2015-16 NHL Preview: Metropolitan Division

metropolitan-division.fwThe Metropolitan Division is still a young one after the re-organization brought some of the biggest markets into one division.

Still despite its relative infancy the Metropolitan is a division with plenty of change.

It represents the rest of the conference where there has yet to be a truly dominant team emerge from the group.

When the division was created most of the money was on the Pittsburgh Penguins to rule the new-look division.

After all they had the best player in hockey and had already established themselves as one of the best teams of the era. They met those expectations in the first year of the division taking the title and moving on as one of the top teams in the playoffs.

That didn’t last long though as the New York Rangers took the title last year while the Penguins barely made it into the playoffs finishing fourth in the division.

The Metropolitan is an interesting group of teams with some having plenty of history and little patience while others are not expected to do much.

Those teams with the history are often under the most pressure and the most scrutiny as nothing aside from a Stanley Cup is a successful season.

The Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, Islanders, and Devils are all teams that have been to the top of the league and have stayed there.

They have all had their time in the sun while the Hurricanes have only won a single Stanley Cup and the Capitals and Blue Jackets have never got to that point.hockey-sidebar

It creates two distinct groups in the Metropolitan and both are always looking to find some success.

The Rangers have been the most successful recently as they remain a strong regular season team. After two years they have sat at or near the top of the division but continue to fall short in the playoffs giving their fan base plenty to talk about.

Pittsburgh has been inconsistent in winning the first title and almost missing the playoffs a year later.

The Islanders seem resurgent but will have a new fan base to impress and that fan base is sure to have some high hopes.

The Devils remain a questionable team that has had plenty of off-ice issues to keep them distracted from putting together a good team.

The Flyers are looking to make some major changes that will finally bring them back to the top after years of sitting on the bottom.

Meanwhile the often forgotten Blue Jackets and Hurricanes look to surprise everyone by making a run and both have the ability to do just that.

Washington may be the team that has not been to the top but could get there this year after strong showings in the past few years in everything but the playoffs.

The Metropolitan division is a mix of teams with plenty of different fan bases and expectations.

Despite that anything can happen and any team can win as each season provides a new opportunity for a team to make their run.

With plenty of changes in the division this year those opportunities are more than ever as the division looks to unseat the Rangers and make an impact on the playoffs.

carolina_hurricanes

The Carolina Hurricanes began a rebuild phase last year when they brought in Ron Francis and Bill Peters to try to end their long playoff drought. That rebuild did not work out too well for them last year, rebuilds very rarely do, and it continues this year. Francis will continue his process of putting together a team that can win as big changes have already come this off-season and more could be on the way. The offence has been a major problem for the ‘Canes for the last few years and everything they have done has rarely worked. Eric Staal has been the leader of the Hurricanes for a long time now both in the locker room and on the score sheet. The additions of his brother Jordan and Alexander Semin were supposed to lift the offence and provide some depth. Neither did that and Semin is now gone and Jordan could be next with rumours that at least one of the Staal brothers will not be with the team by the end of the year. Whether that happens or not the Hurricanes need to upgrade their offence if they want to compete as Eric cannot carry the team by himself. They will look to Jeff Skinner and Elias Lindholm to provide support on the top line but after that there is not much to help out the top scorers. The defence will see the biggest upgrade this year as the addition of James Wisniewski in the off-season provides a good veteran presence. Meanwhile drafting Noah Hanifin provides the top ranked defenceman in the draft and a player that many expect to have a good impact in his first season. It didn’t stop there as the ‘Canes also added Eddie Lack on draft day providing some true competition for long-time netminder Cam Ward. He has been a solid backstop for the Hurricanes for a number of years but lately his spot has not been ensured after some shaky years. Now Lack comes in to challenge his starting role and either one could take over at any point in the season. The Hurricanes are a team still on the rebuilding path and the biggest changes may yet to have come. It is extremely tough for a team without scoring depth to compete but even tougher when that team is constantly looking to make changes. Don’t expect them to make the playoffs this year as the drought will go to seven years as they continue to try to figure out where they are headed as a team.

