By Mike Ivcic and Alex Rajaniemi
Welcome to part two of our 2013-14 NHL season preview – be sure to check out the Atlantic Division preview if you haven’t already, and don’t forget the Tuesday, October 1 debut of the Ultimate Capper’s new weekly hockey column, “Double Overtime.” Today, it’s time to take a look at the worst-named division in all of major American professional sports – and the only one not named after a geographical feature or one of the eight primary directional terms. Alex, you can take the lead on this, but seriously – just how badly did the NHL botch this one?
Over/under on season points in parentheses.
1) Pittsburgh Penguins (108.5)
2) New York Rangers (98.5)
3) New York Islanders (89.50)
4) Washington Capitals (93.5)
5) Columbus Blue Jackets (85.5)
6) New Jersey Devils (79.5)
7) Philadelphia Flyers (92.5)
8) Carolina Hurricanes (84.5)
Mike, I thought it was a joke when the league released the name “Metropolitan”, it’s horrendous and I don’t understand how it was the best option. How is that better than Northeast? Awful.
On to the important stuff. The Penguins, as much as everyone loves to hate on them, are a special hockey team with the right pieces in the right places to win another cup. Marc-Andre Fleury is excellent through 82 games, so there’s no reason to panic in net until spring time rolls around. Sidney Crosby is the best player in the league. Don’t let anyone talk you out of it – you’re watching a legend every time he takes the ice. Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, and sophomore Beau Bennet is one of the best number two lines in the league – and they’re only number two because of the warlock-chemistry between Crosby, Dupuis, and Kunitz. Just like Chicago, there isn’t much to say here because we know who the Penguins are, they didn’t make nearly any offseason moves for good reason, and they’ll run away with the division and possibly the President’s Trophy.
The New York Rangers are a tough pick at number two, considering they’re using a defensive-oriented lineup with an offensive-minded coach, but you can’t argue with the talent that is on this team. Rick Nash is unreal, Derek Stepan is coming off a fresh contract, and the blueline pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi is arguably the best in the world. They have a balanced attack with a clear-cut fourth line, youth moving up the roster in JT Miller and Chris Kreider, and the best goaltender in the world with Henrik Lundqvist. Alain Vigneault is walking in to a great situation here in the Big Apple, but if his team doesn’t perform, he’ll be subject to boos louder than the Cup riots in Vancouver a few years ago.
The New York Islanders are back. They’re moving to the Barclays Center in a couple of years and the Nassau faithful want another shot at a deep playoff run before that happens in 2015-16. John Tavares got the captaincy he deserved as he’s one of the best two-way scoring centermen in the world, and Evgeni Nabokov looks absolutely vintage to complement. The top two lines will score at will – look for Kyle Okposo and Michael Grabner to light teams up with their respective power and speed. If Nabokov can keep form, this untested blueline (which may need deadline help if the Isles are where I believe they’ll be contending for an automatic playoff spot) may get off easy and be able to ride into the playoffs. I don’t want to get too excited about a team that last year cracked the playoffs for the first time since 2007, but they’re promising, that’s for sure.
Washington is a perfect team to run this division and obtain an automatic playoff bid, except for one gigantic problem. Goaltending. This was my argument against the Caps in the playoffs last year (which, Mike, you’ll remember I was quite right about) and it is once again my argument this year. Braden Holtby and Michael Neuvirth are not the answer – no way, no how. Why GM George McPhee didn’t spring to sign either Timmy Thomas or former all-star Ilya Bryzgalov is so far beyond me that I can’t comprehend it. Ovi is going to score fifty and put up 100+ points this year with Nicklas Backstrom following close behind, but if they’re in a ton of 5-4 and 4-3 games, bounces will not always go the Capitals’ way. The blueline is patchwork, although a healthy and re-energized Mike Green will be of utmost importance and help, and the Caps always have big expectations to fill simply because of Ovechkin’s presence. Can they rise to it? I believe so, but only as one of the last two or three teams into the playoffs – and once you’re there anything can happen.
This is where I believe I draw the playoff line for the Metropolitan division. The Caps are the fourth and final team – which brings us to the Columbus Blue Jackets, a team that is so ridiculously close to cracking the playoffs that it isn’t even funny – especially with the looming loss of Marian Gaborik in the offseason or at the trade deadline. Sergei Bobrovsky was the best goalie in the league last year, winning the Vezina, and although I don’t believe he’ll contend for it again this season I do think he’ll be a top 10 goalie once again. The Jackets are a balanced offensive team that gets bigger up front with the addition of Nathan Horton, they’re a team with grit and grime and a lot of forwards that can win them pucks in the corners. The top d-pairing of Jack Johnson and James Wisniewski is great, but Columbus trails off afterward. If the Jackets are in the hunt late in the year, look for a deal to be made for another forward. However, if they’re on the opposite side of the spectrum you can bet Marian Gaborik will be dealt for a very, very high price in draft picks and prospects.
