2013-14 Season Preview - Metropolitan Division
Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang. I'm not exactly going out on a limb with this prediction, am I?
I don't know about you, but I still can't believe how ridiculous this division name is... seriously NHL... really?
Anyways... last week we previewed the Atlantic Division, where I picked the Detroit Red Wings to continue their dominance over the Eastern Conference and win the division. This week we will take a look at how I see the Metro division stacking up this season.
Sidney Crosby is finally healthy, and they have Evgeni Malkin on their 2nd line. Nobody ever said life was fair. The wingers in the top 6 may be unheralded for the most part but are perfect fits with their star centers. However, this season their depth may be a bit of a grey area. How much will they miss Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy? Both were valuable energy players who played a two way game and were excellent penalty killers. The Penguins are hoping youngsters like Beau Bennett can step in and fill the void in the lineup. On the blue line, Kris Letang is one of the best offensive defencemen in the league. Pittsburgh also brought back Rob Scuderi, who will bring a shutdown element as well as add a welcome physical presence. The last time Rob Scuderi was a Penguin, Pittsburgh won a Cup and he played a big role in making that happen. As far as goaltending, Marc-Andre Fleury is a solid option in goal for the regular season, but all bets are off when it comes to naming a playoff starter. Just how much longer will the Penguins put up with Fleury's playoff meltdowns? Tomas Vokoun was set to back up Fleury, but blood clot issues have popped up during training camp, so the backup role is up in the air at the moment.
Verdict: As always, it's Stanley Cup or bust in Pittsburgh. As long as the playoff goaltending holds up, they're among the favorites. Prediction: 1st
New York Rangers
Henrik Lundqvist is probably one of the top 3 goaltenders on the planet, their blue line is one of the deepest in the NHL and they have some very strong two way forwards. Their weakness has been their ability to generate offense. New head coach Alain Vigneault will look to loosen the reins a bit and get more production from a forward group that includes skilled forwards like Brad Richards and Rick Nash. Brad Richards was a healthy scratch twice in the playoffs last season and the 2004 Conn Smythe Trophy winner will be looking for a bounce back season. There is no reason why the Rangers shouldn't be able to score more, and perhaps Vigneaults style will help. It is worth noting that AV was coined as a defensive coach in Vancouver, so it's probably too much to expect a drastic change right away. But the defence will likely be encouraged to jump into the play more, so there will be adjustments to be made there. It's tough to say if AVs style will lead to more offensive production or more odd man rushes against. With the Rangers two way forwards and Henrik Lundqvist in goal, the Rangers can seemingly afford to make that gamble.
Verdict: The Rangers have the talent, and it's tough to bet against a team with Henrik Lundqvist in goal. If the Rangers adjust quickly to Vigneault, they can be contenders come spring. Prediction: 2nd
Ah summer! So many dazzling spectacles on display. The beautiful weather, the breathtaking scenery, the smorgasboard of eye candy at the beach. Barbecues and family vacations. And of course, another Philadelphia Flyers re-tool. Let's go through the checklist. New top 6 forward? Check. New high priced defenceman? Check. New starting goaltender? Check. Yup, all done! Now it's time to see if they finally got it right this time. Surely the additions of Lecavelier up front and Mark Streit will bolster the offense as well as the power play, but what about in goal? Steve Mason fared well in a 7 game debut after being acquired at the deadline, but in order for the Flyers to truly contend, he will have to re-discover the form that won him the Calder Trophy with Columbus in 2009. Ray Emery returns in a support role and could push for the starters job if Mason isn't up to form. A rebound season from Claude Giroux would also go a long way towards the Flyers post season chances.
Verdict: On paper, there's absolutely no reason this shouldn't be a playoff club. If the goaltending holds up, the Flyers have a shot at a deep playoff run. Prediction: 3rd
Columbus Blue Jackets
They may have missed the playoffs, but don't let that fool you. The Jackets were one of the NHL's best teams down the stretch, posting a 19-6-5 record from February 24th until the end of the season. With the new season comes a new division and a move to the Eastern Conference which should bode well for Columbus moving forward. Like the Red Wings, Columbus has fared quite well against the Eastern Conference over the past 5 years, going 44-26-12 over that span. The roster is solid in all areas, and they've even added Nathan Horton to the mix. Horton is expected to be out until January after offseason shoulder surgery, but the Jackets haven't lost anyone of significance up front, so they should be fine waiting for Horton to return. 2013 Vezina Trophy winner Sergei Bobrovsky signed a two year deal in the summer to remain in Columbus. Believe it or not, he's the wild card on this team. The enigmatic goaltender was sensational, but can he sustain that level of play?
