve gotten used to in Pittsburgh.
That said, while I compare the Pens to the Capitals, it isn’t quite the same. Washington is likely to lose a handful of important players, whereas the Penguins will only need to replace ones in depth roles. Also, the Pens certainly don’t have the same level of pressure on them this spring.
At the deadline:
The Penguins could use an upgrade on their blue line, which, as I mentioned earlier, is pretty clearly the team’s biggest weakness.
Olli Maatta is going to miss most of the rest of the regular season with a left hand injury, and Justin Schultz suffered a concussion and there isn’t a timetable yet for his return. Kris Letang has had his fair share of injury troubles in the past, and is pretty much carrying the burden of the load on defence.
The Pens have virtually zero wiggle room to work with at the deadline. So if they are going to make a move, it’ll have to involve sending a player from their active roster the other way. The obvious choice would be to move Fleury to a team like Calgary, Dallas, or Winnipeg that has a need in net. That way, they can use the opened up cap space to use draft and prospect capital to acquire a veteran defenceman.
But a Fleury trade isn’t easy. The Penguins aren’t alone in being shoved up against the cap, meaning a deal involving a guy with a $5.75 million hit for the next two years is probably easier to pull off in the summer. Also, the expansion darer makes things tricky, as any team acquiring Fleury will either risk losing him or another goalie on their roster to Vegas.
The Penguins haven’t missed a beat since winning the Stanley Cup last summer. They came into this season with the same championship roster, and unsurprisingly, they look poised to compete to repeat. Since they’re strapped for cap room, any upgrade the Pens make will have to come in a deal that involves removing a player off their active roster, meaning Marc-Andre Fleury’s days in Pittsburgh are numbered.
37-16-5 (79 Points) / 50.5 CF% / 54.7 GF% / 101.1 PDO
Imagine having far and away your best season in franchise history, one that features an epic, historic 16-game winning streak, and you’re still running the possibility of not getting home ice advantage in the playoffs.
Welcome to the Metropolitan Division and the life and times of the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Nobody expected the Blue Jackets to be this good. They were terrible last season, and didn’t do anything over the summer to fix it because they were locked into multiple long-term, expensive contracts. But amazingly, since they hired John Tortorella mid-way through last season, everything has changed for them.
Under Torts’ leadership, the Jackets have seen improved play from up and down their lineup. Their underlying numbers are better, they play better defensively, and they’re scoring more goals. Of course, another major reason for this success is Sergei Bobrovsky, who, while healthy for the first time in a couple years, has returned to his Vezina Trophy winning form.
Like I said, the Jackets are locked into this group.
They enjoyed what appeared to be a breakout season back in 2013-14, making just their second playoff appearance in franchise history. They committed to that team, handing out long-term deals to Bobrovsky, Brandon Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, and David Savard, while later augmenting to it by acquiring Brandon Saad and Seth Jones via trade.
A year ago, this was a joke. Now? Not so much.
There’s obviously some skepticism around whether or not the Blue Jackets are for real. I mean, we all know the 16-game streak featured a lot of luck, which mega streaks always do, and that wasn’t truly indicative of what the Blue Jackets truly are. But it’s uncommon you see a team go from so bad to so good just like that, especially when they weren’t major players in last summer’s free agency market. That said, this is a team that features a lot of excellent young talent, and even though they didn’t make any major additions over the summer, an influx of fresh, eager rookies could be the cause of this renaissance. And if that’s the case, this is a Blue Jackets team that has a promising future.
At the deadline:
The Blue Jackets badly need a legitimate backup goalie.
They let Curtis McElhinney go on waivers, and have since uses a revolving door of Joonas Korpisalo and Anton Forsberg. Sergei Bobrovsky has played the majority of the minutes this season, and has put up MVP-calibre results, but the Jackets are going to need a goalie that they’re confident in to play more than once a month so that Bobrovsky can have a break here and there.
The team could also use upgrades down the middle, as going into a playoff run with William Karlsson and Alexander Wennberg, both in their early 20s and completely without any playoff experience, is risky.
Still, though, I doubt that the Jackets are going to stray the course from long-term success for a rental option for this year’s playoff run. While some may see them as a flash in the pan that should go all in and capitalize on an overachieving season, surely their front office sees a team that can be good for years, so dealing a top prospect or a draft pick to add to this roster may be out of the question.
