Season Preview: Metropolitan Division
The Metropolitan Division houses elite stars, awards candidates and has no shortage of goal scorers – but can it produce a Stanley Cup champion?
General Manager Ron Francis still has some way to go before Carolina are a serious play-off contender again; but with a number of established players heading toward free agency there is an opportunity to make serious changes in Raleigh.
Team Captain Eric Staal is entering the final year of his current deal, against a back drop of declining numbers and question marks over his physical status. The 30-year old may have only missed eight games in the past two seasons, but has looked something of a spent force as Carolina slide towards the basement and the idea that the Hurricanes would pay him another $8.25m per season seems inconceivable, though it would not be a surprise if the club did retain Staal’s services at a more cap friendly rate.
A full year from Jordan Staal will help the Hurricanes, as will the acquisitions of Kris Versteeg (likely to replace Alex Semin, after the Russian was bought out this summer) and James Wisniewski – who will provide a boost at both ends of the ice – but much of Carolina’s focus should be on the development of blue liners Justin Faulk, Ryan Murphy and Noah Hanifin, a trio which could provide an excellent defensive core in years to come.
An improved effort from Jeff Skinner would not go amiss either, after the 23-year old fell to just 18 goals and 31 points last term, whilst the battle between Eddie Lack and long term incumbent Cam Ward is intriguing.
Ward’s hefty $6.3m contract has been an albatross around the clubs neck as the former Conn Smythe winner lost his way; but with both Ward and Lack heading for unrestricted free agency, a legitimate battle for the clubs starting role may give the organisation some much needed zeal between the pipes.
Key Player – Ron Francis
Ok, we’re cheating here a little. But as the GM of a club on the slide, Francis is the key cog in Carolina’s future. With Eric Staal, Versteeg, Gerbe, Ward, Lack and John-Michael Liles all heading for free agency, the Canes have a chance to clean house and start over if the current group can’t turn things around.
And maybe that’s what the club needs after six years of slow decline.
Columbus Blue Jackets
At their best, the Blue Jackets remain as competitive as anyone in the East, and the addition of Brandon Saad this summer bolsters an already impressive offence. But only Toronto and Buffalo gave up more goals than the Blue Jackets last year, suggesting scoring goals isn’t the problem.
Brandon Dubinsky’s return to the line up should help in this regard, while Gregory Campbell’s arrival provides valuable experience among the bottom six, but Columbus still need to be better in their own end.
An injury free campaign for Sergei Bobrovsky would help, but David Savard’s 5-year, $21.25m extension left some scratching their heads; especially with Ryan Murray approaching unrestricted free agency and the cap ceiling approaching.
Key Player – Sergei Bobrovsky
With a clear need to improve defensively, the 2013 Vezina Trophy winner will be key to the Blue Jackets hopes this year. Another strong campaign from Bobrovsky would almost certainly see them back in the play-off hunt, assuming the same injury problems don’t hit the franchise again.
New Jersey Devils
Defensively they are sound. Cory Schneider is a top tier netminder, Eric Gelinas a strong prospect and Adam Larsson may finally be living up to some of the potential New Jersey saw when they selected him 4th overall in 2011. But offensively they are suspect.
Only Buffalo and Arizona scored fewer goals than the Devils last season, and it’s hard to see that improving. Kyle Palmieri and Jiri Tlusty are useful additions, but only Mike Cammalleri scored 20 goals last year, and no one broke the 50 point barrier.
Rumours continue to circulate that Travis Zajac might be traded to Toronto, but the return is far from clear and even if they did net Joffrey Lupul or James Van Riemsdyk; but short of a generational talent, one player cannot turn the clubs ailing offence around.
Ray Shero once managed two of the best players in the world – right now he’d settle for a couple of 20 goal scorers.
Key Player – Cory Schneider
Leaned on heavily last term, the 29-year old will need to remain at his best if the goal shy Devils are to have any hope of challenging for the post season this year.
New York Islanders
The arrivals of Jaroslav Halak, Johnny Boychuk and Nick Leddy solidified a previously porous blue line, while Captain John Tavares has become a perennial Hart Trophy candidate. The key now is to continue that momentum.
Brock Nelson and Anders Lee both scored 20 goals last season, Ryan Strome registered 50 points while trading speedy winger Michael Grabner to Toronto provided some much needed cap space for GM Garth Snow to use when talking contract extensions with Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen and Strome.
After years in the basement, the Islanders finally seem to be getting their ducks in a row – but the clubs brilliant offensive effort cannot hide the fact the club’s 230 goals against was the highest among all play-off qualifiers and, although a marked improvement on previous defensive efforts, that may still be their Achilles heel.
Key Player – John Tavares
That Tavares does not have a major honour to his name at this point feels wrong. No player, outside of perhaps Alexander Ovechkin, has been more valuable to his team than Tavares to the Islanders in the past few years, developing from a quiet but talented youngster in to one of the games elite talents and the face of a franchise.
