Rat Trick Predicts: Metropolitan Division Preview


It seems like every website is doing a season preview these days, so we here at The Rat Trick might as well do one too.  Here is our Pacific Division and Central Division preview if you need more crucial knowledge.  Working from west to east, let’s continue with the Metropolitan Division preview:

Oct 2, 2015; Raleigh, NC, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins forward Sidney Crosby (87) skates with the puck against the Carolina Hurricanes during the 2nd period at PNC Arena. The Carolina Hurricanes defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1. Mandatory Credit: James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports

1. PITTSBURGH PENGUINS –  Last year was a disappointment for the usually high-flying Penguins, no doubt about it.  A five-game loss to the New York Rangers in the first round of last year’s playoffs once again rekindled the “Is Sidney Crosby clutch?” and “Should Evgeni Malkin be traded?” questions.  The answers are yes and no, by the way.  However, GM Jim Rutherford knew that the Eastern Conference perennial power still needed some upgrades.

Enter Phil Kessel.  The American sniping winger was acquired from the Toronto Maple Leafs in a sprawling, blockbuster deal.  The Penguins did part with a couple of lucrative prospects and a 1st-round pick, but the idea of Kessel playing on a line with all-time talents like Crosby and Malkin should pay enough dividends.  If all three guys stay healthy, there’s a major possibility for a couple 40-goal seasons.  Just imagine a power play with these guys, plus Kris Letang at the point.

But along with those four offensive machines, complementary players like David Perron, Patric Hornqvist, and Chris Kunitz can deliver with goals as well.  Add in even more depth with Eric Fehr, Nick Bonino, Pascal Dupuis, and Beau Bennett, and this is a fearsome line-up that stretches through all four lines.  This offense is no joke, and might challenge the Tampa Bay Lightning to be the best in the Eastern Conference.

The situation is iffier on defense, because there isn’t much experience on this back line.  Kris Letang is the anchor and minutes-eater, and Ben Lovejoy is also a helpful veteran.  But gone are Christian Ehrhoff and Paul Martin, who logged the 2nd and 3rd most minutes on the squad last season.  Filling their skates are Brian Dumoulin, Olli Maata, and Derrick Pouliot, none of whom have played a full NHL season.  Having one or two rookie defensemen is fine for an NHL squad as the young guys work through difficulties and begin to assert themselves as players.  Having maybe three could cost the Penguins in a few games this season.

Luckily, Marc-Andre Fleury is back between the pipes, and for now is healthy and not a punching bag for hockey fans across Twitter.  If Flower can start consistently and solidly for the Penguins, expect the team to run roughshod through the Eastern Conference and make some noise in the playoffs.  If Fleury is off his game, than the Penguins will have to outscore a lot of teams to win games.  But with Crosby on my team, I’d be up for that challenge.

Apr 24, 2015; New York, NY, USA; New York Rangers center Dominic Moore (28) celebrates after left wing Carl Hagelin (62) (not pictured) scored the game winning goal against the Pittsburgh Penguins during overtime in game five of the first round of the 2015 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers defeated the Penguins 2 – 1 in overtime to advance to the next round. Mandatory Credit: Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

2. NEW YORK RANGERS – After winning the Presidents’ Trophy last year, the Rangers made an impressive run through the playoffs before falling to the wickedly explosive Tampa Bay Lightning in the Conference Finals.  Unfortunately for them, the home ice couldn’t snag them the Game 7 win.  But after a couple of shrewd pickups this offseason, the Rangers might be as equipped as ever to finally score that Cup that has eluded them since 1994.

And of course, the discussion starts with Henrik Lundqvist in goal.  He’s a Vezina Trophy contender right off the bat.  But even though an injury took him out of commission for a few weeks during last season, the stellar play of Cam Talbot did more than enough to keep the Rangers on their winning ways.  Well there’s no Talbot this year, he has gone to the Oilers.  But Antti Raanta is here, and he has put up great numbers when he got a chance to start in Chicago.  Expect both him and Lundqvist to be top tandem in the NHL.

And just like last year, expect Rick Nash to be the main catalyst for a Rangers offense that was one of the best.  He, along with Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan, should have no trouble finding enough twine and letting King Henrik handle the rest.  The problem that the Rangers might run into is depth of scoring, but if guys like Emerson Etem, Kevin Hayes, and Chris Kreider develop well, that might not turn into a problem at all.