New Jersey is a team that most are counting out this year after losing Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson, but don’t be so fast to discredit this team. The addition of Cory Schneider is the biggest offseason acquisition in the NHL in my book, as the Jersey front office has finally found a suitable replacement for the best (tied with Patrick Roy) and most decorated goaltender in the history of this storied league. Martin Brodeur’s swan song will not be a losing one, he’ll play over 50% of the games and he’ll be stellar as always, which is why I may be already regretting putting the Devils out of the playoff picture. Schneider may emerge as the number one throughout the season, but we’ll see. To go along with the goaltending situation, the Devils added legend Jaromir Jagr, highly-touted power forward Ryan Clowe, and Detroit prospect Damien Brunner to their offense. Losing Kovalchuk and Clarkson is brutal, though, and that’s why I have the Devils here. The defensive corps is young with Larsson still learning the ropes, but they’ll be back once again, even if it takes this year to grow.
My final two teams in the Metro are Philadelphia Flyers and the Carolina Hurricanes. I don’t believe the acquisition of Vinny Lecavalier will make a huge difference to this Flyers squad. He’s a good player, but he’s past his prime. Philly has a lot of young talent, they’ve got a great captain in Giroux, but the goaltending situation is far too suspect. Ray Emery, mark my words, will not and cannot return to the stellar role he played behind Cory Crawford last season – the Flyers don’t have Seabrook, Keith, Hjalmarsson, and Leddy. Steve Mason is a never-was starter in the backup role. The Flyers are going to put up points with their forwards, as Couturier, Schenn, and Simmonds should have nice seasons, but it won’t be enough to offset the goals against. Finally we see the lowly Hurricanes bringing up the rear. Cam Ward is a wonderful goaltender with zero help. Justin Falk is two years, maybe one, from being an excellent defenseman in this league, but his supporting cast is nowhere near his skill level. The forwards start and end with the surname Staal (okay, Jiri Tlusty should do well) and with Drayson Bowman still feeling his way into a star role, it’ll take another year or two for the ‘Canes to get back to form.
1) Pittsburgh Penguins (108.5)
2) Washington Capitals (93.5)
3) New York Rangers (98.5)
4) New York Islanders (89.5)
5) Columbus Blue Jackets (85.5)
6) Philadelphia Flyers (92.5)
7) Carolina Hurricanes (84.5)
8) New Jersey Devils (79.5)
Most of the time I like to start at the top and work my way down, but you’ve caught a nerve here, Alex. If Braden Holtby, all 22-years-old of him, isn’t the answer in goal for Washington, why was he invited to the Canadian Olympic tryout? Obviously he’s not going to knock Roberto Luongo, Mike Smith, Carey Price, or any of the other candidates out of a spot, but it would seem like your longtime friend Steve Yzerman disagrees with your assessment of the goaltending situation in D.C. If anything, I think it’s more the continued attrition of talented forwards to take pressure off of Ovechkin and Backstrom that should be most concerning to the Caps. Still, if Holtby is more like what the dozens of brilliant NHL minds think he is instead of what one clearly-overly-confident-because-of-one-correct-pick writer, the Caps should be fine.
Still, no one is as talented in the East as the Pens. Even if the enigmatic Fleury continues to be as predictable as a local television weather report (that is to say, not at all in any way) they will still be the best team in the division based solely on the 18 skaters that will dress every night in front of him. Alex, you laid out perfectly how talented this offense is – their second line could be at least 20 other team’s top line. That alone will get this team home ice for the “Metropolitan” playoffs.
All three New York-area teams have issues, some just a little bigger than others. The Rangers still need to figure out how to actually get offense out of what are supposedly supremely talented offensive players, though I’m going to assume Alain Vignault was brought in for just that reason. Provided that King Henrik doesn’t turn into Roberto Luongo in the postseason, maybe MSG will be able to host the kind of party that GM Place could not. Meanwhile the Islanders are horrendous on the blueline, and it wouldn’t surprise me if that ultimately cost them a playoff spot. I really love this team for the 2014-15 season, but every year one team takes a small step backwards before emerging as a true contender. It could be Toronto or Minnesota this year, and ultimatelyÂ I think all three teams do make the playoffs, but if any team is primed for a one-year regression, it’s the defensively-depleted Islanders. And then there’s New Jersey, which suddenly is staring at an offense that consists of Patrick Elias and no one else. Even the people running the witness protection program haven’t heard of the Devils forwards. Losing Ilya Kovalchuk was a huge blow, one that turned this from a potential playoff team to a potential lottery team. At least Martin Brodeur will get the same experience that Mariano Rivera did – a nice farewell tour and the knowledge that the last scheduled game of the regular season will, like Mo, be his last.
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up my hometown team, the Flyers. Remember, I don’t like them, I just happen to live here, so I have listened to a number of people express to me how no one quite understands just how good the Flyers will be. Excuse me, but did Philadelphia suddenly grow three All-Star caliber defensemen in the Wells Fargo parking lot overnight? This is a team that currently employs three 38-year-old defensemen. THREE!!! For those wondering, the Flyers have Chris Pronger, Hall Gill, and Kimmo Timonen on their roster right now, and that doesn’t include 35-year-old Marc Streit – their “big” offseason acquisition on defense. Their other two big additions – goaltender Ray Emery and forward Vincent Lecavalier – are also guys who have the potential to be a difference maker, but almost certainly won’t be. In all seriousness, Philadelphia actually is a really good hockey city, and as much as it pains me to say this the sport is actually better off when the Flyers are at least in competition for the playoffs, but I just can’t see how this collection of players can actually manage to accomplish that feat this season.