Editor's Note: This piece is the first in a series of look-ins on the 2016-2017 NHL season. The series kicks off by considering the potential trajectory of each team in the Metropolitan Division, home of the 2015-2016 Stanley Cup-winning Pittsburgh Penguins. The series will continue with an examination of each team in each division throughout the season.
Carolina Hurricanes: On the Decline
As a team that has been lost since its Stanley Cup victory in 2006, what do the Carolina Hurricanes even have going for them anymore?
Eric Staal was the heart and soul of this franchise since his draft day in 2003, but he is gone, and with him goes the last piece preventing this team from an all-out rebuild. The Hurricanes had the kind of 2014-2015 everyone expected them to have. They struggled throughout the majority and suffered some ugly losses, but they had moments where the youth in the organization really shone. Their newcomers aren’t enough—yet—but they’re certainly worth talking about.
On the front end, management has brought in Victor Rask, Elias Lindholm, Joakim Nordstrom, Andrej Nestrasil, and Teuvo Teravainen. The oldest of the group is Nestrasil at only 24, so there is plenty of young talent making its way into the Hurricanes lineup. Rask looks particularly promising after collecting 48 points in his second season.
A cadre of young forwards sounds good, but the problem is that there is so much riding on their success. All five of them figure to play in the top nine, while Rask is already slotted as the number one center. Rather than undertaking a clear system of careful development, it looks like Carolina management is opting for a trial by fire. The best management has done to provide veteran guidance is to bring in Lee Stempniak and Viktor Stalberg; young-but-seasoned forwards Jordan Staal and Jeff Skinner will already be shouldering a lot of responsibility for the Hurricanes’ offense. No development and no recourse is a recipe for botched prospects (looking at you, Edmonton).
The future for the ‘Canes on the back end is Noah Hanifin. Thankfully he looked NHL-ready last year because he is going to be the cornerstone of this franchise for years to come. Hanifin, alongside Justin Faulk, is the reason that Hurricanes faithful have to smile; the two will be responsible for reshaping the Hurricanes’ defense. Jaccob Slavin and Haydn Fleury seem to be guys that will one day join them in making a big difference on this team as long as the Hurricanes don’t rush them too fast.
The way the Hurricanes look right now, it seems they aren’t in a hurry to get good anytime in the near future, and maybe that’s okay.
Columbus Blue Jackets: On the Rise (Maybe?)
Arguably the most talented team to miss out on the playoffs, the Columbus Blue Jackets’ rollercoaster of a 2015-2016 season left them dead last in the Metropolitan Division. What can we expect from here?
Massive amounts of hype surrounded the organization before the puck dropped last season. Following a sluggish start to the 2014-15 campaign, an almost unthinkable 22-3 stretch to finish the year left the Blue Jackets just out of the playoffs. That, combined with the addition of power forward Brandon Saad last offseason, suggested a group that was finally going to be a major postseason contender. But the Jackets fell apart at the seams. Though they put up a fight after John Tortorella took over as head coach, their eight straight losses to start the season preemptively quashed any playoff hopes. Despite the uncertainty surrounding a team that overachieves when they’re supposed to be bad and underachieves when they’re supposed to be good, their roster is worthy of contemplation.
The Blue Jackets do have some really strong areas; they’re young, fast, and deep down the middle. Their top 14 point getters (with the exception of Scott Hartnell) were under 30 years of age. It’s safe to say the Blue Jackets amateur scouts have figured it out since the Nikita Filatov debacle (just when you thought everyone had forgotten about that) in 2008. Alexander Wenneberg is turning out to be a force: at just 21 years of age, he racked up 40 points in his sophomore season and has secured the third line center role. Joining Wenneberg is 23-year-old William Karlsson, who has seized the fourth line center spot since being brought over from the Ducks, though he has potential to play in a second or third line setting soon. They sit behind Boone Jenner and Brandon Dubinsky who both have the capability to put up 50+ points.
Flanking them on the left wing is a crew that brings a lot to the table. Brandon Saad headlines the bunch after setting a record high in goals and points last year (31-22-53). Below him are Nick Foligno, Scott Hartnell, and Matt Calvert: Foligno is just one year removed from his 73-point season, Scott Hartnell has been slowly declining in offensive production but still has the prowess to chip between 40 and 50, and Matt Calvert continues to be a safe option on the fourth line while adding some speed to the mix.