The blue line is another strength for the Rangers, and it is anchored once again by Marc Staal and Ryan McDonagh.  That’s without mentioning wily and creative veterans Dan Boyle or Keith Yandle.  Or also two dependable defensemen in Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein.  It’s a very solid group, and the Rangers might possess the best core of defensemen in the entire Eastern Conference.

The Rangers will get their goaltending once again, and barring any crucial injuries they should get great defense as well.  But if the Rangers get the scoring going like they did last year, they might once again be considered top dog coming out of the East.

Sep 23, 2015; Brooklyn, NY, USA; New York Islanders center John Tavares (91) and center Ryan Strome (18) talk during the second period against the New Jersey Devils at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

3. NEW YORK ISLANDERS – Last year was the coming-out party for the New York Islanders as major Eastern Conference players, but it was a short party.  The Islanders were ousted in the first round of the playoffs to the Washington Capitals.  This year is the housewarming party, as the franchise is set to move into the Barclays Center in Brooklyn (still on Long Island, barely) to begin a new era of Islanders hockey.  And luckily for them, they’re already set up to make a run.

John Tavares is the face of the franchise, and with another big year he could one of the faces of the sport of hockey.  After his number one overall pick in 2009, Tavares toiled away in relative peace and quiet as the rebuilding Islanders got their ducks in a row.  Now, after growing up with guys like Kyle Okposo, Frans Nielsen, and Josh Bailey, the entire group is starting to approach their peaks.  Other young players like Brock Nelson and Ryan Strome also will be key in the offense, and will attempt to take some of the load off Tavares’ massive shoulders.  It’ll be necessary if the Islanders want to grab one of the division’s playoff spots.

Defensively, the Islanders spread their minutes out fairly evenly, but they’ll rely mostly on Travis Hamonic and Johnny Boychuk.  Alongside them will be Nick Leddy and Calvin de Haan, and a newcomer in Marek Zidlicky will contribute as well, even 38 years old.  This group doesn’t feature many sexy names, but if they can stay solid on the back end to free up the forwards up top, that’ll be just as fine to head coach Jack Capuano.

Acquiring Jaroslav Halak last year paid big dividends for New York, as he went 38-17-4 and restored himself as one of the top goalies in the league.  His .926 playoff save% is something to smile about as well, despite the one-round exit.  Backing him up will be German ex-Shark Thomas Greiss, who has posted some excellent numbers as a number 2 goalie most of his career.  So long as both goalies don’t mightily regress as they move past 30 years old, the Islanders should stay in any game.

I’m not convinced yet that the Islanders have the defensive pieces to contend for the Cup so soon, but having a guy like Tavares oughta at least push this team through into the playoffs once again.  Brooklyn will have plenty to root for as they get there.

Sep 24, 2015; Montreal, Quebec, CAN; Washington Capitals left wing Alex Ovechkin (8) before the game against Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre. Mandatory Credit: Jean-Yves Ahern-USA TODAY Sports

4. WASHINGTON CAPITALS – Alex Ovechkin is skating once again in Washington, and that once again means the Capitals have to be viewed as possible Cup contenders.  Along with his trusty linemate Nicklas Bäckström, the Russian should have his eyes on trophies past the Maurice Richard and Ted Lindsay Awards this season. 

Two new and interesting pieces are here to help out for the Capitals on offense this season.  Most notably is T.J. Oshie, acquired from the Blues for Troy Brouwer.  Brouwer will be missed, but Oshie has a wickedly high ceiling that he could reach by playing with Ovechkin.  The issue with Oshie is his seeming inability to reach 20 goals in a season, and the Capitals have to find a way for the American to produce as much as he is capable.  Also coming into town is Justin Williams, one of the NHL’s biggest playoff producers.  At 34 years old, he should still have juice left in the tank.  But honestly, the Capitals just need him for his Game 7 magic: in seven career Game 7s, he has seven goals and seven assists.  Washington hopes his track record of postseason excellence can push the Capitals’ postseason runs even deeper into May and June.

Goaltending has emerged as another strength of this Washington squad, with Braden Holtby having a breakout season in a starting role.  He racked up a .923 save% in 73 games last season, and actually improved with a .944 save% in 12 playoff games.  Holtby is sneakily one of the best goaltenders in the NHL, and after years in the AHL and splitting starts with the Capitals, the team was wise to finally give him the keys.

Defensively, the Capitals will lean heavily on John Carlson, who has emerged as one of the finest blue-liners in the game.  His excellent two-way play and durability qualify him as a superb-minutes eater.  Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik are also here, along with Karl Alzner and Dmitry Orlov.  The person not here for the first time in his career is Mike Green, who left for Detroit over the offseason.  He’s not the 30-goal scorer he once was, but his offensive skills won’t be easily matched by anybody on this Washington defensive squad.

