Last week we looked at the 3 other playoff teams from the Metropolitan Division and the changes they made over the 2015 off-season. Now, we'll turn our attention to the 4 teams that will be chasing the Pittsburgh Penguins and trying to get themselves in the playoffs as the teams that did not make the cut last year.
Last year:42-35-5, 236 GF, 250 GA, 113 points (5th place in division)
In: Brandon Saad, Gregory Campbell
Out: Artem Anisimov, Marko Dano, Mark Letestu, Mike Reilly
Theme: Making the big splash-other than the Phil Kessel trade, Columbus probably made the summer's most audacious acquisition in the whole division when they traded for restricted free agent-to-be Brandon Saad, and then gave him a 6 year contract with a $6.0 million cap hit.
The story: After a 2014-15 season derailed in the early part of the year by a slow start and a bunch of injuries, the Blue Jackets were one of the league's best teams in March and April, carrying a 16-4-1 record in the final quarter of the season. Despite that, they still were 9 points behind the Pens after 82 games. This year CBJ will look a lot like Pittsburgh: a team built around a deep group of forwards, an unknown and potentially troublesome defense group and a talented but occasionally inconsistent goalie.
Also with the likes of Scott Hartnell, Brandon Dubinsky, David Clarkson, Rene Bourque, Campbell and Boone Jenner, Columbus might have the most annoying/tenacious collectionof forwards from top to bottom in the division.
Question: Do they have enough defense to stay consistent? Adding a top line piece like Saad for a 3rd line center and young guy is a great short-term move, but the defensive depth chart doesn't read "playoffs right now". This was already a team that conceded a division high 250 goals against last season, and their strategy was to add a great forward and leave the defense alone.
Is that good enough to take them to the top half of the division? They've been aggressive at making trades in the past, the next one might need to address adding a top-4 type. CBJ does have a number of solid prospects that could be used as ammunition if they so chose.
Last year:33-31-18, 215 GF, 234 GA (6th place)
In: Sam Gagner, Michal Neuvirth, Evgeny Medvedev, coach Dave Hakstol
Out: Nicklas Grossmann, Zac Rinaldo, Carlo Colaiacovo, coach Craig Berube
Theme: Sticking to the long-term plan - a surprisingly subdued off-season for the Flyera, the biggest move was the change in coaching as boneheaded Craig Berube was relieved and NHL unknown (but generally well-regarded) Dave Hakstol gets his first chance at an NHL gig.
The story: A fairly quiet off-season, they took advantage of Arizona's financial situation to unload Grossmann and Chris Pronger's contracts off their books, but then turned right around and gave $3.0 million to an unknown quantity in the NHL for a 32 year old Russian KHL veteran in Medvedev (albeit, only for 1 year). The Flyera's long-term accumulation of young talent has continued with the team adding 2 more first round picks this year, including Ivan Provorov at #7 overall. Neither will help this season, but it's clear that current management (for once) isn't trying for a half-assed quick fix.
Question: Can Hakstol accelerate the process? Even though the Flyera shouldn't be bottom dwellers, they don't really seem deep or skilled enough at any position (aside from goalie) to be a legit playoff team, let alone a team good enough to win a round or two in the playoffs. How Hakstol adjust and fares in the NHL is probably the most interesting plot here.
Last year:32-36-14, 181 GF, 216 GA (7th in the division)
In: Kyle Palmieri, John Moore, David Schlemko, GM Ray Shero, coach John Hynes
Out: Dainius Zubrus, Bryce Salvador, Scott Gomez, Michael Ryder, Mark Fraser, GM Lou Lamoriello, weird 3-man coach of Lamoriello-Adam Oates-Scott Stevens
Theme: Ding dong, the witch is gone- After running the Devils as GM since 1987, Lamoriello announced a move to Team President and hired Shero, out of no where in May. Then 2 months later in July, even more unexpected was Lou's departure from the Devils all together, as he took the GM job in Toronto.
The story: Shero has a lot of work to do, aside from goalie Cory Schneider and Adam Larsson/Andy Greene the Devils don't have a lot of talent in the NHL right now. No one really expects NJ to compete for much of a playoff spot this season, but of course, no one likes to lay down and admit defeat either. John Hynes is a new NHL coach, but one Penguins fans know had a very good history of limiting goals against in Wilkes-Barre (and with goalies a lot less skilled than Schneider). So games against the Devils will probably not be much fun as they try to bog down and limit chances and shots. Sounds like a real big change from the past 20 years, huh?
That said, in this year of transition, Jersey already shed a lot of older players this summer and have some younger ones like Stefan Matteau, Pavel Zacha and Jacob Josefsen ready to push into the lineup for bigger roles, maybe as soon as this year. It may be a season of pain, but the transition to a younger and more skilled team is already in progress.
Question: Where will the goals come from? Only Arizona and Buffalo scored fewer goals in the whole league last year than NJD, and the Devils didn't really add much firepower at all. Hynes is a good defensive coach, and Cory Schneider is a whale of a goalie, but with the firepower found in this division, trying to win 1-0 or 2-1 games isn't going to be a viable long-term strategy.
Last year:30-41-11, 188 GF, 226 GA, 8th place in division
In: Eddie Lack, James Wisniewski, Kris Versteeg, Noah Hanifin
Out: Alex Semin, Patrick Dwyer, Jack Hillen
Theme: Which way's up?- Carolina finished dead last and added a few nice pieces in the off-season, but they also look a little directionless, especially with captain Eric Staal staring down free agency next summer. The plan going forward, in a very competitive division with a lot of teams rich enough to spend to the cap without problem presents a tough challenge for Carolina.
The story: Carolina cut bait with Semin after a pair of frustrating seasons, and then had an opportunistic off-season. First they snagged Lack out of Vancouver when it was obvious he needed a change of scenery for only a 3rd and 7th round pick. Then they grabbed Wisniewski (a bust as a trade pickup in Anaheim) for just their backup goaliee. Finally, just this week Carolina took advantage of Chicago's salary cap situation to add Versteeg for a 5th round pick and two forgettable non-NHL level prospects.They also drafted the top defenseman at #5 with Noah Hanifin and are somewhat quietly getting a lot of top-end young defensemen.
The Hurricanes didn't go out and get Saad and sign him to a big money deal, but they did have a couple nice little deals to add some NHL depth.
Question: Is this year another year of a long-term build? The Hurricanes haven't been in the playoffs since 2009, and this year isn't looking promising either. As mentioned Staal and Cam Ward (2 expensive mainstays from their 2006 Cup) are both free agents next summer. Neither seem likely to return right now, so where does the leave Carolina? Seems like they need more talent and have a way's to go before the 2002-09 era when they were a very relevant team.