What the Jackets need to address is the hole on the right side. Outside of Cam Atkinson—who set career highs in goals, assists, and points last year (27-26-53)—the Jackets have little to no help. Oliver Bjorkstrand seems promising at 20 years old but his sample size has consisted of 12 games. Beyond him, all that remains are Josh Anderson and Gregory Campbell. Anderson has all of 18 NHL games under his belt, and Campbell provides help on the penalty kill but won’t contribute much anywhere else.
As far as the back end goes, the quality of defenseman is improving. This is a franchise that boasted Jack Johnson as its star defenseman for years, but can now look to the likes of Seth Jones, Ryan Murray, David Savard, and highly touted prospect Zach Werenski for the foreseeable future. Even though they sat at 29th in goals against last year, the Blue Jackets look to be in the very early stages of developing what will be one of the better D-cores in the league.
Finally, Sergei Bobrovsky is still one of the best goalies in the league. He had a down year last year but that was largely due to the team that was in front of him. A healthy year behind John Tortorella’s defensively conservative system will result in the Vezina-level Bobrovsky we remember from a few years ago.
There’s no telling what this team will do this year. They have pieces on their roster that make me want to whisper playoffs, but that is all up to how they perform come October 12th. If nothing else, the Columbus Blue Jackets are one of the most intriguing team headed into the new season.
New Jersey Devils: On the Rise
The acquisition of former first overall pick Taylor Hall has New Jersey thinking playoffs, but do they have the pieces to make that expectation a reality?
Following a season that saw the Devils finish dead last, it was apparent that changes needed to be made. So Ray Shero did Ray Shero things this summer, creating noise around the team from Newark that has been dull since the simultaneous departures of Zach Parise and Ilya Kovalchuk after the team's Stanley Cup Finals loss to the Los Angeles Kings in 2012. Since being hired as General Manager in 2015, Shero has been focused on replacing the 68 goals and 149 points that the duo brought to the table when they last played together. This summer was a good start.
Conversation over the past months has revolved around the trade that brought Taylor Hall to New Jersey. Hall’s assists and points totals from last season would be tops on the Devils’ roster (26-39-65), and he has the ability to eclipse the 80-point mark like he did in 2013-14. The last Devil to register 80 points was Kovalchuk—that’s the level of production we’re talking about. His arrival should also give a boost to Adam Henrique, who played junior hockey alongside Hall on the Windsor Spitfires, and Mike Cammalleri, who still has offensive potential but would be more effective in a second line role.
This kind of move doesn’t come without its consequences, though: the Devils lost 23-year-old defenseman Adam Larsson in the Hall deal. His play never quite reached the expectations that came with being a fourth overall draft pick back in 2011, but he has the potential to become an elite number two defenseman in the right system. In addition to losing Larsson, the Devils also lost notable contributors David Schlemko and Lee Stempniak. Schlemko was the team's second highest scoring defenseman—though his eye-widening -22 +/- rating eases the blow—and Stempniak finished fourth on the team in scoring with 41 points in 63 games.
At this point it’s all conjecture whether the addition of Hall will outweigh the subtractions in the immediate future, but Devils’ management has prepared itself to be successful following this transition. They brought in Devante Smith-Pelly to bolster the top six, Vernon Fiddler to firm up the bottom six, and recent Stanley Cup winner Ben Lovejoy to fill the void on the back end. Plus, promising prospects Pavel Zacha, Steve Santini, Reid Boucher, and Joseph Blandisi are all expected to fight for full-time jobs in the NHL next season. While not ideal to rely on four players under 23 years old, the Devils will only get stronger as they grow together.
Despite questions surrounding New Jersey’s defense, on area that needs no questioning is goaltending. Since coming over from Vancouver, Cory Schneider has been nothing short of stellar for the Devils. Playing behind a team that finished dead last in goals last season, Schneider still finished with an impressive .924 save percentage and a 2.15 goals against average—above league average. There is nobody more relieved about the arrival of Taylor Hall than Schneider.
