2013-14 NHL preview: Metropolitan Division

previewusa.jpg

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.

NHL Notes: Chris Kreider, Rangers agree on four-year contract

NHL Notes: Chris Kreider, Rangers agree on four-year contract

NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers signed forward Chris Kreider to a four-year contract worth $18.5 million in a last-minute deal that helped the sides avoid arbitration.

General manager Jeff Gorton announced the agreement on Friday.

The deal will pay Kreider an average of $4.6 million and keep him with the team through 2020. It also includes a modified no-trade clause that prevents Kreider from being traded to 11 teams.

The 25-year-old Kreider was a restricted free agent.

"What happens in this type of deal is that both sides have stated positions and when the specter of 'arb' comes, it drives both sides closer," Matt Keator, Kreider's agent, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "For us, the term was the right amount and for the team that amount was the right amount, so we were able to come together on both sides. 

"It worked out fine, and Chris loves New York and wants to be there."

Keator said both sides were ready to present their cases Friday morning before reaching an agreement.

Kreider had 21 goals and 22 assists in 79 games for New York and a plus-10 rating. He established career-highs in even-strength goals (16) and hits (177), and he tied his career-high in goals, set the previous season.

Kreider was one of six NHL players who registered at least 20 goals, 40 points, a plus-10 rating and 50 penalty minutes this past season. Alex Ovechkin, Jonathan Toews, Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand and James Neal were the others.

He ranked third on the team in power play goals (five), fourth in even strength goals, fifth in goals and even strength points (35), and tied for fifth in points. Kreider also led the Rangers in goals (15) and ranked second on the team in points (26) on the road this past season (see full story).

Sabres: Evander Kane charged with harassment at bar
BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Buffalo police say Sabres forward Evander Kane has been charged with four counts of non-criminal harassment and one count of misdemeanor trespass after an incident at a city bar last month.

Police say the 24-year-old Kane surrendered to authorities Friday and was issued a court appearance ticket. Investigators say two women accused Kane of grabbing them at a bar on June 24.

According to the reports, one woman told police Kane threatened her inside the club and when outside, grabbed her throat. The second woman accused Kane of trying to force her from the bar.

Kane's attorney, Paul Cambria, says his client is innocent of all charges.

In March, prosecutors said there was no evidence to support a sexual assault charge against Kane stemming from a December incident. 

Kane has two years remaining on his contract.

Maple Leafs: No. 1 overall pick Auston Matthews signs 3-year deal
TORONTO -- The Toronto Maple Leafs signed No. 1 overall draft pick Auston Matthews to a three-year, entry-level contract Thursday with the maximum bonuses allowed.

Matthews had 24 goals and 22 assists in 36 games last season for the Zurich Lions in Switzerland and had nine points for the United States at the world hockey championship.

The 18-year-old from Scottsdale, Arizona, immediately became the face of the Maple Leafs' franchise when they selected him first in last month's draft. General manager Lou Lamoriello typically refuses to give bonuses to rookies, but agent Pat Brisson confirmed that Matthews' deal includes the maximum entry-level salary of $925,000 per year plus potential bonuses that could add up to an average annual value of $3,775,000.

"There were no issues at all getting it done with Lou [Lamoriello] and the Leafs," Brisson said. "Auston is thrilled (see full story)."

©2016 by STATS LLC and Associated Press.
Any commercial use or distribution without the express written consent of STATS LLC and Associated Press is strictly prohibited.

Pascal Laberge brings more than just offense to Flyers’ system

Pascal Laberge brings more than just offense to Flyers’ system

VOORHEES, N.J. — Pascal Laberge has all the tangibles front office officials treasure in a prospect.

A willowy 6-foot-1 frame, slick and smooth skills with the puck and a scoring IQ well beyond his age of 18.

A true dream when it comes to offensive hockey.

It’s a package the Flyers liked and drafted this summer in the second round with the 36th overall pick.

But what the Flyers loved about Laberge was beyond the ice — and it's likely a reason they’ve already signed the Canadian forward to his entry-level contract (see story).

“If you look at Pascal’s story, he’s had a tough year as an individual, especially as a young kid,” Flyers general manager Ron Hextall said last week at the conclusion of development camp. “He persevered through. We loved his perseverance.”

Laberge and his family have suffered hardships and heartbreak (see story).

The game was his outlet.

“When I was at the rink, I was not thinking about what happened with my family,” Laberge said. “Thank God I play hockey because that would have been a harder year for me.”

It makes his 2015-16 season at the junior level that more impressive. Playing for Victoriaville of the QMHJL, Laberge recorded 23 goals and 45 assists for 68 points in 56 games.

Over a 10-game scoring streak from Jan. 23-Feb. 19, Laberge racked up 21 points on six goals and 15 assists. Earlier in the season, he tallied a point in nine straight games. He also competed in the World Juniors for the Canada U-18 team, posting a pair of goals and assists in seven games.

