BY PAT PICKENS
When the NHL unveiled this division in realignment, eyebrows raised. Face it, it’s the only division in the “new NHL” that seems strange. The Columbus Blue Jackets venture over from the Western Conference, and Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals migrate north from the Southeast.
But don’t let the seeming unfamiliarity confuse you. There are some ardent rivals in the Metro Division. Penguins-Capitals, Penguins-Flyers, Rangers-Devils, Rangers-Islanders, Flyers-Devils, Flyers-Capitals. Even the Devils and Hurricanes have a rivalry based on past playoff series — who can forget that classic, seven-game 2009 East quarterfinal?
Four Metropolitan Division teams made the playoffs last year in the East, and you can expect that many to qualify yet again.
Teams listed in order of predicted finish.
Pittsburgh Penguins (2012-13 record: 36-12-0; lost in Eastern Conference final)
Few franchises could view the Pens’ 2012-13 season as a failure. After all, Pittsburgh won two playoff series and were among the four clubs to finish with an above-.500 playoff record.
But it's still hard to believe that Pittsburgh’s season ended before the Stanley Cup final, and doubly difficult to fathom that they were swept by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference finals. Still, Pittsburgh is as talented as ever. The Pens locked in head coach Dan Bylsma, forward Evgeni Malkin and Norris Trophy nominee Kris Letang to long-term deals in the offseason. And though they lost rentals Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow, the Penguins shored up their defence by signing 2009 Cup hero Rob Scuderi from Los Angeles. Scuderi is a minutes eater and has won the Cup twice in his career for a reason.
Still, questions exist with this club. Which Marc-Andre Fleury will we see? The one who backstopped the Pens to the East’s top seed, or the one who unceremoniously flamed out in Pittsburgh’s opening-round series against the Islanders? Will a defensive unit that was blitzed by the Islanders and Bruins be able to hold up? After all, 2013-14 is Stanley Cup or bust in Pittsburgh. Is Matt D’Agostini the answer to the losses to Iginla and Morrow?
Key acquisitions: Rob Scuderi, Matt D’Agostini
Key losses: Brenden Morrow, Jarome Iginla
New York Rangers (26-18-4; eliminated in second round of playoffs)
Not long ago, simply making the playoffs was grounds for celebration in New York. Those days are behind us, as New York enters 2013-14 as the East’s ultimate wild card. The Rangers have arguably the world’s greatest goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, and new coach Alain Vigneault is not John Tortorella -- which earns him major points from the get-go.
However, injuries have bitten the Rangers early this year, as they will be without Ryan Callahan on Opening Night. Plus, a nightmarish early-season road trip — the Rangers will play their first nine on the road, five of which will take place against Western Conference opposition thanks to Madison Square Garden renovations — could either send New York on its way or put it in a hole.
Still, 82 games of Rick Nash have Rangers fans salivating, though it’ll be interesting to see whether Vigneault decides to line him up with embattled forward Brad Richards. Don’t forget about newly signed forward Benoit Pouliot, who should give the Rangers both a big body and a boost on the power play. The Rangers’ man-advantage was a huge liability toward the end of last season.
Marc Staal appears to be fully healthy off an eye injury and is poised to lead a strong defensive unit that includes two new additions, Justin Falk and Aaron Johnson. Lundqvist will be an unrestricted free agent after the year; he and the Rangers are trying to finalize a deal before Opening Night. The Rangers are just one season removed from being the East’s No. 1 seed and an Eastern Conference finalist. If Vigneault’s system takes fast, a similar year could be in order for the Blueshirts.
Key acquisitions: Benoit Pouliot, Aaron Johnson, Justin Falk
Key departures: Ryane Clowe, Steve Eminger, Roman Hamrlik
Washington Capitals (27-18-3; eliminated in first round of playoffs)
It’s hard to argue that many other clubs were as adversely affected by realignment as the Capitals.
The Capitals had won the Southeast five of the past six years and had become accustomed to beating up the likes of the Florida Panthers, Carolina Hurricanes and Tampa Bay Lightning before enduring epic playoff flameouts. Last year’s playoff loss involved back-to-back shutouts, including a 5-0 blasting in Game 7 at the hands of the New York Rangers.
Still, Washington’s season wasn’t a complete waste. The Capitals rebounded from a horrific 2-8-1 start -- one that nearly cost coach Adam Oates his job -- to claim the Southeast. A torrid stretch earned Alexander Ovechkin the Hart Trophy as NHL’s most valuable player. Washington returns much of the same team that was the East’s No. 3 seed. Still, top-two centre and playmaker Mike Ribeiro signed in Phoenix in the offseason, and enigmatic forward Wojtek Wolski -- who registered just nine points in 26 games last year -- headed off to the KHL.
