Faced with precious little cap space and a host of key players to re-sign, the Penguins did a marvelous job of keeping a successful core intact. Pittsburgh opened the offseason by inking Evgeni Malkin to a long-term deal and also managed to retain key UFAs Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz below market value. It seemed like Pittsburgh would be unable to meet Kris Letang’s contract extension demands and that he might be dealt over draft weekend as Jordan Staal was last year, but the Penguins managed to keep their high-scoring defender happy with an eight-year, $58 million extension.
Pittsburgh lost trade deadline acquisitions Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Morrow as free agents and also allowed pest Matt Cooke to exit, while trading depth forward Tyler Kennedy to San Jose. But amidst all that, the Penguins were able to bring back Rob Scuderi, a defender they regretted letting leave in the first place. Pittsburgh has no room to operate under the salary cap so another trade might be coming and the Penguins are still planning to rely on Marc-Andre Fleury in goal next season, so it’s hard to classify them as a ‘better’ team. However, the Penguins kept an extremely talented roster together for the most part and should again be a Cup favorite heading into 2013-2014.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils wisely allowed David Clarkson to sign with Toronto for seven-years, $36.75 million. His worth to New Jersey was significant, but that was still a ridiculous overpayment. The Devils followed up that smart business by lofting their own wildly inflated contract at oft-injured former Ranger Ryane Clowe. The five-years, $24.25 million New Jersey invested in Clowe was laughable, but the Devils followed that up with a shrewd signing, bringing in scoring winger Michael Ryder for two-years, $7 million.
New Jersey also managed to keep long-time Devil Patrik Elias for likely the remainder of his career and re-signed key forward Dainius Zubrus. And let us not forget about draft day, when Lou Lamoriello shipped the ninth overall pick to Vancouver in exchange for goalie of the future Cory Schneider. Finding a successor to Martin Brodeur was one of the key moves of the offseason, so there’s no denying that New Jersey is a better team, although it may take some time for the Devils to reap the rewards.
The carnival continued in Philadelphia, where the Flyers exercised two expensive buyouts on F Daniel Briere and G Ilya Bryzgalov. Philadelphia did bring in a potentially capable starting netminder on a one-year deal in Ray Emery, who was the beneficiary of a terrific team in Chicago but is still undoubtedly an upgrade over Bryzgalov and Steve Mason. Mason and another UFA goaltender, Yann Denis, give the Flyers a couple other sacrificial lambs in net.
With the savings from their buyouts, Philadelphia immediately turned around and locked up Claude Giroux and invested four-years, $21 million in 35-year-old D-man Mark Streit. Philadelphia also won the Vinny Lecavalier sweepstakes, strengthening an already deep forward group. Streit will be a big help on the power play but is an adventure in his own end. The Flyers did little else to upgrade a porous defense, so unless you’re a big believer in Emery, then Philadelphia isn’t much better off than it was at the end of the 2013 campaign.
New York Islanders
The Islanders currently have the lowest payroll in the league, but the Long Island rivals are quietly building something special. The Isles refused to meet defenseman Mark Streit’s unreasonable contract demands and his departure will inevitably hurt New York’s power play. However, the Islanders locked up 22-year-old Travis Hamonic to a seven-year, $27 million deal and have other young blueliners on the way. It was clear that the team’s relationship with forward prospect Nino Niederreiter was damaged beyond repair, but the Islanders probably should have gotten more than Cal Clutterbuck back for the Swiss power forward.
That said, the Islanders re-signed Clutterbuck to a favorable deal and he will make one of the league’s most pesky teams even more frustrating to play against. The Islanders also quietly added frequently injured winger Pierre-Marc Bouchard on a cheap one-year deal. If he can stay healthy, he could put up huge numbers alongside John Tavares. In goal, the Islanders finally cut ties with Rick DiPietro. Exercising an expensive buyout was a big move for a usually frugal franchise, but it was a little puzzling that New York chose to keep Evgeni Nabokov as its starter rather than bringing in someone else from a deep goalie market. The Islanders are still very much a work in progress and their success will depend more on the development of their youngsters than on any of these moves, but Brooklyn’s future team is looking more dangerous all the time.
With a ton of money locked up in a few players long-term, the Capitals chose to watch the offseason from the sidelines. Washington lost #2 center Mike Ribeiro to free agency – a big blow given his impact last season, especially on the power play. Washington also watched gritty fourth-liner Matt Hendricks depart and did nothing to replace either player. At the draft, Washington added yet another talented Russian forward that other teams were afraid to select in Andre Burakovsky, but he’s likely a few years away.
The Caps will receive a big boost next season from the return of Brooks Laich, but on paper this team looks thinner. Of course, as we’ve all learned, Washington will live and die with Alex Ovechkin. So if we really want to determine whether the Capitals will be better or worse, then we should be keeping a close eye on The Great 8′s offseason.
Like the Capitals, the Hurricanes also have a lot of money tied up in a few players. Still, Carolina was able to add depth to its blueline by bringing in Andrej Sekera (acquired in a draft day trade for Jamie McBain) and signing Leafs castoff Mike Komisarek. Most importantly, the Hurricanes brought in a promising if unproven backup netminder in Anton Khudobin, who was terrific in Boston last season. The Hurricanes added two-way center Elias Lindholm with the fifth pick in the draft and he should have every opportunity to win a job at training camp. Carolina’s only loss of note was depth forward Chad LaRose, so they’re looking slightly better if just because of the additional bodies they added to protect their own zone.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Rangers West continues to quickly build a solid roster. Columbus inked former Ranger Artem Anisimov and breakout star Sergei Bobrovsky to contract extensions, then the Blue Jackets made one of the biggest splashes of the summer by signing winger Nathan Horton to a long-term pact. Horton’s injury issues will keep him out for several months, but he is a proven goal-scorer when healthy and will make Columbus suddenly deep up front. At the draft, the Blue Jackets added significant talent to their prospect pipeline by spending their three first-round picks on forwards Alexander Wennberg, Kerby Rychel and Marko Dano. Columbus must still decide whether to keep Vinny Prospal around, but the Blue Jackets are one of the NHL’s true up and comers.
Which division rivals do you think improved the most this offseason?