My Two Cents for September 7th, 2013
Catching the Metro- As of the publishing of this article we are less than one month from the start of the 2013-14 NHL Season, and a week and a half from the San Jose Sharks first pre-season game against the Canucks in Vancouver. As the season gets closer and closer to it's beginning, "My Two Cents" is focusing on the upcoming season by devoting four columns to each NHL division. The NHL underwent realignment during this past offseason and will have a new look. One of the major differences from the old alignment (besides Detroit and Columbus moving to the Eastern Conference while Winnipeg moves west) is that the number of divisions have been cut down from six to four. In the Western Conference there are two divisions with seven teams each (the Pacific and Central Divisions). In the Eastern Conference there are two divisions with eight teams each (the Atlantic and Metropolitan Divisions). Last week we started our league preview with a look at the Atlantic Division. The week we are catching the metro as My Two Cents previews the eight teams that make up the "Metropolitan Division". Each team is previewed in descending order according to their predicted finish, along with a projected point total (don't read anything into the point total as it only serves as a barometer for the prediction). Without further ado, here is your Metropolitan Division Preview:
8) Carolina Hurricanes (69)- Head Coach Kirk Muller and his Carolina Hurricanes enter the new season trying to put a 13th place finish in the Eastern Conference last season behind them. This will be a task for the Hurricanes that will be as the old adage goes "Easier Said Than Done." The Hurricanes last season jumped out to an 8-4-1 start in the lockout shortened season before winning just seven games the rest of the season after February. The good news for the Hurricanes is that that will have Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty all healthy and ready to go. Jeff Skinner and Tuomo Ruutu also can provide for some much needed offensive balance. The Hurricanes have also been busy in the offseason adding D Mike Komisarek, D Andrej Sekera, C Nathan Gerbe, RW Aaron Palushaj, D Matthew Corrente, and G Anton Khudobin. However the problem the Hurricanes run into is not knowing how this team will jell as the season develops. Also a huge factor for the Hurricanes is the fact that realignment has created some highly competitive divisions, with several playoff tested teams being situated in the Metropolitan Division. The team will have opportunities to move up but will need to seize those chances when they arise. In the Metropolitan Division and for the matter the Eastern Conference, those opportunities will be few. Carolina's recent history of struggles does not bode well for them as they are with all the offseason moves an unknown commodity. When sharing the division with the likes of Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers, Washington, Columbus and a New York Islanders team that has improved, moving up in the division will be tough at best will be a difficult proposition.
7) Philadelphia Flyers (77)- 2012-13 was certainly a very forgettable season for the Philadelphia Flyers and not just because of the lockout. The Flyers for multiple reasons just could never seem to find their way through the shortened 48 game campaign and finished well out of the playoff game. If the Flyers had the other 34 games to work with that were lost because of the lockout, just maybe last season would have been a slightly different story and set a better tone for this year. As far as the Flyers are concerned, what's done is done and they want to distance themselves as far away as they can from last season. The Flyers will start the season will a few noticeable changes. Gone from Philadelphia are Ruslan Fedotenko, Daniel Briere, and controversial goalie Ilya Bryzgalov who the Flyers could not part ways with fast enough. The status of veteran Simon Gagne is at this time uncertain. The Flyers however did bring in some A-list talent during the offseason with the signings of Vincent Lacavalier, Mark Streit, and goalie Ray Emery. Claude Giroux, who possibly may be the only man in history to be injured by golf club shrapnel is expected to return around November. Jakub Voracek was a huge bright spot for the Flyers last season providing 22 goals and having the second most points on the team next to Giroux. If the Flyers can avoid the injury bug, they may finish higher than suggested here. However the challenge aside from staying healthy will be a division full of teams who have equal or better talent. Team chemistry may also be an issue here too. If Head Coach Peter Laviolette can get the Flyers to finish in the top eight in the Eastern Conference, he may be a coach of the year candidate. His challenge is before him, as it will be with the Flyers in 2013-14.
6) New Jersey Devils (81)- The Devils by all accounts arguably have had the toughest and craziest off season of all NHL teams. After a shift in the ownership of the franchise, fan favorite David Clarkson exited stage right for a free agent deal with Toronto. There was the upheaval of Ilya Kovalchuk backing out of his contract when he decided he was better off in the KHL (where he should stay quite frankly). A total of 11 players who were with New Jersey last season wont be dawning the Devils sweater this season. The Devils are also dealing with their disappointment from last season where they feel they grossly underachieved. New Jersey however also had some key pickups in the offseason with the acquisitions of Michael Ryder, Jaromir Jagr, former Shark Ryane Clowe, and goalie Cory Schneider who may be the heir apparent to replace Martin Brodeur at some point and time. The Devils biggest problem last season, much like the case with the aforementioned Flyers, was overcoming adversity. Last season the Devils only won 5 games out of 29 in which they surrendered the game's first goal. New Jersey only won three of 13 games that went either into overtime or a shootout. The Devils for all of the short comings always seem to find a way to compete. That spirit in part is what led them to a Stanley Cup Finals appearance two seasons ago before falling to Los Angeles. The Devils are a team that can be very good on some nights while giving a rather poor showing on others. Often times the Devils were simply their own worst enemy on any given night last season. The Devils will need to find ways to overcome adversity and effectively play through it if they expect to finish higher than sixth in the new Metropolitan Division. Can they do it? Yes. Will they do it? That remains to be seen.
