The 2021-22 Metropolitan Division and Pittsburgh Penguins rivals may look like the Adams or Norris Division of the 1980s. The teams with salary-cap space and playoff aspirations took note of Washington Capitals tough guy Tom Wilson. While fans went bonkers over Wilson essentially bullying other teams last season, it was effective. He pounded what seemed like the entire New York Rangers, who had no response and he even roughed up the Boston Bruins.
Teams are responding, but not the Penguins.
It’s all about defending against Wilson, who singlehandedly took down the Rangers last season. As much as teams deny it affects them, as much as fans say it shouldn’t, it does. We live in a world of zero-tolerance schools and helicopter parents because bullying and fighting have an effect.
It matters as much in team sports. Finger-wagging against bullying has no effect, and there are only rewards for winning.
General managers across the Metro Division are putting in anti-Wilson safeguards, and it’s not a coincidence many of the Metro Division teams have added tough players, some known for pugilistic skills and not hockey–formerly known as goons.
*The Rangers hit the NHL trade market for Ryan Reaves and signed defenseman Jarred Tinordi to a two-year deal.
*The Columbus Blue Jackets signed Sean Kuraly to a four-year deal and just inked Zac Rinaldo to a two-way deal.
*Philadelphia re-upped Samuel Morin for one more year, then traded for Rasmus Ristolainen (heavy physicality) and Cam Atkinson (tenacious, not a fighter).
*No one knows what the Islanders have done or will do, but Casey Czikas, Matt Martin, and Cal Clutterbuck will likely return.
And, the Carolina Hurricanes added defenseman Brendan Smith who became the resident fighter for the Rangers last season. Smith had five fights last season, including one with Wilson.
I suppose the Pittsburgh Penguins will score on the power play, one in every five times on average. Perhaps Erik Gudbranson’s fighting lessons to Brian Dumoulin in the spring of 2019 made an impression?
The NHL evolution away from fighting and towards a skating game hit hyperdrive with the Penguins 2016, and 2017 Stanley Cup wins. Teams had to keep up, and seemingly overnight, young players who could skate replaced older players who couldn’t. Most teams got quicker and a lot quicker.
But then what?
Then toughness made a comeback, especially on defense. The Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens had big defensemen, and they played for the Stanley Cup.
And the New York Rangers still stinging from Tom Wilson’s Rowdy Roddy Piper impersonation grabbed the biggest “sheriff” available, who is willing to deal frontier justice.
Look, I can already hear Penguins fans. But they can’t play hockey! But score on the power play, that will show them! But hockey shouldn’t be goons and fighting! But, but…but…
The Metro Division is undergoing another transformation. The Washington Capitals have the premier player in this new evolution. Wilson is an exceptional penalty killer. He has hands capable of scoring 20-plus goals and denting cheekbones. The Washington Capitals bad boy served his suspension for putting Boston defenseman Brandon Carlo in the hospital with a vicious charging or boarding pop.
Tinordi essentially ended Penguins center Evgeni Malkin’s season with a solid open-ice hit. He, too, knows how to throw mitts. Sean Kuraly will be a third or fourth-line grinder in Columbus. Before he was called up to the Boston Bruins, he had a string of AHL fights. He struggled to crack the Bruins lineup, but there is no question he’s a tough player.
The Flyers also took a step back towards the Broad Street Bullies with multiple acquisitions of bruising players.
Pittsburgh Penguins Offseason
The Penguins lost tenacious grinder Brandon Tanev and replaced him with Brock McGinn via free agency. However. McGinn had four fights in the last five years. That’s not a knock, but that’s an acknowledgment that McGinn won’t be a player to answer the bell.
The Penguins have about $1.6 million of salary-cap space if future transactions and demotions are factored. GM Ron Hextall safely has enough for one more free-agent signing or player acquisition with a bit of a salary, too. But the Penguins lineup has taken a step back in talent and toughness.
The Metro Division is taking steps to improve. And teams in the Metro are getting tougher.
You don’t think the other Metro teams will go easy on the Penguins because the Penguins have been nice guys, do you? The Penguins have about six weeks.