2013-14 NHL preview: Metropolitan Division

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2013-14 NHL preview: Metropolitan Division

We began our four-part series previewing the 2013-14 NHL season with a look at the Central Division on Sunday, the Pacific Division on Monday and the Atlantic Division on Tuesday.

Today, we break down the Metropolitan Division.

Capsules may not include latest injury or roster updates.

Metropolitan Division

1. Pittsburgh Penguins
Even though they only have one Cup this decade, the Penguins remain the class of the East just based on sheer talent -- and that's despite the fact that franchise goalie Marc-Andre Fleury has looked very mediocre in the playoffs two years running. Most people would have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in their top three of any poll and that says why the Pens are that good despite being blown out by Boston last spring. Key acquisitions at the trade deadline are gone, but the biggest addition was GM Ray Shero bringing back defenseman Rob Scuderi, whose underrated performance helped the Pens win the Cup in 2009. Fleury’s play needs to pick up substantially, given the shinny hockey the Pens often display. Tomas Vokoun’s blood clot injury is huge right now, especially if Fleury goes south.
 
2. New York Rangers
The days of terror at the rink have ended on Broadway with Alain Vigneault and John Tortorella essentially switching coaching locations. The crafty Vigneault promises to be a headache for the East. No one can explain the full meltdown of the Rangers late last season outside of the $60 million-bust, Brad Richards, but goalie Henrik Lundqvist needs to raise his game in the postseason. He is just 15-17 over the last two years. They've got a lot of new faces, though centerman Dominic Moore returns after a year off following the death of his wife. He is the most intriguing in terms of re-energizing a power play that has been mired in the bottom-third of the league. Look for more help in that area from defenseman Ryan McDonagh.
 
3. Philadelphia Flyers
On paper, the Flyers seem much improved with just a few acquisitions -- Mark Streit to move the puck quicker up the ice; rejuvenated Vinny Lecavalier to give them size at center; and a veteran goalie with a Cup -- Ray Emery -- to work in tandem with Steve Mason. Yet in training camp, neither goalie looked particularly sharp and the team’s overall defense and backchecking were terrible. The search for the missing left wing didn’t turn up anyone, instead the team moved some Flyers into different spots to make room for rookie center Scott Laughton. A healthy defense is absolutely essential for the Flyers to compete, let alone make the postseason when it’s anybody game. Danny Briere’s stick and playoff madness will be missed, but if Jakub Voracek and Brayden Schenn rebound, so could the Flyers.
 
4. Washington Capitals
The Caps won the Southeast Division seven times between 1998 and 2013. They won’t enjoy such success competing in the realigned East’s Metropolitan, which is actually a tougher division than the former Atlantic. Adam Oates’ decision to move Alex Ovechkin from left to right wing last year to jump-start his scoring juices paid off. Ovie’s 32 goals led the league; his 56 points were third-best. Problem has been the Caps never seem to generate postseason momentum and have lost in the conference semis three times this decade. With Alexander Semin gone, Ovie has a new Russian friend in Mikhail Grabovski, the Caps' top free-agent acquisition. There is good talent here led by goalie Braden Holtby (2.58, .920) and defenseman John Carlson.
 
5. New York Islanders
No one could have asked more of the Isles, who gave the Penguins all they could handle in their fascinating six-game playoff battle before folding last year. But the time has come for this young club, which soon will move to Barclays Center in Brooklyn, to make some headway in the East. John Tavares (28 goals) assumes the captaincy from the departed Streit. One thing you won’t see is that Rick DiPietro albatross hanging around the Isles’ necks. Evgeni Nabokov is again the No. 1 goalie. Forward prospect Ryan Strome appeared to have won a spot on the roster, but was sent back to juniors. He was the Isles’ fifth overall pick in 2011. More improvement is expected from Matt Moulson and Josh Bailey. Trade acquisition Cal Clutterbuck (skate cut injury) packs some muscle (155 hits).
 
6. New Jersey Devils
What a disastrous summer for the Devils and general manager Lou Lamoriello, starting with sniper Ilya Kovalchuk telling his boss he was leaving for Mother Russia after free agency had pretty much ended. Then came the financial reports of the Devils' misfortunes coupled with the sale of the club and subsequent release of a mountain of lawsuits against the Devils from various entities. Had Kovy made his intentions known sooner, maybe David Clarkson would still be there. He was replaced by Ryane Clowe and Michael Ryder and to a lesser degree, Rostislav Olesz. The other news is that Marty Brodeur may or may not be the starter in net by season’s end now that Cory Schneider is there. Jaromir Jagr looked cooked by the playoffs for Boston and may not offer much help.
 
7. Carolina Hurricanes
Injuries wrecked the Hurricanes last season across the board, then forward Eric Staal (53 points) injured his knee at the World Championships. The Canes’ health is vital to this club getting back into the hunt, which is why GM Jim Rutherford took a chance on Mike Komisarek with a one-year deal after he was bought out by Toronto and then rolled the dice in trading for nasty and dirty defenseman Andrej Sekera from Buffalo. Carolina also picked up diminutive forward Nathan Gerbe after he was bought out by the Sabres. In all, Rutherford added six players. Cam Ward’s knee is of huge concern, which is likely why the club added goalie Anton Khudobin. Top prospect Elias Lindholm will start the season with the team.
 
