Better With Popcorn

2014-15 Metropolitan Division Preview

Last year, the Metropolitan Division contained a glut of average to below-average teams.

Four teams ended up making the playoffs. The Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers, Columbus Blue Jackets and Philadelphia Flyers all joined the playoff party. Eventually, the Rangers caught fire and made it to the end, only to be dispatched by the Los Angeles Kings.

This season, three teams have new coaches, and each team has a serious challenge ahead of them—whether it’s via injury, shortcoming, or unexpected breaking news.

Herein, we examine those factors.

Philadelphia Flyers
2013-14: (42-30-10) 94 points
Forwards
Defensemen
Goalies
New Players

Pittsburgh Penguins
2013-14: (51-24-7) 109 pts
Additions: Christian Ehrhoff (1 year), Steve Downie (1 year), Blake Comeau (1 year), Thomas Greiss (1 year), Patrik Hornqvist (4 years remaining), Nick Spaling (2 years remaining)

Subtractions: James Neal (NSH), Matt Niskanen (WSH), Brooks Orpik (WSH), Deryk Engelland (CGY), Lee Stempniak (NYR), Tomas Vokoun (UFA)

Injuries: Evgeni Malkin (day-to-day, lower body)

Pittsburgh has a whole new front office with a whole new vision for this Penguins team. For years, talented wingers have been an afterthought until the trade deadline. Former GM Ray Shero picked up wingers like Marcel Goc, Lee Stempniak, Chris Kunitz, Marian Hossa, Richard Park, James Neal, Bill Guerin, so on, so forth, for years.

It only worked once.

This season, Jim Rutherford, the new boss in town, decided to expand the team’s forward depth. At the draft, James Neal found himself a new home in Nashville in exchange for Nick Spaling and Patrik Hornqvist. The Penguins now possess some more balanced forward depth at the end of the day, but did they ultimately get better?

Marc-Andre Fleury, regular season goaltender extraordinaire, continues to man the net for the Penguins. One more year remains on his current deal until the new management staff has a monumental decision to make. Back-to-back-to-back playoff dismantlings make his tremendous 2009 run seem like five decades ago.

Mike Johnston, the new coach, has to figure out how to deal with this new vision. Critics could not make sense of Pittsburgh's front office moves, settling on Rutherford, an executive who resigned from Carolina after years of service and looked ready to retire, and hiring Johnston, who had been at the helm of the WHL's Portland Winterhawks.

Even in the midst of all of this, Pittsburgh is still probably the best team in the Metropolitian Division. Any team with a healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will win more often than they lose. Then again, will Evgeni Malkin start the season? His undisclosed injury has been reported as nothing truly serious.

New York Rangers
2013-14: (45-31-6) 96 pts
Additions: Dan Boyle (2 years), Lee Stempniak (1 year), Tanner Glass (3 years)

Subtractions: Anton Stralman (TB), Brian Boyle (TB), Brad Richards (CHI), Benoit Pouliot (EDM)

Injuries: Derek Stepan (fractured fibula, out indefinitely)

The reigning Eastern Conference Champions have had the NHL equivalent of a face lift. Big-ticket acquisition Brad Richards never seemed to pan out in the Big Apple, forcing the hand of GM Glen Sather to spend a compliance buyout on his massive contract. Much of the Rangers' core still stands with players like Derrick Brassard, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and new captain Ryan McDonagh in the mix.

Center depth plagued this team against the Kings in the Stanley Cup Final last season. They have been dealt a sobering first hand in this marathon game of poker, losing Stepan (17 G, 40 A) for a while with a fractured fibula. This has forced 39-year-old winger Martin St. Louis to step in and play first line center.

Any team with Henrik Lundqvist (33-24-5, .920 sv%, 2.36 GAA) in net will win games. In eight of his nine seasons, he has won 30 or more games. The only season where that did not happen was the lockout-shortened season where he won 24 games in 43 tries. He would have eclipsed 30 easily that season.

Defensively, this team does not look too much different than before. Captain McDonagh, shot blocking machine Dan Girardi and defensive stalwart Marc Staal continue to man the blue line for the Blueshirts. Truly, the only change is as follows: Anton Stralman out, Dan Boyle in.

Young guys like J.T. Miller, Anthony Duclair, Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast have made significant strides towards making the big club with impressive preseasons. Sather might have to make an additional move to fit the kids on opening night.

