Aaron Powers continues his NHL preview with the newly created Metropolitan Division.
The newly-minted Metropolitan Division makes its NHL debut this season, rounding out the second 8-team division (which are both in the East—figure that one out). This should be a fairly competitive division, and could boast a Conference or Cup Finalist come playoff time. As with the Atlantic, the teams are ranked in the predicted order of finish.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
The Best Team in the East. That’s a moniker that can be easily attributed to Pittsburgh. They went 36-12-0 last season, taking the top spot by 9 pts. But they fell apart in the Conference Finals against Boston, scoring only two goals over the four game sweep. Captain Sidney Crosby will lead another potent offense, supported by Evgeni Malkin, Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz, and James Neal. Rob Scuderi rejoins the Pens after three seasons in LA, and will strengthen a good defensive core led by Brooks Orpik and Kris Letang. Questions swirl regarding who will be the No. 1 goalie. Dan Bylsma turned to Tomas Vokoun in the playoffs last year, and many have wondered about Marc-Andre Fleury’s confidence level. But as a Cup-winning goalie, Fleury should be ready to go this season. Pittsburgh will be a force to be reckoned with once again, and has to be the favorite to win the Metro.
2. Washington Capitals
Washington, the other team to come out of the old Southeast Division (besides the Hurricanes), joins a definitely-stronger division in the Metropolitan. They’re almost a purely-offensive team and with skilled players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Brooks Laich, they’re sure to score mounds of goals. The real test will come on defense, where Mike Green leads a relatively young core. Karl Alzner is a rising star on the blue-line and should provide back-end strength. Braden Holtby is a very talented young goaltender and has the ability to put up great numbers this year. After a rough start to 2013—followed by an impressive turnaround—head coach Adam Oates has kept the Caps playing well. Look for Washington to compete in their new division.
3. Philadelphia Flyers
The Broad Street Bullies, after losing the Cup Finals to Chicago in 2010, haven’t made it past the Conference semis since and failed to qualify for the playoffs at all last season. They’re one of the strongest offensive teams in the league, boasting tons of young talent in Claude Giroux, Jakob Voracek, Wayne Simmonds, Sean Couturier, and others. The addition of vet Vincent Lecavalier will only bolster that offensive strength, as well as provide valuable experience and leadership. The blue-liners will have to prove themselves, and have to move on from hoping Chris Pronger will play another game in white and orange. Philly picked up Mark Streit from the Islanders this offseason and he should provide some valuable support to Kimmo Timonen, Braydon Coburn and the rest of the Flyer defensemen. The biggest question for Philly will be the goalie situation. The Flyers bought out oft-struggling Ilya Bryzgalov this year, after the Russian goaltender failed to find his stride in the City of Brotherly Love. By bringing in Ray Emery, the Flyers created a decent tandem with him and Steve Mason. Look for Peter Laviolette’s team to fight their way to one of the top spots in the Metro.
4. New York Rangers
After completing their coach “swap” with Vancouver this summer, New York’s first season under Alain Vigneault should be an intriguing one. Vigneault is much more reserved than John Tortorella, and it may take him a while to adjust to the media frenzy that is the Big Apple. The Rangers are one of the best teams in the East and perhaps the change behind the bench will propel them further and higher this season. If Brad Richards can find his old form and Rick Nash keeps scoring 30+ goals, New York could run over their division mates. The leadership of captain Ryan Callahan, the toughness of Arron Asham, and the addition of the skilled Benoit Pouliot make them very strong up-front. If Marc Staal is completely healthy, both mentally and physically following his scary injury last season, the Rangers will be solid on the blue line. Michael del Zotto and Dan Girardi will also anchor the back-end. Henrik Lundqvist should be stellar in net once again and back-up Martin Biron is quite capable. If New York can successfully implement Vigneault’s more fluid style of offense, they’ll be well-positioned to make a run for the Cup. But that’s definitely an if.
5. New Jersey Devils
If the shock of Ilya Kovalchuk’s surprise retirement has worn off in New Jersey, Devils fans can be optimistic about the upcoming season. With tons of offensive skill still remaining, in the persons of Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac, and Adam Henrique (just to name a few), Lou Lamoriello signed veterans Jaromir Jagr, Ryan Clowe, and Michael Ryder over the summer. Jagr may not be healthy come opening day, but he’ll provide plenty of leadership in the locker room. Captain Bryce Salvador and Marek Zidlicky lead a good defensive squad, and the acquisition of goalie Cory Schneider should shore up the back-end, especially if Martin Brodeur begins to feel his age any time soon. Marty was solid in the shortened 2013 season, posting a .901 save percentage and 2.22 goals against average. If New Jersey is focused and healthy, they could find themselves towards the top of the Metropolitan division. If not, they’ll finish in the middle.
6. New York Islanders
The Islanders are a young team, but boast a bevy of talent in new captain John Tavares, Kyle Okposo, and Michael Grabner, among others. With the move to the Barclay’s Center now slated for the 2015-16 season, the Isles will be able to entertain fans at the Nassau Coliseum for a bit longer. And after making the playoffs last season—following a five-season drought—Islanders fans should be excited about the upcoming campaign. Lubomir Visnovsky and Andrew Macdonald anchor the blue line, and the younger d-men should contribute on the back-end. New York bought out the remainder of fading goalie Rick DiPietro’s contract on July 1st, so the net-minding duties fall squarely on Evgeni Nabokov’s shoulders. Nabby did play 47 games last season, including regular season and playoffs, so hopefully he’s refreshed and ready to go this season. New York will be a contender in the beginning, but they’ll peak too early in the season.
7. Columbus Blue Jackets
Columbus comes East for the 2013-14 season, and after leaving the tough Central division, things may not get any better for the Jackets. They did score a big signing this summer, inking right-winger Nathan Horton to a seven-year deal. Horton should greatly bolster the offense, and with Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov helping out, Columbus could be hard to handle up-front. The Jackets have a solid defenseman in Jack Johnson, who anchors another young NHL defensive core. Sergei Bobrovsky, since joining Columbus last season, has been fairly outstanding in net. The Jackets just missed out on the playoffs last year, and they may surprise people with how well they play this year. But they’ll still need to be stellar for a long stretch in order to even sniff a playoff spot.
8. Carolina Hurricanes
The ‘Canes are a young team, especially on defense, with assistant captain, Tim Gleason, the oldest at 30 years of age. But that youth translates to great offensive talent with the likes of Alexander Semin and the Staal brothers (Eric and Jordan as of now, and perhaps younger sibling Jared at some point this season). Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2006, Carolina has only reached the postseason once, in 2009. The No. 1 goaltending duties should fall to Cam Ward, if he can stay healthy after suffering an MCL sprain in March. The back-up slot looks to be between newly-acquired Anton Khudobin and last year’s No. 2 Justin Peters. The Hurricanes leave the old Southeast Division behind and jump into what might be the most competitive new division, and they’ll have to play at the level of their division mates to have a chance at a playoff berth. Unfortunately, that level seems to be beyond Carolina.
Read Aaron’s Atlantic Division preview here.