Gone are the lazy, hazy days of Summer in the Southeast – now that moving day has come and gone, it's time to scope out the new neighbors in the Metropolitan Division to see just what the Caps will be up against this season. There are some old evils-turned-division rivals (‘sup, Sid?), some who made the move right alongside the Caps (can’t quit you, 'Canes) and a brand new face on the Eastern Conference scene (love ya, ‘Lumbus).
With training camp inching mercifully closer, let's take a look at the new digs...
Key Players - Eric Staal, Jordan Staal, Alexander Semin, Cam Ward
Former Caps - Alexander Semin
All-Time Record vs. Washington [as Carolina] - 33-41-14
Playoff Series vs. Washington - 0
Offseason Additions - Signed Mike Komisarek (D) to a one-year deal; acquired Andrej Sekera (D) from the Sabres; signed Nathan Gerbe (F) to a one-year deal; signed Anton Khudobin (G) to a one-year deal
Howdy, neighbor - The Caps may have shaken the rest of their Southeast pals in the division realignment, but darn it if those pesky 'Canes just won’t go away. The team that collects Staal brothers like hockey cards will get another go-round as a division rival after fourteen years in the Southeast, so there are plenty of familiar faces – including one particularly familiar one in Alexander Semin – to draw the ire of the Caps and their fans alike this season.
Just like last year, the 'Canes are fairly loaded up front with Eric and Jordan Staal, Jeff Skinner, the surprising Jiri Tlusty and Semin - and just like last year, they'll be followed by a fairly weak defense (albeit minus Joe Corvo, which is the definition of addition by subtraction). The blue line has improved slightly from last season with the addition of Mike Komisarek and Andrej Sekera, and the bargain signing of Nathan Gerbe could turn out to be a good one (or at least a low risk one, compared with some other contracts they've thrown around recently...), but did they upgrade enough to keep pace with their new division? Tough to say.
In net, as always, will be Cam Ward, who will likely have to play beyond his abilities (and stay healthy) just to keep his team afloat in a tougher division. He's not elite but he can certainly steal games, and we saw last year how closely the team's fortunes are tied to his availability - of course, if he should falter or fall injured, the pickup of Boston's discarded backup goalie in Anton Khudobin could also prove to be a key move by Jim Rutherford. Certainly an improvement over Dan Ellis...
Columbus Blue Jackets
Key Players - Nathan Horton, Marian Gaborik, Sergei Bobrovsky, R.J. "They play the wrong way" Umberger
Former Caps - none
All-Time Record vs. Washington - 4-6-4
Playoff Series vs. Washington - 0
Offseason Additions - Signed Nathan Horton (F) to a seven-year deal
Howdy, Neighbor - The new kids on the block, the Blue Jackets enter the Metropolitan Division as something of an underdog on the rise... which is potentially a little unnerving for their new division rivals, especially since they're already used to fighting it out in a pretty tough division out west. A team that seemed to capture the hearts of everyone who wasn’t fighting with them for a playoff spot back in April, they’ve got a new general manager, a bevy of former Rangers on hand and a Vezina-winner in net - not to mention a much friendlier travel schedule than in previous years.
Along with their ex-Ranger contingent, the biggest piece they added this offseason was Nathan Horton, who signed a long-term deal earlier this month, but it remains to be seen whether he can stay healthy and take a larger role after being a good complementary piece (but hardly a star) on the Bruins. If not, it could be a long seven years.
On the blue line, the Blue Jackets are still fairly young (or in the case of James Wisniewski, massively overpaid) and not that scary. Plus there's no guarantee that Sergei Bobrovsky maintains his Vezina-winning, post-Flyers euphoria through a full season (although let's be honest, there's no chance a Columbus goalie follows up a great half-season, award-winning performance with a dud... right?). But while they might not be in line to challenge for the division title just yet, one gets the sense that Columbus could keep pace with the Caps this year for those final playoff spots.
