Free Agency Preview: Metropolitan Division
After yet another playoff disappointment, owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle elected to begin a new era by firing former general manager Ray Shero and bringing in Jim Rutherford, whose very first decision was to not retain head coach Dan Bylsma. There will not be massive changes to the Pens personnel, as they will pass up the opportunity to use either of the two compliance buyouts they were given in the new CBA and do not need to sign any of their superstars to a new contract. Rutherford’s next order of business after hiring a new coach: sign pending unrestricted free agents Matt Niskanen and Jussi Jokinen, who were Pittsburgh’s best defenseman and forward respectively in the playoffs. Inking a veteran goalie to challenge Marc-Andre Fleury and dealing Kris Letang may be considered, but on the whole we will not be seeing a significantly different Pens team next season.
New York Rangers
Most of what the defending Eastern Conference champions will be doing this summer is retaining their own free agents. Restricted free agent forwards Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarelo seem set for significant paydays and can play the arbitration card in negotiations, while Chris Kreider and defenseman John Moore will likely see bridge deals not dissimilar to the ones given to Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin last year. If Brad Richards is bought out using the second Blueshirts compliance buyout as expected, GM Glen Sather will have about $23 million available to him in space, with about half of that needed to be used on the above players. Decisions will have to be made on Anton Stralman, Benoit Pouliot and Brian Boyle, who could all be offered deals worth more than $3 million annually on the open market. With a lack of major cap space, guys like JT Miller and Jesper Fast may be called on to have full-time roles as opposed to making major signings in their quest to return to the Stanley Cup Final.
Of all the teams in the NHL, the Flyers are the one that currently has the least cap space of anyone, with only $4.558 million available to them. This makes for a problematic situation considering they have a desire to be active in the trade market, yet continue to remain hesitant to give up key pieces such as RFA Brayden Schenn. Their one significant UFA is Ray Emery, who should have an asking price that is not too friendly given the Flyers current situation. Chances are that he will walk considering he would wind up taking a bit less than half of Philly’s remaining cap space, giving career minor leaguer Cal Heeter his first full chance as a backup behind Steve Mason. The Flyers have always wanted to improve defensively via trade, but they may be precluded from doing so because of their limited cap space and no available buyouts.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets were quietly one of the league’s most consistent teams all season, making it to the playoffs for the second time in franchise history and giving the Penguins a valiant six game test before bowing out in the first round. Hanging around the top half of the standings may become a new expectation for Jackets fans, as they remained in the playoff hunt up until the season’s final weekend in 2013 before finally making it over the hump this past season. They have nearly $23 million available to them in space, with Russian defenseman Nikita Nikitin being their biggest UFA priority. Their financial flexibility also means that they can eschew a bridge deal for Ryan Johansen, who is quickly making fans forget about Rick Nash, and give him a major contract as a RFA. Don’t forget that this team managed to land the big fish of last year’s free agent class in Nathan Horton, so they should not be immediately counted out in the upcoming sweepstakes for Paul Stastny, Thomas Vanek and others. They will need a signing like that in order to avoid finishing in a wild card position and draw an easier first round opponent if they make the playoffs next season.
This year marked a rare playoff miss for the Capitals, their first since 2007. With it came the obligatory changes to ensure this wouldn’t happen again. Brian McClellan earned the promotion that dropped the word “assistant” from his former title of assistant general manager, and Barry Trotz did not spend much time on the unemployment line, catching on in the nation’s capital after being fired by the Predators. The Caps have already made tabloids thanks to a back and forth over the future over longtime center Brooks Laich and their desire to add an elite defenseman. McClellan’s recent words of commitment to Braden Holtby have effectively taken them out of the Ryan Miller conversation, which comes as a bit of a surprise considering they were in trade talks with the Sabres for him at the trade deadline. With $14 million in cap space, McClellan has the luxury of choosing if he wants match any competitor’s payout on the team’s only two free agents, unrestricted forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Dustin Penner. Plus, they should still have enough left after that to chase their dream defenseman, be it Dion Phaneuf, Dustin Byfuglien or someone else.
New Jersey Devils
With the overall strength of the Metropolitan Division and a painful-to-watch last two seasons in Newark, it’s easy to forget that these very Devils snuck through the playoffs and took the Kings to six games in the 2012 Final. Steve Bernier, Ryan Carter and Stephen Gionta made up a killer third line for that 2012 group, and now they all enter unrestricted free agency together, along with Mark Fayne and legendary goalie Martin Brodeur. It’s become known that the winningest goalie in NHL history will have to continue his career elsewhere as they phase in Cory Schneider full time, and with only $14 million in cap space, paying that great third line of ’12 will be necessary as they all cost less than $1 million each in their previous pacts. Lou Lamoriello did well to re-sign the ageless Jaromir Jagr long before he could hit the open market, but his work will be cut out for him otherwise in trying to retain significant depth players, a roster component crucial to returning to the playoffs.
‘Canes legend Ron Francis follows in the footsteps of Joe Sakic and Trevor Linden as a former player to return to the team he started for as an executive. He enters the job with all of his core forwards signed to secure contracts, but a has a bunch of bottom six players to sign, a very weak defensive corps and a bad goaltending situation. Cam Ward will likely be the recipient of the team’s second and final compliance buyout, and it’s hard to see Anton Khudobin as anything more than a serviceable #2. Maybe this will be the landing spot for Ryan Miller after all, as they will certainly have the money to do so. One this is certain, though. The events of this offseason will quickly shape what is to be expected of this team as they search for their first trip back to the playoffs since 2009.
New York Islanders
The Isles took a major step backward after surprising everyone en route to the 2013 playoffs, but have been very active players in the trade market since their season ended in April. Already, they have traded for the rights of Jaroslav Halak and signed him to a 4 year, $18 million deal, seemingly making him their new starting goalie. They also swung a deal for Dan Boyle’s rights, though it now seems unlikely that he will sign on Long Island and could see his rights flipped again. There is a lot of young potential in the form of Ryan Strome, Anders Lee, Griffin Reinhart, Ryan Pulock and whoever they choose #5 overall in the upcoming draft that could see time in blue and orange next season, as there will be no big spending this summer since Charles Wang has still not found a buyer for the team, though talks have intensified with multiple candidates starting earlier this spring. One free agent option could be Matt Moulson, who was always comfortable on John Tavares’ wing and should come cheap after disappointing performances with the Sabres and Wild once the Islanders traded him away last October.
All information on current salary cap space and players’ past cap hits comes courtesy of CapGeek.com