Now that the summer is more or less settling in and it’s just about “cottage season” for the NHL to retreat to their various summer vacation places for a bit, let’s check in on the main competition for the Penguins in the Metropolitan Division. Given the NHL’s divisional playoff structure, these teams are the most important ones to track.
We’ll start with the three teams that clinched the automatic three playoff seed in the division last season and look at the changes they have made since the season ended.
#1 Carolina Hurricanes (52-21-9, 113 points)
Overview: For the second season in a row, the Hurricanes won the Metropolitan division. They won two rounds in the playoffs (over the Islanders and then Devils) before a very tough luck sweep in the Conference Finals against the Panthers. Carolina lost four straight one-goal games (Game 1 in 4OT, Game 2 in OT) in a way reminiscent of the ECF a decade earlier between Pittsburgh and Boston. Now they look to pickup the pieces and once again try and get over the playoff hump.
Important Additions: Michael Bunting, Dmitry Orlov, Tony DeAngelo, Brendan Lemieux
Important Losses: Max Pacioretty, Shayne Gostisbehere, Calvin de Haan
Still to go: No restricted free agents, rumors around Erik Karlsson (SJ) and their own Brett Pesce with one year remaining on his contract
—Bad news for everyone else in the division: the division champs improved on paper. After the Pacoretty gamble fizzled with his injury, the Canes moved on to pickup Bunting in free agency to add a forward. Then on defense they wowed by adding Orlov to a short-term two-year deal and decided to bring DeAngelo back after a one-season banishment to Philadelphia. Carolina retained goalies Frederik Andersen and Antti Raanta, and kept Jordan Staal from testing free agency and will try once more to find playoff success.
#2 New Jersey Devils (52-22-8, 112 points)
Overview: The Devils arrived in 2022-23, finally taking a step from the basement (they hadn’t made the playoffs in nine of the previous 10 seasons) to the penthouse of being one point away from winning the division. New Jersey even defeated their rivals the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs before bowing out to Carolina in the second round.
Important Additions: Tyler Toffoli, Colin Miller, Erik Kallgren
Important Losses: Ryan Graves, Yegor Sharangovich, Miles Wood, MacKenzie Blackwood
Still to go: No RFA’s, goalie situation clarity
—The biggest and best thing NJ did this off-season was getting Timo Meier’s signature on a contract that will keep him as part of their team for the next eight seasons. The second biggest was a trade to add Toffoli (a quiet 34 goal, 73 point scorer last season in Calgary). They did lose Graves to free agency, but can back-fill with the steady veteran Miller, as well as ascending youngsters like Luke Hughes and Simon Nemec. It’s what New Jersey elected not to do that is a surprise in choosing to keep Vitek Vanecek and Akira Schmid as their goalie duo. and not seek an upgrade. This team looks like they’re still a Connor Hellebuyck away from going all in.
#3 New York Rangers (47-22-13, 107 points)
Overview: Gerrard Gallant became the first NYR coach ever to start there with two 100+ point seasons, but after a first round exit to the Devils, the Rangers parted ways with the coach and hired Peter Laviolette to take over.
Important Additions: Blake Wheeler, Erik Gustafsson, Nick Bonino, Jonathan Quick. Tyler Pitlick, Alex Belzile
Important Losses: Vladimir Tarasenko, Patrick Kane, Niko Mikkola, Jaroslav Halak, Tyler Motte
Still to go: Alexis Lafreniere (RFA)
—Quite the off-season of change with the deadline additions (Tarasenko, Kane, Mikkola) all having short stays in Manhattan. Being cap-strapped, the Rangers made some uncharacteristically wise value signings in Wheeler (55 points in 72 games for Winnipeg last season) and Gustafsson (42 points from the blueline in 70 games with Washington/Toronto) and both for under a million dollars a piece. The trade off comes with age; Wheeler turns 37 this month, Bonino is 35 going on 50. And for some reason NYR did the rest of the division a favor to sign the 37-year Quick (who looks about five years past his “best by” date) to be their backup.
Overall, it’s going to be tough for the Penguins to make a ton of headway. Carolina and New Jersey are the clear two-team top level by themselves in the Metropolitan next season. Both had 112+ points last year, and troublingly look like they have improved for 2023-24 compared to how they were in 2022-23. Of course, that’s on paper and they play the games to find out, but at this point it’s very comfortable to assume CAR and NJD are your top two teams in the division, in whatever order.
If that comes to pass, there go two of the division’s guaranteed three spots. They can have a maximum of two more via the Wild Card, which brings in even more variables about an improved Atlantic Division.
The Rangers, on the other hand, are tougher to predict. On one hand, they are bringing back their top-12 regular season scorers from last season. They always lean on their skill players and top producers, but those key individuals (and let’s include Igor Shesterkin in that thinking) have had enough to comfortably make the playoffs in the last two seasons. NYR isn’t a perfect team but has a good mix of young players, prime aged players and now some veterans. A large fall from grace doesn’t look very likely, even if they are also not a top-tier contender or threat either. They’re still good enough to beat up on lesser teams and point towards another playoff berth, whether that might come from a Wild Card or another third place finish.
Given the overall competition, this might be one of the most challenging years for the Penguins to claw back into the hunt.
One weird positive might be that Pittsburgh went 2-7-3 as a combined records against these three clubs last year. (Both wins came over NYR). If the Pens can beat New Jersey or Carolina even once next year, well, that means they’ll be doing better than they did last year. Low bar to clear, but comes as a positive that it won’t take much to gain improvement in the big picture.