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.

Flyers, at this point, should sell a few valuable veterans ahead of deadline

Flyers, at this point, should sell a few valuable veterans ahead of deadline

Dave Hakstol’s Flyers returned home from Vancouver on Monday not quite resembling conquering heroes.

Sure, they salvaged two points from their three-game trek to Western Canada, but for a team that supposedly sees itself as a wild card, that just ain’t gonna get it done.

The Flyers required at least four points — ideally, five — from the trip to give us some proof they’re a legit contender for the wild card.

Right now, their wild-card hopes remain on life support.

Yes, they’re only two points behind Toronto. Thing is, the field of wild-card contenders have officially caught up and even passed them.

When the Flyers left for the trip, they were even in points with the Maple Leafs while holding down the 9-seed in the Eastern Conference. Toronto had the second wild card.

Hakstol's team is the 11-seed now. Toronto, Florida and the New York Islanders are ahead of them with games in hand.

This trip should offer enough evidence to general manager Ron Hextall that his team is still floundering.

There are no moves Hextall can initiate at the trade deadline that will guarantee a playoff spot without mortgaging the future.

Since their return from the All-Star break, the Flyers are 3-5-1. Those numbers don’t suggest they’re headed to the playoffs.

And even if the Flyers were to qualify as the second wild card, they would face a very early exit against the Washington Capitals.

Again.

At this point, with the March 1 NHL trade deadline staring Hextall in the face, he has to be a seller at the deadline.

If you trust Hextall’s long-term plan of patience, you understand that what this is about is preserving assets and preparing young players to be integrated into the system next year and the year after, and the year after that.

Mark Streit and Michael Del Zotto are two unrestricted free agents who could help someone else right now.

Streit has been strong this season on the power play, which is his forte. He’s the perfect deadline rental.

Even if Hextall would like to have Streit’s veteran leadership on the blue line next season on a one-year, low salary to “tutor” Robert Hagg or Sam Morin or Travis Sanheim, he could still move Streit now and re-sign him later this summer.

Del Zotto, at 26, will get a nice return in draft picks or a prospect. Del Zotto is going to want a big contract this summer (he’s making $3.87 million now).

There’s no incentive for Hextall to go that direction given the sheer number of young, outstanding defensive prospects in the system that will be arriving shortly, all of whom come with very low salary cap hits.

Don’t blame Hextall for not getting involved in the Matt Duchene/Gabriel Landeskog saga that is going on in Colorado. GM Joe Sakic is asking a lot.

Hextall seems reluctant to part with any future prospects or young players just to get the same in return.

Much of the fan base has been saying for a while now it’s time to move team captain Claude Giroux. He's in the midst of his fourth consecutive season in which his numbers have declined, and in some respects, dramatically from his two best seasons — 2011-12 (93 points) and 2013-14 (86 points).

Yet there is no indication from Hextall or anyone in the Flyers' organization that such is even being contemplated.

Or that the organization feels Giroux’s leadership abilities have been assumed by Wayne Simmonds, who is arguably the most popular Flyer, two years running now.

Hextall still sees veterans such as Giroux, who is only 29, as a player who would help the transition of younger pups coming along — Travis Konecny, German Rubtsov, Nick Cousins, Jordan Weal, etc. — and he also believes Giroux can recapture his offense.

In short, Hextall is not going to tear his roster apart nor is he going to make a blockbuster trade next Wednesday. But he will likely try to sell veteran assets that make the team younger in some way.

Which is the correct thinking for the Flyers now and right into this summer, as well.

Future Flyers Report: Questionable hit ends Sam Morin's AHL ironman streak

Future Flyers Report: Questionable hit ends Sam Morin's AHL ironman streak

Before this week begins, it's time for our weekly check-in on the Flyers’ prospects playing in the AHL, overseas and at the junior and college levels.

In this week’s report, we feature an AHL defenseman whose ironman streak has come to an end thanks to a suspension and a blueliner who made a huge impact in his return from a concussion.

Sam Morin, D, 6-7/227, Lehigh Valley (AHL)
Morin’s 125-game ironman streak came to an end last week, not because of injury, but because of a dangerous cross-check to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton’s Garrett Wilson last Tuesday that resulted in a two-game suspension. Morin missed Friday and Saturday’s games against Hartford and returned Sunday night when the Phantoms traveled to Utica, adding an assist in Lehigh Valley’s 7-4 win over the Comets.

The hit in question came in the first period of Lehigh Valley’s 5-1 loss to the Penguins, when Morin cross-checked Wilson head-first into the boards near the Phantoms’ blue line. Wilson did not return after the hit, and he will miss “at least a month” with an upper-body injury. Morin did not appear to attempt to injure Wilson, but the hit was rather reckless and unnecessary. It could have been avoided and should have. Morin avoided a suspension in October for boarding Hershey’s Travis Boyd and that hit was far more vicious than the hit on Wilson. Boyd did not suffer an injury and remained in that game while Wilson did get injured, so that may have played a factor into the decision not to suspend Morin in October. Injuries should not be the deciding factor in disciplining players for dangerous hits, but that is often the case in how the NHL’s Department of Player Safety disciplines players. There at least appears to be the same standard in the AHL. That’s a standard that has to change.

