If the Carolina Hurricanes are to have any hope of making the playoffs this season, their best bet is to beat the competition in their own division. So let’s take a look at some moves the other teams in the Metropolitan division made this offseason and see how each team stacks up against the Canes.
Key Additions: The Stanley Cup
Key Subtractions: Ben Lovejoy (I guess)
With the resigning of Matt Cullen, the Pittsburgh Penguins bring back pretty much the same team they won the Stanley Cup with last season. They lost Ben Lovejoy to free agency, but all the major parts are still there that led the team to the second best CF% in the NHL. The major question is which goaltender the Penguins are going to start this season. Marc-André Fleury put up great numbers last year until his concussion opened the door for Matt Murray. Murray helped the Penguins to the playoffs, and ultimately the Stanley Cup, but his injury in the World Cup of Hockey will leave him out for three to six weeks. So if the Penguins, and Fleury, are playing well, do the Penguins pull him out and replace him with Murray? I guess we’ll know the answer in three to six weeks, but if the Penguins decide to go with Murray, Fleury most likely will be trade bait before the deadline given the Penguins dire salary cap situation. Either way, the Penguins factor in to win the division, if not the President’s trophy. They just have too much talent to do otherwise.
Key Additions: Lars Eller, Brad Malone
Key Subtractions: Jason Chimera, Mike Richards
Like the Penguins above, the Capitals have kept together their nucleus of players from last season. The same nucleus that won the Presidents Trophy and the Metropolitan Division easily last year. All that work was for naught, because due to the NHL’s stupid playoff structure they had to face the second best Penguins in the second round. As far as their off-season moves, Lars Eller is an upgrade over Mike Richards at center given that Eller was a 1.73 RelCF% and Richards a -.22 RelCF%. And Brad Malone? He doesn’t bring anything to the table offensively, but he is a positive at shot suppression over Jason Chimera. Given Barry Trotz’s penchant for defensively minded systems, Malone should fit in well on the fourth line. The Capitals have the best goal scorer in the league and the reigning Vezina winner. They should compete for another President’s Trophy along with the Penguins; however, anything other than a deep playoff run this year gives, even more, fodder to journalists writing lazy narratives about how Ovechkin can’t win when it really matters.
Columbus Blue Jackets:
Key Additions: Seth Jones, Pierre Luc-Dubois
Key Subtractions: Justin Falk, Rene Bourque, Ryan Johansen
A couple of years ago, Columbus looked like they were on the verge of breaking out. A playoff appearance led by Sergei Bobrovsky fresh off his Vezina win showed a team on the rise. Two seasons later Columbus is full of overpaid, under-performing veterans with long contracts, a starting goalie who is in his own head, and the loss of a franchise center in Ryan Johansen because he demanded a trade. While the Blue Jackets were able to get a potential franchise defenseman in return for Johansen, there were other curious moves made by the organization. During the draft, Columbus, with their number three pick, skipped over Jesse Puljujärvi the consensus number three pick in the draft to grab Pierre Luc-Dubois. Dubois may turn into a great player, but if he doesn’t GM Jarmo Kekäläinen could be looking for a new job. Did we also mention this is the team that John Tortorella coaches, who, despite winning a Stanley Cup, still coaches like its 1999. Add it all together, and Columbus is a team headed for disaster this season. Even if the Blue Jackets plays the best hockey it possibly can, a playoff spot will elude them. This team finishes at the bottom of the division barring some sort of miracle.
New York Rangers:
Key Additions: Jimmy Vessey, Brandon Pirri, Mika Zibanejad
Key Subtractions: Keith Yandle, Derek Brassard, Eric Staal
The Rangers are a curious team this year. Last year the Rangers finished third in the division but were fifth worst in the league at overall CF%. Basically, the Rangers spent each night buried in their own zone, and if not for the fact they have the best goalie in the game, they most likely would not have made the playoffs. This showed when they were quickly bounced out of the playoffs in five games by the Pittsburgh Penguins. The ole Blueshirts were busy, though, in the offseason; they won the Jimmy Vessey sweepstakes, traded an older more expensive Derek Brassard, for a cheaper younger (and arguably better) Mika Zibanejad, and picked up a great depth signing in Brandon Pirri. These good moves are balanced by the questionable signing of Michael Grabner (who really isn’t all that good anymore) and letting Keith Yandle (their second best dman) basically escape to free agency. The Rangers were able to get a fourth round pick for his rights from Florida, but replacing 44 assists from the backend will be a tall order for any team. Yandle’s loss, combined with the twin pylons of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, means Lundqvist may break his career record of shots faced this year; a record he conspicuously set last year and that was with Yandle on defense. If Henrik can keep up, the Rangers most likely get a wildcard spot, but if Lundqvist shows any sign of being normal between the pipes it’s going to be a long year. I think Lundqvist begins his decline this year, and I predict the Rangers finishing sixth and missing the playoffs for the first time since 2010.
Key Additions: Signing Dale Weise to a four-year contract
Key Subtractions: Signing Dale Weise to a four-year contract
Like the Capitals and Penguins, the Flyers didn’t make many moves in the offseason. Their one big move was signing Dale Weise, but getting a negative CF%Rel player, who has also only scored 24 goals combined the last two years, most likely won’t move the needle forward. Despite their lack of moves, the Flyers still have considerable young talent up front with the likes of Sean Couturier, Jakub Voracek, Brayden Schenn, Wayne Simmonds, and Claude Giroux. These players are in front of a competent defense, lead by their breakout star in Shayne Gostisbehere, that should have the Flyers easily competing for a playoff spot. This doesn’t even include stud prospects like Ivan Provorov on defense, and Travis Konecny at forward, that are pushing for roster spots in training camp this year. The real question is the Flyer’s goaltending duo of Steve Mason and Michael Neuvirth. Mason was solid, but not great, in net last season, while Neuvirth posted a career high in SV% at .924. Neuvirth also almost carried the Flyers to a game seven last year with a playoff SV% of .981 against the Capitals, while Mason did things like this. So who gets the nod? Both are UFA’s next year so it will be interesting to see who emerges as the #1 goalie. If either goalie can play at league average consistently, the Flyers most likely will grab the number 3 spot in the division or first wild card.
