With Labor Day serving as the symbolic end of summer and training camps throughout the NHL set to begin in less than two weeks, we can fully turn our attention towards the 2013-14 season, which for me means resuming my life's work: writing about watching other people exercise.
This season, the Washington Capitals will exercise in a new division: the Metropolitan Division. Gone is the Southeast Division (1998-2013), where the Capitals collected seven division titles and had the luxury of playing the Florida Panthers six times a season. In its place stands the reconstituted Patrick Division (plus the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets), which Capitals fans have romanticized and longed for since they had to watch their team regularly play the Florida Panthers, who are taking a beating in this introduction.
Anyway, each team in the Metropolitan Division will play its division rivals 30 times this season, so as they prepare to further familiarize themselves with each other, you can do the same.
Below, I have provided you with the most comprehensive Metropolitan preview ever The teams are listed in order of how I believe they will finish in the standings come April (by the way, under the NHL's new playoff format, the top three teams in each division automatically qualify).
Learn it. Know it. Live it.
Last season: 36-12-0, first in Atlantic Division, lost in four games to Bruins in Eastern Conference final round
Notable off-season additions: F Matt D'Agostini (free agency via New Jersey), D Rob Scuderi (free agency via Los Angeles)
Notable off-season subtractions: F Jarome Iginla (free agency to Boston), F Tyler Kennedy (traded to San Jose), F Matt Cooke (free agency to Minnesota), F Brenden Morrow (free agency), D Douglas Murray (free agency to Montreal)
Outlook: Even as they ran roughshod over the rest of the Eastern Conference, the Penguins felt as if they needed some reinforcements heading into a potential Stanley Cup run, so GM Ray Shero added veterans Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray to a team already stacked with talent.
That did not work out so well. The Penguins, the NHL's highest-scoring team at 3.38 goals per game during the regular season, scored twice in over 260 minutes of hockey -- the second fewest ever in an NHL playoff series of four or more games -- as the Bruins unceremoniously swept them out of the playoffs.
Despite that startling hiccup, Pittsburgh did not panic, dumping its rentals into the free agency drop box and signing key contributors Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis to long-term extensions. Including Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, the Penguins employ three of the NHL's top 15 goal scorers and two of the top 10 points leaders from last season. Yeah, I think they are going to be okay.
While the top six is more or less set (Beau Bennett should get the first crack at filling the last remaining hole), the bottom six is in flux. Gone are Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy, who along with Jordan Staal made up the league's most potent third line a few seasons ago. Jussi Jokinen, Brandon Sutter and newcomer Matt D'Agostini will do their best to replicate their predecessors' success.
Defensively, bringing back Rob Scuderi only makes Pittsburgh's unit stronger. He and Kris Letang provide the Penguins with a balanced twosome, while Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin, who could very well be one of Team USA's defensive pairs under Pittsburgh/USA head coach Dan Bylsma, make for a formidable shutdown pair behind them.
In goal, the Penguins will give Marc-Andre Fleury one more chance to prove that the goaltender who once backstopped them to a Stanley Cup is still somewhere inside of him. Since winning the Cup with a 2.61 GAA and .908 SV% in 2009, Fleury has not finished the postseason with a save percentage over .900 since (his average over the last four postseasons is .880). The regular season has never been a problem for "Flower," whose 173 regular-season wins make him the winningest active goaltender since 2008-09; it is in the playoffs where he has wilted in recent years. And here I thought flowers were supposed to bloom in spring.
It is more or less a formality that the Penguins will once again challenge for a Stanley Cup this season, but if Fleury gets chased and replaced by Tomas Vokoun again when it counts, his tenure in Pittsburgh will likely be all but over.
New York Rangers
Last season: 26-18-4, second in Atlantic Division, lost in five games to Bruins in Eastern Conference semifinal round
Notable off-season additions: F Benoit Pouliot (free agency via Tampa Bay), F Dominic Moore (free agency via San Jose), head coach Alain Vigneault (fired by Vancouver)
Notable off-season subtractions: F Ryane Clowe (free agency to New Jersey), head coach John Tortorella (hired by Vancouver)
Outlook: The Rangers essentially return the same roster from last season, but the arrival of Alain Vigneault from Vancouver could prove to be the missing ingredient in them finally realizing their full potential.
