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NHL Core Strength: How Metropolitan Division teams found their best players

The best way to examine how NHL teams are built is to look at their cores. The teams of the Metropolitan Division have different stories to tell.

This is Part 2 of a series examining how NHL teams acquired their top players and what we can learn from their team-building efforts.

For the purposes of this series, we'll look at the top three forwards, the top two defensemen, and the starting goalie on each squad for 2023-24. That can get a bit subjective, but when in doubt, 2022-23 playing time and point totals (or salary) all work as handy tiebreakers.

Part 1: Atlantic Division

The Metropolitan Division has been overshadowed by the Atlantic in recent seasons, and it's full of teams struggling to break through.

The Carolina Hurricanes can't seem to make a Stanley Cup Final, the New York Rangers have yet to capitalize on the Igor Shesterkin window, the New Jersey Devils are beginning their journey as a contender, and the New York Islanders always seem to be in the mix.

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Meanwhile, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals are fighting to stay relevant — to varying degrees of success — while Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are around. There's plenty of talent in the Metro, but playoff glory has been elusive since the Capitals won the Stanley Cup in 2017-18.

Here's a rundown of how the teams in the Metropolitan put together their cores:

Carolina Hurricanes

Core players

  • F Sebastian Aho (Drafted 35th overall in 2015)

  • F Andrei Svechnikov (Drafted 2nd overall in 2018)

  • F Jeperi Kotkaniemi (Signed to an offer sheet 2022)

  • D Brett Burns (Trade acquisition 2022)

  • D Dmitry Orlov (Signed as a free agent in 2023)

  • G Frederik Andersen (Signed as a free agent in 2021, and again in 2023)

What we can learn: The effectiveness of Carolina's team-building efforts are impossible to quibble with and the Hurricanes have used a variety of methods to assemble their squad.

Getting a foundational piece like Aho in the second round showed drafting acumen, while grabbing Kotkaniemi with an offer sheet demonstrated creativity — although the jury's still out on whether it was the right move — and trading for an aging, but effective, Burns was fearless.

Even the Orlov contract was an interesting one as the team acquired a top-pair defenseman on term that didn't dip far into his decline phase by ratcheting up the AAV. Carolina's ability to use all of the tools available to it helps explain how the team has won a playoff round in five consecutive seasons.

RALEIGH, NORTH CAROLINA - FEBRUARY 21: Sebastian Aho #20 of the Carolina Hurricanes celebrates with Andrei Svechnikov #37 after scoring a goal during the second period against the St. Louis Blues at PNC Arena on February 21, 2023 in Raleigh, North Carolina. (Photo by Josh Lavallee/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Carolina Hurricanes have done an excellent job using all the tools at their disposal to build a squad consistently capable of going deep in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. (Photo by Josh Lavallee/NHLI via Getty Images) (Josh Lavallee via Getty Images)

New Jersey Devils

Core players

  • F Jack Hughes (Drafted 1st overall in 2019)

  • F Nico Hischier (Drafted 1st overall in 2017)

  • F Timo Meier (Trade acquisition 2023, extended in 2023)

  • D Dougie Hamilton (Signed as a free agent in 2021)

  • D Luke Hughes (Drafted 4th overall in 2021)

  • G Akira Schmid (Drafted 136th overall in 2018)

What we can learn: Getting two star centers with the first overall pick is a pretty good way to build a hockey team.

After years of irrelevance, New Jersey was able to hit on a pair of top picks and build from there. During a breakout 2022-23 season, the team decided it was good enough to make an aggressive push for Meier, which was justified based on its performance. The Devils are now at a stage in their competitive cycle where veteran imports will be the norm, as we saw with the Tyler Toffoli deal during the offseason.

Not every team will be able to boast the draft lottery luck the Devils have managed, but if there's one thing to take from their roster construction, it's that it pays to lock down promising young players as soon as possible.

Early extensions for Hughes and Hischier look to be steals, as the former is on the books for just $8 million through 2029-30 and the latter will make a reasonable $7.25 million through 2026-27. Building around contracts like that won't be difficult for the Devils.

Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier are both locked in long term for the New Jersey Devils, who are beginning to look like bonafide Stanley Cup contenders (Photo by Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Jack Hughes and Nico Hischier are both locked in long-term for the New Jersey Devils, who are beginning to look like bonafide Stanley Cup contenders (Photo by Andrew Mordzynski/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

New York Rangers

Core players

  • F Artemi Panarin (Signed as a free agent in 2019)

  • F Mika Zibanejad (Trade acquisition in 2016, extended in 2017 and 2021)

  • F Chris Kreider (Drafted 19th overall in 2009)

  • D Adam Fox (Trade acquisition in 2017, extended in 2021)

  • D Jacob Trouba (Trade acquisition in 2019, extended in 2019)

  • G Igor Shesterkin (Drafted 118th overall in 2014)

What we can learn: New York has put together an extremely strong roster considering the team's only top picks in recent years — Alexis Lafrenière and Kaapo Kakko — have yet to break out at the NHL level.

Signing Panarin to a massive deal helped solidify the team's core, as did Fox's strong preference for playing with the New York Rangers that allowed the team to acquire him for a modest return. Shesterkin was also a steal with the 118th overall pick.

There has been a great deal of serendipity in how these Rangers have come together, making their model tough to emulate. If there's one thing to be learned, it's that sometimes shopping at the top of the market is worth the risk. Panarin has been marvellous in New York with 341 points in 268 games for the Rangers.

Neither of Artemi Panarin or Adam Fox were initially drafted by the New York Rangers, but that hasn't stopped the duo from serving as the club's backbone.
Neither Artemi Panarin nor Adam Fox were initially drafted by the New York Rangers, but that hasn't stopped the duo from serving as the club's backbone. (Photo by Rich Graessle/NHLI via Getty Images)

New York Islanders

Core players

  • F Mathew Barzal (Drafted 16th 2015)

  • F Bo Horvat (Trade acquisition in 2023, extended in 2023)

  • F Brock Nelson (Drafted 30th overall in 2010)

  • D Adam Pelech (Drafted 65th in 2012)

  • D Noah Dobson (Drafted 12th overall in 2018)

  • G Ilya Sorokin (Drafted 78th overall in 2014)

What we can learn: The Islanders have a team packed with homegrown talent, which is admirable — and the team has found some quality players lower in the draft.

New York's issue is that its team is quite deep, but the top of the roster doesn't match up with other Eastern Conference contenders — outside of Sorokin. That's likely because when the Islanders have had high picks in recent years, they've been unable to convert them into franchise stalwarts.

The team has had four top-five picks since 2010 — Nino Niederreiter (2010), Ryan Strome (2011), Griffin Reinhart (2012) and Michael Dal Colle (2014) — and none of them hit in the way the Islanders would've hoped. Had they done better with those selections, the Islanders might have a powerhouse squad instead of a middle-of-the-pack group.

Matthew Barzal is one of the few first round picks the New York Islanders have hit on in recent years (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Matthew Barzal is one of the few first-round picks the New York Islanders have hit on in recent years (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)

Pittsburgh Penguins

Core players

  • F Sidney Crosby (Drafted 1st overall in 2005)

  • F Evgeni Malkin (Drafted 2nd overall in 2004)

  • F Jake Guentzel (Drafted 77th overall in 2013, extended in 2018)

  • D Kris Letang (Drafted 62nd 2005)

  • D Erik Karlsson (Trade acquisition 2023)

  • G Tristan Jarry (Drafted 44th overall in 2013, re-signed in 2023)

What we can learn: Crosby, Malkin, and Letang have been around for so long that the Penguins have built multiple supporting casts around them. That trio has been a constant and as they get into their late thirties, Pittsburgh is acting with an intense sense of urgency that wouldn't be prudent for other franchises.

That's how a team that just missed the playoffs ends up making an all-in win-now trade for the reigning Norris Trophy winner. While Pittsburgh is becoming infamous for its investment in aging talent, the franchise deserves some credit for some notable hits later in the draft. The Crosby-Malkin foundation goes a long way, but the Penguins might not have had the success they've enjoyed if not for picks like Letang, Guentzel, and Jarry, all selected outside the first round.

