After going through a two-month ordeal to complete the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the bubble cities of Toronto and Edmonton, 31 National Hockey League clubs returned to some normalcy by making trades and signing free agents to remake their rosters for the 2020-21 regular season.
Unlike previous years, where general managers had the benefit of an increased salary cap due to $5 billion in annual league revenue, clubs were hampered by the $81.5 million salary cap staying flat due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that did not stop them from making moves that may turn out to be consequential when the season begins in January or February.
Here is an evaluation of what changes clubs in the Metropolitan Division made:
In – Jesper Fast
Out – Joel Edmundson, Trevor van Riemsdyk, Justin Williams, Sami Vatanen
For the second straight season, the Canes could not get past Boston, this time losing to the Bruins in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. GM Don Waddell bolstered his club upfront by signing the versatile Fast in free agency to plug the hole left by the retirement of Williams.
The departure of Edmundson (rights traded to Montreal) and van Riemsdyk (signed with Washington) are significant, but Carolina has solid organizational depth on the blueline and youngsters like Haydn Fleury and AHL Defenseman of the Year Jake Bean ready to step into a larger role.
Grade – B-
COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
In – Max Domi, Mikko Koivu
Out – Josh Anderson, Ryan Murray, Markus Nutivaara
Unsigned – Pierre-Luc Dubois
The Blue Jackets overcame numerous injuries during the regular season to stay in the playoff race and bested Toronto in the qualifying round before falling to Tampa Bay in the first round. In the offseason, GM Jarmo Kekalainen addressed the club’s lack of offense by swapping oft-injured winger Josh Anderson to Montreal for Domi (who Columbus signed to a two-year contract extension) and adding 37-year-old former Wild captain Koivu on a one-year deal.
Murray (traded to New Jersey) and Nutivaara (traded to Florida) were moved to clear over $7 million in cap space to re-sign Dubois, but the Jackets leading scorer remains unsigned with training camp a few weeks away.
Grade – B
NEW JERSEY DEVILS
In – Corey Crawford, Andreas Johnsson, Dmitry Kulikov, Ryan Murray
Out – Joey Anderson, John Hayden, Cory Schneider
Unsigned – Mackenzie Blackwood
After finishing at the bottom of the Metro for the second straight season and firing head coach John Hynes, the Devils are hoping that GM Tom Fitzgerald and veteran head coach Lindy Ruff can help New Jersey with former #1 picks Nico Hischier and Jack Hughes improve and grow.
Fitzgerald benefited from having more than $20 million in cap space (after buying out Schneider) in a year where the cap stayed flat. That enabled the Devils to sign veteran Crawford for two years to partner with the unsigned Blackwood, add Murray (via trade) and Kulikov to bolster his blueline, and swap prospect Anderson to Toronto for former 20-goal scorer Johnsson.
Grade – A-
NEW YORK ISLANDERS
In – Ilya Sorokin
Out – Thomas Greiss, Johnny Boychuk, Devon Toews
Unsigned – Andy Greene, Mathew Barzal, Matt Martin
The Isles beat Florida, Washington, and Philadelphia before losing to Tampa Bay in the Eastern Conference Final. In the offseason, the addition of KHL goalie Sorokin allowed GM Lou Lamoriello to let Greiss go to free agency, but New York’s cap situation was so perilous that they were forced to give away defenseman Toews to Colorado for a pair of draft picks.
Lamoriello was bailed out in a way by the forced retirement of Boychuk last week, which will allow the Islanders to bring back veterans Greene, Martin and re-sign leading scorer Barzal.
Grade – D
NEW YORK RANGERS
In – Alexis Lafreniere, Jack Johnson
Out – Lias Andersson, Jesper Fast, Henrik Lundqvist, Marc Staal, Greg McKegg
New York deftly navigated through some choppy salary waters after the season, buying out the final year of future Hall-of-Famer Lundqvist’s $8.5 million contract and giving Detroit a second-rounder to take on Staal to give GM Jeff Gorton the room to re-sign goalie Alexandar Georgiev, defenseman Tony DeAngelo and forwards Ryan Strome and Brendan Lemieux.
Top pick Lafreniere gives the Rangers another potential young impact player and Johnson (bought out by Pittsburgh) provides veteran depth at an economical price.
Grade – B+
In – Erik Gustafsson
Out – Derek Grant, Tyler Pitlick, Nate Thompson, Matt Niskanen
Unsigned – Philippe Myers
After a rather successful regular season and a second-round exit, the departures from the Flyers were limited mostly to rentals acquired at the trade deadline (Grant, Thompson) and bottom-six depth in Pitlick that will likely be replaced by prospects within the organization.
The retirement of Niskanen (who partnered with Ivan Provorov on the top pairing) was unexpected and leaves the club in a vulnerable position defensively. Gustafsson is a power play specialist and a bottom-pairing option at best, which could mean a larger role for the unsigned Myers.
Grade – C+
Out – Nick Bjugstad, Patrick Hornqvist, Jack Johnson, Patrick Marleau, Justin Schultz, Dominik Simon
After being stunned in the qualifying round by Montreal, GM Jim Rutherford went about shaking up and re-shaping his roster in hopes of taking advantage of the remaining window of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang. The Pens bought out the final three years of Johnson’s deal, moved out Bjugstad for cap space, swapped their first-round pick, and prospect Filip Hallander to Toronto for Kapanen and let Marleau, Schultz, and Simon walk in free agency.
Pittsburgh made value free agent signings in Ceci, Jankowski, and Evan Rodrigues, but the most questionable move was the trade of Hornqvist to Florida for Matheson (who struggled with the Panthers the last two seasons and has six years remaining on his contract) and Sceviour.
Grade – B-
Out – Travis Boyd, Radko Gudas, Braden Holtby
A first-round loss to the Islanders resulted in the firing of head coach Todd Rierden and the hiring of Cup winner Peter Laviolette to hopefully revitalize a core group that won it all in 2018.
After re-signing Brenden Dillon for four years, GM Brian McClellan replaced the departed Gudas with Schultz and brought in van Riemsdyk for depth. Lundqvist will get an opportunity to prove he still can play at 38, as he replaces the departed Holtby (signed in Vancouver) as a tandem partner with youngster Ilya Samsonov.
Grade – B