FTHN’s Metropolitan Division Preview
Despite being labeled as one of the league’s weakest divisions, the Metropolitan Division became increasingly competitive as the second half of the season went on.
The division features some timeless rivalries, including Flyers-Rangers, Flyers-Penguins, Rangers-Devils, Penguins-Capitals and more. When the Rangers earned the right to play for the Stanley Cup last season, it marked the fifth time since 2008 that a team from the division won the Eastern Conference. With that in mind, here’s what to expect from the division in the 2014-15 season:
New York Rangers
Last season: 45-31-6, 96 points, 2nd in division.
Projected finish: 1st
Who’s in: Dan Boyle, Matthew Lombardi, Lee Stempniak, Tanner Glass, Matt Hunwick, Michael Kostka
Who’s out: Brad Richards, Brian Boyle, Derek Dorsett, Benoit Pouliot, Anton Stralman, Justin Falk
Players to watch: Henrik Lundqvist, Martin St-Louis, Derek Stepan
Season outlook: The Rangers came close enough to their fifth Stanley Cup this past spring, after a playoff run that saw them oust the Flyers in a tough seven-game set, dispatch the Penguins like child’s play and beat a Montreal squad that lacked experience as well as their big-time goaltender.
Don’t count on them representing the East for a second-consecutive year, though. However, with Martin St-Louis’ leadership (that particularly shined in the playoffs), Derek Stepan on the rise and the ever-capable Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes, the Rangers are still poised to be a playoff club in Alain Vigneault’s second year behind the bench. No teams have made the Stanley Cup final in consecutive seasons since the Red Wings and Penguins in 2008-2009, and expect the Blueshirts to continue that trend.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Last season: 43-32-7, 93 points, 4th in division.
Projected finish: 2nd
Who’s in: Scott Hartnell, Brian Gibbons
Who’s out: R.J. Umberger, Jack Skille, Derek MacKenzie, Blake Comeau, Nick Schultz, Nikita Nikitin
Players to watch: Ryan Johansen, Sergei Bobrovsky, Nathan Horton
Season outlook: Yes, I am aware of how bold projecting Columbus in second place is. The Blue Jackets were a team with no quit in them at all last year, and took the Penguins to six games in last year’s first round. A series, by the way, that was projected to be a handy Pens victory.
Assuming the team can lock up budding star Ryan Johansen to a new deal, Nathan Horton can stay healthy over a full season and Sergei Bobrovsky can return to Vezina form, the Blue Jackets can project to be a dangerous club in the Metro Division. It helps the team is mostly similar to last year’s, except with gritty vet Scott Hartnell in place of R.J. Umberger.
Last season: 51-24-7, 109 points, 1st in division.
Projected finish: 3rd
Who’s in: Mike Johnston, Jim Rutherford, Christian Ehrhoff, Nick Spaling, Blake Comeau, Patric Hornqvist, Steve Downie, Daniel Carcillo, Thomas Greiss
Who’s out: Dan Bylsma, Ray Shero, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, James Neal, Joe Vitale, Tanner Glass, Jussi Jokinen, Deryk Engelland, Brian Gibbons
Players to watch: Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Marc-Andre Fleury
Season outlook: One year, they’re in the Eastern Conference final and the next, bounced in the second round (while looking lost in the process). GM Ray Shero was fired shortly thereafter, and coach Dan Bylsma’s fate was left dangling. He was later canned once Jim Rutherford assumed GM duties, and was replaced by rookie Mike Johnston of the Western League’s Portland Winterhawks. Rutherford overhauled the Pens’ roster, sending James Neal to Nashville in exchange for for Nick Spaling and Patric Hornqvist.
The team also lost Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen and Jussi Jokinen to free agency. In addition, they’ve added two tough guys in Steve Downie and Dan Carcillo — veterans of their cross-state rival Flyers. With new faces on the roster, as well as new blood behind the bench and in the front office, it seems easy to write the Penguins off. However, if the tandem of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin continue their one-two punch, the Penguins won’t fall too far. Crosby’s first 100-plus point season since 2009-10 helped him earn the Ted Lindsey Award, Hart Trophy and Art Ross Trophy at season’s end. While the Pens won’t put up as many points as previous seasons or win the division, but they’ll still ice a competitive team.
Last season: 42-30-10, 94 points, 3rd in division
Projected finish: 4th
Who’s in: Ron Hextall (as GM), R.J. Umberger, Michael Del Zotto, Blair Jones, Nick Schultz, Ryan White, Zack Stortini, Andrew Gordon, Pierre-Edouard Bellemare
Who’s out: Scott Hartnell, Adam Hall, Tye McGinn, Steve Downie, Kris Newbury, Ben Holmstrom, Erik Gustafsson
Players to watch: Claude Giroux, Steve Mason, Vincent Lecavalier
Season outlook: When it comes to forwards, offense and goaltending, the Flyers always seem to just have two of those at one time.The Flyers had the NHL’s eighth-best offense last season (2.84 goals per game), and seemed to find a solution to their longstanding goalie woes after Steve Mason finished with a 2.50 GAA and .917 SP.
