2013-14 NHL Predictions: Preview and Picks for Metropolitan Division
The Metropolitan Division could turn out to be the toughest in the NHL this season.
Like the Atlantic Division, this grouping features eight teams, unlike the two divisions in the Western Conference that have seven teams each.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, featuring Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, appear to be the clear-cut favorites. However, it would not surprise any one if any of the five following teams—the New Jersey Devils, New York Rangers, New York Islanders, Philadelphia Flyers and Washington Capitals—finished second.
The Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets appear to have the most work to do to contend for a playoff spot, but both teams have the potential to make life difficult for the favored teams in the division.
Here's our look at the Metropolitan Division.
The Favorite: Pittsburgh Penguins
While the Chicago Blackhawks ran away with the Western Conference in the 2013 regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins did the same thing in the Eastern Conference.
They had overwhelming talent, and Sidney Crosby led them to the top of the conference shortly after the midway point of the season. They continued to pull away even after Crosby's jaw was shattered by a deflected slap shot, and most expected the Penguins to meet the Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup Final.
However, the Penguins struggled with goaltending early on in the playoffs and were later swept by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final.
A shocking loss like that can lead to panic and major changes, but general manager Ray Shero knows his Penguins are loaded. In addition to Crosby (56 points) and Evgeni Malkin (nine goals, 24 points in 31 games), the Penguins have Chris Kunitz (22 goals, 52 points), James Neal (21 goals, 36 points) and defenseman Kris Letang (38 points, plus-16) to play key roles, so the team's depth is murderous.
However, the Penguins have a major question mark in goal. Marc-Andre Fleury has had two straight abominable postseason performances. Shero and head coach Dan Bylsma are taking the position that Fleury will not fail three times in a row.
That conclusion may be questionable, but when it comes to regular-season success, there is no reason to doubt the Penguins.
The Challenger: Philadelphia Flyers
The Philadelphia Flyers had two big problems in 2013, and they addressed both of them in the offseason.
The Flyers were shorthanded on the defensive end throughout the truncated season. They had a series of injuries that hurt their ability to block shots, get the puck out of their own zone and jump-start the offense.
The other issue was even more obvious. They had unstable play in goal with Ilya Bryzgalov. The quirky goalie was never consistent after being acquired before the 2011-12 season, and the Flyers realized they were never going to win with him, so they did not bring him back.
They acquired Steve Mason (2.59 goals-against average, .916 save percentage) from the Columbus Blue Jackets late in the 2013 regular season and then signed former Blackhawk Ray Emery (1.94 GAA, .922 save percentage). The duo will almost certainly share the goaltending duties this year and should be a big upgrade over Bryzgalov.
The Flyers added Mark Streit (six goals, 21 assists) on defense, and he joins Kimmo Timonen (five goals, 24 assists), Luke Schenn (three goals, eight assists) and Braydon Coburn (one goal, four assists) on the blue line.
There never were questions about the Flyers offense, and there shouldn't be with Claude Giroux (13 goals, 35 assists), Scott Hartnell (eight goals, three assists), Wayne Simmonds (15 goals, 17 assists), Jakub Voracek (22 goals, 24 assists) and newcomer Vincent Lecavalier (10 goals, 22 assists).
Head coach Peter Laviolette is under pressure to make sure the Flyers are a team that wins in the postseason once again, and he appears to have the talent on hand to make that happen.
The Bottom-Dweller: Carolina Hurricanes
The Carolina Hurricanes were running along quite nicely at the start of the truncated 2012-13 season.
However, their promising start turned into an ugly finish when goalie Cam Ward (9-6-1 record, 2.84 GAA, .908 save percentage) suffered a season-ending knee injury. Unfortunately, the 'Canes did not have an adequate backup goalie to keep the team afloat.
General manager Jim Rutherford tried to address that need in the offseason when he went after Bruins backup goalie Anton Khudobin (9-4-1, 2.32 GAA, .920 save percentage), who performed impressively whenever head coach Claude Julien asked him to provide Tuukka Rask with some relief.
The Hurricanes had every reason to feel hopeful at the start of training camp with Ward healthy and a solid backup in net, but the news that Joni Pitkanen was not healthy to play is very troubling.
Pitkanen (one goal, eight assists, plus-two) is the Hurricanes' best defenseman, but he suffered a broken heel toward the end of the 2012-13 season, and he has not recovered. Pitkanen is expected to miss the entire 2013-14 season, according to Chip Alexander's report in the Charlotte News & Observer.
The Hurricanes have some excellent talent in Eric Staal (18 goals, 35 assists, plus-five), Jordan Staal (10 goals, 21 assists), Jiri Tlusty (23 goals) and Jeff Skinner (13 goals, 11 assists), but they are in a tough division and won't have their best defenseman. It's an uphill fight at best, and if they can contend for a playoff spot, it would be a big upset.
Best Old Rivalry: Philadelphia Flyers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins
There has been nothing but hatred in Pennsylvania between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers.
Both teams have taken turns in dominating the series over the years, but this year it could be a brutal fight for the top in the Metropolitan Division.
The Flyers embarrassed the Penguins the last time the two teams met in the postseason in 2012. The Flyers did not make the playoffs last year, but they appear to have shored up weaknesses in net and on the blue line.
