We’ve been cutting the Metropolitan Division in half since before the All-Star break, and this week’s trade deadline only served to enforce what we already knew about this division. Washington, Pittsburgh and the New York clubs are in it to win it, and the rest of the crowd is shedding weight with an eye to the future.
This year’s deadline was fairly busy, if not impressive in the quality of names that moved. However, the Metropolitan found itself in on two of the biggest deals to go down in the last week.
Today, a look at the Metropolitan’s buyer class, and how they fared in the frenzy.
New York Rangers
Key Acquisitions: Keith Yandle, James Sheppard, Carl Klingberg
Key Departures: John Moore, Anthony Duclair, Lee Stempniak, 1st Round Pick (2016, cond.), 2nd Round Pick (2015)
New York has been charging hard through the standings since December, moving past the Penguins and Capitals and into a battle with the Islanders for first place in the division. A committee offense, led by Rick Nash, has the Rangers near the top of the league in goals per game and has given them the best goal differential as of Wednesday morning.
If they had weaknesses anywhere, it was in replacing the depth that A) helped carry them to the Final a year ago and B) went and got rich elsewhere in free agency after the rest of the league watched them excel in the long postseason run.
Moves for Sheppard and Klingberg help shore up the depth, but it’s the trade for Yandle that could really put the Rangers over the top this postseason. Yandle should serve as the power play quarterback the Rangers had hoped to get in Dan Boyle, as well as giving them as good a top-six defense as exists in the East.
It’s a lot to give up. Duclair is a prized prospect, and two more picks in the first two rounds all but ensures that the Cup window the Rangers have spent to open wide this year won’t stay open for very long. But a return to the Final can’t be out of the question at this point.
New York Islanders
Key Acquisitions: Tyler Kennedy, Michal Neuvirth
Key Departures: Chad Johnson
The Islanders, top to bottom, have the best group of forwards in the East. That much is evident by their relentless four-line attack and fourth-ranked offense.
There is, however, no such thing as too much depth. New York bolstered that with the acquisition of Kennedy, who’s got a great deal of playoff experience with the Penguins and Sharks and should still have the wheels to keep up with Jack Capuano’s high-speed system.
Their biggest get, however, was Buffalo’s Neuvirth. Neuvirth is an excellent second option for New York, and actually sports a better save percentage than starter Jaroslav Halak despite having played with the pitiable Sabres all season long.
The backup position had hampered the Islanders this year more than any other roster spot, and the Isles upgraded the position by acquiring a former starter at the cost of current back Johnson and a third-round pick.
Getting rid of Johnson, who went to Buffalo in the deal, is addition by subtraction. Johnson had a 3.73 / .864 line in 17 games with New York. That the Isles replaced him with Neuvirth and really spent only a third-round pick in the deal is another stroke of fine work by GM Garth Snow.
The Islanders still have issues to figure out — namely, that 22nd-ranked defense and next-to-last penalty kill. Those issues seem to be more systemic than personnel-driven, and no amount of trades might have fixed them. Instead, the Islanders quietly went about shoring up their depth and stealing a good player at their greatest position of need.
Key Acquisitions: Daniel Winnik, Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy
Key Departures: Zach Sill, Simon Despres, Robert Bortuzzo, 2nd Round Pick (2016)
Pittsburgh, really, has been dealing since last summer.
A bevy of moves that started with the James Neal trade have left the Penguins with a roster that features just six forwards, four defenseman and a starting goalie who were present when the Pens bowed out to the Rangers in last year’s Semifinal round.
GM Jim Rutherford’s moves for the season came to an end last week, beginning with the deal that landed the Penguins’ top target in Winnik in exchange for Sill and two draft picks. The Pens paid a high price in dropping a second-rounder and other assets for a pending-UFA third-liner, but Winnik looks like exactly the kind of player the Pens could have used five of in last year’s playoffs.
Bortuzzo for Cole is an upgrade by any measure, but the biggest head-scratcher was the last-minute deal that sent Despres to Anaheim and brought Lovejoy back to Pittsburgh.
The long-term upside of Despres makes the deal hard to process, and at the very least the Pens could have commanded a higher premium for their 23-year-old former first-round selection. For the coming postseason, anyway, Lovejoy represents a much better safety valve on the third pairing than Despres, who is still very much a work in progress.
Bortuzzo, Sill and Despres were some of the Pens’ hardest hitters, but they were also liabilities in defensive situations. Anyone bemoaning the loss of grit and physicality needs to look at how far grit and physicality carried the bottom-six and third pair last season (straight out of the playoffs).
If the Pens are going to be a speedy, puck-keeping kind of team, that M.O. is helped by the Winnik’s and Lovejoy’s of the league. Even if the cost seems a big high.
Key Acquisitions: Tim Gleason, Curtis Glencross
Key Departures: Jack Hillen, 2nd Round Pick (2015)
The Capitals are going to win by being a big, stout group of sonofabitches who insulate goaltender Braden Holtby while Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom do the heavy lifting on offense.
So far, the formula has worked. The Capitals are sixth in total defense, up from 21st overall last season. Holtby is having a career season, and the Capitals have the heaviest group of forwards outside of the Western Conference elite.
If some is good, more is better. That’s the plan anyway. Washington acquired veteran forward Glencross and stay-at-home type Gleason to help shore up their playoff roster, both moves aimed at making the big and heavy Capitals bigger and heavier-er.
Which might just backfire.
With scoring down leaguewide and defense traditionally successful in the postseason, the goal-prevention route is usually a safe bet and always a signature of a Barry Trotz team. However, the Capitals are currently in line to face the Islanders in the first round. They’ve got just as good a chance of facing the Rangers or Lightning, as well — all teams that have found success with high-flying offensive attacks (who also happen to be the three top-scoring teams in the NHL).
Maybe those forecheckers get worn down over the course of a seven-gamer with the Capitals’ bigger bodies. Maybe, they just outrun them.
The Capitals got bigger, but they also got decidedly slower and less puck-skilled in the acquisition of Gleason. And while Washington is a top scoring team, they do have some trouble controlling play (15th in shot attempt differential), a number that is glossed over by their 9th-ranked team shooting percentage and second-ranked power play.
Those moves won’t improve their puck possession, and seem to add only marginally to what were already areas of strength.
Worst of all, the Islanders lapped the Capitals in addressing their single-biggest need — a competent backup goalie to spell the starter before he gets fatigued and in case he gets injured.
The Caps are all-in on their newfound identity, but even if it doesn’t get exposed by teams with faster forecheckers, their biggest problem remains unaddressed.
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