Hockey Headlines

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Going Metropolitan

The car to the left, ladies and gentlemen, is a Metropolitan. Like the car, the Metropolitan Division in the NHL doesn't have a lot of power, but it's possible that we could see one of these teams withstand the rigors to emerge as a champion. There has been a lot of change in the division, and this could shift the balance of power away from a few teams that looked like they may improve. Today, my esteemed colleagues in John and Neal will pick away at the Metropolitan Division with me as we look to pick a winner in what could be hockey's craziest division.

8. CAROLINA HURRICANES
John: 8th in Metro
Neal: 8th in Metro
Teebz: 8th in Metro
The Hockey News: 8th in Metro

ADDITIONS: C Jay McClement, LW Brad Malone.
DEPARTURES: C Manny Malhotra, G Justin Peters.

John: If there is a team that is locked into a certain position it’s the Canes. They finished 7th by 2 points last season to an Islanders team without Tavares. They did nothing in the way of trades to improve the team. They did little in FA to improve the team. Unfortunately they won’t be bad enough to land a top 2 pick without a ping pong ball surprise or without dumping Staal & Ward. Not sure what Ron Francis is thinking. If you’re going for the top pick, then a month ago would have been the time to deal your star players like Staal and Ward.

Neal: Carolina has to be considered one of the front runners for Tankapalooza (as I'm calling it). They very well might be one of the teams who say they "faded for McDavid". One thing separates them from some other teams in the running: this team is naturally terrible. This team has gone from one of the underrated franchises in the league to just a total mess. While it has declined, Eric Staal still has a fair amount of trade value and should bring back some valuable pieces should they decide to move him. They lack forward prospects. Hayden Fleury will be a nice piece on the back end one day, but there isn't much up front worth writing home about outside of Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner. Anton Khudobin greatly outperformed Cam Ward last year, and it will be interesting to see if the coaching staff has the guts to pull the plug on Ward as the starter.

Teebz: The Hurricanes have the players in place to take a run at a playoff spot if everyone performs. However, realizing that potential is going to be tough. The power play was terrible last season, finishing 28th at 14.6%. The penalty kill was marginally better at 17th and 81.7%, but they did manage eleven shorthanded goals. The problem, though, is they lack toughness, a real leader in the locker room, and players tend to disappear when the heat is on. Having to rely on Khudobin could prove tough, especially if the $6.3 million Cam Ward does little to secure his job. With little roster turnover, this might be another tough year in Raleigh.

7. NEW JERSEY DEVILS
John: 7th in Metro
Neal: 3rd in Metro
Teebz: 6th in Metro
The Hockey News: 7th in Metro

ADDITIONS: LW Mike Cammalleri, RW Martin Havlat, G Scott Clemmensen.
DEPARTURES: G Martin Brodeur, D Anton Volchenkov, D Mark Fayne.

John: The Devils addressed a lot of their needs on offense in the off-season, but will it be enough? The oft-injured Havlat has never been a prolific scorer, but in the right situation could be looked to increase offense. Mike Cammalleri is another player that is often seen with the team doctors. When in the line-up, he should provide a significant amount of scoring. Add those two to an aging Jaromir Jagr and you might get 100 games total out of them. Nice try, Devils, but swing and a miss.

Neal: This is a team that is starting to age and its farm system isn't so hot. The Ilya Kovalchuk contract penalties the league levied a few seasons ago only made that situation worse. With that being said, I think this is a playoff team. It's no secret that the advanced metric types loved this team a season ago. Part of the reason that this team missed the playoffs was the team's mind-boggling bad performances in the shootout. The team lost an astonishing 18 games in OT and had they won a third of those games, they would have made the playoffs. The other thing that will give the team a huge boost is the move to make Cory Schneider the starter. Martin Brodeur was arguably the worst starting goaltender in the league last year. Schneider had numbers that would have made him a Vezina candidate had he started the whole season. The concern with this team will always be if they can score enough goals, but I know one thing: Jamoir Jagr has a fountain of youth in his backyard. I fully expect him to defy father time and have another twenty-goal season. I'm rooting for Scott Gomez to have a successful tryout. It was a great low-risk, high-reward move for the team.

Teebz: This team just doesn't like to light the lamp. This is a team that will start Marek Zidlicky and Andy Greene as its top defensive pairing, meaning they'll get little offence from their blue line. This is a team that was 27th in goals-per-game last season. There's no denying that the Devils could have been a playoff team had they not been 0-13 in shootouts, converting on just 4-for-45 attempts in the skills competition. Damien Brunner, Michael Ryder, and Tuomo Ruutu need better seasons for the Devils, but it still may not be enough for a playoff spot.