The Blue Jackets have enjoyed an incredible, unpredictable breakout season. Unfortunately, since they play in a loaded division, it’ll likely only be good enough for a first round date with another top-five team in the league. Regardless, the Jackets appear to be set up to be good for quite some time, meaning they probably won’t be in an aggressive rush to improve the team at the expense of the future in a seller’s market.
38-19-2 (78 Points) / 47.6 CF% / 53.5 GF% / 101.7 PDO
The New York Rangers, despite owning the fifth best record in the NHL, are a wild card team.
All in all, it’s been a pretty excellent season of New York. It was expected they would take a step back and wouldn’t be a serious contender like they have been in recent years, but they seem to have found a formula for success in running four scoring lines and out-gunning their opponents. They have eight different players with ten or more goals, and the team is operating with am 11.3 shooting percentage, which was supposed to crash months ago, but has continued to ride.
And they need that offence, because their blue line is a catastrophe. They bleed shots against, as all of their defencemen have a Corsi For below 50.0 per cent. If the Rangers aren’t scoring, it’s up to the goalies to bail them out. Henrik Lundqvist hasn’t quite been himself this season, but Antti Raanta has picked up the slack, posting excellent numbers in relief of the King.
It was expected the Rangers would take a step back this season. Last year, they had a mediocre season, making the playoffs, but getting dispatched quickly in the first round. It wasn’t bad, or anything, but it was a far cry from the contender the team had been in years prior.
But that hasn’t happened. If anything, the Rangers have taken a step forward, and look like a significantly better team than last season. They had an influx of new, young talent join the roster this season, as prospects Pavel Buchnevich and Brady Skjei broke on to the team, and free agents Jimmy Vesey, Michael Grabner, and Brandon Pirri have helped in adding serious depth up front.
So in what appeared to be a year focused on re-tooling, the Rangers have found themselves in contention yet again. But surely they can’t be buyers at this year’s deadline again, right?
At the deadline:
The Rangers have consistently been active buyers at the trade deadline over the past few seasons.
Last year, they gave up draft picks and prospects for Eric Staal. The year before, they paid a massive price to acquire one-and-a-half years of Keith Yandle. And the year before that, they pulled off a big deal to acquire Martin St. Louis from the Lightning. Put it all together and the Rangers have basically been absent at the NHL entry draft recently.
They haven’t had a first round pick since 2012, and over the past three drafts, they’ve only had two picks in the top-60. Thankfully they’ve somewhat compensated by it with college free agent signings, but the Rangers cupboard is completely empty because of their aggressive trade deadline antics.
So this year, in such a seller friendly market, it’s hard to imagine the Rangers ponying up draft picks capital yet again to go on a run. This time, upgrades will have to come in the form of dealing from the active roster.
The Rangers have enjoyed a better-than-expected season, but don’t expect that to push them into buyer mode at the deadline. The team hasn’t made a major deadline purchase in each of the past three seasons, and as a result, are completely bare in terms of prospects. This year, the Rangers will likely stand pat rather than throwing away their draft picks.
28-21-10 (66 Points) / 47.7 CF% / 52.0 GF% / 100.8 PDO
Back on Jan. 17, the Islanders were dead last in the Eastern Conference. They had a 17-17-8 record, appeared to be completely out of the race, and fired their head coach, Jack Capuano.
Since then, under Doug Weight, the Islanders have gone 10-4-2 and are suddenly right in the thick of the playoff conversation. They obviously aren’t going to catch any of the elite four of the Metro division, but they’re poised to challenge Toronto, Philadelphia, Florida, and Boston for the final wild card seed down the stretch.
John Tavares has carried the team offensively, as his 21 goals and 28 assists leads the team, and his 8.2 relative Corsi For percentage is one of the best possession figures in the league. The Islanders have also heated up recently thanks to depth contributions from their major offseason acquisition, Andrew Ladd, who’s been playing well since getting off to an atrocious start with his new team.
They certainly aren’t a contender by any means, but the Islanders aren’t as bad as they had been showing throughout the first half of the season. Though they’ve taken a step back from being one of the brightest teams in the East like they had been the past two seasons, they’re still good enough to challenge for a payoff spot.
Though their recent hot streak and subsequent rise up the standings has covered it up for the time being, the Islanders have been somewhat of a disaster story this year. Leaving their entire arena issue and relocation rumours aside, strictly from a team management perspective, the Islanders have quickly fallen from a young, inexpensive team with flexibility on the rise down to middling team without much hope.