5) New York Islanders (88)- One of the best stories of the strike shortened season 2012-13 season was the emergence of the Islanders who finally cracked the top eight in the Eastern Conference, ending a long playoff drought. Despite losing in the first round of the post season to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Islanders gave the Penguins a very tough six game battle which will give them a good deal of confidence going into this season. John Tavares is expected to be named the teams Captain this weekend and has become the true leader of this team. He will be replacing Mark Streit, who left to sign a free agent deal with Philadelphia. Matt Moulson alongside Tavares are looking to lead this team back into the post season and perhaps take the next step now that they have together reached the post season once. The Islanders in the offseason brought in Cal Clutterbuck and Pierre-Marc Bouchard from Minnesota and Peter Regin from Ottawa. In addition, the Islanders were able to sign both Josh Bailey and Travis Hamonic to long term deals. In goal, former Sharks netminder Evegni Nabokov has become the top man in goal as he had his best season since leaving the Sharks. Nabokov gives the Islanders a battle tested netminder who has as many if not more career wins than most starting goalies have in the NHL right now. General Manager Garth Snow has slowly but meticulously rebuilt the Islanders from a team that had sunk to one of the worst in the NHL to a team that now believes they have a deep playoff run in their future. The new challenge however for the Islanders now is to navigate through a very tough Metropolitan Division against teams that all have been consistently been at or near the top of the conference standings. The Islanders are still building and now have to repeat with they did last year over an 82 game span. If they can post comparable numbers and reach the post season again in 2013-14, they will know for certain they are on the right track as a team, and as a franchise.
4) Columbus Blue Jackets (92)- The Blue Jackets last year were simply the best team in 2012-13 not to make the post season. In fact, they only reason they didn't go was because of a new tie-breaker which took into account non shootout victories. If not for a bad start to last season, who knows how far the Blue Jackets could have gone. However the disappointment of not getting into the post season is something that will fuel the Blue Jackets who because of the NHL's offseason realignment have moved to the Eastern Conference. Even though no Western Conference team will ever say this publicly, most of them if not all are not sorry to see Columbus go east. Eastern Conference teams this year will find out what Columbus is all about. The first thing they will notice is that playing at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus will be probably the toughest opposing arena they play in all season. The Blue Jackets have done a great job at defending their home rink and the move to the Eastern Conference won't change this at all. Head Coach Todd Richards has done an amazing job in having this team prepared to play night in and night out. Led by Vinny Prospal, Jack Johnson, and Brandon Dubinsky Columbus is looking to break the ice that leads to the post season. The move to the Eastern Conference will not phase them and in fact will be a benefit with fewer trips out west. The Blue Jackets are so confident about their prospects for 2013-14, their slogan for this season is "You'll Want To Be Part of This." Five players on the Blue Jackets roster are ex-New York Rangers who have found a good home in Columbus and are making the most of it. In addition to Dubinsky, Fedor Tyutin, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon and Marian Gaborik have found a place where the only thing they have to do is play hockey and not think about anything else. A huge pickup for Columbus in the off season is former Boston Bruin Nathan Horton who will add punch to a very strong line up. In addition, the Blue Jackets have in goal the current winner of the Vezina Trophy Sergei Bobrovski. On the whole, teams who take Columbus lightly will do so at their own peril. Columbus believes they can be and will be a player in the Eastern Conference. Having seen them develop in the west the last few seasons, this would come as a shock at all.
3) Washington Capitals (94)- The Capitals are a team with as much star power as any in the NHL. In many ways they have mirrored the San Jose Sharks out west, having high expectations followed by dreams of the Stanley Cup, only to be crushed by the grim realities of post season. Head Coach Adam Oates will have the challenge of getting this talented roster to realize it's true potential, and at the same time try to find a formula that can carry this team deep into the post season. The Capitals are lead by Alex Ovechkin who is probably one of the top five hockey players in the world, not just the NHL. Ovechkin, 27, is now a seasoned veteran entering his eighth NHL campaign. Ovechkin, along with Brooks Laich and Nicklas Backstrom see 2013-14 as a new beginning with their ultimate goal being the Cup and NHL immortality. Troy Brouwer and Mike Green were amongst team leaders in scoring last season and are ready to repeat their productive seasons from a year ago. Along with Marcus Johansson, Joel Ward, Mathieu Perreault and Jason Chimera the Capitals have a solid corp group of players that can be counted on to lead each other. The addition of free agent center Mikhail Grabovsk will give Washington some extra punch where they need it. In goal Braden Holtby, 23, is looking to be the Capitals top netminder once again. The Capitals are looking to get past the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins of the world while keeping focus on the other Metropolitan division foes they will need to deal with. The Capitals on the whole will have their hands full all season and will have the challenge of being able do just enough to finish at or near the top of this division. The good news for the Capitals is that they certainly have the roster to get it done. Right now it's just a matter of how this will all translate to the ice in 2013-14.