6. NEW YORK ISLANDERS
John: 6th in Metro
Neal: 6th in Metro
Teebz: 7th in Metro
The Hockey News: 6th in Metro

ADDITIONS: G Jaroslav Halak, C Mikhail Grabovski, RW Nikolai Kulemin, G Chad Johnson, LW Cory Conacher.
DEPARTURES: G Evgeni Nabokov.

John: Kulemin and Conacher aren't exactly offensive machines, but I like the pick-ups. Kulemin will provide a respectable amount of offense while providing strong two-way play. Conacher has skill. It hasn't translated, but if he can put it together this would be a steal for the Islanders. Mikhail Grabovski will provide a lot of much-needed depth to take pressure off John Tavares. I think Snow also got away with a high-risk, high-reward pick in this draft with Josh Ho-Sang. Nice move to snag this kid who has tons of potential, but fell because he might have a problem with verbal diarrhea. And let's not forget they also landed Michael Dal Colle. But the two most important additions are Halak and Tavares. With a starting goalie and their superstar player back, it should be enough to lift them from the cellar dwellers. Unfortunately for them, the defense is still scary bad and will keep them from rising into playoff position.

Neal: You know it seems like a week ago that these guys made the playoffs, gave the Pens just a little trouble, and looked like they had finally pulled out of a 2000-year rut (or so it seemed). The Islanders are getting a healthy Kyle Okposo back who quietly has become one of the better goal scorers in the league. I don’t even have to mention how important it is getting Tavares back out on the ice. They also made one of the best moves in the offseason by snatching Jaroslav Halak before he hit the open market who is maybe a top-ten goalie in the league by some standards. They have paired him up with Chad Johnson who is a very competent back up. My problem with this team is depth. People saw that when Tavares and Okposo went down, and the team went through a downward spiral fast. I'm not buying the Conacher and Kulemin pickups. I don't see them making a huge contribution. Tavares is definitely good enough to put this team on his back for a few weeks and win games on his own. Eventually though, the injury bug strikes everyone and I don't see the depth on this team to stay at that pace. You could give me an argument that they could sneak in one of the wild cards, and I might believe it. I just see them fading in March and April when every team in the league isn't 100%.

Teebz: The Islanders are a team stuck in limbo. They have solid contributors, play well enough to win, but find themselves on the outside once more. They have one solid top-four defenceman in Travis Hamonic, and will need someone else to step up if they are to improve on their 28th-overall goals-against-average and their 29th-overall penalty kill. Having Halak will help, but he didn't convince the St. Louis Blues enough to keep him so he has something to prove. The Islanders also need to play better at home where they went 13-19-9. If they lose Tavares for a portion of the season like they did last year, there isn't enough left on this roster to make up for his loss.

5. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS
John: 2nd in Metro
Neal: 4th in Metro
Teebz: 5th in Metro
The Hockey News: 5th in Metro

ADDITIONS: LW RJ Umberger, D Michael Del Zotto, D Nick Schultz.
DEPARTURES: LW Scott Hartnell, RW Steve Downie, LW Tye McGinn.

John: Last season by late November they had the second-worst record in the league, and yet ended up third in the division thanks to being one of the best teams from December on. Steve Mason has shown to be a good goalie for the Flyers and their offense is very good despite poor possession numbers. The issue with the Flyers was defense and the Flyers began addressing that last season by shipping away Meszaros and picking up MacDonald. They lost Timonen, but picked up Del Zotto. What will be key for the Flyers is how the current defense will gel. In order to be a good team they will need to be the perfect balance between speed and size, skill and brute, position and puck movement on defense, and I think they have the players that can do that. They don't have a number-one defenceman, and may not a number-two guy. They do have a solid six guys whose strengths and weaknesses should mesh well. With Berube as coach and Hextall as a GM that has a direction, this team should pick up the possession numbers and pick up a position in the standings.

Neal: For years I have tried to wrap my head around this franchise. At the same time, it can both be a Stanley Cup contender and an incompetent franchise. This team could possibly have the worst blueline in the league. With the expected loss of Kimmo Timonen for the entire season, this team looks like it will count on the likes of Andrew MacDonald to log major minutes. It is also counting on sudden league-journeyman Michael Del Zotto to rejuvenate a once promising career. Vinny Lecavalier is an absolute anchor out on the ice. There is also the goaltending which was downright abysmal for stretches during the middle of the season last year. Despite looking bad during the middle of the season, Steve Mason made some good adjustments and had a very solid last third of the season along with a couple outings in the playoffs. RJ Umberger will give a nice defensive presence on the depth lines to go along with darkhorse Selke-contender Sean Couturier. Brayden Schenn gets another year to develop and should produce a little more, though he is vulnerable to being streaky. Some guy named Claude Giroux is pretty good. There is no question this team will score goals in bunches, but their defense in the end will ultimately doom them. If they do sneak in the playoffs, they will be dangerous.