Last season, they had a real chance to go on a serious playoff run in their first season at Barclays Center. They had three impending free agents, Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, and Matt Martin, who played key roles on the team. But instead of using some of their draft and prospect capital, the Islanders’ front office stood pat at the deadline and went with what they had.
They ultimately won their first playoff series since 1993, which was great, but they let all three walk in free agency, garnering nothing for assets that could have been sold had they been worried about long-term success. Now, the truly odd part is that they let Okposo and Nielsen walk, and ended up spending the cap savings on Andrew Ladd and extensions to Casey Cizikas and Cal Clutterbuck.
The thing that’s odd about them not going all in last season is John Tavares’ expiring team-friendly deal. Tavares has one more year left after this on a $5.5 million annual salary, and after that, the Islanders are either going to be without their franchise player, or they’re going to have less financial flexibility to work with.
At the deadline:
Garth Snow has never been aggressive at the trade deadline. He isn’t afraid to make a big move, but when he does, it happens in the offseason.
The only major deadline splash he’s ever made came all the way back in 2007 when he acquired Ryan Smyth from the Oilers for a playoff run that ended in the first round. Otherwise, the moves Snow has made the augment his playoff teams before runs recently have been acquiring names like Shane Price, Marc-Andre Cliche, Michal Neuvirth, and Tyler Kennedy.
So, yeah. I wouldn’t expect the Islanders to do anything interesting come deadline time. They looked like a seller a few weeks ago, but now that they’ve pulled themselves back into playoff contention, I imagine they’ll do what they’ve done in previous years and stand pat with the group they have.
The Islanders weren’t as bad as their results in the first half of the season showed, but they also aren’t as good as they were the past two seasons, either. They’re a middling bubble team with a history of not buying or selling at the trade deadline, so there isn’t much reason to assume that strategy will change this year.
28-25-7 (63 Points) / 51.5 CF% / 42.0 GF% / 97.2 PDO
There was a time, for about two-and-a-half weeks, when the Philadelphia Flyers looked like a serious contender. Between late November and mid-December, the Flyers won ten games in a row and vaulted themselves up the NHL standings. But since that epic streak, the Flyers have been terrible, going 9-13-4, and managing to slide completely out of a playoff position.
They were scoring goals at a high pace, which for a while was enough to compensate for their paper thin defence and mediocre goaltending. But depth caught up with the Flyers, as outside of Wayne Simmonds, Brayden Schenn, and Jakub Voracek, nobody is producing offence. Those aforementioned four are the only skaters on the Flyers with double digit goals.
So if this team isn’t scoring, they probably aren’t winning. And without depth, you probably aren’t going to score very much. Their last line of defence is the usually-solid goaltending of Steve Mason, but both him and Michael Neuvirth have been terrible this season. I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, though, considering nobody gives up more high danger chances against than the Flyers do.
Even when they were a good-not-great middling team who appeared to be a sure bet for a playoff spot, the Flyers never made sense as a buyer. They actually perfectly matched the profile of a seller, so this mini implosion could actually be a blessing in disguise.
The Flyers are a team building for the future. Even last season when they erupted out of nowhere and began a push for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, general manager Ron Hextall stood completely still at the trade deadline. Teams came knocking for their first round pick and top prospects Ivan Provorov and Travis Sanheim, but Hextall didn’t fall into it. And surely this season, with the team looking less and less like a playoff contender, Hextall will use the deadline to focus on the future.
At the deadline:
Mark Streit and Nick Schultz are both impending free agents and will likely be converted assets on the trade market for teams who need veteran depth on the blue line. Michael Del Zotto is also an impending UFA, but trading him doesn’t seem as likely, as the 26-year-old could actually play a key role on the Flyers blue line for years to come.
Also, although they’ve both had very, very poor seasons, both Steve Mason and Michal Neuvirth represent solid options for teams in need of a backup of 1B goaltender heading into the playoffs. Mason seemed to be Philly’s goalie of the future, so it’s hard to say if he’ll be moved or not, but with the strong play of rookie Anthony Stolarz, anything is possible.
The Flyers looked like a legitimate contender for a about two weeks back before the turn of the New Year. But other than a 10-game winning streak, they’ve been thoroughly mediocre. Their offence is condensed into a handful of forwards and lacks depth, their defence is thin, and their goalies haven’t been able to compensate. Ron Hextall will surely use this deadline as an opportunity to sell and continue to build for the future.