Once again, it feels like the Capitals’ biggest enemy is themselves.  Season after season sees the Caps fall early in the playoffs, and at some point the team needs to put the puzzle together at the right time.  Maybe in Barry Trotz’s second campaign, he’ll be able to get the Run to the Cup really churning.

Sep 24, 2015; Columbus, OH, USA; Columbus Blue Jackets center James Sheppard (32) leaps over the bench boards in the first period against the Minnesota Wild at Nationwide Arena. Mandatory Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

5. COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS – These plucky Ohioans turned a lot of heads at the end of last season, as the team went on a torrid run to end the season, fitting in a nine-game win streak at one point.  The problems with the Blue Jackets last season came mostly from injuries, as the team lost 502 man games — easily leading the league.  Columbus is betting on staying just a little healthier this year, and the team will build off the crazy momentum that ended last year.

The main man for Columbus is their Vezina-winning goaltender, Sergei Bobrovsky.  One of the big injuries from last season, his absence severely hurt Columbus in a multitude of ways, highlighting the team’s defensive issues and penalty kill woes.  If the Blue Jackets can get a healthy Bob this season, they could have a serious chance at moving up the division.

But to go back to the defensive woes, the Blue Jackets had plenty last year.  This again had a lot to do with injuries to Ryan Murray and others, but especially in the beginning of the year the Blue Jackets were mightily struggling in their own end.  Veterans like Jack Johnson and Fedor Tyutin will be tasked to raise their game from last year, and hopefully that will bring the Blue Jackets closer to a playoff status team.  However, just another injury or two on this back line could mean more reliance on inexperienced defensemen, and that came back to sting the Blue Jackets last year.

The team’s best chances of winning comes from a productive group of forwards.  Ryan Johansen and Nick Foligno are quietly two of the best forwards in the league, and players like Cam Atkinson and Scott Hartnell are underrated as well.  And if Brandon Saad becomes all he is touted to be, and if Brandon Dubinsky can avoid injuries, this team should field one of the top offenses in the Conference.  The cannon will be blasted many times this season.

The Blue Jackets have goaltending and scoring, and those are the best things to have in this NHL.  But the defensive issues that many are expecting once again could derail the Blue Jackets from making the playoffs, especially if the injury bug comes back to bite them once again.

Sep 22, 2015; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Flyers goalie Steve Mason (35) steps onto the ice to begin a preseason game against the New York Rangers at Wells Fargo Center. The Flyers won 5-3. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

6. PHILADELPHIA FLYERS – The Flyers are entering a new era with the similarly-named Ron Hextall and Dave Hakstol at GM and head coach, respectively.  And because of the relatively weak Metropolitan Division this season, there could be an outside chance that this rebuilding franchise can sneak into a playoff spot.  But they’ll need a lot of luck and a massive season out of goalie Steve Mason.

Mason was great last year to the surprise of most hockey fans around the league.  Most people remembered Mason as the guy with ill-fitting pads in Columbus, but the one-time Calder winner has had a career resurgence in the City of Brotherly Love.  Last year the goalie put up a .928 save% in 51 games, and the Flyers will need him to put up similar numbers if they want to stay in the wild card hunt this season.

What the Flyers do have is an explosive top line of Claude Giroux, Jakub Voracek, and Michael Raffl.  On the power play especially, Giroux and Voracek have a massive knack for finding the net.  Those two players should be in the Hart Trophy conversation by the end of the year.  Sean Couturier, Wayne Simmonds, and Brayden Schenn are very solid options to give secondary scoring, and players like Matt Read and newcomer Sam Gagner are also good offensive talents.  Suffice it to say there are goal-scorers all up and down the line-up.

But even though the Flyers have excellent talent at forward, the defense is pretty abysmal the way it is now.  Mark Streit is likely the team’s best defenseman, and he’s 37 years old.  Luke Schenn has been disappointing, and Andrew MacDonald would have disappointed as well if he wasn’t waived into the AHL, despite having $25 million left on his deal.  Players like Michael Del Zotto and KHL convert Evgeny Medvedev are going to have to put the defense on their back, and there is no evidence to suggest they can handle that load.  The blue line is unequivocally the Flyers’ biggest weakness.

