With the release of the 2013-2014 NHL Schedule came the unveiling of the new alignment of the National Hockey League. The Western Conference shrunk from three divisions to the Pacific Division and Central Division and the Eastern Conference shrank from three divisions to the Atlantic and Metropolitan Division. Although the Devils’ previous division name remained intact, they are no longer a part of it. The teams that formerly made up the Atlantic Division now make up part of the Metropolitan Division which includes the: New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets and Washington Capitals. The following is my assessment of the newly formed Metropolitan Division.
New Jersey Devils
2013 record: 19-19-10
It has been a brutal 12 months for New Jersey. In that time, the Devils lost the in Finals, saw their captain leave in free agency, missed the playoffs entirely after a Stanley Cup Finals appearance the year before, and saw their most talented player announce an early retirement to return to his home country. The departure of Parise and Kovalchuk have left the Devils seeming quite depleted, although fans and analysts are jumping ship too quickly in my opinion. If you think back to the past Stanley Cup winning teams in Devils history, none of them were built around big money superstars like Kovalchuk. The Devils, until recently, had always relied on a very deep team in front of legendary goaltender Martin Brodeur. While Brodeur has aged considerably, he is still a strong goalie who now has 27-year-old Cory Schneider to help share the load. The additions of Jaromir Jagr, Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe will help fill the gaps left behind by Parise, Kovalchuk and Clarkson leaving for their hometowns.
Strength: Goaltending. It is a far less frequent topic in New Jersey these days, but the fact is that Martin Brodeur is still an excellent goaltender who had an incredible run in the 2012 post-season. He will be afforded many more games off this season, thanks to the addition of Cory Schneider, which will keep him rested and on top of his game.
Weakness: Scoring. The Devils were one goal away from having the fewest in the league last year and the departure of Kovalchuk certainly won’t help. The Devils will have to rely on their new additions and considerable progress from their young players.
New York Rangers
2013 record: 26-18-4
It has been a very quiet offseason for the Rangers who followed up their 2012 Eastern Conference Finals appearance with an earlier exit in 2013. Since the beginning of the 2013 season the Rangers have lost forward Marian Gaborik and coach John Tortorella. While no replacements were signed for Gaborik the Rangers brought in former Vancouver Canucks Coach Alain Vigneault to help the “Blueshirts” take the next step. Interestingly, the Rangers were able to surge into a low playoff spot thanks to the addition of depth forwards, the best of which will not be returning next season. Rather, Ryane Clowe will be a member of their rival, the New Jersey Devils. The Rangers will rely on the development of their young players including Carl Hagelin, Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan, Mats Zuccarello, Michael Del Zotto, Ryan McDonagh and John Moore, all of whom are 25-years-old or younger.
Strength: Goaltending – Simply put, Henrik Lundqvist is one of the most dominant goaltenders in the entire league.
Weakness: Depth – despite high profile names like Nash, Richards and Lundqvist the Rangers lack much scoring potential amongst their bottom six forwards. The trade of Gaborik brought some late season help, which will hopefully help with their depth issue next season. However, they will mostly be counting on the development of their young forwards, especially Carl Hagelin, Derek Stepan, and Chris Kreider who have all shown some serious talent over the past two seasons.
New York Islanders
2013 record: 24-17-7
The Islanders managed to make the playoffs in 2013 for the first time since the 2006-2007 season behind the dominant play of John Tavares. Their success was largely credited to the improvement of young players and the performance of veteran goaltender Evgeni Nabakov. With only a few additions to the team coming in the forms of veterans Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard, the core group of Tavares, Bailey, Okposo, Grabner, and Moulson will have another chance at getting it done. The Islanders did lose their captain, Mark Streit, to the Philadelphia Flyers, but kept Nabakov in goal behind an extremely young defense.
Strength: Scoring – The Islanders have some a lot of speed and scoring ability on offense in Tavares and Moulson. Despite losing Brad Boyes, it seems the Islanders haven’t lost much on offense this offseason to be concerned.
Weakness: Defense – The Islanders ranked 20th in the league last season in goals against and lost their defenseman/captain, Mark Streit, during the offseason. They will be relying on a very young group to man the blueline, bolstered only by 36-year-old Lubomir Visnovsky and a relatively inexperienced 32-year-old Matt Carkner.
