The NHL’s western conference has been regarded as having the toughest competition in the league, but the eastern conference has gained ground in recent seasons. Given the underwhelming free agent class that just hit the market, most teams opted to make improvements to their rosters via trade.
Three teams within the metropolitan division made some big moves and have dramatically improved their roster this offseason. Let’s discuss which teams helped themselves this offseason and what to expect from the team in 2015-16.
3. Columbus Blue Jackets
You could certainly make the case that the Columbus Blue Jackets should be rated higher on this list, but there’s a very good reason why they’re only the third most improved team. Last season the Jackets lost 508 man games lost to injury and beyond the sheer number of injuries, they were the highest quality of injuries in the league as well. What exactly is “quality of injuries” the short answer is that it’s a calculation that puts a weight to the talent level of the injured player.
Now if Columbus was not riddled with injuries last season, it’s easy to conceive that they would have been a playoff team. Despite their constant woes they finished fifth in the division with 89 points, donning a record of 42-35-5. Overall the team shot at 6.2%, their PDO was the league’s lowest at 97.1 and their team save percentage was 90.9%.
Sergei Bobrovsky missed a significant amount of time and even after he returned, there were questions about his health. Sure, the Blue Jackets have added the two-way stud Brandon Saad to keep up with the improving metropolitan division, but their biggest improvement will hopefully be a clean bill of health.
If Columbus can avoid the trainers room a little more next season, it’s really not crazy to say that they could win the metropolitan division. They have the talent, they just need some luck and adding a player of Saad’s caliber certainly doesn’t hurt their chances.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Pittsburgh Penguins are going to be a fascinating team to watch during the upcoming season. I’d wager that they currently have the deepest group of forwards within the metropolitan. How long has it been since anyone has been able to say that about the Penguins?
For years it’s always been that goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has struggled, their defense was inconsistent or their lineup was too top heavy and their stars faltered. Yes, they boast the best core within the metropolitan, but their offensive stars finally have some talent around them. It began shortly after the NHL draft when Pittsburgh executed a blockbuster trade to acquire the goal scoring wing, Phil Kessel. Then just a few days ago, the Penguins sent the overrated Brandon Sutter and one of their three third-round picks to the Vancouver Canucks for a king’s ransom.
The return for Sutter was center Nick Bonino, who’s advanced metrics are far superior to Sutter’s, Adam Clendening and a second-round pick. But what made this deal great for the Penguins was with Sutter’s $3.3 million off of their salary cap, they signed forward Eric Fehr to a three-year/$6 million dollar contract.
Fleury is coming off of a phenomenal season, their forwards look ready to score at least four times a night, so what’s the problem? If it had not been for the significant losses on the blueline, Pittsburgh would have been the most improved team in the metropolitan. However, the loss of Christian Ehrhoff and, more importantly, Paul Martin cannot be understated. Pittsburgh is going cheap on defense to spend more money on forwards and it might just work, if they can stay healthy.
That’s a big if when your top two defenders are Olli Maatta and Kris Letang. They’re some of the game’s best young talent, but both have had trouble staying healthy over their career’s. Assuming those two can remain relatively healthy, Pittsburgh could run away with the metropolitan division, but if they can’t or their young defenders can’t hold up, the Penguins might just barely make the playoffs again.
1. Washington Capitals
The most improved team in the metropolitan division has to be the Washington Capitals. They don’t have injury concerns from last season and they’re coming off a season where fell just short.
It was a four games to three series that the Capitals fell to the New York Rangers in the eastern conference quarter finals, and game seven was a 2-1 loss. This offseason the Caps sent power-forward Troy Brower and some extras to the St. Louis Blues for forward T. J. Oshie. They signed free agent wing Justin Williams, who excels in the playoffs and specifically game sevens, and they committed to their goaltender Braden Holtby long-term.
Last season the Caps’ defense was very solid and the loss of Mike Green won’t hurt as badly as many think. Washington still has John Carlson and Matt Niskanen to provide offense from the blueline and they have a revitalized Brooks Orpik shutting down opposing forwards.
Consider that Washington did not lose many valuable pieces and they upgraded two of their wings, the Capitals might be the team to beat in the metropolitan division entering the 2015-16 season.
Of course, all of this is discussing how the moves look on paper, it will be another thing to see if these teams can live up to expectations next season or if they will fall through the cracks.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave your comments below or tweet me anytime @MPityk
Michael Pityk is an analyst who has written for numerous sites since beginning his professional career. He’s acted as a credentialed member of the media for the Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Pirates and the Pittsburgh Penguins. His work has been featured in Sports Illustrated, The Sports Journal, MSN, PensLabyrinth, Montreal Hockey Talk, ESPN Pittsburgh, The Hockey Writers, Todays SlapShot and The Bleacher Report. He formerly was the editor of Pens Labyrinth and an analyst for The Sports Journal. Michael presently acts as an NHL Analyst for The Hockey Writers