The Pittsburgh Penguins are, by most accounts, a better team — in the relatively short term, at least — than they were a week ago.
Better than the one that should have upset the New York Rangers in Round 1 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Better than the one that sputtered to a third-place finish in the Metropolitan Division, claiming a spot in the postseason for the 16th consecutive year.
And the Penguins just might have to be if they expect to stretch that streak to 17 in 2022-23.
Carolina, which won the Metro last season, has lost the likes of Vincent Trocheck and Tony DeAngelo, but added Brent Burns, Max Pacioretty and Ondrej Kase.
The Rangers finished seven points ahead of the Penguins during the regular season and have parted with Ryan Strome and Alexandar Georgiev, but replaced them with Trocheck and Jaroslav Halak, while also bringing highly skilled winger Vitaly Kravtsov back from Russia.
Overtaking either of those clubs will be a challenge, even though Ron Hextall has significantly upgraded the right side of his defense by acquiring Jeff Petry and Jan Rutta. The Penguins’ roster isn’t finalized — among other things, they still need to establish the makeup (and identity) of the bottom two lines — so it’s a bit early to project where they will finish during the coming winter.
This much, however, seems clear: While the Pittsburgh Penguins’ focus will be on overtaking the clubs that ended up ahead of them, they should plan on casting an occasional glance behind themselves, too.
That’s because some teams that have been habitual bottom-feeders in recent years — and finished 2021-22 several light-years behind the Eastern Conference playoff field — have made major personnel improvements this summer.
Not necessarily enough to grab one of the top three spots in the Metro or Atlantic divisions, which would assure a berth in the Eastern playoffs, but enough to be involved in the battle for one of the conference’s two wild-card spots.
Here’s a look at four who have made big strides so far.
Detroit Red Wings
Perhaps no GM has been more active — or productive — since the end of the regular season than Steve Yzerman.
He has remade much of his roster, bringing in forwards Andrew Copp, David Perron and Dominik Kubalik, defensemen Olli Maatta, Ben Chiarot and Mark Pysyk and goalie Ville Husso.
Detroit already has some nice young talent, thanks, in part, to owning nine first-round selections in the past seven drafts, but Yzerman obviously has decided this is the time to complement that group with veterans who can help the Red Wings make a push for the postseason.
The Senators haven’t been in the playoffs since Chris Kunitz scored in double-overtime of Game 7 in the 2017 Eastern Conference final, and missed qualifying by 27 points in 2021-22.
But Ottawa has assembled a promising young core featuring the likes of Tim Stutzle, Thomas Chabot, Brady Tkachuk, Drake Batherson and Josh Norris, and GM Pierre Dorion has picked up veteran forwards Alex DeBrincat and Claude Giroux and goalie Cam Talbot in recent weeks.
Talbot was added from Minnesota after Dorion jettisoned former Penguins goalie Matt Murray, who was often injured and/or ineffective. Ottawa still could use at least one more quality defenseman, but its rebuild should pay off before much longer.
New Jersey Devils
Newark was the likely destination for Johnny Gaudreau, the top prize in the free agent class of 2022, until Columbus swooped in with an offer on which Gaudreau felt he could not pass.
Gaudreau’s interest speaks to how GM Tom Fitzgerald has burnished the image and appeal of the Devils’ operation, and how he’s upgraded their personnel. He’s done more of that in recent weeks by signing free agents Ondrej Palat and Brendan Smith, trading for John Marino and Vitek Vanacek and drafting defenseman Simon Nemec.
Adding Gaudreau would have been a huge public-relations win — mostly because the guy is an exceptional player — but Palat is a pretty nice consolation prize. Coming from Tampa Bay, he knows what it takes to win. And his play made a lot of the Lightning’s winning possible.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Landing Gaudreau would have been enough to make this offseason a spectacular success for the Blue Jackets, and they should enjoy the residual effects of signing him for quite a while.
Gaudreau’s impact might not be felt immediately, since most of 2022’s high-impact free agents had committed elsewhere by the time he accepted Columbus’ offer, but he could be a magnet for prominent free agents in the future who previously might not have seriously considered signing there.
And while Gaudreau’s signing obviously overshadowed the addition of former Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Erik Gudbranson, his muscle should be a plus. The challenge now for GM Jarmo Kekalainen is to re-sign restricted free agent Patrik Laine, despite having limited salary-cap space, or get an equitable return for him in a trade.