Earlier this week, I began looking closer inside the Metropolitan division, positioned nicely to be the powerhouse of the National Hockey League. All eight teams are either in contending status or trending in that direction after periods of rebuilding. There’s no easy path to the postseason for the eight teams that comprise this group and each seemed determined to build their roster to try and return the Cup back East.

The Penguins, who are presently strapped for cap space–but has a recent Hall-of-Fame general manager in Jim Rutherford, who has admitted there’s going to be a shakeup to its core. The Caps, determined to return to the postseason, will look to piece some of the holes lost as a result of their own cap crunch. And the Flyers, who have have been the busiest team of the offseason, still have work to do with their own RFAs and might also be players in free agency.

But, what’s in store for the remaining five teams–armed with cap space and an assortment of young players, it might be their time to strike as the pinnacle of the offseason–free agency is set to kick off with an above-average crop of UFAs and a stacked-RFA class that is making the offer sheet route of real consideration.

New York Rangers:

Projected Cap Space: $17.536M
Key UFAS: Connor Brickley, Fredrik Claesson
Key RFAS: Pavel Buchnevich, Anthony DeAngelo, Brendan Lemieux, Jacob Trouba

Start spreading the news: The Rangers have cap space and I’d bet an eagerness to use it. In the last two seasons, the Blueshirts have traded Michael Grabner, Rick Nash, Ryan McDonagh, J.T. Miller, Kevin Hayes and Mats Zuccarello. They’ve recouped young assets and plenty of first and second round draft picks, ultimately picking nine times in the top 62 picks since 2017. Under Jeff Gorton, the rebuild has gone especially nice for the four-year Ranger GM. It doesn’t hurt that they were able to secure a lottery pick to jump up and take Kaapo Kakko second overall.

Mikka Zibanejad is coming off a career season in which he reached the 30-goal mark for the first time while notching 74 points in 82 games. Chris Kreider, who missed time in 2017-18 due to injury, is back to his regular form, adding 52 points missing just three games. He’s been shopped this summer as the team ponders its future with the winger, who hits UFA status next summer and could command a contract comparable to the seven-year, $50 million contract ex-Blueshirt, Kevin Hayes signed with Philadelphia. Jimmy Vesey‘s name is out there, too.

In tact for next season–as a Kreider deal might not happen before the 2019-20 season begins, Broadway appears to be eying an end to its rebuild. They’ve courted 87-point winger, Artemi Panarin in recent days, which could be a game-changer for New York’s direction in an offseason in which they’ve already helped bolster their projection with Kakko and acquiring Jacob Trouba from Winnipeg.

Trouba could warrant an extension above $7 million annually–nearly $7.2 million AAV, according to Evolving Wild. But the rest of their RFA crop should be relatively inexpensive, allowing them about or just under $10 million to use on the open market. Panarin is certainly the most-coveted, but it’s hard to think the Rangers won’t dip if the Russian winger signs with the Panthers…or anywhere else.

Market mentality: Panarin. If not him, then some shorter-term top-nine help

Possible options: F, Artemi Panarin, Michael Ferland, Gustav Nyquist

New York Islanders:

Projected Cap Space: $20.747M
Key UFAS: Valtteri Filppula, Tom Kuhnackl, Anders Lee, Robin Lehner Luca Sbisa, Dennis Seidenberg
Key RFAS: Anthony Beauvillier, Michael Dal Colle

A year ago, July 1 proved to be one of the biggest blows to the Islanders in their franchise’s history. John Tavares’ departure to the Toronto Maple Leafs for a seven-year, $77 million contract, seemed to put the writing on the wall for the blue and orange, who had spent much of the early 1990’s and early 2000’s, rebuilding–getting the game-changer in 2009. Ahead of the calendar flipping to 2019-20, the Islanders aren’t trying to claw back into relevancy.

Instead, they’re coming off a season in which new head coach, Barry Trotz rallied the club from 31st in goals against and scoring chances against to the stingiest team in yielding goals and fifth-best in preventing scoring chances. It helped spark the Isles into a 23-point improvement and an eventual sweep over the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs before being ousted in four against the Hurricanes.

Lou Lamoriello speaks at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. (Brandon Titus/Inside Hockey)

The Islanders, who have nearly $21 million in cap space, have every reason to be thrilled with where they’re at. No chance though as Lou Lamoriello, entering his second season on the Island and 32nd season as an NHL General Manager. He’s already re-upped pending UFAs, Jordan Eberle and Brock Nelson, and now will turn their attention to some shopping. It’s believed they have interest in ex-Blue Jackets goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky. There’s indications that they also share their inner-city rival’s interest in Panarin. As a result of their courting, Vezina finalist and winner of the Masterton, Robin Lehner as well as captain, Anders Lee remain unsigned with July 1 looming. They’ll wait and see on Bobrovsky before likely circling back on Lehner. Lee, who had a career-high 58 points in 82 games, wants to return, but has garnered league interest including from his home state Minnesota Wild.