2013 record: 23-22-3
The Flyers missed the playoffs last season after ranking 22nd in the league in goals against. Their solution was to snag Islanders captain Mark Streit to help their defense out, along with buying out their high-profile goaltender, Ilya Bryzgalov. This leaves Steve Mason and Ray Emery as the potential starting goaltenders for the Flyers next season. While Emery had an excellent year last season with the Chicago Blackhawks, he is playing with a very different team in front of him, in a far more hostile environment than Chicago. However, as one year passes, the young offensive stars in Philadelphia are likely to improve including captain Claude Giroux, Matt Read, Sean Couturier, Zac Rinaldo, Brayden Schenn, and Jakub Voracek. To aid the development of these rising offensive players, the Flyers brought in former Tampa Bay Lightning captain Vincent Lecavalier, who will bring a history of success (Rocket Richard Trophy, King Clancy Memorial Trophy, Stanley Cup winner) along with him. This should also help fill the void left by the buyout of Daniel Briere.
Strength: Offense Depth & Balance – The Flyers have an underrated offense that features a balance of speed, grit, and scoring. Combining the developing talents of the aforementioned rising stars with the leadership and scoring of veterans Scott Hartnell, Vincent Lecavalier, Simon Gagne and Maxime Talbot makes for a deep offensive unit that is sure to improve on their 10th overall ranking in goals scored from last season.
Weakness: Goaltending – While Bryzgalov may not have been earning his lucrative contract, his dismissal leaves the Flyers with two far less talented goaltenders in Steve Mason and Ray Emery. Each goaltender has had their moment of brilliance at the NHL level so there isn’t a doubt of talent as much as consistency. Neither goalie could build on successful seasons in the past, leading Mason to a new home, and Emery to a homecoming, in Philadelphia. Emery’s first time in Philadelphia was the 2009 – 2010 season, sharing duties with Michael Leighton and Brian Boucher, when he posted a 2.64 goals-against average while going 16-11. It will be interesting to see if either can recreate their past success with their new team, but one has to assume the worst until Mason or Emery prove otherwise.
2013 record: 36-12-0
The shortened season and condensed playoffs turned out to be business as usual for the Penguins. Pittsburgh finished as the top team in the Eastern Conference, and bolstered their already-dominant offense at the trade deadline by acquiring Dallas Stars captain Brendan Morrow and Calgary Flames captain Jarome Iginla. However, their issue from the 2012 post season turned out to be their Achilles heel once again; the Penguins’ goaltending was insufficient to say the least. As of now, there have been no changes to the goalie tandem of Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun, but it goes without saying that their Stanley Cup aspirations depend heavily on their improvement in the 2013-2014 season. They also lost Jarome Iginla, Matt Cooke, and Tyler Kennedy to free agency. On top of handing out massive contract extensions to both Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, Pittsburgh also brought back a familiar face in Rob Scuderi to help out defensively.
Strength: Scoring – The Penguins led the league in goals last season, with 165 scored in 48 games. Despite the departure of several depth forwards, the Penguins maintain their dominant cast headlined by Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, and Chris Kunitz. Letang is also one of the best offensive forwards in the NHL and his new contract will keep him in Pittsburgh for another eight years.
Weakness: Defense – There is a price to pay for having such an attack-oriented game plan; you are going to give up a lot of goals. The Penguins didn’t give up an eye-opening amount of goals in the regular season but they gave up more than most playoff bound teams. While Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun were far from stellar in the playoffs, it isn’t entirely their fault. The top two defenseman in Pittsburgh, Kris Letang and Paul Martin, are both offensive-defenseman leaving a lot of pressure on the young supporting cast around them. The Penguins brought back Rob Scuderi, which should provide a nice boost in their own zone, but the progress in young defensemen Robert Bortuzzo, Simon Despres and Matt Niskanen is vital for the Penguins if they are going to have a well-rounded performance this season.
2013 record: 19-25-4
The Carolina Hurricanes seem to be in an odd place right now after a disappointing 2013 campaign. In addition to having incredible offensive talent in captain Eric Staal and Jeff Skinner, Carolina brought in Jordan Staal and Alexander Semin during the prolonged offseason. Despite their scoring potential, experienced defense, and strong goaltending from Cam Ward, the ‘Canes finished 13th in the Eastern Conference. They did very little to remedy their situation this past summer, bringing in Nathan Gerbe to add to an already speedy offense, and drafting Elias Lindholm fifth overall at the 2013 NHL Entry Draft.
Strength: Goaltending – It is tough to find an aspect of the Hurricanes that truly stands out but it is probably Cam Ward. Ward has been stellar since breaking into the league in 2006 when he became the second goaltender ever to help his team win the Stanley Cup as a rookie; the other was Patrick Roy. Carolina finished 14th in goals-against in the Eastern Conference but I chalk that up to the incredibly mediocre defense.
Weakness: Depth – The Hurricanes don’t lack talent at the top of their roster, but once you get past their top four forwards and top two defensemen they start to look pretty mediocre. This is probably why they gave up 160 goals in 48 games last season – they can’t compete with the bottom half of other lineups, putting additional pressure on the few stars they do have. Hopefully the development of young players like Justin Faulk, Elias Lindholm and Jeff Skinner make sure their roster keeps improving.
