The NHL offseason has progressed through the draft and free agency, and, with all the action that took place, the New York Islanders appeared to remain neutral. The Islanders did open up some cap space by trading Devon Toews and they did sign Ryan Pulock to a two-year, $5 million contract, but there weren’t any major acquisitions that ushered in any additional star players. Any fan has to wonder if this means the team takes a step back in comparison to the rest of the Metropolitan Division.
It should be important to evaluate the Islanders offseason based on the rest of the division. There is a lot of uncertainty regarding the upcoming NHL season but one of the likely propositions is that it’ll require more regional games. This would require the Islanders to face their divisional rivals more often and the season will be defined by the success against them. With this in mind, let’s look at how the rest of the division stacks up after the unusual offseason.
The Washington Capitals have been the class of the Metropolitan Division, winning it for the past five consecutive seasons and also winning a Stanley Cup in 2017-18. The Capitals appear to be on track to control the division once again, possessing one of the best players in NHL history in Alexander Ovechkin, and a deep and talented roster to support Ovi (stars like Nicklas Backstrom, TJ Oshie, Carl Hagelin, just to name a few).
The Capitals, like the Islanders, were relatively neutral in their offseason moves. They lost former Vezina Trophy winner Brayden Holtby in free agency but signed future Hall of Famer Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist is at the end of his career but is still playing at a high level and might still have a Stanley Cup run in the net left in him.
The Capitals fired head coach Todd Reirden after two first-round playoff exits and replaced him with Peter Laviolette with the hopes that his playoff experience can get this team over the top. The Capitals have been the top team in the division and will likely remain at the top considering the offseason didn’t hurt them much.
Like the Islanders, the Philadelphia Flyers didn’t have anything drastic occur. They signed defenseman Erik Gustafsson from Calgary but remained neutral other than that. The Flyers are a team that can give the Islanders trouble when you consider how their roster is structured. They possess a mix of established veterans and one of the best young goalies in the game in Carter Hart.
It’s possible the Flyers overachieved last season but they look to still be one of the best teams in the conference. Head coach Alain Vigneault has the team trending in the right direction with the young defense and goaltending leading the way. The way the roster is structured can even make one believe that the Flyers can be one of the top competitors in the Eastern Conference and the NHL.
The Carolina Hurricanes are always an exciting, promising, and young team to watch (only three players on the active roster are above the age of 30). Like the Islanders, they didn’t make any major moves or lose any key players which should keep them at the same level as they have been. They will continue to give the Islanders trouble as the ‘Canes have won six of the last seven meetings. The Hurricanes possess a good team that is not at the top of the Metropolitan Division, but one that can be a dark horse this season.
New York Rangers
The New York Rangers have to scare anyone after the offseason they had. Everyone knows about them winning the draft lottery and selecting Alexis Lafreniere with the No. 1 overall pick. With the addition of Kaapo Kakko from the 2019 NHL Draft, the rise of prospects like Adam Fox, and goalies Alexandar Georgiev and Igor Shesterkin, the roster suddenly has a young base that is ready to take over the Metropolitan Division.
Of course, a young roster isn’t enough, a good roster also needs a strong, reliable, veteran presence. Last offseason, the Rangers invested in Artemi Panarin and Jacob Trouba during the free agency period to instantly boost the roster along with Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad. The Rangers appear to be the most improved team in the division and can give the Islanders and everyone plenty of trouble this upcoming season.
Columbus Blue Jackets
In the 2019 offseason, the Columbus Blue Jackets lost a surplus of stars. Artemi Panarin, Matt Duchene, Matt Dzingel, and Sergei Bobrovsky all left for massive paydays, but, since then, head coach John Tortorella and the front office have rebuilt the roster and kept the Blue Jackets competitive in the division and NHL.
In the Stanley Cup playoffs, we saw the Blue Jackets defense and goaltending play lights out, but they lacked the offense to keep up with the Tampa Bay Lightning. In free agency, Columbus signed Max Domi and Mikko Koivu in hopes to bring the fire back to the offensive attack. The Blue Jackets made slight improvements but still have a ways to go before reaching the top of the Metropolitan Division and giving the Islanders legitimate competition.
There is a potential for an old boys club culture to emerge in Pittsburgh. The Pittsburgh Penguins’ core continues to age while there isn’t a strong reboot in the prospect ranks. The offseason didn’t help as the Penguins traded away goalie Matt Murray and acquired forward Jason Zucker in exchange for Alex Galchenyuk, Calen Addison, and a first-round draft choice.
This was the team of the previous decade, winning back-to-back Stanley Cups. It looks like the collapse might be inevitable with the way the roster is currently constructed, though. The Islanders have been neck and neck in recent years but should be able to pull ahead of Pittsburgh in the upcoming season. The Penguins have stars like Crosby and Malkin to keep them competitive but it’s hard seeing the Penguins keeping up with the Islanders and the rest of the Metropolitan Division.
New Jersey Devils
The New Jersey Devils shouldn’t concern the Islanders or any team in the Metropolitan Division. This is a team with little direction and failed management. The front office has to rebuild after a failed rebuild. They have young stars like Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier but not much help for the young players on offense. Likewise, the defense and goaltending was a mess last season and wasn’t addressed this offseason either. The Devils signed goalie Corey Crawford but there isn’t much optimism that he will fix the problems.
The recent signings haven’t helped, either. Acquiring defenseman P.K. Subban looks like it will set the defense back, as well as the cap space of the Devils for years to come. New Jersey signed Wayne Simmonds last season, only to trade him away for a late-round draft pick midway through the year. On the note of trades, the Devils traded away pending free agent Taylor Hall last season for two draft picks and three prospects. In the end, the Islanders shouldn’t have to worry about their rivals for this upcoming season and the near future.
Where Should We Rank the Islanders in the Metropolitan Division?
The Islanders were in the Eastern Conference Final this past season. The roster will look slightly different from that playoff run and will have many questions entering the upcoming season. At the moment, they are in the top tier of the division with the Washington Capitals and maybe the Philadelphia Flyers. If the prospects of the Islanders can step up this season then we might be looking at them as the best team in the division and possibly the Eastern Conference (they are still far from that mark).
Likewise, if the young players with the Rangers are better than expected or the Devils prospects surprise us, then we will be looking at a more competitive division with the Islanders sliding in the standings. All these questions will hopefully be answered in the upcoming months with hopes of a new season around the corner.
Mike Fink joined The Hockey Writers in November 2020 and covers the New York Islanders. In addition to covering the Islanders, Fink writes about the NHL at large and contributes as a weekly guest to The Hockey Writers Podcast. Follow Mike on Twitter @Finks_thoughts for more Islanders and general hockey insights.