The New Jersey Devils were a team with a clear focus on strong defense under the regime of previous GM Lou Lamoriello. It was a strategy that led the Devils to Stanley Cups in 1995, 2000, and 2003, but it relied on defenseman such as Scott Stevens, Scott Niedermayer, and a league that wasn’t producing very much offense at the time. The league has since changed, and the Devils failed to adapt. But the Shero era has begun, and just a year into his term, the goals are on the way and problems are being addressed. However, New Jersey still lacks all-around depth. I don’t see an 83rd game in the stars for the Devils this season, but they are finally moving in the right direction.
New York Islanders: Contender
The New York Islanders are a testament to how successful the rebuilding process can be when executed properly—especially with John Tavares as one of those building blocks. General Manager Garth Snow deserves a lot of credit for using the draft to bring the Islanders back to Cup contention. However, following last year’s disappointing round two finish to the Lightning, Snow and management concluded that it was time to shake things up. Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen were surrendered via free agency, while Andrew Ladd and Jason Chimera were brought in to add experience and leadership.
Losing Okposo and Nielsen hurts, there’s no getting around that; the two were the Islanders’ second and third highest point scorers with a combined 42 goals and 116 points. But while Ladd and Chimera might not be as sexy as Okposo or Nielsen, they have intangible value to offer that those two do not. Andrew Ladd is such an important acquisition for this franchise: his experience as a captain will resonate in the room and he will be the only Stanley Cup champion on the roster besides Johnny Boychuk and recently signed defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. Jason Chimera is one of those players you love to have on your team; his presence has an impact on the bench and he is a thorn in the side of any opponent. He isn’t afraid to drop the gloves but he could also contribute 20 goals like he did last year for the Capitals. Combined, the three amassed 65 goals and 127 points last year, so the offense that left with Okposo and Nielsen was replaced while adding veteran stability.
While the argument could be made that Okposo and Nielsen brought speed that will be hard to replace, many of the prospects in the Islanders’ system have been selected because of their speed. Mathew Barzal and Alan Quine appear to be pushing for the open third line center position this season due to their ability to see the ice.
Meanwhile, Michael Dal Colle and Josh Ho-Sang are one or two seasons away from flanking Tavares and Brock Nelson in the Islanders’ top six. Ryan Pulock should split playing time with Seidenberg on the third D-pair while Mitchell Vande Sompel continues to ripen in the OHL after winning the Memorial Cup last two seasons ago. The Islanders have one of the deeper prospect pools in the NHL, which will only push them further in the right direction.
There are very few weak spots in the Islanders’ lineup. Last year’s team saw every forward score more than 20 points with the exception of Matt Martin, who barely missed the mark with 19. Even all six defenseman put up a minimum of 16 points, and Nick Leddy separated himself from the pack putting up 40. Depth is everything in today’s NHL and the Islanders have a lot of it.
If there is any place for the Islanders to focus their energy, it’s the goaltending. They aren’t in any immediate danger, but I just don’t know if Jaroslav Halak is a goalie that can bear the weight of a full Cup run. Try and remember the last time a Stanley Cup winning team won without a goalie that was somewhere in the Conn Smythe conversation. It’s been a while. Outside of that, the Islanders are a team that has star power and depth on both sides of the puck—they’re serious contenders now.
New York Rangers: On the Decline
A team that has been nearing its “best to win Stanley Cup by” date saw lots of turnover this offseason, but did it bring them any closer to the post season success that has been so elusive?
The Rangers are perennially the very good team trying to acquire the missing “it” piece that will push them into greatness. Whether through trade or free agency, it seems their roster is always in flux. Seeing names like Derick Brassard, Keith Yandle, Eric Staal, and Mika Zibanejad in the mix in the offseason, it’s clear this summer continued the trend.
The subsequent losses of Keith Yandle and Derick Brassard leave a gaping hole in the Rangers’ offensive output. While they did get Zibanejad in return for Brassard, losing the top goal-scoring forward and point-scoring defenseman in one offseason is a red flag if there were ever a time to throw one. To make it worse—despite the Rangers’ efforts to wait long enough for people to forget—the blueshirts gift-wrapped Anthony Duclair alongside a first- and second-round draft pick in the deal for Yandle. Duclair is turning out to be a beast in Phoenix, having put up 20 goals in his rookie season. It was an expensive price tag for a guy that wound up never really meshing with the Rangers’ defensive core and had his rights shipped to the Panthers for a fourth round pick.
