Albeit a little after the regular season has started, with the season only a few weeks old, I offer my predictions for the regular season finish for the Metropolitan Division of the Eastern Conference in the National Hockey League (NHL).
Although I provide my predictions in order of finish in the division, as anyone who closely follows the NHL, it’s not about where you finish the regular season – although winning the division and possibly the best record in the Eastern Conference, thus clinching home ice advantage throughout, never hurts – it’s all about qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs where anything can happen and usually does.
Without further ado, here’s how I predict the regular season standings in the Metropolitan Division will pan out:
1) Pittsburgh Penguins – for the Penguins, there were sweeping changes, primarily in their front office, where General Manager (GM) Ray Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma were both ousted after the Penguins were shockingly eliminated by the New York Rangers after blowing a 3-1 series lead and fought for survival against the upstart Columbus Blue Jackets, eventually prevailing four games to two. The seismic change actually had more to do with the Pens being eliminated in five consecutive Stanley Cup playoffs by a lower seed. Fair or unfair, this lack of playoff success and Stanley Cup glory is unacceptable to the Pens fan base as well as its owner, the legendary Mario Lemieux and especially so when you possess arguably the greatest player on the planet in Sidney Crosby and one of the top five players in Evgeni Malkin. After several seasons in the Shero regime, disappointing playoff eliminations, the inability to build the bottom six forward lines, develop a pipeline of prospects and an overall lack of toughness and a competitive fire led to a change in management and the direction of the Pens, particularly as the window of opportunity is beginning to close as both Crosby and Malkin begin to approach their 30s.
Enter Jim Rutherford, former Pens goalie from the early years, and recently the GM of the Carolina Hurricanes. Rutherford was hired to make the necessary changes to the organization, but was also brought in to serve as a mentor to his successor as he indicated during his introductory press conference. While Crosby and Malkin remain, there were several changes for the Penguins: gone are forward James Neal (trade) and defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen to free agency, enter Patric Hornqvist, Steve Downie, Nick Spaling and Blake Comeau to bring both scoring and toughness to the forward lines and the free agent acquisition of elite defenseman Christian Ehrhoff who will greatly benefit the Pens already-lethal power play as well as obtaining a reliable young backup goaltender in Thomas Greiss. Aside from a new identity, the Pens playoff fortunes will rise or fall depending on the performance of Marc-Andre Fleury, who while playing far better than the prior three disastrous playoffs, has not resembled the stonewall goalie of the 2009 Stanley Cup championship year. So, while the Penguins should finish first in the Metropolitan Division, there will be a definite ‘wait and see’ skepticism during the Stanley Cup playoffs.
2) New York Rangers – the darlings of Broadway finally fulfilled the promise of prior seasons as well as their burgeoning payroll by representing the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup finals after an unexpected playoff run through the likes of the Philadelphia Flyers, the upset of the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Montreal Canadiens. However, they lost in the finals to the reigning Stanley Cup champions, the LA Kings, losing four games to one. Now the goal and struggle is to avoid a Stanley Cup hangover, particularly after letting Brad Richards go via a compliance buyout, although his numbers and performance had slipped, precipitously during the past season as well as not resigning playoff stalwart Anton Stralman or Benoit Pouliot, who posted 15 goals. The Blueshirts were able to bring in Lee Stempniak as well as defenseman Dan Boyle to replace Stralman but they will need time to adjust to coach Alain Vigneault’s up-tempo system as did last year’s team.
Henrik Lundquist returns in net for the Rangers and finally was able to display his skills as one of the greatest goalies in the world during the Stanley Cup playoffs, carrying the Rangers through the finals. Rick Nash had a disappointing inaugural season in the Big Apple and an even more disappointing playoff performance. With his $8 million per season tag, much more is expected of the power forward although so far this season, he is delivering but he is a streaky scorer so he must avoid lulls to keep the Rangers faithful from pouncing on him when he struggles. Martin St-Louis returns after the trade from the Lightning and he was a ‘man on a mission’, particularly during the Stanley Cup playoffs when he carried the Rangers in scoring, especially with key, game-winning goals. Mats Zuccarello had a breakout season for the Rangers and his continued track is critical to the success of the team. For the Rangers to avoid any potential hangover, they have to be able to score more goals in order to take pressure off of Lundquist who has to be on all cylinders, game-in and game-out.
3) Columbus Blue Jackets – were I to predict this during their inaugural season in the Metropolitan Division, last season, calls for a random drug test would have been made and would have been warranted. However, a year makes an incredible difference and definitely so with the Blue Jackets. Since the arrival of Team President of Hockey Operations John Davidson and GM Jarmo Kekalainen, the Blue Jackets have ascended to the heights of respectability, particularly in the Metropolitan Division and throughout the NHL. This ascent was evident during their heart-stopping 1st round Stanley Cup playoff series against the heavily-favored Penguins, where the Blue Jackets took each game to the brink until eventually falling, four games to two.
