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.

Playing with 'swagger,' Gostisbehere flashes glimpse of rookie self vs. Canucks

Playing with 'swagger,' Gostisbehere flashes glimpse of rookie self vs. Canucks

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – The Flyers’ “Ghost” headed home Monday on a high note — for a change.

Defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere recorded three assists for the first three-point night of his NHL career Sunday as the Flyers edged the Vancouver Canucks 3-2 in the final game of a three-game Western Canada road trip (see story). In one night, he matched his offensive output of his previous 10 games played. 

He was a healthy scratch for three games in the meantime. On many other occasions, he has struggled while dealing with the NHL’s proverbial sophomore jinx following a standout rookie season. 

“It’s been a while coming,” Gostisbehere said. “It’s good to get some points, but I thought it was more important to get two points for our team.”

The win moved the Flyers (28-24-7) within a point of the eighth and final playoff spot, currently held by Toronto, in the Eastern Conference. With considerable thanks to Gostisbehere, the club’s much maligned power play scored on two of three man-advantage opportunities. 

“He played great,” Wayne Simmonds said of Gostisbehere. “He had his confidence and a little bit of swagger.”

Gostisbehere’s first assist enabled the Flyers to get off to a quick start offensively as Simmonds deflected in his point shot only 1:11 into the game. On the Flyers’ second goal, Gostisbehere head-manned the puck to Sean Couturier on a rush. Jakub Voracek easily put Couturier’s big rebound into a gaping net with Canucks goaltender Ryan Miller caught out of position.

One minute and 27 seconds later, Brayden Schenn took Gostisbehere’s pass and put in a shot from the slot. Altogether, Gostisbehere’s assists enabled the Flyers to build an insurmountable 3-0 lead in the game’s first 23 minutes.

“Ghost has had his ups and downs this year, but he's a heck of a player and has unbeliveable skill,” Simmonds said. “He can be a catalyst offensively for us, that’s for sure.”

Gostisbehere now has four goals and 18 assists on the season. Until Sunday, the 23-year-old had seemed like an apparition of his former self. 

He had a less-than-ideal recovery period from offseason hip (labrum) and abdominal surgeries, due to his participation with Team North America in the World Cup. Then he suffered a facial cut in the Flyers’ season opener and took a bruise on his right hand in December.

He also struggled defensively to the point where he was scratched — for the first time in his NHL career — in November and was later benched and pulled out of the lineup again. Heading into Sunday’s game, he had a woeful minus-22 mark, but he was only on the ice for one Canucks' goal.

He helped the Flyers shut out the Canucks in the first and third periods. 

“We don’t like how they came back, but we held the lead and, like I said, we got the two points,” Gostisbehere said.

Ghost’s offensive showing evoked memories of his seemingly other-worldly 2015-16 season. In 64 games last season, he notched 17 goals, the most by an NHL rookie defenseman since Dion Phaneuf, then with Calgary, who scored 20 over a full 82-game schedule in 2005-06. Gostisbehere also enjoyed a historic 15-game point streak in 2015-16, the longest ever for a first-year rearguard, and he was a runnerup for the league’s Rookie of the Year award.

His return to form Sunday bodes well as the Flyers face two Metropolitan Division rivals this week, first Washington at home on Wednesday and then the Penguins in Pittsburgh on Saturday in an outdoor game that will pack plenty of hype and pressure. 

After those games, the Flyers face a more compressed schedule than they have lately. The Feb.12-27 portion of their calendar contains only five games. But starting Feb. 28, they will play their final 21 games of the regular season over 41 days as they push to make the playoffs.

“We definitely know we’re a playoff team, for sure,” Gostisbehere said. “It shows. It’s a big test for us (this) week, playing these really good teams.”

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.