It’s been a really long off-season and I guess we technically don’t even know how or when it will end, despite efforts to get the wheels in motion. But sooner or later it will end. And looking over some things, I realized there have been some developments that either slipped the radar or I forgot, just because so much time has passed. This year has been more than a little crazy, so you’ll be forgiven if any of these little bits may have slipped your mind. Let’s try to bring them back to the surface with a random thought or perhaps a bit of a forgotten underlying story for each team in the Penguins’ division.
The Capitals head coach is Peter Laviolette as the strange, incredible parallels to the Pens continue...Much like Batman and the Joker, Pittsburgh and Washington just continue to be intertwined on similar paths. From being playoff rivals in the 1990s, to the Jaromir Jagr trade, to bottoming out at the same time in the early 2000’s and subsequent rises into being two of the best teams and renewing playoff rivalries — it’s really astounding how linked the two rival franchises are. I wrote about the coaching change decisions each team made this in August for a story that published about two hours before the Pens traded for Kasperi Kapanen, which took away a lot of spotlight (d’oh!). And for some reason that Laviolette is the Caps’ coach slipped my mind until recently. GM Jim Rutherford never really considered firing Mike Sullivan, but in a different world where he maybe did, it’s easy to imagine that Laviolette (Rutherford’s coach for the 2006 Stanley Cup winning Carolina Hurricanes) would have been a strong candidate for the Pens in 2021 in a bizarre alt-Earth. The Caps’ old head coach, Todd Reirden, is back in Pittsburgh in a more suiting assistant coach role. The parallels continue. How will Laviolette work (or not) with the Caps’ team, that also includes multiple Pittsburgh Stanley Cup champs in Carl Hagelin and Justin Schultz. It’s a fascinating plot.
Defensive changes and uncertainty in Boston...Torey Krug has departed Beantown, finding a rich free agent deal with St. Louis. Krug was a NHL regular in Boston the last seven seasons, and he averaged an impressive 48 points per year in that stretch. Of further interest is that team captain Zdeno Chara remains unsigned, with questions still abounding about his future as far as if he wants to come back and keep playing. Chara at 43 years old has finally started to show signs of aging, and probably no longer is going to be a dominant player. But his size and experience will always make him a formidable opponent, if he does choose to come back for another season. The Bruins have made no major external moves to address Krug’s loss — and if they don’t have Chara they will become even less deep on the back end, which quietly seems like a pretty big deal of talent and minutes that have walked out the door and been a big part of their success.
Eric Staal adds boost to Buffalo...A lot of press was given, for good reason, to the Sabres adding the top free agent forward in Taylor Hall on a one-year contract. But Buffalo also added Eric Staal in a trade earlier in the summer. At 36, Staal is no spring chicken, but he had a pretty remarkable career turnaround the last four seasons in Minnesota. Last year he was on pace for a 58 point season had there been a full 82 game season and only two seasons ago he was a 42 goal scorer.
For a team that desperately needed more oomph and skill down the middle to compliment Jack Eichel, adding Staal could prove to be an excellent addition for Buffalo. Enough to get in the playoff picture finally? We shall see.
The Flyers, quiet, but still as unpredictable as ever...Gretz did a great outlook on Philly at NBC, and the Flyers remain one of the most difficult teams to peg in the league. They can go on tremendous hot streaks, yet also turn around and be ice cold. They didn’t do much at all this offseason, Matt Niskanen somewhat surprisingly decided to retire at the age of 34 after a pretty good season, and they added Erik Gustafsson to help fill his place. The franchise that usually is active in off-season moves was very quiet, so who knows what to think about them.
The Lafrienere era begins in New York...This one probably isn’t going under the radar, but it still is a key storyline. The Rangers were 2 points out of a playoff spot when the season ended, and now they add one of the top prospects the NHL has seen in a while. The Rangers are built in an interesting way with some great forwards, questionable defense and a changing of the guard in net. They will be one of the most interesting teams with a lot of different possibilities.
Ruff stuff in Jersey...Along with Washington, the other head coaching change in the division belongs to New Jersey — who gives Lindy Ruff his first crack since 2017 at being a head coach. This kinda reminds me of trying to seek out a “poor man’s Trotz” situation. NJ is bringing in a defensive minded veteran coach to coax out perhaps a better performance than the sum of the parts on the roster might incidate, as Trotz has done nearby for NYI. No one really has any expectations for the Devils, so pretty much the only thing they can do is surprise in a positive way, if they do anything at all.
Business as usual on the Island....I don’t think there is really any interesting new story or forgotten move that the Islanders have made. They’re pretty much the same cast of characters, though they’ll need prospect Noah Dobson to step in for the traded Devon Toews. The recent injury retirement of Johnny Boychuk should drive an opening for the cap space needed to re-sign Mat Barzal, so NYI is exactly where they like to be: in the shadow of teams like Washington, Pittsburgh, NYR, Philly and Boston. But still somehow will inevitably wind up finishing above some of them in the standings, just like they always do these days.