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Metropolitan Division shakeup highlights first day of free agency

Rangers secure Panarin; Devils add Simmonds; Islanders get Varlamov

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

The fallout from the dizzying flurry of activity on the NHL's free agent market and trades on Monday will take some time to completely assess.

But one of the initial takeaways was that the look, and potentially the balance of power, in the Metropolitan Division will be changing.

The New York Rangers landed one of the biggest free agent prizes by agreeing to terms with forward Artemi Panarin, who left the division rival Columbus Blue Jackets for a seven-year $81.5 million contract (average annual value of $11.6 million) that makes him the highest-paid wing in the NHL. That addition, following the acquisition of defenseman Jacob Trouba in a trade with the Winnipeg Jets on June 17 and the selection of forward Kaapo Kakko with the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NHL Draft on June 21, signals the Rangers' rebuild is over.


[RELATED: Panarin biggest splash of Rangers' strong offseason | NHL Trade Tracker]


The New Jersey Devils didn't make as big a splash Monday, agreeing to a one-year, $5 million contract with forward Wayne Simmonds, but that continues the momentum the Devils started by selecting center Jack Hughes with the No. 1 pick in the 2019 draft and acquiring defenseman P.K. Subban in a trade with the Nashville Predators on June 22.

The significant upgrades by the Rangers and Devils after each missed the Stanley Cup Playoffs last season had to be noticed by their division rivals. The Metropolitan had five teams qualify for the playoffs last season, but excluding the Washington Capitals, four of them -- the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus -- lost (or could lose) a significant player.

"I think that the teams that were at the bottom all got better," Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. "I think it's just going to make for a great division throughout the year. It's going to be a lot of competitive games. There will be entertaining games. It should be a lot of good hockey within our division.

"I would anticipate this is going to be the best division in the League."

Video: Artemi Panarin signs seven-year deal with Rangers

However, the Capitals, who traded defenseman Matt Niskanen to the division rival Philadelphia Flyers for defenseman Radko Gudas, and forward Andre Burakovsky to the Colorado Avalanche this offseason, stuck to retooling the bottom half of their lineup by agreeing to terms with forwards Richard Panik (four years, $2.75 AAV), Garnet Hathaway (four years, $1.5 million AAV) and Brendan Leipsic (one year, $700,000). 

The Penguins, who traded forward Phil Kessel to the Arizona Coyotes for forward Alex Galchenyuk over the weekend, added to their depth by signing forward Brandon Tanev to a six-year, $21 million contract ($3.5 million AAV).

The Islanders moved on from goalie Robin Lehner, a Vezina Trophy finalist, by signing goalie Semyon Varlamov to a four-year, $20 million contract ($5 million AAV). New York, which tried to sign Panarin, did keep forward Anders Lee with a seven-year, $49 million contract ($7 million AAV).

Carolina, which reached the Eastern Conference Final in its first postseason appearance since 2009, saw restricted free agent center Sebastian Aho receive a five-year, $42.27 million offer sheet ($8.454 million AAV) from the Montreal Canadiens. Carolina has seven days to match it and keep its first-line center, or instead will receive a first-, second- and third-round pick in the 2020 NHL Draft as compensation.

"We look at Sebastian as our best player and certainly want to keep him," general manager Don Waddell said. The Hurricanes kept goalie Petr Mrazek by signing him to a two-year, $6.25 million contract ($3.1 million AAV).

Columbus was the NHL team that suffered the biggest losses Monday. In addition to Panarin leaving, goalie Sergei Bobrovsky signed a seven-year contract with the Florida Panthers of the Atlantic Division and center Matt Duchene signed a seven-year, $56 million contract with the Nashville Predators of the Central Division.

Video: Impact of the Predators adding Matt Duchene

The Blue Jackets signed forward Gustav Nyquist to a four-year contract, and general manager Jarmo Kekalainen remained confident they'll be able to keep pace in the Metropolitan. 

"It's been that way every year," Kekalainen said. "Some teams get stronger. Some teams think they get stronger or they don't. The NHL is a tough league to make the playoffs."

The Panthers, who hired coach Joel Quenneville on April 8, were one of the most active teams in free agency, also signing forward Brett Connolly from the Capitals to a four-year contract and agreeing to three-year contracts with defenseman Anton Stralman from the Tampa Bay Lightning and forward Noel Acciari from the Boston Bruins.

"I like our chances now," Florida general manager Dale Tallon said. "I think we've got a legitimate chance to be in the playoffs. It starts behind the bench with [Quenneville], and then goaltending. I think our young [defensemen] will be better too with the coaching that Joel's going to bring."

Other significant unrestricted free agent signings included forward Joe Pavelski leaving the San Jose Sharks to sign a three-year, $21 million contract ($7 million AAV) with the Dallas Stars, and forward Mats Zuccarello leaving Dallas to sign a five-year, $30 million contract ($6 million AAV) with the Minnesota Wild.

"It was always the thought of, if we're leaving San Jose, we weren't just going to go to the highest bidder," Pavelski said. "There were definitely some boxes we wanted checked off. We wanted to feel that the team was close to winning. And playing against the Stars, playing against some of their players, and the season they had, they were a team that checked a lot off a lot of the boxes."

The Toronto Maple Leafs' lone unrestricted free agent signing was center Jason Spezza, who signed a one-year, $700,000 contract, but they made a much bigger splash with trades. First, Toronto acquired defensemen Cody Ceci and Ben Harpur, forward Aaron Luchuk and a third-round pick in the 2020 draft from the Ottawa Senators for defenseman Nikita Zaitsev, forward Connor Brown and forward Michael Carcone.

Then, the Maple Leafs acquired defenseman Tyson Barrie, forward Alexander Kerfoot and a sixth-round pick in the 2020 draft from the Colorado Avalanche for center Nazem Kadri, defenseman Calle Rosen and a third-round pick in the 2020 draft.

"We had a need and from our view as a management team, we owe it to our forward group and [goalie Frederik] Andersen in net to round it out as best we can and put the best possible team on the ice, particularly with defensemen who can move the puck effectively and efficiently to our forward group," Toronto general manager Kyle Dubas said.

Last offseason, the Metropolitan Division lost center John Tavares when he left the Islanders and signed with the Maple Leafs. New York then proved its doubters wrong by qualifying for the playoffs and sweeping the Penguins in the first round.

Kekalainen wondered Monday why the same thing can't happen in Columbus.

"It doesn't always work as you think, an individual will leave a hole and that's the hole one guy will have to fill," Kekalainen said. "There's going to be an opportunity for several players to take a piece of that opportunity and the team can be stronger in different ways. … You don't think that our group of guys are going to say within themselves, 'Hey, those guys left. We're going to show everybody we're going to be just as good'?"


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