Columbus Blue Jackets
2013-14: (43-32-7) 93 pts
Additions: Scott Hartnell (5 years remaining), Brian Gibbons (1 year), Adam Cracknell (1 year)

Subtractions: R.J. Umberger (PHI), Nikita Nikitin (EDM), Blake Comeau (PIT), Derek MacKenzie (FLA)

Injuries: Nathan Horton (back, out indefinitely), Boone Jenner (broken hand, out 4 weeks)

It certainly wasn't the offseason GM Jarmo Kekelainen envisioned. Losing Nathan Horton was one blow. Losing Boone Jenner was another. Then a long, ugly contract dispute with undisputed first line center Ryan Johansen loomed over the team throughout training camp.

All of this after the team garnered a significant amount of momentum, making the playoffs for the second time ever. If they had a way of preventing 3-0 deficits, they could have found a way to dispatch their first round opponents from Pittsburgh. They were that close.

Kekelainen decided to bring in grit and leadership, acquiring Scott Hartnell in a trade with the Flyers in exchange for the publicly unhappy R.J. Umberger. Hartnell has a 30-goal upside, even if his footspeed was called into question. Several other returning homegrown forwards like Cam Atkinson and Matt Calvert round out a solid forward group.

Sergei Bobrovsky took a slight step back last season after his Vezina Trophy-winning season in 2012-13. His save percentage dropped from .932 to .923, and his goals against average rose from 2.00 to 2.38. His playoff performance didn't set the world on fire with a .908/3.17 split. He will need to improve on his .890/3.49 playoff performance split to make a dent in the playoffs.

Many questions hang over this squad, including, and not limited to the following: will Johansen's potential slow start due to his holdout affect this team out of the gate? Will injuries to Horton and Jenner be too much to make up for in the early going? All eyes will be on Columbus to see if they will take the next step towards contention.

Washington Capitals
2013-14: (38-30-14) 90 pts
Additions: Matt Niskanen (7 years), Brooks Orpik (5 years), Justin Peters (2 years)

Subtractions: Mikhail Grabovski (NYI), Jaroslav Halak (NYI), Dustin Penner (UFA)

Injuries: Jay Beagle (upper body, IR), Tom Wilson (ankle, IR), Dmitry Orlov (wrist, LTIR), Aaron Volpatti (LTIR)

Consistency plagued the Capitals last season. For that, their front office was flushed as well. They waved farewell to GM George McPhee and coach Adam Oates in favor of Brian MacLellan and Barry Trotz, respectively.

Reportedly, MacLellan told team owner Ted Leonsis in an outburst how this team should change. And change it did. A below-average defense saw reinforcements arrive from a rival. Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik committed long-term to the Caps, shoring up a defense corps that includes Mike Green, John Carlson and Karl Alzner as well.

Aside from having Alex Ovechkin up front, they have some other weapons too. Nicklas Backstrom, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky will put up points. Scoring won't be a problem for this team, especially if Ovechkin nets another 50-goal season.

The problem is in goal. Braden Holtby (23-15-4, .915 sv%, 2.85 GAA) has one more shot to prove he is the future of this team. Olaf Kolzig declined to stay on board as a goaltender coach due to family reasons, so Mitch Korn took over after spending 16 years with Nashville. Will it be enough to have a different perspective in a tenure with so many different perspectives? Or will this Nashville influence prove to be the true difference for Holtby? After all, this team is playing under its fourth coach in a very short span.

This Capitals team has run into the New York Rangers in the playoffs one too many times. That, and they have played in game sevens way too many times as well. Trotz's key may be to strike a balance between playoff-style defense while allowing his skill players to play a skill game.

New Jersey Devils
2013-14: (35-29-18) 88 pts
Additions: Mike Cammalleri (5 years), Martin Havlat (1 year), Jordin Tootoo (1 year), Scott Clemmensen (1 year)

Subtractions: Martin Brodeur (UFA...really), Mark Fayne (EDM), Anton Volchenkov (NSH), Ryan Carter (MIN)

Injuries: Travis Zajac (back, day-to-day), Cam Janssen (illness, day-to-day)

It will be the beginning of a new era in New Jersey. Martin Brodeur, a bar-none future Hall-of-Famer, will not suit up this season. Cory Schneider is the number one netminder. He will have no competition from his backup, Scott Clemmensen. There will be no controversy.

This was a Devils team that, if they hadn't lost 13 shootouts, could have been looking at a comfortable playoff spot. They missed the final wildcard spot by five points. They did not win one single shootout last season. Let that sink in. Brodeur allowed eight goals on 16 shots, and Schneider allowed 13 goals on 29 shots. They also scored 4 goals on 45 shots (8.9%) as a team in shootouts, further compounding the problem.