Teebz: This team has absolutely no left-wingers after they decided to deal away Hartnell in the off-season. Matt Read will be your default first-line left-winger, and he'll need to play over his 40-point season last year. I like Voracek and Simmonds down the right side, and Giroux, Schenn, and Couturier provide good support down the middle. The back-end is something to fear. Coburn, Del Zotto, MacDonald, Streit, Grossmann, and Luke Schenn are the kind of top-six that keep GMs awake at night. They aren't very mobile, they won't chase down many players, and they can't be the physical force they once were. While Mason and Emery are a decent goaltending tandem, their combined 2.77 GAA - 20th overall last season - probably won't improve unless the netminders stand on their heads. If the young forwards can't find the scoring, this team will suffer.

4. WASHINGTON CAPITALS
John: 3rd in Metro
Neal: 7th in Metro
Teebz: 4th in Metro
The Hockey News: 4th in Metro

ADDITIONS: D Matt Niskanen, D Brooks Orpik, G Justin Peters.
DEPARTURES: C Mikhail Grabovski, G Jaroslav Halak, D Tom Poti.

John: What a jump for the Capitals. I know this seems odd to lose Grabovski and a number-one goalie in Halak and move up three spots, but let's face it: the Capitals' issue has always been defense and did they address that! They still have the "Great 8", but have added Niskanen and Orpik. They are now six-deep on defense and if that isn't enough, Barry Trotz, the NHL’s equivalent of a speed bump, is now the coach. While the loss of a star goalie might make anyone want to drop this team in the standing right away, I believe Holtby has enough to allow this team to rise into the playoffs.

Neal: Honestly, I don't know where to put this team. I covered in a previous entry how I didn't think that Barry Trotz was a good fit for this team. I give it all about 2 weeks before Ovechkin starts feuding with the coach over defensive responsibilities and all heck breaks loose. If the club was smart, they would try to convince Mike Green to play forward similar to what Brent Burns did in San Jose. When you have to argue whether Troy Brouwer or Brooks Laich is your third-best forward, you have problems. I would immediately make John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov my first defensive pairing. Carlson's resume speaks for itself, but I am really high on Orlov. He is someone who could actually benefit greatly from Trotz based on Trotz's record with defensemen. I’m not sold on Niskanen yet as I think the entire league views him as a potential one-year wonder who cashed in. Brooks Orpik isn't a defensive juggernaut either. If the Capitals get improvement from guys like Orlov combined with the tandem of Ovechkin and Backstrom dragging them to a couple extra wins, they could sneak in. Just call me a non-believer for now.

Teebz: There's no debate on whether or not the Capitals can score goals. They can, they will, and they won't care about how many they pot. Ovechkin will lead the way with Backstrom and Johansson. The second line is questionable, but Evgeny Kuznetsov could be the real deal based on his start last season. Laich and Brouwer will help out the kid, and they have a potent third-line with Ward, Fehr, and Chimera. Defensively, Carlson and Alzner have been the rocks, but adding Niskanen and Orlov will make this team much better in their own end. Orpik has lost a step, but he'll be more of a physical presence that the Capitals sorely need. Mike Green will be challenged this season, but he's shown he can produce. Braden Holtby is more than capable in the nets, and Justin Peters showed he can step in when needed. The Capitals should return to the playoffs this season.

3. NEW YORK RANGERS
John: 4th in Metro
Neal: 2nd in Metro
Teebz: 3rd in Metro
The Hockey News: 3rd in Metro

ADDITIONS: D Dan Boyle, LW Tanner Glass, LW Matthew Lombardi, RW Lee Stempniak, D Matt Hunwick, F Kevin Hayes.
DEPARTURES: C Brad Richards, D Anton Stralman, LW Benoit Pouliot, C Brian Boyle, RW Derek Dorsett.