New Jersey Devils:
Key Additions: Taylor Hall, Ben Lovejoy (again I guess)
Key Subtractions: Patrick Elias, Lee Stempniak, Adam Larsson
Despite achieving the second biggest trade rip off in the offseason, the Devils just really don’t have enough talent to compete for a playoff spot this season. While Kyle Palmieri and Adam Henrique have turned into goal scorers, this team seriously lacks firepower up front even with Taylor Hall added. They lost their third highest goal scorer in Lee Stempniak to free agency, but even he only scored sixteen goals. After the top forwards there is a serious drop-off in talent, and asking players like Reid Boucher and Devante Smith-Pelley to contribute substantially (and by substantially I mean crack double digits) to the offense is a recipe for disaster. But what about the defense? A staple of all those Devil’s teams from the late 90s-early Aughts, the New Jersey Devils have always prided themselves as a defense-first team. This year though Devils fans might as well stay stuck living in the past. When Ben Lovejoy and Andy Greene are your top pairing, your team has a great defense will be something said by nobody ever. In fact, the only bright spot on the Devils is their goalie Corey Schneider who at worst is the third best goaltender in the league. Like their rivals across the river up north, the Devils are placing a lot of faith that Schneider can carry the team to the playoffs, but not even a literal brick wall in net can accomplish that feat. They finish seventh just ahead of Columbus.
New York Islanders:
Key Additions: Andrew Ladd, Denis Seidenberg, Jason Chimera
Key Subtractions: Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielson
The Islanders were also another team that remained busy this offseason. They lost two of their top three scorers, in Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielson, to free agency, but also themselves made a big splash in free agency when they signed Andrew Ladd to a seven-year $38.5 million contract. Ladd’s a good winger, but by himself he can’t replace the scoring of Okposo and Nielson. His contract by the end of its run will be a huge burden on the Islander’s salary cap. The Islanders also made another questionable signing by agreeing to terms with their fourth line center for a four-year $3.35 million. Don Cherry may like the move that gives the Islanders “the best fourth line in hockey,” but Stanley Cups usually aren’t won by having a better fourth line than your opponent. Given that Jon Tavares is clearly in the win cup now mode of his career, and the fact the Islanders haven’t made it past the second round, makes this signing by GM Garth Snow even more surprising. The Islanders defense is solid with Johnny Boychuk, Nick Leddy, and Travis Hamonic, but nobody would call it elite. In goal though, the Islanders return Jaroslav Halak and Thomas Greiss. Both players made the Team Europe squad in the World Cup of Hockey this year, and Halak played especially well in the tournament and in the finals against Team Canada. The loss of Okposo and Nielson will be tough for the Islanders, but they also gained one of the best power forwards in the league. Add in Jon Tavares an arguable top five center in the league, the Islanders should have little trouble gaining a playoff spot again this year. Like the past years though, this isn’t really a team built to go deep in the playoffs so an early round exit will probably happen again
Key Additions: Lee Stempniak, Teuvo Teravainen, Bryan Bickell
Key Subtractions: Eric Staal, Jon-Michael Liles, Kris Versteeg
The Carolina Hurricanes season last year was one of extremes. They started the season out average before plunging to the bottom during November and only racking up three wins in the month. They were able to claw themselves back into the playoff hunt over the next two months. Despite the positive results, the Canes were sellers at the trade deadline shipping out captain Eric Staal, John-Michael Liles, and Kris Versteeg. The big story, though, for Carolina hinged on their young defence. Faulk turned into a great offensive defenseman and scored 14 goals before an injury sidelined him. Jaccob Slavin and Brett Pesce established themselves as legitimate NHL defenders. Noah Hanifin had a more uneven season, but given that it was his rookie year many still think he played remarkably well by just treading water in the big leagues. The Canes will be relying on their young defense to continue making great strides in their progress if they hope to make the playoffs this year. Carolina is also hoping that players on the offensive side like Teuvo Teravainen and Sebastian Aho also live up to their potential as well, and along with the free agent signing of Lee Stempniak provide some much-needed goal scoring to go along with Jeff Skinner, Victor Rask, and Jordan Staal. The gigantic elephant in the room is the Hurricanes goaltending. The franchise has stuck by Cam Ward through thick and thin, most especially through thin, and resigned him to a two-year contract in the offseason. Most experts don’t really believe he is starting goaltending material anymore, but a Stanley Cup win buys you a lot of leeway in this market apparently. Behind him though is Eddie Lack, who, before he moved to Carolina, but up pretty good numbers in Vancouver as a backup and was all but annoited as the starter for the team last year. Lack’s uneven play last year was unable to wrest the starter’s position from Ward, though, and he served mainly in the backup role again. If the Hurricanes can get decent goaltending from the duo(both of whom showed flashes of it last year) then the team should be able to compete for a playoff spot if both wildcards come from the Metropolitan Division. The whole season will be a tightrope walk and any mistake or injury could be disaster, but IF everything plays out just right the Canes could be back in the playoffs for the first time in eight years.
That wraps up the Metropolitan division. I’m hoping to get the other three done before the season starts so check back in and we’ll discuss the rest of the league as well.