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Where they stand: Metropolitan Division

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As summer rolls on, PHT will examine the four NHL divisions and see how each individual team stands.

Previously: Atlantic Division

Carolina Hurricanes

Summer summary: If your main complaint about the Hurricanes was about the franchise getting too stagnant – considering that they’ve missed the playoffs since being swept from the 2009 Eastern Conference Final – then the team has you covered. Ron Francis is out as GM, making way for Don Waddell. Rod Brind’Amour replaced Bill Peters as head coach. And the team will look different on the ice, too.

It was quite the draft weekend for the Hurricanes. To start, they selected Andrei Svechnikov, a forward who might be the sort of true game-breaker they crave, with the second overall pick. While that was a no-brainer, they made waves the next day by sending Noah Hanifin and Elias Lindholm to Calgary for Dougie Hamilton, Micheal Ferland, and prospect Adam Fox.

Cam Ward‘s finally gone, with Petr Mrazek coming in with the hopes of supporting Scott Darling after a disastrous first season as Carolina’s would-be No. 1 goalie. To avoid introducing too much change, Carolina maintained its status as analytics darlings by adding solid defenseman Calvin de Haan to an increasingly impressive group.

More to do?: The Hurricanes come into 2018-19 with a ton of cap space and an anxiousness to break the playoff drought, so you wonder if they might want to jump in, say, the Max Pacioretty sweepstakes.

Every indication – seriously, just about every indication – is that the Hurricanes will be on a tight budget, however, so there might not be many big moves brewing.

That said, perhaps Jeff Skinner gets traded? The talented skater is entering a contract year, and the Hurricanes might not want to cough up a new contract, so we’ll wait and see there.

Where they stand: In a familiar place, seemingly on the precipice of a breakthrough, yet also with serious questions about goaltending.

(The more things change, the more they stay the same, huh?)

The Hurricanes boast quite a bit of talent, but also a lot to prove, especially with a new coach and Hamilton stepping in as a prominent new defenseman. Will they fall short of the hype once again?

Columbus Blue Jackets

Summer summary: Generally speaking, the most prominent talk about changes in Columbus revolve around next summer.

Both Sergei Bobrovsky and Artemi Panarin are entering contract years, and Panarin in particular seems to be a tough nut to crack. The Blue Jackets might feel the need to trade Panarin rather than seeing him walk for nothing (except cap space) in free agency. It’s a disquieting situation, as Panarin showed signs of being the difference-maker the Blue Jackets have lacked ever since they climbed into relevance.

Columbus did make some nice low-risk, medium-reward plays, though. Anthony Duclair is an interesting addition considering his bargain rate, and Riley Nash could be a savvy pickup, too.

More to do?: Again, sorting situations out with Panarin and “Bob” should keep the Blue Jackets very busy.

Not much has been made of this, but Cap Friendly pegs their space at about $5.63 million, and that’s with an overstuffed roster. If the Blue Jackets decide to just roll the dice in 2018-19 and then let the pieces fall how they may when it comes to Panarin, maybe they’d be wise to try to land an expiring contract? Skinner, Max Pacioretty, and Erik Karlsson all could conceivably push this team over the top.

The Blue Jackets could justify a vacation before things pick up, generally, as most of their concerns are more forward-thinking.

Where they stand: No doubt, it must be beyond frustrating for Columbus to see the Stanley Cup winner come out of their division for three seasons in a row, yet they still haven’t won a single playoff series as a franchise. Such frustrations clearly boiled over when Torts beefed about Jack Johnson‘s perceived slights while joining the hated Penguins.

New Jersey Devils

Summer summary: If you count Taylor Hall winning the 2018 Hart Trophy, this was a solid-enough summer for the Devils.

New Jersey deserves credit for restraint, more than anything else, this off-season. Sure, it would be great to continue adding key pieces, as they’ve done for multiple summers now. Still, plenty of franchises overreact to an unexpected postseason surge by making reckless, shortsighted investments.

Instead, the Devils allowed Michael Grabner, Patrick Maroon, and John Moore walk rather than possibly giving them problem contracts. GM Ray Shero clearly prefers maintaining flexibility for the moments when he might be able to land another asset in a winning trade. Can you blame him?

More to do?: Unless the Devils are lurking on another big deal, it’s mostly smaller stuff, like signing RFAs Miles Wood and Steve Santini. It might not hurt to start battering around potential extension offers with Will Butcher, though, as he’s on a deal that expires after 2018-19.