GM Lou Lamoriello decided to erase that -11 goal differential by signing Mike Cammalleri (26 goals in 2013-14) to a long-term pact. Marty Havlat, who suffered through a disastrous tenure in San Jose (27 goals, 40 assists in 127 games), will also get a chance to make an offensive impact with this Devils team. Havlat never played more than 50 games per season in a Sharks uniform, so injury concerns will be present.

Defensively, the Devils don't have many household names. Bryce Salvador, Marek Zidlicky, Eric Gelinas and Adam Larsson are all on the last year of their contracts. Andy Greene, Jon Merrill and newcomer Damon Severson are the only ones signed past this season.

This team will win on what has made it successful in years past--stingy defense and good goaltending. A shootout win or two will go a long, long way in making things a little easier on the journey for a playoff spot.

Carolina Hurricanes
2013-14: (36-35-11) 83 pts

Additions: Jay McClement (1 year), Tim Gleason (1 year), Ben Holmstrom (1 year)

Subtractions: Andrei Loktionov (UFA), Radek Dvorak (UFA), Drayson Bowman (MTL), Mike Komisarek (UFA)

Injuries: Jordan Staal (broken leg, 4-6 months), Jeff Skinner (concussion, out indefinitely)

A lot has changed with the Hurricanes. Makes it easy to make a "winds of change" reference...

In any event, Jim Rutherford resigned as GM, and coach Kirk Muller was pushed out the door. Hurricanes legend Ron Francis took over as GM, and Bill Peters, formerly of the Detroit Red Wings' staff, became the 13th head coach in the team's history. Aside from all of these changes in the front office, not much changed in terms of personnel.

Perhaps their largest acquisition was bringing in gritty forward Jay McClement. That, or letting Andrei Loktionov, Radek Dvorak and Mike Komisarek walk to let younger players fill holes in the lineup this season. Elias Lindholm, Victor Rask, Riley Nash and Brad Malone will look to make some sort of impact on this team.

Their task to improve this season became infinitely more difficult, as just two games into the preseason, Jordan Staal suffered a broken leg in a freak collision, likely keeping him out of the lineup for four-to-six months. Staal did not have a spectacular first season in Carolina (40 points in 82 games), and his bad luck has continued, putting the Hurricanes way behind the 8-ball.

The Hurricanes' strength is in goal. Anton Khudobin (19-14-1, .926 sv%, 2.30 GAA) has stolen the show and the number one spot from incumbent Cam Ward (10-12-6, .898 sv%, 3.06 GAA). Questions have arisen as to how long Ward will stick around. Khudobin got the nod in the Hurricanes' preseason finale, allowing five goals on 38 shots.

This team will end up far from the playoff picture. Perhaps this organization is waiting to strike when its younger players rise up and show they can compete. That, and when their second line center doesn't miss over half the season due to a freak injury. 

New York Islanders

2013-14: (34-37-11) 79 pts
Additions: Jaroslav Halak (4 years), Mikhail Grabovski (4 years), Nikolai Kulemin (4 years), Nick Leddy (1 year remaining), Johnny Boychuk (1 year remaining), Cory Conacher (1 year), Chad Johnson (2 years)

Subtractions: Evgeni Nabokov (TB)

Injuries: Lubonir Visnovsky (back), Matt Carkner (upper body), Michael Grabner (upper body), Calvin de Haan (upper body)

Keep an eye on the New York Islanders this season. Especially since they completely changed the landscape of their team after finishing last in the Metropolitan Division last season. GM Garth Snow shored up his blue line by acquiring rugged defenseman Johnny Boychuk and the smooth-skating Nick Leddy.

Jaroslav Halak and Chad Johnson take over as the one-two punch in net. John Tavares and Kyle Okposo frontline an impressive forward group that includes newcomers Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin, along with homegrown players Josh Bailey, Casey Cizikas, Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome.

Snow seems confident in his current group. Mostly his entire forward group is signed through next season. On defense, he has some decisions to make after this season, as Lubomir Visnovsky and Johnny Boychuk will become UFAs, and Nick Leddy, Thomas Hickey and Matt Donovan will become RFAs.

A new home awaits a likely better team in the future. What was once a team that lurked at the salary cap floor is just $4 million removed from the cap ceiling. That, and after this year, Alexei Yashin's buyout will finally conclude.

Are they good enough now? Not quite yet. However, this organization realizes where they are--in a mediocre division. Their latest moves might have put them in a favorable spot to sneak into the playoffs next spring.

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Jordan Kuhns
Featured Writer
Twitter: @MSBN_Kuhns@TCLFlyers
Email: jordan@thecheckingline.com