The offer sheet conversation is an interesting one with the Isles. Could Lamoriello, who saw the Leafs court Tavares out the door try and grab Mitch Marner? Could they run up the price tag on Winnipeg’s Kyle Connor? Do they desire a boost to their blue line via Charlie McAvoy? Could Lou go against his M.O. and submit the hardly-ever used offer sheet? Alternatively, who more than Lamoriello would be considering any and all available options to improve his team? It will be interesting. Jake Gardiner is an intriguing UFA option.

No major RFAs stand in the way for Lamoriello and company and they have the looks of a team that could be busy as the surprise Islanders of 2018-19 look to continue the fun next season.

Market mentality: Important holes to fill including starting goaltender and legit scoring help

Possible options: F, Artemi Panarin, Brett Connolly, Anders Lee, Wayne Simmonds; D: Jordie Benn, Jake Gardiner; G: Sergei Bobrovsky, Robin Lehner

Carolina Hurricanes:

Projected Cap Space: $24.698M
Key UFAS: Michael Ferland, Curtis McElhinney, Greg McKegg, Petr Mrazek, Justin Williams
Key RFAS: Sebastian Aho, Clark Bishop, Anton Forsberg, Gustav Forsling, Brock McGinn

What a season for the Bunch of Jerks down in Raleigh, who won over a lot of fans with their ability to have fun throughout the season and ending the longest active playoff droght. So what’s next for Don Waddell’s group? Of course, the conversation begins with Sebastian Aho, who remains a bit unknown leaguewide, but won’t be paid like that as the Canes top unsigned RFA. He’s believed to be looking for a five-year contract with an average annual value of just under $10 million. That will take a chunk out of their $24.6 million cap space–but there should be at least $15 million in available cap space.

Owner Tom Dundon won’t be running to spend for the sake of spending though. The team is just about $650,000 from the cap floor, according to CapFriendly. They have to make a decision on whether or not they’ll bring one of their goaltenders back–27-year-old, Petr Mrazek or 36-year-old, Curtis McElhinney. The club is still weighing its options on buying out Scott Darling. Captain Justin Williams, who will turn 38 by the start of next season, won’t be rushed by Carolina to decide what his intentions are. He’s unlikely to test the market–if he’s coming back it’s for the Canes.

The team traded away Calvin de Haan for picks, added Erik Haula to strengthen the club’s scoring and ate Patrick Marleau‘s buyout for a first round pick. But what’s next? Do the Hurricanes dangle 2020 UFA candidate Justin Faulk? Waddell has stated he feels no urgency to move him despite his status heading into this season. Do they try the trade market in avoidance of some pricey free agents? They’ll have as many as 11 draft picks in the 2020 Draft including the potential for six picks in the first three rounds–major commodities to cap-heavy teams. Questions will become answers for everyone’s new favorite team.

Market mentality: Aho first, Goalies next, then react/trade

Possible options: F, Pontus Aberg, Marcus Johansson, Justin Williams; G: Petr Mrazek, Mike Smith

New Jersey Devils:

Projected Cap Space: $25.770M
UFAS: Kenny Agostino, Kurtis Gabriel, Stefan Noesen, Drew Stafford
RFAS: Will Butcher, Connor Carrick, Mirco Mueller, Pavel Zacha

The Devils have already forgotten the 2018-19 season, a season that saw a 25-point drop-off and in which reigning-Hart trophy winner, Taylor Hall‘s season was reduced to 33 games. Winning their second lottery in three years, New Jersey selected American center, Jack Hughes first overall. He joins a nice core of under-25’s including forwards, Nico HischierJesper Bratt, Miles Wood and Pavel Zacha and blueliner’s, Will ButcherConnor Carrick and Damon Severson. They’ve made 28 Draft selections since 2017, so they’re positioned nicely to boast a competitive up-and-coming roster after years of struggling with a largely veteran core.

They also made a seismic deal on Draft weekend, scooping up P.K. Subban in a cap-crunch deal with Nashville. Even after coming off a down season, Subban is an instant shot in the arm to a Devils defense that desperately needs to limit the minutes of Andy Greene and Damon Severson, who should slot in nicely on the team’s second pair. Subban could pair well with Butcher, but there’s also a possibility of something else on the trade front. Free agency likely does not yield a top-pair option short of Jake Gardiner, who could command a seven-year deal. That’s not in the cards for a club that might have Ty Smith ready as soon as this season but definitely by 2020-21.

