Signings, trades shift balance of power across the NHL
After building up to a playoff run that ended in the second round yet again, the Washington Capitals are going through a salary-cap nightmare usually reserved for Stanley Cup champions.
The same struggles that led to the deconstruction of the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings over the years is affecting the Capitals, though those teams have a pile of Stanley Cup rings to ease the pain.
Now Washington is expected to take a step back next season as the balance of power shifts in the Eastern Conference and across the league.
"We maxed it out, both player-wise and salary-wise," Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said Monday. "It's no different than the teams that have won in the past. We have the same kind of hangover, but we haven't won a championship and we're dealing with it now."
The two-time Presidents' Trophy-winning Capitals and the two-time Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins will be younger and the New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils and Carolina Hurricanes almost certainly better — and that's just the Metropolitan Division.
Elsewhere in the East, the Montreal Canadiens are reloading with the addition of longtime Washington defenseman Karl Alzner and the acquisition of forward Jonathan Drouin, as the Toronto Maple Leafs take another step toward being a championship contender by adding veteran winger Patrick Marleau to their young core.
"The five-year plan changes every day," Maple Leafs GM Lou Lamoriello said.
Out West, the Dallas Stars could be one of the favorites to reach the final after bringing in goaltender Ben Bishop, defenseman Marc Methot, center Martin Hanzal and winger Alexander Radulov and given the Chicago Blackhawks' movement toward future cost certainty. Don't expect the Stars to be out of the playoffs any time soon.
"We like what we have on paper, but in the end the goal for us is to be a contender every year, to get in the playoffs every year," Dallas GM Jim Nill said. "This game can humble you pretty quick, and it's a tough league."
It's a league where turnover is the norm. There were six new playoff teams last season who missed in 2015-16 and that season five teams that missed the year before.
There are plenty of candidates for that in 2017-18, including Dallas and Winnipeg in the West and Carolina, Tampa Bay, Florida, Philadelphia and the New York Islanders in the East.
The Hurricanes got a couple of Blackhawks castoffs — goaltender Scott Darling and defenseman Trevor van Riemsdyk — and signed Justin Williams, who has won the Cup three times and was playoff MVP in 2014.
"Carolina, there's no question, they haven't made the playoffs since 2009, so that's a long time," said Williams, who returned to the Hurricanes on a $9 million, two-year deal. "We're done losing and it's time to climb the ladder and get relevant."
The Rangers will be more relevant next season after signing defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk for $26.6 million and re-signing Brendan Smith for $17 million over the next four years. The Devils haven't made the playoffs since 2012, but will be improved after winning the draft lottery to pick center Nico Hischier, signing Brian Boyle and acquiring Marcus Johansson from the salary-cap-strapped Capitals.
Washington traded Johansson for picks within the division, to which New Jersey GM Ray Shero said: "Unfortunately for us, I don't think Washington's that concerned about the Devils and hopefully they will be soon."
MacLellan still expects the Capitals to be a good team because of their top-end talent, but it wouldn't be at all surprising to see them fall back to the pack without Williams, Shattenkirk, Johansson, Alzner and defenseman Nate Schmidt.
"I expect them to still be competitive," said Alzner, who signed for $23.125 million over five years with Montreal. "I expect them to be a step below the Montreal Canadiens. That's good. Leave them right there."
Pittsburgh said goodbye to goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, defensemen Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey, center Nick Bonino and winger Chris Kunitz, but may not take that big of a step back because of the young players ready to accept bigger roles.
"We're making a lot of changes ... (but) we feel good about the guys that we still have," GM Jim Rutherford said.
General manager Stan Bowman feels the same way about the Blackhawks after overhauling the roster. Gone are Darling, van Riemsdyk and fellow defensemen Niklas Hjalmarsson, Brian Campbell and Johnny Oduya and forwards Artemi Panarin, Marcus Kruger and Marian Hossa, who won't play next season because of a severe reaction to medication for a skin condition.
"We got a lot of youth and we've got some guys that (have) stable contracts that we know are going to be here moving forward," said Bowman, whose Blackhawks have won the Cup three times in the past eight years.
The Kings and Penguins have each won twice in that time and undergone changes along the way. Not even getting to the East final in the Alex Ovechkin era makes it more painful for the Capitals to undergo so many changes.
"It hurts," MacLellan said. "It's just we're maturing, we're getting a little more top heavy as a team, like Chicago, like Pittsburgh, and we've got to pay the result for it."
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