Also interesting to watch is how Dave Hakstol coaches this Flyers team.  He is coming straight from college hockey, having found success at the University of North Dakota before taking the job in Philly.  He is the first coach to go straight from college to NHL since 1982, so his level of success could usher in a new wave of teams looking at the college ranks for a coach.  But with the Flyers defense set up the way it is, I wouldn’t bet on immediate dividends.

Sep 22, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Carolina Hurricanes left wing Jeff Skinner (53)and defenseman James Wisniewski (21) at the face-off circle against the Pittsburgh Penguins during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 7-3. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

7. CAROLINA HURRICANES – With an ownership situation looming, a core aging out of their contracts, and coming off a rough season, the Hurricanes are looking for some bright spots to jolt the franchise out of its recent malaise.  It would take a lot of things to go right, but there is a slight potential for the Hurricanes to surprise some people and make a run at a playoff spot this season.

The face of the Hurricanes once again will be the Brothers Staal, Jordan and Eric.  Eric has still been productive as the captain and first-line center, but he isn’t the league superstar he was in his mid-20s.  He’s 30 now, and needs a new contract.  Jordan is locked into his contract for seven more years, but he’s coming off an ugly broken leg injury from last year, and needs to stay on the ice to produce.  Presumably, the Hurricanes are still working to acquire Marc Staal from the Rangers.

On the blue line, Justin Faulk is the big name after his massive last season.  Coming off a 15-goal season at only 23 yeas old, Faulk is one of the brightest young defenseman in the NHL.  His blue line support comes from veterans John-Michael Liles and James Wisniewski, as well as the perhaps inaccurately named Michal Jordan.  The Carolina defense isn’t too shabby, but is probably not spectacular past Faulk.

The goaltending situation behind the defense might be a little sketchy, to be frank.  Cam Ward has been the man between the pipes ever since the Hurricanes won the Cup in 2006.  But last year was not a stellar season for the veteran goaltender, and hasn’t been truly excellent since the early part of this decade.  Eddie Lack has been brought in from Vancouver to push for a starting job, and you have to imagine he’ll be given every chance to be “the guy” if Ward continues his downward statistical trend.

What really might sink the Hurricanes, however, is their lack of depth at forward.  Jeff Skinner appeared to lose some magic last season as he scored only 18 goals, compared to 33 the year before.  Nathan Gerbe also struggled last year, and there aren’t many other proven goal-scorers on the team.  Kris Versteeg and Joakim Nordstrom were brought in to help with scoring, but neither will be able to raise the entire team by themselves.  We’ll have to see if the Hurricanes have enough in their different facets of their team to force their way into the playoff conversation, but now their roster appears a little slight.

Sep 23, 2015; Brooklyn, NY, USA; New York Islanders center John Tavares (91) controls the puck in front of New Jersey Devils center Pavel Zacha (37) during the second period at Barclays Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

8. NEW JERSEY DEVILS – After years of Lou Lamoriello, Martin Brodeur, and pretty unmitigated success, it finally looks like the Devils are skating headlong into a good, old-fashioned rebuild.  It’s probably about time, though.  The Devils need an influx of young talent in the worst way, and that talent will get there soon.  But for now, the Devils have an old roster that doesn’t seem particularly built for a playoff run.

Corey Schneider is the real deal in net, however.  The redhead has been a stalwart for the Devils between the pipes, putting up a .925 save% last season among 69 games.  He plays often for New Jersey, and he puts up some gaudy numbers in those games.  Schneider will single-handedly steal some points for the Devils this season.

What we can’t be sure of is how many points the Devil skaters will create on their own.  At forward, Travis Zajac and 39 year-old Patrik Elias are relics of a more dominant time in Devils history.  Skating with them are Mike Cammalleri, Adam Henrique, and newcomers Jiri Tlusty and Kyle Palmieri.  The top-six for New Jersey just doesn’t look very inspired on paper, and I’m not expecting many explosive offensive performances for the Devils this season.

Defensively, the Devils do have a couple bright spots in Adam Larsson and Andy Greene, but the rest of the blue line doesn’t offer much of a résumé.  Outside of David Schlemko, every other defenseman is under the age of 25 and without much NHL experience.  Eric Gelinas, John Moore, and Damon Severson are a little wet behind the ears to be relied on for solid defense.  They’ll need to grow up quickly if they want to prevent Corey Schneider from being bombarded.

Overall, the Devils are in rebuilding mode, and there isn’t much more to point out other than that.  They’ll be in the lottery sweepstakes next summer with a good shot at that number 1 pick.

Next: Rat Trick Predicts: Central Division Preview

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