25-25-10 (60 Points) / 46.6 CF% / 44.0 GF% / 99.2 PDO
The New Jersey Devils have had a very New Jersey Devils season. The team is decent at keeping the puck out of the net, as their system and defence oriented blue line slow the game down to a standstill, but despite Taylor Hall’s best efforts, the Devils can’t produce a lick of offence.
This isn’t exactly a surprise. The Devils have scuttled to get themselves together since the departure of Zach Parise to Minnesota and Ilya Kovalchuk’s retirement and move back to Russia. They’re basically in the same spot as they were last season. They aren’t bad enough to be one of the worst teams in the league, but they aren’t good enough to be anywhere near the conversation for the playoffs.
The Devils aren’t particularly good right now, nor do they have a bright future on the horizon worth getting excited about.
Being a good team for so long, the Devils had many, many years in which they didn’t have a high draft pick, and subsequently didn’t add an impact prospect to their pool.
Pavel Zacha, their sixth overall pick from 2015, has shown signs of playing well, but has only produced eight goals and eight assists in 52 games. Adam Larsson, their other high pick from back in 2012, was used to acquire Taylor Hall, so there aren’t any complaints there.
But beyond that, not much. The Devils were buyers for years, they were punished by the league for the ludicrous 17-year contract to Kovalchuk, and now, unsurprisingly, they’re kind of trapped in oblivion.
At the deadline:
Last year, Ray Shero was conservative at the trade deadline because the Devils were sort of in the thick of a playoff race. They ended up missing the playoffs by a fair margin, but ultimately decided it was more worthwhile to stick it out.
This season, there shouldn’t be any doubt that there isn’t a playoff contender in New Jersey. The Devils don’t have many rental assets to hand out, as Kyle Quincey, Keith Kinkaid, and P.A. Parenteau are their only impending free agents, but Mike Cammalleri, who’s signed for two more years, could be an attractive long-term upgrade for a team that needs help up front.
The Devils are trapped in purgatory after years of being successful. It’s going to take them quite some time to pull out of it, especially considering they’re in the trap of being not quite good enough for the playoffs, but too good to tank for high draft picks. They’ll surely look to sell what they can at the deadline, but bigger moves will have to wait for the summer.
24-24-8 (56 Points) / 51.5 CF% / 43.3 GF% / 97.2 PDO
The Carolina Hurricanes have incredible underlying numbers, but a combination of poor goaltending and a lack of ability to finish has held them back. This is the exact same story as last season. It’s fine, though, because the Canes really weren’t expected to compete for a playoff spot, and many of their young players have had excellent seasons, giving them a legitimate reason to be excited for the future.
Most notably, their blue line is loaded with an obscene amount of young talent. It’s so loaded, in fact, that Justin Faulk appears to be expendable, as his name is continuously showing up in trade rumours. But we’ll get to that later. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce have emerged as a legitimate top-pairing defencemen, while Haydn Fleury has had a strong season in the AHL and Noah Hanifin has been solid in a depth role on the big club. Sebastian Aho, having an excellent rookie season, in second on the team in scoring, and is forming the Canes’ offensive threat of the future alongside Victor Rask and Elias Lindholm.
Like I said, though, they’ve bene held back by poor goaltending. Cam Ward has a 0.904 save percentage, which is pretty much what you can expect from him based on his numbers the past few seasons.
Maybe they keep trotting Ward out there as some kind of stealth tanking strategy. I mean, that way the team can play well, they can load up on young talent, and still lose games and get high draft choices largely due to the poor goaltending from the guy they’re willing to give virtually every start to.
Who knows! But if that’s the case, it’s working. The Canes are loaded with exciting young talent, and this spring, they’ll add another name to that group. And sooner rather than later, the team will be built for long-term success, which is nice for a fanbase that’s seen literally nothing since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006.
At the deadline:
Bryan Bickell, Jay McClement, Viktor Stalberg, and Derek Ryan are all impending free agents that make interesting options as rentals for teams looking for forward depth come playoff time. On the blue line, the Canes can offer Ron Hainsey as a rental option, which would be a nice thing to do, considering he’s played in the NHL since 2002 and has never played in a playoff game before.
The rumours around Faulk likely won’t come into fruition before the offseason, if they ever actually do, but he’s still an interesting name to pay attention to, especially with teams like the Colorado Avalanche seemingly ready to make a big trade.
Using a poor goaltender year after year behind a low-key solid team has been an interesting stealth tank strategy for the Hurricanes, and now, they’re loaded with young talent and appear to be close to building themselves up for long-term success.
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