If you did not check in at Canes and Coffee on Wednesday, Cory Fogg emerged from his summer writing hiatus to write a great article about the Hurricanes emerging puck possession identity. On topic with the biggest sports news in Raleigh on Wednesday, the Daily Cup of Joe considered the potential for North Carolina FC and its hopeful MLS team and the Carolina Hurricanes helping each other.
After a summer of articles mostly focused inward on the building of our 2017-18 Carolina Hurricanes team, today’s Daily Cup of Joe pokes its head out of Raleigh and takes a look at what the rest of the Metropolitan Division has been up to this off-season.
The starting point coming out of the 2016-17 season
The Metro Division was easily the best of the four divisions for the 2016-17 season. The division claimed three of the top four best records in the entire NHL, the President’s Trophy winner and ultimately the Stanley Cup champion. Only the New Jersey Devils were among the seven teams to finish below .500 for the season. Needless to say, the division was tough in 2016-17 and figures to be so again in 2017-18.
No favors from the NHL draft
The off-season started with the New Jersey Devils and Philadelphia Flyers moving up the draft board by winning the first and second slots in the 2017 NHL draft and in the process obtaining players who have the potential to be top half of the roster players very soon. In the process, even the bottom part of the division that the Hurricanes must stay above became more competitive.
One can slice and dice details of the Pittsburgh Penguins roster situation any which way they want, but the simple analysis is that the team has been good enough to win consecutive Stanley Cups, and the core of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is still intact. Especially for the regular season, any analysis that gets too bogged down in details below the top level is missing what makes the Penguins so good.
Changes: The Pens lost Marc-Andre Fleury, Matt Cullen, Ron Hainsey, Trevor Daley, Chris Kunitz and Nick Bonino and added Matt Hunwick and Antti Niemi.
Outlook: Despite losing a good number of players, if the Penguins can keep Crosby, Malkin and ideally Letang healthy and in the lineup, even a down season seems highly probable to still land a playoff spot.
The Capitals did all they could in the regular season again winning the President’s Trophy but again fell back to the ground with a big thud in the playoffs when they were ousted in seven games in the second round by the Pittsburgh Penguins. A significant portion of the team built to win in 2016-17 has been dismantled partly out of salary cap necessity and partly in yet another effort to find a combination that can get the job done in the playoffs. The Caps enter the 2017-18 with more questions than at any time in recent history.
Changes: Gone are Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Karl Alzner and Nate Schmidt with no real additions to back fill the losses.
Outlook: Amidst the turnover, the Caps did manage to re-sign T.J. Oshie to keep most of the core of its top-heavy offense intact, and the team still boasts one of the best goaltending tandems in the entire NHL. While I do think it is possible that the Caps slip because of their roster losses, I think their two strengths are still enough to make the Caps at least a playoff team.
Columbus Blue Jackets
The Blue Jackets were arguably the NHL’s biggest regular season surprise in 2016-17. After missing the playoffs in 2015-16, Columbus rode a massive mid-season winning streak to the top of the standings in a strong Metro Division. The Blue Jackets slid a bit down the stretch but still finished with 108 points which was good enough for fourth in the entire NHL despite being only third in the division. Playoff troubles aside, Vezina candidate Sergei Bobrovsky leads the charge from the back end with the help of an emerging young blue line led by young stars Seth Jones and Zach Werenski. The offense is a by-committee approach that worked well given the team’s scoring depth at the forward position. The path forward for the Blue Jackets is pretty similar leaning on an elite goalie, a strong defensive system and good roster depth across the board to stay in games on a nightly basis and gather scoring from many sources to win.
Changes: The biggest off-season change was a big trade of Brandon Saad to Chicago for Artemi Panarin. The Blue Jackets also lost Sam Gagner and Scott Hartnell who were two-thirds of a fourth line that scored.
Outlook: Roster-wise there is no reason why the Blue Jackets cannot repeat their 2016-17 performance, but the optimistic part of me hopes maybe that real version of the Blue Jackets is summer in between their slumping 76-point 2015-16 season and there surging 108-point 2016-17 season. If that happens and/or if you just remove their huge 16-game winning streak maybe they fall back into the pack of teams competing for the last few Eastern Conference playoff slots.