Columbus Blue Jackets
2013 record: 24-17-7
It will be very interesting to see how the Blue Jackets fit into the mix, as this is the first time Columbus will be a part of the Eastern Conference. After just missing the playoffs last season thanks to an incredible season from goaltender and Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky, Columbus went out and signed one of the best free agents available this offseason in Nathan Horton. There is no doubt that Horton and Gaborik will provide some solid production but it remains to be seen whether the Blue Jackets’ role players can fill in the gaps well enough. The fact is that the younger players in Columbus are already in their mid-20’s and we’ve pretty much seen what to expect from them. It seems doubtful that the mediocre performances of Artem Anisimov, Cam Atkinson, and Matt Calvert are going to drastically improve this season so it will be up to veterans like RJ Umberger and Brandon Dubinsky to elevate their games and help out as much as possible.
Strength: Goaltending – There should definitely be some skepticism regarding Sergei Bobrovsky going forward, but it is undeniable that the Blue Jackets would not have been in the hunt for a playoff spot if it wasn’t for his Vezina Trophy winning play. Bobrovsky certainly did not play this way in Philly so it is entirely possible he will be a one-hit wonder another Blue Jackets goalie, Steve Mason. Ironically enough, Bobrovsky will try to repeat his success while Mason tries to resurrect his career in “Bob’s” previous home, Philadelphia.
Weakness: Scoring – There is no shortage of solid role players in Columbus, but at the end of the day someone has to put the puck in the net. Columbus ranked 13th in the Western Conference in goals for, and their 120 goals would have ranked them 12th in the Eastern Conference last season. While they may have added Nathan Horton’s production during the offseason, they also seem to have lost Vinny Prospal who led the team in goals. Prospal is currently a free agent but it does not seem he will be returning to the Blue Jackets. Horton only scored one more goal than Prospal last season so the Blue Jackets will have to see some serious improvement in order to make the playoffs this season.
2013 record: 27-18-3
The Capitals are another team that was business as usual last season: they made the playoffs easily after scoring the second most goals in the Eastern Conference and then suffered an early exit at the hands of the New York Rangers. As usual, inconsistent goaltending led to their demise, although this year it was a bit of a scoring drought as well. In the playoff series against the Rangers, Washington only scored once or not at all in three of the seven games. Granted, they were facing a tough defense and goalie, but with the offensive power they have in the likes of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Ribeiro and Troy Brouwer, there is no excuse. If you add defensemen Mike Green and John Carlson into the mix, the former of which scored 12 goals in 35 games last season, it is easy to wonder what they need to change going forward. The nice part about the Capitals is their issue will get better with age. They already have a potent offense that, despite the loss of Ribeiro, will still look great thanks to the addition of Martin Erat, Mikhail Grabovski and the development of Marcus Johansson. Every year they get under the belt, the young core of defensemen in Washington will improve. This group includes Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Mike Green and potentially Dmitry Orlov. The same goes for young goaltenders Braden Holtby and Michal Neuvirth, both of which will be on their top of their game from their constant competition for the starting job.
Strength: Offense – This is one of the best all around offenses in the league because it has role players like Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr, Brooks Laich and Joel Ward to compliment the talent of Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer, Martin Erat and Marcus Johansson. There is no doubt they will be at the top of the Eastern Conference in goals scored again.
Weakness: Goaltending – Part of the reason that the competition for the starting goalie job seems so tight is that neither goaltender is quite talented enough to solidify their case for it. Both have had their opportunities and neither have done enough with it. While it seems that Braden Holtby has wrestled the job from Neuvirth for now, he gave up 16 goals in 7 games against a struggling Rangers offense. While 16 goals in seven games may not seem bad, it was the timing of the goals that were the worst. Holtby never kept them in the games they should have won, as they suffered back-to-back losses despite scoring three goals and lost 5-0 in the final game. Holtby must improve for Ovechkin to get his first Stanley Cup.
Given the new alignment, all of these teams will be seeing a lot of each other this season. For the teams formerly of the Atlantic Division that will be pretty normal, but for teams like Columbus it will be a whole new world. It will be interesting to see how these new division rivalries play out and how the Blue Jackets adjust to playing in the Eastern Conference. Below you will find my prediction for how the Metropolitan Division turn out at the end of the 2013-2014 regular season.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
2. New York Rangers
3. Washington Capitals
4. New Jersey Devils
5. Philadelphia Flyers
6. New York Islanders
7. Columbus Blue Jackets
8. Carolina Hurricanes
Make sure to grab Devils tickets for all the Metropolitan Divisional games this season at the Rock.