The Metropolitan Division was already the deepest and most competitive in the NHL.
Now the race to the finish is getting juiced up.
Nearly every Metro contender made a move ahead of Monday’s trade deadline to gear up for the playoff push. The first-place Washington Capitals got it started by acquiring Ilya Kovalchuk, Pittsburgh answered by getting fellow veteran winger Patrick Marleau from San Jose and the New York Islanders got a major reinforcement in the form of center Jean-Gabriel Pageau, who they signed to a $30 million, six-year extension.
And those teams weren’t alone. Carolina got immediate help by trading for forward Vincent Trocheck and defensemen Brady Skjei and Sami Vatanen; Philadelphia made two depth forward moves by getting Derek Grant and Nate Thompson; and the Columbus Blue Jackets traded once-promising prospect Sonny Milano to Anaheim for forward Devin Shore.
Even the New York Rangers, whose recent hot streak put them within striking distance of a playoff position, kept forward Chris Kreider in the fold with a seven-year extension rather than dealing him away.
“Metro was pretty active,” Capitals general manager Brian MacLellan said. “It is a tough division. Each team could beat the other team on any given night, you know, given good goaltending and I think every one of these teams thinks that they have a chance to come out of the Metro, which I believe they do.”
With seven teams in contention for four or five playoff spots, the arms race is on.
“I thought we were all pretty close going into it and now I think we’re all still close, only better teams,” MacLellan said. “I think everybody did a good job in our division, and it’s going to be hard to get out of it.”
The Islanders traded conditional first- and third-round picks and a second to Ottawa for Pageau, who could be an ideal fit by adding offense. The Islanders rank 22nd in the league in goals per game, which probably won’t cut it when trying to compete with the high-scoring Capitals, Penguins and Flyers.
“You always have to wait and see,” Islanders GM Lou Lamoriello said. “Sometimes I’ve seen the smallest move make a major difference.”
Washington and Pittsburgh each spent only a third-round pick to get a veteran looking to win the Stanley Cup for the first time. Kovalchuk joins a potent attack led by fellow Russians Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Marleau will be a sentimental favorite with Sidney Crosby and the Penguins.
“Patrick is a player who can play anywhere in our lineup,” Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford said. “He’s a good two-way player, provides leadership and will be a good fit with our team.”
Carolina paid the price of two roster players and two prospects for Trocheck, who has two more years left on his contract. Then, the Hurricanes strengthened their blue line amid injuries to Dougie Hamilton and Brett Pesce by getting Skjei and Vatanen.
GM Chuck Fletcher said the Flyers “stuck to our plan” amid all the moves around the division.
Forwards Derek Grant and Nate Thompson are perfect for the Flyers’ mold as big, tough competitors who provide some needed depth. With Pageau’s price tag set so high, Philadelphia gave up only two fifth-round picks and a prospect to solve their need for centers and add size.
“They have always been a team that has had that confidence in the teams that they are hard to play against,” Thompson. “Over the last few years, they have added speed and skill, but even their skilled guys are hard to play against and play with that snarl and I think that is something that you always think about when you play against the Flyers.”
Freelance reporter Denis Gorman contributed.