“It was a great experience,” Laberge said of the World Juniors. “I improved myself, played defensively. I had more defensive responsibilities, so that was fun, just to learn new things.”

Make no mistake, though, Laberge’s forte is depositing and facilitating the puck.

“Pascal has good size, good speed, he’s got good skills,” Hextall said. “He’s a highly skilled young player.”

He offers exactly what the Flyers needed in their system: forwards with size and playmaking ability. At 175 pounds, he’ll have room and time to become stronger.

“I’m an offensive player, I’ve got a good shot,” Laberge said. “Even if I’m not that heavy, I like to play a physical game. I’m pretty sure in three years, I’ll be bigger and I’ll be able to play that kind of game.”

Laberge said he can play either forward position — he’s opened to both, although wing may be best for both him and the Flyers.

“I think it’s more of both positions,” he said. “I can play center and I can play as a winger. My coach last year thought that I was better as a wing, which I think I did — when I got to wing, I put more points on the board.

“Either position [the Flyers are] going to make me play, I’ll play it.”

Laberge enjoyed his first development camp. He bonded with fellow prospects and saw where he stood among the best before preparing for another junior season.

“It’s pretty fun to play with some older guys and compare yourself to these guys,” he said. “My goal is just to make a good impression and try and go as far as I can.”

His perseverance should only help.

For Brayden Schenn and Flyers, short-term deal could make sense

For Brayden Schenn and Flyers, short-term deal could make sense

The NHL is quickly heading toward its annual August dead period.

Teams have made their draft picks, had their rookie camps, signed free agents and made the most of their important trades.

But as a month of relative inactivity approaches ahead of September’s World Cup of Hockey, the Flyers and general manager Ron Hextall still have one piece of business to attend to: signing restricted free-agent forward Brayden Schenn to a new deal, preferably before an arbitration hearing scheduled for Monday (July 25).

Both sides have said there’s no rush and a deal will get done, but both sides surely want to avoid a hearing, which can get messy. For an example, see John LeClair’s hearing with the Flyers in the summer of 2000 when he was eventually awarded a record $7 million deal for one year by the arbitrator. The Flyers offered $5 million and then went on to argue LeClair’s weaknesses as a player during the hearing. That’s the last time a Flyer has gone through with an arbitration hearing.

No one wants to reach that point and these kinds of things often find a conclusion. Remember when Michael Del Zotto came to terms with the Flyers last year before a scheduled hearing? To further that point, the Washington Capitals agreed to a deal with Marcus Johanssen earlier this week just hours before a scheduled hearing.

After a career season, during which he had career highs in goals (26) and points (59) and found a home on Claude Giroux’s wing on the top line, Schenn deserves, and will get, a raise from the $2.75 million he earned last season.

How much of a raise remains to be seen, but it will be a healthy amount the Flyers have to fit in. Somewhere in the $4-5 million per year range makes sense and the Flyers currently have just over $5 million in cap space for this coming season.

But when talking term, it could be beneficial for both the 24-year-old and the Flyers to go for a shorter contract rather than a longer one.

Schenn has been plagued by inconsistency throughout his five seasons in Philadelphia, and last season marked the first time Schenn was able to score at a consistent rate. That was especially true after the All-Star break, when Schenn went off for 14 goals and 19 assists in 35 games to close the regular season.

For that reason, the Flyers should be hesitant to hand out a long-term deal. In reality, five or six years is too long of a deal for a player who has yet to prove he can make last year’s production happen on a season-to-season basis. While last season was a career year for Schenn, it’s also cracked the window open more for the Flyers to see if that’s what he’s truly capable of year by year.

And a short-term deal could be beneficial to Schenn, as well.

It’s understandable when a player is coming off a great season that he would want long-term security in his next deal. A chance at long-term security isn’t something that comes along often in the pro sports world. 

But, coming off last season, this is where Schenn could bet on himself. He could bet on himself for the next two or three seasons that he can duplicate that production, especially with the chemistry he formed with Giroux and Wayne Simmonds on the top line.

Per the NHL’s collective bargaining agreement, a player can’t reach unrestricted free-agent status until he’s 27 or has seven accrued seasons (on a roster for 30 games) in the league. The latter reason is why Steven Stamkos, 25, was slated to be UFA before re-signing with the Tampa Bay Lightning earlier this summer. Barring a catastrophic injury, Schenn would reach seven accrued seasons in the summer of 2018. He would turn 27 past that summer’s UFA filing deadline, so age wouldn’t work for him until the summer of 2019.

If he continues to consistently produce, he’ll be in position to cash in big time in a few seasons while still in the prime of his career.

Hextall has publicly stated he’s not a fan of long-term deals. And with Schenn’s historic inconsistency, this could be one of those instances in which one of those deals makes Hextall take a deep breath.

But if Schenn bets on himself for the next few seasons and succeeds, any cause for deep breaths will be gone and he’ll have proven he’s worth signing long term. And then he’ll be worth plenty of money, too.