Under the tutelage of Kekalainen, the Blue Jackets, the NHL’s youngest team, have developed an identity as a brutally tough team to play against, reminiscent of the identity of Davidson and Kekalainen when they developed the Blues from the depths to one of the best teams in the NHL as well as the style necessary for survival when previously playing in the Western Conference. The Blue Jackets may be more of a lunch pail group, but in adding scoring depth and skill with his young cadre of forwards in Alexander Wennberg, Cam Atkinson, Boone Jenner and Marko Dano, as well as the off-season acquisition of Scott Hartnell, the Blue Jackets, who finished 12th during the regular season in goals scored, will be able to compliment one of the rising stars in the NHL in Ryan Johansen who finally agreed to a contract after a lengthy holdout, missing the entire pre-season and training camp but so far shows no effects of any layoff. Their blueline is solid and has added two young defensemen in Tim Erixon and Cody Goloubef. In goal, 2013 Vezina Trophy recipient Sergei Bobrovsky returns and showed no signs of a post-Vezina hangover, posting a solid Goals Against Average (GAA – 2.38) and Save Percentage (Save% – .923), particularly after returning from a groin injury and of even greater importance during their Stanley Cup playoff push. Of particular concern are the early-season rash of injuries to key players such as Brandon Dubinsky, Jenner and Ryan Murray as is the uncertainty of whether Nathan Horton can return to playing, due to a degenerative back condition. So long as the injury bug doesn’t continue throughout the season, the Blue Jackets should continue to rise as a Metropolitan Division, Eastern Conference and NHL power. As the song says, “the future looks bright” for the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Where this prediction gets tricky is due to the current rash of injuries to several of the Blue Jackets’ top six forwards, thus digging a major hole as was the case the past two seasons: Brandon Dubinsky, Jenner, Bobrovsky, Nathan Horton (degenerative disc condition), Artem Anisimov, Bobrovsky, James Wisniewski and Matt Calvert. Playing the law of averages, the Blue Jackets are trending upward. However, should this plethora of key player injuries continue, the impact of playing out of another deep hole could easily cause them to miss the playoffs.
4) Washington Capitals – after missing the playoffs for the first time in six seasons and after countless disappointments in the Stanley Cup playoffs, with various iterations of head coaches, the Caps have made a seismic change amongst their brass, promoting Brian MacLellan after firing George McPhee and bringing in former Nashville head coach Barry Trotz to reshape and re-forge the Capitals into a Stanley Cup playoff and championship contender, before legendary sniper Alexander Ovechkin’s ‘window of opportunity’ has passed. Ovechkin, of course, is back as are Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov, the highly regarded phenom who impressed during his brief, 17-game NHL stint, last season. Two major personnel changes were made on the Caps blueline in acquiring via Free Agency Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen from the Penguins. The Orpik acquisition caused quite a stir from the pundits given his age versus the amount of the long-term deal but bringing in both defensemen should add some toughness and Niskanen brings some offensive upside with the hope of resurrecting Mike Green’s offensive game with his defensive pairing partner, John Carlson.
But perhaps the biggest improvement to the Caps, as part of Trotz bringing his defense-first coaching approach, was brining his goalie guru, Mitch Korn, to foster the development of their starting goalie, Braden Holtby who struggled last season, primarily due to constant tinkering of his technique by the previous coaching staff. Korn has worked wonders with Nashville’s netminders such as Pekka Rinne, Anders Lindback and Chris Mason and under his tutelage, along with an improved blueline and hopefully a commitment from Ovechkin and company should result in not only a return to the playoffs but a team who should prove a worthy playoff test for their opponents.
5) New York Islanders – some pundits are expecting the Isles to be the breakout surprise of this season after making several stellar acquisitions in the off-season, namely Johnny Boychuck and Nick Leddy on defense and former Maple Leafs linemates Nikolai Kulemin and Mikhail Grabovski to their 2nd forward line. The Isles also acquired the rights to Jaroslav Halak from the Washington Capitals who possesses a solid career winning record with stops at Montreal and St. Louis as well as picking up former Bruins backup Chad Johnson who was stellar when spelling elite starting goalie Tuukka Rask.
The best news for the Islanders, of course, is the return from a Winter Olympics games injury by their superstar, John Tavares. Tavares will be reunited with linemates Kyle Okposo and Michael Grabner to form a lethal top forward line and Ryan Strome is emerging as a player to watch on the 2nd line. If Tavares can stay healthy and young blueline players like Calvin De Haan and Travis Hamonic continue to progress, the Isles could be the Metropolitan Division’s biggest surprise. Where the Isles might fall short is in having their new players jelling and becoming acclimated with their new system and surrounding personnel much like the Blue Jackets experienced two seasons ago where their late season surge fell just short.
