I will never enjoy typing that or saying that division name. How NHL of them. Just ridiculous. I remember the day it came out and I saw a few people say on twitter “who cares?” It just makes the league look ridiculous, so the next time the American media is ripping on how terrible the NHL is, don’t complain about them because “who cares” right?! Despite its ridiculous name, this is a TOUGH division, maybe the toughest in hockey right now. The Caps and Canes are in for a rude awakening this season, this should be a war.
1. Pittsburgh Penguins
As long as they stay healthy they should be the best team in the conference, if not the league. Now I don’t think they’ll win the President’s trophy because other elite teams have some cupcakes to beat up on regularly. But the Pens don’t. Jersey SHOULD be, but you know they’ll be tough even though the talent on that roster is extremely limited. I’m definitely watching for them to make a move on their goaltending by the trade deadline. Ryan Miller is possible, Jonas Hiller, perhaps Tim Thomas should he have a good season for the Panthers, and MAYBE if he wanted one last shot at a Cup Marty Brodeur are all guys who could end up in Pittsburgh by the trade deadline. But they’ll have to do something. I’m a big Marc-Andre Fleury guy, but his confidence is completely shot and even if he does bounce back with a great regular season you just can’t trust him in the playoffs now. As for the rest of the team…they’re fine. They’re the best team in the league down the middle, both Sid and Geno have wingers that fit perfectly with them, Letang is overrated in my mind but he is one of the best PP QB’s in the game, and I loved them bringing back Rob Scuderi. Not a flashy signing, but should be effective. We know how good they’ll be in the regular season, but the focus is already on April after 2 brutal exits the last 2 seasons.
2. NY Rangers
I don’t know if there is a bigger x factor in the league for a team than Brad Richards. If Richards can comeback and have a big season then this team can compete for a Cup. I think he’ll fit in perfectly playing for Alain Vigneault. But its still a big “if”. Rick Nash has never taken the step from star player to elite player. Now it’s tough for wingers to do that, but he is one of the rare few guys who has the ability to do so. It hurt them last season that Chris Kreider didn’t emerge as a 2nd line power forward for them. If he can do so, they will have a lot of size and grit in their top 6 which is simply miserable to try to matchup with. Henrik Lundqvist should be still elite, but they need to get him under contract so that could be a distraction (he won’t be leaving), and Luongo was a guy who was at the same level once upon a time and kind of erroded under Vigneault. Then again, that took 3 or 4 years to happen, Luongo had his best season in AV’s first season behind the bench in Vancouver. This blueline doesn’t have a stud, but they’re really great 1-6. They have a kid who can log big minutes in Ryan McDonagh, they have a shutdown paring in Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, and both Michael Del Zotto and John Moore can be used on the PP. So they’re very solid on the back end. They’ll make the playoffs, but with so many question marks up front it remains to be seen if they can be a legit contender.
3. Washington Capitals
Don’t confuse 3rd in a great division with going to go deep in the playoffs. For me, they really cemented themselves last season as playoff choke artisits. They didn’t have that feeling in 2012. You really felt like they had learned to play playoff hockey despite getting bounced by the Rangers in 7 hard fought games. And sure, had Lundqvist not completely stolen game 6 in the first round series last year, maybe they would have went on a run. But the way they went out in game 7 was pathetic. Don’t confuse being the Hart winner with being the best player in hockey. Alex Ovechkin ripped apart the worst division in hockey in the 2nd half of last season. I’m a big Ovechkin fan, but he doesn’t have many dimensions to his game. If he isn’t scoring, this team can’t win. It is nearly impossible for a winger to carry a team, but Ovechkin can do more than he has in the postseason. But while I rip on him, I could probably rip on Nicklas Backstrom even more. Backstrom is supposed to be a 1st line center, and can do so much more than he has! He needs to become a 2 way player if the Caps want to go anywhere. No reason Backstrom can’t be in the same class as a guy like Anze Kopitar. Maybe I’m bias towards the hometown kid, but Braden Holtby is legit. He is just so calm and collected and moves with such ease, he really does remind me of Carey Price. And he actually has a good D core in front of him. Mike Green finally got healthy last season, Carlson and Alzner are a great combo, and Dmitry Orlov is healthy this season who can really move the puck. They have a great farm system built up, so the time has come for George McPhee to start making some deals to mold this club into the contender they should be.
4. NY Islanders
Can they continue their rise to the top? It remains to be seen, but I will say this for them: last year didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. This team despite being a total mess off the ice has been on the rise the last few seasons. Now they don’t play that structured of a game, but Jack Capuano has them buying in. And it helps when you have a superstar like John Tavares to rally around. This forward group is starting to look sexy! They’re really loaded down the middle with JT, Ryan Strome, Frans Neilson, Brock Nelson, Casey Cizikas and Johan Sundstrom all either on the big club or getting very close. That’s an awesome problem to have. They’re finally doing a nice job of building up this blueline. I was shocked they made the Griffin Reinhart pick in 2012, but in no way disagreed with it. He has some pretty high end potential. Really liked the Ryan Pulock pick this year too, though he won’t be ready until at least next season. Travis Hamonic has a fat new contract at a great cap hit, and Lubomir Visnovsky is getting up there in years but still should be an elite PP QB for them. The big key for the Islanders is in net. What will Evgeny Nabokov give them? He was good enough last season, but I fear he is running out of gas at 38 years old. I guess we’ll find out. But the good news for Islander fans is that they’re now back. They have a great young core who are locked down to long term deals. Edmonton gets all the love as the future “it” team, but don’t sleep on the Islanders being that team.