The Capitals grasped and flourished under Oates’ system in the second half of 2013, and with a full season of it, expect Washington to challenge for the Metropolitan Division championship. Still, will Ribeiro’s departure affect Washington’s power play? The Caps had the league’s best man-advantage unit in 2013.
Key acquisition: Mikhail Grabovski
Key departures: Wojtek Wolski, Mike Ribeiro
New York Islanders (24-17-7; eliminated in first round of playoffs)
The Islanders were the Eastern Conference’s feel-good story of 2013.
While some -- ahem, yours truly -- saw it coming, New York’s youth and exuberance finally translated into wins last year. New York went from dead last in the Atlantic Division in 2011-12 to third and infused life into its fan base thanks to a playoff berth and exciting series against the Penguins.
John Tavares, who spearheaded that rise, is now New York’s captain, thanks to Mark Streit’s departure. Tavares was a Hart Trophy nominee in 2013, and it's hard to believe that’ll be the Mississauga, Ont., native’s only date with the most valuable player award.
Defence was an issue, and without Streit, New York has committed both time and dollars to budding star Travis Hamonic. Hamonic, who is only 23, signed a seven-year, $27-million deal this offseason, which embeds him as New York’s top defender.
Still, questions remain. Streit had been a fixture on the blue line, and now he's in Philadelphia. Brad Boyes struggled in the postseason but had great regular-season numbers playing with Tavares and is still lingering in free agency. How much will Pierre-Marc Bouchard and Cal Clutterbuck contribute offensively this year? Will 38-year-old goalie Evgeni Nabokov withstand a full season? He seemed to wear down in the postseason, though Pittsburgh’s firepower may have had something to do with that.
Key acquisitions: Cal Clutterbuck, Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Peter Regin
Key departures: Mark Streit, Brad Boyes, Marty Reasoner
Philadelphia Flyers (23-22-3; 10th in East)
Where do we begin with Philadelphia?
The Flyers’ offseason was eventful, of that there is no doubt. Still, coming off a season in which Philadelphia buried itself early and could not rebound late, folks thought the Flyers might try to rebuild when they amnestied embattled goalie Ilya Bryzgalov and longtime forward Danny Briere. Those two moves cleared millions of dollars for Philadelphia to get younger.
And then the Flyers used it to sign Vinny Lecavalier to a five-year deal and 37-year-old Mark Streit to a four-year contract.
Such is the way in Philadelphia these days. The Flyers made headlines across the league by inking the two former captains. Still, they are going into the regular season with a goalie duel of Ray Emery and Steve Mason, neither of whom inspires much these days.
Claude Giroux is coming off another great year in which he recorded 47 points and played every game, and if Lecavalier -- who is only 33, by the way -- can be the point-per-game player he’s always been, the Flyers will have depth down the middle.
Philadelphia’s defence is strong, but goaltending is too shaky to expect this club to contend. Emery isn’t going 17-1 this year, and Mason isn’t going to find his 2009 self.
Key acquisitions: Vincent Lecavalier, Mark Streit, Ray Emery
Key departures: Danny Briere, Ilya Bryzgalov, Simon Gagne
Carolina Hurricanes (19-25-4; 13th in East)
It could be argued that no team had a more disappointing 2013 than the Hurricanes.
The 'Canes ponied up and signed forwards Alex Semin and Jordan Staal after 2011-12, and fans in the Research Triangle were ecstatic pre-lockout for GM Jim Rutherford’s plan to take Carolina back to its glory years, like 2006.
Then goalie Cam Ward got injured, and Carolina never recovered. Dan Ellis and Justin Peters combined to go 10-19-3 with a .899 save percentage after Ward injured his knee, sinking Carolina’s proverbial ship.
The good news in Carolina? All the offensive firepower is back. Centre Jeff Skinner, who enjoyed a breakout year as a 20-year-old, is freshly signed to a large extension. Jiri Tlusty, who also broke out with 38 points in 48 games, is under control, and the Staal boys -- Eric and Jordan -- are locked in long term.
Justin Faulk and Ryan Murphy were enormous bright spots in 2013 -- the duo combined for more than 23 minutes per game -- which will be important since Carolina lost minutes-eater Joni Pitkanen for the season with a broken heel. Ron Hainsey and Mike Komisarek are also new signees, with Hainsey coming from Winnipeg and Komisarek exiled by Toronto.
