2014-15 NHL Preview: Metropolitan Division

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The Metropolitan Division does not have the most popular name in the NHL as many did not like it when the NHL announced the new division last year. Yet there is no other name that could describe this division any better. It is exactly that, a Metropolitan division with some of the biggest cities in the NHL in the division. New York is represented with their two teams alongside New Jersey from across the Hudson. Pittsburgh and Philadelphia also have their cities represented in the division. Meanwhile the American capital is represented by the Capitals while the Blue Jackets and Hurricanes come from two capitals of states that are top 10 in the USA in population. These cities are some of the major centres in the USA and they are all represented in the Metropolitan Division. More than these major cities being represented the Metropolitan Division is also the division of rivalries. When these teams were reorganized many of them saw some familiar faces in their new division. The Philadelphia rivalry is alive and well with the inclusion of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia in the same division. These two teams have fought it out for bragging rights in the state of Pennsylvania for years and continue to do the same as members of this new division. Last year both ended the season at the top of the division once again as they were locked in plenty of heated battles throughout the year. It is always the case with these two teams and they will get at it once again in a new season where both are sure to fight it out near the top of the division. Joining in on the rivalry is the group of the Rangers, Islanders, and Devils. These three teams have a long history between them and all have their own version of a rivalry. The Islanders and Devils have never really fought it out for supremacy with the Islanders tough run as of late but their proximity gives them some hate. They are natural rivals and as they continue to play as members of the Metropolitan Conference this rivalry could grow. Then there is the Battle of New York that follows the long tradition of every sport in the Big Apple. The Islanders and Rangers may have been on different ends of the spectrum recently but that has not stopped them from fighting it out for bragging rights in the city. Then there is the Hudson River Rivalry that is one of the fiercest in the league as the big city team fights it out with their neighbours. The rivalry is born from the proximity of the two states and their dislike of each other. It is one of many rivalries in the Metropolitan division and as the division continues to grow more are sure to form with Carolina and Columbus hoping to rise and Washington having a rivalry with Pittsburgh thanks to the Crosby-Ovechkin connection. The Metropolitan Division is ready to get these rivalries underway in a new season as the Penguins try to find their way to the top of the division once again while everyone else tries to play catch up. As is usual in the Metropolitan Division there is plenty of room to move as anything can happen and surprises are expected.

 

Carolina Hurricanes

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The Carolina Hurricanes came into the 2013-14 season with a lot of promise as they seemed to be on the rise. The Canes had some young talent and additions to the team made it seem like they were ready to have a good season. It did not happen that way for Carolina as they sunk to the bottom of the division. Playing .500 hockey for the majority of the year the Canes were not the force that many though they could be and they fell to second last in the division. As a result of the poor finish the Canes made massive changes to the team but none were on the ice. Instead Carolina will go into the new season with a new general manager and a new head coach. Gone is Jim Rutherford and Kirk Muller as they brought in new blood to try to get back into the division battle. For Rutherford it was a long time GM of the Hurricanes, in fact he was the only GM of the Hurricanes. Now he moved on to the Pittsburgh Penguins while former Hurricanes’ legend Ron Francis took over in the front office. Meanwhile Bill Peters, former Detroit assistant, took over behind the bench. The fans may end up wishing that the changes translated to something on the ice but the Hurricanes stayed pat throughout the offseason. They added few players in the offseason and elected to see what they have on the ice in a new season. On offence that means Eric Staal will lead the charge alongside the young Jeff Skinner with the team hoping that Alexander Semin can return to form. The big addition last year, Jordan Staal, hopes to step up and produce some secondary scoring but there is not much beyond him. The defence is good but not great and the addition of Tim Gleason should provide some veteran presence to the team while Andrej Sekera can provide some offence and Justin Faulk can eat up minutes. The biggest question is Cam Ward who was a Conn Smythe Award winner but has fallen far from that in recent years as he looks to find his way back to that level. The Hurricanes are almost in a wait and see year as changes could be coming but it won’t be until the new management sees exactly the value of their players.

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Columbus Blue Jackets

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The Columbus Blue Jackets enjoyed one of their best season’s ever as they started to compete with the top teams. They earned a wild card spot and took on the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. The great season ended there though as they lost 4-2 in the first round of the playoffs but the accomplishment was still a good one. They enter a new season on the rise and hoping that their limited, but major, offseason additions will push them into the top of the division and into a playoff series win. The biggest name of the offseason for the Jackets was the addition of Scott Hartnell. The Blue Jackets built their success on their ability to grind out games while providing some burst of skill. Hartnell adds to that grit in a big way and can put the puck in the net to provide secondary scoring and leadership to a young group. The biggest issue on offence is the contract dispute of 22-year breakout start Ryan Johansen. Johansen led the team last year and is clearly the building block for this offence but as a restricted free agent he will not be with the team until the contract negotiations are finished. It will be a major distraction for the team as they head into a new season and if it cannot be solved the offence may be at risk. The defence is a good mix of young and old along with offence and defence. Ryan Murray and James Wisniewski along with Jack Johnson and Fedor Tyutin express that combination perfectly as they lead the defence with some new school and some old school. Meanwhile Sergei Bobrovsky is clearly one of the best goaltenders in the NHL right now and has been a major reason for the turnaround of the franchise. He will be looked to for leadership this year from the net and could have another great season to lead the team. The Blue Jackets will have a tough time repeating the season they had last year but they are still on the rise and if they can avoid the distractions off of the ice they could be on their way to the playoffs once again.