2) New York Rangers (96)- The New York Rangers according to the New York media is the favorite to win the Stanley Cup. This is not news or even a reprint, it's what playing in the league's biggest media center (with Toronto being a close second) demands. The fans of the team hear this and expect no less. Playing hockey and wearing a New York Rangers sweater comes with a ton of expectation. Those expectations never change. They never will. The Islanders and Devils get a pass by the New York media, the Rangers do not. In the offseason the Rangers made changes at the very top shortly after being bounced out of the post season by the rival Boston Bruins. Alain Vigneault, the head coach in Vancouver for many seasons was brought in after John Tortorella was let go (Tortorella shortly thereafter landed in Vancouver). Vigneault will actually be inheriting a fairly decent team that can legitimately challenge for the Eastern Conference this season if not the Stanley Cup itself. Derek Stepan, Rick Nash, Carl Hagelin and Ryan Callahan are the leaders of the men in blue as the Rangers will bring a line up to the ice which is fairly solid. Players such as Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard will also bring much needed firepower to the Rangers line up. Brad Richards, who has been plagued with injuries, is hoping he can stay healthy and prove his worth to the team again. Look for Marc Staal to also emerge after a disappointing 2012-13 campaign. Dan Girado, Anton Starlman and Ryan McDonagh provide for a defensive unit that is very tough when it comes to taking care of their end of the ice. Benoit Pouliot was signed as a free agent from Tampa Bay to give the Rangers more offensive punch. Former Shark Dominic Moore returns to the ice this season as a member of the Rangers too after taking last season off after his wife tragically passed away. In the net for the Rangers is veteran goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who will be backed up by another NHL veteran Martin Biron. Overall, the Rangers are a formidable team capable of going deep into the post season. The Rangers should finish at or near the top of the Metropolitan Division. However the greater challenge for the Rangers is taking the top mantel in the Eastern Conference while staying hungry throughout the long season. Talent will take the Rangers far. Will and desire if it is there will put them over the top.
1) Pittsburgh Penguins (102)- The Penguins are one of those teams that you already know year in and year out will be at or near the top of the NHL mountain. The Penguins seldom rebuild, but often and quietly reload. Over the past four seasons, the Penguins have tied for the winningest team in the NHL with 167 victories (only being matched over that span by Vancouver in the west). The Penguins also have the most wins in the NHL over the last seven years as well. Sidney Crosby is this generations version of Mario Lemieux. Like him or not, he is one of the more driven players out on the ice. He is a part of the reason the Penguins have been so successful over the past few seasons, but he is far from being the only reason for Pittsburgh's success story. This year the Penguins are very anxious to get back on the ice after a shocking four game sweep loss to the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Finals last season. The Penguins are not only out to prove to their fans and the league that they are better than the team that got outscored 12-2 in four games, but also to prove that very same thing to themselves. As bad as that loss was for the Penguins last season, look for that to be their motivation and fuel for this season. Head Coach Dan Bylsma will lead a group out on to the ice that will not need to many introductions or motivational speaches. Aside from Crosby, Evgeni Malkin is looking to come back strong. Kris Letang, Pascal Dupris, James Niel, Brandon Sutter and former Anaheim Duck Chris Kunitz provide the Penguins with more than enough firepower to challenge any top tier team in the league. In addition to the obvious power of their offensive attack, the Penguins also bring one of the stronger defensive units to with players such as Letang, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, and Deryk Engelland leading the way. Rob Scuderi, who won a Stanley Cup with the Penguins before leaving for the LA Kings (and winning a cup there too) returns to the Steel City as well. In the net right now the Penguins have their pick of two top goalies in Marc-Andre Fleury and Tomas Vokoun. Pittsburgh is a loaded team that has more than enough talent to get back to the top of the Eastern Conference, and ultimately to the Stanley Cup Finals. Motivation is one thing the Penguins will not be lacking.
Next Week- My Two Cents takes a look at the new NHL Central Division featuring Chicago, Colorado, St Louis, Dallas, Nashville, Minnesota and Winnipeg.
...just my two cents...
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