Taylor Hall (NJ – 9) shows frustration after receiving a penalty for holding.

With nearly $26 million in cap space and some very managable RFAs due up, one has to wonder what could be up Ray Shero’s sleeves with his club. Hall, a UFA next summer, has not discussed an extension yet. It might serve the ex-2010 first overall pick, to see how the season plays out. He’s heading into his 10th NHL season with just five postseason games to show for it. Shero maintains that he and Hall have had a strong relationship since he arrived in 2016.

“My relationship with (Hall) through three years has been nothing other than this,” he said. “He’s a very thoughtful kid and asks questions…Just as I’m going to ask him questions about how he’s feeling….it’s a big decision for any young person. On where they may work or where they may live. So I want him to have that information. I want him to know here’s what we’re looking to do and have that information and I want feedback from him. I think that’s the natural evolution of how you do these things.”

The Devils will keep in mind that Hall, if he stays, is very likely to command a contract comparable to what Panarin gets next week–perhaps north of $11.5 million. Hischier, the first overall pick from 2017, is also due up at the end of next season and will command a handsome raise himself. So they’ll be mindful. But, the topic of offer sheet has been unavoidable and the Devils have been a team that’s been mentioned front and center.

“Jersey’s got tons and tons and tons of cap room,” TSN Hockey Insider, Bob McKenzie said on a TSN1050 Toronto radio hit. “”They just traded for PK Subban’s $9M per year, they want to sign Taylor Hall, they’ve had 2 first overall picks in the last three years and they’ve had other high picks. They’ve been loading up on draft picks for some time and have a core of good young players in their lineup already. If you were connecting all the dots: they have cap space, they’ve got a bunch of young kids and high-end first round picks. If they needed to give up 4 first round picks, they’re perfectly situated to do it.”

Market mentality: Continue to upgrade the roster–additional top-six scoring/help on defense

Possible options: F, Ryan Dzingle, RFA; D, Ben Chiarot, Derrick Pouliot

Columbus Blue Jackets:

Projected Cap Space: $30.223M
UFAS: Sergei Bobrovsky, Matt Duchene, Ryan Dzingel, Keith Kinkaid, Adam McQuaid, Artemi Panarin
RFAS: Adam Clendening, Scott Harrington, Joonas Korpisalo, Ryan Murray, Eric Robinson, Lukas Sedlak, Zach Werenski

Finally, we arrive at the last team–by virtue of the most cap space of any Metropolitan division club–and third-most in the league. The Blue Jackets will have lots of space to work with as the offseason carries on, just days away from free agency on July 1.

Of course, that day also figures to be one in which the team will see a majority of their high-end unrestricted free agents depart. Bobrovsky, Panarin, Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel all look to exit for new destinations–a massive (albeit expected) blow to the organization that decided to go all-in at the trade deadline by acquiring assets on expiring contracts despite having its own top two players state that they would not discuss extensions during the season. Ultimately, Columbus was able to take down the 62-win Lightning in one of the biggest upsets in NHL postseason history–a four-game sweep before falling to the Bruins in 6 games.

We know the Panarin, Bobrovsky and Duchene have all explored where their next home could be. It’s expected the trio will have their minds made up well before deals can be officially registered at noon on Monday.

The Jackets, who will use their cap space to re-up Joonas KorpisaloRyan Murray and Zach Werenski, among others, should also be in the market to help replenish its depth up front. It’s back-end remains among the strongest in the league and its goaltending could have a new look with Korpisalo and 25-year-old, Latvian-born netminder, Elvis Merzlikins, who has posted impressive numbers internationally.

Both Nyquist and Joonas Donskoi could be options for CBJ at wing. There’s a belief that Joe Pavelski was targeted as well, but it seems much more likely he stays in the Western Conference. A Derick Brassard return? Does Wayne Simmonds give them an edge? There’s a certain luxury to being in the Blue Jackets spot–all things considered. They boast an elite-level center in Pierre-Luc Dubois and some nice veterans in Cam AtkinsonBrandon Dubinsky and Boone Jenner. While also having a 25-year-old, Josh Anderson continue to make strides in his game. Some well-thought adds on managable deals would serve the club well. Once Duchene is off their roster–so July 1–they will also be eligible to sign an offer sheet. But that seems like a high-risk gamble.

Market mentality: Smart signings amidst a ton of cap space

Possible options: As mentioned: F, Gustav Nyquist, Joonas Donskoi, Derick Brassard, Wayne Simmonds, Michael Ferland

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