New York Rangers
The Rangers are a slightly less extreme version of the Capitals. The team is continually built to win now and desperately trying to build a team good enough to win a Cup before 35-year old Henrik Lundqvist rides off into the sunset. And also just like the Capitals, the Rangers have been up to the task but not able to push through in the playoffs. I am a couple years deep into thinking that the Rangers are a team that except for the Lundvist hourglass running out of time, the Rangers are a team in need of a more significant overhaul. Thus far, at least in the regular season, I have been wrong.
Changes: The most notable change on the Rangers is the blue line that sees Dan Girardi and Kevin Klein depart and a significant addition in Kevin Shattenkirk. The departure of Derek Stepan in a trade with Arizona is also a significant subtraction with the slot sort of back filled by David Desharnais.
Outlook: I am probably in the minority, but I view the 2017-18 Rangers as a wild card. The addition of Shattenkirk combined with two addition by subtraction moves on the blue line could seemingly boost a defense that was starting to lag, but one really will not know how all of that will work out until it hits the ice. Derek Stepan reminds me a bit of Jordan Staal in that he can eat up a bunch of minutes in tough situations and hold his own. Those minutes are tough to replace by committee. I will be watching the Rangers closely early in the season hoping to see chinks in their armor that suggest that they will fall to the playoff bubble and in range of the Hurricanes.
New York Islanders
After losing Kyle Okposo and Frans Nielsen over the offseason, the Islanders lost some top-end forward depth heading into the 2016-17 season which was not helped by a low scoring season from big free agent signing Andrew Ladd. But the Isles still scored at a good clip and actually struggled at keeping the puck out of their own net at least partially to challenges in net. Jaroslav Halak found himself in the AHL before being recalled, and new starter Thomas Greiss was only ‘meh.’ The Islanders are a team like the Hurricanes who will be looking to push up into a playoff slot in 2017-18.
Changes: A one-for-one swap of Ryan Strome for Jordan Eberle aims to provide more fire power for John Tavares’ line, and the team also finally parted ways with Travis Hamonic who has been rumored to be traded for some time.
Outlook: The addition of Eberle could help return Tavares’ line to a higher level of production, but in general an Islanders’ lineup that looks fairly similar to the previous season is just looking to rebound a bit to make the playoffs. The team only missed the playoffs by a point in 2016-17.
The Flyers surged in 2016-17 at roughly the same time the Blue Jackets did and at one point were firmly in a playoff slot. But Philadelphia slid in the second half of the season and ultimately finished right about where the Hurricanes did, above the break even point but below the playoff cut line. I put the Flyers sort of in the same category as the Rangers and Islanders as middle of the pack teams in the Metro Division trying to find a higher gear that pushes them over the top.
Changes: The headline addition for the Flyers was Nolan Patrick with the second overall pick in the 2017 NHL Draft. Otherwise the off-season has been a fairly quiet one with the swap out of Steve Mason and the addition of Brian Elliott in net probably being the most noteworthy change.
Outlook: The Flyers, like the Hurricanes, are very much a team on the outside looking in with the need to find a higher gear if they want to play late April hockey. As a team that made the 2015-16 playoffs and did not miss by a wide margin in 2016-17, the Flyers are a capable team that the Hurricanes will likely need to beat out to make the postseason.
New Jersey Devils
The Devils were the only team in the Metro to miss the playoffs by what I would call a wide margin in 2016-17. After parting ways with Larsson, the Devils finished 24th out of 30 teams in goals allowed even with Cory Schneider in net, and they continued to be light on offense as well clocking in at 28th in the league in scoring. New Jersey entered the off-season likely needing to make significant upgrades to compete for a playoff spot in 2017-18.
Changes: In addition to netting Nico Hirschier with the first pick in the 2017 draft, New Jersey made a couple of nice under the radar additions in Marcus Johansson and Brian Boyle but also lost depth scoring with the departure of Michael Cammalleri and P.A. Parenteau.
Outlook: Unless the Devils are able to swing a late trade or two, a blue line of Andy Greene, Ben Lovejoy, Dalton Prout, John Moore, Michael Kapla and Damon Severson seems destined for tough sledding even with Cory Schneider behind them, and it is not as if the Devils have a high-powered offense and are built to win 5-4 either. Somebody has to finish eighth and likely be well out of the playoff chase. My pick is the Devils.
Feel free to comment here if you wish, but I also recommend jumping next to the Thursday Coffee Shop where a companion set of polls and discussion questions similarly features the Metropolitan Division.