Speaking of players that never really meshed, Eric Staal was a commodity that had to be bought for the cost of a prospect and two second-round picks. Staal and the Rangers had an amicable separation following the first-round loss in the playoffs—in which Staal had zero points. But perhaps the most bitter, lip-biting move by the Rangers has to be their complete and utter mishandling of Carl Hagelin. The effective depth winger was putting up consistent 30-point seasons with the Rangers when he was traded to the Ducks for the unproven Emerson Etem. The Rangers even threw in a sixth-round pick to sweeten the deal for Etem, who only wound up playing 19 games in a Rangers uniform. This is all really starting to add up, no?
The acquisition of Mika Zibanejad has its advantages: he’s five years younger than Brassard and his numbers are trending upward. Plus, playing on a 2nd line with Rick Nash and either J.T Miller or Jesper Fast should help those numbers continue to rise from the 51 points he amassed last year. He adds to the group of Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Jesper Fast, J.T. Miller, and Kevin Hayes, who are also all under 25-years-old.
As always the Rangers have no question marks in goal. Henrik Lundqvist shows no signs of slowing down, and new backup Antti Raanta provides a reliable relief option as King Henrik gets older. Combined they had a 2.19 SV% and a 2.44 GAA last season.
In recent years, the moves the Rangers make seem more and more drastic. While the trades the Rangers have made have a knack for looking good at the time, hindsight is filled with disappointment and regret. Expect the Rangers to be in the postseason again this year and to maybe even eclipse 90 points, but they are no longer favorites.
Philadelphia Flyers: On the Rise
The Flyers’ tale of two seasons was defined by a trade that ignited a youth movement that could be the foundation for their return to the promised land. Following Craig Berube’s unsuccessful term as head coach, long time NCAA bench boss Dave Hakstol was hired and made the rare jump from the college ranks. To no one’s surprise, the learning curve took its toll; whispers of winning the draft lottery could be heard in Philadelphia. Many fingers were pointed at General Manager Ron Hextall, but after a mid-season trade and call-up, Hextall had restructured this team, prompting them to go on a tear in the back half of the season. But their Rocky-esque underdog story came to a screeching halt when they got knocked out by Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs. Still, the light at the end of the tunnel may finally be visible.
January 6th, 2016 was the day that changed our view of the organization: Hextall shipped Luke Schenn and Vincent Lecavalier to the Los Angeles Kings in exchange for Jordan Weal and a 3rd round draft pick in a deep 2016 draft. This wasn’t a trade that turned many heads, but it had some deeper implications given the franchise’s history of being the charity of the NHL, known for such noble actions as giving up James Van Riemsdyk in order to get Schenn. Disposing of Schenn and Lecavalier was essentially the last step in turning the team over to the youth, and the addition of Jordan Weal adds to the depth that the Flyers have drafted down the middle. Travis Konecny and Nick Cousins are prospects that could push for a full time job with the Flyers next year. Both centermen, Konecny has to be the most highly touted prospect in that position; he surpassed the 100-point mark last season in the OHL and still has a year of junior eligibility remaining if necessary. Cousins is expected to fill the third line center role next year after spending 36 games with the Flyers and contributing 11 points, all while being a +5—impressive for a rookie on a bubble team. Including Claude Giroux, Sean Couturier, Scott Laughton, and Jordan Weal, the Flyers potentially have six centers that can produce offense, which is a luxury every team will envy.
The trade alone wasn’t enough to push this group over the edge, however. Enter rookie defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere. The departure of Luke Schenn and the injury to Mark Streit gave Gostisbehere an opportunity he took full advantage of. Some of the accolades from his first season include leading all rookie defenseman in goals, assists, and points (17-29-46) in fewer games than the runners-up and a 15-game point streak in which he tallied 18 points—the longest rookie point streak by a blue liner in NHL history. Deservedly, he finished as a runner-up for the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year.