Where they stand: Hall provided a Herculean effort to get the Devils into a surprise spot in the 2018 Stanley Cup Playoffs. To make a repeat appearance, he’d almost certainly need to be as good or better this season.

New Jersey heads into this campaign as an underdog once again, yet there’s quite a bit to like about what the Devils are cooking. They still need some help behind Hall to really scare other teams, though.

New York Islanders

Summer summary: *Cough* oh dear, this is awkward.

So, the Islanders began the summer on a relatively strong note. They enjoyed one of the best weekends at the 2018 NHL Draft and brought in Lou Lamoriello as GM, who then hired a reigning Stanley Cup winning coach in Barry Trotz. Pretty, pretty good.

All of that crumbled, of course, when John Tavares decided to leave the Islanders for the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Lamoriello responded to that rebuke by clogging up an already expensive bottom-of-the-order with a blah contract for Leo Komarov, a mediocre signing in Valtteri Filppula, and trading for Matt Martin. Yikes.

At least their moves in net might help stem the tide in that regard. Jaroslav Halak‘s turbulent era is over, as volatile (but occasionally brilliant) goalie Robin Lehner comes in to compete with Thomas Greiss and others.

More to do?: The Islanders need to think long and hard about trading some valuable players entering contract years rather than risking losing them altogether, or signing them to deals that could end up being a waste of money. (Sometimes it’s better just to commit to a rebuild instead of taking half-measures.)

Jordan Eberle, Brock Nelson, and Anders Lee all see their current deals expire after 2018-19. Trading one or more of those useful forwards could give the Islanders’ rebuild another big boost.

Where they stand: Look, the dark times have outweighed the peaks for Islanders fans for decades now. Asking for patience won’t be the easiest sell.

That said, with a budding star in Mathew Barzal, the Islanders have a chance to – in a way – get the Tavares situation right this time. They merely need to look around their division to see teams that landed premium prospects in multiple drafts, made some smart moves on the periphery, and yes, enjoyed some good fortune to turn things around.

Finishing at or near the playoff bubble year after year did them very little good.

New York Rangers

Summer summary: Around trade deadline time, the Rangers embraced a rebuild much like the Islanders arguably should. They took another step in that direction by replacing polarizing head coach Alain Vigneault with David Quinn. The Rangers’ logic all seemed sound here.

Still, as an “it” destination for free agents, there might have been a temptation to, say, throw a bunch of money at Ilya Kovalchuk as the latest quick-fix.

(After all, the Rangers have been seduced by headline-grabbing moves essentially since Glen Sather started chewing cigars at MSG.)

Instead, they stood pat, and time will tell if they made the most of three first-rounders and six picks within the first three rounds.

More to do?: The Rangers still have plenty of work to do. Three RFAs still need contracts: promising defenseman Brady Skjei, plus forwards Ryan Spooner and Kevin Hayes. Even modest deals will eat into what’s currently a robust $19.18M in cap space.

More interesting questions loom around some other players. Would the Rangers consider shopping beloved winger Mats Zuccarello, who’s entering a contract year and might not want to stick around for a rebuild considering he’s already 30? Also, if Artemi Panarin favors a market like New York, would the Rangers be able to move closer to competing close to 2019-20? Management needs to answer questions like these.

Where they stand: This team seems fairly transparent about pivoting for at least one season. Credit management for seeing the writing on the wall, though 2018-19 could be painful to watch as a result.

It’s fascinating to wonder how Henrik Lundqvist truly feels about all of this, and how many times he’ll snare victory from the jaws of defeat (maybe to the Rangers’ short-term detriment).

Philadelphia Flyers

Summer summary: Spending $35M over five years is a bit pricey to be called a “mulligan,” but either way, the Flyers brought back James van Riemsdyk after getting hosed in the Luke Schenn trade. GM Ron Hextall’s M.O. mostly revolves around being patient and either trading away lousy deals or letting them evaporate with time, so it should be fascinating to see how an old-fashioned, big-money Flyers signing works out in a more … stable era.

The Flyers showed signs of breakthrough in pushing for the postseason, from Claude Giroux getting his game back on track, the rise of defensemen Ivan Provorov and Shayne Gostisbehere, Sean Couturier‘s ascent, and Nolan Patrick making some significant second-half strides.

