NHL | Blue Jackets: Changes in rosters alter outlook for Metro teams

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Kyle Robertson | Dispatch
A Jackets priority this summer is to re-sign leading scorer Ryan Johansen, left.
By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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The Blue Jackets finished in fourth place in the Metropolitan Division last season, behind Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers and Philadelphia — all of which have faced disruptive offseasons.

The Penguins were so upset by their latest Stanley Cup playoffs debacle that they decided to surround stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin with a new set of accompanying pieces. The Rangers and Flyers seem to ignore the NHL salary cap until their credit card is declined.

Now what?

The Rangers and Flyers face crippling salary-cap problems that won’t have easy remedies.

The Blue Jackets have their own issues — none bigger than re-signing their best offensive player, center Ryan Johansen. But general manager Jarmo Kekalainen believes the Blue Jackets will be improved from last season, and they haven’t had this much salary-cap space ($18 million with Johansen unsigned) since the cap began in 2005.

“That cap space is flexibility,” Kekalainen said. “It gives you the power to make your team better, maybe at the trade deadline.”

The Blue Jackets could see themselves as the fourth-place car that, one year later, drives past a three-car pileup without a scratch.

But the other Metro teams — Washington, the New York Islanders, New Jersey and Carolina — have made changes, too. Here is a midsummer look at how the teams have changed and which way they figure to be headed:

Carolina

 

The Hurricanes have a new general manager in Ron Francis and a new coach in Bill Peters, but most of the same players from last season’s mediocre club.

A free-agent market flush with goaltenders made it next to impossible for Francis to trade Cam Ward, so he remains the NHL’s most expensive backup, with a $6.3 million salary-cap hit.

It’s hard to see Carolina doing much more than hovering around .500.

Columbus

 

The difficulty in re-signing Johansen has formed a cloud over the summer.

But the Blue Jackets were delighted — stunned, actually — to trade a disgruntled R.J. Umberger to the Flyers for Scott Hartnell, who immediately joins the top six forwards.

Three fourth-liners left via free agency — Blake Comeau, Derek MacKenzie and Jack Skille — but the acquisition of Jerry D’Amigo and Brian Gibbons should provide equal energy.

New Jersey

 

The biggest change in New Jersey will be who you don’t see next season. Veteran goaltender Martin Brodeur is moving on, perhaps to retirement.

The Devils were the only team in the Metro that didn’t score 200 goals last season, so free-agent additions Mike Cammalleri and Marty Havlat should make them more potent.

And maybe not having Brodeur around will help starting goaltender Cory Schneider.

New York Islanders

 

In May, the Islanders traded for goaltender Jaroslav Halak, the answer (they hope) to the biggest hole on last season’s team. The addition of forwards Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin is more speed and skill for a talented group around star John Tavares.

The Islanders have a long way to go after finishing last in the Metro last season, but they could be much more competitive.

The issue is the defense, which is why Halak must be cringing this summer. The Islanders’ blue line is beyond awful, maybe the worst in the NHL.

New York Rangers

 

The team that made a surprise run to the Stanley Cup finals started breaking apart just a few weeks later because of salary-cap woes. The contract of center Brad Richards, the de facto captain after Ryan Callahan was traded, was bought out.

The Rangers added veteran defenseman Dan Boyle to offset the loss of Anton Stralman in free agency, but they will need further moves to get under the $69 million salary cap. It’s a tricky summer ahead for general manager Glen Sather.

Philadelphia

 

Much like the Rangers, the Flyers ran aground this summer when the salary cap settled in at $69 million. They traded Hartnell for Umberger, but that provided only minimal short-term cap relief and took away star Claude Giroux’s favorite linemate.

Philadelphia is $250,000 over the salary cap with several players still to sign, which is why it is trying desperately to trade veteran Vincent Lecavalier and his ball-and-chain contract to Nashville.

Pittsburgh

 

After losing a 3-1 lead to the Rangers in the second round of the playoffs, the Penguins brought out the matches and dynamite. No team has changed more this summer.

A new general manager in Jim Rutherford and a coach in Mike Johnston arrive with a mandate to create a new attitude around Crosby and Malkin.

Jussi Jokinen, Lee Stempniak and moody James Neal have moved along, and the Penguins could have up to seven new regulars in the lineup.

Washington

 

The Capitals issued two of the three biggest free-agent contracts on July 1, signing defensemen Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik to massive deals. If you can’t beat the Penguins, buy the Penguins, right?

If his work in Nashville is an indication, new coach Barry Trotz will have this group dialed in defensively. It will hurt to play the Capitals, which hasn’t been said in a long time.

Now, if they can only get Alex Ovechkin’s head screwed on properly — and permanently.

aportzline@dispatch.com

@Aportzline

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