The start of a fresh new season is inching ever closer (and on time, too, wonder of wonders), and with it, thanks to realignment, comes a fresh new crop of division rivals. So it can't hurt to get a little refresher course on just who the Caps will be facing the most this season, and just how the Division's top players stack up against one another.
As we've done in the past, we'll be counting down the top ten players by position - this time in the Metropolitan Division - as well as the top prospects from the eight teams. And to kick it all off, the guys between the pipes...
Emery has been one of the NHL's better redemption stories in recent years, turning around a career that seemed destined to be sidetracked by injuries and off-ice issues before finally winning a Cup with Chicago this past spring. And this summer he returned to the place where that redemption story began, Philadelphia, to try and lend some credibility to a netminding situation that always seems to be lacking in that department. His numbers were sparkling last year as a 1A to Corey Crawford (including just one loss in 21 regular season games) and he's been solid overall throughout his career. That said, let's be honest... the road may be a bit bumpier this year than it was last year, because (understatement alert) the Flyers are not the Blackhawks.
Like the Flyers, the Islanders have had some turbulence in net in recent years - so if nothing else Nabokov provided them with some semblance of stability this past season. His numbers were decent but not spectacular, and there were times in the first round matchup with Pittsburgh where his team seemed to win in spite of him (or worse, lose because of him). Still, he played almost 2500 minutes, second only to Lundqvist in the Atlantic last year, faced the fifth-most shots in the NHL and posted three shutouts along the way.
Prior to the shortened 2013 season, Michal Neuvirth stated that Braden Holtby would be his "weakest competition yet"... which unfortunately still didn't assure him the starting goaltender job, as Neuvirth would play in just 13 games last year. Only four of those would be wins, as well (although some of that falls on his team, as those four wins were also the only four games in which they gave him any run support). That said, he saw his save percentage rise from the previous season despite getting less work and handled his light workload - complete with razor-thin margins of error - like a professional (despite his offseason chattering). And at just 24 he's still not quite in his prime; he may not have the starter's job (yet) but he's one of the Division's better backups.
When Marc-Andre Fleury is good, he is very, very good... but when he is bad, he is horrid. And that's what puts him just about middle-of-the-pack in the Division and the League, even after a pretty decent (statistically speaking) 2013 regular season. He probably takes a bit more flak than he deserves, particularly for someone who plays behind a defense that's not exactly made up of Nicklas Lidstrom clones. But he has a tendency to be a bit leaky, a fact which was on full display in the playoffs. The starter's job is apparently his to lose this season despite handing over the net to Vokoun prior to Game 5 against New York - whether he loses it or not remains to be seen.
On March 3, the night Cam Ward's season would end, the Hurricanes had a four-point lead in the Southeast Division. After that game the 'Canes would pick up wins in three of their next four before dropping 19 of their final 23 games, to say nothing of the Division title. Ward, like Fleury, is a decent but unspectacular goalie (in fact their career numbers are eerily similar) - but Ward lacks some of the leakiness of Fleury, and after last season it's hard to say that the 'Canes don't live and die with the success (or health) of their goalie.
5. Tomas Vokoun, Pittsburgh Penguins
No one needs to tell Caps fans that when Vokoun is healthy and on, there aren't many who are better. And while we have the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to see the Penguins even getting out of the first round if he's not there to bail out Fleury in Game 5 against the Islanders. He'll be there to bail him out again if Dan Bylsma's decision to go back to Fleury this season backfires... that is, if he can stay healthy, and at 37 he may not respond in an 82-game campaign the way he did in a shorter, 48-game season.
4. Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals
It's probably fair to say that Braden Holtby stumbled a little bit last season, first at the beginning of the season and again (and more noticeably) in the playoffs. The Holtby who barely flinched when met with a stick-swinging Rich Peverley a year ago now seemed a bit more tentative, a bit sloppier, and his inconsistency was part of the reason the Caps fell to the Rangers in the first round. Having said that, he still had far more great games than bad ones - and Holtby is still young enough (he'll be 24 by the time the season starts) that a few hiccups are bound to happen. Those hiccups certainly haven't derailed his terrific numbers, either, whether it's regular season or playoffs. Time will tell with him, but he's off to a very good start.
The fact that someone could get traded to this division just a little over a month ago and instantly leap up to the top three probably speaks volumes about the goaltending depth/talent among these eight teams... but that's certainly not to take away from the fact that Schneider is a pretty decent goalie in his own right. His stunning trade to New Jersey on Draft Day didn't just blow the roof off of Prudential Center, it also set Schneider up as heir apparent to Martin Brodeur's throne. It's possible that Schneider and Brodeur will split the starter's job all season, but with the latter's performance starting to slip (as evidenced by his absence from this list), it wouldn't be all that surprising to see Schneider take over as The Guy by January... if not sooner.
There's no question that 24-year-old Bobrovsky took a huge step forward in his career last season, shaking off the Curse of the Flyers to post a career-high save percentage (and second-highest in the League) of .932 and earning his first career shutout (plus three more) en route to a Vezina Trophy win (along with an award for best dressed). It was his performance that almost singlehandedly kept the Blue Jackets in the playoff race last season, keeping his team afloat until practically the last day of the season. Still, the sample size is a bit too small and the lockout-shortened season too full of anomalies to anoint him the class of the division just yet...
...which brings us to #1. Posting characteristically great numbers (despite the fact that his team declined a bit overall from the previous season), Lundqvist remains one of the game's best. He played in all but five of the Rangers' 48 games last year and finished in the League's top five in wins, saves, shots faced and save percentage - all of which resulted in being named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy for the fifth time in his career. And of course we all remember what he did to the Caps in the playoffs...
Until proven otherwise, Henrik remains the King.