Morin plays with a physical edge and a lot of snarl. His fights often become candy for the Internet, and the burly blueliner brings the old-school fear into his opponents. Still, he’s a decent skater for a 6-foot-7 defenseman who continues to work on his puck-handling. During warmups before each game, Morin can be seen working on his stick-handling. In his second professional season, he had never missed a game before Friday. He was the only Phantom to play in every game last season and played in all 46 games this year prior to Friday.

Dirty hits have not been Morin’s style, but as a player who does play a physical brand, there has to be a recognition as to when to deliver a hit. The cross-check on Wilson was not a play that Morin should have made, and the suspension could be a wake-up call for him. When he does come to the Flyers — likely next season, depending on what the Flyers do at the trade deadline — he’ll add much-needed size on the blue line. Until then, he’ll continue to develop with the Phantoms and learn from this suspension.

Philippe Myers, D, 6-5/209, Rouyn-Noranda (QMJHL)
Myers, a rising defensive prospect whom the Flyers found as an undrafted free-agent signing in September 2015, returned to game action after a lengthy absence because of a concussion suffered at the world junior championships in December, and it didn’t take him long to put his imprints back on the Huskies. Myers had a hand in both of the Huskies’ goals in their 2-1 win over Val-d’Or last Wednesday, his first QMJHL game since Dec. 9. (He was away with Team Canada during the world juniors. He had last played Dec. 31.) One assist set up a one-timer that led to Rouyn-Noranda’s first goal, and the other was a one-timing shot that led to a rebound being put into the net. He was held pointless in two other games. There should be some concern about Myers because he’s had two concussions this season, missing six games from Oct. 23 to Nov. 4  because of his first concussion. Head injuries can derail a player’s career, and consider Myers’ trend upwards, it would be a devastating blow to have his progress hampered by consistent head injuries and concussions.

German Rubtsov, C, 6-0/190, Chicoutimi (QMJHL)
Rubtsov continued to dominate the Q last week, though he appeared in just one game because of an upper-body injury. Rubtsov had a goal and an assist in Chicoutimi’s 6-4 loss to Blainville-Boisbriand last Wednesday. It was his second straight multi-point game, and his third in his previous four games. He’s now at 18 points and seven power-play points in 11 QMJHL games. It’s unclear exactly what Rubtsov’s injury is and how long he’ll be out.

Oskar Lindblom, LW, 6-1/192, Brynäs IF (SHL)
After being held out of the Sweden Hockey Games portion of the Euro Hockey Tour as precautionary reasons, Lindblom didn’t miss any time for Brynäs last week, and it was another productive, consistent week for the 20-year-old left winger. Lindblom had two more goals last week, and now has 18 on the season, second in the SHL behind teammate Kevin Clark. He registered his 17th goal in a 6-5 overtime win over Djurgarden last Tuesday on a goal that should help silence the concern about his skating. Two days later, Lindblom put his wrist shot on display in a 4-0 win over Leksand for his 18th. Lindblom has been a consistent force for Brynäs, with 39 points in 44 games. He’s held pointless in just 14 games this season, and the longest he’s gone without a point was three games.

Cooper Marody, C, 6-0/178, Michigan (NCAA)
Michigan lost both weekend games to No. 20 Wisconsin, but Marody continued to pick up points. The sophomore added a goal on Friday in a 5-2 loss and an assist Saturday in a 6-4 defeat. After sitting out the first semester because of academics, Marody has shot up the Wolverines’ scoring list in far fewer games than his teams. His 11 points in 12 games have him fourth on the team in scoring. The six players ahead of him have all played at least 23 games. It’s a testament to Marody’s ability to put up points in bunches. He now has eight points in his last six games, and five goals and six assists on the season.

Quick hits
• A rough outing last Tuesday saw Felix Sandstrom sit out Brynäs IF’s last two games. Sandstrom was slapped for a season-high five goals in a 6-5 overtime win over Djurgarden.

• Ohio State freshman Tanner Laczynski’s point streak reached five games with a goal and an assist against in the No. 14 Buckeyes' 3-2 win over Michigan State last Friday, but it was snapped Saturday night in a 4-3 win over the Spartans.

• Harvard goalie Merrick Madsen now has not lost in his last 10 games — 9-0-1 (yes, there are still ties in college hockey). Madsen stopped 21 of 23 shots in No. 3 Harvard’s 4-2 win over Yale on Friday, and then Madsen pitched an 11-save shutout over Brown Saturday.

• Four games, four wins for Everett’s Carter Hart, who allowed just six goals on 115 shots.

• Sarnia’s Anthony Salinitri scooped up two assists last Wednesday in a 6-2 win over Guelph, and a goal in a 7-5 loss to Flint. Salinitri has 20 goals and 45 points in 54 games.

• The Phantoms’ Robert Hagg, a sound two-way defender who’s a perfect of example of patience with development, scored his sixth and seventh goals of the season Sunday for his first multi-goal game of his pro career. Check out his first goal here, an impressive howitzer.

• With an assist Sunday, Travis Sanheim now has a three-game assist streak going. He’s up to 26 points in 52 games in his first pro season with the Phantoms.

• It was a 50/50 split in net for Lehigh Valley last week, with Anthony Stolarz starting Tuesday and Saturday and Alex Lyon starting Wednesday and Sunday. Not the best week in terms of the number of goals allowed — nine by Stolarz, seven by Lyon — but both faced a ton of shots last week. Stolarz saw 43 and 44 shots, respectively, in both of his starts; Lyon saw 18 and 47, respectively. Both won a game and lost a game last week.