Vigneault, whose Canucks finished in the top five in goals scored in three of the last four seasons, will loosen the defensive leash that former head coach John Tortorella practically strangled the Rangers with (you see, because Tortorella loves dogs and...never mind) and allow his offensive stars to create. That bodes well for the likes of Rick Nash (21 goals), Derick Brassard (seven goals, 23 points in 25 combined regular season and postseason games) and particularly Brad Richards (career-low 11 goals, 23 assists and 34 points), who found himself a bottom-six forward and ultimately a $60 million healthy scratch by the end of the Rangers' playoff run.
That is not to say, however, that New York will be devoid of defense or that it will become an offensive juggernaut overnight (or at all). Vigneault noted during his introductory press conference that when he took over in Vancouver, his team was more defensive-oriented before developing into the offensive-minded unit that most know the Canucks as once they had the skill to do so.
To that end, Vigneault is aided by having two of the NHL's best two-way forwards in Ryan Callahan and Derek Stepan (who also led the team in assists and points last season), not to mention arguably the league's best top-four defense in Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal and Michael Del Zotto under his watch.
Of course, there is also former Vezina Trophy winner/noted handsome man Henrik Lundqvist in goal, whose career .920 SV% is best among active goaltenders. What will be interesting to see is how Lundqvist responds to the systematic changes now that his teammates may not be required to throw themselves in front of every puck with as much dogged determination (more dog humor).
The key to the Rangers' season may very well be the opening month. While they will have the benefit of a full training camp to acclimate themselves to whatever changes Vigneault may make, they also start the season with nine straight road games as Madison Square Garden undergoes the final phase of its renovation. Callahan and Carl Hagelin will likely miss at least a portion of those games while both recover from offseason shoulder surgeries, leaving two holes in the Rangers' projected top six.
Last season: 27-18-3, first in Southeast Division, lost in seven games to Rangers in Eastern Conference quarterfinal round
Notable off-season additions: F Mikhail Grabovski (free agency via Toronto)
Notable off-season subtractions: F Mike Ribeiro (free agency to Phoenix), F Matt Hendricks (free agency to Nashville)
Outlook: On Feb. 8, the Capitals woke up still smarting from a 5-2 beating at the hands of the Penguins, a loss that dropped them to a league-worst 2-8-1 record. The Capitals, however, slowly climbed out of their self-dug grave and earned 52 points over their final 37 games -- only the top-seeded Blackhawks and Penguins earned more over that span -- to claim their fifth Southeast Division championship in six seasons.
Many in the organization point to a four-game road trip in mid-March as the turning point, when Capitals lost a hard-fought 2-1 game to the Penguins before dominating the Jets in back-to-back games and capping it off with a shootout victory over the Rangers. Perhaps not coincidentally, Washington fielded its most complete roster of the season during those four games as both Brooks Laich and Dmitry Orlov made their ultimately short-lived returns from injury. The Capitals hope that that one week provided a glimpse into what this season could hold for them.
Under head coach Adam Oates, Alex Ovechkin revitalized his career, embracing his shift to right wing, scoring a league-high 32 goals and winning his third Hart Trophy in six years. Oates' reputation proceeded him during negotiations with Mikhail Grabovski, Washington's only major acquisition this off-season. Grabovski, a former 29-goal scorer who was underutilized in Toronto last season, will have an opportunity to restore his scoring touch à la Ovechkin in the role of second-line center after Mike Ribeiro bolted for Phoenix after just one season in Washington.
Ribeiro will be missed the most on the league's most productive power play (26.8 percent), where he and Ovechkin scored an NHL-best 27 points each. Grabovski, Laich and Martin Erat could all see time in Ribeiro's place. Common sense dictates that the Capitals will not have the same success with the man advantage (they scored on every fifth shot, the highest shooting percentage in at least six years), but opposing penalty kills will still have a tall task in front of them.
Two issues remain at the forefront for the Capitals: depth scoring and defensive depth. Troy Brouwer scored 19 goals last season, but those numbers seem unsustainable. Eric Fehr (nine goals) showed flashes of offensive brilliance and will need to do so more frequently. Having Laich and Erat, who only appeared in one game together last season, will help, but Joel Ward and Jason Chimera (combined 11 goals) will need to rebound from underwhelming years.