More to do?: Somewhat like Columbus, the Flyers’ biggest concerns rest on what to do after 2018-19.

Wayne Simmonds is due a big raise, and it’s plausible that JVR is penciled in to be his replacement. Both Brian Elliott and Michal Neuvirth are entering contract years, so the Flyers’ perpetual goalie questions seem likely to continue. Ivan Provorov’s about to enter the final year of his rookie deal, too.

Clearing up those situations – eventually – will play a big role in Philly’s future.

Where they stand: The Flyers are already translating promise to tangible results. Hyped players like Provorov are producing as advertised.

So it seems like the Flyers have “good” more or less locked down. The next step ranks as one of the toughest mountains to climb in sports: going from good to great. There’s a solid chance that the Flyers can make that leap, but it won’t necessarily be easy.

Pittsburgh Penguins

Summer summary: After falling short of a three-peat, the Penguins made some interesting choices.

The key subtraction was Conor Sheary while it seemed like the team’s machinations went into landing Jack Johnson. By just about any metric (beyond “third pick of the 2005 NHL Draft” and “Sidney Crosby‘s friend”), Johnson isn’t particularly effective. The Penguins’ front office obviously believes otherwise, and their off-season basically comes down to exchanging Sheary, Matt Hunwick, and others for Johnson.

More to do?: Pittsburgh doesn’t have any free agents left to deal with, but there are some pressing issues after this coming season. The biggest wild card is that Jake Guentzel is scheduled to become an RFA after his rookie deal expires. What to pay a player with solid stats in the regular season, but most noticeably, generating an excellent 42 points in 37 playoff games? 

There are other smaller questions. There were also strange rumors about Phil Kessel being shopped (hot take: they probably shouldn’t do that). But, generally speaking, the big picture for Pittsburgh is the status quo.

Where they stand: The Penguins won the Stanley Cup twice in a row, then finished last season in the second round. Despite such an impressive run, Pittsburgh seems poised to contend once again, as they still have Crosby, Kessel, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Matt Murray.

There’s always concern about hitting a wall, though, particularly since the Penguins’ core players have so much mileage on them between deep postseason runs, international play, and in many cases a decade-plus of intense NHL play.

Crosby and Kessel are 30; Malkin and Letang are both 31. The Penguins’ window should still be open, probably for a while. Even so, fates can turn on a dime in sports. There’s always the chance that this talented group slips.

Washington Capitals

Summer summary: The summer … you mean, one long hangover for the Capitals? After years of frustration, Alex Ovechkin & Co. won it all after it seemed like the best opportunities went out the window. Repeating won’t be easy, but it’s probably the No. 1 problem the Caps always wanted to have.

The Capitals saw some losses, though smaller than you might expect from a team that just won the Stanley Cup. Jay Beagle was well-liked, but ranks as an expendable “energy guy,” while Brooks Orpik left and then returned. The toughest loss is Philipp Grubauer, an excellent backup receiving his chance to transition into a top guy with Colorado. If Braden Holtby stumbles in the regular season again, the Capitals’ grip on the Metro crown may finally loosen.

Overall, Washington did a nice job keeping players at a reasonable clip, including somewhat unexpectedly managing to retain John Carlson‘s services. Rather than falling into the trap of giving playoff heroes way too much money, the Caps generally leveraged the “we just won” factor to sign Michal Kempny and Devante Smith-Pelly to perfectly reasonable contracts.

Of course, the biggest change of all ranks as quite unusual. You don’t see coaches leave teams they won Stanley Cups with very often (Mike Keenan comes to mind; Jimmy Johnson in the NFL), yet that is exactly what happened with Barry Trotz. Todd Reirden faces the tough task of attempting to repeat as a rookie head coach.

More to do?: Tom Wilson remains an RFA without a salary arbitration date, which could make contract negotiations tricky. Aside from Andre Burakovsky and Jakub Vrana, the Capitals don’t really have many tough contract situations to sort out in the near future, either.

Interestingly, Washington might actually be in a halfway-decent spot to try to land a premium rental. While Wilson will eat up a significant chunk of the available space, Cap Friendly puts Washington’s room at about $6.27M right now.

Where they stand: They’re the defending champions and they didn’t lose a major piece of their roster. In hindsight, it’s easy to see why the Capitals won: they have two fantastic centers, the world’s most lethal sniper, a reliably excellent goalie, and some other very nice supporting cast members to buoy their chances.