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New Jersey Devils

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The New Jersey Devils were their usual selves in 2013-14 as their defence was the best in the league except that the results weren’t there. They could not find the scoring touch they needed to keep up with the rest of the league. For that they remained a good team but did not have the balance they need to earn their way into the playoffs. Now entering the new season starting a brand new era for the franchise. It has been a long time since the last time that someone not named Martin Brodeur started the season as the starting goaltender. Starting his career in 1991 Brodeur became the face of the franchise helping the Devils to three Stanley Cups and winning four Vezina Trophies. With Brodeur being let go by the Devils and still an unsigned free agent the signing of Cory Schneider a year ago will begin to pay off as he enters the season as the starting goalie for the Devils. He will also finally get the chance to start at goaltender for the first time without having another goalie right behind him causing a controversy. He will have the best chance to prove that his is a starting goalie as well with one of the best defensive teams in the league around him. The Devils allowed the least amount of shots on goal in the league last year and if that continues Schneider will have plenty of support. With Andy Greene and Jon Merrill leading the way on the blue line there are little questions about whether or not they have the defence to win games. The questions come when speaking of the offence as the Devils struggled to put up the points that they need to stay afloat in the division. They went about fixing that problem in the offseason when they added Mike Cammalleri and Martin Havlat to the roster. Neither have had the greatest time in the last few years but are hoping that alongside Travis Zajac and Jaromir Jagr they can increase the output. The Devils will move into a new era in New Jersey as they found their next goaltender for the future but the question is more about if they can produce the goals they need to in order to compete with the best in the East.

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New York Islanders

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The New York Islanders are another team that came into the 2013-14 season with high expectations after making the playoffs a year before. With what looked to be a rising team the Isles were supposed to compete for a playoffs spot again. That was not the case though as the Islanders fell far short of that goal and fell into their old pattern for another year. They fell to the bottom of the division in a massive reversal of fortunes from a year before. In the offseason the Islanders tried to figure out how to get back to their winning ways and tried to build a team that could compete for a playoff spot. The offseason saw the Islanders make a number of risky moves as they traded for Jaroslav Halak and Dan Boyle who were both free agents come July 1st. They managed to sign Halak who will likely join Chad Johnson to form the goalie tandem that Halak has been so successful using. They could not land their other big trade though as Dan Boyle rejected a 2-year offer. That was a big loss for the Isles as they needed some extra help on defence thanks to a number of questions on the blue line. Lubomir Visnovsky and Travis Hamonic are good defenceman but not top pairing material on most teams while the rest of the defence is questionable. The offence is not a lot better but the Isles once again looked to some risky moves to help. Adding Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin could turn out to be big for the team but they have both been inconsistent. Meanwhile John Tavares leads the way on offence returning from an injury suffered at the Olympics last year and hopes to re-establish himself as a top scorer. The Islanders were hoping that all of these moves could help them back to the playoffs but there are still a lot of questions to be answered. If everything works out they could be in the fight but rarely does that happen as they may be in for a long season once again as they may find a losing season that could mean big changes in the management of the team heading forward.

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New York Rangers

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The New York Rangers were one of the more inconsistent teams in the NHL before last season and a lot had to do with their head coach. The style of play employed by John Tortorella did not work well for the talent on the Rangers and made them a good team but an unhappy team. They made their biggest strides under Tortorella, consistently making runs in the playoffs, but it was clear that his attitude behind the bench was not enough to push the team to the Stanley Cup. So in 2013-14 the Rangers made a change bringing in Alain Vigneault to try to make that push. The move worked as the rangers found their way to the Stanley Cup Finals last year and although they lost they solidified themselves as one of the best teams in the East. This year the team will not look a lot different but there are some key holes to be filled. Most notably Brad Richards is no longer with the team as the Rangers had to let him go to free up cap space. He never performed up to his contract but he was still a key offensive player that will have to be replaced. On offence Rick Nash, Mats Zuccharello, and late season addition last year Martin St. Louis will look to fill the holes left by Richards. Meanwhile on defence the Rangers found some reinforcements with the signing of Dan Boyle. That will keep the blue line solid and provide a slight boost in offence from the point. That won’t matter as much if Henrik Lundqvist can continue to be one of the best goalies in the league. He leads the Rangers from the back and will do the same this year as long as he can get the support from the front end to take some of the pressure off of his shoulders, especially in the playoffs. The Rangers are still a team to be feared in the East as their new style under Vigneault could be the ticket for them to return to the Stanley Cup but it is far easier said than done. Regardless they remain a playoff team and a team to watch this year.