As for the defense, Mike Green, Karl Alzner and John Carlson are all potential Olympians for a reason, but the next three -- John Erskine, Jack Hillen and Steven Oleksy -- are serviceable at best. Erskine in particular regressed dramatically after signing a two-year extension in February, which did not bode well for the Capitals considering he and Carlson played the toughest minutes among defensemen. Orlov should provide the best challenge for his spot alongside Carlson. Tomas Kundratek as well as prospects Cameron Schilling and Nate Schmidt wait in the wings.
Last season: 23-22-3, fourth in Atlantic Division, fourth in Atlantic Division, missed playoffs
Notable off-season additions: F Vincent Lecavalier (free agency via Tampa Bay), D Mark Streit (trade via New York Islanders), G Ray Emery (free agency via Chicago)
Notable off-season subtractions: F Daniel Briere (bought out), F Ruslan Fedotenko (KHL), G Ilya Bryzgalov (bought out)
Outlook: It would not be a Flyers season preview without their goal-tending being questioned, so naturally we will start there.
After two years, the Flyers elected to put an end to the humongously hilarious Ilya Bryzgalov experiment, buying him out of the remaining seven years left on his original nine-year, $51 million contract (they will pay him around $1.643 million for the next 14 years not to play for them, about $57,000 less than what the Capitals will pay Braden Holtby to start for the next two seasons).
To replace Bryzgalov, GM Paul Holmgren repatriated Ray Emery from Chicago, where he finished with a 17-1-0 record, a 1.94 GAA and more first-place Vezina Trophy votes than starter Corey Crawford. In theory, a tandem featuring Emery and Steve Mason (4-2-0, 1.90 GAA, .944 SV% in six games with Philadelphia) should be solid enough. In theory, communism works, too. Goaltending is always a question in Philadelphia, and this season will be no different.
In front of Emery and Mason stands -- and I use that word loosely -- the walking wounded that was the Flyers' defense last season. Thirteen defensemen suited up for the Flyers last season -- tied for the most league-wide -- as Nicklas Grossmann (concussion), Braydon Coburn (shoulder), Andrej Meszaros (shoulder), Kimmo Timonen (foot), Kent Huskins (concussion) and Bruno Gervais (stomach) all felt the wrath of the injury bug. Youngsters Luke Schenn and Erik Gustafsson, who are expected to join Grossmann, Coburn and Timonen in the defensive rotation, played well, and snatching Mark Streit from the Islanders adds a mobile dimension.
Offensively, the Flyers should be better than last season, when they finished with 37 power play goals (fourth-most), but only 83 even-strength goals (19th). Adding Vincent Lecavalier, especially for five years and $22.5 million, was a risk, considering that he is 33 years old and has not played in more than 65 games (excluding last season's 48-game schedule) since 2009-10. Coach Peter Laviolette utilizes an up-tempo style complete with an aggressive forecheck, so if Lecavalier can keep up, he could justify the hefty price tag.
Elsewhere, Claude Giroux is one of the game's most gifted superstars (though the same cannot be said about his golf game), so he will be counted on to lead offensively once again. Jakub Voracek (career-high 22 goals) will have to prove that his breakout season was no fluke, while Scott Hartnell (eight goals) and Sean Couturier (four goals) will need to bounce back.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Last season: 24-17-7, fourth in Central Division, missed playoffs
Notable off-season additions: F Nathan Horton (free agency via Boston), F Jack Skille (free agency via Florida)
Notable off-season subtractions: F Vinny Prospal (free agency)
Outlook: After spending their first 12 seasons of existence in the Western Conference, the Blue Jackets join the Eastern Conference hoping that long sought after success will meet them there. Columbus has one playoff appearance and zero playoff victories to their credit, and it came painfully close last season to qualifying again last season, conceding the eighth and final spot to Minnesota by virtue of a ROW (regulation and overtime wins) tiebreaker.