Like their BFFs in Pittsburgh, there’s concern about the aging curve, though both teams are more likely to worry about tougher days on the horizon rather than next season.

Still, it’s worth noting that Ovechkin is 32, Nicklas Backstrom is 30, and T.J. Oshie is somehow 31. They aren’t ancient by any stretch, but some players hit the wall sooner – and harder – than others.

Considering the victory parade that may stretch (unofficially) through the regular season, it wouldn’t be surprising if the Capitals see a slight dip through the dog days of 2018-19. It’s most likely that they’ll place themselves in a strong position to defend their title once the games start to matter quite a bit more.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Previewing the 2019-20 Montreal Canadiens

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Maybe slightly worse, but largely the same.

Montreal brought in Ben Chiarot and Keith Kinkaid while letting Antti Niemi and Jordie Benn walk. They also traded away Andrew Shaw.

Aside from a Sebastian Aho offer sheet that had little chance of succeeding, it was a very quiet offseason for Marc Bergevin.

Strengths: Depth, five-on-five play, and possibly strong starting goaltending if Carey Price continues getting back on track.

Claude Julien really had this group firing on all cylinders last season, which had to make missing the playoffs extra-painful. Still, it’s generally easier to reproduce even-strength success than it is to shoot or stop pucks at a high level, so that’s nice. This team can send wave after wave of forwards at you, and their top four of Shea Weber, Brett Kulak, Victor Mete, and Jeff Petry is better than a lot of people realize.

Weaknesses: Unfortunately, the Canadiens had to be dominant at even-strength last season because their power play was so putrid.

You might be able to chalk it up to the larger feeling that the Canadiens have some very nice forwards, especially Brendan Gallagher, but seem to lack that super-duper-star. The power play might be better in 2019-20 by sheer luck, but personnel-wise, they didn’t really address the problem during the offseason.

It sure looks like Montreal will need to lean heavily on Price, as Kinkaid doesn’t strike me as that much of an upgrade over Niemi, if he even is an upgrade.

(Nice use of emojis, though.)

[MORE: X-factor | Under Pressure | Three questions]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Canadiens front office members (especially Bergevin, but also Julien) have weathered some of the bigger storms, as while Montreal missed the 2019 Stanley Cup Playoffs, they generally exceeded expectations in 2018-19. Even so Montreal’s missed the playoffs in three of the last four seasons, and hasn’t won a series since 2014-15. Julien is an excellent coach, but professional sports aren’t always fair to coaches, and things could really heat up if a lot of Canadiens follow career years by plummeting back to their lesser, past selves. A rating of 7 feels about right.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Max Domi, and Carey Price.

If Kotkaniemi ends up not being worthy of the third overall pick of 2018, it looks like that will only come down to people merely having a preference, for say, fourth pick Brady Tkachuk — and so on. The point is that Kotkaniemi was brilliant as a rookie, and considering limited usage, could be capable of even more than an already-solid 34 points in 79 games. Honestly, Julien owes it to this team to experiment with just how quickly Kotkaniemi can grow. He aced his first test in the NHL.

Entering 2019-20, a big question is: will the Max Domi we see look more like the 2018-19 sensation, or the 2017-18 Coyotes forward who needed four empty-netters to reach nine goals? Domi’s entering a contract year, so if he can show last season wasn’t a fluke, he can go from a healthy raise from his $3.15M AAV to a huge jump.

Price is basically always fascinating in Montreal: the franchise, $10.5M goalie in a city that’s watched some of the best netminders to ever play the game. Can Price be dominant at 32? The Habs are counting on it.

Playoffs or Lottery: Montreal was unlucky that the East was pretty stout at the playoff-level in 2018-19, and figure to face big obstacles again this coming season. Not only will the Atlantic’s top three figure to be tough (Lightning, Bruins, Maple Leafs), but the Panthers made investments to be hugely improved, too. For all we know, it may all come down to the Panthers vs. the Canadiens, especially if the Metropolitan Division isn’t a total flop in providing wild-card competition.

There’s quite a bit to like with this team, so playoffs seem more likely than the lottery — although we also know that this tough market can also turn the volume up on any slump.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Previewing the 2019-20 Florida Panthers

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(The 2019-20 NHL season is almost here so it’s time to look at all 31 teams. We’ll be breaking down strengths and weaknesses, whether teams are better or worse this season and more!)

For more 2019-20 PHT season previews, click here.