What’s exciting for the Flyers isn’t just what Gostisbehere has to offer going forward, but the barrage of young defensemen on the way to flank him. If Ivan Provorov, Samuel Morin, and Travis Sanheim turn out to be the elite players they’ve led us to believe they can become, the Flyers’ blue line will be stacked for a very long time. Provorov amassed more points than any other defenseman in the WHL last season, Morin played in every game for the Flyers’ AHL affiliate in a shutdown role, and Sanheim finished the year in the AHL after scoring over a point per game in the WHL. All three show promise to play steady top-four minutes alongside Gostisbehere. In a few years, Philadelphia’s back end could look like what Tampa Bay’s looks like now.
Even with all this to look forward to, the Flyers still have three burning questions to answer before they can be a contender. The first thing that needs to be addressed is the curse that’s been cast over their goaltenders. The Flyers have been in search of a consistent goalie since their current General Manager was in the crease. Michael Neuvirth may be a viable option for the time being, but he’s never been tested as a true starter, and Steve Mason has been a good short term option but he’s proven the playoffs just aren’t his thing. The second question is addressing their lack of depth on the wing, but with all they have at center and defense, they should be able to trade or draft for some more help at the position. Lastly, the upcoming season is a crucial year for contracts: Gostisbehere, Laughton, Cousins, and Neuvirth will all be asking for raises—and big ones at that—while Mark Streit, Michael Del Zotto, Nick Schultz, and Steve Mason will all be needing renewals. Hextall will be a busy man but as long as he hangs on to the prospects the Flyers will be in good shape; it’s possible he could dish some of the names in the latter list to shed cap and add depth on the wing.
The Flyers are a team that’s been in transition for a long time, but with Hextall and Hakstol in control, it’s finally understood that they need to wait for the youth in the system to mature. Hextall has some work ahead of him to finish rounding out the roster, but it’s clear that things might finally be turning around for the orange and black.
Pittsburgh Penguins: Contender
Coming off their fourth Cup in franchise history, the Pittsburgh Penguins are a team facing few question marks, but will they still have the pieces to defend their title?
A December coaching change brought Mike Sullivan to Pittsburgh, and Sullivan revived the slumping Sidney Crosby and the rest of the roster. The Penguins caught fire in January and dug themselves out of a hole so deep that even a wild card playoff berth seemed lofty. Anchored by a forecheck reliant on the speed of their forwards, the Penguins cruised past the Rangers, Capitals, Lightning, and Sharks in the playoffs in dominating fashion.
Without question the backbone of this Stanley Cup victory was a trio that really took the whole “one team’s trash is another team’s treasure” saying to heart. Three players that had grown stale in their previous situations—Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel—were thrust together and quickly became one of the fastest, most dynamic depth lines in recent years. By the end of the playoffs, the members of the HBK line finished in the top five on the team in points, with Kessel first in goals. And let’s not forget that Toronto paid the Penguins half of Kessel’s salary just to take him off their hands. Most people will point to Crosby, Kris Letang, and Matt Murray when they credit the success of the 2015-2016 Penguins’ team—and they deserve plenty of praise—but no one wins a Stanley Cup without depth. Just look at the previous postseasons for the Penguins: the stars were there but the team around them wasn’t. This team stays a contender moving forward because that depth isn’t going anywhere. General Manager Jim Rutherford hasn’t lost one forward from his Cup-winning roster.
In addition to the HBK line, Rutherford found reinforcements by tapping into the talent of the Penguins’ minor league affiliate, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. Three notable newcomers made big splashes to spark the Penguins’ run to the playoffs and continued with mammoth contributions throughout all four series. However, Rutherford’s new crew up front still needs to prove their worth to critics who aren’t sold yet; Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, and Tom Kuhnhackl have yet to endure all that comes with a full 82-game season in the NHL. Sheary finished the playoffs with ten points and finally ended the mystery as to who can play alongside Sidney Crosby on the top line. Rust finished the postseason tied for third on the team with six goals but incredibly led the team in shooting percentage at 17.6%. Finally, 83.9% of the face-offs Kuhnhackl was on the ice for took place in the defensive zone, while remaining a plus player—a testament to how responsible Kuhnhackl was in his own end and how reliable he was for Sullivan. There’s no way to know if the WBS triplets will be able to answer the bell or fade in their second year, but the path taken by the three will play a major role in the Penguins’ quest to keep the Cup in Pittsburgh.