Riding the Vezina Trophy-winning momentum of goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky (21-11-6, 2.00 GAA, .932 SV%), the Blue Jackets won 20 of their final 28 games, earning points in all but five of them. Bobrovsky's ability to replicate -- or at least come close to replicating -- last season's brilliance is paramount to the Jackets' success. Because let's be real: backup goaltender Curtis McElhinney strikes fear in no man.
On the forward side, Columbus signed Nathan Horton to a seven-year contract this summer after he won a Stanley Cup with Boston in 2011 and came close in 2013, but the former 30-goal scorer and five-time 20-goal scorer will be unavailable at the start of the season after undergoing off-season shoulder surgery. With Horton, whose 13 goals would have tied him for the most on the Blue Jackets last season, sidelined, Marian Gaborik will need to recapture his 40-goal scoring touch after a disappointing 12-goal season (history suggests that he will, considering that he has alternated 40-goal seasons with less productive seasons in each of the last six years). Head coach Todd Richards will also hope that youngsters Cam Atkinson (nine goals) and Ryan Johansen (five goals) will develop into regular contributors at the NHL level.
Despite playing in the Western Conference, the Blue Jackets' roster has many players familiar with their new Metropolitan neighbors; R.J. Umberger and Bobrovsky (former Flyers), Mark Letestu (a former Penguin) and Artem Anisimov, Brandon Dubinsky, Fedor Tyutin and Gaborik (former Rangers) are no strangers to their new division rivals.
Last season: 19-25-4, third in Southeast Division, missed playoffs
Notable off-season additions: F Nathan Gerbe (free agency via Buffalo), F Elias Lindholm (fifth pick in 2013 NHL Draft), D Mike Komisarek (free agency via Toronto), D Andrej Sekera (trade via Buffalo), G Anton Khudobin (free agency via Boston)
Notable offseason subtractions: F Chad LaRose (thin air), D Joe Corvo (free agency to Ottawa), D Jamie McBain (traded to Buffalo), G Dan Ellis (free agency to Dallas)
Outlook: For Carolina, last season was the best of times and the
blurst worst of times. Leading the Southeast Division with a 15-9-1 record after a 4-0 win over the Capitals on March 12, the Hurricanes won just two of their next 19 games as they dissipated down the stretch and finished 13th in the Eastern Conference.
As has more or less been the case over the last eight seasons, Carolina's success has been tied to the personal success of goaltender Cam Ward. Case in point: with Ward sidelined by a third-degree MCL sprain last season, the Hurricanes won just seven of their final 27 games. Acquiring a capable backup in Anton Khudobin to spell Ward from time to time will certainly allow the Hurricanes to keep their starter well-rested, but Ward will likely have to carry them on his overworked shoulders if they stand any chance to compete.
As for the team in front of Ward, Carolina's top six, which includes the likes of Eric and Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner, Alexander Semin and Jiri Tlusty, is formidable. The top line of Tlusty, Eric Staal and Semin accounted for nearly 43 percent of the team's goals last season, and their 75 combined points while skating together made them the most productive even-strength line in the NHL.
Unfortunately for the Hurricanes, the same cannot be said of their defensive corps.
The Hurricanes allowed the second-most goals last season (159) and rotated through the second-most defensemen (12) while allowing the third-most 5-on-5 goals per game (2.9) and the fourth-most 5-on-5 shots (31.5), so GM Jim Rutherford shored up his blueline by acquiring veterans Mike Komisarek and Andrej Sekera, both of whom will be tasked with eating big minutes. A unit that features those two plus returnees Tim Gleason, Justin Faulk, Jay Harrison and Joni Pitkanen, while not necessarily a welcome mat to opposing offenses, is not the most stalwart last line of defense.
New York Islanders
Last season: 24-17-7, third in Atlantic Division, lost in six games to Penguins in Eastern Conference quarterfinal round
Notable off-season additions: F Peter Regin (free agency via Ottawa), F Pierre-Marc Bouchard (free agency via Minnesota), F Cal Clutterbuck (trade via Minnesota)
Notable offseason subtractions: F Brad Boyes (free agency), F Keith Aucoin (free agency to St. Louis), F Nino Niederreiter (traded to Minnesota), D Mark Streit (traded to Philadelphia), D Radek Martinek (free agency), G Rick DiPietro (bought out)
Outlook: Not since Alexei Yashin patrolled Nassau Coliseum in a turtleneck had the Islanders qualified for the postseason before last season, when they earned the eighth spot and faced the top-seeded Penguins in the first round (though they are still paying him). The Islanders ultimately lost the series in six games, but they put up enough of a fight to inspire hope in the woebegone denizens of Long Island. I'm sorry, have you been to Uniondale?