The Penguins should be able to score with any team in the league, but will they get adequate play in net to rise to the top of the division?
At the heart of the rivalry is the personal battle between Sidney Crosby and Claude Giroux. While Crosby is often looked at as the best player in the NHL, Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette has called Giroux the best player in the world.
Both teams have mastered the offensive part of the game. However, the Pens and Flyers have so much bad blood that the series could erupt at any time.
This rivalry is a brutal one, and it shows no signs of cooling down.
Best New Rivalry: New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals
The Caps and the Rangers are now divisional rivals after meeting in the playoffs four of the last five seasons.
Three of those series were seven-game showdowns. The Caps edged the Rangers in seven games in 2009 and then took out New York in five games in 2011.
The Rangers got their revenge in seven-game triumphs in 2012 and 2013.
Any time Alex Ovechkin takes the ice for the Caps and has to face Henrik Lundqvist in the net, you have a special matchup of perhaps the most feared shooter in the game versus the top goalie.
The Rangers enter the rivalry this year with a new head coach in Alain Vigneault behind the bench. While he should give the Rangers a more relaxed environment, he also is expected to help them upgrade their offense, which struggled to produce consistently under John Tortorella.
The Caps seemed to understand Adam Oates' system as the 2012-13 season progressed, but the loss of second-line center Mike Ribeiro to free agency (he signed with the Phoenix Coyotes) could hurt this team's balance.
These teams often bring out the best in each other, and their 2013-14 meetings should produce high drama.
Best Line: Chris Kunitz-Sidney Crosby-Pascal Dupuis, Pittsburgh Penguins
The Philadelphia Flyers can make a case for Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell and Jakub Voracek, while the New York Islanders have a terrific trio in John Tavares, Matt Moulson and Kyle Okposo.
However, while nearly all of the teams in this division boast a solid first line, nobody can top Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis.
Crosby (15 goals, 41 assists, plus-26 in 36 games) is a brilliantly skilled player who can do anything he wants on the ice—as long as he is healthy. His last three seasons have been damaged by injuries (major concussion and shattered jaw). His filthy backhand shot is often a shocking weapon, and his passing is almost certainly the best in the league.
Kunitz (22 goals, 30 assists) is a brilliant sniper who can take advantage of Crosby's stellar passes and find the corners. Dupuis (20 goals, 18 assists, team-high plus-31) is a clever forward who can finish plays and make slick passes. Dupuis has enough size at 6'1" and 205 pounds to take the hit, maintain possession of the puck and then make a key play in the offensive zone.
Best Defensive Pairing: Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, New York Rangers
The New York Rangers may not emphasize defense as much under Alain Vigneault as they did under John Tortorella, but they will still be among the top teams in that area.
Their No. 1 defensive pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi excels at the shutdown aspects of the position, and both players can jump into the play and make offensive contributions as well.
Vigneault will ask both McDonagh (four goals, 15 assists, plus-13) and Girardi (two goals, 12 assists) to do more of that than they have in the past. Both players should welcome that opportunity.
Girardi has never been shy about shooting the puck from the point, and if he can manage to sneak a few more shots through without getting blocked, he could become a game-changer for the Rangers.
McDonagh, 24, has all the tools to become one of the top defensemen in the league.
Best Goalie: Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
It would be difficult to find another goalie who could give Henrik Lundqvist a run for his money in the Metropolitan Division.
Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils owns nearly every career record a goaltender could have and is going to be inducted into the Hall of Fame by acclimation, but he is no longer at the peak of his powers. In fact, it would not be a surprise if his position was usurped by former Vancouver Canuck Cory Schneider during the season.
Sergei Bobrovsky was brilliant in winning the Vezina Trophy last year for the Columbus Blue Jackets, but he will be a marked man in 2013-14 and may find it difficult to sustain his performance.
Lundqvist is a remarkable talent who is also a workhorse. He has played 60 or more games in his last six full seasons. Lundqvist had a 24-16-3 record last year with a 2.05 goals-against average and a .926 save percentage.
He won the 2011-12 Vezina Trophy and has participated in three NHL All-Star Games. Lundqvist will also start in net for Sweden in the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, barring injury.
Any team that plays the Rangers knows that the presence of Lundqvist in the net means that they are going to have to be at their best just to get the puck by him two times in a game. If the Rangers can find some much-needed offense this year, Lundqvist may finally make a run at the Stanley Cup he and his teammates so desperately want.
Projected 2013-14 Standings
1. Philadelphia Flyers: Late-season surge allows Flyers to bypass archrival Penguins.
2. Pittsburgh Penguins: Goaltending problems once again cause big problems.
3. New York Rangers: Improving offense will have this team peaking by the start of the playoffs.
4. New Jersey Devils: After 2013 disaster, Devils will find their stride and make the playoffs.
5. Washington Capitals: Loss of Ribeiro robs this team of offensive balance.
6. New York Islanders: After last year's run to the playoffs, Islanders will be crushed by blue-line inadequacies and net problems.
7. Columbus Blue Jackets: Sergei Bobrovsky has the talent to keep the Blue Jackets in many games, but the competition will keep them from making a playoff charge.
8. Carolina Hurricanes: Doubtful the Hurricanes will find the goals to compete most nights, and the loss of Pitkanen is crippling.