Better or Worse: Much better … and they’re paying a premium to do so, what with Sergei Bobrovsky‘s risky seven-year, $70 million contract.

The changes in net didn’t stop there, with Roberto Luongo retiring and James Reimer being traded away. Joel Quenneville is the other big-name addition as head coach, while the Panthers also paid a pretty penny for Brett Connolly and Anton Stralman.

If nothing else, the Panthers proved that they’re willing to spend money.

Strengths: The Panthers entered 2018-19 with optimism for a simple reason: they have some great, young forwards. Aleksander Barkov is the headliner, but Jonathan Huberdeau, Mike Hoffman, Evgenii Dadonov, and (if healthy) Vincent Trocheck are all excellent players, most of them signed on bargain deals.

On paper, there’s a pretty big drop-off from the top six to the two lower forward lines, even if Connolly ends up being a boost for Florida’s depth. One thing that can swing the depth battle a bit would be promising prospects graduating. Can Henrik Borgstrom take that next step? Might Owen Tippett leap to become a full-time NHL winger? Aleksi Heponiemi was already sent down to the AHL, but there are others who might win training camp battles, and they might just move the needle in playoff bubbles for the Cats.

Weaknesses: Florida’s defense is expensive, but not necessarily worth the money. That was an uncomfortable undercurrent to their goaltending struggles last season: how much of this came down to putting netminders in a position to fail? Stralman had some great highs during his underrated career, yet his play dropped off badly recently, so he might be yet another Panthers blueliner who fails to justify his price tag.

This is an area where Florida hopes that the combination of Bobrovsky’s often-elite goaltending mixes with Quenneville’s system to keep the puck out of the net, while that offense hogs the puck. There are situations where that juggling act might fail, and there are also doubts about Florida’s backup options if Bob struggles and/or gets injured.

[MORE: Three Questions | Under Pressure | X-Factor]

Coach Hot Seat Rating (1-10, 10 being red hot): Quenneville hopes to prove that he still has it, and the Panthers must be feeling impatient after years of disappointments, particularly after spending big bucks to get better. Coach Q isn’t bulletproof, but he’s pretty safe with this being his first season. Let’s call it a 2 on the seat scale.

Three Most Fascinating Players: Bobrovsky, Hoffman, and Trocheck.

After some drama and a final season of peaks and valleys in Columbus, Bob got his wish. He’s out from under Torts, and he got paid. Excuse me, he got paid. Now it’s time to prove that he’s still a Vezina-level goalie, even as he turns 31 on Sept. 20.

Hoffman, meanwhile, is chasing his big payday, as the sniper enters a contract year where his next deal can really climb or fall depending upon how he performs in 2019-20.

Trocheck has been a gem for the Panthers, yet it’s unclear how well he might perform not that far removed from a ghastly injury last season. It’s impressive that he was able to return in 2018-19, but can he find that pre-injury game that was so all-around brilliant?

Playoffs or Lottery: They’re closer to the playoffs than the lottery.

It’s not out of line to paint a picture of a huge jump, with health, Bobrovsky’s goaltending, strong top scorers, and Quenneville coalescing into a new-look contender. There are plenty of ways things can go wrong, too, including Bob having another so-so season like he did in 2018-19.

More than anything else, the Panthers might just face long odds to climb into the Atlantic’s top three, as they’re less of a sure thing than the Lightning, Maple Leafs, and Bruins. That doesn’t mean Florida can’t dislodge one or more of that seemingly mighty group, but it’s easier to picture them battling for a wild-card spot.

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Lightning still the team to beat in NHL’s Eastern Conference

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Getting swept in the first round wasn’t enough to knock the Tampa Bay Lightning off the mountaintop.

After finishing 21 points ahead of everyone else during the 2018-19 regular season, the Lightning are again Stanley Cup favorites and the team to beat in an ever-improving Eastern Conference. With a stacked roster that includes goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy, defenseman Victor Hedman and forwards Steven Stamkos and Brayden Point, the road to the final goes through Tampa Bay.

”They got a young goaltender who’s getting better and better every year (and) their D corps is pretty solid,” Carolina defenseman Jaccob Slavin said. ”Their forward group is so skilled and solid that I would still say it’s Tampa.”

That’s no knock on the Boston Bruins, who lost Game 7 of the Cup Final to St. Louis. Or the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who have plenty of Cup-winning experience. The Lightning performed some salary cap gymnastics, kept their core intact and aren’t shying away from the well-deserved hype.