5. Philadelphia Flyers
I really don’t know what to make of this team. They are freakin LOADED up front. What else is new. But the question marks remain….sketchy on defense, sketchy in net. For me with Emery it’s not so much that he is sketchy when he plays, it’s weather or not he can hold up being the starter. Then again, minus the hip injury he has never really been an injury prone guy. I’ve given up on Steve Mason long ago, the kid was a product of the Ken Hitchcock system in 2009, but he did look OK when he got to Philly last year. What a story that would be if the guy who finally was the answer in net for the Flyers was a kid who had completely lost it elsewhere. The blueline is just ok. Timonen is in his twilight, they tried to move Coburn this summer, Luke Schenn had a good year there but is limited, and Mark Streit isn’t a big upgrade…although the contract they gave him would suggest they think so. The big issue I have with this team though is that I think the league has figured them out. They’ll try to get under your skin, so don’t let them. If you don’t lose your skull against them like the Pens did in 2012, they don’t have many forwards who are willing to play a 200 foot game. Most fans and media believe a good defensive team must have good d-men. No, you need the forwards buying in as well and the Flyers don’t give the D or goaltenders much help. They shouldn’t make the playoffs, but this team has a winning culture so it wouldn’t surprise me to see them bounce back strong this season.
6. Columbus Blue Jackets
Just so I’m clear, COLUMBUS and CAROLINA are in a division called “Metropolitan”. Got it, keep on NHLing NHL….stolen line, but it still makes me laugh so f*** off! So the Blue Jackets, the shock of last season even though they just barely fell short of the playoffs. Can they hold onto that lightning in a bottle they caught last season? It will help that they’re now in the East. Easier conference, easier travel. But they went to a brutal division! This division is better top to bottom then the Central. And this team will still be challenged to score, although I would watch out for a monster season from Marian Gaborik. Why? Contract year. He will be looking for one more big deal. Injuries are always a concern for him, but I won’t be shocked at all if he plays 75 games and nets 40+ goals. He’s capable of it. But after him it is pretty scarce. I like the Nathan Horton signing, but I really question how much drive he will now have. He openly wanted a quiet market, and now has a fat contract so he has pretty much no pressure on him to perform. Now maybe that’s a good thing for Horton. But for most guys its a recipe for disaster. Ryan Johansen needs to take a step this season. He doesn’t need to take a giant step, but he does need to start showing some progress. This blueline is starting to look very good. Jack Johnson, James Wisniewski is healthy (overpaid, but healthy), and Ryan Murray is a kid that could make a run at the Calder. The big key for them however this season of course is weather or not Bobrovsky was a 1 year wonder. If he comes close to what he did last year, they’ll be in the playoff hunt. But even with him standing on his head, they still missed last year, so I believe they’re in tough.
7. Carolina Hurricanes
They have a lot of the vital pieces you need. Cam Ward is a stud in goal and is now healthy, they are great down the middle, but that blueline is pretty bad and its even worse without Pitkanen. Like this is an AHL calibure blueline, maybe worse than the Avs and the Avs is horrendous. Ron Hainsey is the answer?! Not a chance! I don’t know how Jim Rutherford didn’t dangle Jeff Skinner for a top pairing guy this offseason. When the Leafs were looking for a center prior to re-signing Bozak I thought Skinner for Gardiner made sense for both clubs. Anyway, this is what the Canes and their “Caniacs” are left with…all 6 of them. I do like the size this team has up front. The Staal’s, Semin, Ruutu, and Tlusty are all big boys and it is a tough top 6 for opposing teams to handle. If I were them, the game plan would be to get the puck in deep on teams and cycle, cycle, cycle! Keep that puck as far away from their blueline as possible. If Muller can take this team to the playoffs with that defense he should win the Jack Adams. I have Cam Ward STILL to make team Canada, but man alive he won’t have much help. Because it’s not just the blueline, other than Jordan Staal they don’t have good defensive forwards. Much like the Buffalo Sabres, it just feels like this team is in no man’s land.
8. New Jersey Devils
This isn’t saying the Devils will suck. This is saying “wow, this division is TOUGH!” If the Devils won this division I very literally wouldn’t be anything surprised. Its just like the AL East in baseball coming into this season and I had the Red Sox to finish 5th but I said off the top that I wouldn’t be anything shocked if they finished 1st…here we are at the end of the season and they indeed won the AL East. I could see that being the Devils, yet I have them 8th. I just think that they’ve lost too much the last few seasons and that Lou simply isn’t the GM he was. Clowe isn’t Clarkson, Jagr isn’t Kovalchuk, Ryder isn’t Parise, like it just doesn’t look good. BUT…the Devils have pulled rabbits out of their *** before! On paper this is the worst team in the division, and if they weren’t the Devils I would have them in the same category as the Flames and Panthers. But Brodeur will perform well like he always does, and if he doesn’t Cory Schneider will step up and perform well for them. They still have proud vets like Jagr, Elias, Clowe, Ryder, Salvador, Volchenkov, just too many guys who will play hard most nights. I like what they have down the middle with Zajac and Henrique, and people forget about Adam Larsson but remember this kid was the 4th overall pick just 2 drafts ago, he’s only 21 in November. But overall it just looks pretty bleek for this team, this season.
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