But their defense hasn’t been the same since losing Chris Pronger in the 2011-12 campaign, and could deplete even further, with Kimmo Timonen’s blood clot situation. The Flyers got into the playoffs last year despite their shaky defense, but if Timonen misses the entire season, it would spell trouble for the Orange and Black.
Last season: 38-30-14, 90 points, 5th in division
Projected finish: 5th
Who’s in: Barry Trotz, Brian MacLellan, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Justin Peters, Tim Kennedy, Kris Newbury, Chris Conner
Who’s out: Adam Oates, George McPhee, Mikhail Grabovski, Dustin Penner, Tom Poti, Jaroslav Halak, Joel Rechliz, Tyson Strachan
Players to watch: Alexander Ovechkin, Orpik, Evgeny Kuznetsov
Season outlook: The Capitals missed the playoffs by three points, and coach Adam Oates and GM George McPhee were ousted as a result. Barry Trotz will now get to coach his first team that’s not the Nashville Predators.
The team’s biggest offensive weapon, naturally, is reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin, but his minus-35 rating and lack of tough situations on a team with poor possession numbers imply that he’s a defensive liability.
The Caps also boast 22-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov, who spent the past four years in the Kontinental League, and would serve as a supplemental scoring threat. The Capitals have the talent to try and return the playoffs, but it won’t be easy with the teams ahead of them.
New York Islanders
Last season: 34-37-11, 79 points, 8th in division
Projected finish: 6th
Who’s in: Mikhail Grabovski, Cory Conacher, Jack Skille, Nikolai Kulemin, Jaroslav Halak, Chad Johnson, Harry Zolnierczyk, T.J. Brennan
Who’s out: Evgeni Nabokov
Players to watch: John Tavares, Halak, Grabovski
Season outlook: To call the Islanders’ 2013-14 campaign a “train wreck” would be an insult to the entire railroad community. Between dropping 10 consecutive games in November, witnessing the Matt Moulson-for-Thomas Vanek trade backfire spectacularly and losing captain John Tavares for the rest of the season at the Sochi Olympics, it was hard for the club to find a bright spot, and even harder to believe they were a playoff team the preceding season.
The club also lost out on signing Dan Boyle, after acquiring his negotiating rights from San Jose. Tavares will return this season, and the club also added Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin for scoring depth. Jaroslav Halak is also a proven No. 1 goalie, providing stability in the cage. They won’t make the playoffs again this season, but it’s hard to get any worse than the season they just endured.
New Jersey Devils
Last season: 35-29-18, 88 points, 6th in division
Projected finish: 7th
Who’s in: Mike Cammalleri, Marty Havlat, Scott Clemmensen
Who’s out: Martin Brodeur, Mark Fayne, Anton Volchenkov
Players to watch: Jaromir Jagr, Cory Schneider, Cammalleri
Season outlook: Sure it was bound to happen at some point, but nonetheless, it’s hard to believe the Martin Brodeur era has come to an end in New Jersey. Cory Schneider earned the starting job last season, and the Devils decided to move on without Brodeur.
The Devils feature a peculiar mix of young and old players — a young defense led by Eric Gelinas (23), Jon Merrill (22) and Adam Larsson (21), but a group of seasoned forwards (Adam Henrique is the only forward younger than 28).
The Devils will enjoy the services of ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr for another season after leading the team in scoring last year with 67 points, and they also brought in Mike Cammalleri and Marty Havlat to provide further offense. Patrik Elias is also 17 points shy from 1,000 as a Devil. Ultimately, their veteran-youth mix won’t be enough to get the Devils back into the playoffs.
Last season: 36-35-11, 83 points, 7th in division.
Projected finish: 8th
Who’s in: Ron Francis (as GM), Bill Peters, Tim Gleason, Jay McClement, Drew MacIntyre, Ben Holmstrom, Brad Malone
Who’s out: Kirk Muller, Jim Rutherford, Manny Molholtra, Brett Sutter, Justin Peters, Mike Murphy
Players to watch: Eric Staal, Jeff Skinner, Alex Semin
Season outlook: The Hurricanes are yet another Metro club that went through an organizational overhaul, as longtime GM Jim Rutherford stepped down at season’s end, and was replaced by Whalers/Hurricanes legend and Hockey Hall of Fame inductee Ron Francis.
The team also hired a rookie coach in Bill Peters, who spent the last three seasons under Mike Babcock in Detroit. However, the team is left with a roster too similar to last year’s squad, and hadn’t really made any splashes through trades or in free agency. Eric Staal, Alexander Semin and former Calder Trophy winner Jeff Skinner continue to lead the ‘Canes offensively, and Andrej Sekera enjoyed a career season on their blueline. However, their talent level simply doesn’t match up to the rest of the division.
The Hurricanes currently possess the Eastern Conference’s longest playoff drought — having last made the playoffs in 2009 — and that will only continue in 2014-15.