New Jersey Devils
Key Players -
Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, Jaromir Jagr, Patrik Elias, Martin Brodeur
Former Caps - Dainius Zubrus, Jaromir Jagr
All-Time Record vs. Washington [as NJ] - 72-77-9
Playoff Series vs. Washington - 2
Offseason Additions - Signed Michael Ryder (F) to a two-year deal; signed Ryane Clowe (F) to a five-year deal; signed Jaromir Jagr (F) to a one-year deal; signed Rostislav Olesz (F) to a one-year deal; acquired Cory Schneider (G) from the Canucks
Howdy, Neighbor - Kovalchuk and David Clarkson are gone. Martin Brodeur suddenly has some legitimate competition for the top goaltending spot. And our old pal
and well-known mercenary Jaromir Jagr is headed to Newark. Changes abound in the Garden State, with the Devils looking less and less like the one that made a surprise run to the Final just over a year ago.
Coming off of a less-than-stellar 2013 campaign and a tumultuous (to say the least) offseason, the Devils are something of a wild card – they still have talent, and suddenly have cap space to burn now that Kovalchuk's taken his mammoth contract off the books, so there's a chance they could add a few more pieces and surprise. That said, their lineup is littered with aging veterans past their prime, from Devils lifers like Patrik Elias and Martin Brodeur to newcomer and 41-year-old Jagr, in a division with loads of young talent.
Could be another tough year in Jersey.
New York Islanders
Key Players - John Tavares, Matt Moulson, Travis Hamonic, Lubomir Visnovsky
Former Caps - none
All-Time Record vs. Washington - 86-84-23
Playoff Series vs. Washington - 6
Offseason Additions - Acquired Cal Clutterbuck (F) from Minnesota, signed Pierre-Marc Bouchard (F) to a one-year deal
Howdy, Neighbor - The Islanders were the playoff darlings this past spring as they made the Pittsburgh Penguins work for the series win in the first round before ultimately falling in six games. Thanks in large part to a stellar (and MVP finalist-worthy) performance by John Tavares, the Islanders seemed to regain a bit of credibility after years of wallowing at the bottom of the conference.
Content to go forward with the young core they have in place, the Isles made just a couple of offseason addition - trading for Cal Clutterbuck on draft day and signing Pierre-Marc Bouchard to a one-year deal - but tweaked little else (unless you count finally buying out Rick DiPietro's monster contract). So it's hard to say that this is a team poised for greatness, as beyond Tavares and maybe one or two others in their core group there aren't too many "stars" on this roster. If they want to take the next step they may need to upgrade in net - but ownership doesn't seem to be in a rush to go on a spending spree and until that changes (or ownership changes) they'll at least be a team that's a pain in the rear to play. Which is something, at least.
New York Rangers
Key Players - Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan McDonagh, Rick Nash, Derek Stepan
Former Caps - none
All-Time Record vs. Washington - 87-86-24
Playoff Series vs. Washington - 8
Offseason Additions - signed Dominic Moore (F) to a one-year deal; signed Benoit Pouliot (F) to a one-year deal; acquired Justin Falk from Minnesota
Howdy, Neighbor - After meeting them in the playoffs three of the last four years, the Caps clearly weren't sick enough of playing the Rangers... so now they get to play them even more as newly reacquainted division rivals. But with John Tortorella given the boot earlier this summer, the Rangers team the Caps will be facing this year may not look exactly like it has in years past.
The task now falls to new bench boss Alain Vigneault to take on a team with a few big names and a lot of role players, and attempt to turn them into a Metropolitan Division powerhouse. They've still got all of the pieces they acquired from Columbus at the deadline for sniper Marian Gaborik, and Nash can certainly score when he feels like it, and Brad Richards... is also there. Neither of their big money forwards stepped it up during the playoffs and Richards appears to be getting one last shot at redeeming himself, but if they can lock up underrated stud Derek Stepan, that may not matter. And while they may lack some depth on the back end, the Rangers do have a couple of guys who are more than capable of shutting down the high-flying offense this division boasts - particularly in newly re-signed defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
But as usual the Rangers begin and end with the man between the pipes, and regardless of the game plan Vigneault puts in place one imagines it will ultimately boil down to "wait for Henrik Lundqvist to make the save." As it should.