”Expectations are high: Of course for everyone the main goal is to win the Cup,” Vasilevskiy said. ”We’re more mature now. We have more experience. … I think the last few seasons people (say), ‘Tampa will win the Cup 100 percent’ every time. That’s the expectation, but the reality is every team can win the Cup. We’re playing in the best league in the world, so anything can happen.”

With Tampa Bay, Boston, Toronto and Florida, the Atlantic Division looks like murderer’s row. The Bruins got through only after coming back from a 3-2, first-round deficit against Toronto and aren’t feeling cocky.

”Our division’s been great the past couple years and there’s no end in sight there,” Boston goaltender Tuukka Rask said. ”We feel that we have to go through Toronto, we have to go through Tampa, we have to go through Florida and everybody.”

The Panthers signed two-time Vezina Trophy winning goalie Sergei Bobrovsky and hired three-time Cup-winning coach Joel Quenneville to take the next step. Across the East in the Metropolitan Division, the improved New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils are rejuvenated with some big additions.

”The Rangers signed elite winger Artemi Panarin, traded for top defender Jacob Trouba and drafted Finnish sensation Kaapo Kakko, while the Devils got Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban and selected center Jack Hughes first overall.

OLD GUARD

Pittsburgh still has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, Washington still has Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, and yet each team has undergone a transformation since last lifting the Cup. The Penguins look closer to falling down the East standings at this point, and Crosby acknowledged there are some question marks.

”We’re a little bit younger, and in some ways we’re maybe a little bit older, too,” Pittsburgh’s captain said. ”We’re younger, so I think we’re going to be probably a quicker team, probably an energized team and we’ll have some guys that are pretty excited to be in the positions they’re in. We’ll have to see what we can do with that.”

The Capitals believe their championship window is still open.

”We expect to be amongst the league leaders in terms of wins and points,” coach Todd Reirden said. ”That’s the culture that we’ve established now and now we need to continue to build it.”

CHIP ON SHOULDER

Columbus will undoubtedly take a step back after losing Panarin and Bobrovsky and letting trade deadline pickups Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel walk in free agency. Much like the New York Islanders a year ago after losing John Tavares to Toronto in free agency, the Blue Jackets plan to use their personnel defections as a rallying point.

”There’s no secret losing those guys probably hurts a little bit, but we’re bringing back a lot of our core guys,” leading goal scorer Cam Atkinson said. ”We have to come in with a chip on our shoulder and prove a lot of people wrong, but I think that it should fuel your fire to prove people wrong.”

Columbus will rely heavily on goalies Joonas Korpisalo and Elvis Merzlikins.

”The biggest question is goaltending,” Atkinson said. ”That’s going to be the biggest thing. The St. Louis Blues won with a rookie goaltender coming in in the middle of the season and look what happens to that team.”

The Islanders let starting goalie Robin Lehner depart in free agency and replaced him with Semyon Varlamov. Coach Barry Trotz’s structure remains, but no one’s going to underestimate them this time around.

LETDOWN BRUIN?

No team since Pittsburgh in 2009 has won the Cup after losing in the final the previous year. Bruins defenseman Torey Krug said the ”taste is still there” from the Game 7 defeat at home.

”It will probably always be there,” Krug said. ”It’s how you manage it individually to use it as motivation.”

MAYBE NEXT YEAR

It could be neck and neck between the Blue Jackets, Rangers, Devils, Carolina Hurricanes and Philadelphia Flyers for the final playoff spot. Carolina will need stable goaltending to duplicate a surprise run that ended in the East final. Philadelphia added coach Alain Vigneault, center Kevin Hayes and defensemen Matt Niskanen and Justin Braun, but remains a bit of a mystery amid inconsistent play.

The Buffalo Sabres will get a boost from new coach Ralph Krueger but more rebuilding is likely. Defenseman Rasmus Dahlin wants the Sabres to ”trust the process,” which is ongoing not just in Buffalo but also Montreal and Detroit before those teams can target a postseason run. Ottawa’s long-term rebuild should set them up for a top draft pick.

Agent says Laine, Rantanen ‘not close’ to new contracts

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The list of RFAs without contracts is getting smaller, but that doesn’t mean that every big situation is on the verge of being settled.