6) Philadelphia Flyers – this prediction should cause a great deal of consternation in the ‘City of Brotherly Love’, but the Flyers have been a team saddled with inconsistency – case in point, their horrid start and furious finish to qualify for the playoffs – and salary cap impingements. Longtime Flyers General Manager (GM) Paul Holmgren was shifted to the team President of Hockey Operations and Assistant GM Ron Hextall was promoted to GM and their one off-season trade, trading ‘heart and soul’ forward Scott Hartnell to the Blue Jackets for former Flyers forward RJ Umberger didn’t exactly generate a lot of excitement. The Flyers also have an aging blueline with an average age over 30 years of age with stalwarts Kimmo Timonen at 39 and Mark Streit at 36 and, given Timonen was relatively healthy for the first time in quite a while, expecting another healthy season might be quite a stretch.
Goaltender Steve Mason was quite a surprise for the Flyers after struggling for several years with the Blue Jackets after his Calder Trophy-winning season in 2009. He appears to have found both a home in Philadelphia as well as a comfort level with his goalie coach, Jeff Reese and backup, Ray Emery and he support each other and coexist quite successfully. But their ranking of 28th in the NHL in goals allowed is a definite concern and limiting factor, goaltender harmony, aside. The Flyers offense is as potent as any team in the NHL, led by captain Claude Giroux as well as Jakub Voracek and emerging star Wayne Simmonds. Qualifying for the Stanley Cup playoffs is by no means out of the question, but an aging defense and its salary cap impingements make any Stanley Cup march a dicey proposition.
7) New Jersey Devils – ‘The Future is Now’ ways – a continued insistence of relying on aging veterans versus building their development system with an infusion of youth – of the Devils, along with the remnants of the Ilya Kovalchuck contract and eventual defection to the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) have had a systematic and descending effect on the Devils who, while narrowly missing the playoffs also displayed a lack of scoring prowess and overall skill as evidenced by their 0-13 record in shootouts, last season. A few shootout wins could have easily led to qualifying for the playoffs, but it’s a regressing trend that the 2012 Eastern Conference and Stanley Cup finalists find themselves in. Martin Brodeur, perhaps the greatest goalie in the history of the NHL, finally retired after struggling during his swan song season. However, Brodeur’s retirement did allow Cory Schneider the opportunity to finally assume the reigns of the workhorse, starting netminder. Schneider is considered one of the top, young goalies in the NHL and the uncertainty of assuming the reigns impinged both his development and that of the Devils organization. Now, it is his job to keep and that should create some stability for both Schneider and the Devils.
Ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr who, at 41 years of age, shows no signs of slowing down after easily pacing the Devils scoring with 67 points leads their offensive attack. Jagr also finally received some offensive support in the person of Mike Cammalleri who should provide about 25 goals per season which, for the Devils, would have tied him with Adam Henrique in goals scored, last season and a large part as to why they finished the regular season rankings at 27th in goals scored per game. This lack of offensive firepower was the primary reason the Devils were the only team ranked in the NHL’s top 13 in fewest goals allowed per game that didn’t make the playoffs (6th) and, beyond Stefan Matteau, there are no young prospects in the Devils developmental pipeline who are slated to be brought up the parent squad within the next few seasons. If the Devils can ‘get the band back together’, offensively to some extent, it’s possible that the Devils can surprise but, it appears that this season will mark a descent for the Devils, or a signal for Devils GM Lou Lamoriello, to either begin the rebuild or risk being on the ‘hot seat’ to retain his job, especially with a new ownership group that’s not afraid to spend the money to make the Devils competitive.
8) Carolina Hurricanes – The Canes represent the example of a team who, while not afraid to shell out money for its premier players, have not seen the type of return on their investment that should have been expected. $27 million, or over 1/3rd of the Canes total team salary cap, is allocated to four forwards: Eric Staal, his brother Jordan, Alexander Semin and Jeff Skinner who, while netting 91 goals, last season, it’s not the kind of return that similar investments have yielded with other NHL squads. Much more is expected of this foursome and, unless there’s a seismic improvement for the Staal’s and Semin as Skinner potted 33 goals, a trade to break up the current, sagging mix is imminent. Their blueline, particularly their top defensive pairing of U.S. Olympian Justin Faulk and Andrej Sekera is solid and if Ryan Murphy can deliver on his promise, particularly on the Canes power play, their defensive unit can keep them in most games.
In net, Anton Khudobin was rewarded with a two-year contract extension after replacing longtime starter Cam Ward in net, but it remains to be seen if Khudobin is the type of workhorse goalie that can carry a team through the grind and remain healthy doing so. Khudobin’s ascent has made Ward expendable but it may be difficult to move the oft-injured Ward, particularly with his hefty salary and salary cap hit.
Well, those are my predictions for this upcoming Metropolitan Division race. No matter the outcome, it should be an interesting race as many teams will be bunched up, competing for Stanley Cup playoff spots.