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200px-Columbus_BlueJackets.svg

In 2014-15 the Blue Jackets had plenty of hope going for them after a season where they burst onto the scene as a contender. Unfortunately for the fans it didn’t turn out that way as they struggled to improve on their recent success and fell just short of a playoff berth. IT doesn’t mean that all hope is lost as the Blue Jackets still have a team that can make some noise the only issue is that everything needs to go right. On offence there is little question that they are a deep team with a mix of veteran and young talent. Nick Foligno had the year of his life in Columbus scoring 73 points and attending his first all-star game at his new home. For the effort he was given the captaincy this year and looks to continue that level of play to prove he belongs as the team’s leader. Alongside him on offence will be the young star in Ryan Johansen who is past a contract dispute from last year and is ready to continue his production in his third full year. Meanwhile Scott Hartnell and new addition, Stanley Cup winner, Brandon Saad will provide some extra help on a team that now has a very deep list of scorers. As good as the offence has been they have been hampered by a lackluster defence. They are led by the veteran Jack Johnson but have some young players in key spots. In only his fifth year the Jackets are hoping for a better year from David Savard who has been promising while Ryan Murray is expected to take another step forward in his second year. Behind them is former Vezina winner Sergei Bobrovsky who once was the best in the league but has fallen off in recent years. Part of that is due to the fact that he is constantly facing shots due to the defence but it is a concerning trend as the Jackets were hoping to build out from their goalie. The Blue Jackets have pieces to be a great team but those pieces have yet to come together for great seasons all at one. The offence could be one of the better in the league but the defence needs to step up and be more solid. If they can do that they might help Bobrovsky return to his form from a few years ago. If that happens they will make the playoffs if not they will miss for another year as they are sure to fight for at least a wild card spot this year.

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new_jersey_devils

It seems like ages ago when the New Jersey Devils were a dominant team but it wasn’t so long ago that they were in the Stanley Cup Finals. Although they lost that series there was hope that they were ready to be a dominant team again. Then the financial issues came and the Devils were forced to make do with a shoestring budget that kept them out of the free agent market. A new ownership group came in last year and is attempting to dig out of the hole that has plagued the Devils for the last few years. That process is going to be a long one and it will prevent the Devils from competing for a while as they need to look for cheaper options to get their team going. One of their highest paid players is in goal where the tradition is a long and successful one. With Martin Brodeur leaving in free agency last year Cory Schneider officially took over the starting spot. He faced the third most shots for any starter last year and posted the 4th best save percentage in the league. He is the only player keeping this team somewhat together but he will need to perform at that level for another year if the Devils have a hope. The defence in front of him are promising but most are young and inexperienced. The leader is Andy Greene as he represents the only defenceman over 25-years-old. His defensive group is good but unproven as Adam Larsson, Damon Severson, and Eric Gelinas have all never played a full year in the NHL. The offence is not as promising as their young defence with very few good prospects. They saw Scott Gomez and Dainius Zubrus leave after the two long-time Devils were lacking in production over the last few years. Travis Zajac and Patrik Elias remain from the old guard while Mike Cammalleri enters his second year in New Jersey and Kyle Palmieri joins the group this year. None are terrible but none are lighting things up as some are entering the back-ends of their careers and the rest are a better fit for secondary scoring. Adam Henrique and Pavel Zacha are likely the building blocks for the offence with Zacha trying to make the team for his rookie year while Henrique led the team in points last year. Devils are still a team trying to figure things out and they will definitely hurt because of it as another year out of the playoff seems certain while a top draft pick is possible.

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new_york_islanders

The Islanders are a resurgent team that has recaptured the feeling of the 1980s when they won four Stanley cups in four seasons. They were dominant in that time and although they are not necessarily dominant now they do have some great talent. That talent will be seen by an entirely new group of fans this year as the Islanders move to Brooklyn leaving one of the most out of date facilities in the Nassau Coliseum to one of the most recent facilities in the Barclay’s Center. This new fan base, along with plenty of old fans, are treated with seeing a team that is ready to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup. The team is relatively unchanged from last year with few moves in the off-season that will make much of an impact. For the offence that is a good thing as they ranked among the best in the league last year. The biggest part of that offence is captain John Tavares who has seemingly only been getting better as the years go on. With 86 points last year there is no question that he is the leader both on and off the ice for the Islanders. He has plenty of help in Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen meanwhile Brock Nelson enters his third year and Ryan Strome his second as they look to compete with Tavares for the team lead as they continue to develop. There is plenty of depth up front with Mikhail Grabovski and Casey Cizikas providing depth scoring. The problem to start last year was the defence but the mid-season additions of Nick Leddy and Johnny Boychuk changed all that. Both will return to make up a solid first pairing that will play ahead of a good group in Travis Hamonic, Calvins de Haan, and new addition Marek Zidlicky who will provide a solid veteran presence. The group is solid and they will play in front of a goaltender that now doesn’t have to fight for his spot to start. When the Isles traded Michal Neuvirth it left Halak as the only true #1 goalie while new addition Thomas Greiss takes over as the back-up. Halak has proven to be a good goaltender but the moves this off-season means he needs to stay healthy as Greiss is a good goalie but not good enough to be the starter. If they avoid that disaster and can improve a special teams that has been surprisingly poor over the last few years this team can win it all and is sure to compete for the division.