While on the subject of emerging rookies, we mustn’t leave out rise of Matt Murray. The 22-year-old goaltender led what could be viewed as the most impressive rookie goalie performance in the playoffs since Patrick Roy led the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup in 1985-86. Now, after marching the Penguins to a Stanley Cup, it will be interesting to see who pulls away as the starter once Murray is healthy. This is a wonderful problem to have, but it presents a bit of a head scratcher for Sullivan; everyone knows how toxic a goalie carousel can be to a team if mismanaged (i.e. Toronto, Vancouver). Sullivan had the guts to do the thing that none of his predecessors would have been able to do: sit Marc-Andre Fleury and ride the hot hand. But when it comes to the start of a new season and a goalie who is attached to a six million dollar price tag, will Sullivan be bold enough to make the backup title permanent if need be?
For all the positives the Penguins have going for them, it is important to note the loss of one of the most pleasant surprises the Penguins had this year: Ben Lovejoy. Lovejoy finished the regular season third on the team in hits and blocked shots, then continued his steady defensive play throughout the postseason. His play was worthy of a raise, which came from New Jersey, leaving Rutherford down one defenseman. What will be hard to replace is his character and personality, but the good news is that Rutherford managed to keep every other defenseman, leaving the Penguins with a capable defense core headlined by Kris Letang and Olli Maatta. The third pair of Brian Dumoulin and recently extended Justin Schultz will need some seasoning, but the continuation of Mike Sullivan’s system to keep the puck in the forwards’ hands should take pressure off them.
The Penguins have more going for them entering a season than they’ve had in years. Jim Rutherford has inserted the right style of players in order to establish a team identity that has been missing since their Stanley Cup in 2009. Further, the addition of Mike Sullivan has not only restored Sidney Crosby’s game but has transformed it to withstand the frustrations that come deep in the playoffs. Once Crosby recovers from his recent concussion, this team will be a force.
Washington Capitals: Contender
The Capitals disappointed in the playoffs yet again last season and now the clock is ticking; this is their last shot before contract negotiations change the look of this team.
If there’s one takeaway from the Washington Capitals’ season, it isn’t another 50-goal season from Alex Ovechkin or the unfortunate end after running into the hot team: it’s the absolute emergence of Evgeny Kuznetsov and what it means for the long-term future of this team. The Capitals, as usual, had another 50+ win season and dominated on their way to another President’s Trophy. There really weren’t any blemishes on the season even when they lost to the Penguins in the second round of the playoffs. The Penguins were just that team that got hot at the right time, and the Capitals were unfortunate enough to be in their path.
Still, after another frustrating end to the season, the Capitals tried another shake-up like they did last year, bringing in T.J. Oshie, except this year they brought in Lars Eller to fill the third line center role. But Eller could be that perfect niche fit, much like Nick Bonino was last year for the Penguins. The real advantage of adding Eller is that he adds more speed to an already quick lineup. The Capitals were just a half step behind the Penguins’ speed in the postseason which was the main driver behind the Penguins’ success. Eller will also add a little more offense to the second-highest scoring offense in the league.
Beyond the addition of Eller and the minor loss of Jason Chimera, the Capitals really have nothing new to discuss this year. The goaltending in Braden Holtby is still world-class, Ovechkin shows no signs of slowing down, and this team is deep at every position. The issue that nobody is talking about is what happens after this season. Kuznetsov announced himself to the world as an elite playmaker this year—stealing the first line from Nicklas Backstrom and leading the team in points with 77. But he’s doing so on a $3 million contract that ends after this season with a team that has just under $600,000 of available cap space. To make it worse? Andre Burakovsky finishes his entry level contract after this year and will be asking for a sizeable raise from the $900,000 he’s making now. The whipped cream and cherry on top? The Capitals are also going to have priorities to sign T.J. Oshie, Karl Alzner, Dmitri Orlov, and Philipp Grubauer, who have the right to ask for raises if they play the way they’ve been playing. Something’s got to give.
The Capitals, once again, have managed to improve in the offseason. Eller will be a key addition and I see them in another deep playoff run (obviously). Whether this is finally their year remains to be seen, but what is certain is that this team will not look the same this time next year, or maybe even by the trade deadline. This season is the going away party for the Washington Capitals as we know them.