Verdict: Bobrovsky needs to prove last year wasn't a fluke. If he can duplicate last years stellar performance, the Blue Jackets are in the playoffs. Prediction: 4th
New York Islanders
Alright I admit it, I'm a believer. Sure they were ousted in 6 games by the Penguins, but they plucky Isles gave Crosby and co. all they could handle in their first round playoff series. They chased Marc-Andre Fleury from the playoffs and may well have completed the series upset if Evgeni Nabokov hadn't struggled in the post season as well, posting a .842 save percentage and a 4.44 goals against average. John Tavares emerged as one of the games top stars and was a finalist for the Hart Trophy for league MVP. Matt Moulson and Michael Grabner had strong years providing secondary scoring and Kyle Okposo was a big factor in the playoffs after a sub-par regular season. On defence, the Isles did lose former captain Mark Streit to the Flyers with no immediate replacement, but the group that remains can do the job. Travis Hamonic could be one of the NHLs best kept secrets. There seems to be a spot up for grabs in camp on the blue line, so look for Aaron Ness or Matt Donovan to get long looks in that role. 2012 1st round pick Griffin Reinhart is a possibility as well if he has a strong camp. In goal, Nabokov returns on a one year deal. If he can shake off his poor playoff showing and provide solid goaltending, the Isles could surprise some people this season.
Verdict: The Isles are trending in the right direction. The new divisional format for playoff seeding may work against them making the playoffs, but they'll be right there in the mix. Prediction: 5th
They looked very strong early last season, but yet another injury to Cam Ward proved to be their undoing. Ward will look to shake the injury bug and get back to being one of the games elite goaltenders this year, and as Ward goes, so go the Hurricanes. Anton Khudobin has been brought in as insurance and that should be a huge help as Khudobin has posted good numbers in the NHL. That may also help boost the special teams, which were abysmal last season. The penalty kill was 28th in the league but the power play didn't fare much better, coming in at 27th overall. More scoring depth would help in that area as well, as consistent production beyond the Tlusty - Staal - Semin line has been hard to come by. Jeff Skinner has battled concussion issues but a return to his Calder trophy form would be huge for the Canes.
Verdict: The Canes were solid until Ward went down, but given his injury history, it's hard to give them the benefit of the doubt here. Prediction: 6th
The Caps struggled out fo the gate last year while they adjusted to Adam Oates and his changes to the Caps systems. Once they turned things around, they tore it up down the stretch and won the Southeast division title. That sort of feat will be a tall task now that the Caps have been moved to a much stronger division. Alexander Ovechkin got the Hart trophy, but scored half of his goals and 27 of his 56 points on the man advantage, feasting on Southeast division teams like Florida (30th overall PK), Carolina (28th overall PK) and Winnipeg (24th overall PK). Not only will he not have that luxury this season, but his setup man on the power play, Mike Ribeiro, is gone. Grabovski may be able to fill the void, but he is a downgrade. The Caps margin for error has shrunk big time and they may get passed by teams with more well rounded games.
Verdict: The Caps have a roster that should be ranked way higher than this, but until they prove they can do the job at even strength, I wouldn't take them ahead of any of the teams above them. Prediction: 7th
New Jersey Devils
Sorry Schneids, I really didn't want to have to do this. But since making the Stanley Cup finals in 2012, the Devils have lost Zach Parise, David Clarkson and Ilya Kovalchuk. Their net return? Zero. Every single Devil needs to step their game up in a big way, and even then it may not be enough. Travis Zajac needs to deliver on the promise he's shown and become the big game center he's capable of being, and young players like Jacob Josefson, Andrei Loktionov and Adam Larsson need to grow up fast and become key contributors. The Devils did sign Ryane Clowe, but hoping he can come in and replace David Clarkson may be wishful thinking, as it's an obvious downgrade. Jaromir Jagr comes in and should help the offense a bit, but how much does he really have left. On defence, some youngsters like Eric Gelinas or Jonathon Merrill may get a look. The Devils need their blue line to be greater than the sum of it's parts this season to keep things on the rails this season. If any team is capable of that, it's the Devils, but it's a tall task to be sure. The one bright spot is in goal. The Devils have solved their long term goaltending issues in acquiring Cory Schneider to take the reins from Martin Brodeur and the duo is expected to split time this season, likely the last one in Martin Brodeur's legendary career.
Verdict: Martin Brodeur and Cory Schneider is the best thing the Devils have going for them, but those two can't score the goals. It's likely to be a tough year in New Jersey. Prediction: 8th.
Up next, the Central Division.