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new_york_rangers

The New York Rangers are on a run that they have never seen before as the team they have put together has proven to be one of the best in the league. Two years ago they made the Stanley Cup Finals and last year they won the President’s Trophy. In both cases though they could not finish off the season where most though they were going to be, holding the Stanley Cup. They lost to the Kings two years ago and dropped the Conference Finals to the Tampa Bay Lighting when their offence struggled. The Rangers are back with much the same team as last year and they are hoping to finally get over that hump to lift the Cup. The team has always started from the net where Henrik Lundqvist remains one of the best in the league. He did take a step backwards last year though as he wasn’t as sharp as he was in the past. Still he ranks among the best in the league and hopes to continue that as the solid presence behind the rest of the team. In front of him the Rangers hold one of the best groups of blue liners in the league with Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal, and last year’s midseason addition Keith Yandle providing a great top four. It has been their reputation over the last two years as their defence is among the best in the league while their offence seems to disappear at times. It is not for lack of talent as Rick Nash, Derick Brassard, and Derek Stepan are all good players but can all have some down times during the season and in the playoffs. The loss of Martin St. Louis won’t help that issue as his 50+ points were always dependable and his retirement takes those points away. The new GM of the Rangers, Jeff Gorton went to work trying to make up for the loss in bringing in Emerson Etem, Jarret Stoll, and Viktor Stalberg. All are good forwards but they won’t replace St. Louis as Stalberg seems to be on the decline and Stoll needs to avoid the off-ice issues after pleading guilty to misdemeanor cocaine possession. None are going to produce what St. Louis produced but they can provide secondary scoring behind Nash. The question has never been about talent up front but rather about playing at a high level all year. They have plenty of talent but the rest of the division is better and they have just stayed the same putting the division out of reach.

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philadelphia_flyers

The Flyers have refused to start a true rebuilding process as the once consistently great team expects to win right now. They haven’t been able to do that and so changes seem to be a constant in the City of Brotherly Love. That was true this off-season as well with a 6th place finish resulting in the end of the Craig Berube era. The era might have only lasted just over a year but patience wears thin in Philly and his constant passing of the blame to his players cost him the locker room and the job. In his place comes Dave Hakstol who found plenty of success as the head coach of North Dakota bringing them to the Frozen Four six times in eleven years. The big question will be if he can translate that success to the NHL, a transition that has proved to be extremely tough throughout the history of the league. The fact that this is a young team will help him in his transition though as he hopes to develop the young talent on the team into productive members of the NHL. He won’t have any problems with one of the best pairs in the league in Jakub Voracek and Claude Giroux. Both have produced far more than the rest of this offence and they return to lead the group once again. Where Hakstol looks to have his biggest impact is in the secondary scoring where Brayden Schenn and Sean Couturier are going to be depended upon to provide some relief for the top two. Hakstol should also have a big impact on the young group of defenceman that includes one of the best prospect pools for defenceman in the league. Prospects like Ivan Provorov, Sam Morin, and Travis Sanheim could see playing time this year but for now they will stay in the minors. Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto lead the way on the blue line with new addition from the KHL Evgeni Medvedev should provide some offence from the back-end. Behind them is Steve Mason who may not often be mention among the best in the league but has been solid in the Flyers net. It is one of the toughest positions in the NHL as expectations for the goaltender are high in Philadelphia and Mason has proven to be a good choice but if he falters Michal Neuvirth was brought in to stabilize the position. The Flyers have one major question as Hakstol’s success or failure will make the difference for the team even if they won’t compete for the playoffs this year.