John: It's going to be a long year for Ranger fans that are expecting a repeat. The Rangers already thin offense just got a bit thinner. Players like Stepan and Brassard are not ready to be key contributors. Nash has been playing like a post-concussed Lindros and I doubt he will ever recover. St. Louis is also another year older, and, with both him and Dan Boyle, we saw a major drop in production down the stretch. However, the defense is still amazing, and Hank is still Hank... most of the time. I believe that third-place through fifth-place are going to be interchangeable. The only reason the Rangers pull into fourth-place is because they will be demoralized after making the Stanley Cup Final and then not improving. They are the only team in the division that regressed.

Neal: The defending Eastern Conference champs have some serious question marks heading into camp. The most obvious one is how they will replace the depth they lost with the departures of Beniot Pouliot, Brian Boyle, Brad Richards, and Anton Stralman. While the team made a few moves, I feel like the answers are there despite what the experts think. Stempniak was an under-the-radar depth move who should replace Pouliot. We have no idea the role that Kevin Hayes will have on the team. Despite not having a real offensive presence, Kevin Klein should move up nicely to the second pairing. Doing so will help limit Dan Boyle's minutes at even-strength, saving him for the power play which needs to be improved after being brutal. Stepan needs to continue his development and be a true pivot for this team. JT Miller has to fully become an NHL player. Can Kreider keep his upward trend going? If Rick Nash has another quiet year, these will have to be the guys who pick up the slack. We all know that King Henrik will do his job, so it will take another concerted effort from the defencemen to keep things sound in their own end. I see no problem with the Rangers being near the top of the standings.

Teebz: This is a team built on a system that works. Mats Zuccarello, Martin St. Louis, Derek Stepan, and Rick Nash will carry this team once again, and guys like Chris Kreider, Carl Hagelin, and Derick Brassard will be counted on to support the big guns. Defensively, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, and Marc Staal will anchor this team's play in their own zone once again. Boyle, Klein, and John Moore round out this competent six-man crew nicely. The Rangers do need to improve their power play which ranked at 15th at 18.2%. They also need to improve their overall offence which ranked at 18th with 2.61 GPG. Both Lundqvist and Cam Talbot thrived behind Alain Vigneault's system, and there's no reason to believe it won't happen again. The Rangers will enjoy another good season if they can score.

2. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS
John: 5th in Metro
Neal: 5nd in Metro
Teebz: 2nd in Metro
The Hockey News: 2nd in Metro

ADDITIONS: LW Scott Hartnell, LW Jerry D'Amigo, RW Brian Gibbons.
DEPARTURES: D Nikita Nikitin, LW RJ Umberger, C Derek MacKenzie, LW Blake Comeau, RW Matt Frattin, RW Jack Skille, D Nick Schultz.

John: The Jackets are another team in the mix where they can make it big this season or not. They have a great set of defensive forwards and added Scott Hartnell to the roster. While not being super skilled, Hartnell is good from anywhere from 25-40 goals. Powerplay goals and dirty goals are his bread-and-butter. However, there is the Ryan Johansen saga. I think the deal gets done, so it's not a factor into this season. Having Nathan Horton for a full season will also help this offensively-shallow team. On defense that have a great mix of players, and Sergei Bobrovsky is solid.

Neal: This is another team I don’t know where to put in the standings. This team has A LOT of very underrated pieces that make this team difficult to handle on any given night. I think their depth is almost their best asset. Sergei Bobrovsky can win a few games on his own protecting the net. Why I have them ranked this low is due to the situation of Ryan Johansen. I'm not sure a deal gets done before the season which will cause a distraction in camp. The Jackets need Johansen. They have a ton of guys who can chip in with some timely scoring, but Johansen is their alpha male. If he isn't in the lineup it will put a tremendous amount of pressure on Boone Jenner who had a very solid season last year. There is also the addition of Scott Hartnell who knows how to get those cheap goals from rebounds. I think they have to manage Hartnell's minutes because he's not leaving anyone in the dust in the skating department. However, I think if Johansen signs, you could see this team could finish second in the division easily. Yes, their defense is young, but they are already coming into age faster than expected. I just don't think Johansen signs before the season, and it's the only reason I’m going to rank them lower.

Teebz: The Blue Jackets are one of those teams that may get outscored, but they'll never be outworked. Case in point? Brandon Dubinsky erased Sidney Crosby in their opening round match-up in the playoffs. Had it not been for Evgeni Malkin, we might be talking about the Blue Jackets' run last year. In saying that, Dubinsky, Nick Foligno, Artem Anisimov, and Cam Atkinson are an outstanding force behind Nathan Horton, Scott Hartnell, and Ryan Johansen... if Johansen plays. I feel the Jackets will be forced to sign him before long, and Johansen will return to form quickly. They have a wealth of rookie talent in the AHL, so expect them to interchange parts that aren't performing. Defensively, James Wisniewski, Jack Johnson, Fedor Tyutin, and Ryan Murray are the anchors on the blue line. Expect to see David Savard back, and the sixth spot will come down to either Dalton Prout or Tim Erixon. Goaltending will be solid with Sergei Bobrovsky, but there is little depth behind him. That could be the undoing for this team if Bobrovsky sustains an injury this season. Curtis McElhinney is the backup as it stands. Work ethic, scoring, and a commitment to playing the system will have the Blue Jackets flying high this season.

1. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS
John: 1st in Metro
Neal: 1st in Metro
Teebz: 1st in Metro
The Hockey News: 1st in Metro

ADDITIONS: LW Nick Spaling, LW Blake Comeau, RW Patric Hornqvist, RW Steve Downie, D Christian Ehrhoff, G Thomas Greiss.
DEPARTURES: RW James Neal, D Matt Niskanen, D Brooks Orpik, LW Jussi Jokinen, LW Tanner Glass, D Deryk Engelland, C Joe Vitale, RW Brian Gibbons.

John: And then there was the Pittsburgh Penguins. The only way I see them not making first in the division is a complete team meltdown. The kind of meltdown that saw them land the likes of Mario Lemieux and Sidney Crosby in the past. I'm not implying anything here. Yes, they lost Niskanen and Orpik, but they still have Letang and young guys like Maatta and Bortuzzo. They also somehow landed Ehrhoff for pennies. The rich keep getting richer because they work hard for it. They made a slick deal sending the dirtiest player in the game in James “headshot” Neal to Nashville for the very underrated Hornqvist. I think given Neal's ice time and linemates, Hornqvist should be able to come close to Neal's production. The pickup of the underrated Thomas Greiss, one of the best backups in the league, should give the Flower a break between starts with the hope that Marc-Andre Fleury will be rested for the playoffs.

Neal: This team on paper should absolutely roll in the Eastern Conference. We know about their weapons up front, they have a very underrated defense, and Fleury isn't quite as bad as people think he is. There is this pesky thing called depth, and that’s what dooms the Pens every time. Once you shut down their top two lines, it's curtains for them. I am interested to see how Hornquist does. If the guy truly is a star in the making, he should light it up playing with Sid. Olli Maatta will be forced to play more significant minutes this year. Will Simon Despres be able to handle a whole season as a defender? There is a decent shot that he could make the roster out of camp. The Penguins added Christian Ehrhoff who will contribute to the offensive side of the game, but I question how good defensively he can be. If Maatta can be the shutdown defender of the group, they could be lethal. The real key I think is whether or not over the course of the season if youngsters Brandon Sutter and Beau Bennett can develop as true secondary options for the team. The team will sleepwalk to 100 points just because of the plethora of elite talent. However, if the team can’t find guys to lean on when opposing teams put their shutdown guys on the stars, this group is in trouble when it counts. For all those counting on a goaltending controversy don’t count on it. Thomas Greiss has put up numbers better than Fleury, but that was only 65 career games. I’m not ready to hand the reigns over to a career backup just yet. Fleury's numbers haven't been elite, but they have not been terrible either. With that being said, maybe they should let Greiss play 25-30 games this year in hopes that he can develop into an insurance policy.

Teebz: Unlike my colleagues, I think the Penguins are going to have to develop a work ethic this season. There is a lot of scoring that left this team when Neal and Jokinen were shown the door, so this team will have to start working harder for goals. Kunitz, Crosby, and Dupuis should be reunited, but who does Malkin play with? Hornqvist is a given at this point, but do they slot Bennett in on the left side? Comeau? Spaling? Sutter is due for a big season given his play in the playoffs, and giving him Steve Downie on his wing should open things up for him. Defensively, I like the Ehrhoff signing, but this team lacks toughness on the blue line in losing Orpik and Engelland. Rob Scuderi will need a big season as the team's stopper so that Letang, Maatta, and Martin can continue to push the offence. Bortuzzo, Depres, and Derrick Pouliot will all get a shot as the sixth man. Marc-Andre Fleury will be the starter, and it will be up to Jeff Zatkoff to fend off Thomas Greiss for the back-up role. Zatkoff went 12-6-2 last year, so he is capable of manning the fort. If the Penguins can develop a work ethic, the division is theirs for the taking. If they think they'll skate by on talent alone, this year could be a rude awakening for the flightless birds.

There's our Metropolitan Division preview! Agree? Disagree? Leave us your comments on how you see the division playing out this season. I'm sure there will be a few disagreements, but that's a good starting point for a discussion!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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