Agent Mike Liut represents two of biggest RFAs remaining: Patrik Laine (Winnipeg Jets) and Mikko Rantanen (Colorado Avalanche), so it’s significant that he gave a not-so-optimistic update about their negotiations during a Wednesday interview on Sportsnet 650.

Around the 4:00 mark of that interview, Liut admitted that “we’re not close,” while adding that “nothing has gone on that we didn’t anticipate.”

Another key note in the Liut interview comes later on, as he largely shoots down the notion that Laine and/or Rantanen will do much to pursue contracts with European teams that include out clauses. Liut’s explanation was pretty simple: said teams might not want to deal with the potential disruption of Laine or Rantanen briefly being a part of their teams, only to leave (although injuries could change the arithmetic).

Anyway, let’s break things down a bit for both Rantanen and Laine.

Rantanen = Marner?

Liut acknowledged that he views Mitch Marner as the best comparable for Rantanen, pointing out that they both bring great strengths as playmakers, even if they go about doing so in different ways (Rantanen being at around 225 lbs., Marner … not). It’s not shocking that Marner is mentioned for Rantanen, in particular, and it presents an interesting challenge for the Avalanche.

Via Cap Friendly, the Avs currently have about $15.62 million in cap space, so theoretically they could accommodate an AAV in Marner’s $10.893M range. In last week’s edition of 31 Thoughts, Elliotte Friedman mentioned that Colorado would prefer that Rantanen not make $4M more than Nathan MacKinnon, whose ridiculous bargain $6.3M cap hit runs through 2022-23.

Rantanen will turn 23 on Oct. 29. So far in his career, he’s generated 80 goals and 209 points in 239 games (.87 points per game). Marner (turned 22 in May) has 67 goals and 224 points in 241 games, which translates to .93 points per game.

If people are going to downgrade Marner’s big 2018-19 season because of John Tavares‘ influence, then they can make a similar claim about MacKinnon’s benefit to Rantanen. Since Rantanen began his career with nine regular-season games in 2015-16, he’s played 1,632:31 even-strength minutes with MacKinnon, and just 552:24 without MacKinnon, according to Natural Stat Trick.

MacKinnon and Rantanen clearly have a symbiotic relationship, but it’s nonetheless difficult to fully grasp how much Rantanen is worth on his own.

Of course, it’s not the worst problem to have, as Colorado is getting those cheap years with MacKinnon, and we know that the MacKinnon + Rantanen combo is dynamite.

Some unrest with Laine

Speaking of linemates, that talking point flared up regarding Laine and the Jets, as the sniper hasn’t been able to stick with the combo of Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler with much consistency. Instead, his most frequent even-strength linemate has been Bryan Little.

His recent Finnish interview with iltalehti.fi created quite a stir in that regard.

To some extent, Laine has a point. He likely would have ended up with more than 30 goals and 50 points in 2018-19 (a significant drop from 2017-18’s 44 goals and 70 points) if he spent the majority of his shifts with Scheifele and/or Wheeler.

Of course, it’s fair for the Jets to wonder if they’d be better off loading up in that way — and not just to spread the offensive wealth.

Frankly, the criticisms of Laine’s two-way play aren’t totally out of line, at least when you’re debating just how much he should be paid. Consider his troubling multi-season RAPM chart from Evolving Hockey for one quick look at his defensive warts:

According to Cap Friendly, the Jets have about $15.45M in cap space, which sounds promising until you realize that Winnipeg is looking to lock down not just Laine and Kyle Connor. One wonders if Colorado may be OK with Rantanen’s contract negotiations slipping into the regular season (maybe bumping down his cap hit long-term, like the Maple Leafs did with William Nylander), but TSN’s Frank Seravalli noted last week that the Jets would be better off getting one or both of Rantanen and Laine done before the regular season kicks in.

Of course, the uncertainty surrounding Dustin Byfuglien’s future adds another wrinkle to the Jets’ already complicated dealings.

***

Each situation is different, and challenging in its own way.

Regardless, this figures to be a lucrative stretch for Liut. Puck Pedia places Vladimir Tarasenko‘s $7.5M AAV as the highest AAV of any active Liut client, so even if the Jets and Avalanche “win” discussions with Laine and Rantanen, it’s likely that Liut will see a new top two once the smoke clears.

What’s a fair price for each player?

MORE:
• ProHockeyTalk’s 2019 NHL free agency tracker
• Your 2019-20 NHL on NBC TV schedule

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.