Last season, the Carolina Hurricanes made significant strides in terms of points finishing with a respectable 86 that was still only good enough for sixth out of eight teams in the division. And when the Metropolitan Division was formed with the recent reorganization, it was deemed to be a tough division with the triumvirate of the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York Rangers and Washington Capitals all among the elite in the NHL with big market, full salary cap budgets. In addition, the Blue Jackets were was deemed to be a young up and coming team, and the Islanders and Flyers offered still more competition. The result was what looked like a challenging situation for the Carolina Hurricanes.
But if you fast forward to today, I think the Hurricanes might actually be timing their rise very well. Consider that…
Fresh off a Stanley Cup championship, the Pens are obviously among the elite in the NHL right now. But Evgeni Malkin just crossed the 30-year old threshold, and Sidney Crosby is right behind him at 29 years old. I do not mean to say that these great players are finished, especially after what they accomplished in 2015-16, but I think it is fair to say that they should begin to decline even if only gradually and that they have more great years behind them than in front of them. In addition, Hurricanes fans know a thing or 2 about Jim Rutherford’s ability to build winners but not necessarily maintain them.
New York Rangers
As much as any other team in the league, I think the Rangers are a team that is rebuilding but just does not know it. Henrik Lundqvist continues to be enough to mask growing problems. The Rangers are locked in to a pretty expensive blue line that is aging and not playing its greatest hockey. Henrik Lundqvist will turn 35 years old during the 2016-17 season. If he starts declining just how bad will the Rangers blue line look? In addition to defensive problems the Rangers ability to make adjustments is becoming limited due to limited salary cap space. Is there a scenario whereby Lundqvist declines and the Rangers really cannot even rebuild because of some of the contracts that they are locked into?
As good as the Capitals have been in the regular season, the team has been unable to push to the pinnacle and even play for, let alone win, a Stanley Cup. At some point, the window will close on this group, and ownership will blow it up to try something different. Is it possible that this is perfectly timed with a Hurricanes rising?
Columbus Blue Jackets
A couple of years back, the Blue Jackets were a rising team and a trendy pick to win the division or even the Stanley Cup. Since then the team has lost Ryan Johansen and added John Tortorella which is not a good trade. Despite finishing near the bottom of the NHL, the Blue Jackets are actually salary cap-contrained. Sinking in the standings combined with rising in terms of costs is not a recipe for a promising future.
New York Islanders
Despite not winning nearly as much, the Islanders situation actually looks a tiny bit like the Cup contenders in that they have a strong core but have been forced to shed pieces for budget reasons. This summer saw the Islanders lose 2 top 6 forwards in Frans Nielsen and Kyle Okposo. The Isles did back fill a slot with Andrew Ladd, but the team might still be faced with challenges to maintain the same level of roster depth that helped them push into the playoffs to begin with.
To be honest, I am not sure what to make of the Flyers rising up as a surprise team in 2015-16. The key question is if the team’s 2015-16 season is repeatable or instead a ‘perfect world’ event that will not be repeated. The questions are many. Is the goaltending tandemo of Michael Neuvirth and Steve Mason capable of another above league average season? Sure Shayne Ghostisbehere is a good hockey player, but his 60-point scoring pace for 2015-16 seems tough to match.
New Jersey Devils
I like the Taylor Hall trade as much as the next person and would have made it in a heart beat, but I still thing the Devils roster is a little bit light and now maybe especially so on defense with the departure of Adam Larsson. The Devils situation looks a bit like the Rangers in that Cory Schneider might be a Lundqvist-equivalent in terms of making the team look better than they are. Schneider is younger than Lundqvist, but anytime so much of a team’s success is dependent on 1 player there is risk.
Between aging stars, financial challenges and other unique situations, I think the Carolina Hurricanes might be timing a rise very well to coincide with a short period where much of the rest of the Metropolitan Division is moving in the opposite direction.