8. Columbus Blue Jackets
There have been a lot of changes in Ohio since the arrival of John Davidson as team president in charge of hockey operations. There is optimism for the first time in awhile coming off the heels of the revamped administrative wing of the organization and the pleasantries of having goalie Sergei Bobrovsky win the Vezina Trophy. Even bigger, however, was how Davidson managed to score a coup with the signing of ex-Bruins forward Nathan Horton, perhaps the best free agent on the market. He’ll have seven years to do what Rick Nash was never able to do -- make this club respectable and a playoff contender. Alas, Horton should still be recovering from shoulder surgery when the puck drops, which puts more pressure on Marian Gaborik to carry the offense.

AHL allowing players on minor-league deals to go to Olympics

AHL allowing players on minor-league deals to go to Olympics

Players on American Hockey League contracts will be eligible to play in the 2018 Winter Olympics.

President and CEO David Andrews confirmed through a league spokesman Wednesday that teams were informed they could loan players on AHL contracts to national teams for the purposes of participating in the Pyeongchang Olympics.

The AHL sent a memo to its 30 clubs saying players could only be loaned for Olympic participation from Feb. 5-26.

The Olympic men's hockey tournament runs from Feb. 9-25. Like the NHL, which is not having its players participate for the first time since 1994, the AHL does not have an Olympic break in its schedule.

The AHL's decision does not affect players assigned to that league on NHL one- or two-way contracts. No final decision has been made about those players.

NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly denied a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation report that the league had told its 31 teams that AHL players could be loaned to play in the Olympics. It was an AHL memo sent at the direction of that league's board of governors.

When the NHL announced in April that it wouldn't be sending players to South Korea after participating in five consecutive Olympics, Andrews said the AHL was prepared for Canada, the United States and other national federations to request players.

"I would guess we're going to lose a fair number of players," Andrews said in April. "Not just to Canada and the U.S., but we're going to lose some players to other teams, as well. But we're used to that. Every team in our league has usually got two or three guys who are on recalls to the NHL, so it's not going to really change our competitive integrity or anything else."

The U.S. and Canada are expected to rely heavily on players in European professional leagues and college and major junior hockey to fill out Olympic rosters without NHL players.

With AHL experience, Flyers prospect Nicolas Aube-Kubel out to score again

With AHL experience, Flyers prospect Nicolas Aube-Kubel out to score again

VOORHEES, N.J. — At the junior level, scoring was second nature to Nicolas Aube-Kubel, like riding a bike after you figure out the balance aspect.

Goals came in bunches and points piled up — that was his game and it came effortlessly at times, especially over his final two seasons with the QMJHL's Val-d'Or Foreurs, posting back-to-back campaigns of 38 markers and 80-plus assists.

"Usually in junior, scoring was always coming naturally to me, having points and goals," he said last week at Flyers development camp.

On the AHL ice last season, it was a whole new ballgame. For Aube-Kubel, Year 1 of pro hockey was a feeling-out process from start to finish. His prolific scoring didn't carry over much at all, as the speedy 5-foot-11 winger finished with nine goals and nine assists in 71 regular-season games for Lehigh Valley.

"Guys are better with the puck," he said of the AHL. "I've always been strong on the ice and skating-wise, too, but translating to the AHL, guys are faster, guys are quicker with the puck and less turnovers."

This was part of toeing the waters in a new surrounding. Not many prospects jump from the junior ranks to the AHL without missing a beat. Aube-Kubel, who turned 21 in May, wanted to fulfill his role and duties first before worrying about scoring. He finished the season as a plus-10, tied for fourth best on the team and tops among Phantoms with 70 or more games played.

"I've always been an offensive player," Aube-Kubel said. "From being my first year in the pros, I was trying more to focus on details and what the coach was telling me. I'm excited for next year and I'll try to step up my game, for sure, and try to do what I was doing in junior."

Following his fourth development camp, Aube-Kubel finds himself heading into an interesting second season with Lehigh Valley. A lot has changed since he was taken by the Flyers in the second round of the 2014 draft. With time, the organization has significantly built up its prospect pool and added depth at forward. 

Aube-Kubel is just fine with that.

"Since I've been drafted, there was depth," he said. "Any way I'm going to play in the NHL, I'm going to make my own spot. No one is going to give it to you. If there are more drafted players, it doesn't change anything."

He's also enjoyed working with the Phantoms' staff, led by head coach Scott Gordon. More development off the ice and a greater workload during games should help moving forward.

"I liked it. They treat you like a pro," he said. "Everyone does their own thing. If you cheat or if you're not serious about it, it's you to pay off. If you're not serious, it's going to be you that gets penalized."

If Aube-Kubel needs any comfort in the quiet start to his pro career, he can look back at his first season of junior play. He tallied just 10 goals and 27 points in 64 regular-season games. Then he jumped to 53 points (22 goals, 31 assists) in 65 games in 2013-14 before scoring at will over his third and fourth seasons with Val-d'Or.

Maybe easing his way in is just part of his hockey DNA.

If so, keep an eye on Aube-Kubel next season.

"This year, I was maybe more focusing on having a role and trying to do what the coach was asking of me," Aube-Kubel said. "Now that it's all set, I'm going to focus on offensive play. I don't want to put pressure on myself, but last year wasn't my best offensive year. It was also my first year. I think I was trying to learn a lot of it and we'll see what happens next year."