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Philadelphia Flyers

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The Philadelphia Flyers had a disastrous start to the 2013-14 season losing 9 of their first 12 games in the season. The start cost Peter Laviolette his job as the Flyers brought in Craig Berube to try to turn things around. That is exactly what he did as he was able to bring the Flyers out of the basement and into the playoffs. They fought to the end in their first playoff round but ultimately lost to the Rangers in 7 games. The turnaround gave Berube a job for the 2014-15 season as he looks to improve the team with a full season on the bench. If the Flyers could have started better last year they may have been near the top of the division and that will be the goal this year. To help with this the Flyers brought in a new general manager as well in local hero Ron Hextall, although he had little to do in this offseason. They will look to a trio of young stars to lead their offence, especially now that the Scott Hartnell is gone. Claude Giroux will lead the way with Wayne Simmonds continuing to be a great two-way forward and Brayden Schenn now in a greater role and being asked to do a lot more.Menawhile vets like Vincent Lecavalier and R.J. Umberger will be asked to continue the balance at forward where the Flyers have a number of 20-goal scorers on the team. The defence is where this team can be exposed though as they remain a porous group at the blue line. The addition of Michael Del Zotto and Nick Schultz may help things but it will not be enough. In net sits Steve Mason who is in the hottest seat for goalies in the NHL. Philadelphia has rarely had a great goaltender and they continue to look for their first since Ron Hextall. If Mason can solidify the spot the Flyers could be on their way to a deep run. They are a playoff team but as with any team how far they go in the playoffs may come down to how good their goaltender can play in the most important time of the year and if he can carry them.

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Pittsburgh Penguins

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The Pittsburgh Penguins have been one of the best teams in the league for the last few years and yet they have little to show for it. The Penguins are one of the best regular season teams in the league and when they get into the playoffs it seems like they have everything they need to move on. They continue to falter when the games matter most though and last year was not different. Finishing first in the division the Penguins moved on to the Division finals against the New York Ranges but could not get past them losing in seven games. It was a pattern for the Penguins that they desperately wanted to break and so came the new management. Ray Shero and Dan Bylsma are gone and as successful as they were the change might be what this team needed. They have been stuck in a rut as of late and a shake-up could push them out of that and into contention for the Stanley Cup again. There is no shortage of talent on offence even with the massive movement in the offseason. The Penguins still have two of the best centres in the game in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin while the addition of Patric Hornqvist adds another weapon to the mix from the wing. On defence the Pens are solid once more as Kris Letang and Christian Erhoff lead the way with a deep group that includes second year player Ollii Maatta. In net might be the only question for the Penguins as Marc-Andre Fleury has shown signs of being a great goaltender but then has fallen short at other times. He needs to be more consistent for the Penguins to perform in the playoffs. With a flurry of changes throughout the offseason the Penguins still remain the same but that may not be a good thing as new head coach Mike Johnston looks to get more out of this talented group of players. A clear message was sent in the offseason with the change in guard and that was that the Penguins do not tolerate anything but championships and if they can’t get another one this year more changes may be on the way for a team that has everything to win a championship but cannot get there.

 

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Washington Capitals

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Alexander Ovechkin is creeping ever closer to the title of coach killer in the NHL as he continues to rotate through. Last year Adam Oates looked to lead the Washington Capitals back to the playoffs and Ovechkin was a big part of that plan. One of the most talented players in the league has to be a part of that plan. Yet when Oates asked for Ovi to back check and play the two-way system he wanted the star would refuse. The lackluster defence and attitude of Ovechkin led to plenty of tension in the locker room and when two people don’t get a long publicly it is usually the lower paid one that leaves. After a season where the Caps were sitting on the outside looking in for the playoffs that became the case. Oates was fired after the 2013-14 season while Ovechkin was left to deal with another coach. Barry Trotz now has the distinct challenge of trying to make the Capitals a playoff team while keeping Ovechkin happy and making sure he can use his talents to help the team. It will be a challenge for the longtime Nashville coach but one that he is up for. Ovechkin is the clear leader of this team, for better or for worse, but he is not the only weapon on offence. Niklas Backstrom emerged as a star last year and along with Tory Brouwer provides some solid secondary scoring for the Russian star. On defence the Capitals have never been the strongest team but the addition of Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen should help them out on the blue line significantly. Meanwhile Braden Holtby has shown that the can be a starting goalie and if he can find some more consistency in his game he could be the backstop that the Capitals need to make a run into the playoffs. The Capitals have talent and have the ability to fight for the division but they have to stop fighting amongst themselves if they want that to happen. If Ovechkin can either get with a program or be left alone enough to make him happy the Capitals may be able to make the playoffs this year but unless that happens don’t expect much from this team.

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Prediction:
The Metropolitan Division will be another great battle but as usual the top teams will stay the dominant teams in the division. The Penguins, Rangers, and Flyers will take the top three spots as they did last year and they will all once again fight it out in the playoffs. Behind them will be a race of the wild card and in the end it will be the improved Blue Jackets who will earn another spot in the playoffs this time with a little more experience under their belt. The Washington Capitals will be better but their problems are far deeper than the moves they made and they will not make it into the playoffs this year. The Devils, Hurricanes, and slanders will all once again suffer more losing seasons and remain a the bottom of the division with little battle for the wild card or the top three spots in the division.

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