New York Rangers
In the past four seasons, the Rangers have been to two Conference Finals, a Stanley Cup Final and won the Presidents Trophy; and whilst some have pondered how long their run at the top can last, it’s hard to envisage the club falling away this season.
Rick Nash re-discovered his scoring touch last year, netting 42 goals, and though New York will need to find a way to replace Martin St. Louis’ 21 goals and 52 points, the continued progression of Chris Kreider and Kevin Hayes should help balance things out.
Carl Hagelin’s departure hurts the Rangers depth, but Emerson Etem is not without his upside while a full season from Keith Yandle will bolster a blue line which occasionally had mobility and health problems last year.
Key Player – Rick Nash
Hitting the 40 goal marker for the first time since 2008/09, Nash looked like his old self last season – setting new personal bests in both goals and points during the campaign.
While 40 goal seasons don’t grow on trees, the Brampton, Ontario native does need to become a regular 30 goal scorer again if the Rangers are to maintain their position as Cup contenders.
Occasionally brilliant, Philadelphia simply had too many nights off last season, and their 10-20-11 road record was amongst the worst in the league. But this is still a club with talent, though heading in to the new season there are clear issues.
Philadelphia’s offensive output was moderate at best – which might explain why Jakub Voracek’s 81 points earned him such a massive pay rise. The club simply got over excited. And while the Czech wingers new $8.25m deal doesn’t kick in until next year, it won’t help the clubs cap situation, as the Flyers grapple with just $583K in cap space this term and still have the millstone of Vincent Lecavalier’s $4.5m deal hanging around their neck.
This cap crunch may cost them the services of Brayden Schenn, an RFA next summer who is rumoured to be available, whilst brother Luke heads for unrestricted free agency and Sam Gagner enters the last chance saloon. General Manager Ron Hextall might be able to make the sums add up, but what sort of team stands at the end of it remains to be seen.
The real shame in all this is that Philadelphia seem to have finally addressed their goaltending woes thanks to Steve Mason’s resurgence, only to have dug themselves in to a different hole.
Key Player – Claude Giroux
At one point, not too long ago, Giroux was considered to be one of the best centre’s in the league and scored at more than a point per game.
Whilst last years 25 goals and 73 points should not be sniffed at, it did represent a step back for the Flyers Captain. One Philadelphia will be keen to reverse this season if they are to extend their campaign in to the spring again.
Adding Phil Kessel to the line up may just give the Penguins the strongest top six in the NHL, assuming everything clicks. The idea of Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin feeding Kessel seems like a recipe for a 40-goal scorer in theory, and it may become a reality away from the ridiculous scrutiny of the Toronto media, but Pittsburgh have done ‘high powered’ before.
The additions of Eric Fehr and Nick Bonino, albeit at the expense of the increasingly impressive Brandon Sutter, flesh out the previously hollow bottom six – which might be the most important change of all for the Penguins.
This is still a team with questions to answer on defence however, especially if Kris Letang goes down again, and that creaking bottom six will remain a problem when Pittsburgh come up against rivals with a much deeper pool of talent.
Key Player – Marc-Andre Fleury
Fleury’s regular season play has rarely been a concern, which is just as well given the Penguins injury troubled blue line and questionable bottom six. Having made the cut by just two points last season, revving up the top six is no guarantee of success and the Quebec native will need to remain at his best if the Penguins are to emerge from an increasingly competitive Division.
Back-to-back 50 goal campaigns have affirmed Alexander Ovechkin’s status as the games best goal scorer, while line mate Nicklas Backstrom has become one of the games best play makers. With Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky making strides and TJ Oshie and Justin Williams moving to the US capital this summer, Washington has a group of forwards capable of mixing it up with anyone in the East.
Even the occasionally questioned defence founds its rhythm last year, and Philipp Grubauer’s presence should afford Braden Holtby a few more nights off this year, having played in a league high 73 games last season.
But the Capitals remain a team that have struggled to get over the hill. In three of the last four seasons they’ve been eliminated by the New York Rangers (they missed the play-offs entirely in 2013/14) and are yet to progress beyond the Conference semi-final stage during the ‘Ovechkin era’.
Williams established a reputation as a big game player, whilst Barry Trotz has certainly helped solidify the blue line, but these changes need to start counting for something more tangible if the franchise is to capitalise on arguably the most talented roster in team history.
Key Player – Justin Williams
Winner of three Stanley Cups and a Conn Smythe, Williams was one of the biggest names available via free agency this summer courtesy of his play-off efforts with Los Angeles.
On a team that has struggled to bring its A game to the post season, his influence could be invaluable if Washington are to buck their trend and compete for a Cup.
Posted on September 29, 2015, in Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, NHL, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Season Previews 2015, Washington Capitals and tagged Carolina Hurricanes, Columbus Blue Jackets, Hockey, New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders, New York Rangers, NHL, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Season Preview, Washington Capitals. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.