On Wednesday we started PensBurgh’s Metropolitan Division preview by looking at the teams we (well .... me) see finishing in the eighth through fifth place spots in the division.
Today we look at at the top-four teams.
What they did this offseason: They addressed their single biggest need by completely overhauling their goalie position. Ilya Samsonov was let go, Vitek Vanecek was traded, and they signed the top goalie available on the free agent market by signing Darcy Kuemper to a long-term deal. They also made a nice under-the-radar signing by getting Dylan Strome on a one-year deal to help fill in for Nicklas Backstrom whose future looks to be in serious doubt.
Most interesting player: Honestly, it is probably Kuemper. While goaltending was not the only problem the past few years, there is no question it was the biggest problem. Kuemper was the weak link in Colorado a year ago, but that does not mean he is a bad goalie. That fact says more about how strong Colorado was overall than anything about Kuemper’s ability as a goalie. I know he struggled at times in the playoffs, but his overall resume the past four-five years is as good as any goalie in the NHL. I like his chances to be a difference-maker here.
What sort of competition will they be? The Capitals are not a perfect team, and they do have some real flaws especially when it comes to their blue line depth and what their center position will look like without Backstrom. But this is still a playoff caliber team, especially with a legitimate No. 1 goalie in their net.
What they did this offseason: Mostly kept the band together. They re-signed Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Rickard Rakell, Bryan Rust, and Kasperi Kapenen to long-term deals, and did not really make many changes to the roster outside of overhauling some of the defense by sending out Mike Matheson and John Marino, while bringing in Jeff Petry and Ty Smith.
Most interesting player: It is Petry for me. He is the most significant offseason addition and gives them an outstanding second-pair defender to lead that pairing. He should be a significant upgrade over Marino in that spot and give the Penguins an opportunity to have either Letang or Petry on the right side of ice for 70-75 percent of every game (as long as each of them is healthy and in the lineup). That is a big deal
What sort of competition will they be? They can not hide from their playoff shortcomings in recent years, but that does not mean the team is bad. This is still an excellent team, and as long as Crosby, Malkin, Letang, Jake Guentzel, Rakell, Rust, Petry, and the rest of the core continue to play at a high level (as they should for a few more years) they should continue to be a playoff team. The big question is going to be in goal where they have had a ton of problems the past couple of years in the playoffs, whether it be ineffectiveness, injuries, or both. If they get improvement there in the playoffs, there is no reason to think this team can not win a round or two and make some noise in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
What they did this offseason: Their big move was to sign veteran Vincent Trocheck to be their second-line center. That signing came at a price though as they had to pay him significant money over seven years, and also had to waive goodbye to Ryan Strome, Frank Vatrano, and Andrew Copp. Those were three significant depth pieces during their run to the Eastern Conference Final.
Most interesting player: It is the young players like Alexis Lafreniere, Kaapo Kakko, Filip Chytl, Vitali Kravtsov, and K’Andre Miller. These are the players that will make-or-break this season and by extension their rebuild. Especially the former two players. They need those top picks to become superstars and franchise players. If they do? Those players the Rangers lost over the offseason will be easily forgotten. If they do not? This could be a step backwards this season.
What sort of competition will they be? This team is a total wild card to me. They found their success a year ago on the back of an all-time great season and playoff run from their goalie, Igor Shesterkin, and the depth they added at the trade deadline. As good as Shesterkin is there is reason to believe he might take a small step backwards this season, just based on random variance and regression. What goalie is a .935 save percentage goaltender every year? No goalie is. If that happens, and their young players do not take a step forward, I could see this team taking a pretty significant step backwards. Maybe even down to third or fourth place in the division. But if Shesterkin is great again, and those young players emerge, they could easily be a bonafide and legitimate Stanley Cup contender. They have such a wide range of possibilities for this season.
What they did this offseason: They lost Tony DeAngelo, Vincent Trocheck, and Nino Niederreiter, but acquired Max Pacioretty, Brent Burns, and Paul Stastny. All of those veteran moves are fascinating, while they gave up almost nothing to get them. The only downside for them is that Pacioretty will miss most of the regular season due to injury.
Most interesting player: It is Jesperi Kotkaniemi. They have so much invested in him, both in terms of what they gave up to acquire him as a restricted free agent (first-and-third-round picks) and his current eight-year contract extension that begins this season, but how good is he? His underlying numbers are sensational, and there is every reason to believe that he has the ability to be a top-line player. But it has not happened yet. What makes Carolina so fascinating is that they have some players like Kotkaniemi, Martin Necas, and even Andrei Svechnikov that still have the potential to really break out offensively. If they do, this already strong team becomes an even bigger powerhouse in the Eastern Conference and the NHL as a whole.
What sort of competition will they be? On paper they are the best team in the division and one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference and the entire NHL. They do not really have much of a weakness. They have two outstanding goalies that are starting caliber, they have a strong defense and are always one of the best defensive teams in the league, and they have a very deep and talented crop of forwards that are either just now entering their prime years, or are already in the thick of their prime years. If Pacioretty comes back healthy in the playoffs they are going to be a powerhouse team to have to deal with. Eventually talent wins out. This team should get over their playoff hurdle at some point. They are good enough.