Ward is a world-class goaltender, and with the roster Carolina has (assuming it stays healthy), the Hurricanes shouldn't stay down for long.
Key acquisitions: Nathan Gerbe, Ron Hainsey, Mike Komisarek
Key departure: Marc-Andre Bergeron
Columbus Blue Jackets (24-17-7; ninth in West)
If the Islanders were the East’s feel-good story, then the Blue Jackets were the best story in the NHL.
Sergei Bobrovsky was downright dominant in net, earning himself the Vezina Trophy, much to the chagrin of Philadelphians. Bobrovsky has evidently found a home in Columbus, signing a two-year, $11.25-million deal this offseason.
Besides re-signing Bobrovsky, the Jackets inked Nathan Horton to a seven-year, $37.1-million deal; Horton will anchor Columbus’s right-wing position with Marian Gaborik. Gaborik posted eight points in 12 games after being dealt by the Rangers, and the Blue Jackets will expect more of the same in a full season, the last of Gaborik’s contract. Jack Skille also is over the Florida Panthers, as the new additions try to replace last year’s leading scorer, Vinny Prospal.
On defence, Columbus brings back many of the same faces as last year. Fedor Tyutin, James Wisniewski and Jack Johnson anchor a corps that surrendered just 119 goals in 48 games last season. Can that defence hold up in front of Bobrovsky for a full season? Can Bobrovsky play like the Vezina winner and not like the netminder who was exiled from Philadelphia? If both can do each, the Blue Jackets could sneak in the playoffs this year.
Key acquisitions: Nathan Horton, Jack Skille
Key departures: Vinny Prospal
New Jersey Devils (19-19-10; 12th in East)
The Devils’ summer made the Flyers’ offseason look like a paddle-boat ride.
As is his wont, New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello pulled off the coup of the offseason on draft day, acquiring 27-year-old goalie Cory Schneider for only the team’s first-round pick. Schneider is now the heir apparent to the legendary, but aging, Martin Brodeur. Schneider also offers the Devils a No. 1a netminder for the present, as New Jersey has 21 back-to-back games this year. Remember, Brodeur missed 19 games with a back injury last year, which helped derail the Devils’ season.
With the goalie of the future in place, Lamoriello turned his attention to the offence. New Jersey lost two of its top-three point producers in David Clarkson and Ilya Kovalchuk. Clarkson, a Toronto native, departed for the Maple Leafs, and I’m sure everyone knows what Kovalchuk did to New Jersey.
Still, the Devils are a team with size and punch offensively. They signed Newfoundlanders Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder. Clowe is coming off the worst year of his career and knows it. Ryder notched 35 points in 46 games between Dallas and Montreal a year ago.
New Jersey also inked Jaromir Jagr, though he’s missed time this preseason with “soreness.” The Devils also added the speedy Damien Brunner to go along with incumbents Patrik Elias, Travis Zajac and newly re-signed centre Adam Henrique.
Though the new acquisitions swear they won’t feel pressure, each also has said that replacing a player with the grace and skill of Kovalchuk is impossible. Clarkson was a fan favourite but had also combined for 45 goals the past two seasons. New Jersey’s defence struggled at times last year. Captain Bryce Salvador was minus-12, and big things are expected of 20-year-old Adam Larsson.
Key acquisitions: Michael Ryder, Cory Schneider, Jaromir Jagr, Ryane Clowe, Damian Brunner
Key departures: Ilya Kovalchuk, David Clarkson, Henrik Tallinder
Hottest divisional rivalry: Rangers vs. Islanders. The Atlantic Division waited almost 20 years for this rivalry to heat up, and it took about that long for the Islanders to become competent enough again. The Isles and Rangers expect to be near the top of the division, and disdain and history runs deep and will only run deeper after the Isles move next door to Brooklyn in a couple of years.
Big question mark: How will Columbus adapt to life in the East? After years of battling a hellacious travel schedule, the Blue Jackets now will play 54 of their 82 (66 percent) within the Eastern time zone. This should be important for a team that played only its 24 home games -- and two road dates at Detroit -- in the East, though it could force the Jackets to play a more rough-and-tumble Eastern Conference style. Marian Gaborik may need a protector.
And the playoff teams will be… Pittsburgh Penguins, N.Y. Rangers, Washington Capitals, N.Y. Islanders