Few teams boast the prolific core the Penguins have built in Crosby, Malkin, and Letang, even if all three of them are approaching their late 30's. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Few teams boast the prolific core the Penguins have built in Crosby, Malkin, and Letang, even if all three of them are approaching their late 30's. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Washington Capitals

Core players

  • F Alex Ovechkin (Drafted 1st overall in 2004)

  • F Evgeny Kuznetsov (Drafted 26th overall in 2010)

  • F Dylan Strome (Signed as a free agent in 2022, extended in 2023)

  • D John Carlson (Drafted 27th overall in 2008)

  • D Rasmus Sandin (Trade acquisition in 2023)

  • G Darcy Kuemper (Signed as a free agent in 2022)

What we can learn: The Capitals are an example of a team that built an effective core, but hasn't done a good job supplementing it as its top players have aged. Ovechkin remains an elite goal scorer, but he doesn't have the overall impact he once did and can't drive team success single-handedly anymore.

Kuznetsov and Nicklas Bäckström aren't the players they once were either, while Carlson is a durability question mark at this point. The additions of Strome and Sandin could help keep Washington afloat, but if 2022-23 is any indication, the present doesn't look particularly bright for the Capitals. That said, they are in a situation like the Penguins where a teardown doesn't make sense while they retain a generational star. They are operating differently than other squads and should be held to a slightly different standard.

Much like the Penguins, Ovechkin's presence in Washington makes it hard to justify a rebuild despite the Capitals aging core. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)
Much like the Penguins, Ovechkin's presence in Washington makes it hard to justify a rebuild despite the Capitals aging core. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Philadelphia Flyers

Core players

  • F Travis Konecny (Drafted 24th overall in 2015)

  • F Sean Couturier (Drafted 8th overall in 2011)

  • F Owen Tippett (Trade acquisition in 2022, extended in 2022)

  • D Travis Sanheim (Drafted 17th overall in 2014)

  • D Rasmus Ristolainen (Trade acquisition in 2021, extended in 2022)

  • G Carter Hart (Drafted 48th overall in 2016)

What we can learn: The Flyers are an odd team to examine for this exercise because they have the remnants of a formerly respectable squad on the roster, but they are in the midst of a teardown.

The greatest hope for Philadelphia to become a winner will come from players who aren't currently on the roster, though Tippett and Hart are both young enough to participate in the next wave. There are some solid draft picks in this group, but every player listed here might be expendable if the right opportunity arose, and many have found their names in trade rumors recently.

Matvei Michkov is the core piece Philadelphia is counting on, and until the enigmatic Russian finds his way to the NHL it'll be hard to know what this franchise's prognosis is.

The Flyers have some pieces, such as Carter Hart, that are young enough to withstand the club's current rebuild. Others, like Travis Sanheim and Rasmus Ristolainen, continue to percolate in trade rumours. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Flyers have some pieces, such as Carter Hart, that are young enough to withstand the club's current rebuild. Others, like Travis Sanheim and Rasmus Ristolainen, continue to percolate in trade rumors. (Photo by Len Redkoles/NHLI via Getty Images)

Columbus Blue Jackets

Core players

  • F Johnny Gaudreau (Signed as a free agent in 2022)

  • F Patrik Laine (Trade acquisition in 2021, extended in 2022)

  • F Booner Jenner (Drafted 37th overall in 2011)

  • D Zach Werenski (Drafted 8th overall in 2015)

  • D Damon Severson (Trade acquisition 2023, signed 2023)

  • G Elvis Merzlikins (Drafted 76th overall in 2014)

What we can learn: While the Blue Jackets deserve some credit for finding important contributors a little later in the draft, this group is evidence of a team trying to import a core due to an inability to build its own.

If top-six picks like Kent Johnson, David Jiricek, and Adam Fantilli become stars, that narrative could quickly change, but signing Gaudreau and trading for the rights to Damon Severson (as well as adding Ivan Provorov) speak to a desire to jumpstart a rebuild when the foundation looks shaky.

When teams think about team-building models to consider emulating, the Blue Jackets rarely spring to mind.

The Blue Jackets will likely be looking to their prospect pool to supplement Johnny Gaudreau and the rest of the squad.  (Photo by Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images)
The Blue Jackets will likely be looking to their prospect pool to supplement Johnny Gaudreau and the rest of the squad. (Photo by Ben Jackson/NHLI via Getty Images)