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pittsburgh_penguins

The Penguins have been one of the more frustrating teams in the last as they always seem to have what it takes and yet never come through. After winning the Stanley Cup in 2009 everyone thought they were going to be the team to beat. After all they had the best player in the world, Sidney Crosby, leading the way. They haven’t taken another title since that time though and injuries to their best players have pushed them to their limit. Last year they barely made the playoffs and lost early in another disappointing season for a team that seems to have everything going for them and continues to fall short. One of the biggest knocks against the team has been that they have not been able to find anyone that can complement Crosby on offence leading to a reliance on one player to do everything. They have hoped to end those questions though as the Pens traded for Phil Kessel who consistently scores goals year after year. Crosby now has an elite scorer beside him and as a result both Crosby and Kessel could have huge years. That is of course if Crosby stays healthy and Kessel can continue to get motivated after a tumultuous time in Toronto where it seemed like he didn’t care at times. Along with this new pair there will be some new faces like Nick Bonino, Sergei Plotnikov, Matt Cullen, and Eric Fehr who should all help Evgeni Malkin provide some secondary offence. The defence doesn’t look strong from last year but it is stronger than many may think as the top pairing of Olli Matta and Kris Letang are a good pair if they stay healthy. After them there are some questions as the losses of Paul Martin and Christian Ehrhoff leave some young talent that could have issues adjusting. They will hope to adjust quickly as behind them is the inconsistent Marc-Andre Fleury. He had a career year last season but there aren’t many who can predict how this year will turn out. He has been strong and has been a sieve in other seasons as he doesn’t provide a lot of confidence. The Penguins are an upgraded team this year with an offence that looks more together than ever before. That doesn’t mean it will be easy as their health has hurt them in the past even after promising off-seasons. If they can stay healthy they will make the playoffs but a few key injuries could see them out of the playoffs as they are sure to fight for a wild card this year.

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washington_capitals

The Capitals are a team that is much like some of the other sin their division with plenty of regular season success and almost none in the playoffs. The Caps have consistently been in the playoffs, even if last year required a late run, but have yet to make the Stanley Cup Finals. It seems like their offensive style of play gets shut down to easily when teams can take away Alexander Ovechkin and ruin the scoring prowess. This year they hope to change that with plenty of new additions and with a second year head coach that changed plenty in his first year. On offence the focus is still Ovechkin but he will have some new faces around him with the addition of T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams. Both right wingers will likely play with Ovi until one finds a rhythm but both are also potent offensive players that will boost whoever they play with. That should take the pressure off of Ovechkin to be the only offence and gives them a deeper team. On defence the loss of Mike Green is a big one but the defence is deeper than one player. John Carlson can fill the offensive hole left by Green while Orpik joins him to make a good top pair. The rest of the defence is good but has only been made better by Barry Trotz who made them one of the best shot blocking groups in the league in only his first year with the team. He will hope to continue that evolution into a very solid defensive team in his second year and the man who likes that the most is in net. Braden Holtby appreciated the new defensive mindset putting up his best year yet and earning a brand new contract. That contract will now weigh heavy on the starter as he will need to live up to it this year and hopes to do just that. He has proven to be a solid starter but needs to have the same type of year if the Caps hope to end their long playoff woes. The Capitals are a team built to win right now and their new additions only highlight that fact. They have everything it takes to be the champions but they continue to fail to produce in the playoffs. They will fight for the division this year with their new and improved team but beyond that it is a question as they could do anything from being eliminated in the first round to winning the Stanley Cup.

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Prediction:
The Metropolitan Division is one that is going to be hard to predict this year as dominant teams have stayed much the same and other teams have made some big moves. Will the dominant teams’ strategy of staying the course pay off? Will the changes made by other teams make them far better than a year ago? All of these question will be answered soon when the season begins but for now it looks like it will be a mix of both. The Islanders and Capitals will be in a season battle to take the division as the new and improved Caps team will push the team with a new home. In the end it will be the Isles who get there while the Caps fall just short and still make the playoffs. The Rangers will fall from the top spot after making few changes to the team but they won’t fall out of the playoffs. The Penguins and Blue Jackets will fight for the wild card and both will take a spot shutting out the Atlantic as the both move into the playoffs. The Flyers are not improved enough to make it while the Hurricanes and Devils need a lot more work to compete. This division is a strong one and it won’t be easy for anyone in what promises to be an exciting few months.

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