Anyway, New York has built a young nucleus featuring probable captain John Tavares (who finished third in Hart Trophy voting), Matt Moulson, Josh Bailey, Kyle Okposo and Travis Hamonic among others, with more to come in Griffin Reinhart, the fourth overall pick in the 2012 NHL Draft, and Ryan Strome, the fifth pick the year before.
Among Tavares (28 goals last season), Moulson (15 goals), Bailey (11 goals) and Michael Grabner (16 goals), the Islanders should get balanced scoring throughout their lineup, "should" being the operative word. New York will need Okposo, he of the four goals last season, to step up, while team brass will hope that potentially playing on the first line will resuscitate the career of Pierre-Marc Bouchard, much like it did for Brad Boyes (35 points) last season.
The defense will also need to contribute more offensively. Losing power play quarterback Mark Streit, who earned 27 of the Islanders' 77 points from the blueline last season, leaves a gaping hole. Old hand Lubomir Visnovsky has proven to be effective, particularly on the power play, but that is where it stops. Outside of Streit, Visnovsky and the departed Radek Martinek, the rest of New York's defensive corps -- six players -- scored just seven goals last season. A solution could come in the form of prospect Matt Donovan, who led all AHL defensemen last season with 48 points.
The performance of goaltender Evgeni Nabokov will also prove pivotal. The 38-year-old won 23 games during the regular season with a 2.50 GAA and .910 SV% while starting 41 games (tied for third-most), but deteriorated in the playoffs, allowing 4.44 goals per game and stopping only 84 percent of the Penguins' shots. Backup Kevin Poulin only played five regular-season games last season with unsexy results (1-3-0, 3.02 GAA, ,.893 SV%), numbers he will have to improve upon when called upon to give Nabokov a much-needed breather.
For the first time in several years, there are modest expectations surrounding the Islanders, and how they play under those expectations in a tougher division will determine how close they are to regularly competing.
New Jersey Devils
Last season: 19-19-10, fifth in Atlantic Division, missed playoffs
Notable off-season additions: F Jaromir Jagr (free agency via Boston), F Ryane Clowe (free agency via New York Rangers), F Michael Ryder (free agency via Montreal), G Cory Schneider (trade via Vancouver)
Notable subtractions: F Ilya Kovalchuk ("retirement"/KHL), F David Clarkson (free agency to Toronto), F Alexei Ponikarovsky (KHL), D Henrik Tallinder (traded to Buffalo), G Johan Hedberg (bought out), owner Jeff Vanderbeek (debt)
Outlook: On one hand, by losing Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk and David Clarkson, the Devils have lost nearly 40 percent of their total offense over the last two seasons (124 combined goals out of 326 total). On the other hand, even with Kovalchuk and Clarkson last season, the Devils scored just 2.29 goals per game, second-fewest league-wide (though Kovalchuk did miss 11 games due to injury). [Shrugs]
Really though, New Jersey will miss Kovalchuk, their offensive catalyst who led all NHL forwards with 24:44 of ice time per game (in those 11 missed games, the Devils averaged 1.72 goals per game). GM Lou Lamoriello signed ageless wonder Jaromir Jagr along with fellow veterans Michael Ryder and Ryane Clowe -- further cementing the Devils as the NHL's oldest team with an average age of nearly 31 years old -- with the hope that they, along with Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac and Adam Henrique, will mitigate the loss of Kovalchuk with a combined effort.
Meanwhile, Martin Brodeur has ruled the crease for two decades, but this summer, Lamoriello acquired (and rescued) his eventual successor, Cory Schneider, from Vancouver. Brodeur will be the Devils' starting goaltender, but Schneider should see more than his current career-high of 33 games set in 2011-12, especially since the Devils have a league-high 22 sets of back-to-back games.
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