Key Players - Claude Giroux, Scott Hartnell, Vincent Lecavalier, Sean Couturier
Former Caps - none
All-Time Record vs. Washington - 102-67-25
Playoff Series vs. Washington - 4
Offseason Additions - signed Lecavalier (F) to a five-year deal; signed Mark Streit (D) to a four-year deal; signed Ray Emery (G) to a one-year deal
Howdy, Neighbor - Another summer, another offseason of the Flyers Flyering all over the place. Surprisingly enough, they did make one good move by signing of Tampa exile Lecavalier, which filled a need for Philadelphia (albeit at a bit more money and term than was warranted). But because they're the Flyers, that was preceded by a four-year deal for one-trick pony (and 35-year-old) blueliner Mark Streit... a deal which required them to buy out not one but two of their preexisting ridiculous contracts, as they cut Danny Briere and Ilya Bryzgalov loose. That's $26 million for two guys not to play for them, for those of you keeping track at home.
The Flyers could be poised to possibly bounce back from an early tee time last season, with some pretty talented forwards on the roster. Giroux's off-year last year was probably an anomaly, and between him and Couturier and Lecavalier the Flyers have some decent scoring punch up front.
Of course, the blue line is another story as the roughly 27 defensemen they have on their roster could probably combine to equal 2.5 legitimate NHL defensemen. And behind them is a goaltending tandem of Ray Emery and Steve Mason (although at least this time neither one is locked up for a million years, so that's... something). Looking around the division, offense appears to be much stronger than goaltending and defense - but if you're the weakest of the bunch in that department, you could be in trouble when the Sidney Crosbys and Alex Ovechkins come to town. And they plan on visiting a lot.
Key Players - Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, James Neal
Former Caps - Tomas Vokoun
All-Time Record vs. Washington - 96-83-21
Playoff Series vs. Washington -
too many 8
Offseason Additions - signed Rob Scuderi (D) to a four-year deal
Howdy, Neighbor - Ah, the Penguins. In a division full of teams and players to hate, this bunch tops the list in both categories - but they're also the team to beat in the division, unfortunately (which may say more about the division than the team itself but that's a different issue...and let us not forget that they got swept by a team that was almost ousted by Toronto in the playoffs). There's no question that the Penguins have some pretty decent talent up front, particularly at center, with Crosby and Malkin providing a potent one-two punch that really is unmatched in the division and likely will be for the foreseeable future. James Neal continues to put up big numbers, while Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz
cashed in big time for being a Crosby winger provide some secondary scoring for a team not exactly lacking in that area.
Behind them, of course, is where it gets a bit more interesting. Kris Letang is a talented offensive defenseman but had some of his weaknesses magnified in the playoffs, which a team with a rough defense to begin with couldn't really afford. The blue line was shored up a bit with the (re)addition of Rob Scuderi, but whether "The Piece" can make that much of a difference remains to be seen.
And let's not forget the circus in net that is Marc-Andre Fleury... at times brilliant, at others incredibly leaky (and hilarious) and most of the time merely average, he lost the starter's job in the playoffs but allegedly will have it back to start the season. If he can't hold it, Tomas Vokoun is, as we all know, a perfectly viable back-up - but if he's unable to rescue Fleury (or can't stay healthy, a bigger issue for him in his career), the Pens could have trouble maintaining the torrid pace they set last year.
So there you have it, the Metropolitan Division (which will never not be weird to type) in a nutshell. We'll delve deeper into the fun new twists and turns of this second coming of the Patrick Division over the next few weeks - but for now, take a look around, explore the sights, and get ready for what should be a pretty entertaining season in our new 'hood.